If you ask me for a list of my favorite authors, Stephen King won’t be on it. This isn’t because I don’t like his novels. I can’t even read them. I’ve tried, but I’m never able to get past a few pages because the guy is so good at what he does.
“Wimp,” you say, and it’s true. I don’t like horror.
But King’s On Writing (Scribner, 2000) is a gem of a book. I read it a few years ago, and after stumbling across his recent New York Times review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, I was reminded of how comfortable his prose feels to me when he’s writing about something that doesn’t terrify me. So this past weekend I gobbled up the book once more, as though it were fresh muscle and I a flesh-eating monster.
Whether or not you like King’s fiction you have to admit he’s successful at his chosen craft, and On Writing gives an idea of how that success came about.
The first part is a memoir of writing, rather than a manual about how to write. King’s father disappeared when he was young. His mother was poor, but she loved her boys and worked hard to raise them. King’s childhood stories give an idea of where some of his ideas come from: a nearby woods where he was debilitated by poison ivy, or the time he and his brother blew out all the electricity in the neighborhood. Another author might have used these seeds in a different way, but for King they are the roots of horror stories. Beginning with a janitorial visit to a girls’ high school locker room, he leads you to how Carrie came about. It’s instructive, both about writing and about King.
Though King’s childhood wasn’t filled with horrors, he managed to screw up a good part of his adulthood by taking drugs and getting drunk. Somehow, though, he wrote. And wrote and wrote and wrote. He’d started submitting stories as a kid and, despite repeated rejections, the guy just wouldn’t quit. People have accused him of being a machine and it must be true, but not in the way they mean it. He turns out so much material because he writes relentlessly. He writes no matter what. He writes.
The second part of On Writing becomes an instruction manual about writing and publishing. I read this part keeping in mind that he was writing before the ubiquity of the internet, the upheavals in the publishing industry, and computers that could store endless information. (He refers a lot to disks.) Much has changed since he was working on this book in the late 1990’s, for Stephen King and for the writing world, but much of what he says is still relevant.
On publishing, he reminds us that “anyone with a few hundred dollars to invest can place an ad in Writer’s Digest, calling him or herself a literary agent.” Caveat emptor. Always useful.
On writing, King is famous for scolding over-users of adverbs, and he’ll show you why. I’ve used one in this article but I like it, so I’m keeping it. That’s one of his lessons, too.
King’s clear memories, his singular voice, and his unequalled experience make On Writing an intriguing read for his fans and a must-read for beginning writers. Keep it on the shelf with your Strunk & White.
Petrea Burchard is a Pasadena photographer, blogger, actress, voice-over talent and author. She contributes book reviews to Hometown Pasadena, for which we and our readers are very grateful. Find more Petrea doings, writings, and photography at PetreaBurchard.com and LivingVicuriously.
Camelot & Vine can be bought locally at Vroman’s, the Pasadena Museum of History, Webster’s Fine Stationers in Altadena and the Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeeshop. The ebook version is available for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Kobo, Diesel, Smashwords, and the Sony eReader.