On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft
Reading a book about the art of writing by horror master Stephen King is like sitting down with your favorite uncle to talk about how to fix cars. Uncle Stevie, you say, can you help me learn how to write bestsellers like you can? Well, son, he replies, pull up a lawn chair and make yourself comfortable while I spin you some yarns about how I got started back in the 1970s and beyond.
In the 10th Anniversary Edition of his nonfiction book, On Writing, King actually starts his yarn back in his boyhood in the 50s (with a few real-life anecdotes reminiscent of his novella The Body), and then carries readers through decades of blood, toil, tears, and sweet success. On Writing was a New York Times Bestseller in the year 2000, and this new edition released by Scribner has few references to events of the last 10 years other than his long recovery from a well-publicized roadside accident in 1999. It’s more of a tribute to King’s longevity as a popular writer, or “hack,” as he calls himself proudly in the book.
King is not a hack but a diligent craftsman who occasionally rises to literary greatness in a few of his novels such as The Stand. However, he acknowledges in an almost embarrassingly naked way that the literary establishment may never take him seriously during his lifetime. “I have spent a good many years since—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write.”
Coming from King this is not disingenuous. He prides himself on his honesty—about himself as well as about his writing. This might have been a popular textbook for high school English classes, but his liberal use of the f-bomb throughout puts that marketing idea in jeopardy. Then again, who cares? Certainly not crusty old Uncle Stevie.
On Writing is a rollicking read for anyone, regardless of whether you want to learn about writing or not. The first part of the 291-page book is pure autobiography for about 100 pages, where King reveals how his personal demons, alcoholism, and later, cocaine addiction, started to arise right around the time he started selling his short stories, and even after he landed his first major book sale with his debut novel, Carrie. King’s newer fans (those who didn’t read the book the first time 10 years ago) will be fascinated to read about how his personal life influenced his novels. “Holy shit, I’m an alcoholic, I thought,” recalls King. “I was, after all, the guy who had written The Shining without even realizing . . . that I was writing about myself.”
In the second and third parts, King finally puts on his work gloves and gets down to the messy business of writing. His folksy, verbose, and avuncular style makes you feel like you can really hear King jawing at you, personally, and the book makes that effort in earnest.
At times, his meandering manner of covering basic dictums about vocabulary, grammar, dialogue, and character development seem too simplistic—“I remember all that stuff from college,” the reader might think . . . until King slowly comes ’round the bend and scores some lucid, insightful points about each one of those topics. He even discusses the discipline of writing regularly and frequently—it’s well known that King maintains a dogged writing regimen every day of the year.
Rather than leave the reader wondering how he manages to do it, he tells you how you can do it and why you should do it. The author often refers to Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style as one of his chief influences, and in many ways King has written his own stylebook for writers.
Was it really worthwhile for Scribner to offer a 10th Anniversary Edition of On Writing to King’s readers? His book does, indeed, seem to wear its age well, even as King himself becomes the grand old man of popular literature—not just the horror genre, for many of his non-horror books have become mainstream movie classics such as The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me.
In the words of Uncle Stevie himself: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”