I have now finished reading Stephen King’s ‘On Writing,’ and as happens with any good book I read, I’m sad that it has ended. The subtitle of the book is ‘A Memoir of the Craft,’ but really, it is so much more. He takes us through his writing and publishing journey, but he also gives his readers a look into his personal life, the life which formed him into the writer he is. He tells us about how, when he showed his mother the first story he’d written, her face lit up. Then just as dramatically her face fell when he admitted that he’d only just copied it. She encouraged him to think of his own story, certain that he could write something at least as good. He tells us that he and his wife were barely getting by when his toddler daughter spiked an incredibly high fever; they didn’t have the money for her medicine. Then, his first check for a piece of writing appeared under their doorway. He describes how his writing got him into trouble in high school when he created a satirical newspaper, making fun of a few teachers. Each event was a lesson in life, but it was also a step on his way to becoming the famous writer he is today.
When he discusses the technicalities of writing, King often refers to The Elements of Style, highlighting many of its rules. Avoid adverbs at all costs, for example. The difference with King, however, is that he is more honest about it: he tells you the rule, then a few paragraphs later, he breaks it. He points out his transgression, assuring us that sometimes, you just need that adverb… and that’s okay, too. I have recently read The Elements of Style, and although I feel that some of the rules are a bit outdated, I do think it will prove a valuable reference throughout my writing and editing careers; I recommend it to all writers.
King’s humor is sprinkled all over the book. When he discusses checking spelling and grammar and all that fun stuff, he warns that you should only use dialect if you ‘have a good ear.’ If you don’t have a good ear, “Then fuhgeddaboutit.” I could almost hear him laughing as I read this. He uses the word just a few times throughout, but each time, I laughed out loud.
The best thing King says about writing fiction is something that I’ve never heard articulated before, although I think this is how I feel myself. He says the story you’re writing right now, it actually already exists. It’s already out there somewhere, and your job as the writer, is to excavate it and set it to paper. It is a fossil, he says, and your job is to unearth it as carefully as possible, so that you completely preserve its integrity. Perhaps that’s why sometimes we can see it so clearly, and the words write themselves. I wish he had made any mention of how he felt seeing his stories represented on screen. So many movies just don’t live up to the book (from a reader’s perspective); I wonder if writers feel the same watching the screen versions of their books? Or worse, even, because it is their creation that’s been altered? And if they do feel cheated by the movie versions, how do they cope with it? But he didn’t go into any of that.
Obviously, King discloses so much more of his writing knowledge in the book, but I’ve given you some examples of what you can expect. My next post will be my last on ‘On Writing.’ I’ll tell you how King managed to incorporate love into his memoir about writing, and my biggest qualm with it. Keep your eyes peeled!