On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King

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Stephen King’s On Writing (published in 2000) is a mix of autobiography and advice on writing.  The first section covers King’s early life and his efforts to become a writer, the second discusses how the reader might improve in producing fiction, and towards the end he covers his dreadful 1999 accident when he was hit by a van while walking along a road in Maine.  Also included is a short story by Garrett Addams.  King was in the middle of writing the book, though struggling with it, when the accident happened, and after making a partial recovery he had to force himself to continue.  That he did indicates the astonishing force of his will and the deep-seated impulse to write.

The account of his struggles to become a writer is fascinating, and what shows through is the resolve shown by someone who came from very modest circumstances and got where he is through hard work.  It helps that he has a strong supportive wife, and his love for her is unaffected and extremely touching.  The reader can only close the book with enhanced respect for King’s determination, but not necessarily feeling that what he has to say about ‘the craft’ justifies all of its 367 pages (which King tellingly considers a ‘short’ book).

The book’s structure feels a bit of a mess, two separate books bolted together that would have worked better separately: a memoir, showing how his experiences fed into his stories, and the writing advice.  Considering what happened to him while writing it, it’s remarkable it turned out as well as it did, but there is a nagging feeling that this could have been a better book, or books.  On the other hand, it is possible that even with a fair wind the ‘on writing’ part would have seemed all the weaker on its own, because on this evidence King is an instinctual author, and would have had trouble finding more original things to say; he admits that he had put the typescript away for a lengthy period in a drawer because writing non-fiction had in his own word felt like ‘torture’.

Despite its troubled gestation the result is definitely very enjoyable.  King writes in an informal manner with such an artful style that it appears artless.  His persona is that of an affable guy, and reading On Writing is like sitting down with a knowledgeable friend to mull over a subject you both care deeply about.  You have the feeling that he is talking personally to you, taking you by the arm and speaking plain unadorned common sense.

Some of what he has to say will be familiar from other writing guides.  What is more interesting is the way he ties his writing to his life experiences.  If you are after a detailed guide on the mechanics of good writing this is not the best on offer, nor does it pretend to be.  In any case, I’m not convinced that books like this make a huge difference to the practice of writers except in terms of general encouragement.  His key lesson is that to become a successful writer you need to read a lot and write a lot, and it helps if you get rid of the television.  You need to immerse yourself in words.  If you need to be told that, you are already handicapped in any desire to become a writer.

According to King, however motivated one is there are constraints on the desire to improve.  In his schema there are four levels of ability: bad, competent, good and great.  He argues that one cannot move from bad to competent, nor from good to great; one can only move from competent to good.  That’s clearly true up to a point, but it suggests that there is a threshold below which there is something lacking that no amount of effort can compensate for, some failure of imagination perhaps, and at the other end of the spectrum there is another barrier over which very few – perhaps freakish in their rarity – can jump to become one of the immortals.

The aspiring writer nodding sagely at the four levels may still be left wondering to which level King would assign them.  If you took a big enough sample, verdicts on King himself would range across the categories.  One lesson the reader draws from an exercise King provides in editing a first draft is how subjective all this is.  He shows the initial draft and then reproduces it with the editing marks, and some of the changes seem to me worse than the original, though King claims that they are improvements.  At the end he concedes that much of what he initially wanted to say comes down to instinct, and is not something that can be taught.  His editing exercise also suggests that its author is not always the best judge of a work’s quality.

Whichever category the reader might fall into as a writer, good, bad or indifferent, King inspires you to have a go, and there is nothing airy fairy here, like talk of ‘art’.  On the contrary, the book’s subtitle is instructive.  He is emphatic that in his opinion writing is a craft, and he uses the analogy of the toolbox in discussing the technical aspects of composition.  If this can seem mechanical at times (adverbs are not your friend, aim to make the second draft 10% shorter than the first), at least he has an enormous amount of experience to draw on, unlike some manuals which are produced by academics who lack a decent track record in writing fiction.

He is clear that his advice may not suit everyone, because he has his way of working and others need to find their own.  As a prime example, he says he distrusts plotting because it is inimical to the spontaneity necessary for creativity.  This may be true, but there lurks the suspicion that he is doing more plotting than he thinks, if only at a subconscious level.  It is certainly a fair point that the loss of spontaneity which comes with rigid planning can make a story lifeless, but it could be argued that to set out on the journey from first word to last without a map of some kind is conducive to self-indulgent rambling as much as spontaneity.

Much of the advice anyway is common sense, plus some you feel isn’t applicable to every writer – writing a thousand words a day, for example, the amount King feels suitable for a beginner.  There is no reason why novels should be as long as a typical Stephen King book.  If you ever thought that he is so prolific he must be a committee, his long books are explained by the amount he writes – 2,000 words a day, a 180,000-word first draft in three months. ¡Ay, caramba!

It’s a ferocious work ethic, and he openly wonders what less productive authors do with the rest of their time (frittering it, is the unspoken charge), yet there is no sense here that he feels his books may be unnecessarily bloated and brevity in contrast a form of virtue.  People read them in huge numbers so it may not matter.  A more significant question is, will these long books stand the test of time?  One or two I’m sure, especially if they have been successfully adapted into films, but the majority may be headed for eventual oblivion, and what price 2,000 words a day then?

He mentions Dickens’s ‘fecundity’’, making a comparison with his own, but there is no correlation between quantity and quality, and the depths of social commentary we find in Dickens seem less evident in King’s oeuvre.  We may have to wait a few decades after King finally retires to be able to put him into any kind of perspective, when we may find that King is less the Dickens of his day than the Marie Corelli.

He says that he doesn’t write for the money, and after a certain point that must be true – if it were he would have stopped writing once he had made a comfortable amount, or at least the books would have been shorter and less frequent.  There is some compulsion which he avoids analysing in On Writing, for all the autobiographical linkages with his literary output.  Is the need to write the sign of an addictive personality, with the same root as his alcoholism and drug problem?  He kicked the damaging addictions, and it could be that the socially-acceptable form, writing, simply continues to be the drug of choice, the endorphin rush of success his reward.

Alternatively perhaps he writes from neurosis (and here the bluffness of the ‘Stephen King’ portrayed may be persona rather than a true pen-portrait of himself), or compensation for a lack of popularity as a child, or a need to prove himself to a projection of his absent father, or even a desire to be better than his older brother who by this account was a bit of a hoot as a child; one suspects it was hard for young Stevie to get out from under his shadow.  These are probably not issues that King could delve into himself, but they leave key questions about him as author not only unanswered but unaddressed.

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