Book review: On Writing by Stephen King

I just finished listening to Stephen King’s On Writing now, a book I last read about a decade ago, but I really liked it the first time and still like it now.

A note on Stephen King: reading On Writing is the most I ever appreciate him. After I finished it the first time, I went out straightaway and bought the first Dark Tower book, but wasn’t able to get through it. Some years after that, in one of my breaks between college semesters, I read The Shining (and then it ended up on the syllabus for my senior seminar). It is, of course, an impressive and wonderfully composed book of horror, scary as fuck, but also not my thing. And I wasn’t blown away by his prose. So that’s the only book I’ve read in full by him, other than On Writing.

So I may not be authorized to make this judgment, but in my estimation, I think he’s a competent/good writer, but the source of his success doesn’t lie on the strength of his prose. He excels at pulp fiction — the kind with timeless popularity (much like all the horror movies that Hollywood pounds out, and which he admits he grew up on, seeing every weekend for eight years in the late ’50s and early ’60s), and I’ll grant that he has a particular knack for finding just the right combination of elements to snare his audience. He’s a good storyteller, in other words, and how much more can you ask, as a writer?

This is also part of my belief that there are two kinds of writing talents: one in storytelling, one in language. Shakespeare famously stole his plotlines. We don’t revere him over these centuries for his originality; it’s for his language (and also his storytelling; never dismiss the importance of pacing and character development).

Anyway, back to the start of On Writing. King opens by telling a series of humiliating and excruciating stories from his childhood, and a lot of personal information about his family, going into his early adulthood, including his marriage, how his first success (Carrie) came into being, and his struggles with substance abuse.

I appreciate how little bullshit there is in all the autobiographical section. I definitely get the sense he’s being unflinchingly honest, from when he tells how he gave the eulogy for his mother’s funeral (“I think I did a pretty good job, considering how drunk I was”), to when his wife turned upside-down the trash can with all the evidence of his drinking and drugs (including the snot-and-blood-caked spoons), how he realized such books as Misery were a metaphor for his own addiction and that Jack in The Shining, the alcoholic ex-teacher/struggling writer, was actually himself, and the book he barely remembers writing (Cujo). I really appreciate his flat rejection of the myth that writers need substances in order to create, and the blame he casts on Hemingway and Fitzgerald for perpetrating that myth.

The story of how Carrie came about is mesmerizing to me, as a writer. He wrote his first few pages, then tossed them — literally pulled them out of the typewriter, crumpled them up, and tossed them in a trashcan. Because this was the early ’70s and typewriters were a writer’s most practical medium.

And his wife pulled those pages out, shook off the cigarette ash, smoothed them out, read them, and told him he ought to pursue this. He admitted he felt no connection to the protagonist and “didn’t know jack shit about high school girls.” She told him she would help him. And he said he learned several important lessons from writing Carrie, including that you can’t give up on a story just because it’s emotionally or technically difficult.

The Kings were very poor then — they both finished college, he with a teaching degree, but he couldn’t find a job for the first few years. He got a job at a laundry, washing restaurant table linens and hospital linen, both of which were absolutely revolting by the time they got to him. Like, crawling with maggots (even the tablecloths from dining tables, soaked with lobster and crab juice) and blood. He found a full set of human teeth rattling around a dryer once, and briefly contemplated making them into a necklace for his wife. Basically, it was a lot of “no wonder you write what you do” stories.

So, he finally got a teaching job, but it paid as poorly as teaching jobs stereotypically do, especially for supporting a young family of four. While he liked teaching, it drained him creatively, and he painted a horribly dismal picture of himself decades from now with a bunch of unfinished manuscripts in his drawers that he tinkered on from time to time, still hoping to make it someday… It just seemed so dreadfully easy for that to happen to me or any other writer, no matter what our potential is, if you don’t have the persistence to finish a manuscript — and then call it done, to let it rest instead of pursuing the impossible path to emotional perfection — and then submitting it to agents and publishers again and again, even as the rejection slips mount up.

But because his wife, Tabitha, told him to pursue Carrie, he got it finished and submitted it, and a publishing house gave him a $2,500 advance for it (more than a third of his annual salary). He and Tabitha talked about what they might be able to expect for the paperback right purchase. He hazarded somewhere between $30,000-60,0000 — of which he’d only get half, according to his contract, but still. A potential $30,000 would be more than he’d make in four years, teaching.

And then he got the phone call that told him the rights had gone for $400,000. $200,000 of which would be his.

(And oh man, the story of how it was Mother’s Day and he didn’t know what to do with himself but he wanted to get Tabitha something extravagant before he told her the news, so he went to the local store but it didn’t really specialize in extravagant, so he ended up getting her a hair dryer and she was so confused by it before he told her the news, and then she started crying — man, that’s a sweet story, and one I hadn’t forgotten since the first time I read it.)

That particular story left me with a major sense of restlessness, like man, what the fuck am I doing with my life, why haven’t I written and sold my first bestseller for $200,000 (not even accounting for inflation since the ’70s) yet. (But I am writing the story in my heart, have been spending the last few years on it in fact, and I’m hugely proud of it, though I can’t post about it here and the reward is not so much of the monetary sort. Even so, I’m glad I’m writing it.)

But after the autobiographical portion of the book (besides the ending section, which chronicles how he got hit by that truck in the middle of writing this), he tackles the mechanics of writing, giving solid advice on grammar and sentence structure and the practice of daily writing and then how to revise and seek feedback. I listened for a while, but then skipped through a lot of it, because it’s really for newbies, which I’m not.

A few sections worth commenting on, though:

1) His philosophy on Types of Writers, which I remember sticking with me even a decade ago: of all the writers in the world, the most populous are the Bad ones, who are truly hopeless; then there are Competent ones (fewer in number), then the Good ones (fewer yet), then the Great ones (fewest of all — such as Shakespeare and his ilk [man it’s hard putting anyone alongside Shakespeare – King had some suggestions, but I can’t fully endorse them]).

Moreover, he insists, Bad Writers can never rise to any higher level, and Good Writers can never become Great Writers; but with a lot of hard work, Competent ones can become Good.

I largely agree with that, with a caveat: almost all writers, even Competent or Good ones (maybe even Great ones), start out writing badly. They look like bad writers, and you can’t discern them from the truly hopelessly bad ones, so it’s extremely important not to discourage newbie writers (even if this is their hundredth story — it’s not their fault if they haven’t gotten any solid editing or advice yet).

It reminds me of a wonderful exchange I saw on Tumblr:

Q: In your opinion, what makes you a good writer?

A: Being a bad writer a thousand times first.


2) He really hates TV. I guess there wasn’t as much good TV at the end of the 20th century as there is now. Or maybe there was, and he missed it. Regardless, I think writers can certainly improve their craft by watching well-acclaimed series.

3) He’s absolutely right that writers don’t actually choose what they write, in a large sense. King didn’t just decide to write horror and fantasy instead of serious literary critiques of the world we live in. We should write what we’re drawn to, not what we think may be more “respectable” or may please our family or acquaintances — the end.

4) Stylistic imitation (not plagiarism) is indeed very much part of a writer’s growth, how they may be able to ascend from Competent to Good. I know for many years, when I was trying to think of how to describe something, I tried to imagine how J.K. Rowling would have written it, but I eventually got past that.

5) He really loves his wife, and that is adorable.

Despite how this wasn’t my first time hearing his stories, and I didn’t find the middle section particularly helpful to me, this book was still really worthwhile and invigorating to experience again. It gave me the itch to get really serious about publishing something — which is not something I’ve cared about for years. I write for myself and my friends and the audience we’ve found, and I haven’t wanted to jump the gauntlets of publication. But yes — there’s value in it anyway, in telling people you don’t just write, you’re published, that they can find your books in stores.

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