On Writing A Memoir Of The Craft Essay

On Writing: A Memoir

Stephen King

256pp, Hodder

Buy it at BOL

'I like to get 10 pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words," says Stephen King in his new memoir, On Writing. "That's 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book." When he's working on a book, which is most of the time, he writes every day of the year, and that "includes Christmas, the Fourth, and my birthday".

King is a not a writer, in the usual sense; he's an industry. According to Forbes, he makes in excess of $50,000,000 a year (and I didn't accidentally add a few zeros). It all began in 1974 with his first novel Carrie, about a teenage girl with supernatural powers. Some 30 novels and half a dozen story collections later, the man has never looked back, pounding out blockbusters in a way that redefines the word. Not since Dickens has a writer had so many readers - I confess to being one of them - by the throat. Much of his fiction has, of course, been turned into films. As if this weren't enough, King has also written five novels under the name of Richard Bachman and spun out nearly a dozen screenplays or teleplays. On top of which, he's a nice guy.

The niceness comes through in his books, encoded in the voice itself: a loud but down-to-earth, friendly and innocent voice that might be America (or America's vision of itself) talking. The fact is, King has got more of postwar America into his fiction than almost any other writer now at work. That he has chosen to write in a particular genre - horror - has, unquestionably, worked against his critical reputation. Perhaps rightly, critics have wondered about his seriousness. The novels are terribly uneven, and even the best of them - The Shining, Pet Sematary, Dolores Claiborne, The Green Mile, Bag of Bones - tend to puff and wheeze after a while like an overweight man on a treadmill. Only his most recent novel, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, is tautly written. Nevertheless, King's imagination is vast. He knows how to engage the deepest sympathies of his readers, and they have rewarded him handsomely.

Lately, King has been on the literary equivalent of a rampage. Bag of Bones was a big, distorted yet wonderfully entertaining novel that rode high on the bestseller lists in 1998. Hard on the heels of that success came a fine collection of stories, Hearts in Atlantis (1999). That same year, he also published The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon - a chilling, often beautiful novel about a young girl lost in the woods. For almost the first time, reviewers sat up respectfully, noting the depth and shapeliness of this work. One could no longer dismiss King as just another bad writer proffering cheap thrills to the multitudes.

That same year, he brought out his first electronic book, Riding the Bullet. This novella was the world's first mass-market e-book, released through his conventional publisher, Scribner. Half a million downloads later, the publishing industry had to face up to something new under the sun. Soon the idea occurred to King that he might try e-publishing without a conventional publisher in the background. He would simply post a book on his website and request a dollar from anybody who downloaded it. Instead of writing something fresh, however, he rooted through his bottom drawer and found a long-abandoned piece of fiction called The Plant. It's a revenge fantasy about a frustrated author who sends a man-eating vine to devour his publishers. "My friends," King wrote on his website (www.stephenking.com), "we have the chance to become Big Publishing's worst nightmare." Although not as successful as Riding the Bullet, the new work did well enough to please King. (For the record, I sent him a dollar.)

Now comes On Writing: A Memoir. It is part biography, part collection of tips for the aspiring writer. In the final chapters, King tells, in graphic detail, the story of his recent accident. In June 1999 he was near his home in Maine, taking his usual four-mile stroll along a rural route. Unexpectedly, a blue Dodge minivan lurched over the hilltop, totally out of control. It was driven by a local man called Bryan Smith. King notes, casually: "Smith wasn't looking at the road on the afternoon our lives came together because his rottweiler had jumped from the very rear of his van into the backseat area, where there was an Igloo cooler with some meat stored inside." Smith thought at first that he had hit "a small deer".

It was King he hit. After bouncing off the windscreen, the author found himself at the side of the road with his lap turned the wrong way. One of his legs was broken in nine places, "like so many marbles in a sock", as his surgeon later explained. He had a collapsed lung and lacerations on his scalp.

His devoted wife Tabitha (herself a novelist) stayed by him through several agonising weeks during which it was not clear whether King would ever walk again. His three grown children - Joe, Naomi and Owen - were by his side as well. King's gratitude shines through this memoir. One comes away from it liking King a great deal and admiring his family.

Understanding her husband's compulsion to write, Tabitha established the wheelchaired King at a makeshift desk in a hallway of their rambling Victorian house only five weeks after the accident. That King could possibly summon the will to work in this situation is nothing less than astounding. He wrote a little at first, then a lot. Soon, it was business as usual: the author as locomotive, charging down the tracks of narrative, rock music blaring in the background. The pages gathered on his desk. In the 15 or so months since his accident, he has poured out the e-novella, Riding the Bullet, most of a teleplay in six hour-long parts for American television, and a 900-page novel, Dreamcatcher. Oh, yes, and he added the memoir of his accident to a book about the craft of writing that he'd already finished.

King has nothing much to say about writing that isn't obvious. "In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts," he explains with professorial solemnity: "narration, description, and dialogue." He warns us: "The adverb is not your friend." He advises writing behind a closed door: "It is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk." Oh dear. King is infinitely better at writing than talking about writing, though fans will doubtless find moments of interest here, especially when he talks about his own extraordinary writing habits.

The best part of the book remains his account of how writing - and the primitive urge to write - saved his life after the accident. It's a bizarre and absorbing story, told brilliantly by one of the great storytellers of our time. One only hopes he lives to write many more books, however uneven. I would not begrudge him a single item on his bibliography. He is, after all, the King.

• Jay Parini's novels include The Last Station and Benjamin's Crossing.

Community Thoughts:

Posted By: Nailahi - April 14th, 2012 8:03:14 pm EDT

Absolutely the best book about the craft of writing I've ever read. I always recommend it to my students & gift it to the special writers in my life.

Posted By: BorysK - March 14th, 2012 12:39:29 pm EDT

I thought the book was amazing. I am not a writer, but it is inspiring, full of great anecdotes and packed with knowledge.

Posted By: BDRichardson - March 4th, 2012 11:04:20 pm EST

Hello, "Mr. the King!" (quote from CARS) I'll just have you know. You're my muse now. Thanks a lot for that. Or my supervisor. You're pretty mean when it comes to me whining about the difficulty of production in the midst of life's various woes. Plus (as you pointed out) you're not a hot girl. Anyway. On Writing might have changed my (writing) life. Thanks for the permission slip, and lighting my exodus from "politically correct society." I'm sure you've heard it a bunch of times. But I figured I owed you some kudos. Anyway... Thanks, BDR

Posted By: David Hoag - February 25th, 2012 5:39:53 pm EST

DEVELOP A STORY HOW TO DEVELOP AND FINISH STORIES Look in your files for a story that seems stuck, a story that has a story block. Next, write at the top of a separate sheet of paper the two words WHAT IF. Now write five ways of continuing the story, not ending the story, but continuing the story to the next event, scene, etc. Let your imagination go wild. Loosen up your thinking about the events in the story. Your what ifs can be as diverse as your imagination can make them. More than likely, and this has proved to be true through years of teaching and writing, one of the what ifs will feel right, organic, to your story and that is the direction in which you should go. Sometimes you will have to do several groups of what ifs per story, but thats OK as long as they keep you moving forward. - From On Writing. by Stephen King, 2000

The whole process of creative writing reminds me of Robert Frosts poem The Road Not Taken. The only given is that a character does SOMETHING, Who the character is, and what the character does, is something that is left entirely up to the writer. That said, it seems to me that the best generator of fiction would consist of a team. The team would be part child-like and preferably young to do the sort of thing that children do all the time dreaming up what-if situations at a moments notice; this team-member, by definition, would be the artist. Part of the team would also have to be well educated in the use of the English language -- knowing the subtleties of meanings, how to change voice and how to change point of view, and when to do it; this part of the team would, by definition, be skilled. The best candidate for this educated part of the team would be an experienced fiction writer. This truth was brought home to me a few years ago as my 12- year- old grandson, Richie, sat at this computer and composed a brief story based on an ancient culture which he was then studying in social studies. The assignment would be judged by both his Social Studies and English teachers. The complexity of the story that he turned out in one evening was something that I marvel at, even now. It would have taken me at least a week to do that. I quote his beginning, The male children came running up the perfectly carved steps of the massive temple. They marched in one by one in a single filed line to their places on the stone ground. The children stared intently at me, ready to begin their lesson of the glorious civilization of the Aztecs. This is how my day goes all week. All year. The lesson today was on the gods, particularly Tlaloc, the god of rain. After the lesson the boys left and my schedule took me down the stairs of the temple. My body bore no shirt, but I was covered with jewelry and a headdress. As soon as my body left the blistering heat of the temple, a new heat source arose. The god of Huitzilopochtli shone down on the city of Tenochitlan like a torch in a black bottomless cave. It was the time of spring. Xipe Totec was working his magic on the land and the city. ` Do you see what I mean? (He went on for about 1650 words in this vein.) A social studies assignment when I went to school might call for some elementary research in the textbook to get the correct spellings of the names of the gods of the Aztecs, but it certainly wouldnt call for any creativity. I understand, though, that his English teacher is now looking for examples of figurative speech. The invention of strings of words takes considerable time, as well as talent. I think that if I went back to the seventh grade now, at age 73, I would flunk it because I wouldnt be able to produce the homework as rapidly as it was demanded. (When I was his age, no works of fiction were demanded of me. It wasnt until I got into high school that essays or descriptions were required, and then, only one per week.) To save the students time and energy, then, it is my contention that most of the writing required of English students Richies age should be descriptive. As far as creative writing goes, one brief short story per week should be plenty. He should be encouraged to keep a fiction-writers notebook or even a diary, though. The ideas that come to him easily now are things that he will find out of reach when he is older, unless he has a resource such as a notebook to help him. The Ages of Man When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. These familiar words of Paul, from the New Testament of the Christians Holy Bible, have always implied to me, up to now, that grown-up attitudes are more to be desired than child-like attitudes. But I now strongly believe that some child-like attitudes are something that we grown-ups would be well-advised to emulate. This is the way I see it: Each of us is born, and begins life at age zero. At that time, the normal babys wants are few, his charity non-existent. His cry means that he is hungry, lonely, or wants his diaper changed. Education continues, both at home and at school in the best cases, and time marches on, and the transitory teen or tween years descend. To my way of thinking, that doesnt mean all childlike behavior should disappear -- just become less frequent -- sort of recede into the background. Likewise, adult behavior and mature adult behavior GENERALLY replaces all learned behavior that preceded it, but not ALWAYS. as noted in the ideal make-up of a writing team. David Hoag, 2012

Posted By: Dave1939 - February 25th, 2012 11:35:14 am EST

I think it is a great book, and have recommended it to the few aspiring writers that I know.

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