When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I got in touch with that small, pathetic part of myself that believes he could write a novel, and cracked open On Writing.
Perhaps more than any other artist, writers want us to know that they’re suffering ever so much. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle,” whined George Orwell. “I think all writing is a disease,” bemoaned William Carlos Williams. “All you do is sit at the typewriter and bleed,” bitched Ernest Hemingway. Has anybody in human history ever been more full of shit? These guys got to work from home, keep their own hours, explore their every creative whim, and make good money in the process. Karma dictates that they be punched in the stomach by a factory worker.
Now, with the melodramatic, self-mythologizing tone of those writers fresh in our minds, let’s bask in this quote from Stephen King’s 2000 autobiography/manual On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:
“This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.”
For 280 pages, King talks about his job just like this – with refreshing candor, and the genuine desire to help us understand that while the work isn’t easy, it’s also incredibly fulfilling. He uses blue collar metaphors, like his grandfather’s toolbox, to underline the fact that writing is a trade, not a magic trick. And while he does admit to having a “muse,” he still manages to successfully Bob Vila-fy the situation:
“He’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words.”
By talking about “the craft” in terms that anybody can understand, and outlining rules that anybody can follow, King embraces a concept that drives writers nuts – the written word as the populist art form. Good Ol’ Joe Six-Pack can’t just pick up sculpting, or illustration, or playing the harp. But he can start stringing words together, even if all he has is a Bic and some junk mail. I think that’s partly why those big-time writers liked to bemoan the horrors of their plight – they were trying to scare away the competition.
King devotes the majority of On Writing to the nuts and bolts stuff, from the importance of grammar and style (his hatred of adverbs is a highlight); to the non-negotiable fact that reading is as important as writing itself; to the nuances of crafting believable dialogue. For somebody interested in taking a crack at their first novel, it’s a must. To everybody else, not so much. But these sections do give some valuable insight into King’s process – he rarely knows the ending before he starts writing, for example – and his no-frills enthusiasm for the subject is infectious.
Still, to this reader – who realized a long time ago that his fiction was irreparably bad – the autobiographical bookends are the main reason to read On Writing. King begins the book with charming snapshots of his childhood, hopping around the country being raised by his mother. As he gets older, he starts writing in his little attic room, amassing rejection letters like Tennessee Williams. And as we get whisked through the rest of the 20th century, from his big break with Carrie to the summer day in 1999 when he got hit by a van while taking his daily walk, there’s one constant – his wife and fellow author, Tabitha.
King writes about his partner of 29 years (at the time) not with “thanks for putting up with me” Oscar speech condescension, but with respect for her as a colleague and “first reader.” Even here, in the realm of romance, lives the craft – he knew he loved her when he heard her poetry.
“Cables seemed to run through the poem, tightening the lines until they almost hummed. I found the combination of crafty diction and delirious imagery exciting and illuminating. Her poem also made me feel that I wasn’t alone in my belief that good writing can be simultaneously intoxicating and idea-driven.”
On Writing ends with the story of how King began to write it. He’d planned it out a few days before his accident. And began it in the midst of a long and painful recovery. All thanks to Tabitha, who rigged a desk for him that accommodated his wheelchair – one writer helping out another. It’s the perfect capper to a book that calls bullshit on the “writer’s plight.” From writing came love and inspiration and an escape from pain.
Sorry Ernest. Your secret’s out.
THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS
7. On Writing