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

Have you heard of this guy, Stephen King? I get the impression he’s a big deal, a Young Turk of the publishing world, taking the horror genre by storm. Pay attention to him. He’s going places.

Har, har.

Stephen King, of course, needs no introduction, having attained decades ago authorial, if not literary, success. Likewise, King’s books don’t need reviews, at least not from bloggers as insignificant as I. Some of his novels–The Stand, The Shining–are so well known that they’ve become pop-culture artifacts with lives of their own. I might as well review the sun or the stars. Still, even if King is beyond my reach, I think it’s worth my time, and perhaps yours, to consider my encounter with him.

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King, in some ways, serves as a bellwether for readers’ tastes. My father read all of King’s books when I was a child, and, knowing that his name was synonymous with horror, I was leery of him. Later, I looked down my nose at King, without ever having read him, of course. A friend of mine sniffs at the mere thought of reading King, despite her interest in urban fantasy, which is to say–not literature, as you might expect. King can have a polarizing effect on readers.

Let me state my own biases up front. I’ve only read a few of King’s books: The Shining, The Gunslinger, and The Drawing of the Three. (And, now, On Writing.) I enjoyed The Shining, found The Gunslinger entertaining, and did not like at all The Drawing of the Three. In other words, my experiences with King have been hit-or-miss, and variable enough that I approach with caution the thought of reading any of his books. So it was that I bought a copy of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft several years ago, but put off starting it for fear that I’d be disappointed.

I needn’t have worried.

On Writing is easily the King book I most enjoyed, which I think says more about me than it does him. King’s prose here is clear and straightforward, perfectly suited to his “instructional” intent. Quite simply, the entire book is a delight to read. King breaks his memoir into three parts: First, a discussion of his childhood, with an eye toward how an author, or, at least this author, was made; an examination of King’s opinions regarding what constitutes “good” writing; and, briefly, a description of the accident that nearly killed him (and which interrupted the completion of this book).

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The recounting of King’s childhood is pleasant enough, soaked, as it is, in nostalgia. Indeed, much of the content of this portion was familiar to me, weaned as I was on my mom and dad’s stories of their mid-twentieth century childhoods. Readers may nor may not acquire any particular insight into King’s career path, but, in any case, it’s damned fine storytelling.

The portion of the book most likely to be of interest to readers is the second part, in which King discusses his philosophy of writing. Interestingly, there are few big surprises here. King advocates extensive reading and writing for wannabe writers. Eschew adverbs, advice I have not taken. Have a door you can shut. The tidbit I found most surprising was King’s claim that he doesn’t plot his books. Rather, he discovers them: The story is a preexisting entity that he “excavates.”

King touches upon his accident in the last third of the book, in excruciating language. He describes, for instance, the unnatural way his lap was shifted to the right, and recalls his screams as the EMTs loaded him onto a helicopter. This portion of the book has little to do with the previous parts, but it serves to assure readers that, even after having been hit by a van, King continued to write. Indeed, writing seems to have been part of what brought him. back. Perhaps it’s a balm to the aspiring writer, too: Although his first sessions back at the keyboard were painful, King soon regained his rhythm. If a man whose body had been smashed can do it, presumably you can, too.

On Writing is my favorite of the few King books I’ve read. There are no pretensions here, just the goal of speaking plainly and entertaining and enlightening the reader. If King’s advice is simple, perhaps that’s because that’s all it really takes, and his honesty is refreshing. A highly recommended look into the writing practices of one of America’s most successful authors.

Fun fact: While writing this review, my browser crashed every time I typed “The Stand.” And then the walls started bleeding.

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12 thoughts on “Review: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King

  1. wildbilbo

    As a long time fan of King and horror (I read IT at 12, Tommyknockers not long after & was addicted from that point on), I found this book instructional (from a wannabe writer perspective), and mostly entertaining.

    However, it has been the book I ‘liked’ least of his, particularly his technical grammar lessons (personally I think Strunk and White did it better).

    PS – if the wall bleeding continues, sacrifice an author of at least Grisham level at midnight in your hallway, and cleanse the home’s aura with a burning censor and rock salt. If no Grisham’s are available, two Koontz or a Koontz & Wilbur Smith will suffice (results may vary).

    Reply
    1. booksbrainsandbeer Post author

      Good point: He does go on, at length, about technical matters. Perhaps he sees a need for that among aspiring writers, or perhaps it’s his English teach background.

      The wall stopped bleeding, but now the outlets are sneezing. This is getting gross.

      Reply
      1. fromcouchtomoon

        It is an excellent decade for nonfiction by fiction writers. Anything before or after is pretty much tripe.

  2. Tammy Sparks

    As King’s number one fan (a joke that only true King fans will get) I am the first to admit that not everything he’s written has been stellar. But when he gets it right, he really does get it right. You should try 11/22/63 which is one of his more recent faves of mine. I love peeking into the private lives of famous people and seeing what they were like before they were famous, and that’s one reason I loved On Writing. I never get tired of the story of how his wife pulled the pages of Carrie out of the trash can. THAT is great storytelling!

    Reply
    1. booksbrainsandbeer Post author

      I forgot about 11/22/63. I want to read that one! (Also Salem’s Lot and The Tommyknockers.)

      I agree, he did that scene very well. In fact, his description of his relationship with his wife is adorable.

      Reply
  3. sourgirlohio

    I am a big fan of Stephen King but have yet to read On Writing. I love the Bachman Books, some of his sloppiest writing as it is his earliest attempts at writing. And also not horror, more psych than scary.
    I enjoyed your post:)

    Reply
  4. Rabindranauth

    Hit and miss definitely sums him up; I’ve read five random books from him and only liked 2. I also seem to be the only person with no intention of reading On Writing, hah.

    Reply

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