“On Writing” by Stephen King

This is a book of two halves: part memoir, part writing advice. When I first read it, about ten years ago, I think I was so desperate for someone to tell me how to be a writer that I skipped all the memoir stuff and just went straight for the advice. The only part that I remembered was the advice to “write with the door shut”, i.e. not to show the work to anyone or even talk much about it while you’re working on the first draft. Later on, other people’s perspectives are useful, but in the first draft you don’t want to over-analyse things – you want to get it down. I think I only remembered this because I am quite secretive by nature and it gave me a justification for being secretive: “Well, Stephen King said….”

This time around, I read the book from start to finish, and I have to say it was much better. The context of his life story helped to put the advice in perspective, and it was also good to think of Stephen King not as the massively successful bestselling author he is now, but as a guy trying to cobble together a living working in a laundry and all kinds of other places, and then getting a phone call one day telling him the paperback rights for his first novel Carrie had sold for $400,000.

I was still standing in the doorway, looking across the living room toward our bedroom and the crib where Joe slept. Our place on Stanford Street rented for ninety dollars a month and this man I’d only met once face to face was telling me I’d just won the lottery. The strength went out of my legs. I didn’t fall, exactly, but I kind of whooshed down to a sitting position there in the doorway.

Later he tells his wife Tabby about it:

I took her by the shoulders. I told her about the paperback sale. She didn’t appear to understand. I told her again. Tabby looked over my shoulder at our shitty four-room apartment, just as I had, and began to cry.

Another part of the memoir that I liked was seeing how, throughout his childhood, little Stevie King was attracted to horror stories, but his teachers, seeing his writing talent, told him to write proper stories, more literary stories. It’s apparently something he’s been hearing from critics ever since, but he’s stuck to doing what he likes and has been very successful at it. I think it’s an admirable example. I also think it’s interesting that someone as successful as Stephen King still feels the need to justify himself in a book on writing. It comes across several times in the book, this feeling of having to explain why, even though he’s not a real, literary writer, he still has a worthwhile opinion. I found it quite astonishing.

Another thing I didn’t know about was his alcoholism. He said for a while he justified his drinking by saying writers have to be sensitive to the world, and you have to drink to handle the existential horror, and besides, he could handle it. Then one day he realised he couldn’t, and it got to the point where his family had to intervene. He uses the desk in his room as a symbol of the change he made after he sobered up – before, he’d had a monstrosity of an old wooden desk, right in the middle of the room, and afterwards he had a small desk in the corner, with a living room suite in the middle where his kids could come and eat pizza and chat to him. This leads into his first piece of writing advice:

Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way round.

Theoretically I agree with this advice, but I also note that it often comes from people who became successful by being obsessive about their art. Would they have been so successful if they had always put life before art? I don’t know. I think when you’re starting out, you have to pour a lot more into your art because it’s a lot harder to get a break. But I agree that at some point you do need to find a balance.

The rest of the advice is good stuff, dealing with the mechanics of writing, such as grammar, plot, character and so on. I have read quite a lot of writing books by now so not much of it was new to me, but probably the first time around, ten years ago, I got more out of it. Even now it’s good to re-read things like that as a reminder. Bad habits creep in easily.

One thing that really stuck out for me was when he gave an example of editing a manuscript, and was explaining why he cut out a part that, although it was good, slowed things down too much.

Certainly I couldn’t keep it in on the grounds that it’s good; it should be good, if I’m being paid to do it. What I’m not being paid to do is be self-indulgent.

This is beautifully expressed, and I have said it to myself a few times already as I edit the manuscript of my next novel. There were several paragraphs that I’d kept in, even though they didn’t feel quite right – they just seemed too good to cut. But with King’s advice in mind, I cut them, and trusted that I would come up with something equally good to replace them. The “kill your darlings” advice is something I’ve heard before, but something about the way he expressed it really resonated with me and allowed me to cut more freely and counter the “But it’s good…” voice in my head.

The book ends with an account of King being hit by a van as he’s walking along the edge of the road. The paramedic told him he’d be fine – later, after King had recovered, he admitted that from the extent of the injuries he’d thought he was a goner. I was expecting a little more insight to come out of this brush with death, but there was nothing in particular. He just slowly recovers and starts writing again. The book was written over several years, with the accident in the middle, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that it’s a bit disjointed. Overall there were more than enough good insights to justify the re-reading.

3 thoughts on ““On Writing” by Stephen King

  1. I’ve heard many good things about this book, and it’s one I may pick up and read. I’ve never read anything by King, so I might read a few of his works before I dive into this book. Thanks for a great review! I agree with you about the obsession thing. I think at some point we have to be completely obsessed to really get into this intense career.

  2. Thanks for the comment! I’ve never read anything by him either – I think that’s why I skipped the autobiographical stuff first time around. But I enjoyed it anyway. I may now read some of his fiction finally as well – maybe we can compare notes 🙂

  3. I really liked On Writing, and King’s story about why bad reviews don’t faze him really cracked me up. I liked his book Carrie, but I see that his wife Tabitha helped him quite a bit with the female psychology in it after reading On Writing.

    I enjoy your book reviews and hope to comment more often. I am following your blog from mine now.

    Best,
    Ruth 🙂

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