So, this guy walks into a bar. He sits down next to you and orders a club soda with lime (he used to have a drinking problem, you soon learn). Then he turns to you like you were his best friend and starts out talking about this woman’s memoir and how she can recall everything in her life, it seems, but that’s not him. Before it’s all over, he’s told you two life stories (both his) and maybe more than you ever wanted to know about the nuts-and-bolts of writing, or at least what one, extremely successful middle-aged author finds works for him.
Okay, it’s not some guy in a cocktail lounge, it’s a book. And that’s fortunate for the vast numbers of Stephen King’s fans who have wanted to know how he became the writer that he is, or where he gets his crazy ideas and for those of us with a closet full of crazy ideas of our own.
Right from the beginning King’s intentions are clear. He is not so much interested in self-aggrandizement. After all, the man’s written over forty novels and seen some of them turned into classics of Horror Cinema like John Carpenter’s interpretation of his early novel, Carrie. He’s the creator of Pennywise, the quintessential literary embodiment of everyone’s terrors who has ever been frightened by a clown. He doesn’t need to polish his image. Rather, he is here to “pay it forward.”
“I don’t believe that writers can be made,” he says, right on page 4, either by circumstances or by self-will (though I did believe those things once) . . . I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and those talents can be strengthened and sharpened. If I didn’t believe that writing a book like this would be a waste of time.” So there, from the top, a big flashing neon sign: this really is a book for writers. (Of course, the title, On Writing is even more straightforward than the title of his other nonfiction work, Danse Macabre.)
Not that there isn’t plenty of entertainment value in the book for people who are more interested in hearing the Great Writer talk about the secrets of his success. In fact, the first third is a chatty little memoir, the promised “curriculum vitae—an attempt to show how one writer was formed,” a memoir that the author insists is not a real memoir but a series of frames, incidents that changed how he looked at the world. Some of those changes were joyous—meeting his wife Tabitha in a pretentious college writing class, selling the paperback rights to Carrie for enough money to quit his day job; other painful—descending into alcoholism and finding his way back significant among them.
What follows next is nothing short of a Master Class for the Beginning Writer. King utilizes the metaphor of his grandfather’s hand-built toolbox, a massive, intricately crafted thing in itself, for the tricks of the trade, laid out in admirable simplicity. I have been at this writing thing for a good few decades now, so not much of what Stephen King has to say about the day-to-day craft and the job of writing came as a surprise to me. Still, I learned from it. There may be more accessible, more concise and more helpful writing manuals, but especially as concerns fiction, I have not come across one.
Sorry, no secret handshakes, no easy-to-follow step-by-step instructions or Rules of Writing, not because, like a stage magician, King is bound by tradition to the Writers’ Secrets. It’s just that there are none, or as W. Somerset Maugham put it, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.” In place of that, is the unhelpful advice to read widely and write regularly (unhelpful because you already know that).
More than that, of course. That would have made an uncomfortably short book, even with all the autobiography. All the expected breakdown topics have their day (or page): character, dialogue, plot and theme (pay attention to one and not the other), and on and on. Everyone who’s been to a story writing class (and the vast majority of readers who have not just skipped this part of the book have been to at least one) can finish the list for themselves.
Of course, this is Stephen King giving out all this sound, fundamental advice, so he does it with grace and charm, and an easygoing style that insinuates the hard lessons in being a better writer under the reader’s brain the same way he insinuates dread into a story about a neighborhood’s children’s pet graveyard.
Then, just when you’ve been lulled into the comfortable conversational part of the book King reserved for answering the sort of questions people ask most frequently at public events, BAM! Quite literally.
In 1999, Stephen King sustained major injuries when he was hit by an out-of-control van while walking on a rural Maine highway. That probably doesn’t come as a surprise to horror fans, so I don’t count that as a spoiler. The recounting of that accident and the process of recovery is what I called the second life story at the top of this piece. Stephen King himself went through worse than he had put Paul Sheldon through in Misery, and the irony is not lost on him, either.
Still want to be a writer? Even if writers are ultimately called to pay the piper for all the tortures they put their characters through? Try not to think about it too hard—in the dark, when, suddenly, it seems too quiet.