You must not come lightly to the blank page.
In the crowded genre of books about writing, we can now declare Stephen King’s On Writing to be a standard. It’s so often read and recommended that many who have never tried a word of King’s fiction will yet have this one on their shelves. And for good reason. King, whose stories have entered our cultural lexicon in a way that other fiction mega-sellers, like John Grisham or Danielle Steel, couldn’t dream of, is as successful and prolific a guide as you could wish for. Learning to write fiction with Stephen King is like learning to sing with Aretha Franklin, or to invest with Warren Buffet. His advice is concrete, insightful, and backed by countless hours of practice. And many of his observations could apply to anyone doing anything creative, widening this book’s appeal to be nearly universal.
If King is an elite in his field, he tries not to sound like it. He keeps things conversational in On Writing and, as he likes to remind us, views himself as a crusader against “bullshit.” He never comes close to pretentious, and doesn’t miss a chance for a self-deprecating nod to his own flops. This makes On Writing as easily accessible as any of King’s fictional works.
He does, however, indulge himself in folksy asides. Remarks like, for example,
give them to me young and they’re mine forever, heh-heh-heh
a British advertising man with a proper education can make magazine copy for ribbed condoms sound like the Magna goddam Carta
don’t exactly land as jokes. They’re meant to place us on a front porch with an honest, genuine fella and his unpolished sense of humour. Even though it comes off as an affectation, I don’t doubt that this is how King speaks, and I imagine the quotations above would seem wittier out loud. In writing, though, he’s most engaging when not contorting himself to sound like your weird Uncle Bud. Because he restrains himself somewhat on this front, On Writing fulfills its promise to stay free of bullshit—a necessity of good writing that eludes many authors of books on the subject.
But what sets On Writing apart is its unusual scope.
The first section, “C.V.”, is a memoir of King’s upbringing, his years as a young writer, and his early success. This section alone would make for a fascinating book, and enough funny, unforgettable scenes occur here to make you wonder if we’ll ever see a Stephen King biopic.
The second and third sections, “Toolbox” and “On Writing,” are the most recognizable if you’ve read other books of this kind. The “Toolbox” section lays out some mechanical basics like voice, vocabulary, and grammar. The “On Writing” section covers the subject for which King is renown and which he reveres: creating stories. Here we get the compulsory injunction to “read a lot and write a lot,” and lessons in the elements of creative writing, like plot, theme, and character. We also encounter the unforgettable image of the writer as digger, uncovering a skeleton, brushing away layer after layer of earth until something whole emerges. This, as opposed to constructing something new out of thin air, is how King views fiction writing. The stories, he says,
… are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.
It’s a great image because it removes some creative responsibility from the writer: you no longer have to be a genius, just a diligent excavator. It also captures the excitement of uncovering a new story. There’s something good under there, King says. Just keep digging. That’s encouraging advice to anybody who has ever been daunted by the blank page—the type of wisdom that any great book on writing should deliver.
The last section of the book, titled “Postscript: On Living,” is like nothing found in any other writing guide. Here King departs from his subject to recount the events of June 19, 1999. When On Writing was half completed, King was hit by a van while walking along a highway in Maine and almost died. He was not able to begin working again for weeks, and only in great pain. When he did get back to On Writing, he chose to end it by recounting in detail the day of this accident and the process of his recovery. It’s an enthralling and heartbreaking section. While you read about this unthinkable calamity, it seems somehow lucky that Stephen King, of all people, lived to write about it. The details are weirdly Kingian, as even he points out:
I have nearly been killed by a character right out of one of my own novels.
He eventually brings the narrative round to his recovery, and the role writing played in this part of his life. When you see King finally return to his daily work, you realize that his book about writing has now touched on the deepest veins linking art, life, and mortality, easily outshining comparable works on the subject.
I’d gotten going, there was that much. The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.
Just when you think that he’s ending on a lofty philosophical note, On Writing’s most practical section comes last. To close out the book, King presents the first draft of an excerpt of fiction, and then the same text with editor’s markups to show some changes he would make upon revision, with explanations of his choices. This juxtaposition is so useful to both new writers and new editors that I can’t imagine why more books don’t provide something similar (maybe they do; I’d love to read one). He has by now cut through the bullshit entirely, and illustrated a bit of the tough work that goes into the art; this after showing us, as only Stephen King could, the life-affirming power of creative spirit.
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