On Writing

by Stephen King


Inspiring for any writing hopefuls in addition to damn entertaining.  I’ve read this three times now and it’s just as engaging, just as cheering, inspiring, instructive and downright hilarious as it was the first time.

This time I read it in one day, over three or four hours.  It’s like sitting down to an after-dinner conversation with your oldest and funniest friend, on a chilly night by the fire, glass of port in hand.  And your friend is also really smart and successful, and oh-by-the-way has the perfect career advice for you.

The content is somewhat disperse but flows together intuitively.  And it’s all a fascinating conversation so who cares if it meanders a little?  King starts with a memoir about the development of his passion for reading and writing.  He hits upon some early advice that he received which helps the section segue neatly into the meat of the book: the writing tips. This takes up about 150 pages and is broken up into two sections, the 1st shorter one (“Toolbox”) on basic grammar and vocabulary, and the 2nd one (“On Writing”) on style and process.

The postscript relates his own near-death experience with the infamous van; it’s probably the part that least rewards a second reading.  But even in this section he is mixing in some of the most fascinating parts, the descriptions of the specific processes behind many of his most famous books.  His discussions of The Stand, Misery, Carrie, and The Dead Zone are compelling and especially exciting from a fan’s perspective.  Makes me wanna re-read them.

But his basic advice — be honest, follow the characters, don’t plot around theme and symbols, approach the story as a delicate fossil to unearth — is all golden.  The most refreshing (and relieving) part of it is his insistence that there is no magic formula nor occult knowledge to learn before one can become good.  With practice, anyone with the minimal competence, the passion, and a decent ear can be a good writer.  But above all the passion.

I love this book.  It’s not perfect, but I’m willing to overlook the warts if King’s willing to hang them out there.  I recommend it to anyone who likes to read, not just aspiring writers (although I believe it of particular import to the latter group).

Here’s my choice for funniest passage, on p. 235-6 when King is expressing his disdain for writing seminars and especially the retreats, where after writing all day you gather around a fire at night for wine and marshmallows to critique each others’ work:

And what about those critiques, by the way?  How valuable are they?  Not very, in my experience, sorry.  A lot of them are maddeningly vague.  I love the feeling of Peter’s story. . . It had something. . . a sense of I don’t know. . . there’s a loving kind of you know. . . I can’t exactly describe it. . .

Other writing-seminar gemmies include I felt like the tone thing was just kind of you know; The character of Polly seemed pretty much stereotypical; I loved the imagery because I could see what he was talking about more or less perfectly.

And instead of pelting these babbling idiots with their own freshly toasted marshmallows, everyone else sitting around the fire is often nodding and smiling and looking solemnly thoughtful.  In too many cases the teachers and writers in residence are nodding, smiling, and looking solemnly thoughtful right along with them.  It seems to occur to few of the attendees that if you have a feeling you just can’t describe, you might just be, I don’t know, kind of like, my sense of it is, maybe in the wrong fucking class.

For more info. . .


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