Table of Contents | Archives | FAQ | e-Mail Us

Secrets and Monsters
Stephen King's
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

by Charlie Onion

On Writing is a mixed bag, much of it remarkably good and some of it not quite so enthralling. It may not work as a single, whole book, but it's a great, often moving ride.

Stephen King's latest book doesn't have a single new monster in it. Its title--On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft--tells us why: after publishing bestsellers for more than a quarter of a century, King is ready to let us in on the secret of his success. Ready? There is no secret. A lot of reading, a lot of writing, and knowing his gerunds from his participials (as well as obsessively pulling up adverbial weeds as they sprout) is the key to his success.

Disappointed? (And you thought it was going to be so easy...)

On Writing falls (rather uneasily) into three sections. The opening and closing sections are autobiographical; the middle section is instructional. Like King's best fiction, the opening section's rhythm is stunningly smooth, and it has a seemingly effortless, addictive pull. King is a natural storyteller,

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Stephen King
288 pp.
Amazon.com order now logo

and if you give him ten pages of your time, he's got you hooked for another hundred. Easy. I think he could even turn the Los Angeles phone book into a pageturner, if you gave him a couple hours with an editing pencil. (King's dependably strong storytelling skills are at least partly the reason he's managed to remain an A-list writer for a quarter of a century, even when his books' plots have sometimes read like King parodies.)

But what is autobiography doing in a book about writing? Simple: King thought it might be useful to see how at least one successful writer began. It's undoubtedly heartening for young, unpublished writers to see how unnoticed and downright poor King was for years, and how swiftly the paperback rights to his first novel, Carrie (they sold for $400,000), swooped him out of teaching high school English. And it goes without saying, of course, that King's myriad fans will find these autobiographical pages to be informative and fun.

The heavy-duty talk about writing doesn't come until more than a hundred pages into the text, and it is, through little fault of its own, the least engaging of the book's three sections. (Damn that storytelling ability!) King's goal, he writes, is to help "make a good writer out of a merely competent one." (Sadly, bad writers will remain bad, no matter what they try, in King's opinion, and a good writer simply can't be made great through instruction. Great writers, he opines, are "divine accidents.") Many of the technical issues King goes over here can be found readily in such books as Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (to which King refers frequently), and King does little to make them any more engaging, frankly. Perhaps more troubling, he sometimes assumes too little of his audience and writes beneath his obvious intelligence, as we can see in this passage:


If in school, you ever studied the symbolism of the color white in Moby-Dick or Hawthorne's symbolic use of the forest in such stories as "Young Goodman Brown" and came away from those classes feeling like a stupidnik, you may even now be backing off with your hands raised protectively in front of you, shaking your head and saying gee, no thanks, I gave at the office.


This middle section isn't without its appeal, though. Some of its best passages reveal how King developed his own manuscripts, letting characters develop naturally and rendering his themes more complex in the second drafts, and it gives writers a wonderful opportunity to see King's flexibility with a developing story as well as showing us his decidedly intelligent discipline in the rewrite phases of a book.

King was halfway through writing this book when he was struck by a van while walking on the side of the road near his summer home. In the final section of On Writing, he tells--beautifully--how the accident happened, and what treatments followed. His description of the van driver--"His look, as he sits on his rock with his cane drawn across his lap, is one of pleasant commiseration: Ain't the two of us just had the shittiest luck?"--is perfect, and we can't help feeling an empathic need to throttle the man with his own cane on King's behalf (if he were still alive, that is; the van driver was found dead from apparently natural causes in his house on September 22nd):


Help is on the way, I think, and that's probably good because I've been in a hell of an accident. I'm lying in the ditch and there's blood all over my face and my right leg hurts. I look down and see something I don't like: my lap now appears to be on sideways, as if my whole lower body had been wrenched half a turn to the right. I look back up at the man with the cane and say, "Please tell me it's just dislocated."

"Nah," he says. Like his face, his voice is cheery, only mildly interested. He could be watching all this on TV while he noshes on one of those Marzes-bars. "It's broken in five I'd say maybe six places."

"I'm sorry," I tell him--God knows why--and then I'm gone again for a little while. It isn't like blacking out; it's more as if the film of memory has been spliced here and there.


As it turns out, the driver was wrong--King's leg was broken in at least nine places (the orthopedic surgeon told King that the region below his right knee was "so many marbles in a sock" after the accident). In addition, King's right hip was fractured, his spine was chipped in eight places, four ribs were broken, the cut on his scalp from hitting the van's windshield took twenty or thirty stitches to close, and one of his lungs collapsed in the helicopter ride to the hospital.

King stayed in the hospital for three weeks and underwent a series of extensive surgical operations (there were five procedures just for his leg). Miraculously, two weeks after he went home, King began writing again--on this new book. (Hey, he did say a writer's life is a matter of reading a lot and writing a lot, right?) He had begun the book in late 1997, he writes, but he had set it aside because "Writing fiction was almost as much fun as it had ever been, but every word of the nonfiction book was a kind of torture." The first five hundred words "were uniquely terrifying," King writes of his first writing session after the accident, and "There was no sense of exhilaration, no buzz--not that day--but there was a sense of accomplishment that was almost as good." Writing didn't save him, King admits (his surgeon's skill and his wife's love did, he says), but it did make his life "a brighter and more pleasant place."

On Writing is a mixed bag, much of it remarkably good and some of it not quite so enthralling. I'm not convinced that it works as a single, whole book, but it's a great, often moving ride. If you're holding out for more monsters, though, never fear: King tells us in On Writing that he's got an unfinished novel (left in a desk drawer as a completed first draft before the accident) that he's getting back to now that On Writing is done. The subject: an alien "machine" that looks like a Buick Special from the late 1950s "sometimes reaches out and swallows people whole."





Amazon.com: Click here to find any book!


Bottom bar


 Table of Contents

Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 2000
riverrun enterprises, inc.