On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft by Stephen King

I don’t remember where I first saw this book recommended, but when I came across it in the library, I figured it would be a good idea to read it. It consists of three major sections: the memoir, or “C.V.”, the section on language and craft, “On Writing,” and the rest. While fiction is my preferred genre, I do enjoy a good memoir. I find it useful and entertaining to see where other writers come from and the journeys they’ve undergone in order to get their work published. Since King is a renowned author, I figured he would have some good advice and an interesting story to tell.

The memoir had me instantly hooked. King’s upbringing, while humble, is enticing and makes the name on the book covers feel a lot more human. This part also helped me understand just how much effort King put into his writing and what it took to get his work published. Any writer can understand the value of this kind of advice, especially those like me who are just starting out and want to publish someday. As I said in my last post, this helped me re-understand the importance of writing short stories and sending them to literary magazines, since that’s how many authors (including King) begin to earn a name for themselves.

Though I enjoyed reading about King’s life, the “On Writing” section left me feeling conflicted. I went into it expecting to have all (or at least many) of my questions about process, craft, and language. Unfortunately, while King writes passionately about how he writes, I find that I disagree with many of his suggestions. Now, there are cardinal rules that I can’t deny, including his primary suggestion, “read a lot and write a lot.” Common sense, right? You won’t get any better unless you study and practice, just like with any other skill. There’s also his take on the old “write what you know,” which he explains to mean “write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, relationships, sex, and work.” Seems simple enough, without having to write everything as a tale of suburban ennui and the drudgery of working in customer service.

On the other hand, King writes many of his suggestions under the assumption that his readers are career writers with no other occupations (at least, that’s the impression I got). He gives advice that I can only dream of fulfilling, like devoting four hours every day to writing (I know, he went to school and worked long hours and still managed to write, but I’m just not that good, okay?) and having a dedicated “closed door” writing space (yeah, tell that to clingy puppy-dog-eyed Alex, my uncomfortable chair, and my need to change my surroundings every three days). But the biggest thing I can’t agree with him on is his approach to story. While I agree with his assessment that story comes first, King is a dedicated pantser who can just sit down for a month and write an entire novel.

This may be the key thing that slowed me down in my reading, the fact that I can never be this good. It was discouraging at first, seeing advice from a great that I knew I could never live up to. I tend out run out of steam and crash hard after short bursts of “seat of the pants” writing, which has shown me that I need to spend more time plotting.

I grew even more discouraged after reading King’s anecdote about how his son wanted to play the saxophone. After seven months they decided to stop his lessons because they could tell from the way he practiced that he had no true talent of passion for it. The idea stands for writing in the sense that, if you are only writing because you’re being told to, and your passion for the art can’t carry you to do it constantly for fun, then you are not destined to be a good writer. This struck me because I’ve been experiencing my own lack of motivation, similar to King’s son. When I first read this story, I began to panic, thinking, Why am I doing this, then? I can never be a writer. What am I going to do?

Two things reassured me. The first was that the idea of giving up, when I can now step back and see how much I’ve grown as a writer, terrified me. If my heart wasn’t really in this, then I would stop altogether and never look back. The other thing was the memory of those dark days spent in the Disney College Program (long story, not to be discussed here), where I isolated myself into a crippling depression that I’m still clawing my way out of. Although I wrote no short stories at this time and my ambitious novella collection lay abandoned on my hard drive, I still found comfort in writing my Tumblr blogs and my private letters to Alex. This was the only time I devoted to myself, the only medium in which I could express the chaos within me. Even now, writing is the best way I can communicate and explain the way I see the world. And the more I read, the better I understand other views of the world.

So even though parts of King’s book made me feel intimidated or discouraged, I learned that, if you truly are a writer at heart, reading this book can help you come to that realization. As King writes, “writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.” I can certainly agree on that point as well. And though, as King demonstrates in the end of his book, it’s a difficult trip back, in the words of Jo-Jo the Who in Seussical: the Musical, “anything’s possible” (I’m in a production of it next week, give me a break 😛 ).

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3 thoughts on “On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft by Stephen King

  1. Awright, I gotta say this: Stevie King ain’t that inspiring. He has awesome plots, and awesome characterization, but don’t do it the way he does it. Because King has his own special way to do it and he makes good books, but I think that he’s probably not your answer. It’s like hearing a trapeze artist who says, “Aw, I don’t practice, I’m naturally good at it, just happens to look good up there.” Sorry, the rest of us need to practice a lot at the trapeze before we’re going to be any good, so maybe the “Just wing it” method isn’t going to turn out very well.

    Do it the way you’re wired. We spit on Mr. King! Patooie.

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  2. Good point! Now that I think about it, that’s likely why he called it a “memoir on craft” rather than “the ultimate golden rules about what you should do as a writer.” His way can’t work for everyone else, though it works well for him. I’m just starting to learn that it’s okay to disagree with people when it comes to writing advice, and it’s quite nice 🙂

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