- Rating: 4 out of 5
- Genre: Non-Fiction
- Category: Memoir, The Craft of Writing
Whether you are looking to know about Stephen King’s life and professional career, become a writer, or just curious about the process of writing works of fiction, this book will keep you engaged.
Stephen King’s direct approach to life shines through in this book which is both a memoir and a guide book on writing. So don’t let your feelings get hurt and ready yourself for some straight-shooting.
Buy it on Amazon On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
The first part of the book speaks to King’s childhood and earlier years. Raised by a single mom, with limited financial resources, the family moved often and King and his brother grew up in many different places.
As an adult, King continued to stay close to his mother. In college, he met and fell in love with a fellow student at the University of Maine, Tabitha Spruce. Tabitha became the love of his life, his biggest supporter and critic. She played a pivotal role in his writing career as well as his personal life.
Life was difficult in the early years of their marriage. Living paycheck to paycheck and raising kids as young adults, who were not far from being kids themselves, was not easy. They worked low paying day jobs while nurturing their passion for writing. Things began to change when King’s first published book, ‘Carrie’, became hugely successful. The rest was history.
The makings of a good writer
With the exceptions of the Shakespeares of the world, King believes that a competent writer can become a good writer with coaching and persistent hard work. This great art of writing is teachable. His advice is, at once, inspiring and actionable for those who want to pursue the path of writing fiction.
Being serious about the path and honing one’s skills consistently are, in his opinion, more important than being born with innate skills and/or abilities. He gives little importance to academic training or writing workshops. In this way, he squashes the idea of an elitist ideal writer. He proposes that the disciplined pursuit of the craft is important and thereby opens writing up for more people.
Tools of the trade
King begins by creating an analogy of a toolbox for writing, akin to a carpenter’s toolbox. This creates a striking visual of the necessary skills and their varying degrees of importance. King provides examples to illustrate his suggestions for language improvement. For example, he explains how adverbs take away the space for interpretation and confine the reader to one view – the writer’s view. In some cases, his methods may seem too one-sided and rooted in his approach. But this is hardly overbearing considering he is the King (literally as well as by name) of fiction writing.
One book he extensively references and recommends is The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition by William Strunk and E. B. White. This belongs in every aspiring writer’s toolbox.
Buy it on Amazon The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition
The Process of Writing
King is a man of habit and recommends a daily routine where the work of writing is given its own time and place. He is a strong believer that morning is the best time for creativity and recommends the same to his readers. He believes solitude is indispensable to writing and therefore having a designated, private space to write without distractions is important.
Good writing can be nurtured by making it a daily practice, a habit. Apart from a designated time and place, he recommends setting a daily writing target so that you are consistently producing work. A good target could be 2000 words each day.
According to King, you can’t be a good writer if you are not an avid reader. He does not expect you to be elitist in your selection of books because both good and bad books will teach you something. The good ones will inspire you to do better and expect more of your writing. The bad ones will show you what not to do and more importantly, you will learn that being a published writer and a good writer is not always the same thing. King recommends consistently reading books of the genre you plan to write in. He reads 70 to 80 books each year.
While he discusses style, narrative flow, etc., he advocates that substance is stronger than form. If you have a compelling story with believable characters and it is told with simplicity and limited artistic flair, it is better than a stylistically strong narrative with a weak plot or undefined characters.
In total, King recommends 4-6 hours of daily reading and writing time to the serious aspirant.
Despite King’s humble beginnings, he is strikingly uncommon in that he knew fairly early in his life that he wanted to be a writer. There was no other alternative career that he considered or pursued. He never wavered from this single-minded focus and dedicated a large part of his day, every day, to the tasks of reading and writing. He looked at teaching as his day job to pay the bills, but writing was what he was ‘made to do’. This kind of clarity is undoubtedly rare. Most people spend their entire lives not knowing their calling, let alone dedicating their life’s work to that calling. In that sense, I envy Mr. King his clarity and undivided focus.
To me, the early childhood narrative of his life story was interesting but on doing some research, I found it may not be comprehensive. For example, Wikipedia states he briefly wrote under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. There are similar claims on sites such as Biography.com but it is absent on King’s web page. Also missing in the list of his work are the books, he supposedly wrote under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman – Rage, The Long Walk So, Roadwork, The Running Man. It may not all be important in his view but I wanted to know all there is to know about this prolific writer and hence the research. As this is a memoir and not really an autobiography, it makes sense that it is selective based on the author’s discretion.
The soul of this story, in my view, comes to light when King describes his accident and his painfully slow recovery after it. It’s a plot twist that I did not see coming. Fact is indeed, stranger than fiction. I later learned that this tragic accident was well reported but I was not prepared for it while reading this book.
Later in the book, there is one incident where King is physically weak and still very early on his path to recovery when he confers with Tabitha about writing again. He expected her to strongly dissuade him, asking him to focus on getting rest and improving his health instead. But Tabitha not only supports him ideologically but also sets up a writing station for him where he can work undisturbed. When Stephen sees his new work area, it reminds him of the laundry room of his rented trailer where he wrote Carrie, his first published novel. This incident brought tears to my eyes and it brings to light at once the nurturing strength of their relationship and the restorative effects of writing on King’s life. Both of these forces propel King forward towards physical and emotional recovery. And they give him the momentum to finish this book.
I found King’s descriptions of the nights he couldn’t sleep when he had an idea brewing in his head particularly impactful. It reminds me of a favorite quote:
A dream is not something you see when you are sleeping but rather it is something that keeps you up at night – Author Unknown.
There is another incident when King spends week grappling with writer’s block. His narration of excruciating agony when trying to resolve the loose ends of the story was painfully vivid. Just as vibrant was the picture of his triumph, when he finally does pull it all together. The right idea hits him while he is on one of his solitary walks and King has to rush home to write it all down before he forgets. This incident was lucidly conveyed and came alive in my mind’s eye.
King’s description of how he comes up with a story and its characters shows his egoless approach to his craft. He does not claim to have created the characters and the stories but rather having picked up a ‘fossil’ and allowing it to tell its own tale through his writing. This approach prevents him from getting fixated with a plot plan that his characters must follow. But rather he lets the characters, as they evolve, dictate how the story should progress. I get that. It is an act of integrity and faithfulness to the characters. I can see how it would keep the story real.
Stephen King’s life and writing will continue to entertain readers and inspire writers for years to come.
Below is my favorite passage of the book. It is also the final paragraph.
Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. Some of this book, perhaps too much, is about how I learned to do it. Much of it is about how you can do it better. The rest of it, and perhaps the best of it, is a permission slip. You can, you should, and if you are brave enought to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.
Listening to the audiobook was a mesmerizing experience. It is narrated by Stephen King himself and therefore gives the most authentic voice to the words of this must-read (and reread) memoir.
For me, the most important take away from this book is that it expanded my understanding of writing. I got an understanding of writing, not only as a process and an act of creation but also got a glimpse of what it looks like when it becomes a profession.
Buy the audiobook here On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Buy the book here On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Below are some of Stephen King’s best selling novels (in no particular order):