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On Writing

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Title: On Writing

Pagecount: 291 (Tenth anniversary addition)

Author: Stephen King (A, in spite of that van)

Published: 2000


I never had any plans to read this book.

No, really. No plans at all. It’s not that I hate Stephen King with glorious pretentious hipster-rage; he was just never my kind of author. I don’t generally read horror, due mostly to the fact that there are plenty of terrible things happening in real life and my imagination just doesn’t need the help. I was never of the opinion that he was a bad writer, either. Those bits and pieces I’ve caught from his books seemed well crafted, things to be proud of. So why would I read it?

I felt I was ready.

Up front I’m telling you this: no one should read On Writing until they’re in their twenties. By then, you’ll have made it past that awkward stage wherein you try to please everybody with your work. If you’ve got your hands on it earlier than your twenties or even thirties, your thought process WILL go like this: Stephen King, the guy who wrote a ton of bestsellers, must know some great secret of the writing world; therefore if you follow his instructions to the letter…

No. That’s not the way this works. King’s advice is like that of any fellow writer. You have the God given right to take it or leave it. It’s hard, sometimes, to remember that, but remember; it is important.

When I was in college, I ‘met’ Stephen King at a presentation of the anthology of the best American Short Stories. I put met in quotations because he signed my book and then moved on to the next person in line, which was understandable; the line was very long. I remember looking at him and thinking, you’re the guy who made a million bucks off of Carrie? You look like you fell down a set of stairs. Twice.

Of  course I don’t know if King has made a million dollars off of Carrie. Furthermore it wasn’t stairs, it was a run in with a van. The moral of this story is that Stephen King is just as human as you are. On Writing is proof of that.

The book is set up half like a conversation about the craft, half like a memoir showing how King developed as a person. The memoir bit was incredibly well written and interesting. He calls the sections ‘snapshots’, like photos on a reel. I agree with the moniker. It fits perfectly. I almost wish he’d write more of it, and maybe he has.

The next few sections are about the nitty gritty- the mechanics, the publishing. King believes that the road to hell is paved with adverbs. When a friend told me this freshman year of college (he’d broken the as of yet unestablished rule of reading the book when you’re old enough to understand it) I wanted to push him out a window. Mostly because I couldn’t for the life of me remember what adverbs were. King is right, though. Adverbs are mostly like pieces of mint garnish on bread pudding. Who the fuck cares?

My one true problem with the book, and it’s arguable to even call it a problem, is its context. King wrote it and published it at the latter part of the last millennium. In short, when the internet was still developing, when cellphones didn’t have hardwires to the web, and when people paid more attention, which is to say far less than he himself had paid as a young writer. He says he is a unique breed, last of the authors who grew up reading more than watching TV. TV=the enemy. At least it did until the internet came to the prominence it has now. I’d like to see parts of On Writing be edited to feature this newest of literary hazards.

There are a few points where King and I disagree. He prefers stories to be story driven, for example; everything I’ve ever written is based on a character. He believes that most writing workshops hinder more than they help. I think that without my four years in a  writing-based degree program, I never would have gotten to where I am. These are the glorious moments where I am able to look down at the page and say, quite politely, “Shove it, Stephen King.” I don’t think he’d mind all that much. He spends a lot of time in the book telling you what any writer would if you just listened- there’s no goddamn instruction manual. The process is different for everyone, and what works for one of us doesn’t exactly work for another. All King did, despite what you might have heard, is show how it worked for him, and those similarities between writers and writing that unite us as a craft, instead of a group of barely-connected hobbyists.

I admire King’s dedication to what I hesitantly call ‘ a writing lifestyle’ (which is slowly becoming a dirty term due to certain special interest groups who seem convinced homosexuals have one.) He has a disciplined routine and suggests that young writers develop one as soon as possible. It isn’t a new concept, having a block of time in which to write every day. King takes the advice a step further by inviting you into his writing space, sharing why it is the way it is. Remember, you don’t need Rudyard Kipling’s desk to crank out a glorious bestseller; you just need a place that you can call yours.

When it comes to drafts, King levels with you. He believe it best to write the first draft with the door closed, the second with the door open. I feel this is wise. You can disagree. That’s the magic of it all.

My edition is a tenth anniversary run, which I picked due to how nice its cover felt and the grade of the paper inside. It is also an edition with a revised list of books at the back. You have to respect a man who tells you up front that if you don’t read, you don’t write. There are points in the book where King stops and informs you that if you don’t get it, you should do something else with your life. Pretentious? Well you could call it that, but he’s right- if you’re in it for the money (god forbid) or the fame, or you ‘really wish you could write but just don’t have time to read’- then you’re not a real writer. Go away, we have work to do.

If you’re a fan of Stephen King I suggest you pick the book up. If you’re a writer, aspiring, kind of published, or majorly published, pick it up. It’s a rare glimpse into the mind of a man who loves what he does. I’d say we have to kill him for revealing our secrets but in the end, the secret is a little different for each of us. King is safe- at least as long as he stays away from any dodge vans in Maine.

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