“On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King

Okay, I never read ANYTHING by Stephen King. Horror is not my genre. I’m a wimp. I don’t watch scary movies. I’m so literal minded that whatever shows up on the page or screen is, to me, entirely real. Once I read a few pages out of King’s Cujo. Rabid dog menaces helpless woman. Couldn’t deal with it.

A friend told me that On Writing was great, useful in creative writing courses, and of interest to a wider audience, anyone interested in creativity. And he was right! It’s excellent.

The structure of the book is eccentric. It has three “forwards” followed by a C.V. (curriculum vitae). Then come three chapters about writing, a postscript, and three “furthermores”. Well, when you’ve made millions selling books, you get to do what you want. And it works!

The best parts of the book describe how King “gets” his ideas. First of all, he doesn’t believe in “plot”. He generates characters and situations, and writes in order to find out what will happen. His characters grow and change and often surprise him. He describes having once written himself “into a corner”, working on The Stand, a dystopian fantasy. He had too many characters and too many story lines. Stroke of genius – he blew up half his characters with a terrorist bomb, and finished a highly popular book.

King also talks about letting seemingly unrelated idea merge in his mind, and asking himself “what would happen if…” His breakthrough novel Carrie originated when he thought about teenaged cruelty/bullying and telekinesis. What would happen if a teen victim discovered she had telekinetic powers? Great premise, and it launched King towards money and fame.

King’s three chapters on writing

  • What Writing Is
  • Toolbox
  • On Writing

are brisk and informative. Nice to hear from someone who champions vocabulary and grammar. King and I went through American public schools at the same time and studied from the same textbooks.

There’s a section in On Writing which is different. Really different. In “On Living: A Postscript” King describes being struck by a carelessly driven van at age 52 and barely surviving. I feel tension in what he writes. I feel the effort it takes to put the pieces together after a life shattering event. I’ve been there, though not as the victim. “Narrative is the beginning of recovery.” (Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales.) Telling the story is essential to moving on. Sharing this is a generous act on King’s part.

So, I think I’m ready for some horror! I’ll start with Carrie, being careful to read it in a safe, sunny place with people around (not on a dark and stormy night or alone in a motel room). Maybe then I’ll look at some of King’s non-fiction.


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