26 March 2020

On Writing by Stephen King

I have listened to writers recommend Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft over and over again and finally picked it up near the end of 2019. I remember listening to an interview with him on CBC where he talked about how happy it makes him that people want to come home after a long day at work and pick up one of his books. It was so clear how much he loves reading and I found the interview really endearing. That being said, I've never read a single book by King... but I somehow consider myself a long-time admirer. On Writing is the first work I've picked up from him, and I'm really glad I did.

On Writing is just under 300 pages and I flew through it. The book is divided up into three sections: the first is King's CV where he talks a lot about his early childhood memories and where he grew up. This was really interesting because you get an idea of the visual/physical memories that lay the groundwork for some of the imagery in his writing. Whether it be a blistered hand oozing puss from a run in with poison ivy to the small woodland next to the town's junkyard with a train track running between. These memories give you an idea of how Derry, Maine, (the popular fictional setting of King's work) came to be.

When you're still too young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure."

There were a few things I really enjoyed in the CV portion of the book. It's been well documented that I am fascinated by addiction, and I had only recently learned through some podcasts that King was an addict for a huge part of his career. I remember hearing in a podcast that King once said he can't remember writing his 1981 book Cujo at all, and King corroborated this in his memoir!

King wasn't picky when it came to substance abuse. He mentions that his wife Tabby once dumped his office trash bag out and with it came "beer cans, cigarette butts, cocaine in gram bottles and cocaine in plastic baggies, coke spoons caked with snot and blood, Valium, Xanax, bottles of Robitussin cough syrup and NyQuil cold medicine, even bottles of mouthwash." After reading about some of these details it's no surprise he can't remember writing Cujo, and it maybe explains Jack Nicholson's character in The Shining.

King writes very straightforwardly about his addiction issues and never romanticizes them which I really appreciated:

Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn't drink because they were creative, alienated, or morally weak. They drank because it's what alkies are wired up to do. Creative people probably do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what? We all look pretty much the same when we're puking in the gutter."

Over the Christmas break I went to Bangor, Maine, with my parents for the day and we stopped to check out Stephen King's house! It is sooo beautiful and I love that his sense of humour is clearly shown with the gate.
I also loved that King started this section praising Mary Karr and her incredible memoir The Liar's Club. He mentions how envious he is of Karr's recall, and how he's unable to remember a ton about his own childhood. There is a a massive list of book recommendations at the end of On Writing, and the new edition (which I have) even includes an updated list of at least 50 more books. Karr's memoir is mentioned immediately.

One thing you get immediately from reading On Writing is how much time King spends absorbing books. He talks about bringing a book with him everywhere and how he reads in the doctor's waiting room, before the movie at his local theater, and how he listens to audiobooks while driving. His appreciation for books in any format is really endearing. 

The second section of the book deals with the bulk of King's writing advice. He covers a ton of information with everything from grammatical advice to how to set up your office and even some advice about getting an agent.

The one thing I feel like I'll never forget is King saying how you should ALWAYS include an apostrophe s... I always felt so awkward when a name ended with an s and trying to figure out what to do. From now on I guess I'll be writing "Jess's dog" instead of "Jess' dog." He also had some great advice about vocabulary:

One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones [...] Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colourful."

I remember the first time I ever tried to write a review for our provincial newspaper in New Brunswick it took me hours and I hated what I came out with. The next time I approached one I tried to write as quickly as possible and "in my own words" and felt like the result was so much better.

King shows some edits of a first draft
King takes examples of writing from all kinds of different authors and compares them. He shows some work from Cormac McCarthy and highlights the large vocabulary he clearly has. Then King cites John Steinbeck's work and shows you how simple his language can be. Steinbeck repeats "because" like four times in one paragraph. Both McCarthy and Steinbeck are incredible writers and the exercise just shows the value of writing in your own voice and sticking to it.

He mentioned another piece of advice I had heard before from my favourite editor Randy:

I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special occasions... and not even then, if you can avoid it."

Both stressed that the reader will know how a line is delivered if the author is any good at writing. The dialogue will tell you if the character said something excitedly, frantically, or sadly.

My favourite quotation from the book was when he talks about how to set up your writing space. King writes so eloquently about his life's passion and I thought this was such a beautiful line:

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support-system for art. It's the other way around."

I follow King on Twitter because I think it is so adorable when he posts photos of his dog (who he refers to as Molly the Thing of Evil) ... 
The one thing I knew about Stephen King (other than the fact that he lived in Bangor, Maine - three hours from where I live) was that he was in a horrible accident that left him severely injured and with life-long pain. In 1999 King was out for one of his daily walks and was hit by a van passing by. He was rushed to the hospital and was lucky to have survived. He ends On Writing by talking about this accident and how it has impacted his life. This is easily the most beautifully written part of the book. King talks about how important writing is for him and reflects on its role throughout his entire life.

Interestingly he was planning to revisit his work on the partially written On Writing the day of the accident. And he ends the book by talking about his recovery process and getting back to writing - specifically this memoir. I found it to be really inspirational and he ends by mentioning that "the scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better."

I would recommend this book to a lot of people. If you're a big fan of Stephen King or you just love reading in general you'll want to check this out. If you're an aspiring writer you'll especially want to read it.

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