canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

On Writing
by Stephen King
Scribner, 2000

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

Stephen King, I thought. Purveyor of senior high prom massacres perpetrated by teenage telekinetics; rabid dogs that entrap people in economy-size cars; creepy hotels that drive their caretakers crazy; good vs. evil tales that are set after an engineered virus lays low the human race, our modern horseman of the apocalypse. I approached this book with malignant glee, eager to see what the purveyor of pulp had to say about his craft to people like me, years after I read his paperbacks as an eager adolescent.

The smirk soon left my face, and I began to take notes.

On Writing was released well after the highly publicized automobile accident that threatened Kingís life; he was mid-book when he got smucked while walking near his home in Maine. Such circumstances tend to lend drama to any enterprise. King was halfway through a sedate manuscript that appeared in installments in the -unprecedented for him- august New Yorker when he was consigned to the operating room, and then physical rehab, by a reckless motorist. What ensued was a very long recovery- the perfect place, perhaps, to reevaluate oneís life and work.

I suspect (with a justifiable hint of the old scoffing sneer) that King aficionados could care less about literature, clamoring about the checkout counter as they do. Only the fanatics would ante up for a book about words, run-of-the-mill fans demand fantastic story, and so The Life is cannily supplied at the beginning of this book, running for over a third of its length. Small vignettes serve as Kingís fractured autobiography. Scenes at most, we learn of a single mom bouncing around from town to town; a genius brother happiest when recruiting little Stevie to execute half-baked ideas; the deceit of a Otolaryngologist who treated Stevieís recurrent ear infections with seemingly painless needles. Less a portrait of the artist as a young man, they are more of a series of random polaroids. The picture thatís hardest to look at is also the most honest: King informs us of his earlier addiction to alcohol and cocaine in all their destructive glory- he had it bad, and tells us so. His greatest regret? The effect it had on his family and his writing.

The advice offered by King to writers of any genre, including the pretentious literary kind, is invaluable and delivered in a straightforward, no-bullshit style, the best policy for a man who, in his foreword, asks the following questions: "Why did I want to write about writing? What made me think I had anything worth saying?" and answers with, "The easy answer is that someone who has sold as many books of fiction as I have must have something worthwhile to say about writing it, but the easy answer isnít always the truth." The truth is that itís all about the language, and though his usual audience may nod dully at this, a smaller group of writers will understand what he means.

King prescribes simple, practical things. Obtain a workplace as isolated and functional as possible. Keep the door closed. Write for a defined period of time each day, small when starting out and larger when established. Read, read, read. Read some more: "If you donít have time to read, you donít have the time (or the tools) to write." Avoid television, "the glass teat." Take yourself seriously. Such environmental and habitual things eventually give way to procedure: a major reference is William Strunk and E.B. Whiteís Elements of Style, Kingís avowed royal road to good writing. King uses his own metaphor of a toolbox: on the top level lays vocabulary nuts and grammar bolts, underneath that ephemeral form and style. This toolbox is examined in microscopic detail, and examples of fixer-upper sentences are helpfully provided for illustration. While exploring the toolbox, valuable bits of handy advice are offered: use active verbs, avoid adverbs and plot. Above all, tell the truth, umbilically linked to tell a good story. Though he does not write it, the toolbox is On Writingís story: its components, neatly arranged, are contained in the bright red oblong that readers should carry with them, long after theyíre done reading.

Itís unnerving to recognize that these wise nuggets are supported by Kingís own writings. Pointing out an insight into characterization, he writes: "I canít remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story of mine looked like- Iíd rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well." And whatís used as evidence? Kingís novel Carrie: "If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, canít you? I donít need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown." Is the observation untrue? No. But is the source text a grand book? No.

Some of Kingís opinions are debatable: he believed that writers can be made provided they possess a basic amount of talent and are willing to work, but that they cannot be made great- great writers are born! He champions the literary merit of the popular novelist- arguing that Charles Dickens is a charter member of this club. He characterizes an artistís muse as a "basement guy. You have to descend to his level...heís a hardheaded guy whoís not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isnít the Ouija board or spirit-world weíre talking about here...", maintaining that writing is like a nine-to-five trade: create 2000 words each day, every day, and in a few short months you too can create a novel! "I believe the first draft of a book- even a long one- should take no longer than three months, the length of a season." This belief is oversimplified and strangely contradictory for a man who argues that itís all very hard work, you have to get serious, but that it shouldnít be work at all; instead, it should be play.

The most welcome thing King offers is absolution to all us writers and readers out there: "The word is only a representation of the meaning; even at its best, writing almost always falls short of full meaning." What only a critic can write about this wonderful book on writing is that it convinces as one reads it- and so it is a good book. The language rings true, let alone its well-reasoned argument, supportive testimony to Kingís objective: a book on writing that means more than mere hand-waving. A book thatís a pleasure to read.

Shane Neilson is one of TDR's poetry editors.







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