Friday, May 13, 2011

Book Review: On Writing by Stephen King

I have heard this book praised since the day it came out. In fact, when it was published I was a freshly minted editorial assistant in Manhattan, and it was widely loved by editors for repeating (and repeating) the advice: kill your darlings. Oh, if only the authors would listen!

This book is not just a writing guide, but also a memoir, which might seem like an odd mash-up. But in the end it makes perfect sense. Mr. King can't write about his life without writing about writing. He is a writer, first and foremost. Writing is such an elemental part of his being, inextricably entwined, that a memoir that did not significantly talk about it would be strange and hollow. As he would naturally need to discuss writing a great deal in any memoir, why not join the two books? He doesn't frame the duality this way, instead he sees the memoir parts as a C.V. of sorts, giving his background so you know why he's entitled to give this writing advice. But I'll bet it's more my theory in reality. After all, although it is titled On Writing, and he claims the non-writing-advice parts serve the writing-advice parts, the writing advice is a much shorter section than the memoir sections. Writing a memoir is an act of bragging, whereas giving advice is generous. Mr. King is not the kind of person to brag, so he constructed this excuse for writing a memoir that is unselfish, but I do think the book is truly more a memoir than anything else. (Not that there's anything wrong with that -- memoirs are my favorite genre.)

Naturally, I enjoyed the memoir parts immensely. As I am not, and don't aspire to be, a writer, the advice on writing was not as fascinating to me as it would be to an aspirational scribbler. His life however was both interesting, and also refreshing in its ordinariness. Yes, I have read a few Stephen King books (Different Seasons, The Shining, half of It) and I have wondered if the man behind the books must be nuts to think of these stories. No, he isn't. He's just very creative.

And a pretty good writer. And one who is very open about editing, cutting, and even about working with other readers on drafts, which I just love. Many writers seem to think every word they commit to the page is precious and no one else can understand (or therefore properly read and suggest changes) their vision, and he shows quite compellingly how narrow and short-changing that opinion can be. His prose flows smoothly, the different parts marry up much better than I would have guessed, and the action (the car wreck) in particular was a real page-turner. This book should be a must-read for every aspiring author, and really it has good advice for anyone who even needs to write for their job. It was a real breath of fresh air.

I borrowed this book from my boyfriend.


Marianne said...
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Anonymous said...


In many ways Kings advice here is very simple. It's pure gold, but very simple. What I love about this book was that he made it something enjoyable to read, and he emphasized not his riches, but his LOVE of writing. And in so doing reminded me why I loved it so much. For any aspiring writers, this is a pleasure to read, and I hope it leads you down a fun and exciting path of your own!