Annotation: On Writing

Stephen King is not exactly what one would call an “obscure” writer. In fact, you walked down the street, any street, and asked random people who came to mind when asked for a modern author, chances are fairly high that a pretty large number will mention Mr. King. Some rave about his work, others think he’s a hack, but either way, he most decidedly someone who knows how to write, and whom people will listen to about writing. It’s fitting, then, that he chose to make his memoir about writing.

King makes a point at the very beginning of the book of pointing out that he has tried to strip away the bullshit, leaving just useful (or at least anecdotal) information. I applaud his efforts, and feel that he largely succeeded: it reads both fast and well, with very little getting dragged out beyond what is necessary to convey his point.

The book is broken into several sections, starting with a personal memoir of his childhood and early writing career, basically spelling out how he came to be who and how he is. This was amusing and insightful to read, as well as vaguely validating concerning my own life: in terms of creative impulses and literary origins, we have a lot in common. For instance, as junior-high children, he and his brother created their own newspaper (“Dave’s Rag” named after his brother David), which they sold among family, neighbors, and classmates. As a sixth grader, I was involved in a similar endeavor (though entirely on my own), writing a book review newsletter that I sold for a dime to classmates, until the school shut me down (I was not using any of their resources, and privately the teachers appreciated the effort, but there was a policy of not selling non-school related things in school).

One of the most moving bits in the personal memoir portion of the book for me would have to be when he was talking about the call he got when Carrie’s paperback rights sold. He and his wife were living in a beat-up, roach infested apartment, scrambling to make ends meat. His editor called him, and told him that the rights to Carrie had sold for $400,000 dollars. His wife was out of town and Stephen had no way to contact her about it, and spent the afternoon pacing around waiting for her to get home… when she did, he told her. She just looked around the shithole of an apartment and started crying. That’s a pretty intense little bit of humanity. Both Stephen and his wife Tabitha were college educated, but from poor working class families. Quite literally, it’s like being given a golden ticket out of the hard life. It’s not enough to retire on, no, but it’s enough to get out of the hard place they were in. I know it’s a rare thing to get that much money for book rights, but it really does leave this gem of hope for anyone who wants to be a writer.

The next portion of On Writing is called “What Writing Is”, and is really about just that. The section is short, just a chapter long. What it comes down to for Stephen, and I largely agree with this assessment, is that writing is a form of telepathy. It is a meeting of minds: the writer’s and the reader’s, at least if it’s done well. It’s not a matter of describing every detail (that really does nothing more than bog down this mental communication), but sharing enough that there is a shared picture in the minds of everyone involved: the reader, the writer, the characters in the story. He closes this section with a pleading request that we take writing seriously, which I second. Something worth clarifying here: I’m not talking about writers being taken seriously — too often, they are taken TOO seriously, in fact. Nor am I talking about what is written being taken seriously — I somehow doubt Douglas Adams wanted Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to be treated as a serious tome. What I (and Stephen) am talking about is taking the act of writing seriously. If you aren’t willing to commit yourself to the task of writing, then don’t do it. Go read a book, play a game, watch a movie, do anything else, but don’t waste your time and ours by going in and writing half-assedly.

The third section of the book is called “Toolbox”, and discusses the writer’s toolbox, at length. The metaphor of a multi-layered toolbox is a good one: you keep your key tools at the top, and open deeper when you need to. Vocabulary and grammar are the two biggest tools at the top: looking for themes within your writing, something the author suggests leaving until your first draft is DONE, is further down. This may be less true for plot-driven pieces, but his work is largely situational. He does not outline, just comes up with a situation, creates the basic skeleton of some characters, and sees what develops where and when. It’s an interesting concept, and one that I don’t see suggested often enough. So many books on writing talk steadily about the need for outlining, and pre-planning in varying amounts (but rarely no planning at all). This isn’t something that should need validation (ie, hand-holding), but it is still nice to actually have a successful writer say “Don’t worry about it, just let it go where it goes.”

I found the ranting King does in the Toolbox section hilarious but spot-on. He discusses several of his pet peeves such as adverbs, passive verbs, and cliché metaphors and similies. Of course, after all the rants and arguments against them, King does point out that he is vaguely hypocritical about this. He tries to catch these things, but sometimes stuff just slips through. But really, I think that’s kind of the point. In my opinion, it’s not that these things should be actually shunned, but that they are things that if used too much, they become painful. Unless you have angelic levels of restraint and a DEEP understanding of the English language, it’s best to avoid them simply so that when they DO appear (and they will), they’ll be used in moderation.

The fourth portion of On Writing is the title section. It is a strange mishmash of personal curmudgeonly diatribe and remarkably useful and sage writing advice. His discussion of the use and development of theme was remarkably insightful, as was his diatribe about getting over ourselves about trying to pretend that we live in a vacuum as writers. In so many other artforms, especially when learning, it is expected that you will try to emulate the style or even composition of prior artists. But in writing, there is this myth and fear that writing “in the style of” another author is plagiarism. It’s bullshit, and if you stop to think about it for even a moment it’s obviously bullshit, but that doesn’t stop us from having that initial gut feeling that we have to fight to overcome. I’m as guilty as the next person about this one… I used to get so upset, feeling like I was “ripping off” some of my favorite authors, and only realized much later that there was nothing wrong with what I was doing. It is part of developing your own voice, if nothing else.

The final section of the book was about recovering and returning to writing after a near fatal accident the author was in during the summer of 1999. It’s a pretty intense piece of writing, deeply personal and yet filled with fact-finding and observations. In all of it, I’d say the part that most impacted me was when he was talking about his intial recovery:

I entered the hospital on June nineteenth. Around the twenty-fifth I got up for the first time, staggering three steps to a commode, where I sat with my hospital johnny in my lap and my head down, trying not to weep and failing. You try to tell yourself that you’ve been lucky, most incredibly lucky, and usually that works because it’s true. Sometimes it doesn’t work, that’s all. Then you cry. (King 263)

What was really heartening about the whole ordeal is just how supportive his wife was throughout all of it. When the author decided he needed to get back to work, Tabitha backed him up, setting up a workspace where he would have access in his wheelchair, and then staying within earshot but not in the way while he tried writing (this was a period of time that due to his injuries, even being upright for more than 45 minutes at a time caused him serious searing pain). This sort of support is way more valuable in my eyes than any amount of accolades. It’s a real show of trust.

Overall, I’d definitely recommend this book, without qualification. Regardless of whether you are a Stephen King fan or not, or whether you are interested in writing or not, it was an enjoyable book, and worth the time to read.