Book Review: “On Writing” by Stephen King

It’s been a wild weekend at our household. Sunday, we hosted a football get-together and watched the Bears blast their way into the SuperBowl. Go Bears!!! Gleefully, I checked my email to learn that an essay I wrote will be getting published. And I finished reading Stephen King’s On Writing. Finishing a book in one week. That’s almost pre-Daniel speed, when I had the leisure to gobble up books days at a time.

Hmm…Stephen King. Interesting how I feel about him. I read him a lot when I was younger, late high school going into college. My sisters and I were hooked on him, reading IT and The Talisman and The Shining (long before I saw the movie). There was one I really liked reading which involved a young man shifting from the normal world to another world by drinking something, but I can’t remember if that’s The Dark Tower or something else. (Heck, I don’t even know if that was Stephen King). But I do know I reached the peak in reading his stuff at The Stand. I was so awed by that book that it stoked my interest in writing (among other things).

Then something very strange happened. The more I started getting serious about writing in college, the more I began to shun King’s works. I started viewing him as a bad influence. Anyone who cranks out so much stuff must be either just writing whatever and putting it out there, and folks eat it up. It has to be his name recognition, not his works. His books aren’t really that good anyway–it’s all the same thing. Same horror stuff, over and over again. Something’s wrong with that. I stopped reading his books. I lost my copy of The Stand. I even started dissing the movies that started coming out based on his books (except for The Langoliers–I read that story, then saw the movie and thought it rocked). Somehow, even though I’ve never published a single word, I considered myself a truer writer than Stephen King, meaning that I never got paid a cent for my works, while he gets paid millions for probably throwing a bunch of words together and calling it a book.

That was how I felt through the latter part of college and up to around the time I stopped calling myself a “writer” and actually started writing. And my opinion of Mr. King changed again. I no longer held his works in snobbish regard, but rather looked at them with trembling fear. Now that I was writing, it wasn’t as easy as I thought. Plus, he became more of a genuine author, but one that was so far above my level that I could write for a million years and not even approach the toehold of his expertise. One day, I saw that he had written a book about writing, and having heard rave reviews, I bought it in paperback. It sat on my bookshelf for a couple of years, because I was far too intimidated to open it. When I’m ready, I told myself. When I feel like I’m a writer, then I’ll read it. When I’m ready to hear what he has to say.

That day came last week, when I was beaten down and bruised, and wondering what the heck I was doing, trying to write a 400k novel. What am I, nuts? Severely nuts? Heck, what was I doing trying to write at all? I needed encouragement. I needed advice. So I cracked open On Writing and started to read.

You know what it’s like? It’s like entering a smoky bar and asking to speak to the best writer in the land. The bartender points you towards the very back, where you see a wrinkled old man nursing a beer and having a smoke. You plant yourself next to him and he starts to ramble about his life, the early years, how he and his brother went on escapades, blah, blah, blah. You nod politely, but you’re looking at your watch, eyeing the door, when–BAAAM!–he lets loose a mind-blowing nugget of wisdom that knocks your ears off. By the time he goes back to puffing on his cigarette, you’re hooked, listening to every word. And you think, whoa! This is the best writer in the land.

By the time King leaves his memoir section and gets into the actual know-how of writing, I was spellbound. I’ve forgotten that King is a storyteller, one who gets you into his stories by sucking you in, even in a craft book such as this. It’s not all writing advice, either. Even though he’s written this way back in 1999, and I’m finally seeing the words seven years later, it feels intimate, like a letter from a master to a rookie, and everything outside of self is excluded. We’re on the same wavelength because he’s addressing me, the reader, as a writer, and, in a weird and wonderful sense, it places me on the same level as him.

I love the section where we play a bit of psychic mindplay; (though I also read that part with a bit of dismay–he employed a technique that I used in a short story that’s making the anthology rounds, thus rubbing in my face that nothing is original). I liked how he used examples of writing not just from his works, but from other works as well. He even address profanity, something I’ve been struggling a lot with (and frankly, something I’ve struggled seeing in his works). He does all this with a frankness and sincerity that doesn’t condescend or makes him sound smug. In fact, there’s a refreshing vulnerability in him laying it all down for you to see what made him the writer he is today. I never met the man, and I probably never will, but on some level, this book makes me understand him a little (to a certain degree–you allow yourself as much as you put on a page.)

The book ends with his account of being struck by a van in 1999. In reading the details of it all, I was totally drawn in, reading with my hand to my mouth. But what struck me most was that King was in the midst of writing this very book when he had the accident. He lets us in on all the pain of therapy he went through, but also the pain of starting up on the book again…his own doubts and fears of ever being able to write again. That was what floored me, made me look at the book in a whole new light. Between one section of the book and another was a gap of about 18 months of non-writing. But you would never have known it if he didn’t say a word about it. And his ending passage, which I won’t repeat here because it’s best to just get the book and experience it for yourself, summed up the entire book so well, I had to sit there after finishing it, soaking it all in. Afterwards, I went upstairs and starting working on Willow, at least a little bit more empowered and encouraged than I have within the past week.

Is Stephen King a hack writer churning out hit after hit for the masses, or is he possibly the greatest writer ever of the 20th century? I don’t think it really matters. He’s doing what he loves, and that’s that. Did I agree with every single word in his book? Not all. There are a couple of things he advised where I shook my head and thought, I can’t do it that way. That’s not my style. Do I feel this is a worthwhile book? You bet your sweet bippy. I think every writer should have this book, and if they haven’t read it, then at least have it on your shelf. When the time comes to read it, you will know.

This book rates 5 spikes in the wall out of 5. I can’t say that I have an attic filled with rejection slips spiked to the ceiling, because I really don’t have an attic, but I do look forward now to racking up the slips–though an acceptance letter works very well too.

Oh, and Mr. King, if you’re out there and you happen to stumble upon this little entry of a blog, allow me to say, “Thank you. Thank you very much. You got me reading your stuff again. I’m even considering reading The Woman Who Loved Tom Gordon simply because that has been sitting on my shelf for six stinking years, and I gotta stop being such a snob and simply read the damn book so I can finally clear some space off…”