Stephen King’s “On Writing”

I had never read a Stephen King book until I picked up his “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” which Eldest had borrowed from a friend and left on the dining room table. I can tell why the man has sold millions of books. “On Writing” is part memoir, part writing advice, and I couldn’t put it down! I can only imagine how his actual thrillers must read.

I had never read anything by King because I have always had this vague impression that he’s the horror guy, and I really cannot either read or watch horror; if I do, I can’t sleep for days; I am like a total baby. I saw the movie Carrie at some point and I am sure a few others of his (like the show Under the Dome), which only solidified this preconception that his writing would be too creepy for me. Plus, in the interest of full disclosure, I have heard from several people close to me that his books are shallow. I think I will have to re-evaluate both my own snobbery and that of the advice givers.

King grew up lower middle class, but both he and his brother were apparently highly intelligent and finished college. He was raised by a single mother and knew nothing about the father. While they struggled financially and King worked a number of pretty grueling, low-wage jobs starting in high school and well past college, into his family-building years, he always had the support for his craft at home, since an early age, which is indicative of his mother having been an open-minded and educated person.

It’s interesting why he wrote this book. The answer comes from a conversation with his friend and novelist Amy Tan, who said that popular writers like them were never asked “about the language,” i.e., about their craft. As if penning a story that sells is orthogonal to good writing; as if being able to connect with millions of people, book after book, is not an extraordinary gift worth understanding.

It turns out King is very passionate and very serious about his craft, and has a lot to say about it. He insists on lots and lots of writing and lots and lots of reading, and himself writes daily with a 2,000-word quota.  He subscribes to the Strunk and White “adverbs are evil” mantra and has strong feelings about grammar and vocabulary. He connects writing a story to unearthing a fossil. I was amazed to read that he doesn’t plot; the throws the characters together and sees what they do. (I found this liberating, because the biggest obstacle I have in venturing into writing fiction is doubting that I can come up with a clever enough plot. Maybe I should just get over myself and let the plot develop organically.) King also says he doesn’t believe in a traditional muse; his muse is a grouchy middle-aged guy with a beer gut, whom you need to teach that he has a job to show up to daily, during your regularly scheduled writing time, and eventually he will. King insists that a lot of damage has been done by people insisting that substance abuse is inextricably connected with creative work — he posits that that maybe there is a higher incidence of abuse among the creative types, but that it doesn’t matter, as everyone looks equally disgusting puking their guts out. He had a period of near-constant drunkenness and drug abuse, which ended shortly after an intervention by his wife and friends. By the way, through the book, his love and admiration for his wife, writer Tabitha King, shines clearly and brightly; it is quite sweet and was thus unexpected (to me), considering his propensity for the grim and the gruesome.

Let me wrap up with a few insights that are pertinent to a life in academic science:

  • Once on a project, he doesn’t stop unless he has to; otherwise the characters go stale in his mind. I can totally relate to this, but it seems this is not an option for us academic writers at all, or anyone who’s not self-employed. There are many situations in which I wish I could go on writing papers or proposals, but other work and family obligations require I drop it. Ah, the gift of large blocks of time.
  • “If there is any one thing I love about writing more than the rest, it’s that sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects.” Need I say more?
  • He recommends writing the first draft with closed doors and quickly, fueled by enthusiasm and fast enough to outrun any self-doubt. When the first draft is done, have your Ideal Reader read it. Then leave it for at least 6 weeks and go work on something else. And then read, edit, and only then send to a larger pool of no more than a dozen friends and colleagues. This is excellent advice for paper writing but especially for grant proposals. If I could write a proposal and then have it sit for 6 weeks before it’s time to submit and if I could routinely count on friends to read proposals and give me feedback (instead of never, now that I am a grownup scientist), I bet that would be amazing.
  • Perhaps the best insight from the text has to do with King’s desk. For years he had this massive desk in the middle of  his study and was drunk and stoned behind it. After he had gotten clean, he got rid of the desk, purchased a smaller one and put it in the corner. The rest of the room was then furnished as a family area, where his kids would come to hang out with him. The desk size and placement are a methaphor:  Life is not a support system for art (or science). It’s exactly the other way around.

14 comments

  1. I have almost identical views as you about horror genre and Stephen King — latter based strictly on hearsay. Reading your post, I am seriously reconsidering my opinion.

    Love the point about desk! One who thinks and writes like that needs to be read.

  2. I do like ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. I enjoyed the first part so much, and found the second part very insightful. I was also impressed very much by his deadly car accident and the process of recovering from it. The scene when he re-started to write was so moving. I always enjoy reading your posts, by the way.

  3. King’s “Dark Tower” series is not horror, but a quest with interesting characters. I started reading it before he finished, and then when I had to wait for more books to come out, lost the thread and haven’t gone back to it, but someday I will, because I liked it. The world (a sort of mutated US, lots of desert) haunts me.

  4. I am exactly like you about horror. I refuse to read/watch anything from that genre. I really enjoyed Stephen Kings non-horror novel: 11/22/63. Its long, but really engaging (the end was cheesy). Lot of good insight you got from the memoir. It never occurred to me to read it, since I don’t truly consider myself a “real writer”, though I write daily for work & hobby.

  5. Oh I love Stephen King. He is definitely my favorite author, which was an unpopular opinion to have as an undergrad lit major. Most of his stuff isn’t horror, and the bulk of the stuff that is horror is more in the Shirley Jackson than Wes Craven style, though there are some exceptions. I second the recommendation of 11/22/63 for those who want to skip the horror.

  6. Every year when I was a kid, one of us would get the latest SK book as a Christmas present, and then all of us (incl. our parents) would fight over who got to read it first. As a connoisseur, I can confirm that he is both exceptionally creepy *and* shallow, but his books sure are fun reads.

    I’m not surprised to hear he doesn’t plot them out ahead of time. Sometimes it shows, like he gets to the 500th page and then just wraps it up in ways that don’t always make sense. But the first 499 pages can be great!

  7. So interesting to see your post. I’m also reading this book right now … and also never read SK before …

  8. I’ve also avoided King precisely for the reasons you mention. And in my world “genre fiction” is really looked down upon. And I associate SK with my stepfather. But maybe I should grow up.

  9. Ok, ok, this is the final kick in the butt I think I need to remind me that I JUST NEED TO WRITE. Hit a wall this semester when a paper was rejected from Nature after two positive rounds of reviews… so freaking depressing.

  10. I picked up the book on your recommendation and it is delightful! I don’t want to put it down.
    Also hate horror and never read King before. Thanks!

  11. I didn’t start reading King until I was an adult. His works aren’t shallow but can often seem, I dunno, a bit simplistic. That being said, his writing can also be quite powerful and affecting in parts. I recommend trying some of his short stories (try “The Reach”–lovely) or perhaps The Shining, in which the horror to my adult self was more in the alcoholic protagonist than the ghosts.

  12. Just finished the book. Excellent!

    His advice resonated on many levels: I am a strong believer in Strunk and White (I have been handing it out to grad students and postdocs), dislike literary snobbery and could not tolerate more than five minutes of writing classes. I also have no choice but to let the story and the characters develop organically, or I cannot write it. If I make a rough plot, it’s done. Takes all the fun out of writing the actual story. It is no wonder that I liked this book – it was like reading articles about chocolate and coffee being good for you. It was wonderful.

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