On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
By Stephen King
Scribner, New York, 2000
I’ve posted before that there are two kinds of books about writing: those that focus mainly on the craft of writing, and those focused on the act of being a writer.
Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft tilts towards the former but it’s also heavily laced with autobiography.
King goes into depth about a writer’s most commonly used tools: vocabulary, grammar and paragraph. He talks about the three most important elements of fiction writing: narrative which drives the story forward, description which gives sensory impressions to the reader, and dialog which brings characters to life.
Even though I don’t write fiction, I found lots in the book that applies to non-fiction too. Good writing is good writing.
He also touches on what it’s like to be a writer. He says the first key to success as a writer is to read a lot and write a lot. There are no shortcuts. He aims to write about 2000 words or 10 pages every day.
I like how he describes what fiction writers do:
“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground as intact as possible.” [p. 163]
But mainly I like what he says writing is: “Telepathy, of course.”
Across space and time the writer is trying to put their thoughts into the mind of the reader. It’s not something to be taken lightly. In fact he says so,
“Come to it [writing] any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.” [p. 106]
A confession: I’ve never read any of Stephen King’s books nor seen any of the movies based on them. Call me a coward, but I don’t like horror. Not being a King fan, I wasn’t all that interested in the autobiographical sections of the book. If you are a fan, you’ll learn plenty about his life and the origin of some of his stories.
I don’t know if this is true of his fiction, but in On Writing King writes in an incredibly natural voice. It’s relaxed and informal yet clear and passionate. You could imagine yourself sitting beside him on the porch of his house in Maine (assuming it has a porch) just listening to him talk for hours about writing as if he was reminiscing about his childhood, which he also does in this book. It reads so easy, but of course that’s a sign of true mastery.