Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review: Stephen King's On Writing

I’ve been on a “writing books” kick lately. Actually, I’ve been on that kick since I picked up James Wood’s How Fiction Works. I’d read commentaries on specific books for class before, but reading someone else’s book-long interpretation on writing was a revelation. He crystallizes everything I knew abstractly, putting the knowledge into such beautiful prose and backing it up with such excellent examples. (One that really stuck with me was a Maupassant description used to illustrate characterization: “He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.” In just one sentence, you know everything you need to know about that man.) Wood is a master writing on masters.

It was with the hope of “more, more!” that I picked up Stephen King’s acclaimed On Writing. I was instantly charmed. I guess I just can’t resist a book with three cheeky forewords. The rest of the narrative unfolds in a similar fashion, layer after good-natured layer: biography, advice, and circumstances surrounding the book. Credentials, common sense, inspiration. The three parts ran like a cycle, each feeding into the other, so that when I finished, I wanted to start again at the beginning.

Seeing how a writer is “born” was fascinating. The way King told his life story was a tutorial before he even began to give advice: funny and insightful with details that were achingly alive. He writes nakedly of an endless struggle with the craft, alternating the rejection letters with the joy. (I was captured by how lovingly he reflected on his influences and his learning process.) His joy was also evident when he wrote his own love story, paying tribute to his wife Tabitha in some of the most romantic passages I have ever read. In the childhood section, I couldn’t help but be tickled by his constant ear woes. It was humanizing to think of this monolithic writer suffering from the same youthful ailments I did. I also marveled at Dave’s Rag, the newspaper he laboriously self-published with his brother, from a modern blogging perspective.

In the actual how-to section, King gets a little controversial in claiming that there are tiers of writers. At the top are the greats. (They are born great and do not need his book.) Below them are the good and the competent. (His book is to help the competent become good.) Bad writers are trapped at the bottom and no amount of effort will ever unstick them. (I wonder where he would place himself. I also wonder how many people who read this book miscategorize themselves.) In the current climate of “everyone can write” and “the weekend novelist,” his words seem harsh and undemocratic, but I don’t think they’re wrong. (Does that make me an elitist?) Personally, I do believe that every published writer has an innate knack for story that they carry with them until it spills out into a book.* It can be honed and practiced, but there is a spark that needs to be present to begin the journey.

Some other things worth mentioning are the writer’s toolbox and the purpose of jealousy. The toolbox is an appealing conceit, and King nestles all the useful tools of the trade inside. Along with plotting, pacing, grammar, dialogue, description, and vocabulary, he includes the feelings of “Oh! I wish I’d written that” and “I could have done better” as essentials, particularly because it means one is reading widely. He believes that reading is the ultimate way a writer learns and grows, and again, I find myself agreeing. Just like learning a language or playing an instrument, a writer has to develop an ear.

I won’t go into the ending, but anyone who’s read this far better plan to buy, borrow, or steal this book. Unequivocal, enthusiastic recommendation of On Writing for anyone who’s looking to write or anyone who just wants to experience a great read. (I read another writing book around the same time as this one. Go here to find the review.)

*I used the term “published” for a litmus, as I do believe a good book will eventually get published.

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