On Writing by Stephen King: A Book Pondering (rather than review)!

ALL HAIL THE KING OF HORROR!!!

Long live the King!!!

IT is time for a SHINING review to end our MISERY so we can CARRIE on with our lives!

Ohhh I’ve been on this page for such a long time.

Like most of us, I’ve read a fair share of self-help books on writing. Some are charts and worksheets, some are page after page of set instructions, and some a lovely concoction of both. In almost every one of them, I detect a high level of pompousness and patronizing comments; basically, “if you don’t do EXACTLY what I’ve prescribed here, you’re a failure of a writer”.

I’ve been known to take things personally now and again.

Having a support group (like what I’ve found here over the last eight years of my involvement) is everything. Having someone in your corner saying “you can do it” is the fuel that keeps you going on the road. But eventually, you’ll need a road map. We imagine popular published writers as these beings far, far away that somehow made a deal on their home planets that yielded not only places on bookshelves at Barnes and Noble but also dollar bills that go straight to their wallets. Or in J.K. Rowling’s case, a magical world of witches and wizards that apparated her books straight to our hands.

Don’t we wish we knew how they did it? Don’t we wish one of them actually took time from being rich and famous to teach us common folk (pfft. You create worlds from your hands. How common is that, really?) how they did it?

Enter His Majesty himself.

I don’t remember how I ended up with his book or if anyone had recommended it to me (if you did, come claim the credit or blame of your choice!). I just know I often end up reading this book even when I’m not looking for inspiration to write.

Stephen King is a master storyteller. Any bookstore–from the major chains all the way down to the hand-me-downs and all of them in between–has at least a copy of one of his books. It goes without saying that many people are going to find the content of his books disturbing; I’ve read The Shining AND watched the movie, and I have to say the book was so much more entertaining and in a lot of ways, scarier. Anybody who reads his books faithfully probably would expect knives and creepy clowns to come flying out opening his non-fiction.

Peek behind the curtain, Dorothy. You’ll be shocked at what you see. Or don’t see.

King opens his book on writing, not with a list of to-dos and don’ts (though lots of those are sure to come), but a short glimpse into his life before becoming the Stephen King we know today. He doesn’t hit you in the face with arrogance because he’s the most famous author of our time (debatable, sure, but you knew exactly who he was when I put out the title, didn’t you?). From my perspective, it’s probably well because of his popularity–maybe due to the terrifying things he writes about. When you’re too busy changing your pants from reading his novels, does it occur to you to ask him how he came to this?

“They ask the DeLillos and the Updikes and the Styrons,” he writes in his foreword (vii), “but they don’t ask the popular novelists. Yet many of us proles also care about the language, in our humble way, and care passionately about the art and craft of telling stories on paper”.

He gives us several vignettes of sorts of his life–only the parts he feels contributed to his path as a writer. The youngest child of a divorced mother, he and his family were uprooted several times in his youth so his mother could find support and jobs to take care of her children. He vividly recalls dealing with prolonged health issues when he began school–measles, strep throat, the removal of his tonsils, and getting stabbed repeatedly in the ear drum by his doctor to drain his ear of the pus causing infection. In between the screams of pain (“I think that in some deep valley of my head that last scream is still echoing” (King 25), he discovered a love of story telling.

While reading a comic book, he decided to make his own version, but when he admitted to his mother that it wasn’t completely his own, she changed his life forever: “‘Those Combat Casey funny-books are just junk–he’s always knocking someone’s teeth out. I bet you could do better. Write one of your own” (King 28).

Never underestimate the love of a mother.

He tells us how he began flapping his writing wings in high school–as well as the incidents that got him in trouble for it; I’m gonna let him tell you about THOSE–the movies that piqued his fascination with the macabre and terrifying, got married to his wife, author Tabitha Spruce King, little bits of how they got by with their small children, and the beginnings of his first published novel Carrie.

“For me writing has always been best when it’s intimate, as sexy as skin on skin. With Carrie I felt as if I were wearing a rubber wet-suit I couldn’t pull off” (King 76). Even established writers like King has to struggle with his own ideas; this was a book that was a struggle for him to connect to, and understandably, his first instinct was to trash the story–literally. It was saved by the hand of his wife, cleaning around the house, but finding a hidden treasure in the bin, buried by cigarette ashes.

“She had her chin tilted down and was smiling in that severely cute way of hers. ‘You’ve got something here,’ she said. ‘I really think you do.’…I did have something there. Like a whole career” (King 77).

Never underestimate the love of a spouse.

King understands that the subconscious parts of ourselves often find their way out through our art. He doesn’t say it in such a philosophical way like I just did; he demonstrated it by telling us about struggling with alcohol and drug addiction in the seventies and eighties. After realizing The Shining was his earliest call for help (King 96) and the oh-so-lovely intervention hosted by his wife with the ultimatum to get his shit together or to get out (King 97), he tells us, “what finally decided me was Annie Wilkes, the psycho nurse in Misery. Annie was coke, Annie was booze, and I decided I was tired of being Annie’s pet writer…I decided…that I would trade writing for staying married and watching the kids grow up. If it came to that” (King 98).

In case no one ever said so, thanks for staying with us, Steve.

I believe the reason why we ask writers like DeLillo their opinion on writing is that the quality of their writing outshines the stories they tell. We’re fascinated by the simple language Hemingway uses to show us the deep existential struggles of a man’s life. We’re bowled over by the stamina it must have taken Dickens to write all of those chapters (and with NO word processor or Dragon to dictate for us? The HORROR! Hey, King, I got your next horror story right here!).

With King, we can only think about the pig-blood slathered dead bodies on the gym floor. We can only think of Pennywise dragging poor children into storm drains. We can only think of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance with his ever memorable “Heeere’s Johnny!” poking into the bathroom through a hole he hacked his way through (fun fact: did you know Jack Nicholson was a volunteer fire fighter? So when he filmed that scene, he was using skills from his actual life! So um, please don’t piss him off.). In King’s case, we’re so fascinated/horrified by the content that deeper thoughts about his writing process aren’t exactly first priority. So we might look to Steinbeck for how to write well, but the great thing about On Writing is that King proves his worth as a writer even if we don’t think about it. Just reading how he talks about his early life is proof enough; if he wrote a full-on autobiography, I’d gobble that up quicker than I did this book. Having said that, King is going to give you quite a bit of advice on how to become a better writer than you are now.

Spoiler alert: READING AND WRITING. A LOT.

That’s it.

The King of Horror did not get away with all this success by dreaming of being a successful writer. He did not become what he is now by accident or miracle. Obviously, it’s a lot more complex when you get down to it and begin writing, but his bottom line is very simple: put the work in (BY WRITING) and learn from other writers (BY READING).

“…it’s writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else. Wash the car, maybe” (King 107).

Now here’s a place where I’ve been wanting so bad to arm wrestle with King: in the autobiographical part of the book, King, discusses how television came fairly late to his family (34), and his gratefulness that “I am…a member of a fairly select group: the final handful of American novelists who learned to read and write before they learned to eat a daily helping of video bullshit…if you’re just staring out as a writer, you could do worse than strip your television’s electric plug-wire, wrap a spike around it, and then stick it back into the wall. See what blows, and how far. Just an idea” (King 34-35).

Ohhh, Stevie. Shots fired.

I was born in 1986, and I like to joke with people that the first day home from the hospital, my dad popped in a James Bond movie (on VHS, of course; how many of you Generation Z’ers need an explanation for what THAT was?) and sat with me, feeding me a baby bottle full of ginger ale.

OF COURSE IT’S A JOKE.

Pepsi was more my thing back then.

Ever since I understood what a television was, I’ve been fascinated by what I saw. Of course, it’s going to have sentimental value as well; late at night when all the world was sleeping (oh Selena, como te extrano), I would sneak out of bed and snuggle with my dad while he put the good shit on. Biased? Oh, never. But tell me Timothy Dalton was a shitty James Bond and see what happens.

SEE what happens.

Did watching television at a young age impact my ability to learn literature? Ok, Stevie, you win that one. I struggled as a child in school with English, and I still have vivid memories of being up late at night, struggling to do my homework while my parents yelled at me in frustration that I couldn’t answer the simplest of questions. I’m positive they couldn’t understand why I’d rather watch movies than do my homework assignments.

I don’t know, Mom and Dad; maybe because NOBODY quizzes me with bullshit questions at the end of watching The Little Mermaid? Maybe because when watching movies, I’m not preoccupied with the existential crisis of the main character like I have to be reading For Whom the Bell Tolls? I mean, unless I want to? I was an English major after all!

Ok, enough sensitive subjects for my family.

As I’ve said before, television and film are visual mediums. They tell stories with pictures and movement. Especially after taking a few film classes, I can see how certain kinds of colors, lights, and sounds can help to tell a story. They’re developing different parts of my brain, for sure, and unless you’ve always got subtitles on, it isn’t really going to do much for you and your writing development. If that’s the only way you take stories in, it isn’t going to make you a better reader or writer–which is the whole basis of how you become a better reader and writer. That much I am on board with King.

But here’s my biggest problem with King’s argument: while television and film won’t do a whole lot to help your eloquence with words, IT’S STILL A FORM OF STORY TELLING. To be a better writer means you HAVE to use your words and develop your vocabulary and grammar (another spoiler alert: you’re going to have to know the difference between “you’re” and “your”), but to say television and film have nothing to offer you as a writer is wrong. Being that I grew up with television, unlike Dickens and the writers of his time, I think in pictures–which admittedly, can be quite a bitch when you’re a writer. But it’s both a blessing and a curse; even though it’s more of an effort, it IS forcing me to convert pictures to words. I was taught to imagine my stories as movies, but describe what it is I’m seeing; how do you describe the flutter of your love interest’s eyes? How would you describe the shade of her hair? Did you ever think a woman’s voice could best the sound of a mandolin?

Another reason I disagree? The stories themselves. Even though movies don’t do well teaching you the difference between “to”, “too”, and “two” (“yeah, two do bad? well too wrongs dont make a right, to!” Oh God, where’s the Motrin?), they can STILL teach you story telling techniques. Take Star Wars: A New Hope. George Lucas was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and he used Luke’s story to demonstrate: a young boy living on a desert planet dreams of becoming a pilot in the midst of political turmoil in the galaxy. His life takes a dramatic turn when a few events happen–the biggest one of which is the horrific deaths of his aunt and uncle, the only family he had on his planet. This thrusts him in the middle of the drama unfolding–putting him side-by-side with a pilot that flies him across the galaxy, meeting a princess leading the rebellion, and eventually, to a show down with one of the main players for the misery in the galaxy: Darth Vader. Twists and turns abound, Luke does achieve his dream of becoming a pilot, but not without a price: he must confront darkness–both outside and within–and his decision of whether or not to take out Darth Vader and living with the moral consequences governs the fate of the galaxy.

Character has hopes, dreams, and goals. Character is provided the opportunity to meet them. An extraordinary event sets the character on that path. Character meets obstacles on the way. Character must rise up or fall. Character either succeeds or fails. Character learns something, win or lose.

You know what other story has that similar structure?

The whole Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Both books and movies.

All of the Harry Potter books and movies.

The Great Gatsby both book and movies (the recent remake is basically the book, almost word-for word, so beware English high school teachers).

You’d be hard-pressed these days to find one great novel that hasn’t suffered from a cinematic make-over, but many novels followed this formula. We follow it because as humans, we love stories where people are put into situations they have to fight their way out of. We can see ourselves in them and wonder how we would deal with those situations.

One more point: movies can show you a great deal about character development. There is an action movie, Broken Arrow about an Air Force captain who finds out his friend and higher ranking officer is planning to steal nuclear warheads and to hold them hostage in exchange for money from the government. It’s through that movie I got to see through the eyes of a villain and what drives him. He says it’s just so he can get money to live a nice life, but the captain argues that it’s less to do with money and more to do with a bruised ego: that he’s angry that he’s never been promoted (the major even says right before the first fight begins that he should have been colonel at this point in his career) and that cashing out is his way of lashing out.

“There’s no difference between you and a guy who shoots up a schoolyard!” Captain Hale says. “You’ve both got a head full of bad wiring!”

Prophetic words in 1996. Slightly sensitive for me now in 2018.

Though a bit traumatized after watching the movie (it came out before I turned ten–don’t ask what I was doing watching it), years later as I developed as a writer, I realized that my villains need just as much of a backstory as my main characters. If I didn’t want my characters to be wooden and static (oh yeah, you’re going to have to understand basic writing terminology as well), there had to be something else inside of them–not just “I wanna be bad”. If villains do what they do, they must believe in their cause and that their cause is just–even if their methods aren’t. I didn’t learn this from a book. I learned it watching this movie.

King and I are from two different generations and backgrounds and of course we’re going to have our biases. You could make the argument that maybe King is completely right and that’s why he’s published and I’m not (ooh). You could just as well say that I’m with the current times and I have not only accepted the changes but am moving along with them into the future (double ooh).

I think we both have our points. I’ve admitted that King is right in a lot of ways. Be that as it may, while it might be sacrilegious to dare say I disagree with the King (something I would be beheaded for in another time and context), I wouldn’t be making this argument if I hadn’t read his book and given him the time of day. I’ve absorbed this book time and time again, once again proving his prowess as a non-fiction writer. I think it’s pretty clear I more than respect his opinion.

What else does King have to say about becoming a world-famous author?

In true Thorn form: I’m not going to tell you.

Read the book. You won’t regret it.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Look at that! His Corgi is running out of there so fast before he hears any spoilers!!!

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4 comments

  1. Avatar
    F.J. Dagg says:

    Concur. This one was more helpful to me re mindset than technique though not shabby about the latter, either. Bottom line, Outstanding Book, and everyone should read it. Unless it’s made into a movie. Then fuck the book, make popcorn and watch the movie. If you can, shut your phone off. Or watch it on your phone. But not while trying to cross a street.

  2. Avatar
    Claudia Piepenburg says:

    Yes. This is the best book about writing I’ve ever read, and I’ve read and in some cases, slogged through and/or skipped entire paragraphs, of a lot of them. I always recommend it to fellow writers or wanna-be writers; in fact, I’ve lent out my well-worn copy so many times, and then never gotten it back, that I’m sure I’ve spent a couple hundred bucks on the book by now. In fact, I just realized that I’m missing my copy again…time to hit up Amazon. King is brilliant. And your review is too. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Avatar

    That is a champion piece of writing, Stef. Mr King would be proud! What I enjoyed about the On Writing, alongside the hard-won advice and guidance, was the insight into what happened in King’s life that he absorbed by osmosis and then refashioned into something wondrous. It’s a powerful reminder that as writers we all need to write authentically, through the lens of our own experiences and perspective.

    The first casualty of good writing is approval!

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