Blogging from A-Z – Book review: ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter “O.” (I’m blogging the alphabet in April. Read the details at Suzy & Spice here or the Blogging from A-Z page here.)

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flanery-dont-know-what-i-thinkI’ve written before about my early-ish love of Stephen King fiction. (I discovered him in 10th grade, when I read his third novel, The Shining.)

In those years, I read a lot of his books, stopping somewhere in the mid-1980s with Misery. (Don’t ask me why I stopped; I guess I just outgrew the horror genre.)

Recently, after a shift in focus on my blog – new purpose, new goals – I was talking to an author friend about writing (now that he has published two successful novels, I refer to him as “my author friend”), and he suggested King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It had been on my To Be Read list for years and, coincidentally, I had just been inquiring online about getting a copy.

This seemed to be the perfect time; I downloaded it.

I forgot what a wicked sense of humor King has. He infused this piece of nonfiction with as much creative juice as he has in any of his bestselling novels. Now I’m not only a fan of his fiction but of his nonfiction.

Heeere'sJohnny
Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” 1980.

King ought to know about writing; he has sold in excess of 350 million books, including more than 50 novels, at least five works of nonfiction and a couple dozen other collections of fiction (200 short stories among them).

The first section of On Writing is autobiographical, although he points out that it is not an autobiography:

“It is, rather, a kind of curriculum vitae – my attempt to show how one writer was formed.”

He tells tales of boyhood (second son of a single mom moving from place to place, paycheck to paycheck), illness, outdoor adventures with his brother (the poison ivy story is a horror tale in itself), his first attempts at writing, at publishing, his early career as a starving artist supporting a wife and two kids, and more.

To be sure, each author has a unique approach to the craft, but there are basic elements that normally can’t be argued with. (At least if you want to get people to read your work.)

King has his own brand of advice about the art and craft of writing, and it’s hard-won.

He starts with his first attempts at storytelling when he was 6, although this consisted of copying comic-book tales word for word, “sometimes adding my own descriptions where they seemed appropriate.” After reading one of the copied stories, his mother urged him, “I bet you could do better. Write one of your own, Stevie.” He did, and his mother paid him a quarter apiece for them, a dollar total – his first paying gig.

The King household didn’t get television until 1958, when Stevie was 11, and he considers himself fortunate.

“I am, when you stop to think of it, 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 bull—-. This might not be important. On the other hand, if you’re just starting 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 got a lot of his ideas from horror movies – namely, ripoffs of Edgar Allan Poe titles (yes, titles, not the actual stories). The first one, when he was about 14, was his “novel version” of one of those movies.

“I ran off about forty copies of The Pit and the Pendulum, blissfully unaware that I was in violation of every plagiarism and copyright statute in the history of the world.”

It was his first bestseller. By lunchtime the next day, he had sold three dozen copies to his schoolmates. (That the principal made him return everyone’s money did not deter him; come summer vacation, he sold about 40 copies of a new story, an original called The Invasion of the Star-Creatures.)

And then there was the night he got bored while working on his high school newspaper and came up with a rag of his own: The Village Vomit.

“That piece of dimwit humor got me into the only real trouble of my high school career,” he writes. “It also led me to the most useful writing lesson I ever got.” (I’ll let you read the story for yourself.)

King has a softer heart than you might imagine from a horror novelist (evidence: contrition at hurting a schoolteacher’s feelings with a story; sympathy for misfit classmates who were made fun of – the prototypes for Carrie; the tender way he speaks of his wife, Tabitha), but he’s practical in his advice about where good stories come from.

His unique spin goes something like this:

“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

S&Hstamp

He illustrates this point with the story of “Happy Stamps,” the genesis of which came from his mother, whose tongue turned the color of S&H Green Stamps (remember those?) after she licked a few books of them. King sent the story to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which promptly rejected it, although the notice arrived with a personal note from the great horror master himself, offering this helpful advice: “Don’t staple manuscripts. Loose pages plus paperclip equal correct way to submit copy.” Lesson learned.

If you’ve read a Stephen King novel (or seen one of the movie adaptations), you know he has a twisted way of looking at the world, right?

In On Writing, he talks about his love of movies. One of the two movie houses in his hometown Lewiston, Maine, showed Disney pictures, Bible epics and musicals when he was a teenager.

“They were boringly wholesome. They were predictable. During The Parent Trap, I kept hoping Hayley Mills would run into Vic Morrow from The Blackboard Jungle. That would have livened things up a little. … I felt that one look at Vic’s switchblade and gimlet gaze would have put Hayley’s piddling domestic problems in some kind of reasonable perspective.”

Perspective, eh? Gotta love him.

Sissy Spacek in "Carrie," 1976.
Sissy Spacek in “Carrie,” 1976.

Crediting his wife with digging the discarded first draft of Carrie out of the trash, King tells of his disbelief at selling the paperback rights to his first really successful piece of fiction.

“You’ve got something here,” Tabby said. “I really think you do.

She was right. Since its first printing in 1974, Carrie has sold millions of copies and spawned three films (including a sequel and a remake), a TV movie and a Broadway musical.

Just before he begins the section on “what writing is,” King talks openly of his alcoholism (including the fact that he was drunk when he gave his mother’s eulogy) and his drug addiction.

Some of his characters came out of an attempt to make sense of his alcoholism (although he didn’t realize it at the time), but that’s as far as it went. He doesn’t claim to have been helped creatively by the substance use; on the contrary, the clarity gained through his characters helped him give up the booze and the drugs.

“The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.”

He says he barely remembers writing Cujo.

“Substance-abusing writers are just substance abusers – common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drug and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bull—-. We all look pretty much the same when we’re puking in the gutter.”

That sums up Part 1. There is so much to tell about this book, and I’m just getting to the part on “What Writing Is.” It includes the chapter in his life after the 1999 accident in which he was hit by a car. I’m saving those stories for Part 2. Come back in May (after the A-Z challenge is over), and I’ll tell you that tale.

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Tomorrow: P is for peace.

Follow me on Twitter: @OakleySuzyT

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5 thoughts on “Blogging from A-Z – Book review: ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’

  • Wednesday, April 22, 2015 at 6:07 pm
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    Wow what a loaded post (in a really good way). So good, Suzy! Thanks for sharing your (and King’s) insights. Lots to munch on.

  • Wednesday, April 22, 2015 at 6:18 pm
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    Nydia, thanks for the compliment, but I really am working on “writing shorter.” That’s why I decided to break this one into two posts! (I will keep working on it.) The second part, about the actual writing process, is even better than the autobiographical section.

    Thanks for visiting today. The book is really good, so I hope you’ll enjoy it if you decide to read it.

  • Wednesday, April 22, 2015 at 6:35 pm
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    I’ll definitely look it up. Thanks! Oh – and in case you’re wondering, from a search-engine perspective (i.e. rankings in search results), longer articles fare better than shorter ones.

    I know how we all talk about writing shorter, but better search results come from more ‘authority’ on topics, which is usually established from longer posts (in which search terms can be more easily found, relevant titles and links, etc).

    There is stuff all over the webz on this but I just found this article from Forbes – does a nice job summarizing when shorter or longer posts are better.

    Personally, while it is hard to find time during the week for me to read a bunch of longer posts, some of them just work better that way and draw me in…like this one. I’m so intrigued by this book now and your coverage of it (if I need to live vicariously for now).

    Ha – I probably just did my own 1,000 word post in the comments.

  • Friday, April 24, 2015 at 7:02 am
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    Thank you for that. I’m glad my post drew you in, and I look forward to reading the Forbes article. I don’t think your comment was quite 1,000 words – and I appreciate everything you said.

    I’m going to try to read the article tonight. We’re at a convention this weekend, and almost every moment is spoken for.

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