Over the years, I’ve read my share of writing guides, most of which have been helpful in one way or another. None of them have made me laugh out loud, however, until I read On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King.
This book took me completely by surprise. Unlike traditional writing manuals, it’s as engaging as a novel. As the title suggests, the book blends writing advice with memoir. The writer (or reader, for that matter) who reads this book will come away feeling that they’ve been given an intimate glimpse into the life of an incredibly successful writer. Whether you are a fan of King’s novels or have never read a single word, I promise you will gain something from this book.
On Writing is divided into three parts—the first and last are memoir and the middle focuses on writing advice. At first I thought I would have little interest in the memoir sections and would want to hurry through to the part about writing, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Reading the opening section about Mr. King’s boyhood, I felt like I had just been introduced to an uncle I’d never met before—that black-sheep of the family who became a famous writer and had finally come to visit. King tells his stories of the events that formed the writer he would become with humor and honesty. He is sometimes vulgar, sometimes sophomoric, but always completely frank, with plenty of strongly worded opinions thrown in.
In the section on writing, King goes over all the necessary tools an aspiring writer needs. He provides examples of what works and why (and examples of what doesn’t work and why.) He is brutally honest about his opinions on writing, but if he doesn’t pull any punches when discussing the talents and weaknesses of other writers, he is just as honest about his own writing. For example, when advising against the overuse of adverbs and sticking to “he said” and “she said” in dialogue tags, he freely admits that this is a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.” He never pretends to be the perfect writer.
One of the most surprising lines of the book for me was a line that was not given a lot of fanfare. Still, it struck me as a shockingly intimate piece of personal information, tucked inside a tale of getting in trouble at school for writing a parody newspaper that embarrassed quite a few teachers. After describing a confrontation with one of those teachers who, in frustration, told him how talented he was and asked, Why do you want to waste your abilities? King writes, “…I had no answer to give. I was ashamed. I have spent a good many years since—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write.”
Wow. That really shocked me, not just because it’s so honest but because I was stunned that Stephen King would ever feel that way at all. It’s this upfront openness about himself and about the writing process that drew me in and connected me to King’s story and his advice. More than just a conversational tone, the honesty of this book made me trust in what I was reading.
I highly recommend Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It will make you laugh, it will make you flinch, but most importantly, it will make you a better writer.
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