Pros: Funny, entertaining, enlightening
Cons: A few slow bits
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
First published 5/7/2002
The first part of Stephen King’s “On Writing” (perhaps the first third) is memoir, memories of Stephen King’s life. While not everyone is going to be interested in this sort of thing, I consider it to be the best part of the book. And more than that, I think writers could learn things from this that are far more valuable than rules of grammar or yet another treatise on titles, transitions, or endings. Why is this? Simple. By reading about how King’s life has affected his writing, and vice versa, you can pick up important ideas in ways that really bring them home.
For instance, it’s hard to tell yourself through rejection letter after rejection letter that someday you’ll make it. It’s hard to tell yourself that even though you’re fast approaching 30 (or whatever), you still have plenty of time to develop a writing career. But when you read about King’s life, and how difficult he found things, and at what age his career really took off, suddenly it all makes sense. It’s easy to see that things aren’t so bad after all, and that you still have plenty of time in which to shine.
Besides, King’s life is interesting. I found after reading this book that I felt I knew him a little better, and that I liked what I knew.
The Sections On Writing
In fact, I liked the memoir sections better than the bits on writing. Since I already have a start on my writing career, I guess they meant more to me than, for instance, the parts on grammar. The writing section starts a bit slow and dry, but it too becomes entertaining. It’s another book where you’ll find yourself reading paragraphs out loud to the people around you because you just have to share these gems of amusement. Books like this are well worth their cover price!
I don’t always agree with King’s assessment of what you should or shouldn’t do as a writer. Sometimes he’s great about saying, “well, this works for me, do what works for you.” At other times he lays things down as absolutes which I don’t see as absolutes. In the balance though, his opinions and advice are very useful. As with any book on writing, filter it through your own experiences and needs.
Oh, one thing that reading this did finally bring home to me: in all the writings of long-standing writers (the ones who never burned out but just kept writing and writing and writing), I’ve found that these people don’t generally write all day. They may work all day, but they’re most likely to write for half a day. As I’ve hit something of a burnout period myself, that was a bit of a revelation for me.
The book ends up with one more bit of memoir — King’s relatively recent accident. I’m glad he included this. I thought that it rounded things off nicely, and truly showed the love of writing and the benefits it can bring in real terms. It’s tough to read, I’ll give it that, but it says something important about writers who truly love their craft.
I’ve often heard disparaging things said about writing books. And it’s true, there are a lot of bad ones (or just silly, fluffy, mostly useless ones) out there. I have found two exceptions to this, however. One, reading a book on writing can help to get you excited about your craft again when you’re feeling burned out (hence, you’re likely to see a lot of writing book reviews from me in the near future). Two, some writers, like King, have some worthwhile things to say.
Get a copy of this book. It’s entertaining, it’s thought-provoking, and I expect you’ll learn something valuable from it.