A Tragicomical, Unsophisticated Blog about the Weird, the Absurd, and the Banal

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Book Review: Stephen King's On Writing

I was expecting more demons.  Seriously, it's mildly disappointing to discover that the Master of Horror wasn't raised by wolves and doesn't have to perform Lovecraftian rituals in order to write.  I like my artists tortured.  There's something suspicious about well-adjusted genius.  We don't just want to read a story, we want the whole package, including the writer, to Be a story.

The Tortured Artist is a theme King discusses in detail in On Writing and is, ironically, the point that the writer's I know obsess over.  But I'll come back to that in a minute.  Might as well back up and start at the beginning.

I like Stephen King.  He's not my favorite and I wouldn't call myself a fan, but what work of his I've read (The Shining, The Gunslinger, various short stories) I enjoyed.  In fact, there are several of his books I'd like to read when I get the chance (It, The Stand, Salem's Lot).  Having surrounded myself with literary types, my not-loathing King has been met with Judgment.  It's hard liking popular stuff.

Which is more or less where King starts.  "They ask the DeLillos and the Updikes and the Styrons, but they don't ask the popular novelists."  Everyone, fans and critics, just assume that the people who sell a few million copies don't have anything worthwhile to say.  Regardless of how you may feel about King and his writing, On Writing is one of the Triumvirate that all writing teachers recommend: On Writing, Ann Lamont's Bird by Bird, and Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.  I have found it ironic that people who despise King's books usually agree that this meditation on the craft is Pretty Good.

Nevertheless, while reading the book, I often found myself thinking, "You arrogant prick.  Who are you to say who's good an who's shit?  Who can be taught and who can't?"  Then I would realize that I was being ridiculous.   Why is my knee-jerk reaction to assume this man has to justify himself?  Humility is admirable, but to demand that someone else act apologetically for daring to talk about his profession is nonsense.

Having established that he does indeed have something worthwhile to contribute, King spends the first half of the book on vignettes describing influential moments in his life.  If you're a fan of his work, this section explains a lot about his aesthetic.  Otherwise, you get to the far end and wonder why you read it.  It's not bad, but I didn't find it particularly useful.  Though, King does say this isn't a textbook -- it's a "Memoir of the Craft" -- so saying it "isn't useful" is an unfair critique.  Suffice to say, I didn't find this part interesting.

The second half of the book is divided into 21 mini-chapters, each discussing a particular topic in the craft and life of a writer.  The subjects range from vocabulary and grammar to reflections on prolificity and theme.  The chapters are not titled and I assume he did this so that the book itself is not easily navigable, further differentiating it from a textbook. This is a little strange, however, since he often addresses the reader with the assumption that he or she is an aspiring writer, which seems a little unfair.  Critics and devoted fans interested in King's method would also find this book interesting.  The only reason I bring this up is that King seems to have mild contempt for the Aspiring Writer.

About halfway through the book, King offers up the two theses of the book.  First, "Good writing consists of mastering the fundamental tools."  Second, "... it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one."  The latter sounds like an excuse.  I think King believes if you want to be a writer then you've failed part of the test in buying this book.  It's hard to blame him for feeling this way.  The man worked Hard to get where is is and he writes because he is compelled to do so, not because he wants to be a writer.  The superiority complex is a little grating, however, especially when he discusses writing and education.

One brief chapter is devoted to writing workshops, but he revisits the story and the archetypes he creates several times throughout On Writing.  He only took one writing workshop and though that's where he met his wife (with whom he is madly in love) the experience scarred him for life.  Evidently the class was filled with hipsters who believed in inspiration not craft and whose most valuable contributions to discussion were, "I really liked the slave-blue-collar-working-man theme."  He then writes off workshops and writing education programs as a waste of time.  This is, at best, unfair and at worst an act of proud ignorance.  So he had a bad experience in an introductory writing workshop (who doesn't?).  He should know better than to dismiss an entire discipline.

I had other little disagreements with Mr. King, but for the most part I found his thoughts, if not helpful, at least interesting.  The one point he makes that everyone seems to bring up when they talk about On Writing is his essay on the Tortured Writer.  King was an alcoholic, chain smoking drug addict.  Most of his early books were written under the influence of one or a cocktail of drugs.  In an episode that he barely mentions, he went clean and began his second life.  For a while he was afraid that he would not be able to produce the same quality of work without the aid of drugs, but discovered, to his relief, that his ability to write was not related to his addiction.

His hates the stereotype.  There is an expectation that writers must have sold their souls to the devil or are on their way to an early grave because talent should be paid for in blood.  Essentially, King argues that the Hemingways and the Thomases were great writers who happened to also be alcoholics and the two aspects are not codependent.

Like I said, that point comes up a lot when writers discuss this book and I think On Writing is valuable for that reason.  The young writers I know sometimes are individuals with Problems and so their writing becomes a means of escape and coping with their demons.  The idiots, like myself, confuse the medicine with the poison.  To some extent, unfortunately, this may be true.  Wretched life experiences are good source material because there's a cultural fetish for catastrophe.  Point being, people should accept who and what they are and all of us, as consumers, should try to avoid encouraging our beloveds to indulge in self-destruction.

King's unstated thesis here is that art shouldn't, or at the very least, doesn't have to be an act of exorcism.  Most of what he says about writing is not particularly inspired, but I love that he advocates writing at a dead run.  Write what you Love.  Write what you can't help not writing.  This is supposed to be a passionate act, so why be coy about it?

A few days ago, I went to a panel discussion on humor in writing for the 75th Anniversary of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. One of the panelists, Kate Christensen, said that after she got her MFA she tried to start her career as a writer and went through a full year of writer's block until she finally sat down and "Wrote the stuff I hadn't written since I was thirteen.  The kind of stuff that was the reason I started writing in the first place, but you're supposed to put aside when you're a serious writer."  She finished a book, got it published and has been writing the Fun Stuff ever since.

So often, particularly in workshops, writers have this idea that if it's pleasurable then it's bad.  A lot could be said about puritanical American culture here, but lets stick to the topic at hand.  There is an element of embarrassment that goes along with the dirty-secret writing that has nothing to do with the quality of the work.  If it's fun then it's not work.  But I'm a Writer, goddamnit!  This is my profession.  But if it's not fun then what's the point?  There are easier ways to be poor and provide a steady paycheck.

King's point is that a writer can love what she does and still put effort into and be proud of the material.  In fact, that's the way it should be.  The writing world is filled with catch phrases like "Kill your darlings" and philosophies like "The story's done when you sit down for the nth time to revise it and either start to cry or throw the manuscript out the window."

Others have said it before, and more eloquently, but I think that the point is worth reiterating constantly: personal happiness and fulfillment are noble enough ends in themselves.  I think the whole "Work has to be pain" philosophy is a result of bad or lazy pedagogy.  Teachers assume that beginners won't understand that doing good work requires empathy for the consumer so it's easier just to cut the well being of the producer out of the thought process entirely.

I'm not going to cover every point King makes, but I did want to say something about his thoughts on plot.  One of the chapters is devoted to how much King hates the idea of "plot," which probably would be better described as premeditation.  Writing cold and writing from an outline are two different methods that depend on personal preference.  I have friends who need to sketch things out before they can dive into the draft.  Some works necessitate an outline, either because of the complexity of the project or because it's easier to figure out what the hell your writing about before you've cranked out a hundred pages of recycling.  I tend to write plays using outlines because they rely heavily on structure and timing.  King's distrust of premeditated and intellectualized writing detracts from his real point: writing is an act of passion.

There is much more to say about this book, but I fear this review is getting a little long.  I found his meditations on theme and symbolism convoluted but fascinating since it was from a nuts and bolts perspective rather than an analytical one.  These and others I will probably write about in later posts because they are worth talking about at length.

This book was not what I expected it to be, but that is neither good nor bad.  I'm glad I read it, but I'm not exactly sure why everyone says it is one of the finest books on writing.  Maybe I just need to read more.


  1. I believe I've told you about Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk on the creative process-slash-nature of genius, but just in case I haven't, here it is.


    I find it a really useful framework for considering my own work, even if I (as yet) cannot really disassociate myself from my successes and failures.

  2. Thanks for the link. You did tell me about this before, but I never saw the video. I love the anecdote about Tom Waits.