On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

by Stephen King
Pocket Books © 1999, 2002
ISBN 9780743455961
Mass Market Paperback, 320 pages, $11.19

The “King” of horror fiction got his start just like most other writers: trial and error and a lot of persistence. Growing up in Maine, surviving high school, thriving in college, then working a day job, raising a family, and writing in his office-slash-laundry room, he nonetheless found time to pen and submit numerous tales. For years, he worked limited success until Carrie stormed the wall of rejections and came away victorious. Since then, he has made quite a name for himself and, after decades of roaring success, he has a few tips to offer up-and-coming writers.

King’s own writing process is almost pure “pantser”. He eschews plotting. In fact, he feels plotting interferes with the creative process and kills the excitement a writer feels for the story when it’s fresh and new in her mind. Oddly, reading this bit struck home for me. About a month before reading On Writing, I’d had a great idea for a literary tale of an old, old man, shortly before his death, remembering his life in a full-circle way. But I wanted to make it as realistic as possible, so I spent a whole month creating his family tree, lining up his ancestors and where they all lived and what life was like there, so that the “history” could ring true even for people who today live in that small town. By the time I read King’s book, my enthusiasm for the old man’s tale had waned somewhat. I’ll still write it, but I’m wishing now I’d done it when it was still a bright flame in my imagination.

There is so much to recommend this book I can’t begin to share it all. If you’ve ever read anything by King, you know his style is distinct. Personally I find it comfortable, accessible, believable, and this one is no exception. There is a clear theme throughout the narrative, which is full of applicable anecdotes. My favorite bit was perhaps his treatment of rejections. As a young writer, he put a nail in the wall of his bedroom, onto which he impaled each “no thanks” form letter. So many accumulated over time that the nail would no longer support their weight, and he had to move the whole setup to his desktop. I loved the idea so much I may adopt it for myself!

King does make a handful of very helpful suggestions, but for the most part he does not tell the writer “how to do it.” Instead, he encourages her to find her own process. I found this very refreshing, especially since I’ve tried others’ processes and find that they don’t always work as I’d hoped. Of his few “mandates,” one is that an aspiring writer must use (or at least know and understand) proper grammar. He even recommends excellent sources for reference.

Part memoire and part craft book, this is King’s own story. From childhood all the way through the auto-pedestrian accident that nearly took his life, he talks about the obstacles he overcame, the weak points he had to work through, and how writing enriched his life. To get a peek inside this creative master’s mindset on writing, to see where his ideas came from or what sparked breakthroughs during writer’s block or even how he edits his own work was truly inspiring. I first read On Writing as a library loan. Long before I finished it, I knew I wanted—no, needed—my own copy; I purchased it before the loan even ran out.

This is a book I will read again and again, not just because I enjoy King’s style, but because as an aspiring writer, it will serve as an excellent learning tool.