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Review: "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" by Stephen King
My Review of "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft"
Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft begins with two epigraphs. (Epigraphs are phrases, quotations, or poems set at the beginning of a document.)The epigraphs are: Honesty’s the best policy.—Miguel de Cervantes and Liars prosper.—Anonymous. He uses many epigraphs in his writing, usually to mark the beginning of a new section in a novel.
What is he trying to tell us with these two seemingly opposite sayings? Maybe he is trying to tell us that one’s recollection of one’s life lies somewhere in the middle between honesty and truth. Or maybe he is just telling us his life’s story lies somewhere in the middle.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Sections of King’s Book
King's book is separated into the following Sections:
- Three Forewords—pp.1-13
- C.V. (Curriculum Vitae and His Early Life to Success)—pp.15-86
- His Road to Alcoholism and Out—pp.87-101
- What Writing Is —pp.103-107
- On Writing—pp. 139-249
- On Living: A Postscript (Accident and Recovery)—pp.251-270
- And Furthermore, Part I: Door Shut, Door Open (example-editing process)—pp.271-284
- And Furthermore, Part II: A Booklist—pp.285-288
Periods of King's Life
The book covers several periods of his life:
Sections 1 and 2: Describes his early years and early forays into writing.
Section 3: His struggle through addiction is chronicled
Section 7: This section is devoted to his recovery from an automobile accident
Sections 4-6, and 8-9: This section is devoted to advice on writing
This article will analyze the first three sections:
1. Three Forewords—pp.1-13,
2. C.V (Curriculum Vitae and His Early Life to Success)—pp.15-86
Stephen King Caricature
Three Forewords - pp. 1-13
Although he states the book is not an autobiographical work, in his First Foreword he does tell us his personal story. King describes an “attempt to show how one writer was formed…to put down, briefly and simply, how I came to this craft, what I know about it now, and how it’s done.”
His book is a poignant, personal portrayal of his writing journey and chock full of advice to writers. He tells us what he has learned on his writing odyssey. King says the reason he undertook this book was because “…it’s about the job; it’s about the language.” That is, the language of writing.
King gives further advice about writing in his Second Foreword . He points to Rule 17 from The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B White. “Omit Useless words.” Enough said.
In the Third Foreword he states that “The editor is always right.” He goes on to say, “to write is human, to edit is divine.” He thanks his editor for his divine work. Maybe writers should strive to be editors in order to move from humanity and approach divinity?
On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft
C.V. (Curriculum Vitae and His Early Life to Success) pp.15-86
King entitles the first section of the book: C.V. (curriculum vitae), which is his life’s resume. It is a 101 page autobiographical presentation of his writing life.
He believes that “large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened.” Otherwise, he states, “writing a book like this would be waste of time.” King sprinkles encouragement and advice throughout this book.
King describes a life, a somewhat ordinary life, in a family with his brother and single mother. His early storytelling influences included a film called Robot Monster and early TV shows—police dramas, westerns and adventures such as Cheyenne and Seahunt. He regularly read a magazine entitled “Famous Monsters of Filmland”. He describes his early years and how he sold four short-stories at a quarter a piece, to his mother about Mr. Rabbit Trick. He watched every science-fiction movie—any movie for that matter—he could.
He wrote for his brother’s newspaper Dave’s Rag.
Stephen King Collection
The Dark Tower Boxed Set
More On His Early Life
The first real story he wrote was in 1960 and sent it to a magazine called Spacemen, a magazine which covered science fiction films. He was rejected. He submitted another story called “Happy Stamps” about counterfeiting S&H Stamps in a basement to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine which was also rejected. He received this piece of advice, “Don’t staple the manuscript…Loose pages plus paper clip equal correct way to submit copy.” King thought the advice cold but useful.
King was editor for his high-school newspaper, The Drum. During this time he lampooned this newspaper a la MAD magazine—the Village Vomit. Making fun of his teachers and principal merited him detention for his efforts. He gave up on satire for good, he says.
He was a sports reporter for a newspaper, the Lisbon Weekly Enterprise. John Gould, his editor advised him, “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story…When you re-write, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
- He sold a story called “Graveyard Shift” for $200 to Cavalier Magazine in August of 1970.
- King tells us how he met and married his wife Tabitha Spruce. He praises and chronicles his wife’s poetry. They had two children in their marriage.
- His mother supported his writing but encouraged him to get an education degree. From 1970-74 he barely sold enough to get by. He was teaching English by the time he started writing Carrie. His three early novels were Rage, Long Walk, and The Running Man—all later published.
When Carrie sold, the family was struggling financially and he got an advance of $2500 and received a contract from Doubleday. While there was a year long delay in publication, he and his wife dreamed of a big payday. He was writing the Second Coming (a combination between Peyton Place and Dracula) and got the news that Doubleday bought the book for $400,000, half of which he would receive. While he shook with excitement, his wife cried.
His Road to Alcoholism and Out pp.87-101
King describes his descent into alcohol and drug abuse. A chronicle of his path to addiction is written on pages 87-101.
The first time he got drunk was on a high school bus trip to New York City in 1966. King states that as early as 1975, he thought he might be an alcoholic, but wouldn't admit it to himself.
As he read his mother’s eulogy, he did so in a drunken state. He says that he used the Hemingway Defense to justify his alcoholism. This is described as something like: Look, as a writer I’m a sensitive man but I can’t let anyone know it or give into it. So I drink to hide my sensitivity.
The Shining was about an alcoholic ex-schoolteacher. He didn't realize it at the time but he was writing about himself. He added drugs to his addictions in 1985 His drug of choice at this point was cocaine. During this time he wrote Missing and The Tommyknockers. King says he barely remembers writing Cujo because he was drinking a case of 16 ounce cans of beer a night.
His family staged an intervention. They said they were watching them die in front of him. None of them wanted to witness his suicide. They gave him an ultimatum: go to rehab or move out of the house. He bargained and charmed (as alcoholics do) his way for two weeks to decide. King said that during this time working on Misery, Annie, the psychotic nurse, was symbolic of his coke and booze addiction.
They held him captive as she held Paul hostage. He realized that he was afraid to give up his addictions because he was afraid he wouldn't be able to write anymore. He decided to give up his addictions and keep his family even if it meant giving up writing. He never stopped writing but went through a period where his writing was flat. His final comment in this chapter of his life was that “Life isn't a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”
I believe King means that writing is a way to support living. Writing isn't why one lives. Writing fits in to one’s life, one’s family. After almost having lost his life, his writing, and his family over alcohol and drugs, he urges us to keep it all in perspective.
Have you read On Writing?
Have you read "On Writing?"
Sometimes Stephen King seems to write nostalgically about his past. At other times, he seems to be a disconnected observer, especially when detailing his alcohol and drug use and recovery. He shows us how films have influenced his writing and what he learned through his literary efforts at the newspapers he served.
He speaks of the influence his family has had on him. His fear of not being able to write if he quit his drug and alcohol habits had to have been profound but he mentions it, almost in passing.
King provides a glimpse of how he developed as a writer. One thing that is quite evident is he is single-minded in his ambition to write.
A good quality to possess for those who desire to master the craft of writing.
© 2013 AJ