In these days of lockdown, with the library and physical bookstores inaccessible and even books delivered by post under suspicion, I find myself groping for reading material, as I relate in my recent post “How to Find Books During a Pandemic.” One solution is to grab something off my shelf, which I indeed did in this instance. I’ve had this copy of On Writing for a long time; I read it for the first time when I was still living in Greece. Still, because I hadn’t read it since then and I recalled it favorably, I picked it up for a second read.
Two pieces of memoir serve as bookends for the practical writing advice in this book. The first section titled “C.V.” is over one hundred pages long. It starts at King’s youth. He and his brother were raised in relative poverty by his mother. He tells of his first ventures into writing as a child and as a high school student, his early sales to men’s magazines, his marriage to his wife Tabitha, and making it big with the publication of his first novel Carrie. Then there is a dark stretch in which he describes his addiction to drugs and alcohol and the intervention that saved him.
After this section, King writes about the writer’s toolbox, by which he means mainly the basics of vocabulary, grammar, sentences, and paragraphs. I could just as well have skipped this part; it’s meant mainly for beginning writers. After that, there is another section on various facets of writing such as the importance of reading to a writer, writing about what fascinates you, following inspiration rather than preset plotlines, characters, description, dialog, theme, making revisions, and the importance of having a first reader go over your work before you send it off to a publisher. This is all interesting, although after publishing twenty-five books I have my own ideas on most of these topics. This section also was written mainly with beginning writers in mind.
And then there is the postscript, called “On Living.” King was in the midst of writing this book and was out for his daily walk when he was hit by a van that veered off the road onto the shoulder. He was rushed to the hospital in critical condition with multiple broken bones and a collapsed lung. After several surgeries he was able to go home and, although in considerable physical pain, resumed work on this book. The description of this harrowing experience brought tears to my eyes. It is very well-written.
In conclusion, this time around I most enjoyed the two memoirs that comprise the first and last sections of this book. In fact, what I would really like to see from Stephen King is a comprehensive autobiography. Instead of a few brief snippets, I’d like to read the story of his life told with the same verve that has made his fiction so popular.