On Writing

On Writing

Scribner / 2000 / 288 pages

A Nonfiction Critique


Part of the reason Stephen King's Dark Tower series functions as his magnum opus is because it encompasses so much of his other work. As the sequence of Dark Tower books progresses, King's other novels and stories are folded into the narrative, some in major ways (InsomniaHearts In Atlantis), some more subtly (Rose MadderBag of Bones). Characters, events, even plots resurface in the seven major Dark Tower novels, creating a masterwork that also serves as the center of King's enormous fictional universe.

On Writing, however, is arguably a more central work to King's canon - perhaps the most important book he has ever written. Where the Dark Towerbooks connect King's fictional worlds, On Writing serves as a thematic summation of King's career. This slim volume tackles concerns King has been thinking about and writing about his entire career: why people write, why writing is important, how writing happens, why writing happens, what writing is. While Carrie touched only lightly on writers (with its epistolary interruptions, some of which are purported excerpts from Sue Snell's autobiography), both 'Salem's Lot and The Shining have writers at the centers of their stories, the act of writing a method of simultaneously coping with and clarifying horrors. In the foreword to Night Shift, King explains why he writes short stories (a sequel of sorts to this short essay appeared decades later in Everything's Eventual, in which King explains why he still writes short stories). Even in this nascent stage of King's career, he is fascinated by what he does, and why he does it.

Later fiction - especially a sequence of novels and stories beginning with Misery and including The Dark Half, "Secret Window, Secret Garden," Bag of Bones, "Umney's Last Case," among others - centered on novelists attempting to define what their work means, both to their readers and themselves. More, King began exploring how creativity impacts real life, and how life and fiction inform one another. Even the Dark Tower books eventually coalesced around the theme of fiction's powerful hold on reality, finally focusing on King himself as a character. Concurrently, the real Stephen King addressed writing more directly, in various forewords, afterwords, and essays: his take on being labeled a horror writer (Different Seasons), why he developed and continues to use a pseudonym (The Bachman Books), how the process of editing affects his work (The Stand: Complete and Uncut), among many others. It has long seemed as if King is not content that readers simply enjoy his finished work; he wants them in on the entire process.

The long first section of On Writing, "C.V.," allows us to witness the beginnings of Stephen King, the storyteller. In rough chronology, King shows us his young self, from his first games of pretend up through the sale of the paperback rights for Carrie: in short, his journey to becoming a successful novelist. This section directly connects On Writing with King's earlier nonfiction book, Danse Macabre, especially the chapter, "An Annoying Autobiographical Pause." The earlier work concerned itself mostly with young King's fixation on horror and the fantastic, including fascinating background on the places and people in his young life that led him to it. Here, he expands on those threads, talking more about his early development as both a person and a writer. His mother's (and later, his wife Tabitha's) constant support of him as a writer is especially heartening, providing a stable basis against overwhelming discouragement. One of On Writing's most important sections discusses a teacher's disapproval of King's chosen subject matter.

"I was ashamed. I have spent a good many years since - too many, I think - being ashamed about what I write."

This incident would later color King's massive It, particularly a scene in which Bill Denbrough argues with a teacher about the merits of impenetrable "literature" versus commercial storytelling. It also goes a long way toward explaining King's often self-deprecating attitude toward his own work during his early and mid-career. In a famous quote from King's Time magazine cover story, King described his writing as "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries." Only in 1998, when King switched publishers and actively sought a more diverse audience, did he seem to regard his career and the work he did as having literary merit.

King also confronts the addictions that later threatened his life and his marriage. With unusual candor, King discusses his growing alcoholism. As a storyteller, King peppers this progression with foreshadowing and occasional dark wit. One drink steadily becomes a case of beer a night, and he admits to being drunk at his mother's funeral. Perhaps most fascinating for readers are the ways these addictions impacted his career, especially how he wrote sections of The Tommyknockers with cotton balls in his nose to staunch cocaine-induced nosebleeds, or how he cannot remember writing Cujo, having been drunk during it.

King concludes this first section by summing up concepts he has put forth in so many of his novels and stories about writing (and later, in Duma Key, about art in general) with two sentences: "Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around."

In small chapters titled "What Writing Is" and "Toolbox," King attempts to define how writers communicate with readers ("telepathy, of course," but he's not being glib), and the basics of what potential writers need. He covers grammar, vocabulary, dialogue, and parts of speech, managing to be serious and funny at once ("plums deify" is one of On Writing's best little jokes). He champions Strunk and White's Elements of Stylewhenever possible and lambasts adverbs with an obsessive fury (he isn't much a fan of pronouns, either). Most interesting is that while King stresses the importance of these nuts and bolts of writing - the construction of sentences and paragraphs that make sense - he also stresses that writing is magic, that these basics can be uses to create things far greater than the sum of their parts.

King examines the major facets of his craft in the large eponymous section. In "On Writing," he presents everything he knows about writing well - the magic as well as the mechanics. Reading, he stresses, is nearly as important as writing on a schedule, and with a challenging but achievable word count per day. Word count is one of the somewhat controversial concepts King puts forth, believing that 2,000 words a day is in everyone's grasp. If it seems an excessive amount for busy people who cannot yet support themselves as writers, King has provided his own hectic background as evidence that it's possible for those who are driven. Another controversy is his dismissal of plot, believing it hinders storytelling (in an interesting aside, King states he believes that two of his plotted books, Rose Madder and Insomnia, seem to be trying too hard).

Additionally, King approaches the big questions for writers, like the proper way to edit, submit, and find an agent. He also suggests that writing itself happen in quiet places: a home office or back bedroom with a door the writer can close. While this seems to contradict the writing ethos of someone like J.K. Rowling, who wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in London cafes, King explains his reasoning clearly and convincingly. Indeed, all the advice he puts forth in the "On Writing" section seem reasonable, due to King's assured tone. He believes, so the reader believes.

The final major section, "On Living: A Postscript," concerns the accident that nearly killed King in the summer of 1999. Parts of this section are difficult to read; King's familiarity with the language and tenor of horror fiction has uniquely prepared him to discuss the details of his accident and the resulting injuries. (This accident would reverberate throughout King's later fiction, especially in Dreamcatcher and From a Buick 8 - even though this latter book had been in large part written before the accident - and the recovery process would find its way into Duma Key.) However, King's slow recovery is inspiring to watch, and King does not downplay the role writing played in it.

"There was no miraculous breakthrough that afternoon, unless it was the ordinary miracle that comes with any attempt to create something … There was no sense of exhilaration, no buzz - not that day - but there was a sense of accomplishment that was almost as good."

In a series of postscripts, King provides a before and after editing session with a portion of his short story "1408" (which would later appear in Everything's Eventual), and a list of books he had read and enjoyed recently. The tenth anniversary edition of On Writing includes a new list of books, covering the decade since the book's original publication.

Serving as a summation of all of King's thoughts about writing up to that point (effectively linking much of his fiction and nonfiction together into a cohesive whole), On Writing also serves as a springboard for his later work. The remaining Dark Tower novels fictionalize King, interpreting his writing as the nexus of Roland's vast worlds. Song of Susannah also gives us an interesting - if fictionalized - view of King's writing and publishing process regarding the Dark Tower novels, and also imagines a universe in which King did not survive his car accident. The final three Dark Tower books, among other things, serve as fictionalized sequels to On Writing. Additionally, King's later work in Dreamcatcher, Lisey's Story, Duma Key, and some of the stories in Just After Sunset are outgrowths of the concepts King puts forth in On Writing.

More than any other book in his canon (with the possible exception of It), On Writing symbolizes who Stephen King is as a writer. Concise, accessible, revealing, and useful, it is impossible to overstate the importance of On Writing.