Saturday, June 13, 2020

On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King reviewed by Jennifer Reichow


Scribner, New York, 2000. Available wherever books are sold {start here}.

I’m thrifty. I don’t buy books; I borrow them from libraries. Today I strolled out of a bookstore having paid full price for Stephen King’s book On Writing. I’m glad I did.
I’m a novice author, taking a creative writing course, researching online resources, and listening to podcasts. On a podcast, someone suggested to never read a book on writing from an author you’d never heard of, which made sense to me. I’d read several of Stephen King’s novels and was a fan of his writing, and book On Writing mentioned in podcasts and listed online as a must-read. So I reserved the ebook from the library. There were several reserves ahead of me; an encouraging sign. I could wait. But during a quick visit to the bookstore to buy a magazine, I scanned the shelves for On Writing – just out of interest, you know. I read the first few pages, then conceded defeat and bought it.
On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft is part memoir, part master class. It begins with an autobiographical section describing King’s poverty-stricken, fatherless childhood, and how he started writing at a young age. It follows him along the path of learning his craft, recounting the highs (his first big sale) and the lows (his addictions). It merges into the more practical features of composing, written with detail and clarity, in King’s novel style which makes it entertaining.
The first section is titled CV. King relates the vivid memories that he believes formed him as a writer. He wrote a series of original stories at age 7 and submitted his first story for magazine publication at age 13. Rejected but not discouraged, he persevered, amassing an impressive number of rejection slips. King describes his varied writing experiences, low paying menial jobs, and marrying his college sweetheart.
A poignant scene in the book recounts his first big book sale. He paints a dramatic portrait of the hardship his family endured in the 1970s living in a dingy apartment, with a broken-down car and worried about affording medicine for a sick child. When he sold his first novel, Carrie, for $400,000, it was like winning the lottery. The scene brought tears to my eyes – that’s the kind of raw honesty and authenticity King brings to his writing.
Steven King
Next is the toolbox section. King describes the tools every writer needs: vocabulary, grammar, style, and form. He discusses how the adverb is not your ally and how fear is the root of most poor writing. Fearfulness leads to grasping at passive verbs and adverbs. Letting go of that fear and choosing the right tools from your toolbox will make you a better writer. Fundamental grammar lessons sound skip-head-worthy, but King writes in a droll, witty style, educating the reader much better than any textbook.
King reveals his methods of taking writing tools and putting them to use. Above all else, a writer must do two things: read a lot and write a lot. King says he reads 70 to 80 books a year. He provides a list of the books he has read over the past few years that he found entertaining, educational, and influential.
With many personal experiences and reminiscences, King examines the nuts and bolts of writing, where he writes, and his working schedule. He describes his theory of how stories are fossils in the ground; it’s his job to bring them to light. King discusses language, description, dialogue, and character-building as the basic aspects of good storytelling. He explains plot, theme, symbolism, imagery in a fashion that makes you wish he’d been your high school English teacher. He gives his formula for revising (2nd draft = 1st draft - 10%).
Very important is having an Ideal Reader. Lucky for him, his Ideal Reader is his wife Tabby. He wraps up the section with the educational story of an aspiring author named Frank on the route to publication (aka how to get an agent and get published).
King’s first postscript narrates the life-threatening accident in 1999 when a van struck him while walking on the side of the road near his home. His later surgeries, hospital stays, and physical therapy all but derailed his writing. But with the help of his wife, he discovered he had more to say. A second postscript is an editorial example that is a full creative writing lesson.
This book relates how Stephen King learned to tell a great story. He hopes the aspiring writer can learn to do it better. I concur that it’s a must-read for the novice writer. It is, as well I suspect, an inspiration for the most experienced writer. On Writing is a book I will read often, knowing every time I will come away with new insight and appreciation for the craft of writing.


Jennifer Reichow knew as a child she was going to university and be a writer. As so often happens, life interrupted her plan. But now that she’s just retired from a fulfilling nursing career, she’s realizing her dream of becoming a writer. It feels like coming home.

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