On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft , by Stephen King. Scribner, 288 pages, $25.
The title of this genial, informal book is misleading. On Writing is most compelling as a kind of deliberately fragmented partial autobiography–those parts constitute much of the book and will fascinate any reader. The stuff on writing, which the author admits he found very hard to write, is less successful.
I wonder how many male American writers grew up fatherless on the edge of poverty? Robert Stone, Toby Wolff, myself for a start, and also Stephen King, an authentic working-class hero, truly rags to riches, who does not turn his back on his past, but seems, if anything, to cling to it a bit. He talks about his job in a laundry and his ascension to high school teacher; he refers to his “working-class” background. Maybe he harps on this because that is the social milieu he writes about, as his fan Joyce Carol Oates points out. Having money or not having money, as life goes on, may or may not have a strong effect on one’s sense of identity, but this book begs that question, as it has every right to do. To my mind Mr. King, in his novels, has a good sense of ordinary people, and an authentic affection for them as well. What he thinks about, or what he feels when he looks down at America from his chartered planes–a friend says he saw one painted to look like a giant bat–is another matter for some other book.
He writes about family, his early struggles trying to get published in various sci-fi and horror magazines in an almost off-hand manner, moving fairly rapidly over tough times that must have taken much strength and dedication to get through. How interesting that he knew he was an alcoholic in 1975 when he wrote The Shining (about an alcoholic writer). By the mid-80’s he was drinking a case of beer–16-ounce “tallboys”–every night, as well as snorting cocaine and doing pills. He feels that his splendid novel Misery , whatever else it was, was a cry for help. He almost killed himself with booze and coke until his wife Tabitha arranged what A.A. calls an “intervention,” and he got straight and has remained straight. One reads between the lines–without the “buzz,” as he calls it, of writing fiction, the powerful sense of being in the flow–and without the support of his remarkable wife, Mr. King, as strong as he is, would most likely have sunk into death or obscurity.
Mr. King declares that “most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do–not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad.” Truer words were never spoken. One might only add E.L. Doctorow’s observation that “writing is not an entirely rational process.” So one might expect a certain amount of disagreement when it comes to giving young writers advice. Most of what Mr. King advises is good, it seems to me. His enthusiasm for Strunk and White is appropriate. His assertion that you must read, you must read a lot, and you must read continuously if you ever hope to write is correct. (He has read widely himself, judging from the people he mentions and the books he refers to.) His almost strident insistence that the writer be “honest”–that is to say, don’t bullshit the reader–is valuable, but he might have gone a bit deeper into the kinds of unconscious dishonesty that so bedevil many serious young writers. It is a more complex question than his language suggests.
There are times when I disagree with him. ” Use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful .” What he means by this is harmless enough–don’t dress up your narrative with fancy $10 words because you’re ashamed of simple words–but the implications of “using the first word” are ominous. Less ominous for what used to be called a “natural writer,” but still artistically limiting. Beyond the first level of expression, I believe George Orwell’s advice is better: “Pick the word. Do not let the word pick you.”
Mr. King says, “Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create a sense of artificial profundity.” The second phrase is true, but the first is misleading, because a powerful symbol does more than adorn and enrich; it can lift a narrative into territory usually associated with poetry and hence represents the greatest challenge a prose writer can face. Think of the muffled sound of the cannon from the ferry on the river when Tom, Huck and Joe are hiding out on the island. Think of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg looking down from an oculist’s billboard in The Great Gatsby . Think of the white whale. Remember the fog in Bleak House . Mr. King suggests that we forget about symbolism and simply let it happen if it happens. I think a more active role is needed for the writer–a kind of sustained meditation on the text in order to find images or objects that contain and distill its essence.
But on the whole, when the author talks about omitting needless words, doing away with adverbs almost entirely, writing good dialogue, crafting paragraphs, trying to find resonance, etc., he makes a lot of sense. About process in general, there may be a bit of confusion about what happens to Mr. King when he writes and what might happen to someone a bit less protean when he or she writes, but that is understandable, perhaps to some degree unavoidable. Not everyone can match his pace; he writes 10 pages a day, after all. Orwell was happy when he could do 500 words.
On Writing ends with a completely engrossing description of the famous accident on the side of the road in Maine the summer of 1999, when a moderately crazed local hit Mr. King with his van. Death was even closer this time–an immediate touch-and-go situation with Mr. King falling in and out of consciousness, aware he was at the edge of life. It’s a 15-page tour de force of good writing, containing no more than five adverbs by my count.
Tens of millions of readers, lovers of well-told stories, are happy Stephen King made it. They want to read more of him. Me, too. There are all kinds of pleasures in fiction, and that is how it should be.
Frank Conroy, the author of Stop-Time , is the director of the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop.