On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft



review by Gaylene Perry





On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Stephen King
Hodder & Stoughton, 2000
Pb $17.95rrp 367pp
ISBN 0 340 76998 X


The cover of this paperback - with its gilt lettering and spooky, green-tinged illustration - could be mistaken for the cover of a Stephen King horror novel. This is no accident: thumbnails of the horror novels' covers are reproduced on the inside of the back cover, and the visual presentation is identical for the novels and for this memoir. On Writing is clearly marketed at King's large existing readership, and I feel that this needs to be kept in mind when discussing the work.

In the early pages, King writes about having dedicated his book to Amy Tan. They had a conversation about the questions that are not asked of so-called popular writers at festivals and the like. Tan said that she was never asked about language. This apparently inspired King to write his 'memoir of the craft'. King appears to be making a political statement about the treatment of popular writers and about his attempt to address part of that treatment by writing what is, in one sense, a how-to-write book, a book about craft, about language, from the point of view of a commercially popular writer.

Overall, I find On Writing to be something of a mishmash. This may be indicative of King's frame of mind (and body) when writing, as he wrote the book during his recuperation from a near-fatal road accident. The memoir reflects on King's path to writing success, although it focuses more strongly on his early years of writing than on his fame in later times. It is also a how-to-write book, with practical advice for aspiring writers. And it is the story of King's accident and how it affected his work. Each of these parts is engaging in its own right, but together in the one book, I found the parts overly fragmentary, going in too many different directions. Perhaps this fracturedness is interesting in itself: in its reflection of the circumstances and persona and usual writing genre of the author.

The postscript treating the accident is the most absorbing section of the book. Throughout the entire text, King maintains a distinctive, character-laden voice, but here, where he has a particular story to tell - a story of events that happened to him, that threatened his life - the writing is most vivid.

Smith sees I'm awake and tells me help is on the way. He speaks calmly, even cheerily. His look, as he sits on his rock with his cane drawn across his lap, is one of pleasant commiseration: Ain't the two of us just had the shittiest luck? it says. He and Bullet left the campground where they were staying, he later tells an investigator, because he wanted "some of those Marzes-bars they have up to the store." When I hear this little detail some weeks later, it occurs to me that I have nearly been killed by a character right out of one of my own novels. It's almost funny. (308)

This enthusiasm is missing in other parts of the book, particularly in the how-to-write sections.

The how-to-write segments are eclectic, impressionistic rather than thorough, and in general lack the animation of the rest of the book. The segments appear to hinge on one main statement: 'If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.' The simplicity of this advice picks up on King's Second Foreword:

This is a short book because 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. I figured the shorter the book, the less bullshit. (xiii)

These words contain the first trace of a message that I find recurring throughout the book: that the author does not seem to believe in what he is writing at all points of the work.

I refer back to King's conversation with Amy Tan, and I wonder if he could not have written a more convincing book about craft if he had focused singularly on the genre of memoir without attempting to fuse it with the how-to-write genre. I do believe that those two genres can be meshed, but in this case, the convergence simply has not worked. The parts of the book where King has utilised the tools of storytelling rather than overtly explaining such tools are, in my mind, most lucid.

Readers of King's fiction will no doubt enjoy the rambunctious and irreverent storytelling about his life and his work. Those aspiring writers among them may also find the material to be a sound yet basic introduction to writing and to seeking publication. For other readers, I am not sure that there is much to be found here that could not have been put into a long magazine article, or alternatively, into a longer and more coherent book that evenly maintained the enthusiasm and polish of those sections that most closely resemble fiction writing.




Gaylene Perry holds a PhD at Deakin University. She writes fiction, memoir and essays and is a sessional teacher at Deakin and Monash universities.




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Vol 5 No 2 October 2001
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady