This is a review written for my 4th semester of grad school, in which I was asked specifically to focus not only on the book itself, but how you approach the book as a writer. I’m a little daunted to be putting up something about King’s book here, but hey–if I’m ever to convince myself I’m one of his “good writers,” I can’t shy from this, aye?
On Writing is one of those books that as soon as someone hears that you’re a writer, they point it out to you. “Oh, have you read this one? It’s by Stephen King!” As if every writer is just waiting for someone to hand us a book which simply has all the answers on How to Be a Good Writer, and that clearly Stephen King is the right person to do the job. And at first glance, that wouldn’t be too far from what one might expect from the book. King is a highly successful and prolific author; if anyone knows how to write. then he’d be a reasonable choice. True to form, this book has been sitting on my bookshelf, unread, for years now. It was given to me by my parents when I started getting serious about writing, and I never touched it. School was the perfect excuse to finally read it.
There’s an interesting narrative choice in that King takes close to the first half of the book to tell you little snippets of his life, from some of the earliest memories he has to the more present day (or at least the present day of when he wrote the book, which is some time ago now). For a while, I was duly confused, trying to figure out why King had chosen to do this. He gave an explanation at the beginning, but it didn’t really set in until I’d had some time to think about it. Each of us is made from everything around us, from the time we fell off our bike at age 5 and were afraid to ride a bike for a decade afterward, to the time you and your friends were walking on the frozen lake and one of your feet went through the ice and you had to ride your bike home with a freezing cold foot. (Real life examples? What ever do you mean? These couldn’t have possibly happened to me…)
So after seeing some of the particularly formative moments of his life that King could remember, he begins to build a toolbox. I appreciate this approach, because King never makes an assumption about our current writing level. As King puts it, there is a pyramid of writers. There are the really bad ones, the competent ones, the really good ones, and the geniuses. and his theory is that “while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” I don’t necessarily agree with him, but for the basics, I agree with the rest. He creates a mental toolbox of everything a good writer should have on tap at any given time. At the top, your most useful skill: vocabulary, grammar. Beneath that, basic elements of style, a la Strunk and White. These are the basic things you use. And with that, he takes the reader into the second part of the book, the part titled after the book’s name. He walks through structure and editing, using examples of his own work primarily, and does all the things many of us learned in high school or university English and composition classes.
So why would King’s book be considered “better,” or even remarkable at all? For one, it’s written in a way that actually follows a life, as it were. We begin at his youth, follow through his major career, and the book ends with a retelling of his accident (which happened in the midst of him writing this very book) where he was hit by a car and nearly died. While making the book about teaching writing just as much as you can learn writing from the way he puts the book itself together, we both learn actively and passively. On top of that, he has a very easy and conversational tone to the entire text. For many, myself included, it’s much easier to learn something when it doesn’t feel quite as much like you’re learning. There are no active exercises in the book, no study questions in the back. You just read, and get some ideas and tips for how to proceed, and continue on, feeling like you’ve just had a long and in-depth conversation about writing with a good friend who knows his stuff.
It’s a brilliant read from a talented author, and both supports writers in what they know and knocks them down a few pegs from where King expects we are. (And too often, he’s right.) A definite must for the bookshelf of any serious author, and a book that’s good to pull out and re-read once or twice a year, just to remind us of who we are and what we should be focusing on.