Stephen King initially didn’t want to write “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” his collection of personal stories and suggestions for other scribes who want to express themselves better, make sense of their perspective of the world and bring more books into the world.
In the foreword to the 2001 book, King even described how, when he gets together with other successfully published writers and peers, none of them discuss topics like where the ideas come from. “We know we don’t know.”
Plus, he confesses that he’s always considered other how-to books about writing as either being too pretentious or too transcendental, and he never wants to be either of these things.
But in 2001, he decided to take a break from the horror genre he’s known for and put together a series of pieces about his inspirations, his thought process and his love of language. His thoughts were initially released in serial form for The New Yorker over several issues, and then compiled into one book. It sold well and was re-released in 2010.
On Writing is used in some literature classes, but also can be a good guide to people at any stage of the writing process, from those not knowing how or where to start to write, or even how to continue writing when they think, or know, they have something to say.
Part of the appeal of the book is that he never promises anything, like a successful literary career, a book deal or even that the reader will finish that un-written book. King, however, does encourage people to keep at it, but ultimately, he says it’s up to them and their internal motivation.
[If you want to read a book all about the difficulty of writing, the Resistance, read Steven Pressfield's The War of Art.]
Interestingly, Kin discourages people from being motivated solely by compliments during the writing process, especially from someone like a spouse saying “wonderful!” as your story or stories progress.
Too many of these types of compliments, in his opinion, can lead to the risk of someone being complacent and actually not wanting to push as hard or dig as deep from their own place where stories come from.
That isn’t to say that professional criticism and qualified opinions, however, especially from a trained editor, aren’t helpful. In this case, King especially recommends anything that can cut down words and communicate thoughts better.
King’s had his own experiences with this throughout his literary career – although he has published more than 40 books, even in his early days, his publishers regularly demanded that he cut words out, even after he considered a book fully edited and polished after multiple drafts.
For instance, “The Stand,” his first published book, was more than 1,000 pages in its final version, but King had to cut more than 30 pages out on the order of his publisher.
And, because he is Stephen King, and his books sell no matter the topic or the quality, he was able to go back to that original manuscript about 10 years later and release some of the originally purged bits from “ The Stand.” There wasn’t anything especially significant, as far as changed characters or plots, just some extra content that he still felt pained to cut.
While the coaching/encouragement for writers can be useful in “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” King fans also might enjoy this look into his early years, including his moves around the country with his single mom.
There are tales of scary babysitters, classroom tales and other experiences and observations that impacted his life and writing.
These incidents didn't just come from his childhood either; a serious accident in 1999 when he was struck by a car and badly injured provided new perspective into the fragility of life. He began to grow more introspective and examined the connection of the role of life in art and the natural corollary of art in life.
Many of his books from this point departed slightly from the earlier tales of other-worldly terrors like vampires or killer cars, and focused more on pure human motivations such as love and evil. Even set against supernatural circumstances, everything from ancient curses to alien invasions to time travel, he is able to focus on the human emotions that are evoked: jealousy, pride, fear, anger and courage.
The book is worth reading for any level of writer, hopeful or even already published. It’s designed to be short and not terribly complex, and practical as well.
Check it out below:
You can read our book recommendations here and our book recommendations on writing and related topics here.