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Stephen King On Writing
By Anise Hollingshead

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Scribner, 2001 (2000)

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I have enjoyed Stephen King's writing a great deal over the years. At times his comments on Christian evangelicals have irritated me and I haven't liked some of his later novels, but overall I've remained a loyal reader. I know it's his writing that appeals, because his books are the only popular horror fiction that I read.

Ialso admire what little I know of Stephen King, the man. The prologues to many of his novels are amusing and interspersed with his opinions and beliefs. In these and in his personal appearances over the years, he has always seemed to be a practical, down-to-earth kind of guy, one who enjoys living in the same area that he grew up in and who values the important things in life, namely, family. What's not to like about a man who has stayed married to the same woman since college and who held her hand in a recent interview? As a bonus, King also reads Donald E. Westlake, who happens to be another of my favorite writers.

When browsing through the book section at Sam's Club one day, I saw a copy of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and was immediately intrigued because the first half was King's own memoir. I'm notorious for waiting years for hardbound books to get marked down before I'll buy them, but I actually paid full price (well Sam's price anyway) for this book and was soon immersed in Stephen King's reminiscences.

He begins his memoir by telling us that his childhood is largely a 'fogged-out landscape from which occasional memories appear like isolated trees' and compares this to Mary Karr's recall of her own childhood in The Liar's Club. The fact that her memories were so complete stunned him. He attributes this to some extent to the fact that he spent many of these early years moving around from home to home, but I wonder if this lack of memory may also be gender issue, based on my experiences with the men in my own family. Despite their avowed scarcity, accounts of instances from the author's earliest years seem fairly complete and chronological. They are also riveting and I quickly became absorbed, especially in King's anecdotes of exploits with his brother. The later years were equally fascinating.

On Writing is composed of two parts: a personal memoir and a practical guide to writing. I expected to enjoy the memoir more than the guide, but was prepared to take the bad with the good. Not that I didn't think my writing could use serious improvement, but I intensely dislike how-to books because I find them boring. I also had the impression that the guide would be aimed at serious writers of fiction, and less relevant for someone like myself - a free-lancer with a high school education. However, I kept on reading when the serious stuff started.

To my surprise, the writing tips were matter-of-fact, practical and simple enough to be understood by anyone. They quickly convinced me of my overuse of the passive tense, which King states is due to timidity as a writer. Ouch! Yes, I'm guilty. I laughed over his descriptions of what he called Swifties, from the Tom Swift stories, where writers use dialogue like '"Put down the gun, Utterson!" Jekyll grated' and '"Never stop kissing me!" Shayna gasped.' Writing tips are in the Toolbox section of King's book.

The remainder moves from the mechanics to what it actually takes to become a good author. King states that while he doesn't believe bad writers can become competent writers, he does believe that competent writers can become good writers. He then provides examples of both good and bad writing, tips on getting published, books to read and sensible advice as to whether individuals should consider becoming a novelist, based on the depth of their actual compulsion to write.

King's pithy, honest humor is evident throughout. I never dreamed that reading a how-to book could be fun, but it was and I learned many useful things to boot. King's language is crass at times, but doesn't annoy me as much from him as from others - perhaps because it seems so much a part of his nature. Whether you're curious about Stephen King the person, interested in honing your writing skills, thinking about becoming a serious writer, or simply in search of something entertaining to read, I recommend that you pick up On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
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