Books on the Nightstand: Stephen King, “On Writing”

Horror is not my thing, and horror writer Stephen King was an author I never planned to read, let alone appreciate. 

Then the Atlantic magazine published King’s short story, “Herman Wouk is Still Alive.”

It was riveting. It was excellent. Through the perspective of a down-and-out pair of single mothers, King zeroed in on a narrow and shocking slice of life, and pushed his point home with an unforgettable final scene.

I was hooked. I went on to read several of King’s book. My favorite so far?

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On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft, is funny and fresh, 16 years after it’s publication. He describes getting in trouble for hawking his sci-fi in grade school, and writes a lively account of the years when writing saw him through poverty, raising a family, drug and alcohol addictions.

For inexperienced writers, it’s a gold mine of anecdotes, tips and a recommended reading list. His advice is not unique, but it’s clear, concise, and offers a basic, very handy tool kit.

“If I have to tell you, I lose. If, on the other hand, I can show you a silent, dirty-haired woman who compulsively gobbles cake and candy, then have you drawn the conclusion that Annie is in the depressive part of a manic-depressive cycle, I win. And if I am able, even briefly, to give you a Wilkes’-eye-view of the world – if I can make you understand her madness – then perhaps I can make her someone you sympathize with or even identify with. The result? She’s more frightening than ever, because she’s close to real.”

Talented as he is, King credits his success in large part to his own tenacity, both in reading: “Read and write four to six hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good writer,” and in writing:

“I like to get 10 pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book…  I write every day of the year, and that includes Christmas, the Fourth, and my birthday.”

This unrelenting schedule has produced a library of published works, both under his own name and five additional novels under the pen name Richard Bachman. King was the first to mass-publish electronic books, initially through his publisher Scribner, then on his own, charging a dollar a copy for an almost-forgotten piece of fiction he’d had in a drawer called “The Plant.”

The heart of On Writing comes at the end. King recounts how in 1999, while walking near his summer home in Maine, he was hit by a car. “Smith [the driver] wasn’t looking at the road on the afternoon our lives came together because his rottweiler had jumped from the very rear of his van into the backseat area, where there was an Igloo cooler with some meat stored inside.” King suffered a broken hip, head injury, broken ribs, and the bones in his leg, according to his surgeon were “like so many marbles in a sock.”

King credits writing with saving his life. Through numerous surgeries and with the support of his wife Tabitha, who set up a work station for him in their hallway, he gradually re-learned to walk, and he wrote. Slowly at first, then more and more. Within a few years he was back to producing books and stories at his usual astounding speed. On Writing was published the year after the accident.

Entertaining and inspiring, On Writing is a gem of a book.

11 comments

  • How interesting! What wonderful excerpts from “On Writing.” I’d heard of it, but I had never given King a try, for the same reasons you hadn’t — thanks for the nudge! Stephen King as a writer is a recurring motif in a movie I really liked called “Stuck in Love” (Jennifer Connolly, Logan Lerman, Greg Kinnear, cameos by Kristen Bell and Stephen King!) Have you seen it?

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  • I once met the composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, and he told me that his working day involved getting up hours before his wife, going to the studio at the end of his garden, and writing (music) for a full three hours before then driving the kids to school at 8:30. Upon his return, he would then work the remainder of the day in the studio. This wasn’t just when he had a commission to complete before a deadline; it was his routine, and one which he insisted was absolutely necessary. Thankfully, I have no such ambitions (in any direction), nor the potential that might warrant such tenacity and conviction. Besides, alarm clocks are the bane of my life. 😉

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  • Dear Julie,

    I had not seen this. YAY. I love to read about your commitment to writing and your writing itself. If one writes, one is a writer.

    This is you.

    Love, Ann

    Liked by 1 person

  • I read King’s book a long time ago but it’s probably worth a re-read. I’ve never read that story however. I’ll have to check it out – thanks!

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  • On Writing is one of my favorites too. I forgot about the “if i tell you i lose” thanks for reminding me of that gem! One of the quotes that stays with me is “Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

    Liked by 1 person

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