August 29th, 2008

Stephen King's ON WRITING

When we Tollboothers decided to spend our summer reviewing craft books, I knew right away that it was the perfect time to finally get around to reading On Writing.

Here's the hardcover, pretty cover, with the hint of maybe something creepy behind that door.

Here's the paperback cover. Distinctly more creepy, yes?

On Writing is not a creepy book, despite the creepiness of most of King's own stories. In fact, I hereby pronounce it a Must Read. (I'm not the first to say so, either.)

I intended to spend a few days reading the book so that I could tell you about it. But I found King to be such a charming companion that I had to savor the book all week.

It's not, strictly speaking, a craft book. The subtitle is "A Memoir of the Craft." The first section, nearly 100 pages which puts it at 1/3 of the whole enchilada, is chunks of King's childhood and early adulthood. We learn what made him the kind of writer he is today. We enjoy tales of his school days, home life as the kid of a hardworking single mom; we see him as a horror movie fan and an accidental newspaper writer. Later, we learn about his drug and alochohol addiction, and how his wife forced him to save his life by getting clean. In my favorite part of the first section, we see him conceive of, write, and sell Carrie.

King tells us how he came up with the story when he was nineteen or twenty, working as a janitor in a high school, and discovered tampon dispensers in the girls' bathroom; he also noticed that the showers (unlike those in the boys' room) had pink plastic curtains for privacy. We follow along as the memory resurfaces while King is working at a laudnry, and the scene of a girl getting her first period int he locker room comes to him, and the girl doesn't know what's happening to her, so she screams and the other girls scream back at her, throwing tampons at her. (Anyone not remember reading that scene?) Then, as King puts it, "Pow!" Another scene, a magazine article about telekinesis, comes back to him. And Carrie White is born.

The book does a lot of this kind of thing -- tells the reader the story of stories. Near the end of the book, King says that writing a book on writing was more difficult than he supposed it would be, because a lot of it is so intuitive. Lucky for us, we get to learn by seeing how his intuition works. I love how he acknowledges that his books might be considered "low brow". He never makes light of the art of writing. By doing those two things, I believe King hammers home the point that you do best to write what you're drawn to, what you love, and to never belittle it.

The second section is called "Toolbox". This section is where we explore the idea of looking at our craft tools, and taking them out to polish once in a while. We think about vocabulary, grammar, the sentence, and the paragraph. King doesn't get so far into this stuff -- for a handbook, he suggests Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. I totally heart Strunk & White. It's because of that handy little guide that I cringe every time someone tells me they're feeling nauseous.

Nest up is the section titled "On Writing." Here we get a deeper exploration of King's experience with craft, with the writing life, and with routine, and with writing for our Ideal Reader. What comes through most clearly is the idea that we write because we want to. If not, why bother? The other main idea gleaned here is that all writing is about story. You might be surprised to learn (I was!) that King doesn't plot. He just tells stories as they go. Even the really complicated ones. He says that stories are like relics, and that the writer's job is to uncover the relic, keeping as much of it in tact as possible.

Then we get the section about King's 1999 accident, when he was struck by a van and nearly died. At the end of this section, King gives us a Great Thought, which I'll type out in a moment.

The next section is a cool look at a first version and an edited version of 1408.

The last section is a neato bibliography of some books that King thinks are worth reading. J.K. Rowling is well-represented.

Don't be surprised if my Tollbooth lessons become King-centric for a while. I'm pretty enamored with how clearly he presents ideas, and think there's a lot worth keeping in mind in this book.

I feel like I've given more of a book report than a review here. So this is my review: It's a good one!

And this is the Great Thought I promised to share:

"Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. Some of this boook--perhaps too much--has been about how I learned to do it. The rest of it--and perhaps the best of it--is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you're brave enough to start, YOU WILL. Writing is magic, as much the water or life as any other crative art. The water is free. So drink.

Drink and be filled up."