Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Marion Winik, Fri., Feb. 9, 2001
On WritingA Memoir of the Craft
by Stephen King
Scribner, 288 pp., $25
Reading On Writing is like getting to spend a long afternoon interviewing Stephen King, who is a smart, funny, unpretentious guy, and more than willing to tell you just about anything you want to know about his life and his work. Some of the book, in fact, seems to be written in direct response to the kinds of questions writers are asked over and over: What times of day do you write? (he likes morning); do you write every day? (yep, birthday and Christmas included); what books have you read lately? (an appendix provides a lengthy list of recent favorites).
The opening section "C.V." is a series of "snapshots," as King calls them, of his childhood and early adulthood in his lifelong home state of Maine. King was raised with his brother Dave in hardscrabble conditions by their single mom, a memorable lady who cleaned floors in a mental institution to put her sons through college. King was churning out self-published books and sending stories to magazines while still in short pants. In eighth grade he produced a novelization of the 1961 film of Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum," which he sold for a quarter on the school playground until he was hauled down to the principal's office. "What I don't understand, Stevie," the principal said, "is why you'd want to write junk like this in the first place. Why do you want to waste your abilities?" And so the critics have been wondering ever since.
King's response to the grammar school incident was to feel ashamed of what he'd written -- as he continued to, he says, for years afterward. Too many years. He says he was 40 before he finally learned that no matter what you do creatively, there is always someone out there trying to make you feel bad about it. Well, you're thinking, with all those fans and all that moolah, how bad does he really feel?
As you learn how hard King worked, you don't begrudge him his success: the 30-some worldwide bestsellers, the movies, the millions. The man has busted ass, and not just at writing. At an industrial laundry, he cleaned linens rank with rotting seafood, a place so hot the employees had to take salt pills to fend off dehydration. At a fabric mill, "a dingy fuckhole overhanging the polluted Androscoggin River like a workhouse in a Charles Dickens novel," a place overrun by rats as big as dogs, he gathered the inspiration for one of his early short stories. Finally, for an even lower wage, he taught English at a high school.
What King loves most about writing is the same thing I love about it. To use his word, it's telepathy. He devotes a short chapter to an amusing example of this extraordinary communication between writer and reader, then moves into his "Toolbox" section. This includes the usual admonitions about adverbs, active voice, vocabulary, etc., giving full credit to the master, Mr. Strunk. Most writers like to talk about grammar, but there really isn't much new to say about it. What makes this section pay off is an appendix in which King provides a first draft of a passage from one of his stories and shows how he marks it up and revises it the second time through.
But just as things are kind of devolving into familiar clatter about query letters and writing workshops and finding an agent, comes this postscript, "On Living" about the blue van and the stupid man who drove it, about almost dying, and about literally and figuratively coming back to life. The story of King's accident lifts this book to another level, illustrating the author's best advice and throwing his memoir into the sharpest relief possible.
Marion Winik's new book, Rules for the Unruly, is scheduled for publication this spring.