Stephen King: On Writing

August 13th, 2014 23 Comments



I haven’t written any reviews lately because I’ve been on an ancient history kick: the first three volumes of the Will and Ariel Durant series, The Story of Civilization; Herodotus, The Histories; Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War; Polybius, The Histories; bits and pieces of Suetonius, Xenophon, Lucretius, occasional forays into Ovid and Homer to remind myself of this, that or the other, additional brief dips here and there into even more obscure and tangential associations:

Cruel, but composed and bland,

Dumb, inscrutable and grand,

So Tiberius might have sat,

Had Tiberius been a cat.

It’s been fun, and I plan to keep marching along down the highways and byways and shady lanes of man’s consistent folly and brutality and his occasional bursts of brilliance and magnificence, but I have no intention of reviewing the likes of Herodotus and Polybius. I may not be the brightest bulb in the tanning bed, but I’m not that arrogant a fool.

However, I took time out recently to read Stephen King’s On Writing, an interesting pastiche of a book, partly a combination of instructions on the craft of writing and partly a memoir. It is, in fact, accurately subtitled, A Memoir of the Craft.

I suspect many writers, probably most, have lives that are duller than dirt. After all, a writer of fiction spends most of his time sitting inside his own home, inside his own office, inside his own head, a sequence which may make for ecstasies of excitement among the readers of his books, but one which is not calculated to cause the average observer to do much other than doze off. The only notable exception to this rule who springs to mind is Hemingway. No matter what else he might have been, or what you may think of his writing (uneven, ranging from the best of the best to the worst of the worst) he combined a naturally adventurous spirit, enormous personal physical courage, and a capacity for marrying well that allowed him to indulge in various adventures such as safaris and deep-sea fishing. Couple all that with the fact that he also wrote as a war correspondent, and his life makes for great reading. He is, however, the only post-World War Two writer I can think of about whom that is true.

Since Stephen King is, by his own admission, severely, chronically, and habitually anal compulsive about his craft, it is proof of his genius as a writer that On Writing is as entertaining as it is.

I had forgotten how good King can be. On Writing is, to be honest, the first book of his I’ve read in a long, long time, but it brought back my own memories of the first of his books that I ever did read, back around 1980. It was The Shining, and I read it in the safety and security of my own tiny little hillside home, my very first house, in the Hollywood hills overlooking the back lot of Universal Studios. I was training for my second-degree black belt and thought I was a lot tougher than I really was; the house was buttoned up for the night; my wife and son were peacefully asleep in their beds; and that damned book scared me so badly I sat up until three in the morning to finish it, and then had to go from light switch to light switch to make it the bedroom. Oh, yeah, I was a tough guy alright.

But that’s good writing.

On Writing doesn’t provide the thrills and clammy sweat of most of his work. What it does is provide a very candid glimpse into his personal history and his triumphs in overcoming a childhood of grinding poverty, and an early adulthood of chronic alcoholism and drug addiction. Perhaps all this is known to his legions of fans, but it both caught me off-guard and inspired me, which is, of course, why he chose to tell his story the way he did. If he can overcome that degree of alcoholism and addiction (he claims to have no memory of writing Cujo) then by golly, Junior, you too can get your life in order regardless what your problems might be.

Woven through the personal inspiration theme are his comments and observations and suggestions for those people who have succumbed to the writing illness. (It’s like addiction, only different.) Most of it is very, very good advice, and like Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird, it combines practical nuts-and-bolts advice with humor, charm, and encouragement. If I have a criticism (and who the hell am I to criticize Stephen King?) it’s that he tends to assume his work habits and goals will work for everyone. He talks about making sure you don’t leave your desk until you get your daily two-thousand words down. Say what, Steve?! Two-thousand words? I go through periods where I’m lucky to get two-thousand words down in an entire week.

Which brings up another small criticism. King recommends getting the story down as quickly as possible (two thousand words a day quickly) and worrying about the polish later. That’s fine for him, but as even he points out, some authors prefer to polish as they go, reworking each sentence before they go on to the next one. The point is, each of us works differently, and what works for Mr. King might not work for you or me or Malcolm Brooks or Donna Tartt.

King also does a very funny send-up of writing classes, the frightfully serious and studious kind of instruction where students read each other’s work and criticize it for the—theoretically—edification of the writer. King’s advice (and, for what it’s worth, mine) is that such classes are complete waste of time. First of all, who made the guy or gal at the next desk God and gave him or her a pipeline to the taste and Weltanschauung of the reading public? More importantly, who taught Homer to write? Who taught Shakespeare, Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, Hemingway, Faulkner? The only way to learn how to write, as King points out, is to write and read, read and write. Do it obsessively, do it constantly, and then read and write some more.

And one of the books you should read is Stephen King’s On Writing.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I really enjoyed Stephen King’s “On Writing.” Lots of helpful stuff. Recently, I discovered “2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love” by Rachel Aaron. Easily the best 99 cents I’ve spent in a long time.

    By the way, how about Suetonius’ “The Twelve Caesars,” huh? Some of the stuff in the chapter on Tiberius reads like it’s from the National Enquirer of the ancient world!

  2. Anonymous says:

    If you read the Shining then you should read his new book Doctor Sleep. That was a great book It is scary and really good.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Nice summary, and now I want to read it. I had sort of drifted away from Stephen King along about “The Dark Tower”. And then I made the mistake of reading “Apt Pupil” and couldn’t get it out of my head. I loved his early works, but I’ve come to realize I’m too much of a lightweight to muscle through the newer stuff. Scared is one thing … physically ill is another. Gah … The memoir though–that has possibilities.


  4. Anonymous says:

    I had a Creative writing class in high school. The students would write poems and short stories. Then the teacher would have us grade each other’s papers. I don’t remember very much teaching going on. This didn’t help improve my writing. I did get an A. When I went to. College I had to take a composition class. We allwrote some short stories. I wrote one that the teacher sent back that had comments about how bad my writing was and how many cliches I used. Then he told me to rewrite it. I didn’t do any better the second time. The other classes were just as bad. By the end of that year I gave up any idea that I could be a writer. Truthfully, that was my father’s idea. He wanted to see a writer and never was one. Of course, we were all blamed for his failure.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Stephen King est un écrivain vraiment talentueux. J’ai lu, il y a longtemps, Simetierre, Carrie, Christine et à chaque fois, j’étais terrorisée. Le film “la ligne verte” qui a été fait à partir d’un de ces livres est vraiment haletant.
    Je n’ai plus lu Stephen King depuis longtemps. Maintenant, je vis seule dans une maison et je n’ai pas envie de dormir toute la nuit avec la lumière allumée.
    J’admire ces écrivains qui savent écrire avec une telle facilité. Je me demande parfois où ils trouvent toutes ces idées.
    C’est ma fille qui travaille dans une bibliothèque universitaire qui me ramène tous mes livres. L’un des prochaines livres que je lui demanderai, sera « l’écriture ». Vous m’avez donnée envie de le lire. Grâce à vous j’ai repris goût à la lecture.

  6. Anonymous says:

    JP I have had the shit scared out of me by this man for years! My husband introduced me to his writing and works when we got married and the latest Under the Dome! I have a lot of Stephen King favorites: Stand By Me, Delores Clayborne (Spelling), Carrie but don’t like the remake, Needful Things, the list can go on! I however suggest you not watch Misery as you are an author and this one would raise the hairs on your neck! Personally I don’t know how Stephen King comes up with these wild tails but he does a fantastic job! When I was younger my mom wouldn’t let me read his works 😛 She also would let me listen to bands like AC/DC either so I have both the music and the books now :). Enjoy Facebook JP I have tried to look you up I hope I got the right account with you and Gerald’s picture on it.

    Tena French Halifax, NS Canada

  7. Anonymous says:

    First–boy howdy, do I enjoy reading about ancient civilizations and other such in history. Not only is it(to me) incredibly fascinating(and often still relevant!), it usually makes me VERY APPRECIATIVE of the times I live in now, imperfect though they may be! Watching documentaries and dramatic period pieces of the same I also enjoy, which inspire me to read even more on the subjects! I’m completely HOOKED on that cable T. V series(I can’t afford cable, but I do buy used, cheaper DVD’s of stuff from such channels now and then) “Spartacus”, which shows the violence, treachery, low value of human life, cruelty, and exploitation of the Roman era BRILLIANTLY, if even pornographically at times! And has led to a flurry of reading on my part that has led me to realize what is portrayed in this INTENSE series is probably a rather mild depiction of the real history! Highly recommended, if you can stomach it(I got all of it, in bits and pieces, fairly cheaply used on Amazon). But it was terribly depressing to me at times–I’d have to intersperse Disney cartoons between viewing episodes of “Spartacus” to keep from going into a complete depressed funk while watching it! And I have caught myself actually screaming and/or cussing at the TV at times watching this series–anything that can elicit such a response,now THAT’S a good production! I’m ready now to start a slave rebellion myself, by gosh!…..And JP!!! How DARE you belittle yourself as a possible reviewer of such literature–man, the literary snobs have totally subordinated you, with thoughts like that!!! YOUR OPINION and thoughts are every bit as valuable as theirs, and would go to give–NO DOUBT!– unique perspectives on the subjects, and perhaps inspire others more similar to your own cultural perspectives to read for themselves, that otherwise would never have considered it! Shame! You don’t have to be “right” in your views–the most incorrect views in the world can still be incredibly interesting and enlightening. An example(of course I’d have an example!) comes to mind–in your own state of California, the last “wild” Indian Ishi the Yahi(INCREDIBLE individual–more recommended reading there!), taken in by anthropologists at the turn of the 20th century and housed in the museum in San Francisco, upon being taken to a “Passion Play” about the Christ, when asked what he thought afterwards, felt that Jesus, being such a public trouble maker, was justifiably crucified! Whether or not one agrees with this “primitive” view, it is incredibly interesting and food for plenty of thought! I’d personally LOVE to read some thoughts from an actor-writer-cowboy on Ovid and Homer, etc.!……And “artistic” writing professionals writing about how to write–well sure, check those things out if you must, but I’d FAR RATHER read simple, clear writing from an unlettered adventurous “storyteller”–actual events straight from the horse’s mouth, in other words– than all the pretentious blather and meaningless(even IF beautifully constructed!) drivel a pedestal-teetering professional can peck, scribble, or dictate! And when the writer has REAL ABILITY AND GREAT stories AND adventures, it is unbeatable! Just my opinion. And a coupla writers like that I’ve read include Bodio and YOU, JP, and don’t let the writer snobs tell you otherwise! If they do so, give ME their names and addresses, and I’ll go bludgeon them with a hardback copy of “Accidental Cowboy”!!! Having lived closely with the BEST BLUFFERS/BLUDGEONERS on the planet– wild chimpanzees– I’ve learned how to promote MY OPINION quite effectively!…..the old, wordy L. B.

    • Anonymous says:

      “Old” as in elderly? Or old, as in the original LB to contribute to this blog. The wordiness is self explanatory and very enjoyable indeed.

      The other LB

      • Anonymous says:

        Both– although “elderly” is a matter of perspective, of course. Wasn’t it Francis Bacon who said “Old is anyone 15 years older than oneself!” So, people 40 and younger think I’m old….Why don’t I use my first initial for future clarification–it usually never has any other purpose, as my parental units, for some odd and confusing reason, made my call name my middle name. This would keep anyone from confusing us, and I’m fully aware what an embarrassment I can be at times. Like a bumper sticker I had once stated–“Please excuse me, I was raised by wolves.” Which in my particular case, is not far from the truth…….A.L.B.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I have never heard of any of those writers except for Ovid and Homer. I have read Stephen King’s books and I remember reading the Iliad and the Odyssey in high school. Writing one thousand words a day sounds like an assignment for an English class or worse yet an assignment that a teacher gives you on the first day of school “Today, students I want you to write two hundred word on “What I did on my summer vacation. ” Students” groan”. What you would end up with was stuff that sounded like this. What I did on my summer vacation. On our vacation we went to the lake We went swimming in the lake and the water was cold. There were fish in the lake and a lot of kelp. Well, you get the idea.

    • Anonymous says:

      Anon-8/14/2014 at 11:52–you got about 160 more words to finish up there…..But about Stephen King specifically–I’ve read a few of his books too–really liked them all, except, dang, they were often DEPRESSING–he develops these SPLENDID well-rounded characters that you can really relate to, then brutally kills them off one-by-one! And wasn’t it Stephen King who was once asked where he got his imagination from by an interviewer, and he replied “I have the heart of a child”…pause….”I keep it in a jar on my desk!”…..the wordy(but never very big words) L. B.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I must say that the T Shirt that Stephen King is wearing is unusual. It is a day of the dead skull wearing an Elvis custom and smoking a cigarette. I think the cigarette explains why this skull died. I wonder where he got that shirt.

  10. Anonymous says:

    We need an official link to your Facebook page–just to make it easier to find the official you.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Hi JP

    Thank you for this book review.

    Regarding your point about King’s advice to get 2,000 words written per day and then polish later, I can see how that advice might work best for stories with involved, complicated plots and many characters, or very fast paced plots, rather than more singular plots or more descriptive literature in which the precisely chosen words, punctuation and sentence structure become the rhythm of the piece, and do as much contribute to the sense and feel and emotion of the story line as the actual plot and characters.

    Also, I guess everyone’s brains work differently, some can spit out the most fascinating works as if their brains are on fire with ideas and words flowing effortlessly through from grey matter to fingertips, almost as if their own mundane thoughts might interfere with the process. “To hell with polish, I’ve got a story that needs out of my head.”

    Me, I buff as I write, if not polish. And only dream of a life of writing 2,000 words per day, polished, buffed or otherwise.

    The other LB

    • Anonymous says:

      Speaking of “buff”, since I can’t “type”, I have a REALLY BUFF right index finger!….A.L.B.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know if Stephen King had any other job besides writing. You have a ranch to run and horses to take care of so don’t be so hard on yourself. I admire anyone who write well. I wish I knew how to write stories and poems. I have tried to write and end up looking at a blank piece of paper with no idea of how to even start.
    By the way what the heck is the Peloponnesian War? I don’t know any of these things. In high school we had one year of World History. When I say one year I mean from September until the middle of June. Every class was an hour. Also, this does not include the three week Christmas break, the one week Spring break or all of the half days and whole days we had off for one reason or another. This why American public schools are awful. There also days when the students were forced to go to pep rallies for the football team. I think I will just quote Paul Simon “When I think back on all the crap I’ve learned in high school It’s a wonder I can think at all.”

  13. Anonymous says:

    Well, you know, I should think maintaining a blog like this would certainly count for that 2,000 word thing……A.L.B.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know if any one has seen this show it is called “Under the Dome”, but it is based on Stephen King’s book. Right now the show is in season two and you never know what is going to happen. Stephen King also wrote a lot of the episodes himself. What happens when a small town is cut off from the rest of the county? Sometimes the answer is not pretty.

  15. Anonymous says:

    The following story is true. Today I thought “Why don’t I go to the library and look for some book?” I had some banking business to take care of and after that I went to the library. I usually check the new book section. They didn’t have a lot. So I thought I would browse the website and see what new books were available. There were not many. I went in to one aisle with the purpose of finding a book that was listed. That book did not look like anything I would enjoy reading. I noticed that behind me there were books by the authors Preston and Child, but I had already read the newest one and the others looked outdated. Then I saw an author named Steven Pressfield and a book called “Tides of War” I wondered what that book was about so I pulled it off the shelf. It said “A novel of the Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War.” What? Well, I knew I had to check the book out of the library and I did. I was not looking for any thing about this war and I never heard of the author before. I just thought that this was a strange coincidence.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Hello JP,

    I guess it’s right that concerning whatever art one can learn a lot of techniques and so on. Surely everyone can improve to a certain extend but without inherent talent that one is sentenced to mediocrity. Of course cannot each writing, composing, painting and so on be masterstroke but artists need to develop.

    Two months ago I went to theater with my daughter. It was the so called “Kinder- und Jugendtheater” in Bonn/Beuel. The protagonists were two young boys aged eleven and twelve. Their performance was amazing! A week later I went to another theater with two friends of mine. We were exspecting a funny evening because the play was announced as a Western-comedy (mmh)…
    We left during the break because I swear to you that each of those young boys had more acting talent to in their little finger than the entire ensemble of the other play…

    Best wishes


  17. Anonymous says:

    So glad you found King’s On Writing. I have a dog-eared copy – it’s my go-to book when I feel the need for some writing inspiration. For some reason, just the right points speak to me at different times (just when I need it).
    My best to you as always,
    Sheepherder Cat

  18. Anonymous says:

    I, like my blog partner Cat, have found King useful, both as a reality check and as a help in teaching writing students. Though this helpful book wasn’t around back when Annie P. dumped me into the deep end of the pool to teach writing at Wildbranch all those years ago, King has always been interested in, and thoughtful about the act of writing and how to communicate it.

    2000 words? Certainly not as a daily quota, but when hot and closing in on the end of a long narrative, sure! On the other hand,when I am trying to start something that doesn’t want to go, it is like constipation. But I think when King says just write without self- editing, I think he is saying something that Natalie Goldberg, a gifted writing teacher from northern New Mexico, puts more bluntly: “Write lots of shitty drafts!”

    I knew this principle intuitively from writing my own books, and even advised it at Wildbranch, but she raised it to a maxim, one I tell to every beginner and every blocked writer– and one I am now telling myself to do with long- stalled my Silk Road dog book. Write down everything, kitchen sink, digressions, silly stuff– EVERYTHING. Go long and sloppy. You may not use half of it, but digressions may spawn whole new books or articles. Sometimes, at least when my hands worked better, I did these on paper so I could make diagrams and drawings and link things up with big arrows and save them. I STILL print and save ones so all my details are there when it gets REALLY cold.

    That is the other thing. Do NOT go and edit when you finish, unless you have a magazine deadline or something else pressing– and I think only the prospect of pay or class deadline should hurry you! Put them away for a week. Then you will see clearly what is good, what is weak, what is irrelevant– and what may spin you into a whole new article or story or even book. It has happened…

    And if you don’t know what to do with it, put your shitty draft away for a year or so, and be amazed at what you wrote.

    I am going to try to get Malcolm to pitch in here or at my place from his whirlwind fly- to- a- new- city- every- night book tour– amazing experience for a writer’s first book, but his thoughts would be interesting here compared to those of an old mostly non- fiction guy like me.

    Oh, and a sort of PS: another book on writing worth a look for fictioners is a little hard to find, and my copy has “walked”. But look for a book on writing by the late George V Higgins, master of Boston crime, lawyers, and Boston speech.

    Steve Bodio

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