Book Review: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft


On  Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King 

How can you go wrong with a book about writing from one of the most prolific, best-selling authors in America? OK, I suspect there are all kinds of ways, but never mind that. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a great read for readers, for writers, and for want-to-be writers.

The book is part autobiography, and part writing advice. There is a reason why King took that approach. Books about writing, King tells us, “are filled with bullshit”. So King takes the approach of telling us how he became a writer, and about how he writes. He offers quite a bit of advice from his own experience for others who want to become writers.

That approach means the book comes in two main parts. The autobiography in the first part of the book is his writing resume, titled “CV”. It focuses on King’s adventures in writing from an early age up through the publishing of his first book Carrie, and the big payday when the paperback rights were sold. At the end  of the CV King is forthright about the alcoholism and drug addiction that he has suffered, and the intervention organized by his wife that set him on the road back to sobriety.

Between the CV and the sections on writing is a section not quite five pages long called “What Writing Is”.  This, to me, was the best part of the book. It’s a beautifully written discourse on the relationship between writer and reader. Beautiful because it seems to come from the heart. You get a strong sense of “the voice” of Stephen King in this short piece. That voice comes from King’s attention in his writing to the relationship with his reader. It's part of what makes him one of the best known American storytellers alive.

The two sections that follow offer King’s advice on writing, and they are true to the “memoir” theme of the book. What King offers is advice based on his own experience and he’s not in the least trying to tell you otherwise. 

It’s somewhat of a hodge-podge. He brings out examples from his experience writing his own books (blood as a theme in Carrie is one). He contrasts plot with “situation” and says that he generally does not try to plot out his books. He starts from a situation (in Misery it’s “two people in a house”), and lets the story grow from there. King does remind you every once in a while that the advice is his advice. On how he revises his writing, for example, he pauses to contrast his way of doing it with that of Kurt Vonnegut. 

There are a lot of takeaways from these two sections - on vocabulary, and grammar, on when to write (pick a consistent time - King says mornings work best for him), on where to write, on first drafts and rewrites, on when to let others see your work (and who to include), and more.

The value of his approach isn’t that he gives you the answers on how to write. It’s that he covers many of the practicalities a writer ought to think about, and offers his own answers as a way of helping you think about what might work best for you.

It’s interesting to contrast this book with George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain - another great book on writing that I loved when I read it last year. The approach the two writers take is completely different. Saunders is trying to answer the question “What makes a great story work?”. King asks the question “What can I tell you from my own experience as a writer that may help you?” Because they start from different questions they’ve produced two very different books on writing, both of which are well worth your time.

Stephen King’s On Writing: A  Memoir of the Craft is a Five Star ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ read for me.

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Title: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Twentieth Anniversary Edition)
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Publish Date: June 2, 2020
ISBN-13: 9781982159375
Publisher’s List Price: $18.00 (Trade Paperback as of 03/2022)