Sunday, October 08, 2000

Review: "On Writing" by Stephen King

What aspiring writer could resist a book on the craft from one of the most successful authors in the world?

In Stephen King's "On Writing," (Scribner) readers may get something slightly different from what they bargained for. Instead of offering yet another instructional book on the craft, King has instead chosen to show how his life experiences have shaped his fiction.

The first half of the book is more of a memoir than a how-to-write book. In this, the most intriguing part of the book, we follow King from his childhood in a dysfunctional family, through school and his first novels, to his battle with drugs and alcohol in the early to mid-1980s. With scenes that are sometimes humorous, sometimes touching and often graphic, we get a feel for the person behind the most successful horror novels in the world.

While his story is probably not that different from many other people, if you are familiar with his work, you'll see the traces of it in his early life. When he replays some of the scenes of his childhood or young adulthood, you can see elements from a number of the stories he's written.

One of the most insightful of these stories is about the novel "Misery." Written at the height of his dependence on drugs and alcohol, it turns out the novel is a statement about his condition at the time. Annie Wilkes represents the drugs and alcohol which tortured and imprisoned King, just as Annie did the fictional writer Paul Sheldon in the novel.

Eventually, with the intervention of his wife Tabitha, King would get his act cleaned up - which brings him to the intended purpose of "On Writing."

The middle section of the book is where King gets down to the nitty gritty of the craft. He offers ideas on inspiration, work ethic and a few on editing and grammar. This section, while informative and helpful in a lot of ways, is also the dullest part of the book. With the exception of a few jabs at some of his contemporaries and the occasional humorous anecdote, it's a pretty standard how-to-write manual.

The final section of the book discusses the 1999 accident that almost killed him, his struggle with recovery and the problems he encountered when he first began to write again.

This section provides one of the most poignant moments in the book. King is laying broken at the side of the road. "My lap appears to be sideways, as if my whole lower body has been wrenched to the right," he writes.

Bryan Smith, the man that ran over King, comes down into the ditch and sits cheerily on a stump.

"Please tell me it's just dislocated," King says.

"Nah," Smith replies, still cheery. "It's broken in five, I'd say maybe six places."

"Some weeks later, it occurs to me that I have nearly been killed by a character right out of one of my own novels. It's almost funny," King writes.

Indeed Smith, or at least King's description of him, does resemble some of the characters the author writes about - as do so many other things King reveals in this book.

While "On Writing" is not likely to become a textbook for college creative writing courses, it does provide an entertaining glimpse into King's life and the things that shaped his writing. Which is, I think, what most of his fans will want out of it anyway.

No comments: