Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Review of Stephen King's On Writing

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
Book Review by Pat laFleur

Stephen King almost didn’t finish his memoir, On Writing, because, while out for an afternoon walk, he was struck by a blue Dodge van and almost died. As it turns out, this event will become the conclusion to his book. As an ending, it works, and not because he’s known best for a suspenseful and horrific storyline. It works because King isn’t just writing about writing. He’s writing about what it means to live, and almost die, an artist.

Well, okay, let’s back up: this is a book on writing... writing fiction. King hammers this point, again and again, actually. He discusses craft technicalities like dialogue, paragraph, character development, and others -- things that might cause artists of other disciplines to look the other way. But, to borrow a phrase, let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? That would be a mistake.

As much as King sculpts a model of a writer, he also frames a particular view on what it means to create. Oddly enough for King, creativity is less an act of creation than one of discovery. He repeatedly refers to his stories as fossils, and he is the archaeologist. A story is buried in the earth, he says, describing the common notion, among writers anyway, that stories often take themselves in directions he never imagined, and he warns beginning writers against plotting too heavily. Instead, he prescribes a more spontaneous, exploratory approach. In other words, King offers a model of the artist as a sort of medium, transmitting something perhaps beyond his or her conscious self.

Whether this fits your method or not, King’s chorus sings the importance of... well, being methodical. Write. Paint. Sculpt. Sing. Whatever your craft, make it routine. And read, view, or listen to others even more. No doubt this will seem obvious to serious artists everywhere, but to King, it’s just that simple. It’s action. It’s habit. It’s impulse.

Because writing fiction is King’s linchpin here, it’s true that his memoir has its limits for other types of artists. King’s writer is, in certain ways, a lonely soul, working mostly behind a closed door. Many would cringe at such a solitary prospect, but even certain writing circles should see how King makes little room for more collective types of composition, like writing workshops (King hates these), collaborative digital texts, or social media.

In the end, though, King prescribes finding your method and sticking to it. He admits: this is hard and takes patience. But, it might even save your life, pulling you back into yourself, even after a blue Dodge tries to knock you out of it. If you are an aspiring writer, this is a must-read, hands-down. King is not preachy, but firm and real. There’s no sugarcoating; making it as a writer is damn hard. And if you’re an aspiring artist of any kind, note how we turn 100 pages before King digs into the technicalities of writing itself. The rest tells the story of a craft in practice. For this reason, it’s a must-read for artists of all stripes.

****As a writer myself, I’d be remiss if I didn’t trim this review with a few of my favorite Kingisms on writing:

1.    “Put vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it. One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary.... This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes.”
2.    “If you can remember all the accessories that go with your best outfit, the contents of your purse, the starting lineup of the New York Yankees or the Houston Oilers, or what label ‘Hang On Sloopy’ by The McCoys was on, you are capable of remembering the difference between a gerund and a participle.”
3.    “The adverb is not your friend.”
4.    “...the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing -- the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words.”
5.    “Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.”

For more information about Pat laFleur you can check out his blog for more details.

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