Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I Can't Believe I Haven't Read This Book Before

Book Reviewed: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King

I've only read a small handful of Stephen King books, but I've always been a fan of the man himself. He writes a lot of reviews and essays, and I enjoy getting a glimpse into his mind. He's a successful writer without pretensions or snobbery. Somehow, he's managed to earn lots of money and fans without changing his basic personality as a blue-collar nerd. He's proof that sometimes people who work hard at their craft are rewarded in great ways. So why haven't I read his memoir/writing guide before now?

For years, I was a huge book snob. I wouldn't read genre fiction at all, and I had no time for anything that smacked of the fantastical. It's only in the last couple years that I've discovered how much fun Stephen King can be. I've also come to the conclusion that he's not as one-note as I thought. He gets how people work, and his work is surprisingly well-rooted in basic human patterns. A couple years back, I read Salem's Lot and enjoyed it immensely. Since then, I've discovered a deep love for genre fiction. It's safe to say that now I understand why Stephen King is so universally loved. It was finally time to read On Writing.

On Writing is a really good book, which shouldn't have surprised me. King loves the act of writing so much that it's hard not to get excited about it, too. The first half of the book lets King explore some of the most important or memorable moments of his life as they relate to his development as a writer. The second half works as a writing guide, in which King explains his own writing habits and hands out some advice. I tend to hate writing guides, as they are often a lot of bluster and little action. This is not one of those guides. King is funny and opinionated, and he clearly just wants readers to go out and write what makes them happy. There's some genuinely great advice in here, including some tips I might steal for my own purposes.

The book's final pages center on the horrible accident that nearly killed King a decade ago. He was in the middle of writing this book when a car hit him as he was out on a walk. The accident almost turned fatal, and King spent months afterwards having to relearn how to walk and sit for long periods of time. Writing was hard, but he kept himself going at it. He credits it with helping him heal. Much like the alcoholism and drug problems that nearly derailed him in his younger years, the accident eventually taught him a lesson about the two things that made his life worth living: his loving family and writing. The book is as much a love letter to writing as it is a memoir.

There's a passage from On Writing that I think I'm going to adopt as a slogan. King tells a story about a giant desk he bought in 1981 and placed right in the middle of his study. During that time, he was usually wasted and incapable of dealing with real life. After getting sober, he moved the desk to a corner and turned the room into more of a den where his kids could come hang out with him somtimes. King ends this story with a wonderful piece of advice: "It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around." I love that quote because it's so honest and against the instinctive thought process of so many writers. Writing adds to the joy of life, but it should never replace the actual living. That's some damn good advice. Maybe if more writers listened to King, they wouldn't be such pretentious bastards all the time. Myself included.

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