Thursday, August 11, 2011
Book Review: On Writing
by Stephen King
* * * * */ 5
The King: Wisdom and a one-on-one session
This is an awesomely magnificent book. Whatever opinions you may have regarding his fiction novels, suspend them all and read this as if peeping into the life of a professional writer. Stephen King is an all-time bestselling novelist and some beautiful movies have been made from his books too (The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, The Shining, come to mind immediately). I can understand that genre fiction is looked down upon by some elitists and reading horror stories may not be everyone's fare. But this book has got nothing to do with any of that. This book proves that Stephen King is an immensely great, accomplished and successful storyteller.
There are good forewords to this book, 3 of them actually, where King (I will call him King because he is one) explains how he came to write this book. Nothing to do with his own success in the craft but because he needs to clarify the art and craft of storytelling.
The book is not an autobiography. It is full of entertaining anecdotes that lead up to how he became who he is. I love anecdotal books (such as Surely you are joking Mr. Feynman! By Richard Feynman and At Ease stories I tell to friends by Dwight D Eisenhower) and this one is a treasure. Starting from his earliest memories as a toddler to mischief with his partner - elder brother, to high school days, college and marriage, we are taken on a fantastic voyage as King discovers the world around him and explores the talent within him. It is written in casual, conversational style, with great style! You can't help but picture him in the situations he mentions. It is not just entertaining but a lesson in living with his wise conclusions and mentions of turning points that led him to a fulfilling career as a writer.
Not everything is funny. Many of the anecdotes stand out and make you wonder at the complexities of life. Raised by a single parent - his mother, the tough jobs King did even after passing out from college, how King related to the creation of his breakthrough novel "Carrie" where he recounts his memory of 2 unfortunate girls in his school, etc are moving and emotionally impactful. The support he received from his dedicated loving wife is also quite heart-warming to read. His was not an easy life growing up or as a father and husband - but he remembers it fondly and has endured it in great spirits. He even recounts the very personal account of his struggle with alcoholism and drug abuse. He overcame those addictions and gave up cigarette smoking as well.
But all this is just a background, a buildup toward how he became a professional writer and maintained his success.
The book continues and reveals his thoughts on the process of writing. This reveals his process of writing based on his ideas that come to him from paying attention to the story when the story presents itself. He says the story is not made, the story makes itself. He mentions how he comes up with a unique situation and lets his characters thrive in the situation, thus surprising himself with a story which he discovers as a writer transcribing the goings on in the situation and the characters in them. He likens this process to unravelling a fossil in the ground. He does not approve plotting and writing to the plots restrictions. He compares the plot to a jackhammer being used to excavate a fossil, preferring instead to take time with a writers basic tools to excavate the delicate fossil which is the story idea. He doesn't know how his stories will end until he writes the final word.
He discusses and gives examples of various stages of writing and getting it published. This may not be a comprehensive guide on everything there is to know about writing but it paints for us a clear picture through his vast experience in the field of the craft.
In the last few chapters King shares his painful experience of getting hit by a van. Serious injuries he sustained and his thought process at the time are mentioned in detail. The description is powerful and emotional and makes you feel as if you are witnessing it all right in front of you.
There is more than enough positivity and encouragement and wisdom in this book - it should get you started and motivated to pen your own epic. You can even see this book as a fine non-fiction to enrich your life, not just a book on the art of writing.