A Quill Pen

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

by Steven King

June 2004 book review
by Collie Collier

King has actually written two books here. One is a surprisingly candid review of his memories of childhood and young adulthood. The other is about the craft of writing, and it is followed up with an equally candid examination of his almost fatal accident in 1999.

In some ways perusing someone else's memories, good as well as bad, is almost embarrassing, voyeuristic. You feel faint shock or horror at the grinding poverty, you guiltily try to remember if you were one of the abusers of the odd-kids-out in school, you read between the lines of his life experiences and wonder if this or that dreadful occurrence became part of one of King's books.

In other ways it's almost a relief to discover other people have the same feelings and concerns, albeit on different scales, as you had. Oh, good, someone else despised the popularity contest of high school! How nice to see you're not the only one who's had a half-guilty love affair with good writing all their life. What a relief to discover someone else who realizes memory is but chemical reactions in the brain, constantly being re-learned -- who remembers montages of scenes, rather than gleefully reciting every teacher they'd had since kindergarten.

King's depiction of his life is direct, brutally honest, and convincing, regardless of whether he's describing the thought-process of addiction, the embarrassments of growing up, or the shock and relief of making one's first big book sale. He does not spare himself, but neither does he engage in excessive second-guessing -- he simply tells you what he knows and remembers.

In fact, the only reflection he gives is on himself. Admittedly, considering how different and subjective shared memories are, and how often people become stubbornly convinced they alone remember the "truth with a capital T," this is probably the safest thing for him to do. Nevertheless, his looking back on himself is almost wistful in tone, as he reviews some of his books as reflections of his life.

He would appear to embody the old saw about writing what you know, as he quite bluntly states Misery and The Tommyknockers were created by his non-conscious mind pouring forth increasingly gruesome metaphors for his own growing addictions.

He is regretful about Cujo, which he considers a good book, but (again, due to his addictions) cannot really remember writing. Also, although he does not say as much, just as he has cleaned up his life with the help of his dedicated wife, family, and friends, so too does his writing in his later books seem cleaner and more effective.

The portion of the book dedicated to the craft of writing has a similarly clean style, much as he espouses. However, he takes the time to convincingly explain the 'why' of why one should write so.

He gives helpful examples of his own work in both original and edited form (it's surprisingly hard to implement his dictum: Second draft = First draft - 10%!). With carefully chosen, fascinating examples from other books, he indulges his love of vocabulary, clean grammar, and precise word choices.

He displays an easy familiarity with Strunk & White's Elements of Style, or perhaps it is more of a old and long-standing friendship. In almost the same paragraphs he strongly points out good writing excludes "airy-fairy" snobbishness, and exhorts you to write, to write what you know -- not to be intimidated by the pretentious.

There is obvious pleasure in his reviews of the elements of a good story. Paragraphs as building blocks, the lightning flash of curiosity which leads to a brand new plot, and the necessity of good character "voice" and development are all explored through quotes from favorite (and not-so-favorite) authors.

His literary models are far-ranging in subject matter and writing style, and he suggests the same for his readers. As he repeatedly notes, you learn what is good and bad through experience -- if you haven't got time to read, you haven't got time to write.


I don't care for most of King's early books -- I'm not much of a horror fan. I've read one or two of his later, non-horror books, though, and found them fun. Admittedly, they're not "Great Literature," but as he astutely points out, why feel guilty about that if you're successfully supporting your loved ones?

I enjoyed this book also. Not only were the autobiographical notes refreshing in their candor, they were downright inspiring. It's a pleasure to read about someone else's joys, fears, and pains, and be able to see a little bit of yourself as well -- to know you're not alone in your feelings.

It's even nicer to be able to share, however vicariously, the strength, courage, and determination shared between King, his wife, and his passion for writing. If the two of them can overcome such astonishing impediments and yet emerge battle-scarred-but-unbowed, then doubtless it will be that much easier for us who have so much smaller obstacles to overcome.

As King notes, we just have to keep trying and learning and trying again -- and eventually we'll make it.

Reader Comments

05.28.04: Casey's thoughts

I was fascinated by King's candor in the first part of the book. It was amazing to me how open he was about the early part of his life, especially the poverty and uncertainty of it all. I couldn't help but admire his wife who stood by him through all of the challenges. I was amazed at his being able to overcome his addiction and refocus his life into a productive creative pursuit. Talk about going against the odds.

I thought his information on the craft of writing was very interesting. Does anyone pay attention to these rules anymore???? It was particularly relevant since I was at the Bill Cosby event at Stanford Sunday. Basically, he is saying that if we do not teach our children correct English, shame on us.

Coming from a relatively conservative school background, private schools, etc, I am shocked at how little youngsters need to do to pass a class. I am appalled by music lyrics and their shock tactics. Although Cosby was addressing children who are victims of poverty, I do believe the problem is much larger and cuts across socio-economic borders.

Every adult, admired by young people in this country, rock stars, sports figures and movie stars, is setting very bad examples for young people to emulate. Bad language, drug addiction, criminal incarceration seem to be things to be emulated. Not good grades, values and behavior.

I thought the whole book was a testimony to someone with a brave spirit and good for him. I do hope the [book club] group enjoyed it. I read the beginning of the book pretty quickly and stalled out in the grammar section. The technical information didn't interest me that much. I was glad to see that he was clear about how to write well and understood grammar principles really well.

08.12.04: Lou's thoughts

(and replies from me)

Your sidebar: Why is thanks to Guthrum "oddly enough"? You learn things from people, and you spent enough time with Guthrum that I'm sure you learned things from him. I don't think that an odd thing to learn, nor it odd to mention it here. It almost seems backhanded to me to see that "oddly enough" like you're embarrased to admit it. I hope I'm reading too much in to it.

Hm, you're right -- on further review it could appear backhanded. I meant it more as a gently teasing thank you, since there were folks who found Guthrum quite intimidating.

Admittedly, I never did, but I know he had (probably still has) an extremely strong personal 'aura.' I've been told I do too sometimes, so maybe that's part of why we got along so well. ;)

I don't have much else to say about the review. It's clear and well done and talks about the positive parts of the book well. It doesn't have much negative to say, but I don't think you found much negative about it.