By Chase Harrison
It is fitting that Stephen King’s On Writing begins with a preface describing a band that he performs in: the art of music is a generally more personal art than almost any other medium, and this prelude sets up an intimate and wide ranging exploration of the world around King that created the world within his voluminous body of work.
Part autobiography and part manual for writers, On Writing is written with the same attention to detail, wry sense of humor, and casual attitude towards the harrowing that marks King’s other works, but in this more personal and casual environment it is fascinating to find how much of his writing persona is found in his own life.
The autobiographical portion of the book focuses on King’s relationship with the world of literature, starting with his youthful obsession with horror comic books, cascading through his early days of writing Carrie while working as a high school teacher, and following his ongoing success through to present day. In a classic bit of King intrigue, there is a running, subtle thread underneath much of this portion of the book: King’s alcoholism. In between passages about his rising success and his thoughts about his individual works there are passing references to the fact that his memories of this period are foggy because of how drunk he was for much of that period (in a moment of sad comedy, he notes that he quite likes Cujo, despite the fact that he has no recollection of writing it). It is a thrilling account of the pre-internet process of becoming a famous author, with all the anachronisms and surreal moments that come with that setting, and is a great addition to the Stephen King canon in its own right.
The second half of the book is a typically opinionated account of what Stephen King considers to be good writing. The most important passage of the book unfolds when King undergoes an analysis of each of the elements of a book and notes what he likes to see and what he would rather avoid from those elements. Though his descriptions of his enjoyment are enjoyable, it’s more fun (and more educational) when he rips into specific authors and narrative and rhetorical devices that he hates. This is followed by a number of musings on the nature of writing, finishing with a gorgeous passage about the location of his desk, summing up perfectly the balance between art and the artist in unexpectedly saccharine prose from King.
On Writing displays the many sides that make up of Stephen King: excellent writer, broken and reformed man, avid consumer of all media, and overall a mind that is among the best of the 20th century. If your goal is to become a master of suspense, you may be disappointed, but if you want to become a better writer and a better person, you can’t do much better than On Writing.