Time is a harsh mistress. At the time of On Writing’s publication, Stephen King was 26 years into his career, and a year out from his near fatal car accident. Nearly twenty years and approximately 29 books later, it is hard to conceive that On Writing almost didn’t happen, and that King was going to retire. Perhaps it was the cry of Constant Readers who thought that they would never know what would become of Roland and his Ka-tet; perhaps King himself could not resist the call of the Beam. On Writing heralded the return of the King, and Constant Readers remain grateful to this day.
Stephen King, writer of several books that sold fairly well, was given the green light by Amy Tan to write a collection of his thoughts on how writing can and should work. Bookended by a recounting of his formative years — parts of which will be familiar to those who have read Danse Macabre — and a post script about life post car crash, On Writing sees King holding forth on what makes a novel, and how much he hates adverbs.
On Writing is passably interesting with its advice about how to write a novel, although apparently multiple authors have treated it as a bible. The level on which it is most engaging for all audiences is in its capacity for memoir; you can learn much about writing simply by finding out how King lived his life. The key elements in King’s career appear to be prolific, lifelong, reading and the presence of his wife, Tabitha. Without Tabitha, Carrie never would have been published, and without Carrie, King may still have found his way into the public consciousness, but without the almost immediate latitude the seventies public industry granted him.
Which is ironic: Carrie is a prime exemplar of the death of the author. King isn’t overly fond of the novel but, more importantly, he is not fond of Carrie White herself. He goes so far as to call her “that female version of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold”, which not only seems extreme, but supremely unfair. Carrie is not a heroine, but she’s not the villain of her story. Carrie lives on thanks to Tabitha, but King would have buried her before she’d even had a chance to snap.
Other than that, we want King to live. On Writing commenced before King’s fateful accident and was finished while he was recovering. The finished work is more meditative than one might have expected, but hey: King is happy to be alive. He passes these savings on to the reader, who receives an education in King’s tastes and what brings him personal satisfaction in life. What brings us personal satisfaction is insight into how he broke The Stand; the genesis of Misery; his regret at being too deep into his addictions to recall the composition of Cujo.
Based on his modern output one imagines that, in the last nineteen years, King’s stance on television has changed. In On Writing and Danse Macabre both, King decries the “glass teat”. 2000 was too late to still be holding on to this prejudice, especially from the perspective of a man who was alive for literally the entirety of the medium’s existence. We can chalk it up to residual resentment of Michael Crichton’s success with ER at the time (a theory made up entirely for this review), but by then King should have been able to recognise TV’s value: the entire run of Cheers had been well and truly broadcast by then.
Of course, the memoir element of On Writing would go on to influence the final entries of the Dark Tower cycle. On Writing does not mention the Dark Tower at all, but King’s life ultimately continued and continues thanks to the efforts of Roland Deschain. On Writing proves that, Carrie aside, King’s body of work serves as his life story, tracking where he is at various points in his life: the lean and hungry years; the constant parade of alcoholic fathers bleeding off the page in an era where he would not and could not admit that he had the very same problem; his morbid fixation on his childrens’ mortality; the nihilism of Bachman that carried over to his own work. On Writing does not reveal the secrets of all of King’s works, but it gives a feel for the man. He was wise to listen to Amy Tan, and lucky not to be manslaughtered.
Part of the reason that Stephen King has endured, and why he has so many fans who would defend him to the death, is because he is that rare author who feels like a friend. Even when you don’t like the finished result, you still like the person. On Writing is an interesting book regardless of the reader, but for the Constant Reader it is a valuable insight into the mind of a man who has provided thousands of pages of entertainment.