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On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I’ve never read any of Stephen King’s novels – I have nothing against him, I’m just not into the horror genre. So when I saw his book about writing included in a list of must-reads, I was intrigued. It turns out, it’s one of Time Magazine’s 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time (although I didn’t know that at the time). His name is so well known, dozens of his books have been made into movies, but I strangely knew very little about this ubiquitous author. I picked it up for the purpose of professional development, but he also beautifully weaves in stories about his own life, making it a nice mix of teaching and memoir.

I’ve read a number of books about writing and King’s book reiterated many of the pieces of advice other authors have recommended. However, what set this book apart for me was how he spoke about the origin of the plots in his novels. I’ve never had the inclination to write fiction. I don’t have much of an imagination, honestly, so my writing has always been journalistic, memoir, or academic. The concept of coming up with a storyline, characters, and setting from scratch feels completely outside of my skill set. But the way he talked about his writing process made it seem much more accessible to me. All of his stories are initially grounded in his own life experience or observations. He would see or have a strange or awkward interaction and then let his mind wander, constructing a potential narrative around it. Almost like curiously asking “what if…” about people’s motivations and life circumstances over and over again (in his case, getting stranger and creepier as he goes).

As I mentioned, the book is both about writing as a craft and about his own life and the stories from his childhood have really stuck with me. He started a magazine when he was quite young — he sold it at his school and his classmates absolutely loved it. But he would get into trouble for his stories and was told by his teachers that they were inappropriate. One teacher said something to him about wasting his talents on smut, establishing a suspicion in him from a very young age that his interest in horror was not only low-brow but maybe even immoral.

Stephen King is still seen as low-brow in many circles, not only because of his genre but also because he’s so prolific. It’s like when you become commercially successful and churn out “too many” books, the quality of your work is considered to be diluted somehow. Why wouldn’t this make him more of a genius? Again, I haven’t read any of his novels, but I know he’s the only writer in history to have over 30 books become number-one best sellers! Just because it’s not a type of writing we enjoy doesn’t mean we can’t give him the respect he deserves.

The final section of the book tells the story of a horrific accident he had in 1999 where he was hit by a car. The story is haunting and, even as King is lying on the ground on the side of the highway, sure that he is going to die, he can’t help but notice that the driver of the offending car sounds like a character that might show up in one of his novels. King describes the strange feeling of realizing his life was imitating his creepy art.

There is plenty of helpful writing advice in this book, but I think almost anyone would enjoy reading it. The stories of his life are compelling and I think even his advice on writing could be applied to many different aspects of someone’s life and/or career. Anyone who is interested in a good story, some general career advice/inspiration, and encouragement about leaning into what you’re naturally interested in and good at (regardless of what people say) will enjoy this book!

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