We’ve reached one of those rare books that I’ve actually never read before. Except oddly, this one feels like something I have read before. I think it’s just that familiar voice, the King voice, that I’ve grown very accustomed to over the years.
I’ve seen this book extensively quoted, of course. You can’t spend 10 years working as a writer and hanging out in writer’s forums and creative writing groups and attempting to do NaNoWriMo every damn year without running across quotes from this book. Or I can’t, anyway.
Before I ramble anymore about the ubiquity of quotes from this book in writer’s circles, I think I should go ahead and acknowledge that the name of this blog comes from a quote in this book. “Books are a uniquely portable magic.” I’ve been aware of the quote for years — it’s actually on my screensaver, which is a picture of a corkboard with a bunch of inspirational King quotes tacked to it. I’ve known that the content of the quote was true pretty much since I was old enough to read myself — ask the middle school teacher who noticed that I so reliably had a stack of books in my purse so that I could whip one out at any dull moment that she started telling the class on test days, “if you finish early and don’t have a book to read to keep you busy, go see Cheryl, she’s got extras.”
In other words, I absolutely agree with Stephen King’s words about the magic of books and the wonder of reading. (And, while I don’t want to get too into technology worship, a lightweight, portable device that lets you carry hundreds or thousands of books with you, available at a touch wherever you go? Ebooks are super ultra extra magic. Prove me wrong.) I call myself a writer, but I’m much more of a reader if I’m being honest. And the quote about how books are uniquely portable magic is one that spoke to me. I was not aware that it came from this book, but I don’t remember where I did get it either. I knew it was a Stephen King quote. Perhaps it was quoted in an article about him. Perhaps he said it in an interview. Or maybe I read an excerpt of On Writing somewhere and misremembered it as an interview or personal essay — that one sort of feels true.
Honestly, I haven’t read it because I mostly avoid reading anything that smells like self-help to me. I will not say that there is no useful advice to be found in the self-help section of the bookstore, but I will say that the books never appeal to me, and the advice mostly feels either inapplicable or so obvious that it didn’t need to be sold to me. And a whole lot of “how to write books” books are basically just self-help books with a writing focus. The exceptions would be actual reference books, like The Elements of Style, which are undoubtedly useful and full of good information, but not exactly the sort of book you sit down and read straight through. I knew that Stephen King was a prolific writer of fiction, my opinion (shared by many) is that he’s an extraordinarily skilled writer of fiction, but to my mind, that still didn’t mean that I wanted to read an instruction manual from him. After all, I figured, the vast majority of clearly talented, steadily working, regularly publishing authors still don’t write like Stephen King — listening to what he had to say on the subject was probably not going to be the thing that makes a person write like Stephen King, or more people would be doing it. And sometimes people who are very, very good at a thing are very, very bad at explaining how to do that thing to people less skilled. Which is frustrating if you’re the one being explained to.
I didn’t want to be frustrated by Stephen King (or frustrated at all — remember, I basically just don’t read this kind of book). And I definitely didn’t want to pick this book up and find out that this particular author, whose work means so much to me, was spouting the same old cliches about how to be a writer just because he could sell a book about writing. So I saw the quotes, and I saw people talk up the book, and I went ahead and avoided it anyway.
I was wrong. I guess I’d forgotten that Stephen King taught writing before making a living off of it full time. He’s good at it. I wish I had read this back when I was still interested in writing fiction. If I had, I might still be writing fiction. It sort of made me want to try my hand at fiction again anyway, even though that’s not really where my interests lie these days. And a lot of it is probably useful to the nonfiction writing that I still do.
I also hadn’t considered, when thinking about whether or not I wanted to read this book, how much I have always enjoyed reading the forewords, afterwords, and assorted author’s notes that appear in some of his books. Those sometimes contain information useful to actual or potential writers, and sometimes contain information about Stephen King’s life and self, and are mostly an enjoyable experience because reading them feels like having a pleasant conversation with a person who you respect and like, and who really isn’t nearly as intimidating as someone who’s published dozens of bestsellers should be.
This book is that, but more. It’s part memoir, it’s part King’s advice for people who want to write fiction, and it’s all enjoyable to read. That shouldn’t be surprising — that’s presumably the thing that makes the man so successful, that people enjoy reading what he writes — but it was surprising to me anyway, because I just so rarely have found this kind of book to be enjoyable. This is, though. It’s no wonder that it’s so popular in writer groups — it’s legitimate advice, from an author who’s undeniably successful, written in a way that’s actually a pleasure to read instead of making you want to stab your eyes out with pencils. That’s extremely rare. Extremely.
I don’t know if I would call On Writing required reading for people who aren’t interested in writing themselves, but I think it could be enjoyable if you just like reading, or if you’re the kind of person who wants to know more about the life of the person who writes the books you like. Because it’s both an enjoyable read and probably the closest thing to an autobiography we’re likely to get.
One more thing to note is that On Writing was apparently still unfinished on the day in 1999 when King, as a pedestrian, was struck by a van. If you’re much of a King fan at all, or if you were old enough to remember 1999, you’ll probably know much of this story. King could easily have died and was lucky to escape having his leg amputated. That accident colors much of his writing from here on out — and it starts here, when he finished On Writing in the aftermath of that accident.