Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Book Review: On Writing by Stephen King

When I was fourteen, I bought a copy of Cujo at a second hand bookstore with my allowance. The movie was already in the cinemas but I was either too young or too scared to go see it--probably both. Using my faulty adolescent logic, I concluded that reading a story about a rabid dog wouldn't be quite as intense. That afternoon I curled up under my bedroom duvet and read with a voracity and terror I had yet to experience.

Prior to Cujo I had never thought myself to be a particularly strong reader. Oh, I'd read my share of books, but all in small doses, rarely able to finish a chapter without a healthy blank stare or a trip to the refrigerator. In Cujo I'd finally found a story--or storyteller--that over-road my habitually short attention span. I went on to read Carrie, Firestarter, Dead Zone, The Shining, and, my all time favourite, The Green Mile. So when his memoir, On Writing, was making the rounds through the Birkenstocks, I snapped it up. Whether you appreciate his subject matter is immaterial--the man can write.

On Writing begins and ends as a memoir. He writes of his childhood, contributing to his brother's newspaper, Dave's Rag, and his first rejections in his early teens. By the age of 14 he had to change the nail that supported his rejection slips to a spike, and then "went on writing." He admits he spent a lot of time feeling ashamed about what he wrote. Thanks to his mother and, later, his wife, he kept at it anyway. He writes of his successes and failures with a candor any reader could appreciate. I won't spoil it for you by saying any more.

The middle section he refers to as a Toolbox--his advice on how to write better. He admits that this section was the most difficult to put down on paper. It's not easy to write explicitly what comes intuitively. But he manages it well, retaining much of the conversational tone of the first section, which he termed his C.V.. After all, if I'd wanted Strunk and White's, The Elements of Style, I would have picked that up instead. I liked that he admits to flailing a bit during a first draft and that he includes a before and after example of his own revision process. Considering his own lingering doubts as to whether writing can be taught at all, he did good job of it.

The book concludes with his 1999 encounter with a light blue Dodge van, his slow and painful recovery, and his message to be brave--to write.

Thanks, Mr. King. I think I will.

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