Stephen King Lives and Writes Through Situations

stephen_king_review_01112017Stephen King. 2010. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My primary writing project during the past year has been to write a memoir. Being new to the genre, I started by publishing my father’s memoir, enrolled in an online writing course, read numerous writing books, and reviewed a few good memoirs. Stephen King’s[1] book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, touches on each of these activities.

The breadth of this memoir comes as a surprise—what is a memoir of a craft anyway? King divides his memoir into several parts, including:

  • C.V. (17-101).
  • What Writing Is (103-137).
  • On Writing (141-249).
  • On Living: A Postscript (253-270).
  • And Furthermore, Part I: Door Shut, Door Open (271-284).
  • And Furthermore, Part II: A Booklike (285-288).
  • Further to Furthermore, Part III (289-291).

 His chapters are preceded by three forewords and, in spite of its length, this memoir reads quickly—but not too quickly. Still, the breadth of this work comes from the way that King weaves his life and his craft together—a visitor to the King house might be advised to forbear exploring the closets! What the heck; let’s explore.

King is an author and a household name. He has written numerous (35+) books, many of which have also appeared in film. As an example, his breakout work, Carrie, sold first as a paperback novel (1973) and was released three years later as a horror film.[2]

Interestingly, Tabitha, King’s wife, rescued an early manuscript of Carrie from the trash, as King recalls:

“I had four problems with what I’d written. First, … the story didn’t move me emotionally. Second, … I didn’t much like the lead character. Carrie White seemed thick and passive, a ready-made victim. … Third, … [I] was not feeling at home with either the surroundings or my all-girl cast of supporting characters. … Fourth, … the story wouldn’t pay unless it was pretty long. … I couldn’t see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell. So I threw it away.” (76-77)

But, confronted with his Ideal Reader (Tabitha) telling him that this manuscript had promise, King went back and gave Carrie his best shot.

This notion of an Ideal Reader is interesting. King writes for his wife, Tabitha, who happens also to be an author, which seems most fortunate because she can articulate her opinions to King in actionable language.[3] King explains:

“Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time: in the flesh once you open the door and let the world back in to shine on the bubble of your dream, in spirit during the sometimes troubling and often exhilarating days of the first draft, when the door is closed.” (219)

King sees the Ideal Reader as particularly helpful in judging story pace—“the speed at which your narrative unfolds”—and the details to include in your backstory—“all the stuff that happened before your tale began but which has an impact on the front story” (220-223).

Part of the back story in King’s memoir evolves into front story in his postscript where he describes in detail his experience of being run over by a Dodge van in June of 1999, while walking down a country road in rural Maine (253-255). This story of his near-death experience might have been just an interesting aside, except for the fact that King had motivational problems in finishing this memoir back in that summer (265). I suspect that his life story suddenly became a slightly higher priority, having been thrown 14 feet in the air (259) and improbably lived through the experience.[4]

Before I wrap up this review, let me make one more observation. King has an interesting view of plot. He describes plot as too big a hammer (a jackhammer) for normal use by fiction author and he prefers to motivate his characters through stressful situations (164). If you believe that we act out of our identities, then no two characters will respond the same way to a given tricky situation. How a story evolves out of a situation is therefore interesting and potentially surprising because people discover the character in themselves as they are challenged by life’s situations—we are ultimately strangers to ourselves; that is, until we are not. The thrill in the thriller is therefore hard to duplicate with a plot-line where the author already knows where the story will go and how it will get there—it is better to scrape the plot and discover the character the same way that a reader might. Therefore, King looks for strong situations and explores interesting what-if scenarios to challenge his characters and writes intuitively about how they respond (169).

Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, is an interesting and helpful book for wannabe and experienced authors both, because he explores both writing and the writing life. Film buffs might also read this book to garner the backstory on his films, many of which are now cult classics. Personally, I read this book mostly because I like to read and love to write—perhaps, you do too.

[1] http://StephenKing.com.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrie_(1976_film).

[3] My wife teaches mathematics and chemistry, seldom reading anything outside her field so my Ideal Reader is probably my mom who has trouble explaining her likes and dislikes.

[4] If it had been me, the improbability might have instigated a new interest in inspirational fiction, rather than memoir, in part, because it is more of a baby step away from other fiction and towards an explanation for why God was not through with me yet.

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