Sunday, July 19

Book Review: On Writing, by Stephen King

Since I can't get any creative writing done, even with my muse pouting at me, I might as well do something productive with the one free 24-hour day that I have. I've been meaning to share this book with others, if not physically, then in review. I have mentioned this in one or two earlier post(s), but I cannot refrain from voicing it out again. I looked for this book at the ELT section in Kinokuniya, where other writing instruction books are housed, but to no avail. Then I asked the ever-accommodating staff behind the counter. She directed me toward the Horror section, where Stephen King's name dominates at least two rows of the shelf. Stephen King, master of horrors. His books have been made into blockbuster movies. He has a cult following of his own. He has writers emulating him, his style, but with less success. There is only one Stephen King. Before I officially begin, if you're interested in this book to learn how to write like Mr King does, you may be in for a disappointment. This book is a memoir, a glimpse into his life. This book is about the man behind the bestselling author. Mr King starts off with his curriculum vitae, his CV. He describes snapshots of memories of his childhood, back when he was just Stevie. He used to be sick most of the time, and his family (his mother, his elder brother, and himself) moved around a lot. Their life had been far from comfortable, but Mr King tells us his story with a deft hand, making light the hardships. He spent a great deal of his childhood housebound, but it didn't stop him from having grand adventures on his own, and with his brother. He ate up comic books aplenty (not literally), and at some point, began writing. In his own words:
At some point I began to write my own stories. Imitation preceeds creation; I would copy Combat Casey comics word for word in my Blue Horse tablet, sometimes adding my own descriptions where they seemed appropriate.
When little Stevie showed these to his mother, she was at first astonished and impressed, before finding out the truth. Her disappointment affected him deeply. But she told him then the magic words that would shape his life from that moment on:
"Write one of your own, Stevie," she said. "Those Combat Casey funnybooks are just junk -- he's always knocking someone's teeth out. I bet you could do better. Write one of your own."
And write he did. He wrote about Mr. Rabbit Trick and friends who rode in a car, helping children. His mother loved it, and told Stevie to write more. So he did.
Four stories. A quarter apiece. That was the first buck I made in this business.
But it wasn't always smooth sailing for Mr King. He tells about rejection after rejection. He nailed the disappointing letters onto his wall. But he persevered. He also tells how he met his soulmate, his Ideal Reader, his inspiration to keep on going -- his wife, Tabitha. He had to take a dayjob to keep his family afloat. He worked in a mill, a laundry, and other minimal-wage places. He was also a teacher (his mother encouraged him to get a teacher's credential to have something to fall back on). From the rejections, from all the hardships, Stephen King kept on writing, even when the days looked the bleakest. He created stories drawn from his experiences, of places he'd lived in, and from his observations. He is the Stephen King because he refused to give up writing. Mr King also gives a good explanation on what writing is. It's telepathy. You can write something down, describe it in any way, and people from different places, from different times, will conjur up similar images.
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair -- the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.
In the second part, one he names Toolbox, Mr King describs the tools a writer needs to equip himself with. A toolbox, with three or more levels, just like the one in your father's shed (or in my case, storeroom). The top level, where common items are placed, is for the writer's vocabulary. It's a matter of how one uses it, not how much one knows. Also belonging in the top shelf is grammar. Here Stephen Kings talks a little on the technical side of writing, but in an informal manner. Oh. And he hates passive voice and adverbs. On the second level is style. He encourages his readers to read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. In the third section of the book, On Writing, is where Stephen King imparts with his knowledge, his experience, his instructions. Equally informal, equally informative, as the rest of the book, the instructions come in his distinct voice, his distinct style. He describes about the pyramid of writers, where bad writers belong at the bottom, adequate writers above them, and then good writers. At the top are geniuses, the select few whom people talk about ages after they no longer are. Although it is impossible for bad writers to become adequate writers, and from good ones to geniuses, it is possible to rise from being just adequate to good. The trick is: there is no trick, no shortcut. One has to read a lot and write a lot. Hold on. What about the third level in the toolbox? What does it contain? To learn that, my friend, you have to read the book for yourself. I highly recommend this book for it is an inspiration to keep on writing no matter what life throws at you. I bought my copy, published by Pocket Books in 2002, at RM 32.11. What is learned, what is shared by the great author himself, is priceless. Go on, get one copy now. Or when the bookshop opens.