By Rachel Totten Keith
I remember a time, in my youthful ignorance, that I considered myself the unluckiest transfer student to ever grace the metaphysical halls of the Texas Wesleyan campus of the cosmos. I remember lamenting, “I hate writing, I am no good at it, and, of course, the only class available is a danged online class with a professor notorious for being extremely difficult. Smite me, O Mighty Smiter!”2 That was the beginning of this semester and, luckily for me, the required class was Advanced Writing, Dr. Linda Carroll the professor, and my first assignment was reading Stephen King.
Now, in case you missed the eighties and nineties, Mr. King was all over the silver screen. He wrote thriller novels and short stories with a nod to fantasy and sci-fi, but even if you lived under a rock back then, everyone has heard of his movies, i.e., Carrie, Cujo, Maximum Overdrive (meh), Misery, The Green Mile, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me, Firestarter, Children of the Corn, The Running Man, etc. I mean, the man is absolutely brilliant.
So, I was eager to resurrect my flannel shirts and Doc Martens, hang out at Starbucks, and read some good ol’ Stephen King—except this book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is a writer’s guide. Yep! It is a book on how to write, use good grammar, and how not to take a shit in the woods. “Wait!” you are probably thinking. “Did I just read that correctly?” At least, that is what I was thinking when I read about the incident when King’s older brother Dave convinces little Stevie to take a dump in the woods and use leaves to wipe because “the cowboys and Indians did it” (King 30). King states,
I was enchanted by the idea of shitting like a cowboy . . . carefully wiping my ass with big handfuls of shiny green [poison ivy] leaves . . . Two days later I was bright red from the backs of my knees to my shoulder blades. My penis was spared, but my testicles turned into stoplights. My ass itched all the way up to my ribcage, it seemed. Yet worst of all was the hand I had wiped with; it swelled . . . and gigantic blisters formed where the fingers rubbed together. When they burst they left deep divots of raw pink flesh. For six weeks I sat in lukewarm starch baths, feeling miserable and humiliated and stupid, listening . . . as my mother and brother laughed, listened to . . . the radio and played Crazy Eights. (King 31)
In just one paragraph, King makes me giggle with his word choices and then recoil with horror at the thought of testicles red as stoplights. Between the imagery of the traffic signal and the word stop, the reader naturally pauses and you almost feel like you are back at home as a child being humiliated by your own family. And, just like that, with his power of language, the master story teller King makes his own life sound like his own twisted fiction in a memoir that passes for a college textbook. Ha! English is cool again!
King’s On Writing succeeds as both a memoir and as a writing guide for the same reason King has made millions from sales of fictional works: his stories and prose are memorable and relatable. A perfect example of his prose is found in his “fossil” lesson in which King explains that success as a writer will come if you focus on story-telling and allow your characters to speak and behave in a believable and honest manner. King states, “Liars prosper, no question about it, but only in the grand sweep of things, never down in the jungles of actual composition, where you must take your objective one bloody word at a time” (King 173). The parity of real character development and the military assault on an objective being compared to composition along with the image of words, like bombs, landing blow after blow is a unique perspective that each reader in King’s audience will easily recall for its originality and truth. King’s exquisite prose informs, entertains, and elevates the impact of this lesson that comes complete with its own pneumonic device. I will have no problem remembering that details matter when telling my own stories and revealing my characters.
To improve as a writer, King advises that writing regularly and adhering to his daily writing schedule keeps him motivated and excited about the novel is working on. He explains, “I can write in cold blood if I have to, but I like it best when it’s fresh and almost too hot to handle” (King 153). Sexy! When he puts it that way, I am reminded of those days when you have a story to tell and you cannot get the words out fast enough. And why not have those experiences as often as possible? I want that experience now! I cannot see how anyone who wants to be a writer, would not want to keep a schedule. King makes daily writing exercises sound like a lot more fun than someone who is merely telling you to isolate yourself and write for a one hour every day in order to practice sentence construct. I love to write now and yet even one hour sounds like a chore when you put it that way.
King integrates his personal stories, his writing experiences, and his insider-perspective to lend credibility to his advice. Every point he makes about the writing process is far-reaching and applicable to not only the professional writers, but also the fashion bloggers, the high school students with their cute, traditional education, and the avid book worms. I think he is aware of his skill at prose and styling and uses this to universally appeal to his diverse fan base when trying to bring his lesson on the value of reading to life. I think everyone can relate when King refers to books as “uniquely portable magic.” He writes,
You just never know when you’ll want an escape hatch: mile-long lines at tollbooth plazas, the fifteen minutes you have to spend in the hall of some boring college building waiting for your advisor (who’s got some yank-off in there threatening to commit suicide because he/she is flunking Custom Kurmfurling 101 ) to come out so you can get his signature on a drop-card, airport boarding lounges, laundromats on rainy afternoons, and the absolute worst, which is the doctor’s office when the guy is running late and you have to wait half an hour in order to have something sensitive mauled. (King 104)
Yes, that was one sentence! I think it is impossible to read that sentence and not identify with King: reading to escape the madness, writing to recreate the magic.
I didn’t think the world needed another writing manual and grammar book, but the way King puts his spin on it, his authentic genius really shines through and once again, King remains an original. As I read, I felt like I was reading a Steven King novel about Steven King. He stays true to his blue-collar roots and his original voice and colorful language. He makes even how-to-grammar sexy and entertaining. My favorite quote in this rare non-fiction piece, is from the grammar lesson in which King abhors the use of passive voice. King discusses the types of writers who are attracted to the passive verbs, “I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners,” King says. “The passive voice is safe” (King 123). Lesson learned, sir; how boring! If I wanted to play it safe, I would have been a STEM major. Thank goodness the registration gods at Texas Wesleyan took a chance on a lowly transfer student and believed in me enough to introduce me to English according to Dr. Carroll and re-introduce me to Stephen King to ignite the spark of interest in writing. I believe the campus of the cosmos took a cue from Stephen King to tell me, “‘Hell, you’re ready! You’re fuckin Shakespeare’ (King 212)! Now you will write for the Rambler!”
- Upon publication in 2000, Entertainment Weekly magazine began their review of Stephen King’s On Writing with “Long live the King!” and is a featured quote on the back cover of the current book jacket (King, cover).
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2000. Print.