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Stephen King: On Writing

"This is not an autobiography," Stephen King insists on the first page of On Writing. In fact, the book is about half autobiographical, which is nothing to be ashamed of; many more people have expressed interest in the intimate details of King's life than have asked for another collection of basic writing tips. Roughly the first third of On Writing constitutes an "attempt to show how one writer was formed," which translates into a bare-bones version of Frank McCourt's 'Tis and Angela's Ashes: King describes growing up in a single-parent home, early experiments with writing, his sweaty blue-collar jobs and brief teaching career, his marriage, early successes, and subsequent struggles with alcoholism and drug abuse. His anecdotes are, as ever, idiosyncratic, snappy, and easy to read, and he glosses over even the grimmest stories with a New Englander's grave stoicism or a paternal author's chuckle. But he withholds humor in the last quarter of the book, a moment-by-moment account of the 1999 accident that nearly killed him. Instead, he displays buried bitterness and fury throughout the story's dry flood of details and the condescending, distasteful description of Bryan Smith, the driver whose van struck and severely injured King. (The author mentions Smith by his full name so often that the formality of the reference would seem creepy and rigid even if Smith hadn't, in a bizarre twist, recently died of unknown causes.) King goes on to explain how writing helped him on the long road back to recovery, in descriptions clinical and removed, packed with description but not much feeling. He reserves the emotion for the supposed meat of the book, the subject that makes autobiography into historical example: his welter of friendly advice for would-be writers. Most of his suggestions are practical, the kind of ground-level pointers with which any good writing course begins—show-don't-tell, learn the basics of grammar, write what you know, write honestly and with conviction. Other, even more sensible tips are of the sort often neglected by writing classes but emphasized by authors at readings and conventions: Write a lot, read a lot, pay attention to the uses of language, write to a particular person rather than a market, expect early rejection. It's good advice, but serious would-be writers have probably heard it all a dozen times already. What they won't have heard, and what will doubtless launch this book to the same empyrean sales figures as King's other books, is his confessional insight into his own life. He says it's not autobiography, and he's about half right. But the half he's wrong about proves more interesting.


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