I was in the waiting room of the dentist’s office the other day when another patient glanced over and asked me what book I was reading. It was On Writing by Stephen King. She went on to list all of King’s books that she’d read: The Shining, Misery, and a few others. With a gleam in her eye she said, “His books are scary. Spine-tingling!” I looked down at my book. I held in my hand the one Stephen King volume that would probably not generate that description or anything close to it from anyone.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is the kind of book that could actually calm fears and ease fright, at least when it comes to writing. I bought the book and read it twice when it first came out, close to 20 years ago. I picked it up at the library a few days ago to refresh my memory to write this blog post. Before I cracked it open again, I recalled King’s reminiscence of the time he and his brother were out playing in the woods when he realized that he had to go to the bathroom. He took care of “nature’s call” there in the woods and used handfuls of shiny, green leaves for cleanup. The leaves turned out to be poison ivy. The lesson: never use leaves unless you know what kind they are.
I laughed about that one for months, but got a lot of other more important lessons from the book regarding craft. I found inspiring the story King told about how his wife, novelist Tabitha King, rescued from the trash, three single-spaced pages he’d written that with her encouragement he later turned into Carrie. Those pages became his first published novel, for which Doubleday payed $2,500 for the hardcover rights and Signet payed $400,000 for the paperback rights. That inspires me not to give up on a piece of writing, just because it seems to go nowhere at the moment. With more effort, it might come to something.
After the autobiographical section of the book, King moves onto the “Toolbox,” as it is called, with advice on grammar, vocabulary, and essay writing that I have referred to many times over the years. By far On Writing is the best book on the craft of writing that I have read. It’s been immeasurably helpful.