Let’s start at the very end: The postscript of Stephen King’s “On Writing” contains some of the most harrowing pages he has ever written. It’s here that King describes the traffic accident that nearly killed him in June 1999. Writing with understated simplicity, he takes us through the awful sequence of events, from the moment he was struck by a van near his home in Maine, through his emergency medical treatment and long rehabilitation, to the moment he sat down at a typewriter and, in agonizing pain, began writing again. The result is like a reality-based version of his novel “Misery,” distilled to short-story length, with an angel (King’s wife, Tabitha) rather than a devil (the novel’s psychotic Annie Wilkes) playing the part of nurse.
“On Living: A Postscript” is an extraordinary document. What it’s doing at the end of this otherwise dullish primer on the craft of writing is anybody’s guess. Maybe after spending 150 pages on the dry mechanical rules of good prose (“The adverb is not your friend,” etc.), King wanted to give us an example of the straightforward but powerful brand of storytelling we should be aiming for. As the novelist explains, good writers don’t tell; they show. And while that old saw is as rusty as they come, it still slices to the bone, as King demonstrates to great effect in his postscript.
But, alas, there’s all that telling to slog through beforehand. King’s advice to writers is generally sound, and he delivers it with refreshing irreverence, but nothing can disguise the fact that nearly all of it is stuff we’ve heard a thousand times before. His harangue against the passive voice, for instance, is hardly news that will stop the presses. Likewise his recommendation that writers avoid overly elaborate vocabulary. And do we really need the best horror novelist in our language to remind us that “nouns and verbs are the two indispensable parts of writing”? At times I felt as if I were reading the literary equivalent of a home fix-it guide by Frank Lloyd Wright.
What I (and probably a lot of other King fans) hoped to find in “On Writing” was something a little meatier. For me, King’s most remarkable talent is his ability to magnify and dramatize the ordinary fears that lie at the root of everyday life. As a writer and as a reader, I wanted to know how he gains access to all of those dark, cobwebby places in human nature. Granted, such things are notoriously difficult to talk about — most writers hate to be asked where they get their ideas — but I would have welcomed more insight into how a writer like King translates his own obsessions and neuroses into compelling fiction.
We get hints of that juicier information in the book’s first section, “C.V.,” where King tells us a little about his life as a writer. Literary gossipmongers can look here for details of King’s past alcohol and drug addictions: “At the end of my adventures I was drinking a case of sixteen-ounce tallboys a night, and there’s one novel, ‘Cujo,’ that I barely remember writing at all.” But novice writers would do better to study the kinds of life experiences that shaped King as a horror chronicler (like his childhood visits to the ear doctor, who would — eew! — puncture the boy’s eardrum with a long needle to drain away the blood-tinged pus).
“I was built with a love of the night and the unquiet coffin,” King explains at one point in the book. This is a revealing statement, and one that goes to the heart of what makes him a unique presence in contemporary American fiction. But in this “memoir of the craft,” he doesn’t really explore those deeper connections between self and story. “On Writing” would have been a far more memorable book if it had focused on King’s love of the night rather than his love of the deleted adverb.