Being Stephen King
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (to the best of our knowledge), but the longest, most famous, and most overanalyzed of the Bard’s plays has yet to become winded. It’s considered a feather in any actor’s cap to play the melancholy and difficult Dane, we’ve seen three different film versions of it in the last twenty years, and Hamlet is one of the five most widely recognized figures in global literature. Not a bad score for an itinerant hack like Will Shaxper the glovemaker’s kid. Hack, scrivener, lowbrow quill-pusher he churned plays out like a machine, ripping off all but one of his plots from other people, and trotted them out to an audience of inner-city illiterates and country bumpkins who’d just won or lost money watching a dog and a bear try to disembowel each other. Shakespeare flourished in a genre that was the professional wrestling of its day, and the only reason he is more than a literary footnote is that he was consistently entertaining enough for some friends to publish his plays posthumously. Those who make their living mythologizing the Immortal Bard don’t like to admit it, but the man was, and is, first and foremost a commercial commodity.
Stephen King is no Shakespeare, and he’ll be the first to tell you that. But he is the wealthiest sonuvabitch ever to make a living from the written word, and though those who make their living mythologizing the Immortal Bard don’t like to admit it, that counts. From word one of Carrie thirty years ago to the upcoming Dreamcatcher, King has scared so many bejeezuses out of so many of us that we cannot ignore his impact on our culture or on his profession. Moby-Dick and The Red Badge of Courage may be what we’re supposed to read, but Salem’s Lot and Misery are what we do read, and that counts too.
King turns his attention to the process that he has yielded such an unlikely presence in American letters in the mass-market semi-autobiography On Writing, which provides the definitive statement, not on writing itself, but on what it means to Be Stephen King. It’s an uneven read, to be sure, but where it shines it does so brightly. As it turns out, Being Stephen King is a lot.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is more Memoir than Craft, which is in its favor. The book is divided into three sections. The first is a series of recollections of the milestone events that led King from a childhood spent in grinding poverty to an adulthood where he fared not much better, but during which he developed his single-minded determination to be a writer. For example, King recalls going out with his uncle, who performed home repairs around the neighborhood, and carrying his uncle’s massive toolbox, which was big and heavy but never failed to contain the right tool for the right job, a lesson King analogizes into the writer’s need for an overabundant store of vocabularies and facts. As the section plucks seemingly unrelated incidents from King’s early life the cruel teen years, the lean-and-hungry novice years that ended with Carrie, King’s ascent in the bestseller lists coupled with his descent into alcoholism and cocaine addiction a picture emerges of the unique symbiosis between King and his words not the adage about writing what you know, but the harmonic convergence of life-experiences that led him inexorably into doing what he does. Most books on the business of writing flog the reader with the point that to be a writer, one must write, but what King says is, rather, to write, one must be a writer.
On Writing‘s second section deals with the nuts and bolts the well-tempered sentence, the importance of dispassionate revision, how to blue-pencil yourself without getting hurt, how to deal with rejection. How to write, basically. This is the weakest part of the book, as King slips into the worn tweed jacket of his high-school English teacher days, and lectures. Avoid the unnecessary adverb? Got it. Show the reader, don’t tell the reader? Check. Read Strunk and White? Way ahead of you, big guy. Except for some great recommendations for books to read and every writer is a reader first? check King doesn’t particularly break any new ground, and the section crawls like the last class on a Friday afternoon.
But it is the book’s third section that pulls the plow, the section dealing with The Accident. In the summer of 1999, as King was taking his afternoon constitutional along a rural Maine road, a blue van rounded a blind curve on the wrong side and mowed him down. Here King describes every part of the incident he can remember in gut-wrenching detail: from the impact itself to waking up in a pain-wracked twisted lump to find the driver sitting calmly on a rock, watching King bleed; the ambulance and the helicopter ride to the hospital while his own body tries to kill him; his surgery and his recovery and his long rehabilitation, as all the while King contemplates his encounter with death and the soul-sucking fear that his writing days are over; the determination to get back in the saddle that ultimately pulls him through. The whole business is rendered with the textured handling of simple humanity in the face of unspeakable horror that is King’s stock-in-trade, and it’s as good as almost anything else he’s written.
One should not walk into On Writing looking for tips. It’s not that kind of book. The value of King’s memoir lies instead in what it tells us about the inescapable interweaving between The Person and The Writer, both in the formative years and in sheer crisis, from which emerges not just writing, not just fiction, but yes, I’ll say it literature. It may not be Shakespeare, but it counts.