20 Years Later, Stephen King’s On Writing Remains a Career High

It’s frankly impossible to overstate the influence of Stephen King on American popular culture. Sure, we all know that he’s the King of Horror and that he’s sold over 350 million books and that his work is regularly adapted into film and television and comics. His impact and influence hasn’t just been exerted on the field of horror and fantasy, but on so-called “literary” writers like Victor LaValle, Sherman Alexie, Karen Russell, and Haruki Murakami. With more than 60 novels, five non-fiction works, and over 200 short stories to his credit, it might also be impossible to select the quintessential King book. However, if you had to pick the work that says the most about King himself, it’s almost certainly On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Part origin story, part how-to manual, and part harrowing depiction of King’s recovery from a near-fatal accident, the widely praised book is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a new edition that includes contributions from his sons, the writers Joe Hill and Owen King. Now, in the week of King’s 73rd birthday, here’s a look at what makes On Writing an Entertainment Weekly New Classic, a Time Top 100 Nonfiction book, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s “best book about writing, period.”

Stephen King presents a wide-ranging talk about writing (Uploaded to YouTube by Politics and Prose)

The first major section of the book is called C.V. (the abbreviation for curriculum vitae, which is a look at one’s body of work). In this first of two extensive autobiographical passages, King deals comprehensively with his difficult youth, his discovery of his passion for writing, falling in love with wife (the novelist Tabitha King), breaking through with Carrie, his early fame, and his subsequent battle with alcoholism and substance abuse (which was extensive enough to require an intervention; King notes that he doesn’t remember writing all of Cujo). Each story is a block in the foundation of King’s voice. You gain an understanding of many of the levers that move his prodigious output. King also notes the self-involvement (or even obsession) that writers can fall prey to and relates the story of two desks that he’s used for writing, allowing it to become a metaphor for one simple idea: “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

The backbone of what you might call the instructional part of the text is the middle, with section names like “What Writing Is,” “Toolbox,” and “On Writing.” The thing that really separates On Writing from other how-to books about the field is King’s approach. While there’s a degree of “this is how you do it,” King readily admits throughout that, more or less, “this is how I do it,” noting frequently that the specifics of process change for each writer. He’s not giving you step-by-step Ikea instructions; he’s giving you a route while acknowledging that there are still many other routes that will get you to the destination. His tone is one of encouragement, but also one of caution; King believes that talent is an unteachable intangible, but he also believes in craft and improvement. That’s part of what makes the “Toolbox” section critical, in that he emphasizes the tools that all writers should have, particularly vocabulary, grammar, and style.

Stephen King talks about his writing process (Uploaded to YouTube by Bangor Daily News)

The middle portion of the book draws much attention from critics because of its plain-spoken approach. King simultaneously demystifies that process of writing while also attributing some of the success of it to “magic.” But King seems to impart that you don’t get to magic without knowing the tools, and that’s important. Writers need to read, they need time to form, and they need to work. King isn’t King just because of his fame or money or output, it’s because he works. Every day, the Sun comes up, babies are born, and Stephen King is writing something. There’s optimism in his instruction, almost an “if I can do it, you can do it” kind of humbleness, even as he points out that this stuff isn’t as easy as he makes it look. He’s not teaching you how to become a brand name, but he’s teaching you about the discipline.

“On Living: A Postscript” sees King dealing with the accident that nearly killed him in 1999. As he was out for a walk, King was struck by a van driven by a distracted driver. He suffered grave injuries; among them, his leg was broken in nine places, his knee was basically split, his right hip was fractured, he had four broken ribs, and his spine was “chipped in eight places.” As terrible as that sounds (and it was terrible), King somehow landed in the perfect spot after the impact threw him several feet through the air. If he had deviated in course to the left or right, he likely would have suffered fatal traumatic head injury due to rocks or railing. As it was, he was in the hospital for three weeks and went through multiple surgeries to address his injuries. King then confronted something else that was harrowing in its own right: getting back to a writing routine after that, something that Tabitha King played a crucial role in achieving. Obviously, King succeeded, but the difficulty that he had is palpable on the page.

Stephen and Owen King talk about collaborating (Uploaded to YouTube by Good Morning America)

In the anniversary edition, King’s sons offer contributions. Joe Hill has built his own bestselling brand in the horror genre with novels, comics, and short stories, while also seeing film and television adaptations of his work, notably Locke & Key and NOS4A2. Owen King is also a prolific writer of novels, short stories, and articles who in 2017 co-wrote the novel Sleeping Beauties with his father. Hill’s contribution is his transcript of a talk with his father at Porter Square Books from 2019, while Owen King’s piece reprints his article “Recording Audiobooks For My Dad, Stephen King” from the New Yorker site. Both segments add insight to the process that bring some extra color to the book overall. There’s also an updated “Reading List” from King himself, packed with books that he simply thinks that writers should read, which contains items perhaps expected (Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and unexpected (Anne Proulx’s The Shipping News, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited).

As a writer, King’s impact is immeasurable. Heavily awarded over time, King can count a National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, and a National Medal of Arts among his accolades. On Writing is certainly a departure from expectations, but it remains thoroughly King. It’s considered a high-water mark for a book of its type because articulates big ideas in a way that anyone can understand, and it offers encouragement in a discouraging profession (and world). King insists that all writers need to read; On Writing remains a great place to start.

Featured image: George Koroneos / Shutterstock

25 Years Ago: How Stephen King Changed the Universe

Is Stephen King having a moment? Just this month, the second half of the film adaptation of his classic horror novel, It (titled It: Chapter Two), pulled in more than $150 million in America alone in its first nine days. Last week, his 61st novel, The Institute, hit stores. The movie version of his sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, arrives in November. And streaming services positively hum with ongoing and upcoming adaptations of his work, including a new version of The Stand. It may seem like “a moment,” but the truth is that he’s been having an ongoing collection of moments since he became a pop culture force 45 years ago with the release of Carrie. Twenty-five years ago, King was in the middle of another pivotal September, one that would see the release of both a classic film and a novel that fundamentally changed the universe for King’s “constant readers.”

Author Stephen King during a panel at Comic Con.
Author Stephen King (Credit: George Koroneos / Shutterstock.com)

In 1982, King published Different Seasons, a collection of four novellas: The Breathing Method, The Body, Apt Pupil, and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. The stories were distinguished from his novels at the time by mostly falling outside of the horror genre. Owing in part to King’s popularity, Hollywood came knocking for the non-horror material, too. The Body was adapted as Stand by Me in 1985, and Apt Pupil, after an abortive attempt ran out of money in 1987, saw screens in 1998.

The film adaptation of Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption eventually came to life through a writer and director who King had previously allowed to film one of his short stories. Frank Darabont had been one of King’s first “Dollar Babies.” That was the nickname given to beneficiaries of King’s policy of allowing students or otherwise aspiring filmmakers to license one of his short stories for one dollar.

Darabont cast Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in the leads for the period prison drama. Despite King’s best-selling writer status and proven track record in generating box office dollars, the studio decided to keep King’s name out of the marketing due to his association with horror. In various interviews, King himself has remarked on this disconnect, including a frequently memed conversation he had with an older lady in a supermarket who, when he pointed out that he’d written Shawshank, retorted, “No, you didn’t.” Upon its September 1994 release, the film had a slow start; Forrest Gump was in the middle of its dominating 42-week box office run, and Shawshank went into wide release on the day that Pulp Fiction opened. Squished between two pop culture phenomena and the ongoing runs of The Lion King and lingering action films like Speed and True Lies, the film stiffed.

In a King-like twist, Shawshank came back from the dead due to the necromancy of home video. Warner Home Video shipped more than 300,000 rental copies of the film to outlets like Blockbuster, sensing that the movie might get a second life. They guessed right, and it went on to do huge rental business and was subsequently nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay (for Darabont), Best Actor (for Freeman), and Best Picture. While it didn’t win, the nominations cemented the image of the film in the public eye as a quality work. It’s thrived on video and television airings ever since. For the past 11 years, it has been #1 on IMDB.com’s user-created list of Top Films. It has also been preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Within a few days of the initial limited September release of The Shawshank Redemption, King put out a new novel called Insomnia. The book came two years after his 1992 one-two punch of Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne, a pair of novels about women endangered by abusive men and linked by an eclipse. This time, the protagonist, Ralph Roberts, was an elderly widower dealing with his increasing inability to sleep. As the plot runs further and further into a supernatural direction, King pulls out his big surprise roughly three-quarters of the way through: Roberts’s real mission is to save the life of young boy whose existence is critical to the success of another mission, that of The Gunslinger, Roland Deschain, protagonist of King’s The Dark Tower series.

This bombshell revelation did something that King had never done before. Whereas readers understood that the “Castle Rock” books (like Cujo, The Dead Zone, and Needful Things) were connected, and that It and Insomnia both took place in Derry, for example, here was the author planting a flag that the entire span of his stories were connected in one overarching narrative. That meant that seemingly disconnected threads like The Dark Tower and Insomnia were not only connected, but could impact one another. King would make this even more explicit in the fourth Dark Tower book, Wizard and Glass, in 1997, when the main characters crossed over into the world of The Stand. King’s own notes in the book stated that, “I am coming to understand that Roland’s world actually contains all the others of my making.”

Illustration of a gunman in front of a tall tower.
Roland The Gunslinger approaches The Dark Tower in an image inspired by King’s epic series. (Shutterstock)

The implication from that point forward was that whenever you read a King book, you weren’t just reading a story in isolation; you were reading something that could also been seen as part of a vast tapestry of interconnected worlds, stories, and ideas. The author’s multiverse has been tracked in two editions of The Stephen King Universe, a book compiled by writers Stanley Wiater, Christopher Golden, and Hank Wagner. And though The Dark Tower has ended (we think), King isn’t slowing down with the connections; after Holly Gibney, a protagonist of King’s Bill Hodges Trilogy, popped up in 2018’s The Outsider, King has since promised that she’s the lead character in next year’s If It Bleeds.

Decades after his commercial breakthrough, King never seems to stop having “moments.” He’s earned Grandmaster status from both the Mystery Writers of America and the World Horror Convention. In 2003, he received the National Book Award Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters; in 2014, he was also awarded a National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts. His short stories, novels, and the various adaptations of his work continue to be wildly popular. If such moments are themselves stories, then it’s easy to understand in this way: everyone has stories; it’s just that Stephen King is more prolific than the rest of us.

 

Featured image: Atlaspix / Alamy Stock Photo.

News of the Week: New Celebrity Apprentice, New Mary Poppins, and New Fall Books

Goodbye Donald, Hello Arnold

Earlier this year Donald Trump and NBC parted ways (he’s running for president, if you haven’t turned on your television the past two months. So they needed a new host for The Celebrity Apprentice. Would it be someone like Mark Cuban or Richard Branson? Nope, they went with the ex-governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

They might need a new tagline to replace Trump’s “You’re fired.” Conan O’Brien has a few suggestions:

Too bad Carly Fiorina is busy. She would have been great.

Supercalifragilisticexpialatrocious

Eventually, Hollywood will remake/reboot/sequel-ize every single movie and TV show that has ever been made. The latest is Mary Poppins. Disney has announced that they’re making a sequel to the beloved movie, which will take place 20 years after the original. It will be directed by Rob Marshall, who directed Chicago.

This is where I would put in the obligatory “I wish Hollywood would stop doing this!” line, but at this point it’s too late. Everything is up for grabs. A screenwriter is even thinking about doing a new version of Columbo.

RIP, Dickie Moore

Last week we got the news that Our Gang actress Jean Darling had passed away. Now comes word that fellow Our Gang actor Dickie Moore has passed away. He was 89.

Besides the 1930s comedy shorts, he also appeared in many movies, including Out of the Past, where he played Robert Mitchum’s mute employee at the gas station; Miss Annie Rooney, where he gave Shirley Temple her first on-screen kiss; and films like Oliver Twist, Sergeant York, and The Bride Wore Red. Moore served in World War II and left the movie business in the early 1950s and eventually opened up his own PR firm, Dick Moore & Associates. He had been married to actress Jane Powell since 1988.

I Now Pronounce You…

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

In some places, fake weddings are really popular.

I don’t mean fake weddings as in whatever the heck happened with Kim Kardashian and basketball player Kris Humphries a few years ago, I’m talking about weddings that are actually fake. The Atlantic has a piece about marriages in Argentina that aren’t really marriages at all. They’re parties where fake grooms and brides and others get together to party. Guests pay between $43 and $65 for tickets, and that includes a video of the event and “some drama.” So it sounds like a reality show you pay to attend. I can’t imagine that this won’t be popular in the U.S. at some point.

Recent statistics show that 50 percent of all fake marriages end in fake divorce.

New Fall Books

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

Finally, fall is in our sights. Soon the rancid heat and humidity will be replaced with crisp, cool air, pumpkin-spice everything, and new TV shows. And books! Books are released throughout the year, of course, but fall seems to be when a lot of the eagerly awaited books are released. Here are seven that sound like fun:

September Is National Breakfast Month

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

I have not eaten breakfast in years. Sure, I’ll have tea in the morning and throughout the day (oh so many, many cups of tea throughout the day), but I never, ever actually have any breakfast. They say it’s the most important meal of the day, but I’ve heard that line for so long who knows if it’s actually true or just one of those medical wives’ tales.

But if you do eat breakfast, it’s National Breakfast Month. RecipeGirl has a great breakfast section on her site (actually, the entire site is great), and you might want to try some Pumpkin Spice Muffins or an Onion, Bacon, and Spinach Fritatta, or the Two-Ingredient Pancakes.

As we mentioned last week, McDonald’s will start to serve breakfast all day long on October 6. They should have bumped it up a month.

Upcoming Events and Anniversaries

Tolkien Week (September 20-26)
And September 22 is Hobbit Day, the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins! The Saturday Evening Post Archives Director Jeff Nilsson on the concerns parents had when The Hobbit became popular in the 1960s.

Billie Jean King beats Bobby Riggs (September 20, 1973)
There were actually three Battle of the Sexes tennis matches. One had Riggs against Margaret Court (which he won) and a later match against King (which he lost). The third was played between Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova.

H. G. Wells born (September 21, 1866)
ABC has announced that they’re making a TV series based on the sci-fi film Time After Time, about writer H.G. Wells battling Jack the Ripper through time.

Neptune discovered (September 23, 1846)
Who should get credit for discovering the eighth planet?

William Faulkner born (September 25, 1897)
The Southern writer published 22 short stories in the Post and was recipient of both the Nobel Prize in Literature and a Pulitzer Prize.

First televised presidential debate (September 26, 1960)
The common wisdom is that people who watched the debate on television thought John F. Kennedy won (Richard Nixon sweated a lot) and those who listened to it on the radio thought Nixon won.