Book Review: ON WRITING – A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Stephen King_On_Writing_A Memoir_of_the_Craft. Book Cover pageLets first get this out of the way: I am not a Stephen King fan, nor have I ever read any of his other works, only because I was never into the genre he mostly writes. However, whatever connection I do have with him is through one of his novellas that was adapted into one of the finest movies ever made: The Shawshank Redemption (I resisted putting a couple hearts here). This is my first book by him, and the second on writing, after Bird by BirdOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft gives a zoomed in view of a successful writer’s entire process. If I was so amazed to read what all actually goes into writing a fiction novel (doubting if I could ever do all that), I was equally inspired to try it out, and excited to see the “magic” happen. In this book, King doesn’t give a success formula or a to-do list, but instead, discusses in detail some very fundamental aspects of writing, some of which are summarized below.

LIFE
The first few pages are about several stories about King’s early life. He and his older brother were raised by a single mother with limited means. Later, even as a father of two toddlers doing two jobs, King struggled to make ends meet, up until the commercial success of Carrie. While he was quite candid about his alcohol and drug addiction, his recovery and how he bounced back is very inspiring, destroying in the process any myths that stimulants are necessary to aid writers or artists in their art. Halfway through the writing of this book, he met with an almost fatal accident during one of his daily walks. Amidst series of operations and painful physical therapy, he resumed work on this book.

STORY
King believes that story is the boss in fiction writing and it is the most important thing readers will want. He says good ideas come sailing at you right out of the empty sky and that the writers job is to recognize them when they show up. Don’t know why, but I feel I am somehow violating trust by putting this very sacred and profound sentence out there, but I will: Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writers job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. I think it is much like remembering a dream: you want to try hard recalling it, yet not inadvertently add your own details in the process, to get the dream as intact as possible.

READING
Read. Read. Read. Reading creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing. King reads ‘anything and everything he can lay his hands on’ and for those who want to know his recommendations, there is a long list of books at the end.

WRITING

  • Writers ‘toolbox’ should be well equipped with a strong vocabulary and solid grammar. Not surprisingly, he praises the classic Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White.
  • He detests unnecessary use of adverbs and of passive voice (attributes it to a lack of confidence and/or affectation of authority), advises writers the same.
  • A serious writer would write between 4-6 hours everyday, without any distractions whatsoever (with doors closed and curtains drawn); this is the time to  dive deep within.
  • It is important to write about what you really know well. Write what you like and then imbue it with live and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex and work.
  • Write what rings true to you.
  • His little formula for editing: First completed draft = Second draft – 10%.  There is a sample passage showing his first draft and the edited second, with notes, which I thought is very useful.

The last part is about actual publishing, finding an agent and such. I think a lot has changed since 1999 making this information a bit outdated.

King makes a promise to his readers that this book is going to be to the point, without “any BS”, and he keeps it. There is lots of good advice and memorable sentences worth framing. Some of the paragraphs are so beautifully written that I typed the entire passages in my phone Notes for the fear of losing the beauty or wisdom in them to time or memory. When his writing is not clever or stylish, it is endearing. For instance, he gives you the reader a Permission Slip: If you feel you need permission to do all the reading and writing your heart desires, consider it hereby granted by yours truly.  

On Writing is a masterclass for aspiring writers or bloggers that should not be missed. 4.5 stars on my Goodreads.
Get it on: Amazon iBooks BN
Some of my frames are here:

Book Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just Kids by Patti Smith Book ReviewThis book gave me a lot of trouble because I was quite moved by it and so, very much wanted to talk about it, but feared just might spoil it (you will know why*). None of the approaches I took felt right, yet  I could not abandon it. Ergo, this is a simple account of a few themes that ran through the compelling memoir of the poet, singer-songwriter and rock ‘n roll artist, Patti Smith.

Nostalgia. Barely twenty, penniless and unsure, but not without an intense desire to become an artist, Smith steps into New York City, then a petri dish for the counterculture of the 1960’s, with widespread use of recreational drugs, free sexual expression & exploration, psychedelic music, and the Beat generation giving way to the hippie culture. Once past my initial shock over their avant-garde lifestyle (credited entirely to the author’s honest and sober narration), I pictured those times in curious wonderment: the nobodies with the potential to be trailblazers; the weirdos, the drug addicts, the experimentalist; the searchers, the idealists, the artists… Those must have been interesting times!

Patti Smith. Cover of Album 'Horses'
P. Smith. Album cover ‘Horses’. By Robert.

The Chelsea Hotel, where, in a peculiar turn of events, Smith and her friend Robert start living. Known to be a haven for writers, musicians, artists, filmmakers and colorful personalities, famous and yet to be famous, one could trade art could for the room-rent. “The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in The Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe“, she writes. At this point in the book there are several names mentioned, some known to me, others unknown: Andy WarholJimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Allen Ginsberg and the other Beats,  and a multitude of others that I googled as I encountered, only to get woefully intrigued by their life-stories. Some made it, the rest succumbed to drugs or AIDS, and never lived to see the times they were ahead of.

Patti Smith Robert Mapplethorpe
Patti and Robert

Patti and Robert. What will stay with me is the tender friendship Patti Smith shared with her lover for a while, and best friend forever, Robert Mapplethorpe. It is a beautiful thing to see how they really understood one another, not only as friends but also as artists. “Nobody sees as we do, Patti” Robert would say, and “whenever he said things like that, for a magical space of time, it was if we were the only two people in the world.

Their relationship went through various definitions, but belonged to none. “We were evolving with different needs. I needed to explore beyond myself and Robert needed to search within himself.” With time Robert would discover and accept his homosexuality, and go on to become a famous (albeit controversial) photographer. Smith, a sketch artist and a poet, would finally find her niche and become a musician and the leader of her band ‘The Patti Smith Group’, and start a new life with her husband, Fred. Notwithstanding that, both of them would remain as close friends as they always were.

The last part was heart wrenching and yet there was a sense of innate beauty in its naked truth. Robert gets diagnosed with AIDS. For Patti (and for the reader who is now so invested in their lives), the idea of losing him is extremely unsettling. On his deathbed he wishes that she write their story.

Just Kids is Patti’s a fascinating and poignant tribute to their friendship. *There was something quietly private she tore apart and put out there for the world to read, and it feels like sacrilege to “review” it; one can just relate and respect and carry it in one’s heart. Of course, there is more to the book: Patti’s love for poetry and for poets like Rimbaud and Baudelaire, their times of struggle, their friends and their interesting journey in interesting times. It deserved 5 stars on my Goodreads.

I loved this excerpt from the epilogue ‘A note to the reader’ by the author:

“…There could be many stories I could yet write about Robert, about us. But his is the story I have told you. It is the one he wished me to tell and I have kept my promise. We were Hansel and Gretel and we ventured out into the black forest of the world. There were temptations and witches and demons we never dreamed of and there was the splendor we only partially imagined. No one could speak for these two young people nor tell with any truth of their days and nights together. only Robert and I could tell it. Our story, as he called it. And having gone he left the task to me to tell it to you.

Poem by Smith for Robert- who had the greenest of eyes- for his Memorial:

 Little emerald bird
Wants to fly away
If I cup my hand
Could I make him stay?

Little emerald soul
Little emerald eye
Little emerald soul
Must you say goodbye?

All the things that we pursue
All that we dream
Are composed as nature knew
In a feather green

Little emerald bird
As you light afar
It is true I heard
God is where you are