Thursday, 6 January 2011

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

I made the case a while back that I got far more from reading a good Stephen King novel than I had trudging through a particularly dreary offering by John Updike. If I required further proof that the fellow knew his stuff, then this is it.

Part personal memoir on how he got where he did, and part guide for people seriously interested in getting published, On Writing is funny, educational and a good read in itself. It also covers the period in his life when he was drinking heavily, and how his family intervened to stop him before he destroyed all he’d worked for.

King first got pissed on a school trip to Washington from his native Maine in 1966. The coach stopped in New York overnight and the boys lit out for the nearest off license:

A bunch of us more adventurous boys found a package store around the corner from the hotel. I cast an eye over the shelves, aware that my spending money was far from a fortune. There was too much – too many bottles, too many brands, too many prices over ten dollars. Finally I gave up and asked the guy behind the counter (the same bald, bored-looking, gray-coated guy who has, I’m convinced, sold alcohol virgins their first bottle since the dawn of commerce) what was cheap. Without a word, he put a pint of Old Log Cabin whiskey down on the Winston mat beside the cash register. The sticker on the label said $1.95. The price was right. I have a memory of being led onto the elevator later that night – or maybe it was early the next morning... This memory is more like a scene from a TV show than a real memory. I seem to be outside of myself, watching the whole thing. There’s just enough of me left inside to know that I am globally, perhaps even galactically, fucked up.

He spent the rest of the night violently throwing up and wakes up the next day with a demonic hangover. Only a lunatic – a masochistic lunatic, would do the same thing again... On the next day on their way through Pennsylvania, they stop in Amish country. He sidles into a store and goes straight to the top shelf:

The clerk sells me a fifth of Four Roses without asking to see any ID, and by the time we stop for the night I’m drunk again.

Stephen picks up the habit pretty quickly, and it soon develops into a raging drink problem:

Ten years or so later I’m in an Irish saloon with Bill Thompson. We have lots to celebrate, not the least of which is the completion of my third book, The Shining. That’s the one which just happens to be about an alcoholic writer and ex-schoolteacher. It’s July, the night of the All-Star baseball game. Our plan is to eat a good old-fashioned meal from the dishes set out on the steam table, then get shitfaced. We begin with a couple at the bar, and I start reading all the signs. HAVE A MANHATTAN IN MANHATTAN, says one. TUESDAYS ARE TWOFORS, says another. WORK IS THE CURSE OF THE DRINKING CLASS, says a third. And there, right in front of me, is one which reads: EARLY BIRD SPECIAL! SCREWDRIVER A BUCK MONDAY-FRIDAY 8-10 A.M. I motion to the bartender. He comes over. He’s bald, he’s wearing a gray jacket, he could be the guy who sold me my first pint back in 1966. Probably he is. I point to the sign and ask, “Who comes in at eight-fifteen in the morning and orders a screwdriver?” I’m smiling but he doesn’t smile back. “College boys,” he replies. “Just like you.”

He continues in denial, employing the world-famous Hemingway Defense: a writer, I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don’t give in to their sensitivities. Only sissy-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on. I can handle it. A real man always can.

Eventually, with the help of family and friends, he faces down the drink (and by then the drugs too). He debunks the idea that drinking and writing have to go together:

The idea that creative endeavor and mind altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. The four twentieth-century writers whose work is most responsible for it are probably Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and the poet Dylan Thomas. They are the writers who largely formed our vision of an existential English-speaking wasteland where people have been cut off from one another and live in an atmosphere of emotional strangulation and despair. These concepts are very familiar to most alcoholics; the common reaction to them is amusement. Substance-abusing writers are just substance abusers – common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons. It doesn’t matter if you’re James Jones, John Cheever, or a stewbum snoozing in Penn Station; for an addict, the right to the drink or drug of choice must be preserved at all costs. Hemmingway and Fitzgerald didn’t drink because they were creative, alienated or morally weak. They drank because it’s what alkies are wired up to do. Creative people probably do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what? We all look pretty much the same when we’re puking in the gutter.

It’s not glamorous and not conducive to getting the written word on the page...


  1. This is the best writing book I've ever read

  2. I agree. This is one of my 'go-to' writing books and I think I probably have most of them on my shelf :) Stephen King lets us see the process, reveals his struggles and gives us hope. Great book.

  3. The advice in this book is absolutely spot on, although I’m not entirely sure how one’s supposed to do three hours writing a day and hold down a full time job, family etcetera, but there’s no harm in trying to do as much as you can... Seriously inspiring stuff, I just wish I’d read it sooner!

  4. This looks to me to be an excellent standalone read, let alone as a guide then...