On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
By Stephen King
Scribner's; 288 pages; $25

Without a doubt, Stephen King has produced one of the strangest books on writing ever published by a best-selling author.

Part autobiography, part ``how- to'' guide, part confessional, ``On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft'' offers both too much and too little. It's a shambling wreck that, like Boris Karloff's version of Frankenstein's monster, somehow manages to win you over with its clumsy sweetness.

In his foreword, King ponders the question of why he's even making an attempt to explain his motives and methods to his vast readership. He writes, ``The easy answer is that someone who has sold as many books of fiction as I have must have something worthwhile to say about writing it, but the easy answer isn't always the truth. Colonel Sanders sold a hell of a lot of fried chicken, but I'm not sure anyone wants to know how he made it.''

King is fond of comparing his output to fast food, but deep down he takes his vocation as seriously as any five-star chef. He likes to play the role of the vulgarism-spouting, brand-name- dropping yokel when it suits him, but he is clearly far more clever than that.

The first major section of ``On Writing,'' entitled ``C.V.,'' chronicles his education as a writer, filling in some of the details left out of the autobiographical chapters in 1981's ``Danse Macabre,'' his last major foray into nonfiction. King delivers the expected anecdotes of writing for the high school newspaper, suffering the first rejections from paying fiction markets, making the breakthrough that led to the publication of ``Carrie.'' Then he bushwhacks the reader with a no-holds-barred account of his years as an alcoholic and drug addict.

The confession culminates in an intervention organized by his wife, Tabitha: ``Tabby began by dumping a trash bag full of stuff from my office out on the rug: beercans, cigarette butts, cocaine in gram bottles and cocaine in plastic Baggies, coke spoons caked with snot and blood, Valium, Xanax, bottles of Robitussin cough syrup and Nyquil cold medicine, even bottles of mouthwash.'' This is a truly wrenching scene, and it's hard not to admire King's candor.

Then follow the least successful portions of the book, in which King discusses the nuts and bolts of storytelling. Coming off the harrowing revelations of the book's initial third, his calm and reasoned discussions of dialogue, characterization and theme come as something of a letdown. Having been told that he once swilled Scope mouthwash for its alcoholic kick, the reader is no longer content to know that King doesn't recommend an overreliance on adverbs, either.

Pick up a copy of Strunk and White's ``The Elements of Style'' and the most recent edition of ``Writer's Market,'' and you'll find as much worthwhile advice for the aspiring writer as King is able to muster. It's not that he doesn't have anything insightful to say about writing. It's just that this kind of analysis doesn't play to his strengths, and he doesn't go far enough in explaining how his often outrageous ideas make their way to the page.

What does play to his strengths are the book's final chapters, written in the aftermath of King's near-fatal accident last summer. He describes in vivid detail what it felt like to be struck by a car and how hard it was to put his shattered body back together. In a different way, this postscript is just as personal and revealing as the earlier section, but it addresses most clearly why King writes. What shines through strongest is King's love for his family, his wife especially. This unabashed display of gratitude snaps the rest of ``On Writing'' into focus.

It's hard to know what effect ``On Writing'' will have on its intended audience. Will people read it believing that they can ``learn to write the Stephen King way''? Will they be attracted to the personal revelations that King makes and be heartened to know that his storytelling talent still seems intact? Or will they just feel an impatience that there's no new novel from him this year, that ``The Dark Tower'' saga is far from over and time's moving on?

However ``On Writing'' is received, one can't deny King's seriousness and generosity in undertaking this venture. One only wishes that the experiment were more successful.

(c) 2000 by Michael Berry


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