“Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around” (King, 101).
Stephen King’s On Writing chronicles King’s life from adolescence to his late fifties. This memoir provides insight to his creative genius, how writing shaped his life, and the hardships faced as an author. While his memoir serves partially as an autobiography, it is also an instructional guide on the craft of writing. In this blog post, we will review the structure King employs in his memoir.
Memoir as a Strategy
Memoir as a writing strategy communicates an overarching message or theme. It’s typically instructive. And these types of memoir tend to be more successful in publication.
On Writing is an instructional memoir on how to write. The purpose of the memoir is to teach the reader how to move from being a competent writer to becoming a good writer. (Spoiler: King’s main advice is that you, as a writer, must put in the effort and hard work to write. Writing isn’t easy. And if you’re not willing to agonize over it, then you’re better off as a competent writer rather than a good one.)
While King’s obvious message is to instruct the reader on the craft of writing, he also argues writing is a necessary part of life. It is an art, and it’s the support-system of life. Writing brings creativity and ingenuity into our world. Without creativity and ingenuity, humans are no better than animals, and life would be dull.
King explores this idea throughout the entirety of his memoir, beginning with his autobiography. He chronicles how he learned the art of writing, and further explains how it became the support-system of his life. Writing led him to his wife who he met at a library and fell in love with during a poetry workshop. He claims, “…what ties us most strongly are the words, the language, and the work of our lives (King, 62). Writing also served as his escape when he abused drugs and alcohol. And when he and his wife struggled with monetary problems, King relied on his writing to scrape by. His stories further served as an escape from reality, i.e., his boss (King, 69).
This theme is enhanced in the second section of the book when King provides writing advice. King claims that the art of writing is a difficult, serious business to learn. He argues, “…if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well—settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on” (King, 144). If you’re not serious about writing, if you’re not willing to work hard and put in the hours to learn the craft, then you shouldn’t be in business of writing (King, 107).
The Beginning: A Strong Foundation
King splits On Writing into three sections: C.V., On Writing, and On Living: A Postscript. The first section, C.V., contextualizes King’s life, and, as C.V. refers to, demonstrates King’s writing qualifications. This section is also interspersed with the success of his writing career.
While this section may seem a mere recount of King’s years—so that fans can learn how their favorite author became the writer he is today—it also serves two other purposes. One, to explore how writing became the support-system of his life (as previously mentioned); and two, to prove why King has expertise to share.
C.V., as a good curriculum vitae should, confirms King’s writing expertise. One would think the success of his writing career and publication of more than sixty books would be proof enough. But it’s not. The reader needs to know what makes King a good writer, not merely a competent writer. If you’re writing an instructional memoir, you will also need to prove your expertise. Prove to the reader why you can speak on this subject, and what separates your voice from others who speak on the same subject.
King shares lessons from his formative years, lessons about running with an idea, dealing with rejection, the shame of exploiting privacy, the art of rewriting, and more. These lessons are wound into C.V.’s narrative and serve as curriculum for your writing life. King expects you, as a reader and writer, to learn from his mistakes, apply his lessons, and write better than him.
The Middle: Demand Your Reader’s Attention
Structure is an important part of a memoir. A good structure will pace your story to maintain your reader’s attention from the beginning to the end. King structured his book in three sections—each serving a unique purpose. The second section, On Writing, functions as a handbook, in which King instructs on the fundamentals of writing.
King maintains tension throughout his book by splitting his memoir into multiple sections. Each section serves a different purpose. C.V. provides King’s autobiography and his expertise on the craft of writing. On Writing then expands on the lessons in C.V. to further instruct on the craft. If King started his memoir with On Writing, then the tension would fall flat since the reader receives the instruction he promised up front.
When writing your memoir, reconsider your structure and how you will maintain tension. Will you write a chronological structure? Or a thematic structure? Will you break your memoir into sections that serve different purposes? Remember, your structure determines the pace of your story.
The End: Concluding Well
The final section, On Living: A Postscript, chronicles King’s brush with death after he was hit by a van. This section returns to King’s theme: that writing is the support-system of life. In the midst of physical recovery, he turned to writing in order to help him overcome his injuries. He moved into a hallway, sat for more than an hour in his wheelchair, and sweated in the heat of late summer as he wrote.
The return to writing was harder than King expected. He shares, “…it was as if I’d never written anything before [the first five hundred words] in my life. All my old tricks seemed to have deserted me” (King, 268). Have you struggled with Imposter Syndrome or experienced doubt when writing? Have you sat down to write and feared that all your ideas were spent?
King experienced similar doubts and anxieties about his writing. But he didn’t give up on his writing, even when the words failed to materialize, even when his writing seemed subpar. He wrote every day and as hours passed, his writing improved. He goes on to say, “Writing did not save my life…but it has continued to do what is always has done: it makes my life a brighter and more pleasant place” (King, 269).
On Living: A Postscript serves as a reminder that writing is the support-system of life. And it also returns to his main instruction: you have to put in the effort to write. Writing isn’t easy. But you can do it. You will do it, if you want to be a real writer. Or so King concludes.
King’s ending is a Call to Action model. He challenges his readers to put in the hard work and move from competent writers to good writers. From his earlier memories in C.V. to the concrete instruction he provides in On Writing, King has steered his reader to this call to action. In your memoir, consider concluding with a call to action. Mimic King’s work, weave your call throughout the entirety of the book, and conclude with the encouragement and steps your reader will need to take.
If you’re writing a memoir, consider your structure. A good structure will determine the pace of your story. And as King demonstrates in On Writing, a good structure will convince your audience to read from the beginning to the end.