On Writing – A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King

Stephen King's On Writing - A Memoir of the Craft
Stephen King’s On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft

I recently downloaded a digital edition of Stephen King’On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft after reading the hardcover more than a decade ago. I planned on skimming my ebook edition, looking for a few pointers, but I was immediately drawn in by Big Steve’s affable style, and I wound up re-reading the book in its entirety.

   The first thing On Writing reveals is that King’s easy-going narrative style is the product of a master craftsman. It takes years of relentless effort to make the flow of language sound effortless.
    King admits on Page One that most writing books are “filled with bullshit,” with the only exception being Strunk and White‘s The Elements of Style. This may be the best piece of practical writing advice in On Writing. All writers should own a copy of The Elements of Style and treat its words as gospel.
   That’s not to say King doesn’t offer plenty of writing advice of his own in On Writing. The book is packed with good advice and interesting anecdotes. My favorite writing tip is a simple editing formula:
“2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%”
   Other pearls of writing wisdom include:
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”
“Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.”
   Is there anything in On Writing to interest non-King fans or aspiring writers? I think so, but then, I’m a diehard King fan.
   The lengthy essay about King’s near-fatal accident (he was hit by a van while walking along a Maine country road in June 1999) and his long recovery — with a return to writing at the endpoint — is powerful and insightful. But then, I’m a diehard fan. Did I mention that?

Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Reading Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates is like slipping into a fever dream. It’s all dark winter mood and brooding atmosphere in this novel.

   Bellefleur covers three generations of the Bellefleur family over the course of more than 200 years. Ms. Oates builds this long, sprawling novel with long, sprawling sentences filled with parenthetical asides and a boatload of commas. In its way, each sentence in Bellefleur is like a tiny fairytale waiting to be unwrapped. The result is a finely crafted novel that draws you in and keeps your there.
   The Bellefleurs seem blessed and cursed in equally extreme measure. The Bellefleur men have a history of violence, rape, and severe gambling problems.
“The Bellefleur curse, it was sometimes thought, had to do with gambling.”
   While Yolande Bellefleur suggests:
“  “The curse on us is that we can’t love right!” She was immediately hushed up. And cautioned never to say such a bizarre thing again, or even to think it.””
   The Bellefleurs are not the kind of family you want to live near. They are to be feared, not just because they can buy and sell you with their fortunes, but because they’re mentally unstable and have a taste for revenge. A simple, brutal message is passed on to all Bellefleur children:
“Nothing is quite so profound as revenge, they were told. Nothing quite so exquisite.”
   The Bellefleur women hold the real power in the clan. They work behind the scenes to manipulate the men—who quite frankly, can use a guiding hand. Led by the beguiling Leah, (“If any Bellefleur succeeded in this century, it would be Leah”) the Bellefleur women propell this family — and novel — forward.
   Are the strange visitors to Bellefleur castle—the great cat Mahalaleel, (“You’re a poor lost thing, like any of us,”) Love the pet spider (…his gloved hands acted as if by instinct, as if, in the dim Bellefleur past, they had killed many a Love, just by holding it fast, gripping it fast, and squeezing…), abused orphan Little Goldie, the troll servant Nightshade—ghosts of family members come back to haunt the manor? What about the murderous monster bird know as the Noir Vulture (one of the coolest, creepiest creatures in all of horror fiction)?
“The baby was lost. As women’s screams lifted from the garden the bird rose higher and higher, with a noisy muscular grace, already jabbing at the helpless prey in its claws— tearing and stabbing at it with its sharp beak— so that pieces of flesh and skeins of blood fell…”
   Even though the Bellefleurs themselves don’t seem entirely comfortable in their weird world, they also seem quite content knowing they’ll never leave. (Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle, anybody?) Bellefleur is gothic at its most gothic, (before gothic fiction was taken over by sad emo teens and homoerotic vampires) and Ms. Oates at her literary best.
   Personal Note: A high school English teacher (Ms. Savage) recommended this book to me when I was a sophomore, around 1983, three years after Bellefleur was published. She knew I was a Stephen King fan and thought I might appreciate Ms. Oates modern gothic. But I wasn’t ready for Bellefleur as a 16-year-old boy. I bailed out after the first chapter. But I’m glad I revisited this novel two decades later, when I could truly appreciate it. Good call, Ms. Savage.