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Speak, Memory! | The Nation

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Speak, Memory!

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Stephen King, author of thirty "worldwide bestsellers," was "stunned" by The Liars' Club, and his admiration for the "beauty" and "ferocity" of Karr's memoir seems to have inspired him to try his own, yet he feels he lacks the "totality" of her memory. His own "herky-jerky childhood" seems to him more like "a fogged out landscape from which occasional memories appear like isolated trees...the kind that look like they might like to grab and eat you." His father "did a runout" after piling up a lot of bills when Stephen was 2, and he was raised by his mother, moving around to different relatives and different jobs in different places, trying to keep it all together.

About the Author

Dan Wakefield
Dan Wakefield's memoirs include New York in the Fifties, which was made into a documentary film.His most recent book is...

Also by the Author

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The humanist social critic whose work helped lay the groundwork for the upheavals of the 1960s.

King stresses that his own On Writing is "not an autobiography" but "a kind of curriculum vitae--my attempt to show how one writer was formed." It is also an attempt to help aspiring writers with advice, counsel, exercises in writing and even an offer of personal criticism:

 

When you finish your exercise, drop me a line at www.stephenking.com and tell me how it worked for you. I can't promise to vet every reply, but I can promise to read at least some of your adventures with great interest.

 

King is not only a popular but also a populist writer who believes that "large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that these talents can be strengthened and sharpened." And he seems to have written this book primarily for the purpose of helping them. Maybe this generosity of spirit comes from memories of his own down-and-almost-out days, when he pieced together a living teaching high school English and writing stories for magazines like Cavalier at night and on weekends, barely able to pay for his daughter's needed medicine.

Prickly from nonappreciation by the literary high priests, King complains that "critics and scholars have always been suspicious of popular success" and cites Dickens, "the Shakespeare of the novel," as a victim of "constant critical attack" because of his "sensational subject matter," his prolific output and, "of course, his success with the book-reading groundlings of his time."

It is to the groundlings that King speaks here, not in the memoir-writing manner he admires in Karr, who shapes and re-creates experience into novelistic scenes and dialogue, but rather in chatty, informal talk. Perhaps the best of that talk--and the most useful--is on one of the subjects King feels most strongly about, his own recovery from drugs and booze, and the mythology of those substances as useful muses.

King had fallen so far into addiction that "in the spring and summer of 1986 I wrote The Tommyknockers, often working until midnight with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding." The intervention that saved him was organized by his wife, Tabitha, who emerges as King's favorite character in this book as in his life. Mrs. King and his children gave him the ultimatum of rehab or leave, and he chose life.

"The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time," King writes.

 

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.

 

If his prose lacks the beauty he admired in Karr's memoir of her childhood (a gift, I suspect, that can't be taught), King dispenses good common sense on life as well as writing.

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