What I’m Reading: Misery by Stephen King

I read this a couple weeks ago, and since I did learn a ton of things about writing in reading it, I should probably review it, huh?

Yep, reviewing it.

Misery is the third Stephen King novel I’ve read since I decided to acquaint myself with the undisputed master of popular fiction, and it’s the first one that’s featured a writer as the protagonist. I hear he does that a lot.

How does Misery make me feel? Impressively, not miserable. One scene made me feel nauseous
(so much fear and blood)
from a book for the first time. Bravo. Mostly though, it just made me yearn for when my writing wasn’t saddled with expectations of intellectual merit and fear of failure. I empathize with Paul Sheldon maybe a little too much, but I also empathize with Annie Wilkes, the “#1 fan”.

What did I learn?

– Writing is an Escape and an Addiction
– Literary Pretension prevents healthy expression of the writing impulse.
– Health is important for a writer

Hey, I made bullet points without even noticing it! Bullet points are sexy, right? Let’s go down them.

The first thing I learned from Misery was the connection between writing and addiction. I don’t mean the pernicious myth that good artists and authors must by needs be addicts, I’m talking about how the act of writing serves so many of the same functions as an addict’s fix. There’s the dopamine rush, the brief escape into another place where our own problems don’t seem so bad, and the selfishness of squandering time with loved ones by telling them you’ll be one more minute at the keyboard (or at Minecraft.) In a great deal of ways, writing is an addiction, including the fact that no matter how many easier ways are available to a writer, they’ll take the hard path and write. People will live in a slum in order to get their writing fix (despite my imprecations not to starve for art.) What other profession demands this of its adherents? Not even priests abase themselves like that in this modern age. What I’m saying is that being an artist of any stripe isn’t quite the decision of homo economicus.

While on the subject of writing, and of addictive writing, many anecdotes from Paul Sheldon’s point of view are just embedded writing advice, like pearls embedded in the guts of Annie’s pig. The way Paul comes to the typewriter and slowly puts words on the page, speeding faster and faster as he catches scent of the story and “falls into the blank space”, resembles how I experienced writing prior to hitting a level of criticism that broke my Creation Drives. It’s writing un-self-conciously. selfishly, and marvelously. It’s letting the men downstairs work out problems until they send up the signal — a flash of brilliance. It’s playing a game of “Did he?” with yourself, like a one-man D&D game. I used each of these tools when I wrote back then, before peers insisted that each story needs a theme and a message, that each story needs rigid conscious intellectual control. To write well, write unencumbered, trapping fleeting impulses before they part. Judgment’s a thing for the edit phase, not the first draft. I’ve been reminded of all these things. Thanks for that Stephen King.

“You’re welcome, Greg.”

Gah, no, not you, Stephen, King of England. How did you get here?

“In the TARDIS, ye knave. But whatevs, this place doth Blois. Allonsy!”

Wait, no, I don’t want you to go! Tell the Doctor we’re supposed to have rad adventures!

Sorry, where was I? Oh right: Literary Pretensions prevent healthy expression of the writing impulse.

For only a scant two pages, Paul Sheldon thought on his desperate desire to be not “just” a romance novelist, but a writer of serious literature. The parallel between this and Stephen King’s own guilt at being a popular fiction writer, which he covers in the superb memoir, On Writing, is both painful, and indicative of a larger cultural phenomenon within the writing community. Sheldon’s angst manifests mostly at anger that his writing’s getting passed over by critics. I hope that Stephen King is by this point beyond the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism — he’s contributed more than perhaps any other living writer to American letters — but snide literature majors still put him down as a “popular” writer. People who could never pen a bestseller. People who pretend it’s easy, and their path is the truly hard one. People who are, literarily speaking, plugged up. Their impulse to write is subverted by the knowledge that what they do will never be appreciated, and so they lash out, they try to control people who aren’t as constipated as them, until all of us have big sticks up our asses.

It’s about control. They wish everyone played croquet, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Joyce’s favorite game, and insist that star football players grab a mallet. They’re defining the playing field for everyone else, and censuring anyone who doesn’t fit into the mold. You know who else does that? Elitists. The Fanatically Religious. Fox News.
(there may be some overlap in those groups)
When real writers allow content-less lit-hacks to belch criticism their way, the tryers lose. I’m not saying to ignore good criticism, just hey, maybe recognize what types of suggestions are trying to control your art too much.

Finally, Paul Sheldon conjectures that the reason he’s able to make good pace on Misery’s Return (other than the crazy nurse threatening him) is because he’s living cleanly for the first time in ever. This allows him sit at the keyboard and think/write without getting fatigued. All too recently, I allowed myself less than four hours of sleep a weeknight, demanding I accomplish things in order to earn rest.
(bad idea)
It had the same effect as a nuke on my Creative Drives, preventing me from loosening up enough to write. I nitpicked each detail, spouted steam, but the hot air all went to waste. If I relaxed enough to let go, I’d doze instead, because the regime exhausted me. Being able to eliminate distractions — a body slowly wasting from lack of use, a mind buzzing from caffeine abuse, eyes aching from sleep deprivation — might just be the most important thing I can do to improve the quality of my writing. So maybe I should look to those, and proceed from there.

All in all, Misery is a great book, especially if you’re a creative of any stripe. Next time you swing by Half Priced Books, go pick it up. They’ll have like twenty copies of it.

Get Misery here.

4 thoughts on “What I’m Reading: Misery by Stephen King

    1. “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” – Thomas Mann

      A friend sent me that. The hint was maybe I need to loosen up again. A lot of the work I’m the proudest of was when I loosened up and just did it for fun.

      Just relax and let it flow, then get critical a month later when you review it again. 🙂

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