Stephen King has a particular knack for fictionalizing the tortured lives of writers. Scribes of varied success people the pages of his works, from protagonists to supporting characters. (Under the Dome’s Thurston Marshall is a recent Ploughshares guest editor!) Many of these characters are also readable as Author Avatars for King. Beyond his personal struggles, his writers metaphorically and literally wrestle the demons that haunt our kind: failure, success, fleeting inspiration, fear, obsession, helplessness, frenzy, euphoria, and sometimes destruction.
Writing is a madness that creeps into us, grips us, and never releases us, even when we believe it has become dormant. It’s fitting then that King’s writers dwell in the landscape of horror and mystery where madness and fear manifest beyond their professional struggles.
The Shining, for instance, features writer Jack Torrance’s descent into insanity aided by the sinister Overlook Hotel. Torrance is perhaps the most famous of King’s writers, in part due to Jack Nicholson’s iconic portrayal. On the page, Torrance is tortured by his own failings both personally and professionally, making him susceptible to possession by darker forces. He can’t overcome his past and once claimed by the Overlook, his play-in-progress is forgotten.
As writers, how many times are we caught in the nets of failure we weave for ourselves? Our doubts, anxieties, and torments are things we create in our own minds, often exacting our writing as the price. Unlike Torrance, however, we can escape the madness snowstorm before exploding in self-destruction; we have to grasp those moments of clarity and cling to them.
Many of King’s other characters are also troubled writers grappling with their own psychosis, such as The Dark Half’s Thad Beaumont or Secret Window, Secret Garden’s Mort Rainey. King’s writers frequently display connections between emotional duress and writing, such as blocked widower Michael Noonan in Bag of Bones. But of King’s tormented writers, my favorite is the physically tortured Paul Sheldon, the protagonist of Misery.
Misery is the first King novel I read growing up. As an eighth grader, the novel was shocking and intense like nothing I had ever experienced. It can also be read as a metaphor for King’s struggles to escape genre writing, particularly at the demands of his fans.
What struck me, however, was Paul’s actual writing process throughout the book. Imprisoned by his self-proclaimed biggest fan, Annie Wilkes, Paul must write or die, not as a metaphor, but to avoid a very real, gruesome death (the movie version of the hobbling scene is like the Disnified version of the Grimm-style event in the novel). The problem? He’s killed off his main character in a pretty permanent way and Annie ain’t having the Dallas-It-Was-All-Dream cop out.
What’s a writer to do?
In Paul’s case, the answer is a return to the games of adolescence—specifically, a challenge from his days at Malden Community Center, where the counselor would set up a seemingly impossible scenario for the imaginary Careless Corrigan, then task one of the kids with picking up the story and propelling it forward in just ten seconds, issuing the dare, “Can You?” Once the ten seconds were up, the rest of the kids were asked to judge the story with a response to “Did he?”, asking if the teller did indeed spin a solution to the story. “Realism was not necessary,” Paul tells us. “Fairness was.”
“Can you, Paul?”
This phrase becomes Paul’s rallying cry as he pushes forward on a busted typewriter with a madwoman looking over his shoulder. After reading King’s delightful memoir On Writing, I wonder if there is some element of Paul’s process in his own. I love to think of him tapping away, scorning adverbs, issuing the challenge, “Can You, Stevie?” (I also love to think he calls himself Stevie, the way he referred to himself in his pop culture column for Entertainment Weekly.)
While I don’t refer to myself in the third person (mainly because I don’t have a cool nickname), the “Can You?” challenge has been part of my writing process since my first read of Misery. It’s such a simple idea—set up the situation and then get out of it any way you can (as long as you play fair with your readers). Like the trigger for my sleeper agent of creativity, I use it when I find I have lost my way or written into a corner I can’t seem to escape. Sometimes I even use it as fighting words to battle block.
This morning, for example, one of my characters ended up in a rain drenched football stadium, grieving and vengeful. The target of her wrath stood before her, memories of her part in a great betrayal swallowing her like a flood. And then . . . well, and then I wasn’t sure. I had her in a place with a need and a conflict. Yet somehow I couldn’t figure out the next sentence, let alone the next paragraph. Rather than close out the document and move on to something else, I asked: Can you? And for ten seconds I typed. In ten seconds, I got two sentences. They weren’t brilliant or particularly well-written, but they accomplished something—they moved the plot forward. Turns out, I can.
Granted, we write without Paul’s life or death circumstances, but it doesn’t mean our purpose is that removed from his. Rereading Misery, I was struck by a section that seems an authorial truth in addition to character development:
Can you, Paul?
Yeah. That’s how I survive . . . Because I can, and it’s not something to apologize for, goddammit . . . There’s a million things in this world I can’t do. Couldn’t hit a curve ball, even back in high school. Can’t fix a leaky faucet. Can’t roller-skate or make an F-chord on the guitar that sounds like anything but shit . . . But if you want me to take you away, to scare you or involve you or make you cry or grin, yeah. I can. I can bring it to you and keep bringing it until you holler uncle. I am able. I CAN.
Maybe it’s a cheesy pep talk for getting past a plot corner or a block or even a rejection. But I happen to love cheesy, especially if it works. So, can we, dear readers? Can we overcome our demons? Can we keep writing even when it seems impossible? Can we do what we were meant to do?
Yes, we are able. We can.