Misery as Muse: Stephen King

Stephen King’s missile, On Writing, is one of the best I’ve read on the subject, but having just finished Misery I’d say that this novel is equally helpful as a guide to writing, the major thesis seeming to be, stay away from it unless you are prepared to deal with a lot of misery and pain in the form of a very grim muse.

Misery is about the relationship between writer and muse and, particularly, the role of the muse in that connection. The role of the misery5writer seems to be one of endurance. The responsibility of the muse is to force the writer to get the job done no matter how much pain, in this case ‘she’, has to inflict on her charge. She is, indeed, the caregiver from hell. Even if sometimes she appears to be maternal and loving, at her core is total solid blackness.

Paul Sheldon is a writer who has lost his direction and commitment, who cannot write if he is out of cigarettes or has a migraine. Annie Wilkes, his number-one fan, is an insane murderer, who helps him refind and redefine himself by subjecting him to unbelievable suffering. While doling out the punishment, she tells him that he needs to be protected from himself. That would be his self-indulgent, noncommitted self. But some people, it appears, are so stubbornly set in their wrong ways it takes a heap of persuasion to get them to change direction into the right way. She persuades him in spades, or should I say axes and chainsaws?

The novel is a wrestling match, a bloody one, both mental and physical, between writer and muse. Only one can come out alive.

What are we to make of all the torture, the blood and gore? For one thing, it seems you can’t escape your muse. Paul tries to outsmart and outmanoeuvre Annie at every turn. He tries to manipulate her. He cries, whines, begs for mercy. She, on the other hand, has no patience with his whining. When she chops off his foot and his thumb, it’s his fault. He has brought this misery on himself by not following her instructions. At times he thinks he’s winning only to find that she is always a step ahead of him. She punishes accordingly. She hobbles him so that he has to stay in place and write. She confines him in his wheelchair.

But it’s not good enough just to suffer, it’s the memory of the suffering that produces the work of art. The writer engages his muse through memory. ‘Art consists of the persistence of memory.’ The only way Paul can defeat his muse is to write the book and the only way he can do that is to engage his muse through memory of misery.

As he puts it, ‘Misery, the thread that runs through everything.’

There it is folks. Stephen King, probably the most successful writer of this or any other generation, on the basic premise of writing. If you can’t take misery, get out before you encounter your muse.

The muse will force you to confront the ‘Can You’ which leads to the ‘Gotta’. Can you  do it? write the scene, write the character. Can you make the unbelievable believable? If the answer is ‘yes’ you will arrive at the ‘gotta’ find out how it ends, and then you can’t quit.

And this journey needs to be desperate. Paul is forced to write on a decrepit typewriter, the keys start falling off. He writes by hand on foolscap, runs out of foolscap, is down to steno notepads, but still he keeps on. The worse things get, the more pain he is in, the more desperate he is, the better and faster he writes. He has an overwhelming desire to finish his book. Only by doing so, can he destroy the muse and save himself.

She chops off his foot and his thumb, destroys his manuscript, puts him in a dungeon with rats. She destroys his subjective reality. Still, he can’t die because he has to find out how his novel ends. But what is even more amazing, as King points out, is that the reader, too (and Annie who doubles as his number-one fan), wants, needs, to know what happens. King cites examples: people who mobbed the Baltimore docks each month when the latest installment of  Little Dorrit or Oliver Twist was due from across the pond; a woman of one hundred and five who declared she would not die until The Forsyte Saga was finished, and who died less than an hour after having the final page of the final volume read to her. And the most astounding thing of all, people become engaged this strongly with  fictional characters in a fictional world. The power of story, the power of the word. God bless it. An optimistic message for us writers, don’t you think?

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