I am teaching Stephen King’s Misery this fall. I consider it one of King’s best books and, from an educational point of view, one of the most teachable, especially in an American Gothic Literature class. It is also a book from which I have learned a great deal about whom we write for and why.
Without giving too much away, Misery tells the story of a famous novelist named Paul Sheldon, who gets in a terrible car accident and is found by his number one fan, Annie Wilkes, who happens to be both a trained nurse and completely psychotic. Under the pretense of nursing him back to health, she holds him prisoner, responding violently when he doesn’t behave to her liking.
Almost immediately, Paul does not behave to her liking: he has recently given up writing the books that have long earned him money, popularity, and fans like Annie–a series of Gothic novels starring a protagonist named Misery Chastain–to write “real” novels. To make sure that he would stick to this promise, he killed off Misery in his latest book. When Annie finds him, she has not yet read the last installment in his Misery series. But when she does, she insists that he resuscitate her favorite protagonist or suffer the consequences. And Paul does. The reader essentially gets two gothic tales in one: Misery, the truly horrific story of the particular sufferings of Paul, and snippets of Misery’s Return, the sort of gothic romance/bodice ripper on which Paul has built his career.
Whether or not you like Stephen King, Misery has a lot to say about writing, about why we do it and about why we don’t. In order to revive Misery, Paul must come up with a believable explanation for how her death in the previous novel only SEEMED like death. Through Paul, King reminds us that writer’s block is a luxury reserved for those who don’t have deadlines, whose livelihoods do not depend upon on writing, and those who don’t have a giant, scary nurse looming in the next room with an entire arsenal of motivational “tools.”
He understood what he was doing now as TRYING TO HAVE AN IDEA. TRYING TO HAVE AN IDEA wasn’t the same thing as GETTING AN IDEA. GETTING AN IDEA was a more humble way of saying I am inspired, or Eureka! My muse has spoken! This other process–TRYING TO HAVE AN IDEA–was nowhere near as exalted or exalting, but it was every bit as mysterious . . . and every bit as necessary. Because when you were writing a novel you almost always got road-blocked somewhere, and there was no sense in trying to go on until you’d HAD AN IDEA. His usual procedure when it was necessary to HAVE AN IDEA was to put on his coat and go for a walk. . . . He recognized walking as good exercise, but it was boring. . . . But if you needed to HAVE AN IDEA, boredom could be to a roadblocked novel what chemotherapy was to a cancer patient.
Neither Paul nor King accepts writer’s block as anything more than a temporary obstacle, a momentary lapse in inspiration. It is certainly no excuse. If you want to be unblocked, the solution is to force yourself into circumstances that offer no pleasant distraction from the task at hand: unblocking yourself.
I have two reactions to this passage. On the one hand, I love it. It’s liberating. It says that writer’s block is not an affliction sent from the same hitherlands that serve up inspiration from time to time. You can take steps to cure it.
On the other hand, for me, writer’s block is more than a matter of mechanics, a missing solution to a plot problem. It’s about giving myself permission to have the problem in the first place. In Misery, Paul already has readers chomping at the bit to read more. And ditto for King: by 1987, when Misery was published, he was a household name.
Unlike Paul and King, my problem is feeling that the time I spend writing is only justified if it ends up being useful somehow: meaning, in my world, that a) it results in some publishable work that I can wave at the university that employs me as proof of my necessity; or b) that someone finds it affirming or meaningful in some way. Sure, I could tell myself (and you) that I’m writing only for myself, but that would be A Lie. I want what I write to matter to someone else, even if in only some small way.
Yet, I’ve found there’s a direct connection between writing for yourself and writing for others: forget one or the other, and you’re doomed. Write only for yourself, and risk displeasing your metaphorical Annie Wilkes, who will serve up some kind of punishment: silence, bewilderment, or a complete lack of interest. But write only for your Annie Wilkes, and you’ll find yourself locked in a bedroom, entirely dependent on her approval for the rest of your days. And, frankly, Annie Wilkes is unpredictable anyway: whenever you think you’ve got her nailed, she’ll up and surprise you. She loves the things you’re least proud of, hates the things that contain pieces of your soul.
I think this is what King’s novel is about: the realization that writing “in the world” is a delicate dance between writer and reader, both of whom are necessary but neither of whom should always be trusted to lead.