Mastery comes at a price

I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Though I’ve never read any of Stephen King’s many books, I figure someone as prolific as he must have something interesting to say about writing. I’m about eight pages in and I know I’ve made an excellent choice.

So far, King hasn’t said much about the craft itself. The author says this book is his curriculum vitae, or “my attempt to show how one writer was formed.” As I’m only eight pages in, King has thus far written only about his boyhood and certain events that were significant in his early years. Notably, there was injury, illness, and pain, as well as several trips to the doctor. King writes about this not to elicit sympathy, rather these anecdotes serve as an explanation about how he was “formed.” One anecdote describes a procedure a doctor performed on him on three separate occasions to cure him of ear infections brought on by strep throat. King describes the pain as the most acute pain he’s ever felt–and that includes much later being hit by a car! As the nurse and his mother held him down, the doctor inserted a long needle into his ear drum. King writes, “I screamed so long and so loud that I can still hear it. In fact, I think that in some deep valley of my head that last scream is still echoing.”

With that last chilling sentence, I understand King almost completely. I understand why horror is his genre. Eighteen words. Well, to be fair, they followed a long anecdote. Nonetheless, the entire time that anecdote was leading up to that last sentence. One long, lingering scream of pain. No doubt that scream can be heard throughout his many books. Masterful.

This experience alone doesn’t explain how King came to be a writer. Were he of a different temperament perhaps he would’ve become a serial killer. He hasn’t yet revealed a deep, abiding love for the English language, though my guess is at some point he might. But the story does offer a window into his psyche. What does one do with this echoing scream of pain? Most therapists would say, “Write it down.” Write it down, so it doesn’t haunt you. Perhaps, in spite of his best efforts, the scream haunts him anyway.

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