Dear Stephen King,
I don’t like most of what you do. I’d apologize for telling you that, but I know you give zero damns if I like your work or not, and you write like hell itself couldn’t stop you anyway. That’s something I do like.
When you visited my hometown in Montana this month on your book tour, the weather knew you were here and took a turn for the dark and squally. I was the one in the back, the one who shared your love for Jerry Lee Lewis and was very hungry.
Until this summer, I had previously only seen film adaptations of your work and read one of your books, Cujo, when I was much too young. I mainly remember a description of some crusty sheets and how you desperately needed Jesus, you dirty old man. There was also something about a sweaty kid trapped in a car and a dog loitering outside like a bum.
But this year I received an education in all things King. It started with your terrific nonfiction book On Writing. You’re actually funny, witty, smart, I guess—not just the guy who writes about gummy aliens and fetid zombies. So next I read Misery, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, 11/22/63, The Shining, Pet Cemetery, and Tommy Knockers. The first two were fantastic, the next two were wastes of time, and the last two were spectacular disasters. (I can say that because you yourself admitted Tommy Knockers was “awful,” written at the height of your drug addiction, and when the man is right, he’s right. Your coke was on coke, bro.)
The most recent book I read, however, was about a certain clown everyone knows, even if they’ve never read about it. As a kid with teeth too big for my face, I’d sneak into libraries to read the scary parts of It, and as an adult I finally slogged through its thousand-plus pages this summer knowing a remake of the movie adaptation would be released in October. And yes, I broke a sweat conquering that sucker.
Unfortunately, I found both the book and movie underwhelming, but I’m the only one. It made a killing at the box office, launched a series of sightings of creepy clowns, and caused a crisis of employment for friendly ones. (“I’ll tell you one thing—the clowns of the world fucking hate me,” you said during your book tour this month.)
I wonder what it’s like to wield such clownly power.
Regardless of what I think of your books, learning the way of the King has been a wakeup call for my writer’s ego. You’ve published more than fifty books and hundreds of short stories, and while most of your books are as thick as bricks, it only takes you three months to write a first draft. Everyone knows your name whether they’ve held one of your books or not, and an entire bookcase in every Barnes and Nobles is packed with your hardbacks standing like soldiers. Yes, you write about rampaging clowns and bloody teenagers with telekinesis, but you also write about coming-of-age adventures (The Body, adapted into Stand By Me) and innocent men on death row (The Green Mile). You are a writer, sir, and you make me wonder what the hell I am.
I don’t know you, but I can guess that you don’t write for money and you never did, and you said as much during your book tour. Regardless of your full-time job, you would still be writing about our nightmares because you love it. And more than that, from racing through more than a half dozen of your books in the last few months, I’ve learned one thing about the famous Stephen King: you love to tell stories and stories inside of stories (your character’s dead father tells stories, for God’s sake), and it’s never about the monster. It’s always about what happened before and after we met it.
“Read everything―trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it,” William Faulkner said. “Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”
Maybe you write trash, and maybe you don’t. But that’s not the point, and that’s not your story. You write like you’re running out of time and challenge me to do the same—because if not now, when? After all, we’re entering National Novel Writing Month. “The scariest moment is always just before you start,” you wrote in On Writing.
So Happy Halloween, Steve. Thanks for waking my muse, and thanks for the clowns.