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On writing trauma

in retrospect

When I was 12 years old, the only thing I wanted was the opportunity to read a book written by Stephen King. Any book would have done, although I was especially interested in his horror novels after having deliberately disobeyed my father’s instructions and read a detailed summary of each of King’s major works online. 

I was both an aspiring writer and rebellious preteen at this age, a toxic combination that was finally able to wear down my father and prompt him to hand over what he believed to be the mildest book in his Stephen King collection: “Misery.” I had been so focused on reading King’s more terrifying works that I had neglected to read up on “Misery” before I cracked open my father’s musty copy. When I put the book down two days later, I was angry — not at my dad for giving me one of King’s less fantastical works, but at King himself because I knew I would never write anything as good as the book I had just finished. 

I have gone on to defy my father and read almost every book and short story that Stephen King has published — a task that has taken nearly six years and is far from over — yet none of his other works have affected me the way that “Misery” did. It was the only book I could talk about for months, to the point where my final book report for seventh-grade English consisted of a pencil drawing of Kathy Bates and an explanation of “hobbling” to a room of horrified 12-year-olds. “Misery” was so different from the books in the middle school library and the youth section of the bookstore. I had never read anything like it.

Although “Misery” isn’t necessarily King’s best novel, there is something about the language that sets it apart. The story — which follows a writer rescued by a fan of his books after being in a car accident — was based on King’s recovery from being hit by a van and his own fear of fans stalking him and his family. His pain grounds the plot in reality, making every scene and character feel crushingly authentic. Even though “Misery” is fundamentally a thriller, it is still a book about a man and his pain. I had no idea that language could be used in such a way, that suffering could be described in such vivid detail and that a person could utilize storytelling to explore a traumatic experience.

After I finished “Misery,” my attitude toward writing changed drastically. For years, writing had just been a hobby, something I did because I liked to tell stories and create little words based off of the books I would read. I had never considered using words as a tool to express my own pain and delve into how that pain had affected me. Language became more than just a vessel to convey thoughts and actions — it held the potential to transform the author and the reader. So many quotes from “Misery” are still stamped into my memory all of these years later, such as the protagonist comparing his physical agony, hunger and thirst to racehorses or having an opioid delusion about his shattered legs being piles of driftwood on a beach. Prose could be powerful, memorable, even painful.

It is because of “Misery” that I took the first steps towards adopting writing as a passion rather than a hobby. This initially meant stealing King’s voice and pawning it off as my own, as I’m sure many young writers do, but I was able to start creating more realistic characters and weaving my own personal experiences into the narrative using sophisticated prose. I started writing short stories, inspired by King’s own short fiction, and sharing them with my then-English teacher, who encouraged me to keep writing. After years of trial and error, I managed to forge my own unique voice and started publishing my short stories, all of which were marked with the fingerprints from where I had molded King’s influence into something entirely new.

I’ve read a lot of books that have had a much larger impact on me, both personally and creatively, but “Misery” was the novel that showed me that writing was so much more than words on paper. It introduced me to Stephen King, to a world of more cerebral fiction, to the art of using writing to process trauma. The ability of one story to change the life of a reader fills me with the same hope that I felt at 12 years old. I used to dream about filling a bookshelf with my stories. Now, I dream of being able to write something that can leave the same incredible, unprecedented impact on a reader that “Misery” did on me.


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