I’m starting a mini-series today, covering some of my heroes in the horror genre. I’ve been a horror fan all my life, ever since the first time I watched Nightmare on Elm Street. Horror has always been my favorite form of entertainment. Bad horror, good horror, it rarely matters. I love zombies, haunted houses, Poltergeist. Give it all to me.
So I thought it would be fun to talk about some of my favorite horror creators of all time. I want to talk about why they’re amazing writers, creators and people in general.
Anyone who’s read this blog for any amount of time knows I love Stephen King. Even if I don’t love many of his endings. I’ve learned so much from him as a working writer, as a storyteller, as a creative person who has to exist in the real world. And I’m far from the only one inspired by him. He is, after all the reigning king of horror and has been for basically my entire life. Who else has that long of a career, honestly?
King knew he wanted to be a writer as a kid, something I relate to. In his book, On Writing, he tells stories of nailing rejection letters on his wall with a railroad spike. But since writing rarely pays the bills, at least at first, he got a teaching degree. Jokes on him, teaching usually doesn’t pay the bills either.
But the part of him that wanted to teach never went away. It fairly does with those passionate about helping others learn. And so King has written several books about writing and the horror genre. I talked about On Writing extensively here. I also talked about his amazing book, Danse Macabre on Haunted MTL. It’s a formative education on the horror genre, and everyone with even a passing interest in horror should read it.
King has always been generous with his knowledge. He wants to help people be better writers. And he enjoys talking about his favorite topics. He’s also very good at talking about his favorite topics, which makes sense. After all, he’s made a fortune telling stories.
Most people are fully aware that King suffered from substance abuse. He’s never shied away from that. He’s critical of himself for it and honest about how his addictions hurt his family. This bravery is something to be admired. I’m sure it opened him up to armchair therapists who want to label people who create horror as sick individuals. People like that will be quick to say that something must be wrong with him. People like that will be quick to say that about almost anyone, though.
But his honesty should inspire all of us to talk more openly about substance abuse. If it was easier to find help without judgment, more people would.
King makes it clear that he never needed drugs or alcohol to create. There are a lot of jokes in the creative world that the real geniuses are always tortured. That artists and writers are always drunks or drug addicts. I hate that suggestion. It’s an excuse for bad behavior, and an invitation for young creatives to experiment with things they should be staying far the hell away from. And King didn’t need that shit to write horror that scares the hell out of us. Neither does anyone else.
King was able to get himself clean and stay clean largely because of his family. When reading On Writing, it’s clear that King is devoted to his wife, Tabitha. She is his partner in every sense of the word. I admire that. He’s fully aware that he wouldn’t have been able to create what he did without her.
On a personal note, I read On Writing for the first time when I was sixteen. I dreamed of having that sort of partner then. I’m blessed to have found that sort of partner. The kind who will tell me clearly when my writing sucks, and then tell me how awesome I am in the next breath. I am always grateful for that.
The point I’m trying to make here isn’t to get married. It’s the same point King makes, again, in On Writing. I can’t say it better than him, so I’ll just go ahead and quote him.
Art is a support system for life, not the other way around.
I try to keep this in mind. When it feels like the words want to suck up my whole day. When I want nothing but the page staring back at me. When I feel like I’m behind on all my projects, and I want to start even more, and who needs to sleep anyway, I remember that good advice from my teacher. And I put the work away for a little while. I walk Oliver. I play chase the pen with Harper. I watch tv with the darling husband. I sing along with the music while I wash the dishes and I remember that I am more than the words I put on the page. I am a writer, but I am more.
The great thing about this lesson, putting your life before your art, is that it doesn’t mean you don’t create. King has published 64 novels, plus his short story collections, nonfiction works, and all the work he does adapting his books into tv shows and movies. The man is a creative machine. And it’s for one simple reason. He treats the writing as work. This is to say that he shows up every day at the blank page and writes. He does not wait for the muse to come to him. He sits down and starts writing. And eventually, the muse shows up.
King does not believe, and I do not believe, in writer’s block. If you’re a writer, you write. If you’re not writing, you need to figure out why you’re not. Or, you can do what King does and what I do. You sit down and write anyway, even if it’s shit writing. Even if it’s the worst thing you’ve ever written. Because the only way to get past writer’s block is to write.
Honestly, I don’t know that I’ll ever hit the 64 novel number. I have four, and four novellas, and one radio drama podcast. And I’m pretty sure you could stack all my work together and it wouldn’t match the page count of the extended version of The Stand. But I’m young, and I still have a full-time job. I’ll get there.
Turning now to the quality of King’s stories, I don’t think anyone can argue that they’re popular. And if you ask him, he’ll tell you that this comes from two things. Reading a lot and writing a lot.
I think it’s a little more than that, of course. King has been a horror fan his whole life. He has lived the genre. He knows the classics. He knows what scares the hell out of people. And he uses it. This takes time, years really. But it’s the only way to get good at something.
TLDR, here are the lessons that any writer can learn from Stephen King
– Put your life before the work
-You don’t need drugs to create
-Writing is work, treat it as such
-Know your genre inside and out