Stephen King is one of the most successful horror writers of all time and the author of more than 60 best-selling books, including “Carrie,” “The Shining,” “Pet Sematary” and more. But it would be hard for even him to have imagined the miseries he would endure in his lifetime.
King's family struggled form the time he was two years old, when his farther left them. As a boy, he saw his friend get struck and killed by a train. His mother died of cancer when he was in his mid-30s—King was drunk when delivering her eulogy, and went on to battle drug and alcohol addiction for a full decade. Then, in 1999, while walking on a road in rural Maine, he was hit by a van, launching him 14 feet in the air and breaking his leg in so many places that amputation looked likely.
Through it all he kept writing.
Did his many struggles fuel his work? Was he a tortured soul who needed to pour his emotions onto a page to process them all? King does not embrace that theory in his highly regarded 2000 memoir, “On Writing.” But it is true that he always turned to writing as a source of joy. In other words, his pain didn’t fuel his writing. But his passion for writing did help him overcome the pain. As he explains in his memoir, writing isn't about the fame, money, sex, or even friendship:
“In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
– Stephen King
Finding his Passion
Though King grew up without a father and without much money, he paints his childhood as a happy one. One of his earliest memories is of showing his mother some of his writing and her encouraging him to keep at it.
He spent much of his childhood writing, submitting his work to local publications—and being rejected. By the time he was 14, he had so many rejection slips hung on the nail in his wall that he had to replace it with a large spike.
But still, he kept writing.
King would be the first one to admit that the very best break of his life came when he met his future wife, Tabitha. They met in the library at the University of Maine where they both were students, and the first of their three children was born a year later, with the couple married shortly after.
By that time, King had some success in getting short stories published, but he was still very much the struggling author. Money was so tight in the family that on one occasion when the couple's second baby, Joe, had a high fever and needed medicine, but King and his wife didn’t know how they would be able to pay for it.
Rescuing “Carrie” from the Trash
It was during this difficult time that King began writing a new story. One about a teen girl named Carrie who unleashed her telekinetic powers after being humiliated by her classmates. After writing a few scenes, King felt he didn’t like Carrie, or have any empathy for her. So he threw the pages away.
The next day when he came home, he saw his wife Tabitha holding the crumbled pages. She’d taken them from the trash and cleaned them up, shaking the cigarette ashes off of them. King tells the story in his memoir.
“I told her I didn’t know jack-shit about high school girls. She said she’d help me with that part. … ‘You’ve got something here,’ she said. ‘I really think you do.’”
– Stephen King
So King didn’t give up. And it turns out Tabitha was right, because he received a $250,000 advance for the book and “Carrie” was published in 1973. Then it was made into a horror film in 1976, and launched King’s reputation as a master of the genre. Since then, King’s success has expanded exponentially. He’s published 60 more novels and sold more than 350 million copies.
The Decade of Drink and Drugs
But success did not give King the happy ending that you might expect. In the mid 1970s, things became worse for him as he developed a drinking and drug problem. It was during this time that King wrote “The Shining,” a horror novel about an alcoholic writer who goes mad, without a hint of irony. At the time he wrote it, King didn’t see any of himself in the story. It wasn’t until Tabitha staged an intervention that the picture became clearer. King described it in his memoir.
“Tabby began by dumping a trash bag full of stuff from my office out on the rug: beer cans, cigarette butts, cocaine in gram bottles and cocaine in plastic baggies … I was dying in front of them.”
– Stephen King
King was afraid he wouldn’t be able to write without being high. But he tackled this with the same unwillingness to give up that he always had, and kept writing even when it was terrible. It took time, but as he continued to push himself, sentence by sentence, to keep going, he slowly started to pick up momentum and find the joy in it again.
And for King, it only took going to rehab once. He’s been sober ever since he came back. But as someone who had been dogged by trouble from the beginning, his life would continue to be far from easy.
A True Horror Story
In June of 1999, life was at a high point for King and his wife. Their three grown children were back at home visiting and their first grandchild has just been born. King was taking his daily 4-mile walk when he caught a glimpse of a van that had just crested a hill. And then it hit him.
When King came to, he was wiping hands full of blood from his eyes and looking at the lower half of his body, which appeared to be attached sideways. The driver of the van, who had not seen King because he was turned around checking on his Rottweiler in the back seat, was sitting calmly on a rock.
King retells the moment—and what he was thinking during it—in his memoir.
“I don’t want to die. I love my wife, my kids, my afternoon walks by the lake. I also love to write.”
– Stephen King
King’s right knee was split almost directly down the middle and his lower leg was broken in at least nine places. His surgeon said it was like, “so many marbles in a sock.” His hip was fractured, and his spine chipped in eight places. The cut he had on his scalp required 20 to 30 stitches.
With the severity of the injury to King’s leg, doctors thought they would have to amputate the limb. But through a series of painful surgeries, and an external fixator that was clamped to his leg with eight large steel pegs, they were able to save it. After nearly a month, King was finally able to leave the hospital, although he weighed about 50 pounds less than he had before the accident. But for the first time in his life, King did not want to write.
Returning to Life
Sitting for even a short period of time was torture for King. Everything hurt. Yet he knew he was out of options. He had to do something.
He had been in terrible situations before—and writing had always helped him get out of them. So his wife Tabitha arranged his computer and desk for him, and he began to work as he had when he quit drinking. Slowly, but keeping his nose to the grindstone. After his first writing session following the accident, he was dripping with sweat from the exertion. But he was back.
The Story's Never Finished
Now in his 70s, King is still writing, always writing. His collection of novellas, “If it Bleeds,” was published in spring of 2020 and his next book, “Later,” will be published in 2021. His 1978 thriller about a global pandemic, “The Stand” was in production as a mini-series for CBS All Access just as COVID-19 hit and should be released soon.
King has all the money and fame he needs at this point, but he’s still writing for. Just because it’s his passion. And that passion provided a roadmap to take him safely through all of life’s obstacles and setbacks, driven by his steely resolve to never stop. But the real answer to why he continues to write, can be explained better by no one other than King himself:
“I feel that buzz of happiness, that sense of having found the right words and put them in a line. It’s like lifting off in an airplane: you’re on the ground, on the ground … and then you’re up, riding on a magical cushion of air and prince of all you survey. That makes me happy, because it’s what I was made to do.”
– Stephen King