The Suffering Writer: A Lesson from the King

Many of you may already be familiar with the popular image of the suffering writer/starving artist, the author whose fits of passion or despair fuel his work. Though I was a doctoral medical student for a short time before succumbing to my own inner demons, I won’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. However, I think that I have spent enough time combating them to hopefully provide some small encouragement to others in similar circumstances.

The widespread nature of the observation that writers and artists tend to suffer more from certain mental illnesses lends at least a little credence to the idea. In his fascinating partial biography titled On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King explores many of these types of influences in his life. I highly recommend it as a read. If anyone represents the type of authorial ideal of becoming something from nothing, it’s Stephen King. I’ve never even read any of his books—I don’t particularly enjoy horror in text or film.

[This raises a critical point (a digression): you will never write a work that everyone likes. Even Stephen King can’t do that. However, that doesn’t mean that your work is valueless. Now, back to task…]

I think it’s safe to say that Stephen King understands his audience, his market, and his gifts. However, he’s not the only gifted person in the world. In fact:

We all have gifts.

They rarely look the same, but that’s good. More importantly, what are we doing with the gifts we have? Don’t they carry with them a certain responsibility?

Stephen King, like myself and other writers I know, struggled in many ways, despite his obvious gift. He had a stack of rejections for his stories that even I think about with admiration. His first attempts at publishing met with about as much success as most of ours. But, I think that what I appreciate most about his memoir is its candid treatment of his suffering as a then-unsuccessful writer.

King describes his desperation to write the work that could make his name and lift his family out of its humble circumstances. What strikes me about his treatment of his substance use problems during that time is that he doesn’t sugar-coat it, he doesn’t justify it, and he didn’t let it define the person he would eventually become—though he certainly doesn’t recommend it! This taught me a great lesson:

If the King fell prey to his inner demons at times, why should I be less susceptible to my own?

Of course, DON’T DO DRUGS. If you are anything like me (prone to drastic dives in mood without outside help), there’s no possible way that abusing substances is going to help in any way, but I’m off track again.

I am absolutely convinced that the life of a writer tends to subject us to different pressures than many others face. Knowing myself, I can also see where my patterns of thought can fuel wonderful imaginary worlds while also isolating me at times.

As writers, we’re thinkers—and too much for our own good.

My challenge to you is to think about these things for a very short time, rollin’ them ‘round through those noggins just long enough to form an idea of how they might apply to your circumstances. I’ll be back with some interesting observations of my own in our next article, and some practical tips for managing the writer’s doldrums.

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