Therapeutic writing

In an interview with John Connolly (and thanks to the Rap Sheet for bringing it to my attention), Stephen King tells the following story:

“Then in the spring of that year, 1979, our son Owen, who was 18 months old, ran for the road while we were flying kites one day, and I heard one of those trucks coming, and I tackled him like a football player. I brought him down so, unlike Gage Creed in the book, he lived. But I thought to myself–and again, this is the impulse a lot of times with these things–I’m going to write the worst thing I can think of, and that way it won’t happen. So I sat down and wrote Pet Sematary and as bad as I imagined it was going to be, the book turned out worse. And I thought, I’m never going to publish this and nobody is going to want to read this, but they did. It just goes to show: you should never underestimate the taste of the reading public.”

The sentence that jumped out at me was: I’m going to write the worst thing I can think of, and that way it won’t happen…

When I was a child, and even into my twenties, I used to conjure catastrophes, knowing that if I could come up with a thing, the potential would be taken out of it and that precise disaster, at least, would never come to pass. Because it’s always the unexpected thing that comes up and slaps you upside the head.

So I would lie in bed at night and methodically construct one disaster after another: dead parent, disappeared cat, public speaking event gone wrong, the Man in the White Sedan (remember him? I never knew what a sedan was, but I knew the man driving it would steal me away.) For a while, my school was fixated on blasting caps, with posters and lectures, as if thousands of the things lay around for kids to play with: I used to imagine what I would do if my hand had no fingers.

The worst thing I could think of.

I never spent much time on the possibilities of nuclear holocaust, despite this being the time of bomb drills when the school pupils (all 110 of us) would file down to the basement and sit along the walls. Perhaps that catastrophe was too big to wrap my mind around, or perhaps I didn’t need to bother, since everyone else (read: every adult) was constructing the horrors for me.

But I can understand that other King’s impulse. I’ve even used it, though not to the extent he does. I incorporated a dream into A DARKER PLACE, because it seemed to contain the right frisson of emotion I needed to give the character. Later, I found that writing about it had deflated the immediacy of its horror in my mind, as if I’d transferred it to Rae Newborn. There’s another dream I did the same thing to, somewhere (can’t remember at the moment) and then one day when I was driving along the freeway, a small and utterly terrified cat dropped out from under a plumber’s truck ahead of me; the picture in my mind haunted me for weeks.

So I wrote a story, to get rid of it. “Cat’s Paw” (which you can find in a collection edited by Otto Penzler, MURDER AT THE FOUL LINE) has just that scene as the triggering event in the character’s life, a cat dropping out of a truck and haunting her until she figures out why.

And once I’d used it, the power was gone from the image in my mind, so thoroughly that some time later, I found myself wondering how I’d come to make up such a bizarre image.

This may be the impetus behind projects like the one sponsored by Maxine Hong Kingston, which encourages veterans to write their memoirs, but I have a feeling the defusing of traumatic memories works better if you use them in fiction, particularly in third person fiction. Not to deny the memories, but to shift the power in them elsewhere.

* * *
Incidentally, there was a query posted recently that spoils quite a bit for those that haven’t read the book in question, so I’m not going to add it to the Q&A. Anyone with such a detailed question is welcome to write me the old-fashioned way, with a stamp—the address is on the bottom of the web site’s home page.

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  1. L. Crampton, LAc on December 11, 2006 at 5:29 pm

    Thank you, Laurie, for delving into the nature of therapeutic use of nightmares and other horrors in writing. I’m intrigued by the confidence you two Kings have of the value of pre-imagining and thus defusing or preventing horrors. Surely there is a difference between this approach and the sort of white-line-fever of concentrating on a dreaded possibility until one attracts it into one’s life? I’d be glad for any comment you have on this.

  2. Roxanne on December 11, 2006 at 6:40 pm

    Aren’t we human beings funny little things? It is intriguing how individuals develop their own coping mechanisms. I don’t think I, personally, have ever done what the “two Kings” practice. My usual wont is more the opposite approach: I generally do not expect good things to happen (e.g., getting an “A” grade, winning the lottery, etc.). I guess somewhere along the line I rationalized to myself that, if I had no expectations, then I would not be disappointed when nothing (good) happened. And, if something good does happen, then I can be pleasantly surprised … Hey, I’m not saying this works; it’s just how I seem to work.

  3. mamamarta on December 11, 2006 at 6:50 pm

    yikes! i’m so sorry — i guess to the extent that i was even thinking about it, i was just assuming that anyone reading the comments on your blog had already read your books. no doubt a stupid assumption!

    please feel free to delete my comment, and i will be most happy to send you a snail mail inquiry.


  4. Delia on December 12, 2006 at 4:51 pm

    I have a friend who believes that if she worries about something it won’t happen, so she is honor bound to worry about all of the bad things she can think about.
    I, on the other hand, decided early on that it was a waste of time to worry about things. Why suffer twice? Bad enough to suffer when bad stuff actually happens. A twist on the saying, “A coward dies a hundred deaths, a brave man only once.” Or some such… any one know where that saying comes from and what is the actual quote?

  5. Anonymous on December 12, 2006 at 4:57 pm

    The cowards dies a thousand times before his death;
    The valiant never taste of death but once.

    Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

  6. 2maple on December 12, 2006 at 6:57 pm

    I have a twist on this that works great for me when I worry about stuff that keeps me awake at night (especially things I don’t want to forget)…write it down and …ZZZZZZzzzzz. Works every time.

    But my nature is to generally looking past whatever happened and move right on to “Plan B” whatever that may be – except maybe kids and driving…that one I’m having trouble with; my imagination here is way too vivid. Fortunately, my daughter’s smart and deals with her father on this one !

  7. Anonymous on January 6, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    Bad shit just happens. You can’t anticipate the worst possible thing happening to you, because it’s so bad it’s unimaginable.

    Imagine, for instance, being a normal, very healthy person with low blood pressure and low cholesterol, who works out and eats right. Would you imagine this person having a stroke, due to an undetected heart defect? Then, afterward, despite a remarkable recovery, having the stroke cause a neurological disorder that would impair their ability to pursue their career (writing)?

    I couldn’t have imagined it. But it happened to me. No amount of imagining could have prepared me for this.

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