The Number One Lesson I Learned from Stephen King

Twenty-five years ago, on a cloudy April afternoon, my mom and I drove out to visit her brother. He lived across from the old church that we attended, and on this particular day, was having a garage sale. It was there that my cousin Luke, two years older than me, and someone I looked up to as the epitome of cool, was selling a bunch of old books. In this pile of tattered old paperbacks I would find my first writing mentor.

There were books on sports, a few Westerns, and a row of mystery books. But only one beat-up paperback caught my attention. That book would begin an epic journey for me and would have a dramatic impact on the rest of my life, and yours, too. It was a book from Stephen King.

My first foray into the King macabre was Thinner. While not his best work, any author that could weave the phrase, “arm-pit farting Hail Columbia” into a tense standoff between mysterious gypsies and the story’s hero was sure to make a fan out of a 14-year old boy.

I spent the rest of that summer devouring every Stephen King book I could find at the local Stratford library. Some books even had a waiting list, and I’d spend days and even weeks anxiously awaiting its return, hoping it would arrive back before I finished reading whatever King book I had at the time (this was long before the days of instant fix Kindle book delivery).

Each night, exhausted from nine hours of manual labor at my summer construction job, and then followed by two hours of soccer, I’d finally crawl into bed with one of King’s stories. And each night I’d intend to read only a few pages so that I could get to sleep before 9 p.m. Two hours later — and sometimes not until after midnight — I’d finally force myself to put down the book so I could get six hours of sleep, during which I would often dream about King’s characters.

After Thinner I graduated to It, my first of King’s epic 800-plus-page novels. I spent the rest of the summer and the next school year racing through his shorter classics, like Carrie and Cujo, his lesser-known works like The Talisman (written under a penname, Richard Bachman), and of course, his masterpieces like The Shining, and my personal favorite to this day, The Stand.

I tried other horror authors such as John Saul and Dean Koontz, but their books seemed like the same old rehashed plotline over and over. There was no substitute for King.

Who else could tug at your heartstrings with a story like The Four Seasons (that would become the coming-of-age movie, Stand by Me), while later terrifying you to be in the presence of St. Bernards, prom queens, or a red 1958 Plymouth Fury named Christine?

I have not yet read King’s non-fiction work on storytelling, On Writing. But through osmosis during the hundreds of hours I spent with his books, King has taught me several lessons. He showed me the power of storytelling and character development. I’ll never forget his description, from Pet Cemetery, of the comforting old neighbor who listened to Boston Red Sox games on the radio each night on the front porch. Only King could make you want to visit the scene of mass murders and grisly killings because he made it all sound so idyllic.

King also showed me not to pigeonhole your writing in a genre or style, and of course, he instilled upon me the importance of being prolific. My Early to Rise essays, Turbulence Training emails, my writing work ethic, and even my workout program cover art remains influenced by his horror to this day.

Alas, as the years went by, his stories no longer held the same influence over me. I seemed to be outgrowing his characters and stories like The Tommyknockers and Dolores Claiborne, and while I had high hopes for the tales of Roland the Gunslinger in The Dark Tower series, these new books just didn’t connect.

Still, King left me with fond memories of growing up with his reluctant heroes, his chilling plots, and his addictive storytelling. The ending to one of his early short stories, The Jaunt, still fascinates me as I try to imagine what the young boy, the mice, and the prisoners experienced as they spent a maddening eternity lost in space.

Today, King is worth an estimated $400 million dollars. He’s published 63 books at last count, turned over a dozen into movies, and one into a three-season TV series, Under the Dome, and yet he continues to write every day. According to one of my favorite books from 2013, Daily Rituals, “King writes every day of the year, including his birthday and holidays, and he almost never lets himself quit before he reaches his daily quota.”

King taught me all of his lessons virtually, without a formal lesson, and if you’re short on in-person mentors, you’ll find you can learn a lot just by studying what the masters do.

The most significant lesson I’ve kept from King came in his short, lesser-known novella, The Mist. (You’ll find it in his anthology, The Skeleton Crew). It is one of my favorite King stories, and was made into a movie in 2007 that has grossed over $60 million.

In this story, the small town of Bridgton, Maine mysteriously becomes shrouded in a dense mist that is home to the monsters you once feared were living in your closet as a child. (If bugs give you the willies, you’ll love this story.) Soon we learn that the mist has been released as a result of a U.S. Military operation called, “The Arrowhead Project.”

As happens with all King books, his reluctant hero is just an average person living a regular life with its normal trials and tribulations. That is, until King unleashes something horrific upon them that turns them into a hero. In this case, the hero is named David Drayton. Drayton eventually rounds up his son Billy and two other survivors, and drives as far away from Brighton as they can get on the gas in his jeep.

King’s description of their trip down a highway, dodging the giant legs of enormous centipedes and other hideous monsters of the mist, still pops into my head from time to time when I’m on a long road trip. King’s vivid attention to detail is just one of his storytelling secrets that keep you glued to every page.

It is the end of this book, one where you might say that the story remains incomplete (the novella ending is different from the movie, by the way) that leaves me with the number one lesson I’ve learned from King.

Drayton’s jeep had run out of gas before they were able to escape the mist. Pulled up beside a pump at the gas station, Drayton and his band of travelers know that stepping outside the jeep will result in a monster of the mist delivering a sure and grisly death sentence. But as they sit there, listening to the radio through almost overwhelming static comes a single word, “Hartford.”

The mist has yet to make it there. If they can only get gas in the tank, they can make it to safety. To Drayton, Hartford is Hope.

Hope is what we all need.

It is the belief that no matter how horrific your situation right now, no matter how dark the days seem, no matter how deep the dips in life have taken you, that there is always a shred of hope if you look to find it.

When you have hope, you’ll keep on going.

When you can offer someone else hope, it gives them the will to move on.

When there is hope, there is a will. Where this is a will, there is a way. When there is hope, there is an ending left unwritten for you, your family, or your customers to fill in.

That is the biggest lesson I have learned from King. Give your readers, prospects, and customers hope. Give it to your family, and give it to yourself.

What was your favorite Stephen King book, story, or lesson?

  • NT

    The ending was not as I expected, but that’s part of what makes this post a great and insightful read.

  • Denise M

    I was a teenager when I started to read Stephen King. HIs book On Writing, is the only book of his I have read in the last few years, (however, I am waiting for the return of the Dome series),
    I have always loved the hero’s of his books. They were not the smartest, strongest, most popular people. Like you stated, they were just ordinary folks, who when confronted with danger, did what they needed to do.
    And that’s the lesson we can all learn from. We all have the ability to dig down deep and do what needs to be done. We just have to do it. And that’s where most people fall short. They just do not do it.
    We do not keep up a little early so we can spend time on developing our business. We eat donuts for breakfast instead of something healthy, and on and on.
    Real heroes’ do what need to be done, not because of power, money, etc. but because it is what is needed. It is what is needed to get you where you want to go in life.
    Denise M

  • FreeYourMindinSC

    Interesting essay. I, too, devoured Stephen King when I was younger–I still enjoy revisiting his early novels & short story collections from time to time. Actually, my own favorite King story — the one I learned something important from — wasn’t even horror. It appears in NIGHT SHIFT, the first collection & is called “The Last Rung of the Ladder.” A very touching story moving from youth to adulthood, of siblings (it could be good friends), connections, & their loss, & the damage procrastination can do. In the story, the lead character knows he needs to make contact with the sister he hasn’t seen in years; he keeps putting it off & putting it off — until it’s too late. The ending leaves me teary-eyed to this day.

    • ttcert

      Nice, thanks for sharing!

  • katepaints

    I read The Shining and The Stand – devoured them really. But I loved Dolores Claiborne. It was human horror–no bugs or supernatural beings involved. But the mystery of what happened in a terribly dysfunctional family told from a woman who wanted to protect her daughter. I’ve read it was one of King’s favorite books that he wrote. But one of his more memorable books for me is On Writing. There one finds the genesis of so many of his books as well as his ideas on writing. Plus it’s pretty funny in places too.

    • ttcert

      I will read On Writing this summer. That is my mission. Thanks for the motivation!

  • Roland Teigen

    Agree with The Stand as being a great modern epic. But I was very pleasantly surprised when King went into another genre. Am a great fan of Sherlock Holmes. Came across a book of modern mystery writers, each of whom created a Holmes short story mystery. To my surprise, the best one of all (I thought) was one contributed by King. In it, Watson actually solves the mystery, not Holmes. Unfortunately, I don’t recall the name of the book or King’s story within it, but it’s out there, and it’s great.

    • ttcert

      Cool, thanks!

  • ttcert

    Thank you.

  • ttcert

    Great feedback, thank you.

  • katepaints

    I also want to read Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, which are the basis of one of my favorite movies, Shawshank Redemption. Again we are looking at regular people who end up living their dream.

    • ttcert

      Amazing story. So good.

  • Ted Pawlikowski

    Craig – Stephen King is my favorite author and The Stand is my favorite King novel, but 11/22/63 is a close second. On Writing is a must if yu write. I read it every year. Thanks for the great article.

    • ttcert

      Thank you Ted, and I will check out 11/22/63. Thanks for the referral!

  • Michael Shaw

    Thanks Craig –
    I just started reading “On Writing,” and your e-mail was timely. In fact you kicked things up a notch. I’m thinking, “Maybe I am brave enough to read an actual Stephen King novel….” If I can tell myself it is to help my writing, then I might just get past the fear. 🙂
    Thanks again, for being an inspiration.
    Mike

    • ttcert

      Wonderful, thank you Michael!

  • Francisco D’Anconia

    As it was for you and others, The Stand was my favorite King novel. I also enjoyed Salem’s Lot and the collection of short stories in Night Shift. One of those stories is an open tribute to one of King’s influences, H.P. Lovecraft. If you haven’t read any Lovecraft, I would highly recommend it–it would be difficult indeed to imagine a more bizarre imagination (especially given that he wrote in the 20’s and 30’s) and he possessed a unique gift of prose.

    I always admired King’s ability to weave in small details and popular culture to make his characters more real.

    Roland, I too am a passionate devotee of Holmesiana, and have even toyed with the idea of attempting my own Holmes story based on one of the untold tales Doyle tempts us with, such as the giant rat of Sumatra. I will have to try to find King’s story–thanks for the tip!

    I have been researching my own e-book on health and longevity for years now, and hopefully this site will help end the “paralysis by analysis” and segue from researching to writing!

    • ttcert

      Excellent feedback, thank you. And yes, get my online biz help for free at http://www.InternetIndependence.com. – Thanks!

    • Roland Teigen

      Francisco,

      I believe that most, if not all of the mystery writers who contributed to the book I mentioned are winners of the Edgar award, the mystery equivalent of the Oscar. Also, there are 2 or 3 modern Holmes novels out there written about Holmes solving some mysteries in America. All by the same fellow (author and book title again escaping me), and also pretty good. Re your health and longevity book, suggest you ‘get started ASAP’, by writing an article on the subject. Then you can decide whether to publish/sell that, or just flesh it out into the rest of your book. Either way, you’ve already gotten part of it done. A final treat for all you devotees of Holmes here. Cannot recommend enough the works of Preston and Child, 12 in all, of the eccentric wealthy, modern FBI agent, Pendergast. The wikipedia entry on him alone runs to several pages.

  • TT&KingFan

    Great essay. I too spent my teenage years devouring King books, often staying up late to read just one more page. The Stand is still one of my favourites. While it is a little gruesome, Desperation is a good read. But if you liked the Shining, check out Doctor Sleep. It’s about Danny Torrance when he’s adult. I loved it and I hope you love it too.

  • Emilio Volmut

    I have several stories of his that I like: One – Crouch End from Nightmares & Dreamscapes, The Breathing Method from Different Seasons, The 10 O’Clock People and Rainy Season again from Nightmares & Dreamscapes. And I forget the name but it’s the short story sequel to Salem’s Lot, about a guy who’s car broke down in the Lot and he requests assistance from two guys in a diner. I love the way he builds characters and I delight in how he tortures them. I love how in the Gunslinger series the Gunslinger is feverish and has to find Keyflex in our world. I love Blaine the Mono, His ability to draw you in, his down home New England characters, even though they are far removed from you if you’ve never been there, feel real,and that makes all the difference in the world.

    • ttcert

      Yes, well said Emilio, his characters and settings are brilliantly done.

  • AuroraB

    The Shining and Dr. Sleep were the best for me. It took me forever to get into ‘It’.

    • Always interesting to see which books grab readers… I think it depends so much on the time of our lives, and which order we read the books. Thanks!