There's that that wise old adage, "Write what you know," yet there's another, less spoken of piece of writerly wisdom - one that we don't like to acknowledge because it's simply too honest: writing is pain. Not that the act itself is painful (it can be), but that great writing, like great art, often comes from a painful place. With Misery, Stephen King takes the act of writing and transforms it into the metatextual story of Paul Sheldon, a successful novelist rescued (by coincidence or fate?) from a car crash by his mentally ill and sadistic number one fan, Annie Wilkes, who locks him up in a room and forces him to write another in a series of books even though he's killed off the beloved heroine.
Misery is one of King's most surprising novels, an ode to writing itself - and as such, his relationship with the act of writing, as seen through the eyes of Paul, is complex. Though the Misery novels-within-the-novel have made Paul a wildly successful writer, they're the sort of maudlin and flowery Victorian-era adventures for a middle-aged female demographic, and not the sort of "real writing" Paul would like to be doing. Then again, the sort of writing that Paul finds rewarding doesn't exactly pay the bills. The truth is that, as writers, we often find ourselves doing work that pays well but isn't necessarily creatively fulfilling so that we can spend our spare time doing that which we truly love, and sometimes we accidentally bump into something we're surprised to find that we're passionate about.
King's stories have often focused on writers ("write what you know"), but Misery cuts to the heart of what it means to really be a writer, and why we feel that all of our pain and suffering is necessary and even often strangely rewarding in its own way. The Dark Half took a supernatural approach to the story of its author, wherein the pseudonym used to write his popular fiction was linked to a long-dead twin, absorbed in utero, and who was ultimately a bizarro, grotesque reflection of the writer's self. But Misery takes a more literal and layered approach, and the result is endlessly more terrifying than The Dark Half.
Paul languishes under Annie's "care," becoming addicted to the painkillers she feeds him and co-dependent on his caretaker, whose vague mental illness lends to sadistic whims and foreboding moments of cheerful calm. Annie reflects the gross rabidity of fandom, that person who deems herself the "number one fan," whose adoration is little more than sick obsession. With nothing else in her life - no friends, family or job - Annie depends on Paul's Misery novels as an escape, but while fictive escapism has its charms for the well-adjusted or even fairly-adjusted among us, Annie's dependency is toxic. And so like most number one fans, she's enraged at the death of a beloved character, and thinks she knows what's best for a franchise. Paul even comments that while Annie sounds simple, she's able to clumsily articulate concepts like deus ex machina, although she's unfamiliar with the actual term. You've seen an Annie Wilkes leave comments on Facebook. You know the type.
Like all writers, Paul takes inspiration from the mundane, and maybe his latest novel about a car thief - inspired by watching a valet attempt to jimmy his way into a car - would have been as critically-acclaimed as he assumed... or not. As he's forced to write the new Misery novel, first through the pain of broken legs, and then the added pain of the shattered knee courtesy of Annie's wrath, we see Paul work in references to his current situation: Annie resembles a stone artifact of some cruel, made-up goddess, which lends itself to the creation of an African tribe for his story. During the climax of his book, if the tribesmen stop playing music, the bees covering his heroine will awaken from their slumber and kill her, just as if Paul stops writing the story, Annie will kill him. Paul culls from personal experience to craft the narrative, obscuring the reality with fiction. This is art. We take the pain we are given and we use it to tell our own version of the story with the tools we know how to use.
"Strip a writer to the buff, point to the scars, and he'll tell you the story of each small one," Paul thinks to himself. "A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a writer, but the only real requirement is that ability to remember the story of every scar." It's a blessing and a burden, this ability to recall every slight and hurt with searing clarity. At times we almost feel as though we exist simply as recycling bins, to take the waste and the broken, jagged bits and consume them; to swallow them whole and process them thoroughly, running them through our internal machinery on a conveyor around and around again until each piece is fully committed to memory; and then we push them back out in new and unrecognizable shapes, repurposed as something new. Sometimes it feels like we exist only to feel, and that our real talent isn't so much in our ability to tell stories, but in our ability to vividly recall every painful event and emotional trauma as if it happened just moments ago. Sometimes it's as if we're not actually writers but the waste baskets for the discarded rough drafts and crumbled up, half-started chapters thrown away by other people and by life itself, and we're taking all the paper cuts and using them to make up stories of our own or using that pain to identify with and critique other fiction. "Art consists of the persistence of memory," Paul says and he wonders who said that. No one did (although Dali did paint The Persistence of Memory), but it hurts just the same.
As Paul continues to write, he begins to feel as though this might actually be the best Misery novel he's ever written. It might even be the best book he's ever written, period. Under pressure and enduring pain, Paul is producing what he believes to be some of the most meaningful work of his life because he is suffering for it. Because he is literally bleeding for his art. Because he is literally writing for his life without hope of monetary gain. Art and life are all there is, unsullied by conflicts of interest decorated with the faces of dead presidents. Paul becomes violently protective of and fearful for the future of his novel, perhaps even regarding its survival more highly than his own well-being.
The story, like the pain, is exquisite, and Paul finds it difficult to resent all that he's been through because it's made him more talented than he ever was before. We hate the pain but we love it because it makes us who we are. We hate the pain but we embrace it because without it there are no stories to tell, and without it there's no us. Without suffering and pain, we can't be the best versions of ourselves. As it turns out, without misery, we're nothing.