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On Living: A Postscript to On Writing by Stephen King (2000) pages 250-270

Author: Stephen King

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Pages 250-270). Scribner, 2000.


When we’re at our summer house in western Maine—a house very much like the one Mike Noonan comes back to in Bag of Bones—I walk four miles every day, unless it’s pouring down rain. Three miles of this walk are on dirt roads which wind through the woods; a mile of it is on Route 5, a two-lane blacktop highway which runs between Bethel and Fryeburg. The third week in June of 1999 was an extraordinarily happy one for my wife and me; our kids, now grown and scattered across the country, were all home. It was the first time in nearly six months that we’d all been under the same roof. As an extra bonus, our first grandchild was in the house, three months old and happily jerking at a helium balloon tied to his foot.

On the nineteenth of June, I drove our younger son to the Portland Jetport, where he caught a flight back to New York City. I drove home, had a brief nap, and then set out on my usual walk. We were planning to go en famille to see The General’s Daughter in nearby North Conway, New Hampshire, that evening, and I thought I just had time to get my walk in before packing everybody up for the trip.

I set out on that walk around four o’clock in the afternoon, as well as I can remember. Just before reaching the main road (in western Maine, any road with a white line running down the middle of it is a main road), I stepped into the woods and urinated. It was two months before I was able to take another leak standing up.

When I reached the highway I turned north, walking on the gravel shoulder, against traffic. One car passed me, also headed north. About three-quarters of a mile farther along, the woman driving the car observed a light blue Dodge van heading south. The van was looping from one side of the road to the other, barely under the driver’s control. The woman in the car turned to her passenger when they were safely past the wandering van and said, “That was Stephen King walking back there. I sure hope that guy in the van doesn’t hit him.”

Most of the sightlines along the mile of Route 5 which I walk are good, but there is one stretch, a short steep hill, where a pedestrian walking north can see very little of what might be coming his way. I was three-quarters of the way up this hill when Bryan Smith, the owner and operator of the Dodge van, came over the crest. He wasn’t on the road; he was on the shoulder. Myshoulder. I had perhaps three-quarters of a second to register this. It was just time enough to think, My God, I’m going to be hit by a school bus. I started to turn to my left. There is a break in my memory here. On the other side of it I’m on the ground, looking at the back of the van, which is now pulled off the road and tilted to one side. This recollection is very clear and sharp, more like a snapshot than a memory. There is dust around the van’s tail lights. The license plate and the back windows are dirty. I register these things with no thought that I have been in an accident, or of anything else. It’s a snapshot, that’s all. I’m not thinking; my head has been swopped clean.

There’s another little break in my memory here, and then I am very carefully wiping palmfuls of blood out of my eyes with my left hand. When my eyes are reasonably clear, I look around and see a man sitting on a nearby rock. He has a cane drawn across his lap. This is Bryan Smith, forty-two years of age, the man who hit me with his van. Smith has got quite the driving record; he has racked up nearly a dozen vehicle-related offenses.

Smith wasn’t looking at the road on the afternoon our lives came together because his rottweiler had jumped from the very rear of his van into the back-seat area, where there was an Igloo cooler with some meat stored inside. The rott-weiler’s name is Bullet (Smith has another rottweiler at home; that one is named Pistol). Bullet started to nose at the lid of the cooler. Smith turned around and tried to push Bul-let away. He was still looking at Bullet and pushing his head away from the cooler when he came over the top of the knoll; still looking and pushing when he struck me. Smith told friends later that he thought he’d hit “a small deer” until he noticed my bloody spectacles lying on the front seat of his van. They were knocked from my face when I tried to get out of Smith’s way. The frames were bent and twisted, but the lenses were unbroken. They are the lenses I’m wearing now, as I write this.


Smith sees I’m awake and tells me help is on the way. He speaks calmly, even cheerily. His look, as he sits on his rock with his cane drawn across his lap, is one of pleasant commiseration: Ain’t the two of us just had the shittiest luck?it says. He and Bullet left the campground where they were staying, he later tells an investigator, because he wanted “some of those Marzes-bars they have up to the store.” When I hear this little detail some weeks later, it occurs to me that I have nearly been killed by a character right out of one of my own novels. It’s almost funny.

Help is on the way, I think, and that’s probably good because I’ve been in a hell of an accident. I’m lying in the ditch and there’s blood all over my face and my right leg hurts. I look down and see something I don’t like: my lap now appears to be on sideways, as if my whole lower body had been wrenched half a turn to the right. I look back up at the man with the cane and say, “Please tell me it’s just dislocated.”

“Nah,” he says. Like his face, his voice is cheery, only mildly interested. He could be watching all this on TV while he noshes on one of those Marzes-bars. “It’s broken in five I’d say maybe six places.”

“I’m sorry,” I tell him—God knows why—and then I’m gone again for a little while. It isn’t like blacking out; it’s more as if the film of memory has been spliced here and there.

When I come back this time, an orange-and-white van is idling at the side of the road with its flashers going. An emergency medical technician—Paul Fillebrown is his name—is kneeling beside me. He’s doing something. Cutting off my jeans, I think, although that might have come later.

I ask him if I can have a cigarette. He laughs and says not hardly. I ask him if I’m going to die. He tells me no, I’m not going to die, but I need to go to the hospital, and fast. Which one would I prefer, the one in Norway–South Paris or the one in Bridgton? I tell him I want to go to Northern Cumberland Hospital in Bridgton, because my youngest child—the one I just took to the airport—was born there twenty-two years before. I ask Fillebrown again if I’m going to die, and he tells me again that I’m not. Then he asks me if I can wiggle the toes on my right foot. I wiggle them, thinking of an old rhyme my mother used to recite sometimes: This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home. I should have stayed home, I think; going for a walk today was a really bad idea. Then I remember that sometimes when people are paralyzed, they think they’re moving but really aren’t.

“My toes, did they move?” I ask Paul Fillebrown. He says they did, a good healthy wiggle. “Do you swear to God?” I ask him, and I think he does. I’m starting to pass out again. Fillebrown asks me, very slowly and loudly, bending down into my face, if my wife is at the big house on the lake. I can’t remember. I can’t remember where any of my family is, but I’m able to give him the telephone numbers of both our big house and the cottage on the far side of the lake where my daughter sometimes stays. Hell, I could give him my Social Security number, if he asked. I’ve got all my numbers. It’s just everything else that’s gone.

Other people are arriving now. Somewhere a radio is crackling out police calls. I’m put on a stretcher. It hurts, and I scream. I’m lifted into the back of the EMT truck, and the police calls are closer. The doors shut and someone up front says, “You want to really hammer it.” Then we’re rolling.

Paul Fillebrown sits down beside me. He has a pair of clippers and tells me he’s going to have to cut the ring off the third finger of my right hand—it’s a wedding ring Tabby gave me in 1983, twelve years after we were actually married. I try to tell Fillebrown that I wear it on my right hand because the real wedding ring is still on the third finger of my left—the original two-ring set cost me $15.95 at Day’s Jewelers in Bangor. That first ring only cost eight bucks, in other words, but it seems to have worked.

Some garbled version of this comes out, probably nothing Paul Fillebrown can actually understand, but he keeps nod-ding and smiling as he cuts that second, more expensive, wedding ring off my swollen right hand. Two months or so later, I call Fillebrown to thank him; by then I understand that he probably saved my life by administering the correct on-scene medical aid and then getting me to the hospital at a speed of roughly one hundred and ten miles an hour, over patched and bumpy back roads.

Fillebrown assures me that I’m more than welcome, then suggests that perhaps someone was watching out for me. “I’ve been doing this for twenty years,” he tells me over the phone, “and when I saw the way you were lying in the ditch, plus the extent of the impact injuries, I didn’t think you’d make it to the hospital. You’re a lucky camper to still be with the program.”

The extent of the impact injuries is such that the doctors at Northern Cumberland Hospital decide they cannot treat me there; someone summons a LifeFlight helicopter to take me to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. At this point my wife, older son, and daughter arrive. The kids are allowed a brief visit; my wife is allowed to stay longer. The doctors have assured her that I’m banged up, but I’ll make it. The lower half of my body has been covered. She isn’t allowed to look at the interesting way my lap has shifted around to the right, but she is allowed to wash the blood off my face and pick some of the glass out of my hair.

There’s a long gash in my scalp, the result of my collision with Bryan Smith’s windshield. This impact came at a point less than two inches from the steel driver’s-side support post. Had I struck that, I likely would have been killed or rendered permanently comatose, a vegetable with legs. Had I struck the rocks jutting out of the ground beyond the shoulder of Route 5, I likely also would have been killed or permanently paralyzed. I didn’t hit them; I was thrown over the van and fourteen feet in the air, but landed just shy of the rocks.

“You must have pivoted to the left just a little at the last second,” Dr. David Brown tells me later. “If you hadn’t, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

The LifeFlight helicopter lands in the parking lot of Northern Cumberland Hospital, and I am wheeled out to it. The sky is very bright, very blue. The clatter of the helicopter’s rotors is very loud. Someone shouts into my ear, “Ever been in a helicopter before, Stephen?” The speaker sounds jolly, all excited for me. I try to answer yes, I’ve been in a helicopter before—twice, in fact—but I can’t. All at once it’s very tough to breathe.

They load me into the helicopter. I can see one brilliant wedge of blue sky as we lift off; not a cloud in it. Beautiful. There are more radio voices. This is my afternoon for hearing voices, it seems. Meanwhile, it’s getting even harder to breathe. I gesture at someone, or try to, and a face bends upside down into my field of vision.

“Feel like I’m drowning,” I whisper.

Somebody checks something, and someone else says, “His lung has collapsed.”

There’s a rattle of paper as something is unwrapped, and then the someone else speaks into my ear, loudly so as to be heard over the rotors. “We’re going to put a chest tube in you, Stephen. You’ll feel some pain, a little pinch. Hold on.”

It’s been my experience (learned when I was just a wee lad with infected ears) that if a medical person tells you you’re going to feel a little pinch, they’re going to hurt you really bad. This time it isn’t as bad as I expected, perhaps because I’m full of painkiller, perhaps because I’m on the verge of passing out again. It’s like being thumped very high up on the right side of the chest by someone holding a short sharp object. Then there’s an alarming whistle in my chest, as if I’ve sprung a leak. In fact, I suppose I have. A moment later the soft in-out of normal respiration, which I’ve listened to my whole life (mostly without being aware of it, thank God), has been replaced by an unpleasant shloop-shloop-shloop sound. The air I’m taking in is very cold, but it’s air, at least, air,and I keep breathing it. I don’t want to die. I love my wife, my kids, my afternoon walks by the lake. I also love to write; I have a book on writing that’s sitting back home on my desk, half-finished. I don’t want to die, and as I lie in the helicopter looking out at the bright blue summer sky, I realize that I am actually lying in death’s doorway. Someone is going to pull me one way or the other pretty soon; it’s mostly out of my hands. All I can do is lie there, look at the sky, and listen to my thin, leaky breathing: shloop-shloop-shloop.

Ten minutes later we set down on the concrete landing pad at CMMC. To me, it seems to be at the bottom of a con-crete well. The blue sky is blotted out and the whap-whap-whap of the helicopter rotors becomes magnified and echoey, like the clapping of giant hands.

Still breathing in great leaky gulps, I am lifted out of the helicopter. Someone bumps the stretcher and I scream. “Sorry, sorry, you’re okay, Stephen,” someone says—when you’re badly hurt, everyone calls you by your first name, everyone is your pal.

“Tell Tabby I love her very much,” I say as I am first lifted and then wheeled, very fast, down some sort of descending concrete walkway. All at once I feel like crying.

“You can tell her that yourself,” the someone says. We go through a door; there is air-conditioning and lights flowing past overhead. Speakers issue pages. It occurs to me, in a muddled sort of way, that an hour before I was taking a walk and planning to pick some berries in a field that overlooks Lake Kezar. I wouldn’t pick for long, though; I’d have to be home by five-thirty because we were all going to the movies. The General’s Daughter, starring John Travolta. Travolta was in the movie made out of Carrie,my first novel. He played the bad guy. That was a long time ago.

“When?” I ask. “When can I tell her?”

“Soon,” the voice says, and then I pass out again. This time it’s no splice but a great big whack taken out of the memory-film; there are a few flashes, confused glimpses of faces and operating rooms and looming X-ray machinery; there are delusions and hallucinations fed by the morphine and Dilaudid being dripped into me; there are echoing voices and hands that reach down to paint my dry lips with swabs that taste of peppermint. Mostly, though, there is darkness.


Bryan Smith’s estimate of my injuries turned out to be conservative. My lower leg was broken in at least nine places— the orthopedic surgeon who put me together again, the formidable David Brown, said that the region below my right knee had been reduced to “so many marbles in a sock.” The extent of those lower-leg injuries necessitated two deep incisions—they’re called medial and lateral fasciotomies—to release the pressure caused by the exploded tibia and also to allow blood to flow back into the lower leg. Without the fasciatomies (or if the fasciotomies had been delayed), it probably would have been necessary to amputate the leg. My right knee itself was split almost directly down the middle; the technical term for the injury is “comminuted intra-articular tibial fracture.” I also suffered an acetabular fracture of the right hip—a serious derailment, in other words—and an open femoral intertrochanteric fracture in the same area. My spine was chipped in eight places. Four ribs were broken. My right collarbone held, but the flesh above it was stripped raw. The laceration in my scalp took twenty or thirty stitches.

Yeah, on the whole I’d say Bryan Smith was a tad conservative.


Mr. Smith’s driving behavior in this case was eventually examined by a grand jury, who indicted him on two counts: driving to endanger (pretty serious) and aggravated assault (very serious, the kind of thing that means jail time). After due consideration, the District Attorney responsible for prosecuting such cases in my little corner of the world allowed Smith to plead out to the lesser charge of driving to endanger. He received six months of county jail time (sentence suspended) and a year’s suspension of his privilege to drive. He was also put on probation for a year with restrictions on other motor vehicles, such as snowmobiles and ATVs. It is conceivable that Bryan Smith could be legally back on the road in the fall or winter of 2001.


David Brown put my leg back together in five marathon surgical procedures that left me thin, weak, and nearly at the end of my endurance. They also left me with at least a fight-ing chance to walk again. A large steel and carbon-fiber apparatus called an external fixator was clamped to my leg. Eight large steel pegs called Schanz pins run through the fixator and into the bones above and below my knee. Five smaller steel rods radiate out from the knee. These look sort of like a child’s drawing of sunrays. The knee itself was locked in place. Three times a day, nurses would unwrap the smaller pins and the much larger Schanz pins and swab the holes out with hydrogen peroxide. I’ve never had my leg dipped in kerosene and then lit on fire, but if that ever happens, I’m sure it will feel quite a bit like daily pin-care.

I entered the hospital on June nineteenth. Around the twenty-fifth I got up for the first time, staggering three steps to a commode, where I sat with my hospital johnny in my lap and my head down, trying not to weep and failing. You try to tell yourself that you’ve been lucky, most incredibly lucky, and usually that works because it’s true. Sometimes it doesn’t work, that’s all. Then you cry.

A day or two after those initial steps, I started physical therapy. During my first session I managed ten steps in a downstairs corridor, lurching along with the help of a walker. One other patient was learning to walk again at the same time, a wispy eighty-year-old woman named Alice who was recovering from a stroke. We cheered each other on when we had enough breath to do so. On our third day in the down-stairs hall, I told Alice that her slip was showing.

“Your assis showing, sonnyboy,” she wheezed, and kept going.

By the Fourth of July I was able to sit up in a wheelchair long enough to go out to the loading dock behind the hospi-tal and watch some of the fireworks. It was a fiercely hot night, the streets filled with people eating snacks, drinking beer and soda, watching the sky. Tabby stood next to me, holding my hand, as the sky lit up red and green, blue and yellow. She was staying in a condo apartment across the street from the hospital, and each morning she brought me poached eggs and tea. I could use the nourishment, it seemed. In 1997, after returning from a motorcycle trip across the Australian desert, I weighed two hundred and six-teen pounds. On the day I was released from Central Maine Medical Center, I weighed a hundred and sixty-five.

I came home to Bangor on July ninth, after a hospital stay of three weeks. I began a daily rehab program which includes stretching, bending, and crutch-walking. I tried to keep my courage and my spirits up. On August fourth I went back to CMMC for another operation. Inserting an IV into my arm, the anesthesiologist said, “Okay, Stephen—you’re going to feel a little like you just had a couple of cocktails.” I opened my mouth to tell him that would be interesting, since I hadn’t had a cocktail in eleven years, but before I could get anything out, I was gone again. When I woke up this time, the Schanz pins in my upper thigh were gone. I could bend my knee again. Dr. Brown pronounced my recovery “on course” and sent me home for more rehab and physical therapy (those of us under-going P.T. know that the letters actually stand for Pain and Torture). And in the midst of all this, something else happened.

On July twenty-fourth, five weeks after Bryan Smith hit me with his Dodge van, I began to write again.


I actually began On Writing in November or December of 1997, and although it usually takes me only three months to finish the first draft of a book, this one was still only half-completed eighteen months later. That was because I’d put it aside in February or March of 1998, not sure how to continue, or if I should continue at all. Writing fiction was almost as much fun as it had ever been, but every word of the nonfiction book was a kind of torture. It was the first book I had put aside uncompleted since The Stand, and On Writing spent a lot longer in the desk drawer.

In June of 1999, I decided to spend the summer finishing the damn writing book—let Susan Moldow and Nan Graham at Scribner decide if it was good or bad, I thought. I read the manuscript over, prepared for the worst, and discovered I actually sort of liked what I had. The road to finishing it seemed clear-cut, too. I had finished the memoir (“C.V.”), which attempted to show some of the incidents and life-situations which made me into the sort of writer I turned out to be, and I had covered the mechanics—those that seemed most important to me, at least. What remained to be done was the key section, “On Writing,” where I’d try to answer some of the questions I’d been asked in seminars and at speaking engagements, plus all those I wish I’d been asked . . . those questions about the language.

On the night of June seventeenth, blissfully unaware that I was now less than forty-eight hours from my little date with Bryan Smith (not to mention Bullet the rottweiler), I sat down at our dining room table and listed all the questions I wanted to answer, all the points I wanted to address. On the eighteenth, I wrote the first four pages of the “On Writing” section. That was where the work still stood in late July, when I decided I’d better get back to work . . . or at least try.

I didn’t wantto go back to work. I was in a lot of pain, unable to bend my right knee, and restricted to a walker. I couldn’t imagine sitting behind a desk for long, even in my wheelchair. Because of my cataclysmically smashed hip, sit-ting was torture after forty minutes or so, impossible after an hour and a quarter. Added to this was the book itself, which seemed more daunting than ever—how was I supposed to write about dialogue, character, and getting an agent when the most pressing thing in my world was how long until the next dose of Percocet?

Yet at the same time I felt I’d reached one of those cross-roads moments when you’re all out of choices. And I had been in terrible situations before which the writing had helped me get over—had helped me forget myself for at least a little while. Perhaps it would help me again. It seemed ridiculous to think it might be so, given the level of my pain and physical incapacitation, but there was that voice in the back of my mind, both patient and implacable, telling me that, in the words of the Chambers Brothers, Time Has Come Today. It’s possible for me to disobey that voice, but very difficult to disbelieve it.

In the end it was Tabby who cast the deciding vote, as she so often has at crucial moments in my life. I’d like to think I’ve done the same for her from time to time, because it seems to me that one of the things marriage is about is casting the tie breaking vote when you just can’t decide what you should do next.

My wife is the person in my life who’s most likely to say I’m working too hard, it’s time to slow down, stay away from that damn PowerBook for a little while, Steve, give it a rest. When I told her on that July morning that I thought I’d bet-ter go back to work, I expected a lecture. Instead, she asked me where I wanted to set up. I told her I didn’t know, hadn’t even thought about it.

She thought about it, then said: “I can rig a table for you in the back hall, outside the pantry. There are plenty of plug-ins—you can have your Mac, the little printer, and a fan.” The fan was certainly a must—it had been a terrifically hot summer, and on the day I went back to work, the temperature outside was ninety-five. It wasn’t much cooler in the back hall.

Tabby spent a couple of hours putting things together, and that afternoon at four o’clock she rolled me out through the kitchen and down the newly installed wheelchair ramp into the back hall. She had made me a wonderful little nest there: laptop and printer connected side by side, table lamp, manuscript (with my notes from the month before placed neatly on top), pens, reference materials. Standing on the corner of the desk was a framed picture of our younger son, which she had taken earlier that summer.

“Is it all right?” she asked.

“It’s gorgeous,” I said, and hugged her. It was gorgeous. So is she.

The former Tabitha Spruce of Oldtown, Maine, knows when I’m working too hard, but she also knows that sometimes it’s the work that bails me out. She got me positioned at the table, kissed me on the temple, and then left me there to find out if I had anything left to say. It turned out I did, a little, but without her intuitive understanding that yes, it was time, I’m not sure either of us would ever have found that out for sure.

That first writing session lasted an hour and forty minutes, by far the longest period I’d spent sitting upright since being struck by Smith’s van. When it was over, I was dripping with sweat and almost too exhausted to sit up straight in my wheelchair. The pain in my hip was just short of apocalyptic. And the first five hundred words were uniquely terrifying—it was as if I’d never written anything before them in my life. All my old tricks seemed to have deserted me. I stepped from one word to the next like a very old man find-ing his way across a stream on a zigzag line of wet stones. There was no inspiration that first afternoon, only a kind of stubborn determination and the hope that things would get better if I kept at it.

Tabby brought me a Pepsi—cold and sweet and good— and as I drank it I looked around and had to laugh despite the pain. I’d written Carrie and ’Salem’s Lot in the laundry room of a rented trailer. The back hall of our house in Bangor resembled it enough to make me feel almost as if I’d come full circle.

There was no miraculous breakthrough that afternoon, unless it was the ordinary miracle that comes with any attempt to create something. All I know is that the words started coming a little faster after awhile, then a little faster still. My hip still hurt, my back still hurt, my leg, too, but those hurts began to seem a little farther away. I started to get on top of them. There was no sense of exhilaration, no buzz—not that day—but there was a sense of accomplishment that was almost as good. I’d gotten going, there was that much. The scariest moment is always just before you start.

After that, things can only get better.


For me, things have continued to get better. I’ve had two more operations on my leg since that first sweltering after-noon in the back hall, I’ve had a fairly serious bout of infection, and I continue to take roughly a hundred pills a day, but the external fixator is now gone and I continue to write. On some days that writing is a pretty grim slog. On others— more and more of them as my leg begins to heal and my mind re-accustoms itself to its old routine—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, 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. I still don’t have much strength—I can do a little less than half of what I used to be able to do in a day—but I’ve had enough to get me to the end of this book, and for that I’m grateful. Writing did not save my life—Dr. David Brown’s skill and my wife’s loving care did that—but it has continued to do what it always has done: it makes my life a brighter and more pleasant place.

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. 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.

Some of this book—perhaps too much—has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it—and perhaps the best of it—is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.

Drink and be filled up.

DMU Timestamp: August 30, 2021 20:40

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