Stephen King Explains the Key to His Creativity: Not Losing the Dream-State Thinking All Children Are Born With

While noth­ing could make me per­son­al­ly want to return to child­hood, chil­dren do, for bet­ter or for worse, per­ceive the world more vivid­ly than adults. The best writ­ing for kids makes rich nar­ra­tive use of that fact, as do sto­ries about but not for kids by writ­ers who haven’t for­got­ten their pre-grown-up selves’ expe­ri­ence of real­i­ty. Stephen King, for instance, hard­ly writes chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, but his nov­els about the fear that seeps into every cor­ner of work­ing-class Amer­i­ca often include very young char­ac­ters. Not only does King write plau­si­bly from their psy­cho­log­i­cal point of view, he uses that point of view as an engine of his entire project.

King, in a 1989 inter­view on WAM­C’s Pub­lic Radio Book Show, elab­o­rat­ed on “the two things that inter­est me about child­hood,” the first being that “it’s a secret world that exists by its own rules and lives in its own cul­ture, and the sec­ond that “we for­get what it is to be a child and we for­get that life, which is kind of exot­ic and strange.” Though read­ers often ask him what ago­nies his child­hood must have vis­it­ed upon him that spurred him to write such vivid­ly hor­rif­ic fic­tion, King does­n’t remem­ber any­thing wrong with his for­ma­tive years. But he does remem­ber “that we think in a dif­fer­ent way as chil­dren. We tend to think around cor­ners instead of in straight lines.”

We see these dif­fer­ences ani­mat­ed in the Blank on Blank video at the top of the post, which envi­sions the adult King in the world of imag­i­na­tion that kids instinc­tive­ly inhab­it and out of which they even­tu­al­ly grow, but to which he reg­u­lar­ly returns to write his sto­ries. “Some­times for a kid, the short­est dis­tance between two points is not a straight line and that’s the way that we think and dream,” he says. “As chil­dren we tend to live in this kind of dream state [ … ] and because I equate that sort of dream state with a height­ened sort of men­tal state, I make this easy cross-con­nec­tion between child­hood and strange pow­ers, para­nor­mal pow­ers or what­ev­er, and it has been suc­cess­ful as a fic­tion­al device.”

As the source of such best­sellers as Car­rieThe StandChris­tineIt, the Dark Tow­er series, and count­less oth­er works, it’s been suc­cess­ful to say the least. If con­nect­ing one thing to anoth­er in new ways — be those things peo­ple, places, events, ideas, feel­ings, or what­ev­er else — con­sti­tutes the cen­tral act of cre­ation, then it makes sense that the nat­u­ral­ly asso­cia­tive nature of a child’s imag­i­na­tion, har­nessed to an adult’s expe­ri­ence and dis­ci­pline, can pro­duce such abun­dant and wide­ly res­o­nant results. No coin­ci­dence, sure­ly, that young­sters unable to pay atten­tion to the lin­ear pro­gres­sion of the class­room get labeled “dream­ers,” a ten­den­cy that King has used to his advan­tage — though he seems to have got most of his tex­tu­al mileage out of the night­mares.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writ­ers

Stephen King Writes A Let­ter to His 16-Year-Old Self: “Stay Away from Recre­ation­al Drugs”

Stephen King on the Mag­ic Moment When a Young Writer Reads a Pub­lished Book and Says: “This Sucks. I Can Do Bet­ter.”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • brad says:

    Not to argue with King, but I won­der if we don’t mys­ti­fy the dream­like cre­ative play of child­hood beyond dream­like cre­ative play. It’s some­thing we could all indulge in if we felt like it and prac­ticed. It’s just play­ing pre­tend. Putting on plays for your­self. Doing the voic­es. Fin­ger pup­pets of the mind.

    As with any ‘oth­er’ cul­ture, we mys­ti­fy, mag­ni­fy and dis­tort child­hood, and then decide we pro­found­ly under­stand. We mis­un­der­stand on pur­pose; ignore the obvi­ous, focus on a detail. Make it big. Inex­plic­a­ble. This is the adult ver­sion of pre­tend play. But no one is THAT dif­fer­ent, whether a child or Zen monk.

    At least kids know they are pre­tend­ing. Adults con­tin­ue pre­tend­ing, cre­at­ing mys­ti­fied, mag­ni­fied and dis­tort­ed mon­sters, but make the game real. They go psy­cho. Blend the real with the imag­i­nary ‘oth­ers’ — and set up exter­mi­na­tion camps.
    – Even chil­dren?
    – Yes, even chil­dren.

  • Maralee Erhart says:

    Hi there!
    I had a night­mar­ish dream that would make a good read for you to write! A chef worked in a pres­ti­gious and expen­sive nurs­ing home for the Welsey. His girl­friend had had a baby and it died and he decid­ed that the baby Being under a year old would make a deli­cious spe­cial dish for all that was in the san­i­tar­i­an. Then he got the bright idea of tak­ing her to a fer­til­i­ty clin­ic induc­ing her and hav­ing 5 to 8 babies at a time she was to give them lots of love lots of atten­tion good food take real­ly good care and then he would go in a year lat­er and he would’ve backed up all the babies take them into a spe­cial Lab on the oth­er side of his kitchen that no one was ever aware of or had been in there here he would dis­mem­bered their bod­ies store them in a spe­cial freez­er off of the lab and then on spe­cial occa­sions he would serve a beau­ti­ful deli­cious dish­es and you can take it from there. I couldn’t believe I drip such death but I often had ter­ri­ble dreams like this and far and weird and far out thanks for read­ing and lis­ten­ing take care

  • Maralee Erhart says:

    What is ping­ing?!

  • Brother Jame says:

    Mar­alee Erhart you need either a good con­fes­sion or a strong exor­cism.

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