At the beginning of the 1990s, when I was working as a medical editor on the staff of Neurology, coworkers of mine around the lunch table learned that, at one time, Stephen King and I had had the same literary agent. This caused them no end of amusement at my expense. What happened? they would ask, thinking that they were being clever. Stephen King wound up being this gajillionaire popular writer, and you’re working here!
Patiently I would explain that I had given up my pursuit of writing best sellers because I preferred to devote my time to editing medical science papers. I chose my destiny; I didn’t allow Fate to just willy–nilly pick me out of a crowd and make me an object of wealth and celebrity. I preferred to do humanity a service by editing important research rather than, you know, writing stories about rabid dogs and ass weasels jumping out of people’s butt holes and making millions of dollars doing it. (Stephen King, I mean. It’s Stephen King who makes the millions of dollars, not the ass weasels.)
This is the God’s truth, but it isn’t what my coworkers at the lunch table wanted to hear.
Their comments got me thinking, however. What if I hadn’t chosen my destiny and forsworn the quest for literary recognition? What if a different me—let’s call him Dan—had continued to try to make millions of dollars by writing books and continued to fail, and became envious of Stephen King?
I don’t have any ass weasels inside me (I don’t think), but do I have a keen sense of my own destiny. So, continuing to make my own destiny, I wrote “The Man Who Would Be King.”
I thought of the title all by myself.
This story dates from November 1993, and I like it a lot. Over the years, I’ve shown it to friends and acquaintances, and most have thought well of it. I like the idea of the guy in the story—let’s call him Dan—stewing in his own juices because he has trapped himself in an impossible situation in commercial America. However, that element isn’t what I like most about this story. What I like best is the silly stuff and the bizarre stuff about what it feels like to tap into creativity and immerse oneself in the childlike sense of wonder—and terror, let it be known—when we make things up.
I believe that the urge to tell stories and to paint with colors and to sing and dance and make music are as much a part of our genetic makeup as having stereoptic vision and walking upright. Some of us, of course, are more creative than others, and in different ways, and letting the marketplace decide and editors and agents decide isn’t going to work out well for those of us whose gifts don’t fit into that narrow definition of commercial appeal. (By the same token, how many of us who eagerly create would have been happy working under a patronage system in old Europe, or putting our skills to use praising the Christian God in the Middle Ages? I suppose these are questions that really have no answers. It starts to get into “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” territory, too.) In any event, a creative approach to cooking, let’s say, or for working on automobile engines, or even just to living one’s life, is more likely to be satisfying these days than pursuing commercial success is for many of us who write or sing or act or dance. Which, to my mind, brings it around full circle again.
Therefore, I wrote “The Man Who Would Be King” (PDF) to talk to myself about creativity and writing in commercial America and to observe a character who absolutely is not me—let’s call him Dan—who lets others define success for him and who can’t get past that definition.
Interesting side note: A friend of mine in New Jersey sent a copy of the manuscript of this story to King at the time I wrote it. Let’s see what he says, my friend said. Any story that opens with the line, “Stephen King is a big whore!” is bound to attract his attention. I received a very pleasant note in December 1993 from Mr. King’s assistant stating that Stephen King was no longer personally answering all of his letters and she hoped I understand. Well, I do understand. I know that I myself can’t fit everything I want to do into a full day, and I honestly don’t know how some other people can do it.
Here, then, is my story from 1993, which many readers don’t know what to make of. It is impossible to sell. It is 14,000 words long, a length no editor wants to accept. It doesn’t fit into any genre. And it doesn’t do anything except go around in a big circle.
Also, regrettably in this story, there are no ass weasels.
There is, however, a two-headed rabbit, although it appears off-stage.