Nothing about Stephen King’s upbringing suggests any sort of advantage for him in the traditional sense. Stephen and his older brother David were raised by their single mother, Ruth, who was left to raise the boys alone after their father left the family when they were very young. The family moved around a lot, largely for financial reasons. Ruth worked manual jobs in various places, mostly in laundromats, while a series of babysitters watched the boys.
And yet, Stephen’s mom seemed remarkably devoted to her sons. One big thing King’s mother did, despite being a poor, single mother, was to buy him a typewriter for Christmas one year. King was just 11 years old.
Stephen started submitting stories to magazines at around the age of thirteen. He learned to write, submit, and repeat early. He even hung all of his rejection slips from publishers on a nail above his desk as motivation to keep going. By the time he was fourteen, King notes, the nail was already full and sagging with the weight of rejection slips. Once, a few kind words of encouragement from a particular publisher helped him to keep pushing through (even though the publisher still rejected his submission).
In King’s book “On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft,” the famous writer provides anecdotes from his childhood that he thinks played a part in his development as a writer. Among these are some useful insights on the part his mother played. These include:
- Awareness and encouragement of interests and talents. Stephen’s mom seemed to demonstrate awareness and appreciation of King’s love of reading and writing. When Stephen was just eleven, his mother gave him a Royal brand typewriter for Christmas. This might not sound like much today, but for a single mother in 1958, this was a higher ticket item. It’s as if Ruth knew that this would combine Stephen’s interests and talents, and allow him to take the next steps in his development. No fancy classes or tutors required. Just the typewriter and encouragement. Within a couple of years, Stephen was submitting short stories to magazines.
- Raising the Bar. When Stephen was just six, Ruth noticed her son was copying stories from books for her to read. While she seemed pleased that young Stephen could do this, she was a little disappointed when he admitted that they were copied from a book. King reports that she said “Write one of your own, Stevie…I bet you could do better. Write one of your own.” So write his own story he did. A little while later, King brought his mother a four-page handwritten story he had written on his own. King said he’d never forgotten her pleased reaction, particularly when she said that it was good enough to be in a book. When King wrote a few more similar stories, Ruth was happy enough with them to mail them to her own sisters. This public sharing must’ve been a subtle, but effective lift to King’s growing ambition.
- Tolerance. When Stephen’s brother, Dave was in high school, he started a little newspaper called “Dave’s Rag.” Stephen would write articles for the paper, which was circulated among family and neighbors. Ruth seemed to tolerate the creation, production, writing and circulation of the paper around town. It’s hard to say how much she encouraged it, and what she did about it, but perhaps the best thing she was able to do was just stand aside to see what her kids came up with. Either way, it may have signaled to her kids that it’s alright to be a little audacious, a bit irreverent, to have some fun, and to experiment with various projects.
- Education. King reports that even though his mother was making very low wages in housekeeping services at the time, she was determined that both of her sons would go to college.
Ruth King seemed to follow a good formula for the recognition of an early talent, showing of authentic interest, giving of room for development of talent (while providing tools and feedback when requested), and showing some doors her child might walk through. After that, a lot of it is about getting out of the way and letting the child make their own mistakes, feel their own pain, and feel the exhilaration of accomplishment if it works out in their favor.
And if a child is having fun doing something they love, as was the case for King, it’s a win either way.