Sleepless in South Florida last night — I’ve lost control over chapter five — so I retreated to the sofa and the remote. And there, thank God, was “Wonder Boys.” I am beginning to think my muse speaks to me through the Turner Classics.
“Wonder Boys” is one of my favorite movies about writers. Others are “Barton Fink,” “My Brilliant Career” and “Swimming Pool.” (Charlotte Rampling retreats to Provence to finish her crime novel…ah yes.) These movies have stuck in my brain through the years not just because they entertain me but also because they teach me about this weird profession I have chosen. Here are a few my favorite lessons:
Wonder Boys: Make choices!
Based on the novel by Michael Chabon, “Wonder Boys” stars Michael Douglas as professor Grady Tripp, a novelist who teaches creative writing but, after winning the Pen award for his first novel, is stalled on his second, a 1400-page hot mess. (Will he ever publish again? Does he still have anything left to say? Is he a one-hit wonder?) A student tells him it is because he has not “made any choices” as a writer. Well, you HAVE to make choices as a writer; writing a novel is nothing if not a series of choices. Yet this is often the biggest obstacles, especially for first attempts. Maybe it’s because the writer fears he will never get a second chance so he crams everything he knows into one story. With experienced writers, it might be because the writer just sits down and starts writing without first thinking. (Which is really the hard part). You have to think
about what your book is about. You have to think
about how to structure it and what kind of characters you need. And you have to cut out the stuff that you don’t need. The stuff that is not in service to your story and theme. You have to make choices. In every chapter, page, sentence…and word.
Throw Mama From the Train: Know what you write
If you’re writing a thriller set in a nuclear sub, it is a good idea — as Billy Crystal’s character Larry tells his writing class — to know the name of the “thing the captain speaks through.” This is basic stuff — that crime and thriller writers get the details about forensics, police procedure, military protocol, and such right. But aren’t you dismayed at how often writers get this stuff wrong? I think it’s pure laziness. Because it is not hard to get experts to help you, to go watch a YouTube video of an autopsy, tour Edinburgh on Google Street View, to do research to find out how guns or Elizabethan government works. Verisimilitude
— it’s a lovely word. (Yeah, I had to look it up to spell it right). We work hard to create fictional worlds that readers eagerly enter. They don’t like it when we rudely jerk them out of that world by dumb mistakes.
As Good As It Gets: Write what you know
When the poor secretary asks romance writer Jack Nicholson how we writes such great women, he delivers one of the greatest comebacks in all of moviedom (above clip). The lesson here is that yes, the chestnut “write what you know” is useful but only to a point. A fiction writer MUST be able to write outside her gender, race and limited world. But unless you have deep empathy and acute powers of observation, and, maybe most important, the ability to take a specific experience (especially if it’s your own) and make it universal so it connects with Everyman, you won’t succeed. I am not sure this can be learned. It might just be the special province of talent.
Adaptation: Know when to quit
Not quit writing. Just what you are writing. “Adaptation” speaks to all of us writers on many levels, but its most gut-wrenching lesson is about the despair of trying to be passionate about a book you don’t really care about. I’ve had to make the hard choice to abandon a book in midstream. But I’ll let my friend Sharon Potts tell you about this valuable lesson:
“For the past year, I’ve been struggling with a book that frequently feels like more than I can handle. Too many subplots that are all tangled up and I can’t seem to bring them to a satisfying resolution. And then I realized, my problem is more than plotting. It’s my protagonist. I don’t ‘feel’ her anymore. I don’t care if she saves herself and the world. So how can I write if I’m not passionate? And if I don’t feel it, will readers care when I finally finish the book? In the meantime, another story has been poking at me. A story that ties to my mother’s past and to historical events I’ve always cared about. Even before I write a word, I can already see my protagonist clearly. She’s so real to me that she overpowers the heroine in the book I’ve been struggling to finish. So I made a decision. After a full year and over 100,000 words, I’m putting aside my ‘frustration’ novel. I’m going to write the story my heart wants to tell.”
Deconstructing Harry: Know when to keep going
This is not my favorite Woody Allen movie; it’s a vulgar uneven portrait of a self-serving user who turns everyone in his life into fictional fodder. (Sorry, can’t get this video link to work!) One character tells him, “This little sewer of an apartment is where you take everyone’s suffering and turn it into gold.” Tough to watch. But I like the ending because it strikes the only note of light when Harry Block realizes “his writing, in more ways than one, had saved his life.”
Not a bad lesson, all in all. What are your favorite writer movies and what did you learn from them?