We’re all familiar with Hollywood’s portrayal of writers. From Jack Nicholson in The Shining to Johnny Depp in Secret Window, countless actors have clad themselves in ragged bathrobes and skulked around a movie set, chain-smoking and shooting tequila, for good measure.
Meanwhile, a sheet of paper lies across a vintage typewriter, utterly bereft of words. Why? Because as the writing gods would have it, the characters these actors are portraying suffer from writer’s block, that tragic state of being that brings ideas to a dead standstill.
But that’s not the worst of it. After sixty minutes of skulking around and avoiding blank paper, the characters then exhibit signs of deterioration, mental and physical, until Jack Nicholson is chopping through a door with an ax.
There it is. Hollywood has confirmed for us that dysfunction lives inside every writer, especially when weird, remote hotels are involved.
And in the movies that don’t make a point to highlight dysfunction, there’s at least a healthy dose of guilt. Atonement‘s protagonist, Briony Tallis, carries that stuff around for decades until she finally writes down what she is guilty of. Then we have love lost, like Jane Austen experiences in the (loosely) autobiographical film, Becoming Jane.
While I don’t want to focus on Hollywood, I cite these examples to reflect on the conditions of the writing life. Do we real-life writers share any of the qualities that movies, myths, and memes make such a big deal out of? What are our common traits, if any? Common story-fodder? Common reasons for writing? Where do we differ? What lives and breathes in all of us? And what does this all mean, going forward?
Skimming the surface
Admittedly, there are days when Whitney and I contribute to the disheveled writer stereotype. It’s usually when we Skype or IM in between the 1,345,729 other tasks we’re trying to cross off our to-do lists. For years now, we’ve been competing over which one of us is the least presentable at any given moment.
“My hair looks horrible.”
“Well, mine looks like it belongs on a corpse.”
“But, have you noticed the bags under my eyes?” [leans into the webcam] “See them!?”
“I see them, but let’s not forget that this T-shirt I’m wearing, I’ve had since 1991, when I got it at girls’ camp. GIRLS’ CAMP, my friend.”
“You do realize you are associating with a hideous person, right?”
If you were privy to these exchanges, you’d say a ragamuffin lived inside us, just like there probably is inside every writer. All in good fun. But, I firmly suggest that grooming (or lack thereof) says very little about the fundamental conditions of the writing life … other than, of course, the fact that writing consumes many hours of the day and something usually has to give.
Putting the inner ragamuffin aside, I believe that writers, particularly novelists, share key traits as well as exhibit surface-level differences that are worth identifying:
- Distinct, but passionate, preferences for genre and subject matter. I’ve gone to enough conferences, met and counseled enough writers, to know that we’re all drawn to different types of stories. I’ve been around enough to know that preferences often change for no apparent reason. This matters, of course, because there are as many different types of readers as there are books to read. And knowing how to follow genre conventions, blend them, and even break away from them means we can contribute to the evolution of the novel form.
- Distinct, but often ingrained, writing processes. We all want to get words on paper. We all want them to make an impact. But other than engaging with our projects consistently, we have to choose our own methods. I love the terms that National Novel Writing Month has made so popular: 1) planners, who like a detailed road map before they set off on a writing adventure, 2) pantsers, who like to fly by the seat of their pants, and 3) plantsers, whose habits lie somewhere in between. We can probably break these down further to identify what enables each of us to succeed.
Peeling back the layers
So, what compels us to write? What lives deep inside each of us and keeps us connected to the act of storytelling? I argue that it isn’t dysfunction, though that can manifest itself at any time, regardless of one’s profession. Nor is pain, which every human goes through, a requisite emotion for the writing life. Of course, as I’ve shared before, painful experiences can, with the right approach, serve as excellent subject matter for a story.
I think the drive to tell stories comes from a desire to get to the bottom of things. Much like a scientist or a detective, a storyteller wants to know what is real or true in this life, but is concerned, additionally, with how to present the real, true thing, whatever it is, to others. Can it be shown, rather than described or reported on?
Whitney and I work very hard on FromNothingToNovel to make the real conditions of the writing life (i.e. learning techniques, embracing challenge, determining an identity, committing ourselves to what storytelling is all about) accessible as well as exciting.
In that spirit, here are several traits and behaviors that I would personally like to see overshadow the writer myths, memes, and movies. I’d like to hear more about how each of us:
- Cultivates a passion for language.
- Keeps a running list of favorite characters.
- Maintains a journal.
- Reads good books and watches good cinema.
- Shares ideas with others.
- Supports and encourages other writers.
- Tells stories every day, both on and off paper.
- Learns everything there is to learn about writing.
- Adopts a trio of cats and names them J. Alfred Prufrock, Hermione Granger, and Atticus Finch. (Just kidding!)
I realize that with the exception of the cats, the list above wouldn’t interest Hollywood, because the dysfunctional writer character is far too lucrative a trope.
But we don’t live in movies and we certainly don’t have to imitate them. There is beauty as well as drama in everyday life, even for ordinary people.
With the right frame of mind, the business of buying groceries, getting a good night’s sleep when we can, having fun, and keeping our lives in some semblance of order can make their way into narrative.
Truth be told, we happily discover that any healthy habits we adopt directly support our creative projects.
And, truth be told again, those aren’t ordinary at all.