Here at Words, Pauses, Noises we see ourselves as an open forum offering comprehensive topics for our Sunday posts. This week we have an opinion piece by Amber Koski on the writerly persona conveyed by Hollywood cinema. ‘Are we the writers we see on the Big Screen?’ is not a cinematic analysis of the films cited in the article, rather it is a compilation of stereotypes noted in the films. This article is one opinion but aims to raise awareness of the stigmas the writer may encounter from non-writers, that writers try to evaluate why they might act, respond, and feel the way they do about their career, their craft.
Are we the writers we see on the Big Screen?
By Amber Koski
We can’t deny that movies about writers glorify things we find false about the writing life and glamorise aspects of our profession in rather inconsiderate ways (but maybe I’m being a bit sensitive). Let’s think about how these movies influence how we act/ re-act to those asking us about our art. Do we work in solitude because it benefits our writing or are we mirroring those writer-habits via cinema–portrayal? There are hundreds of movies about writers and writing – too many to watch and analyse fully. Hollywood sees writers as the ‘known unknown’ (to reuse one of Peter Vandenberg’s terms from his (2007) After Words: Lore and Discipline).
After viewing and re-viewing a small sampling of writerly movies, and perfecting my use of a Tesco Value corkscrew, I’ve managed to collect some popular Hollywood stereotypes about writers/ writer’s lives. The films I call into question vary in content and release date to give a diverse collection of writer-image perspectives presented by Hollywood (see the film list at the end of this article). I am not saying Hollywood has it wrong or that they should stop ‘telling’ these sorts of stories about writers. Quite the opposite: how do we view ourselves and our processes, and are our perspectives similar to those on the big screen?
I know that I’m guilty of responding to outsider’s questions about my writing in ways similar to Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris (2011). It makes me wonder, do we re-act by example; are we spending time workshopping in-progress writing in pubs as a way to imitate the greats who once gathered in pubs to discuss their ideas (i.e. Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Fitzgerald)? Do we often contest advice with the conviction that ‘you just don’t get it’, a theme that pervades many cinema writer personalities? ‘Art is subjective’ is a saying we all know and use when a friend or even a tutor responds to our writing in ways we don’t agree with. As I go through the perceptions of these Hollywood writers in film, consider the occasions when you’ve encountered such behaviour from writer-friends and classmates. Or, if possible, look back on yourself and try to recall a time when you may have been mirroring these Hollywood writer-characters.
As a first year tutor, mainly teaching young writers who may have been greatly influenced by the personas they saw of writers on the big screen, I unpack these stigmas in a reflective and pedagogical way. But this angle is applicable and beneficial for any writer’s reflection.
Countless films present the writer as the rebellious type, drinking and smoking in an exaggerated fashion, or a character who has marital and family troubles (Tom and Viv (1994), Sylvia (2003), Wilde (1997), and The Hours (2002)). Midnight in Paris, Stranger than Fiction (2006), Storytelling (2001), Kafka (1991), and The Hours all include either lead or secondary characters who spend a great amount of time drinking and smoking in pubs. However, the writer played by Emma Thompson in Stranger than Fiction and the Virginia Woolf character in The Hours aren’t often found in a bar, around a table talking with other intellectuals. Does this peg the male-writer as the prevalent socialite drinker?
Many of these films attempt to tell a true story about a lead writer-character, but the examples student writers might gather from these portrayals of writing can influence how they see themselves living as writers. Do we gather at pubs for informal writers’ workshops because it’s an inspiring setting, or are we mimicking these films, these loose biographies of those authors we hope someday to be?
The film Storytelling manages to raise some uncomfortable, but not entirely fictitious stereotypes about writers, both tutor and student behaviours. Storytelling opens on the (in)famous setting all university writing students will recognise: the workshop. Mr Scott (Robert Wisdom) conducts a session in which he demeans and ostracises the students’ work in an unprofessional way. As writing students we have very different experiences but may have encountered similar behaviours in our own writing classrooms.
Mr. Scott also delivers on several other stereotypes of writers, especially tutors, in Hollywood cinema. He is rumored to have slept with several female students and, as viewers, we watch him sexually debase one of his writing students. Storytelling then introduces two students aspiring to great writing success. Vi (Selma Blair) and her boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) portray two different writer-voices. Vi is levelheaded in her conclusion that a tutor’s opinion on a student’s work is his own and is in no way the end-all-be-all criticism of the work in question. Unfortunately, Vi resorts to sex in order to gain favouritism from Mr Scott, as if he holds the key to her success. Marcus is the overly sensitive type, self-deprecating and also struggling with a disability. A few Hollywood moments show Vi to be interested in Marcus simply because it adds drama and conflict to her life, thus granting her the true ‘writer life’. The world gives us plenty of characters, which we fictionalise and expand on to craft our stories. Perhaps we instinctively find the turmoil, the rocky moments in life fascinating, we might even gravitate to them in order to enhance our fiction. If you want to see how horribly wrong a workshop setting can go or the ways in which student-tutor unprofessionalism can be taken to the extreme, watch Storytelling.
Two of my favourite writer-movies centre on the relationship between the author and his/her characters. Writing is many things to many people and personally it’s cathartic for me. The desire to write is rooted in telling a story no one has heard in quite the same way. That story has a purpose, a goal, and if it’s done right it is subtle and moving all at once. Ruby Sparks (2012) and Stranger than Fiction present god-like writer-characters in control of the physical fate of their characters. These two authors feel a closeness to their work which alters how they write the endings to their stories. Inevitability, we might just end up living through our characters.
Midnight in Paris displays the most mainstream opinions of the writer persona. Wilson’s character spends more than half of the movie living in his fantasy world where he is offered editorial advice from Gertrude Stein and is introduced to T.S. Eliot, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Wilson’s imagined world fuels his writing. Do we travel to Stratford-upon-Avon to stand over Shakespeare’ grave hoping he’s left some creative energy for us, do we walk around the Bronte’s childhood home for literary epiphanies? We read to help us in our writing but has the fascination with the writer’s lives, those who have come before us, become too much of an obsession? Wilson’s wife does not understand why he would want to leave a high paying, stable job as a scriptwriter for the uncertainty of novel writing. The overarching opinion of the non-writer characters is that Wilson’s novelist dream is foolish. Writing a novel isn’t a profession to the academic/researcher, John (Kurt Fuller). He’s the intellectual one with a promising job and Wilson’s opposite. How relevant this opposition is.
These writerly films attempt to show the many types of writers and their lives. No matter how constricting they might seem, the stereotypes may fit some writers today and it causes us to consider why we respond to the world the way we do. We sometimes inherent romantic images from passionate professors, as I did from my mentors. Writers are viewed as ‘known unknowns’ to those who do not spend the greater part of every day writing and the other half thinking about writing. So who can blame filmmakers for trying to show the array of writer perspectives, to make sense of us and our ways of creating, just as much as we want to make sense of ourselves?
The inspiration for this article originated with Wendy Bishop and Stephen Armstrong’s (2007) essay Box Office Poison: The Influence of Writers in Films on Writers (in Graduate Programs). To read ‘Box Office Poison’ or for more movies about writers see Peter Vandenberg’s Appendix in ‘Can It Really Be Taught?‘
Words, Pauses, Noises would like to say a hearty thanks to Amber for her wonderful article (and the shared use of her Tesco bottle opener!). Do you have any opinions on the writer’s persona as we see it in Hollywood? Is there a difference in how we, as writers, are portrayed today as opposed to the early days of cinematography?
We leave you with this thought: every Hollywood story was written, or adapted, by a screenwriter. Where does the writer of the screenplay see themselves fitting into all of this? If you’ve got any thoughts, feel free to share them. Tune in next week for more work from the Kingston University CWMA’s on Words, Pauses, Noises.