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By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I had great hopes for the art film Genius (2016), with Colin Firth and Jude Law, which tells the story of the relationship between the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins and the novelist Thomas Wolfe. Getting the details right about what writers do has always been difficult for movies to accomplish; the process of writing is so inherently isolated (and isolating) that it's just about unfilmable. Who wants to watch a movie about somebody staring at a page and then making a tiny correction after 15 minutes of thought? It's not exactly Indiana Jones being chased by a big boulder.
But I still hold out hope that someday there will be a movie that will show the creative writing process in an accurate light. God knows, Genius isn't that film; it's a bloody mess, chocked full of writer cliches, with Jude Law doing the kind of scenery gnawing that makes you want to leave the theater, then the country, then civilization. It's hard to know what Law's thinking here--it's like he's been restraining himself by giving non-showy, professional performances in recent films (the surprising Anna Karenina; The Grand Budapest Hotel; Side Effects) and now he's going to unleash the acting Kraken. There's an old movie critic's metaphor for this — "acting up a storm" — but even that doesn't apply. Law acts up a typhoon in Genius, a tsunami, a Category 5 hurricane. Some critics seem to go for this sort of thing and praised his performance, but he had me ducking under my seat after the very first scene. And that accent, that yelping, drawling thing — that's Carolina? It sounded like a cross between Foghorn Leghorn and Duck Dynasty, with a bit of Minnie Pearl thrown in for good measure.
But actually, despite Law's bludgeoning performance, there are a few scenes in Genius that give a hint as to what goes on for writers. The film shows Perkins and Law editing the manuscript of Look Homeward, Angel — a Herculean task, for Wolfe wrote over 5000 pages for the novel — and you get a sense of the excruciating labor that it takes to cut away the blood and guts of a book. It's not enough to recommend the movie, but the editing scenes do illustrate the dark work that's necessary if you want get a writing job completed.
Some movies get it so wrong about writers that it's comical. Shakespeare in Love is a pleasant movie, but the scenes with Joseph Fiennes trying to show the great writer's process are abjectly ridiculous. He's shown getting ready for his big writing marathon the way sports movies show athletes getting ready for the big game. He's psyched, he's primed, he's getting his confidence up and he's grabbing that pen like it's a javelin he's going to hurl. There's no doubt that writing requires endurance, stamina, and a degree of physicality, but man, Shakespeare exerts so much energy in the "run-up" to the writing session that you wonder if he'll be able to get a word on paper.
By all accounts, Shakespeare was a relatively nondescript character who treated playwriting as a pretty good gig. He wrote plays with no real thoughts of posterity, but more to fill the seats and pay a decent royalty. (He also made sure to write a character for himself to play, earning another share of the profits.) That the plays ended up being the most celebrated achievements in language was secondary; it was a job, primarily, one that required the day-in, day-out discipline that any honest labor demanded. Grunt work. It's probably not as exciting a notion as imagining the Great Artist penning his masterpieces while staring at a starry sky, but it's definitely an appealing thought to writers everywhere, who know the simple truth: Writing is a job that rewards doggedness more than brilliance.
Beginning writers are deluged with advice from mentors about the writing process and how they should work. Always write in the morning. Never skip a day when you're working. Don't be intimidated by a blank page. Do research but don't be beholden to it. Edit daily. Wait until you've finished a first draft before editing. Make an outline, but write freely. Show your work to other writers; never show your work to other writers. Don't talk about your book. But discuss it with your peers. And on and on. All of the advice is useless, but because ultimately you're either going to write or you're not. I'm always astounded when somebody asks me what's the best way to develop a writing process. It's like asking someone, what's the best way to be you? For every writer, there's a different way of doing it; if it's your intent to turn it into your vocation, you're just gonna have to strike out on your own.
But okay, if you're curious, here's my process, if you'd like to emulate it. First you drink a ton of coffee, smoke two cigars, and then scribble a sentence that you'll rewrite 58 different ways. Rinse; repeat. Do that for three hours. Then get up from the table and contemplate killing yourself because everything you wrote is crap. Take a break. Go back to the table, change one adjective, fell a bit better about human existence. Then plunge yourself back into the work and into the doubt, and do that for the rest of the night. Getting drunk is always an option but don't be surprised if it doesn't actually help, no matter how compelling the list is of famous drunk writers. Getting drunk is a completely different discipline, after all, regardless of the strong attraction that creativity seems to have with substance abuse.
So stick with it. For there's a chance — a small chance, to be a sure, but a chance nonetheless — that you'll re-read something you've been working on and not want to gouge your eyes out in horror. When that happens, celebrate the moment, and then remind yourself that you'll only have to do that another 200 – 300 times before you have something you can actually show to another person. But be aware, when you finally do finish something, there probably won't be a camera crew around recording the moment for history. Odds are, you're gonna be alone in a room with nothing but the work. But that's okay. For nobody films bricklayers, masons, and glaziers when they complete the gig, either.