As a Writer
By Tom "young upstart essayist" Waters
June Ist, 2005
Most writers are not interesting enough to write a story about. Most writers look like something you scraped off of your shoe and you wouldn't want to see them in person even if they were part of an interesting tale.
As a writer, I'm qualified to say this: Screen writers, book writers, and tv writers who cast their main characters as writers are lazy. It's a complete and utter cop-out. Aside from a few exceptions, which we'll go into later, it's a lethargic means for telling a story.
Every time I watch a movie, read a book or catch a show where the central character waltzes front and center and we find out that he's supposed to be a writer, I cringe. Not to mention the fact that if I'm watching the play or movie with someone, they look at me and wait for me to react or do something writerly in response. It's either a feeble excuse for the author to 'hide' their own personality at the core of their stories by placing a facsimile of themselves into the tale or they just couldn't be bothered to take the time to design a person with a real job, motivations, and the common hopes and dreams that viewers and readers connect with.
Most writers are not interesting enough to write a story about. Most writers look like something you scraped off of your shoe and you wouldn't want to see them in person even if they were part of an interesting tale. We are socially maladjusted misfits and evolutionary outcasts. That's what makes us writers. We don't battle flying saucers, have multiple marriages to gorgeous and exotic women or spend our days hobnobbing with other literary giants on madcap adventures. Our battles aren't short, exhilarating and entertaining. Most of our lives are mundane, destitute and uninteresting. Stephen King picks a lot of writers for his stories because he doesn't take the time to flesh out a convincing character.
Perhaps it raises the hackles so prominently because actors don't know how to play writers, which isn't their fault. I was suffering through Diane Keaton's performance in "Something's Gotta Give", for example. Diane Keaton is an idiot. I never liked her before, I like her even less now. Her character (the, ugh, writer) bandies about the movie spouting off her opinions, over-reacting and writing herself into her plays. Towards the end of the movie (and god forbid that I spoil any of this moving and charismatic performance) Nicholson dumps her, and the viewer is treated to a tear-jerking montage of Keaton crying, writing, crying, laughing, writing, crying, writing and triumphantly finishing her new hit play to the toast of the town the world over. Eighty five percent of living writers might have a heart wrenching experience occur in their lives. This is not bullshit. The same eighty percent will most likely be moved to write about it without histrionics. We don't blubber at the typewriter, shake our fists at the sky mid-paragraph, or hoot and holler when we're on a roll. That, my friends, is a steaming pile of shit, is what that is. And even if the former suppositions were true, most of us wouldn't get our plays published, and if we did they would not instantly strike a strong and dissonant chord in the souls of theater patrons the world over. It's a clever film except for the writer. And Diane Keaton should be shot.
Diane Keaton's co-star, on the other hand, did a pretty good job of playing an obsessive compulsive romance novelist in "As Good As It Gets". How can you say anything bad about Jack Nicholson? While the movie was a large, wet syrupy kiss injected with more wheels of cheese per square feet than a holiday gouda stand, Melvin Udol was a convincing character. He was written well, played well, and interacted well with the rest of the people he encountered by interacting poorly with €¦the rest of the people that he encountered. One step away from being a shut in, Udol hammered away at his novels, repeated his sentences out loud while he was struggling with a line, and got furious with anyone who bothered him mid-creation. He left the safety and security of his lifestyle only to eat at his favorite diner or visit with his agent and demand money. Most of the neighbors at his apartment building thought he was an asshole. I can relate to that because most of my friends and neighbors are certain that I'm an asshole and either avoid me or spend time with me despite this fact. He was an author of 68 novels and lived in a modest apartment with three hundred bars of soap and a large television. This was a lot more believable than the thought that Helen Hunt would a) find a middle aged Nicholson attractive b) come around on his prickly and standoffish personality and c) want to plant a big wet one on his reptilian face. I love Jack to death, but if you take him at face value, he's a hideous and ancient man. This made him perfect for a crotchety old writer.
One of John Ritter's funniest roles on the screen was in "Skin Deep", an underappreciated gem from the mid-90s. He played Zachary Hutton, a washed up writer with block who destroyed his personal relationships when he couldn't create. He cheated on his wife, his mistress and anyone else who crossed his path. He drank like a fish and repeatedly made an ass out of himself. His character lost most of his royalties in alimony, property damage, speeding tickets and agent fees. This is a step in the right direction for the writer as main character. It was barely believable and no writer gets laid with one fourth of the libidinous fortitude that Ritter's character did, but one can dream. And that's what Blake Edwards did. After a lifetime of successful films from the Pink Panther series to a number of other broad physical and ensemble comedies, he did a pretty decent job of painting himself into one of his films.
But the mother of all writer movies is and always will be "Barton Fink", the Cohen brothers' surreal masterpiece which is more a passion play for writers than it is a biopic, a thinly veiled autobiography or cheap excuse to cast the main character as a writer. John Turturro plays a pretentious playwright who, after a series of critically successful plays in New York follows the siren song of young Hollywood to find disappointment and creative hell on earth. It's an homage to every writer who's gone out west and dried up or gotten swallowed whole, and a send-up to a lot of the great legends of the early '30s who made the first pilgrimage; Hemingway, Faulkner, and Arthur Miller. Men with more talent than any of us could dream of who lost their souls and their creative integrity on the west coast.
Turturro was a very convincing playwright thanks in no small part to the Cohen brothers. Neurotic, arrogant, awkward around women, and prone to boring and long-winded dissertations on the state of modern theater. This is a movie for and by writers. This is a film that I watch to snap out of a block and run screaming to the computer for. But I don't actually run screaming towards the computer. There's a scene in the film where Barton finishes his first movie script after going through hell and back to find the heart of the formula he was assigned. He blows through the screenplay in one night, whips down the last page, crashes a USO dance and gets into a fight with a Marine for cutting in on his girl. He proclaims for the crowd, the viewer, and writers the world over, "I'm a writer! This (pointing at his head) is my uniform! I create! Don't you understand!? " It's a powerful scene, but it's bullshit. I like it anyways.
There's "Barton Fink", and then there's "Wonder Boys", which, in all likelihood, was a horrible book first. These are the only two movies that really hit the nail on the head with convincing writers as main characters. In "Wonder Boys" it's almost entirely thanks to the underappreciated direction of Curtis Hansen. It's a story about a writer (played to perfection by Michael Douglas) making his living as a college English professor and trying desperately to follow up his first novel and the tidal wave of success that it gave him seven years prior. The critical community, his agent and his fans are certain that he's washed up and he's determined to prove them wrong. Douglas plays a good eccentric writer; rolling joints with one hand while steering his beat up car with the other, writing every morning in a fluffy pink bathrobe and pulling it all off with a hair-do that's a month overdue for a cut. He delivers a speech to one of his protagees (played by Tobey Maguire) where he apologizes for giving him the hope and inspiration to become a writer. It's powerful, convincing and realistic. Hansen must have really connected with the story after knocking one right out of the park with his first film, "L.A. Confidential." One notices the parallels while watching the movie which is why he put so much into it. It was a flop and most likely destroyed his career. That, or Hansen is throwing books at the wall of his office like Stanley Kubrick, waiting for the right story to grab his attention for more than a half hour.
If I wrote a film about my life, my character (played by hopefully William H. Macy for the older Tom Waters or Jim Carrey for a younger Tom Waters) will not run screaming towards anything. He'd be difficult at whatever age the film was set in, financially and artistically unsuccessful, and he'd be the scourge of his peers. Tom in the movie wouldn't close his laptop after writing the last sentence as a lead in for the closing credits. Tom wouldn't draw the curtain closed on his hit play to the roaring cheer of a sold out Broadway theater. These things don't happen, and if they do, they're never as well organized as they are in movies, shows, books and plays. My character would lose his shirt promoting his latest book, go into hock, go back to a moderately well-salaried job and keep on keeping on. He'd block up and then get really pissed off at something insignificant, like soccer dads or white suburban ghetto kids who wear upside down visors. Instead of uttering a battle cry in front of a typewriter in a study filled with awards and accolades, he'd scream obscenities at the top of his lungs in gridlocked traffic, say something really offensive to an old woman in front of him at the grocery store, or go on a drunken bender and wake up in the middle of his apartment with an empty Tupperware container of macaroni and cheese. Even that's taking artistic license. I've never passed out on a floor.
Writers are bullshit artists to the nth degree. We shouldn't be allowed to work ourselves in to works of fiction. And if we do, we have an obligation to check the bullshit at the title page.
Well, I'm off to fornicate with a thousand nineteen-year old women after sky diving into the core of a volcano, getting into a car chase and write a best selling novel about it. Hundreds of people will attend my book signings at Barnes and Nobles around the country (because millions of people still read, don't they?) and say gushing, glowing things to me which I'll accept humbly while winking to the camera. In the words of Bruce Campbell, who never played a writer, "Yeah, right. And I'm a Chinese jet pilot."