The Truth About Writers on TV and in the Movies

Last night on Modern Family, a show I love thanks to the entire cast’s impeccable comic timing, regulars Phil and Cameron met a famous novelist on a passenger train. Said novelist, Simon Hastings (played by Simon Templeton, whose real name sounds like a pen name), is writing a mystery novel about a murder on a train, and of course he’s writing it on a train, on a typewriter, in the pub car. Now, I may not be a best-selling novelist,* but I doubt very seriously whether any novelist could work this way, let alone a successful one. He might ride the train for research, he might even do some writing while there, but that’s about it. The rest is what people imagine novelists do, typewriter and all.

It’s almost impossible to realistically depict a writer’s life, because to an outsider, it’s boring. We sit, mutter to ourselves, type, backspace, retype, and repeat to infinity. Sometimes, but not always, we put on pants. Yet movies and TV insist on showing writers who have exciting lives (think Castle) that, in reality, would barely leave time for writing.

I first noticed this in 1985, when St. Elmo’s Fire came out. I couldn’t stand the movie for a lot of reasons (Rob Lowe wearing more rouge and eyeliner than any of the female cast, Judd Nelson as a total dick who, inexplicably, we were supposed to like), but mainly because of Andrew McCarthy’s turn as a blocked writer who hung around with prostitutes (but never inhaled), until Ally Sheedy let him bang her on top of his coffin/coffee table. Even though I’d hardly written anything myself then (and certainly nothing worthwhile), I sensed that this was utter bullshit.

There’s a scene in Beloved Infidel, a 1959 biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald starring Gregory Peck, in which Fitzgerald, having sent the first part of a novel to a publisher, bounds to the mailbox to see if he’s gotten a response. The music is jaunty and upbeat as he smilingly checks the mail, finds a letter from the publisher, and opens it. Then, as his expression falls, the music turns dark and Wagnerish. It’s the kind of melodramatic moment Hollywood loves, but to a real pro, it would simply never happen. We take rejection in stride, because if we don’t, it will crush us.

There are films that get at least parts of the writer’s life right. One of the best moments is in The Shining, when Jack Torrance explodes at Wendy for breaking his train of thought. He may be a shit about it, but I guarantee you every writer immediately understands his reaction.

Finally, there’s a recent super cut video that supposedly shows the many portrayals of writer’s block from the movies. Putting aside the fact that I don’t believe in writer’s block (writers write; some days it’s hard, some days it’s easy, but we do it. Do plumbers get plumber’s block?), many of the clips show the writers writing something, then either deleting it or ripping it from the typewriter. That’s not writer’s block, that’s process. I’ve done it more than once writing this very piece.

So don’t trust those depictions of writers. It’s not glamorous, it’s not exciting, it’s certainly not sexy. But it is incredibly rewarding, even if most of those rewards happen in your own head, where only you can see them.

*Although when my new book, Chapel of Ease, comes out, you can change that, hint, hint. 🙂

5 Comments on “The Truth About Writers on TV and in the Movies”

  1. I wish writing were sexy and exciting. But you are correct. It is grind, grind, grind. Rinse and repeat.

  2. Love it! As I was growing up, I often wondered if all the writers depicted on television (mostly newspaper writers, BTW) and in the movies had someone chained up in a closet somewhere who was actually doing the writing 🙂

  3. The only “writer’s block” is the lack of getting to that page and writing. But once you get started… well, the end of that super cut was dead on. You can’t write fast enough.

    And that’s when someone has to come in and ask a question. *sighs*

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