I enjoyed this article by Michael McGrath on The Millions about how movies so poorly depict writers. Mostly by ignoring the writing and focusing on the rest:
The darker elements of creation are excellent fodder for thrillers and effective platforms for comedies. These films take the work itself less seriously (often a lack of literary merit is part of the joke) and instead focus on the pitfalls of the creative life. They ignore the words for the work and all that can inspire and disrupt it: psycho fans, ex-wives, portals to the Underworld.
This is partly true, but honestly, I think that’s by and large ok. I think where movies about writing fail more often in the quality of writing advice they give.
I love Wonder Boys. I think it’s a funny, moving script about the lives of writers and students. But the writing lesson it teaches is basically to have a crazy weekend and then write about it. Presto! Instant novel.
The same goes for another movie McGrath mentions, Orange County. From what we can tell, the writer has just written about his family, and since he has a crazy family, he’s a good writer. We’re left to assume that if he didn’t have a crazy family, he wouldn’t have been able to … you know, just make something up.
This seems to be the basic Hollywood script: to be a writer you have to have a life that is worth writing about, and then you copy down what happened and get published.
(Adaptation is the exception to this rule. It begins with a writer who is so uninspired about his story that he ends up writing about himself as a sort of default. Eventually Charlie just makes up a story and an ending with a chase, drugs, gunfights, and deadly alligators. It’s formulaic, but that’s part of the fun. He deserves points for being a writer that is allowed to make something up.)
“Write What You Know.” That’s the terrible advice given to writers, and regularly imparted in movie scripts.
Or maybe, it’s not terrible advice, but rather terribly interpreted. I would argue that much better advice is “Write What You Feel.”
Did you feel persecuted in grade school for being weird? Then you could probably write an effective novel about, let’s say, Galileo being persecuted for his scientific theory or a saint persecuted for her belief in God. You can research Galileo’s scientific theory, you can imagine the rest, but unless you tap into your own emotions and background, your writing about persecution won’t feel right.
Have you ever been shown mercy? Betrayed someone? Been cruel? Stood up against cruelty? Made a fool of yourself? Lost the most important ball game of your life? Fell in love? Those feelings and emotions are more important to your writing than the specific circumstances around them.
Since I’ve already referenced Adapation as an exception to the rule, I’ll also cite one of its great scenes, when Charlie is in the screenwriting class (NSFW).
I think the advice here actually pairs well with “write what you feel”: Take your emotional experience, and apply it to something else, another story.
So don’t write about the college baseball game you lost and still regret. Write about a politician who has worked his whole life and lost the election he felt like he was born to win. You won’t be hemmed in by the specifics of your situation. You’ll be free to tell a great story, and tap into your own sense of loss when needed.
I’d say it’s the number one thing movies about writers always miss.