The existence of a movie — any movie — about the topic of writing is surprising enough. But for it to actually be a good movie? Wow.
I taught Advanced English Writing in several universities in China from 2002 through 2006. Showing this movie became an integral part of those classes, because so many of its themes are identical to what I was trying to teach. I was happy to watch it over a dozen times with my students, and lecture about it in a style more Robin Williams than F. Murray Abraham.
But all these years later, will I still think it's a good movie? Let's find out.
We begin by meeting Jamal, the student who hides his intelligence in order to fit in. Fair enough.
Jamal is also a writer who hides his writing. Do they still exist?
Sean Connery is William Forrester, the reclusive genius of a writer.
Jamal is writing all the time. By hand. He's constantly practicing his basketball. He's constantly practicing his writing. That's how a person gets to be the best he's able to be at either pursuit. Or any pursuit. So if you're not writing every day, listen to Sean Connery and Rob Brown. Write every day. You're never going to write like Shakespeare or shoot hoops like Michael Jordan, but if you write every day, you'll get better at it than you are now. Unused potential is worse than lack of potential, because the former is a choice.
Jamal and Forrester are both obsessed with reading. As writers must be. Jamal snoops in Forrester's shelves both to learn about him and for suggestions. I already know you're reading every day. Aren't you? How many times have I said it? If you don't enjoy reading, you can't write something that somebody else enjoys reading.
Jamal: "You read all these?"
Forrester: "No, I keep them to impress all my visitors."
Amusing because Forrester's an agoraphobe whose only visitor is the guy bringing his royalty checks and his groceries. (Wouldn't you love to be an author living well on royalty checks for something you wrote 30 years ago?) But also a chance for me to riff on people who keep all the books they've ever read shelved at home. You know how much I love the written word. But Goodreads tells me that in the past three years alone I've read over 1000 books. Why would I keep them? I'm not going to read them all again. (Just the five-star books.) I do love a library, but I choose not to own one. I know where they are.
Jamal gets his writing notebooks back from "Window," that strange old dude who we don't know is Sean Connery because we haven't seen his picture on every movie poster ever made. And what has this man of mystery added to the notebooks? Honest feedback. It's not all kind. Not even close, actually. Brutally honest. That's what we all need. And if we're mature, it's also what we want, because this helps us improve. Jamal's first reaction was negative, but the next day, he's knocking on the door. He says: "I was wondering if I could bring you more of my stuff."
Finally, Jamal reads a book by Forrester. When Forrester gets the book back, he says, "Christ, you've dog-eared one of them. Show a little respect for the author." I say screw the author. Have a little respect for the next reader. Don't vandalize your books.
In the film, Forrester wrote one book. It won a Pulitzer. He reacted to a mix of critical praise and personal tragedy by not publishing another one. I don't think you have to be an author to enjoy the pot shots he takes at critics.
Forrester: "I know what it is. The last thing I need is another person telling me what they think it is."
I know the feeling.
Forrester: "Critics spend a day destroying what they couldn't create in a lifetime."
Jamal: "What's it feel like?"
Jamal: "Writing something the way you did."
Forrester: "Perhaps you'll find out."
I like that little exchange because, while I remember what it felt like to write at my very best, I'll be damned if I can explain it to you. Write your own books and you'll find out for yourself.
Jamal: "Did you ever read your own writing?"
Forrester: "In public? Hell no. I barely read it in private."
I used to say things like that all the time. But I did finally reread all fourteen of my published books last year. In private. Not bad, Michael. Not bad at all. Oh, and they're better "inside proper covers and everything," just like the author's wife noted in the second Robert Galbraith novel. Don't act like she's weird for waiting.
[It's eighteen books now. When the hell did I write this movie review?]
Forrester: "A lot of writers know the rules about writing, but they don't know how to write."
We know it's true. But let me add that the writers who don't even know the rules are screwed. You need not obey the rules. But you do need to know them. I break writing rules all the time, but never out of simple ignorance.
Clever dialogue about starting a sentence with a conjunction. Who knew such things were possible?
Forrester just sits at a manual typewriter and immediately starts writing. Jamal likes to think first. So do I. Hell, I've even used an outline once or twice. Also, I start with pen and paper or (more often) computer keyboard. Not a typewriter.
Forrester: "No thinking — that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!"
I've used freewriting in class and given it a spot in my textbook. It's a good technique, and I've seen a lot of students surprise themselves with the results. But I've also never written anything publishable that way. Blogable, perhaps. I do agree with the heart/head thing, of course.
Using other authors for inspiration can be a complex issue. Plain old stealing is wrong, but even the most original thinkers seek inspiration. The movie finally moves its dramatic conflict into high gear by examining all that. It was probably a bit predictable the first time I watched it. It was certainly predictable the fifteenth or twentieth time I watched it. But it still works. It's still powerful, moving, and five-star all the way.
Updated May 26, 2017
© Copyright 2000-2017, Michael LaRocca
Durham, North Carolina 27707