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Let’s Demystify the Writer September 21, 2011

Some have appropriated unto the process of writing a somewhat romantic picture. We imagine our favorite writers hunched over desks, grumbling to themselves through sips of whiskey in some dimly lit room on the Eastern Seaboard. Otherwise, they’re sitting in a bright and breezy space at a desk made of birch. The wind blows gauzy curtains back while the writer peeks out the window, smiles knowingly, and turns back to the page to write some moving meditation – in longhand of course. Where these images come from, we can only speculate. It could be Hollywood, our own projected veneration, or even from the writers themselves. Surely, writers are some of the greatest culprits of their own mythologizing. The point is, however, that in all of these images the writer is a solitary figure.

Again and again we hear about how solitary the process of writing is, reading too for that matter. Reading is falling behind as a form of entertainment because it cannot compete with the shared group experience supplied by movies and television shows. Indeed, we never hear of the new novel being discussed at the water cooler. The explanations for this phenomenon abound. For one, reading a book over a person’s shoulder is awkward. (Believe me, I’ve tried to do it on the el; it doesn’t end well.) Also, a movie takes place in a set and real time. It can be conquered in, at most, three hours and then filed away for later discussion. A book can take significantly longer – I know; I’ve been battling Anna Karenina for more than five weeks. Also, reading, many may argue, requires more active participation. Images must be conjured in the reader’s mind; tone must be applied to a speaker’s dialogue based upon previously supplied insights into the character. Further, I think it’s just plain harder to read than it is to watch.

Last week I saw a movie that, I would argue, makes an attempt to reconcile the differences between text and screen, while also challenging the process of writing as we imagine it. The Help is a film about southern black maids in the 60s who throw job security to the wind by sharing the harrowing episodes of their daily lives with an aspiring young white writer. The maids, Aibileen chief among them, tell their stories to Skeeter who struggles to get them published – to expose “the help’s” perspective to the rest of America. Sure, I was drawn to the story because the previews promised a feel good cry. More than that though, I was intrigued about a film that would be addressing the oft marginalized and mythologized process of writing.

The only reason that The Help can exist on screen is that the ladies of the movie are challenging the long-held image of the solitary writer. To watch a single actor write any more than a few sentences is simply too boring for the popular audience. Scratch that – any audience. However, when the viewer is met with Aibileen narrating a story while Skeeter transcribes notes to the page, there is a collaborative back and forth that is in fact interesting to watch. The viewer sees how a spoken narrative is transferred to the page through a transcriber and then into jotted notes. Here, both Aibileen and Skeeter share the construction of a narrative. It is Aibileen’s story realized through Skeeter’s hand. This collaborative notion of writing challenges traditional notions of how writing is actualized, thus making it friendly for the screen and probably a closer image to the truth. For indeed, this image we have of the solitary writer is not very close to the truth. Think of your own writing. The internet, friends, professors and the UCWbL are all here to help you out in the process. And surely, Marlowe and Shakespeare exchanged notes; Melville and Hawthorne probably chilled over a beer and talked about Billy Budd and Hester Prynne; let’s not also forget the delightful story of Ezra Pound rebranding Hilda Doolittle as H.D. Writing is often collaborative, and this film gives us an honest portrayal of that fact.

I think there is this idea, propagated by notions of western individualism or perhaps a fear of plagiarism, that if writing is not accomplished in a solitary and unassisted manner, it is not credible.  This idea is bull and should be challenged. The Help does just this. “I’ve been told I’m a pretty good writer, already sold a lot of books!” Aibileen remarks to a close-minded challenger. But of course, Aibileen’s name is not on the cover of the book; no one’s is. For it is a collaborated work that is just as much Aibileen’s, as it is Skeeter’s, as it is all of the other women who join together to bring the piece of writing to publication.


3 Responses to “Let’s Demystify the Writer”

  1. David S. Says:

    To play devil’s advocate: If we demystify the writer through collborative work, should we correspondingly mystify the editor? I was surprised to learn that in contemporary film, the editor is as important as the director, and can have final say over the sequencing of images of the film. Collaborative writing becomes successful when someone “cuts the pieces apart and puts them back together” and imposes the singular, coherent point of view required by the reader. It used to be that film was heavily influenced by writing. In our media-emphasized times, is the reverse now true?

  2. Great questions David. Yes, yes, and yes. I think that there is a mystification of the editor going on that, while not ideal, makes a move in the right direction toward acknowledging that many roles are needed for a work to come to fruition. Further, I believe that writing is indeed influenced by film. Do you? That is not to say, however, that writing does not still influence film or music or visual art. More and more, all of these mediums are working together to influence the other. How nice.

  3. David S. Says:

    Hello, Liz! I have a lot of interests that require me to spend a lot of time reviewing the arts of the 1950s and 60s, and I am fascinated by the period (for example, I’ve always wanted to write a book on the influence of Sidney Poitier on American culture, so I spend time reading magazines from the time, etc.)

    One thing I can say about that time is that certain arts drove culture, especially writing and the Broadway stage. Successful books, plays and musicals fueled the larger, more commercial arts like television and film. A musical like “West Side Story” began on the live stage and moved eventually to film, in the meantime releasing a series of hit songs recorded by countless singers. Today, Broadway takes (to some extent) concepts from film and gives them the blockbuster, technologically spectacular treatment. And film takes its inspiration from television! During the mid 20th century, the progression was opposite: stage/film/TV, not TV/film/stage.

    There was an avant garde community in the arts then, and it tended to propel society. People really believed in the power of art to change the world. I guess you could say it was an elite, but it was not exclusive. The fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld famously said that today there is no high art — all is popular, colloquial. Back then there definitely was high art, and eventually the ideas would work their way down. I’m sure the avant garde has its equivalent today, but I’d bet it is much smaller. Audiences require so much eye candy today! 3D, anyone?

    What do you think?

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