The Night Was…

Or, Throw Momma From the Train and other pools of writing wisdom.

Some of the best sources I’ve found for inspiration, advice, or what-have-you, to help me through the daily doldrums of writing have been fictional. Here’s a couple of examples before I get into the meat of this post –

First, from John Irving. “Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.” In One Person

And from the movie Wonder Boys, we have this scene: Award-winning author Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) hears criticism from one of his students, Hannah (Katie Holmes). “Grady, you know how in class you’re always telling us that writer’s make choices,” she tells him. “And even though your book is really beautiful, I mean, amazingly beautiful, it’s at times…uh…very detailed…And I could be wrong, but it sort of reads in places as though you really didn’t make any choices…at all.”

But my all-time favorite source of writing inspiration is the 1987 film Throw Momma From the Train, featuring Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito. Here are the highlights:

The night was… Larry (Billy Crystal) is plagued with writer’s block throughout most of the movie. He can’t get past the opening sentence, “The night was…” First, I don’t buy into the whole writer’s block thing. (See my blog post Writer’s Block? for clarification.) But the real lesson here is, as Algis Budrys put it in his manual Writing to the Point, writing is not the opposite of reading. Meaning: an author doesn’t plod along, putting down his words in exactly the order that they will be read, developing plot and character and all the nuances of style as they type. To clarify further I’m going to defer to Mr. Irving once again – “Know the story before you fall in love with your first sentence. If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you? Just an ordinary kind, just a mediocre kind – making it up as you go along, like a common liar.” In all fairness, near the end of the movie, Larry reflects on all that has happened between him and his friend Owen, saying, “This is a great ending. I don’t have the beginning, but this is a great ending.”

Plagiarism Poor Larry’s block is caused by the debilitating vehemence he has towards his evil ex-wife (Kate Mulgrew), who stole his previous manuscript, put her name on it, and turned it into a mega-bestseller. There are two things to learn here. 1.) Plagiarizing is the lowest form of creativity, no matter what level of success it may bring. As a writer, you may (and will) find inspiration from whatever’s been done before, and imprint your own voice upon it. (Quentin Tarantino is brilliant at this!) Just make sure what you create, in the end, comes from you. 2.) What if this scenario were to happen to you? If it were me, I’d surely sink into a dark depression. Just like getting a bad review, or a rejected submission. But I would dig myself out by sitting down and writing my next book. And then another. And another.

Research A scene in the movie begins as one of Larry’s creative writing students is reading aloud her story. “‘Dive! Dive!’ yelled the captain through the thing! So the man who makes it dive pressed a button, or something, and it dove.” When she’s done, Larry gives his critique. “It’s not a bad idea to know the name of the instrument the captain speaks through.” In other words, a little research goes a long way; a topic I address in my post Minutiae Kills.

Similes and metaphors “His guts oozed like a nice melted malted,” writes another one of Larry’s students. Having no similes or metaphors are better than using one that bad. It’s fine if you’re not sure about something you’ve written. That’s where having (or hiring, if you’re self-publishing) an editor can help tremendously. I recently read a great descriptive by Valeria Luiselli, where she describes the laundry rooms of apartment buildings as “…Dantesque infernos of cyclical hygienic tortures…” Yep, that’s every laundromat I’ve ever been in.

Discipline “A writer writes. Always,” Larry tells his class at the end of each session. It makes me think of Joseph Wambaugh, who said of himself, “Maybe there are more writers around who are more talented than I, but there are no writers who are more disciplined than I.” He attributes his success to his regimen of writing 1,000 words a day, no matter what, than to his skill.

“A murder mystery, three pages long, with only two characters, one of which is dead on page two, is not much of a mystery.” Enough said.

Go be an artist. Let the rest of the world make a living. This is a piece of advice Larry’s agent (Rob Reiner) gives him before absolving their contract.  And it throws light on the hardest challenge every author faces (yours truly, anyway.) – how to be faithful to your vision, your voice as a writer, and make a living at it! I wish I had an answer. All I can do is keep writing, and maybe someday I’ll publish something that people will want to read.

Hate makes you impotent. Love makes you crazy. Somewhere in between you can survive. Hate is no good; it retards creativity. But, turn it into passion, and you fuel a spark of inspiration into a bonfire of creativity. If the character of Larry had thought of this, he could’ve broken through his blockage by writing about a writer who has his novel stolen by a trusted friend, or wife. He certainly had fuel for real inspirational flames!

Write what you know. Every aspiring author has heard this at one time or another. I don’t know if I entirely agree. It’s a good place to start, but I think it’s better to write what you want to know. Write about what sparks your passion!

Finally, it would be paradoxically fitting, I think, to conclude with one more piece of advice from John Irving: You do know that things written in novels are often not advice?

Well, perhaps. But some of the best lessons come from other’s mistakes, or tragedies.

Gordon Gravley


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