Learn to Write from the Movies: Genius

Why get an MFA when you can watch a movie?


By Joy Lazendorfer


Genius is a 2016 movie about Thomas Wolfe, who wrote Look Homeward, Angel, and his editor, Maxwell Perkins. The movie is about the time Perkins, played by Colin Firth, edited Wolfe’s 11,000-page novel for him and it became a bestseller. Wolfe is played by Jude Law, who’s doing the same Southern accent he did in Cold Mountain and also the same accent that Foghorn Leghorn does in Looney Tunes. At one point, he says, “Damn,” and it sounds like “Dah-yham.” I tried to find out if Wolfe talked like Foghorn Leghorn, but the closest I could find was a recording of Wolfe’s mother, who had a slight Southern drawl. I’ll give Jude Law the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he knows something I don’t.

Anyway, the movie is about being a genius, which should be the goal of every writer. Only geniuses are allowed to write about Life with a capital L. Shakespeare set the bar high. The trouble is, I’m not sure who in the movie is supposed to be the genius. Maybe it’s Wolfe, maybe it’s Perkins. Maybe it’s both of them. Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald make appearances, so maybe it’s them. But I’m going to go with Wolfe because he (spoiler) dies at the end. Geniuses always die young, unless it’s Einstein, who lived to 76. Or Leonardo da Vinci, who lived to 67, which is pretty old for the 16th-century.

Here’s how to be a genius according to Genius:


Lesson One: Write 5,000-10,000 Words A Day.

Being a genius is a numbers game. If you write enough words, some of them are bound to be genius. This was Thomas Wolfe’s philosophy and it worked out great for him. He wrote eight books before he died at age 38. He was America’s Proust!

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At one point, Perkins bellows at Wolfe, “How many words did you write today?” Wolfe shrugs. “Maybe 5,000.” So there you go. Write at least 5,000 words, but aim for more. As many as you can muster. Every day. Don’t stop. Fill boxes, trunks, and entire rooms with writing. Hypergraphia, the overwhelming urge to write, is a serious behavioral condition, but also useful here. If an editor is editing your book, bring in new pages all the time and yell at him if he tries to stop you. Maybe consider giving up sleep or food in favor of writing. After all, geniuses capture Life, and that takes a lot of words. Life is big.

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Lesson Two: Make Literary Friends By Quoting Poetry.

There’s one surefire way to bond with other literary people, and that’s to quote poetry at them. Movies love it when people quote poetry. It shows that everyone is smart. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes don’t fall in love in Plath until they go to an underground club and speed-shout poetry. Dead Poets Society wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for chanting poetry. And in Genius, Wolfe and Perkins are merely colleagues until they recite Shakespeare together on a train. Afterwards, they’re as close father and son. Perkins practically cries from joy.

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It’s a good idea to memorize some poetry in case this situation ever comes up. Just make sure it’s old poetry. None of this modern Morgan Parker There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce stuff. Think Wordsworth. Tennyson. Christopher Marlowe. Maybe even older--Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale. Dream of the Rood. Homer. Chant your poem at your potential editor or literary agent and wait for them to take up the verse. When they do, the bonding will be instant and career enhancing.

Lesson Three: Editors in 2017 Have Too Many Emails.

After Thomas Wolfe writes his book, he takes it to Perkins’s office. It’s so long that it fills three trunks (Wolfe really did this). Perkins doesn’t mind at all. He’s fine with it.

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After that, Perkins takes years helping Wolfe edit his book. It’s hard because Wolfe doesn’t want to cut anything due to the rule about more words increasing the likelihood of genius. Yet Perkins persists. He teaches Wolfe lessons like “Don’t use clichés” and “Don’t repeat yourself.” Wolfe is blown away by these revelations. He has been too busy writing words to think about editing them. Besides, he believes editors are there to listen patiently while he yammers on about how Tolstoy’s editor would never make him cut War and Peace.

Watching this, I felt nostalgic for this long-lost era when famous editors helped writers sift through stacks of drivel to find a few paragraphs of good writing. What, I wondered, could have possibly changed in publishing since the 1920s? Then the answer came to me: E-mail. Before e-mail, editors had time to wear derby hats and teach writers about writing. Now they’re too busy answering e-mails and unsubscribing from spam for that. Technology has cheated us yet again.

Lesson Four: Model Your Writing After Jazz.

Are you listening to enough jazz? Well you should be, because that’s what genius sounds like. Wolfe makes this point by bringing Perkins to an African American jazz club. He tells Perkins that he has a “grim, puritan soul” and then explains that jazz musicians are artists. “They interpret the song, letting the music pour out, riff upon riff, just like I do with my words.”

After bopping his head off-rhythm for a while, Wolfe decides to use the jazz club to make a literary point. He bribes the band to play Perkins’ favorite song, “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,” a slow trumpet tune that Wolfe says is like reading Henry James. The whole club grinds to a stop and everyone stops dancing. The band, realizing they’re losing people, starts swinging the Scottish ballad and soon people are dancing again. Right when things get super jazzy, Wolfe points at the band and yells, “That’s TOM WOLFE!” Given the appropriation wrapped in this statement, I’m relieved for the band’s sake that Wolfe doesn’t play an instrument. Perkins is like:

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So don’t just write like jazz. Be jazz. Let the rhythm of 90-year-old music flow through your veins and drip out of your quill, straight into your writing.

Lesson 5: Do Whatever You Want, It’s Fine.

Listen, you are the genius. That means that you’re always right, especially about writing. If it takes two years of editing to cut 100 pages out of your 11,000-page novel, so be it. Those 100 pages could have been genius. You don’t know. How can you know? It’s probably a good idea to resent your editor for editing your novel in case he took out some of the genius. Screw that guy. Who does he think he is, a genius? No, that’s you. Make sure everyone knows that. Yell a lot, to show you’re passionate. Tell people that they aren’t living Life enough. Insult your editor’s wife when she says she’s writing a play. Pontificate about stars when you’re on top of a building. Show up drunk to dinner parties and slur in front of children. It’s fine! If people get a little irritated, write them a beautiful letter on your inevitably premature deathbed. All will be forgiven. And if not, it doesn’t matter. You’re dead.

Joy Lanzendorfer’s work has been in The Atlantic, NPR, Smithsonian, Tin House, Vice, The Guardian, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Los Angeles Review of Books, KQED, Mental Floss, and many others. Follow her @JoyLanzendorfer