Learn to Write from the Movies

Why get an MFA when you can watch a movie?

 

By Joy Lanzendorfer

 

Welcome to a column where we learn how to become the sexy intellectual rock stars that Hollywood says all writers should be. In movies, writers scribble in garrets near trashcans overflowing with crumpled paper or swill liquor while typing on typewriters. So far, my writing life has none of these things. I don’t even own a quill. When you think about it, movies about writers are like graduate-level workshops, only you can get drunk during them without anyone yelling at you. Why practice the tedium of daily writing when you can study the greatest writers in the world as portrayed by actors in their Hollywood biopics? Let’s learn!

 

 Cross Creek

 

Today’s writing lesson is from Cross Creek, a film about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings as portrayed by Mary Steenburgen. Rawlings is the author of The Yearling, a book about shooting a baby deer. She’s from that period where children’s literature frequently featured the death of a beloved animal to teach kids that becoming an adult means dying on the inside. (Other examples: Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller.)

Anyway, Cross Creek is an awesome movie. Which is not to say that it’s a good movie. In fact, it’s a very bad movie, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it. It has everything a movie about a writer should have, such as typing on typewriters, crying over rejection letters, and lines like, “Damn it, Max Perkins, you are a coward.” On top of that, it has one of the best scenes about a writer that I have ever witnessed, which I’ll get to in a moment.

But first, what does Cross Creek have to teach about writing? Oh nothing, just how to be Hemingway with breasts. That’s right. Read on. 

Lesson 1: Finance Your Writing Through A Florida-Related Business Plan.

At the beginning of the movie, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wants to be a writer but has yet to publish. So she decides to leave her husband and move to Florida to write full-time. Her plan is simple: Have an orange grove, which will finance her while she writes a gothic romance that she will then sell to famous editor Max Perkins, who has also worked with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. What can go wrong?

A lot, it turns out. A lot. As soon as Marjorie arrives in Cross Creek, her car breaks down and she learns that backwoods Florida towns don’t have taxis. Then a man named Norton Baskin immediately falls in love with her, which is inconvenient and pisses her off. Also, she discovers that the house she purchased sight unseen is a broken-down shack. That last point is hard on Marjorie. She doesn’t have time for home repair. She has a novel to write.

It just goes to show, financial planning is wise, but you never know what will happen in Florida.

Lesson 2: Show Your Determination To Be A Writer By Being Rude, Especially To Men.

To be fair, all the men in this movie are sexist jerk-offs. Norton insists on giving Marjorie a ride when she wants to walk, insults her shack, and tells her that he’ll come back to “check on her” even though she repeatedly says, “No,” and “I’ll be working.” But it’s not just him. When she tells her neighbor that she's going to fix the roof herself, he condescendingly replies, “That’s a real enterprising woman.” Then he shoots a coral snake, assuming like a jerk that Marjorie needs protection from poisonous snakes. As we learn later, Marjorie is perfectly capable of killing animals herself.

Then Marjorie is practically forced to have a maid. She’s sitting on her porch, typing on her typewriter, when along comes a black woman named Geechee who insists Marjorie hire her as her “girl.” Marjorie is torn. She isn’t sure she can trust Geechee to leave her alone, but she also wants someone to clean the shack. Seeing her hesitation, Geechee says, “If I don’t suit you, you can cut my thoat [sic].” Reluctantly, Marjorie agrees.

(This seems the good place to mention that the real Rawlings was racist. Once, she invited African American author Zora Neale Hurston to her house in Cross Creek. When it became clear that Hurston should spend the night, Rawlings made her stay in the servant’s quarters instead of the empty guest room. So. There’s that to think about.)

By being mean and sullen, Marjorie demonstrates that she’s unwavering about being a writer. I mean look at this woman:

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Sourpuss? Yes, but also: focused. And focus is essential to writing. 

Lesson 3: The Stories You’re Meant To Write Will Eventually Act Themselves Out In Front Of You.

Marjorie’s problem is that she writes about governesses in castles, which is a classic mistake of women writers in movies. As Winona Ryder as Jo learns in the 1994 version of Little Women, for a woman to write well-received children’s fiction, she must write from life, not her private erotic longings. At the beginning of Cross Creek, Marjorie hasn’t learned this lesson yet.

Luckily for her, when Marjorie isn’t writing or telling Norton to go away, she’s socializing with the locals and enjoying their crazy, ignorant folksiness. As she does so, the characters from Jacob’s Ladder and The Yearling appear in real life, acting out their stories for her. She doesn’t even have to make anything up!

I have a theory that the reason writers are such egregious eavesdroppers (myself included) is from the idea, perpetuated by this movie, that life will present you with perfectly formed stories if you pay attention long enough. For Marjorie, not only do these stories appear in front of her, they have the added benefit of convincing her that they emerged from the deepest part of her soul.

“These stories will come straight out of me,” she confesses to Norton during an apology for yelling at him for inviting her on a picnic. “If I can’t write my honest thoughts and feelings, then I’m no author.”

(A neighbor once sued the real Rawlings for invasion of privacy after discovering she was included—real name and all--in the book Cross Creek. Rawlings lost the case and had to pay damages of $1. After that, she never wrote about Florida again.)

So keep eavesdropping. You never know when that bestseller will appear for your personal enrichment.

Lesson 4: If You’re Stuck, Drink More Moonshine.

To ease the strain of writing, Marjorie gets drunk. This is another thing I love about Cross Creek, the drinking. Boy, does Marjorie drink. She’s constantly swilling moonshine out of tin cups or glasses, and she does it with such ladylike precision that it’s riveting.

In movies, drinking always aids the completion of a manuscript, so Marjorie finishes her gothic romance and sends it out.

Now. I’m going to tell you a spoiler. Ready?

Max Perkins rejects the gothic romance.

I know. It’s quite a blow. He tells Marjorie that she should write about life, not English castles. In response, Marjorie goes on a bender.

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Here she is, drinking moonshine while wearing a nightgown. It’s raining and she’s upset. Wrapped in a bathrobe, she goes outside to wander around in the mud. Then she has an epiphany, complete with blasts of rain and swelling orchestration. Slowly, Marjorie turns back to the house, amazement on her face. She must write from life! She must write what she knows!

It’s a good thing all that liquor taught her to do that.

(The real Rawlings was an alcoholic who died at age 57.)

Lesson 5: If A Pig Tries To Distract You From Writing, Shoot It.

Now that Marjorie understands that she must write what she knows, she rushes back to her typewriter and starts Jacob’s Ladder. Flushed with inspiration and booze, she types and types. She won’t eat. She won’t change out of the nightgown. Geechee is worried she’s going insane, but Marjorie doesn’t care. She has a story to write.

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Finally, Marjorie takes a break from Jacob’s Ladder and stands up. She stretches and gulps down another glass of moonshine. Then she hears the neighbor’s pig outside. It was eating her flowers earlier in the movie and she didn’t like it. Now, wild-eyed with drink and creative inspiration, Marjorie grabs a gun, runs into the rain, and shoots the pig.

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Yes! This is the scene!

In 24 hours, Marjorie has had an epiphany, written a short story, drank more booze than an entire college fraternity, and still has enough energy left to kill an animal that’s annoying her. A pig cannot stop her. Nothing can stop her from writing morbid children’s stories. Feminism has barely caught on, and yet here is Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, writing from life, publishing stories, and living in a swamp with a gun and moonshine.

Like I said, Hemingway with breasts.

 


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