When I Say 'Writer,' What Do You See?

I watched "The Squid and the Whale" last week as I caught up on movies that I missed at the theater. The movie is disturbing, funny, and true to a specific Brooklyn community in the 1980s. But I couldn't help but feel a weary deja vu about the portrayal of writers in the movie. The writers are a married couple who are extremely dysfunctional in a familiar way. He's an arrogant professor with a scruffy beard who seduces his students. The wife's neglected and thus sleeps around. They let the kids drink beer. They live in New York. They're very bohemian. They're white.

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of this pop culture cliche when it comes to writers. We have more than enough movies that depict writers as brilliant but obnoxious, crazy, neurotic, addicted, philandering, self-destructing white men. Don't get me wrong, I love some of these movies ("Adaptation" and "Deconstructing Harry" are two of my favorites) but I want to see a movie that challenges the usual ideas of what it means to be a writer in the U.S. Many writers aren't dysfunctional (screen)writers like in "Leaving Las Vegas" or gentleman writers who drink cocktails and publish in The New Yorker magazine. That last example may be from a previous generation but it persists, if not on film, in our public imagination.

What about writers who are gay or black or expats? James Baldwin was all three. Or writers who write as single parents like Toni Morrison. Or who, like the poet Lucille Clifton, wrote while raising lots of kids? The movie "Author! Author!" from way back is one movie that dealt with this reality. By the way, is there a movie version of "Dust Tracks on the Road"? And if no, why not? Zora Neale Hurston's life was larger than life itself.

For movies that break out of the usual mode when it comes to writers, I recommend "American Splendor" and a documentary, "Born into This," about Charles Bukowski that I got from Netflix. Yeah, the writers are men with emotional issues and in Bukowski's case alcoholism. But both films made me think about what it means to be a working class American artist.

What movies with writers do you recommend?


  1. Excellent post, again! I would say that writers are not depicted onscreen in that way because a) there are few non white young male writers in Hollywood who are employed and b) there are few non white young male executives in Hollywood who would bankroll that type of movie. Hollywood would have to be one of the most narrow-minded industries, despite its supposed openly left political bent. The majority of people in Hollywood with clout are young white Jewish/WASP males...who claim to know what people in Iowa want to watch...without ever having been to Iowa.

  2. This is a very good blog, and you raise valid points, Mrs. Simms! There is definitely a stereotype today about American writers in particular that needs to be broken. I think the reason this exists is yes, as a result of our media, and also because there isn't a national appreciation for literature in general anymore. People rarely read these days; therefore a majority aren't interested in understanding the writing process and those behind it. Ironically, I think the solution is to change how we're portrayed in the media (which reaches nearly everyone). I agree; writers are highly individual though they're usually portrayed as dysfunctional. The same goes for the portrayal of artists in general! I plan to be part of the solution, since I will be pursuing film acting/making. I promise to make a good film about a writer one day, Mrs. Simms! :-]
    As far as film recommendations go...I suppose 'The Shining' wouldn't be the best choice! :-D Truthfully I recommend 'Il Postino' about Pablo Neruda and the DVD of 'The Belle of Amherst' about Emily Dickinson. :-)
    Until next time,
    Grace S.