Views / In Focus

The struggle is real: The challenge of depicting a writer's process

Films like Genius and Paterson help to explain the job of making words come to life.

Sarah Paulson as Dorothy Olding and Nicholas Hoult as J.D. Salinger in Rebel in the Rye.

Alison Cohen Rosa / IFC Films

Sarah Paulson as Dorothy Olding and Nicholas Hoult as J.D. Salinger in Rebel in the Rye.

There’s a meme that occasionally pops up on my social media pages. It’s a picture of a person slumped over a typewriter, fists clenched, captioned with the words, “Writing is easy. You just sit at your typewriter until little drops of blood appear on your forehead.”

Anyone who has tried to put words on a page will understand the joke. Writing at a high level requires a combination of talent, study, life experience and dedication; a folio of concrete and ephemeral elements that can blend easily or remain frustratingly difficult to access, depending on the day.

The story of James Joyce’s exasperation while writing his modernist novel Ulysses perfectly illuminates the writer’s frustrating process. As the story goes, a friend dropped by Joyce’s home to find the author upset that after a full day of work he had only written seven words.

“Seven?” his friend says. “But James that’s good — for you, at least.”

“Yes,” Joyce says. “I suppose it is. I’m just not sure what order they go in!”

It should come as no surprise that writers love to write about writing. Screenwriters have tapped out thousands of pages in an effort to illuminate the mysterious process.

From biopics like The End of the Tour and Capote to dramas like Adaptation and Misery, movie after movie has focused on the various ways words make it to the page in the right order.

This weekend Rebel in the Rye is a glossy look at author J.D. Salinger’s unlikely journey from losing a girlfriend to Charlie Chaplin, to the Second World War, from eastern religion to writing the classic novel Catcher in the Rye.

Movies about writers often feature scenes of typewriters clacking, pages crumpled and thrown in the garbage as authors attempt to whip their manuscripts into something readable. Crumpled loose-leaf is a tangible sign of the work, but does little to explain the author’s thought process.

The movie Genius, starring Jude Law as author Thomas Wolfe, does a good job of showing the very lifeblood that flowed through his veins. The You Can’t Go Home Again author creates exciting wordplay that could be compared to the free-flowing fluidity of jazz.

To illustrate the difference between his work and the more staid style of his contemporary Henry James, he pays a jazz band to play a straightforward, traditional version of Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.

“That’s Henry James,” he says as the players plod along. But as the band heats up, splintering off into melodic tangents, he grins and says, describing himself, “That’s Thomas Wolfe.”

The process by which artists go about their work is near impossible to effectively capture on film, but this scene comes close to explaining what it feels like when the creative juices are racing.

Subtler is Paterson, a gentle look at the life of a poetry-writing Paterson, N.J., bus driver played by Adam Driver.

The poems aren’t for publication, simply a way to express his joy in the beauty and art of everyday life. When his dog eats his notebook he has to start again but learns the writer’s greatest lesson.

“Sometimes the empty page presents the most possibilities.” There is great uplift in those words. The blank page isn’t a hindrance to the work but a canvas on which to create something new. It’s the simplest and most beautiful expression of how art is made I’ve ever seen in a movie.

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