Writing On Screen: Why Do Writing Students Love Such Terrible Mentors?

by Leah Schnelbach

My education in “how to be a writer” began when I was six, when my mom and I watched Romancing the Stone. Joan Wilder is a romance novelist with a stunning New York apartment, a close relationship with her editor, a terrible love life, and the financial stability to go on a trip to Central America on a few hours’ notice. At a key point in the narrative, her authorial fame saves her life (a ruthless dictator turns out to be a big fan of her work), and even her romantic troubles work themselves out in the end. In the course of the two-hour film, we see her actually writing for about one minute, as she finishes her latest Romance/Western hybrid. So, writers got well paid to do very little work and have crazy adventures? I had found my calling. All plans to be a veterinarian were suspended.

Hollywood loves making movies about writers — apparently there is nothing more cinematic than watching an unwashed nerd sit in front of a computer and think really hard.

I’ve since learned that the movie was a slight exaggeration of the writing lifestyle, but movies about writers have becomes a minor addiction. Lucky for me, Hollywood loves making movies about writers — apparently there is nothing more cinematic than watching an unwashed nerd sit in front of a computer and think really hard. I began noticing patterns: there’s addiction, or at least a compulsive component to the writer’s personality. Joan Wilder’s romantic tumult cuts across genre and era. And, of course, the requisite shitty mentor. Two of the best examples of the shitty mentor subgenre came out in 2000: Wonder Boys, based on Michael Chabon’s sophomore novel, and Finding Forrester, Gus Van Sant’s follow-up to Good Will Hunting. Let’s examine them more closely.

The Mentors

The two films feature two different types of writers who have one thing in common: they each found great success with a debut novel, and then stopped publishing fiction. Wonder Boys’ Grady Tripp released The Arsonist’s Daughter as a young-ish man, won a PEN Award (he doesn’t specify which one) and then began teaching undergrad creative writing in Pittsburgh. He has been working on his follow-up for seven years; it currently clocks in at 2,611 pages. There is no end in sight. The William Forrester of Finding Forrester published Avalon Landing, also as a young man, won a Pulitzer, and then retreated to his family’s Bronx apartment. An occasional New Yorker article would appear, but Forrester spent most of his time writing and filing decades of work with no intention of releasing it to the public. As his cult grew, he retreated further, and now receives mail and royalties to an assumed name, and has his groceries delivered by a man who doesn’t know his true identity. Both these writers have their usual routines interrupted by one special male student.

The Students

Wonder Boys gave us one of the greatest fictional workshop members ever in James Leer: frail, sensitive, faking a working-class Catholicism that he feels reflects his interior life better than his actual upper-class WASP background, keeping a tight lid on his feelings until he suddenly doesn’t. You don’t need to worry about him talking during critique, cause he’s too busy feeling to fight back. He might be genuinely suicidal, but he might also think that he’s supposed to feel suicidal. Meanwhile, in Finding Forrester, Jamal Wallace writes constantly, but pursues basketball as a more viable way out of his impoverished Bronx neighborhood. He wins a scholarship to a prep school, does well on their team, keeps his mouth shut when his teachers are condescending (and borderline-racist) and only really comes to life when he’s writing with Forrester.

The Drama

James Leer is already one of Grady’s two-star students, but over the course of WordFest, the two become entangled much more intimately. While Grady at first takes James under his wing because the young man seems depressed, he ends up taunting him and introducing him to his editor, Terry Crabtree, who becomes James’ seemingly first sexual partner. He’s introduced to recreational codeine, weed, whiskey, and sex, all in the course of two days, and all the experiences are direct results of Grady’s influence. Along the way, Professor Tripp reads James’ manuscript, The Love Parade, but there isn’t much discussion of writing. Nevertheless, as James is being loaded into a squad car to face justice for the murder of the English Department chair’s dog (long story) he looks up at Grady and says, “Even if I end up going to jail…you’re still the best teacher I ever had.”

Jamal and Forrester have a much more stolid relationship. Jamal goes to Forrester’s house, and they type together. Personal questions are scorned while philosophical ones are encouraged, and by the end of the film, Jamal has only learned one story about Forrester’s life (albeit a pivotal one) and Forrester knows nothing about Jamal that isn’t in his writing. Even so, there is precious little writing instruction happening. Forrester encourages his protégé by telling him that women will sleep with him even if he writes a bad book, telling him to “punch the keys, for God’s sake!” when teaching him to type, and, when his typing is sufficient, commending him with the odd benediction: “You’re the man now, dog!” Jamal wants to know how to make a life as a writer, but Forrester’s advice was out of date even in 2000 — the older man can hate readings as much as he wants to, but the kid’s still going to have to do them. Forrester’s creepy rivalry with Jamal’s Professor Crawford nearly leads to Jamal’s expulsion, but this plotline ties up neatly when Forrester comes out of his solitude to defend Jamal’s reputation. It seems the older man’s love for life has been re-ignited by Jamal’s friendship.

Just Because We Can Teach Writing Doesn’t Mean We Should

Now, here’s the question: why do we keep telling this story of a young writer seeking the approval of an older writer, when the writers themselves make such shitty role models? It could be that the younger writers crave something like an apprenticeship — but neither of these films give any sense of writing as a craft that can be learned that way. Forrester’s notes are subjective (just what constitutes “constipated thinking” anyway? How does one measure that?) and Grady Tripp, tenured writing professor, actually says, “Nobody teaches a writer anything. You tell ’em what you know. You tell ’em to find their voice and stay with it.” So, is it just that the younger writers feel that the approval of their elders gives them legitimacy? Or even more primal than that, if an older, more established writer inducts us into the club, will that make us feel like real writers?

When young writers go to the trouble of inventing intense relationships between teacher and student, why do they go to such lengths to frame it as an initiation into addiction and loneliness?

The endings of both films suggest as much. In Wonder Boys, the sale of James Leer’s debut novel is cheered by all of WordFest after Grady yells at him to take a bow, and Finding Forrester ends with Forrester reading Jamal’s essay to the applause of the entire student body and staff of the school (except for evil F. Murray Abraham). When young writers go to the trouble of inventing intense relationships between teacher and student, why do they go to such lengths to frame it as an initiation into addiction and loneliness? The trouble with writing mentors is that writers have to be wrecks to live up to one romantic ideal, and dependable parent figures to live up to mentor ideal.

Writing is unique among the arts in that really, anyone can write. You don’t need special shoes or expensive paints or camera equipment, and you don’t need special training. Some people in the literary community feel that pursuing higher education in writing is detrimental to a young writer’s talent. Could this, then, explain the trend toward shitty writing mentors? Whereas dancers and classical musicians get movies that revolve around auditions for prestigious programs, and fictional young rock stars have to get ready for endless battles of the bands, writers have to be alone to practice their craft. And yet, you can’t just film somebody typing and deleting things for two hours. In Wonder Boys and Finding Forrester, the filmmakers have found a way around this by creating a counterpoint between young idealist writer and established novelist. In both of these films, the young writer is able to enact an apprenticeship, so the audience is reassured that the young writer is worth their time, and the younger writer is instructed in the writer’s life from an older figure, safely away from the rigid structure of school.

…you can’t just film somebody typing and deleting things for two hours.

But, in the next turn of the screw — the public image of the writer is one of endless debauchery, drinking problems, deadline problems, and fuming ex-wives. Naturally it becomes much more interesting for a filmmaker to watch as the young writer is instructed in the writer’s lifestyle than in the painstaking craft itself. And the films can serve many needs simultaneously: depending on their life situation, a younger writer can applaud themselves for being far less alcoholic/misogynist/screwed up in general than the fictional shitty mentor, or, if they’re having a bad week, can take a sort of grandiose comfort in being part of the club. An older writer, especially if they’ve ever taught, can find a safe fictional space to laugh at their students.

These two films also provide a particular brand of comfort to older people. In both, rather than being supplanted by their younger rivals, the older mentor is able to shepherd his protégé onto the literary stage, thus attaching their own names to the up-and-comers work. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that Michael Douglas and Sean Connery are playing older white writers, each accepted members of their film’s canon, who are supporting the work of a young queer writer, and a young African-American writer, respectively. These two men who might otherwise be marginalized are initiated into the literary life by straight white men who can both vouch for their acceptability and bask in their reflected glory. In both of these films, we only experience their writing when an older mentor reads a snippet aloud. Their voices are filtered through their mentors, mediated by the established men, rather than standing on their own merit. Both films end not with the young men’s debut novels, but with images of the mentors’ long-delayed, finally completed second books, because in the mark of a truly shitty mentor, neither of them are able to cede the literary stage to their students.

Can this apprenticeship model be changed? I hope that in the future novice writers in film can find better mentors…or at least that the subgenre of the shitty role model can look beyond the straight white men who have had a stranglehold on guidance. Can we get a thinly-veiled James Baldwin, please? Maybe a Dorothy Parker rip-off can take a precocious young woman under her wing? If we must have shitty mentors, we should at least demand a variety of shitty mentors.

Originally published at electricliterature.com on October 9, 2015.

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