Movies about writing often slather too much Hollywood sizzle onto the process to dress it up for the silver screen. The end result is far-removed from the everyday nuts and bolts of pounding away at the keyboard. But one of the movies that gets it right—as unlikely as this may seem at first—is Throw Momma from the Train.
The movie has a number of it’s-funny-because-it’s-painfully-true moments that capture a writer’s life. There’s the hilarious writing class, where Billy Crystal’s character has to listen to the stilted work of student writers. Be honest: if you went back and read your first stories, they wouldn’t be that far removed from the clunkfest delivered by the mistakenly self-assured woman reading from her novel. We’ve all been there.
But the scene that I always mention as the most realistic depiction of a writer in the history of cinema is during the opening credits when Crystal sits down at his typewriter (yes, it was that long ago) and tries to write. He fidgets. He shoots baskets with wads of paper. He gets a cup of tea. He gets a shot to add to his tea. He cleans his desk. He stretches tape across his face, becoming the “phantom of the novel.” In short, everything but actually hitting those keys. We’ve all been there, part two.
My second favorite true fictional scene is from a different venue, and it’s not about a writer, but it still ties in nicely. On the sitcom Mad About You, Paul Reiser plays a filmmaker. While researching a documentary, he has to watch some classic comedians. His wife, played by Helen Hunt, is increasingly annoyed by his laughter and does not respond well to being told that he’s working.
Similarly, any how-to on writing will emphasize the need of a writer to read, but how many people think of it as work when a writer is curled up on the couch reading a new sci-fi novel? If some sort of repair guy is reading manuals or a painter is researching new techniques, I think most people recognize that as part of their trade, but not so much when a writer is reading a novel. Like when a filmmaker is watching a movie.
I do think it’s hard for people on the outside to recognize writing as actual work. It involves too much sitting. And the truth of it is—although the Crystal character was having bad writer’s block during that opening scene—even sitting at the keyboard not typing can be a part of the process, a priming of the pump. So pass me the tape, I’ve got work to do.