This is a brief summary of my speech at this year’s Night of Writing Dangerously (also known as the best writing party on the planet).
I spoke at the Frankfurt Book Fair earlier this year. The theme of the event was “The Heroes of Storytelling.” Naturally my heroes of storytelling are authors, but I began to think about how authors are portrayed in books and films, and, well, they don’t fare too well. They certainly aren’t heroic, or at least not in the terms of the transcendent heroism of characters in many stories.
Here are some images I collected of different writer stereotypes from films.
The joy of creativity glimmers in this author’s eyes, right? This image of John Turturro from Barton Fink is a portrait of the three “A’s” of a writer’s life: alienation, anxiousness, and awkwardness. I’d like to invite this man to NaNoWriMo write-in and give him a big hug. I’d like to tell him, “There’s no need to be afraid. You are a creator.”
No, this is not a NaNo writer anguishing in the swampland of week two. It’s Emma Thompson in Stranger than Fiction, demonstrating ye olde writer’s block. I want to tell Emma to practice a little “writing with abandon.” Empty your ashtray, change out of your pajamas, and have some fun.
This is Nicholas Cage from the film Adaptation. What I like about this scene is how it looks like he’s been in a wrestling match with the book Story—a how-to write book—and the book won. It pinned him. Many a how-to-write book has pinned me. I recommend a good dose of “exuberant imperfection” to this writer.
And then, oh my, there’s Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend. The alcoholic writer staring into the darkest of dark nights. The bottle as forgotten inspiration, found desperation. Portrait of an author as a drunk.
It’s not that these images are inaccurate. Authors themselves wrote these characters, after all. Writing holds struggle, persistence against the forces of critics, internal and external. If you come over to my house on any weekend, you’ll probably see a variation of these authorial states (although hopefully not the one from The Lost Weekend, or if so, at least with more moderation).
But I think of the author as a heroic figure–a figure of verve, moxie, derring-do. So I sought a different image of the author, and here’s what I came up with.
This is Philip Petit, who walked on a high wire across the Twin Towers in 1974. The documentary about him, Man on a Wire, won an Oscar a while back, and he just wrote Creativity: The Perfect Crime.
So why is this my image of the writer as hero? I’ve got ten, but I’ll give you three:
No. 1: This was an act he had to do. He was sitting in a waiting room at the dentist’s in 1968 and read about the Twin Towers being built, and he obsessed about walking on a high wire between the towers. The urge was so overpowering that if he didn’t do this, he would have felt a hole in his life forever. When asked why he did it, Petit said, “There is no why. Isn’t the joy, the beauty, the sheer magnificence enough of a reason?” I feel the same urgent need to write. There is no why other than my life would suffer tremendously without writing, and I know many NaNo writers feel the same.
No. 2: He didn’t do this alone. It looks like he’s on the wire alone, but he actually had a whole support team. They helped him plan this for years, mulling over blueprints and even taking field trips to New York City. They helped him practice. When he walked on the tight rope strung up in a French prairie, they’d yank it back and forth to replicate gusty conditions at that height. And then they helped him sneak in all of this heavy equipment and actually string the wire between the towers (not an easy thing to do). But most of all they were there when he took that first step, 1,350 feet above the ground. That’s the third reason he’s a hero.
No. 3: He embraced vulnerability. He said, “If I die, what a beautiful death!–To die in the exercise of your passion.” To be a writer doesn’t risk death in quite the same way, but to decide to be a writer is a clinch with vulnerability. To tell the world you’re a writer magnifies that vulnerability because you invite naysayers in. And then to do something crazy like write a novel in a month, you’re testing your grit, your time management, your resilience, your resolve to do something big. You might fail, but that’s the definition of vulnerability, risking failure.
To be vulnerable is important. Only by embracing vulnerability do we connect with others. Being vulnerable makes life meaningful because by being vulnerable, we’re giving our souls, our challenges, our imperfections to others. We’re giving the truth of who we are. That’s what we need to aspire to as writers. Being vulnerable in our prose helps forge connections with readers; being vulnerable opens up new worlds.
I used to make New Year’s resolutions, but I could stand seeing “Do yoga” on my list only for so many years. I decided to change my approach. For the last three years, I’ve just focused on an invitation: “Invite more opportunities for embarrassment into my life.” In other words, I decided to risk vulnerability.
I’ve always wanted to tap dance. But I’ve never taken a lesson, never watched a how-to video. I thought it would be transformative to tap dance in front of 250 people at the Night of Writing Dangerously. I couldn’t do it alone, though, so I invited volunteers up on stage. People filled the stage–with gusto! And we tap danced, very appropriately, to Fatboy Slim’s “Because We Can” from Moulin Rouge.
“You are untying yourself from the tangible and becoming half a bird,” Petit said of his venture on the tight rope. I felt the same way when I became a tap dancer last Sunday night.
I now want the world to tap dance with me over and over again. I want to tap dance for infinity.