Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Anti-Diva

I watch a lot of movies, and I've got a question about something I see all the time. I'll be watching along, enjoying myself, until a certain kind of character shows up. This person has bad hair and dresses one step above homeless. They're socially maladjusted and sexually frustrated. They're sarcastic, smart and bitter, and probably addicted to some non-glamorous drug like nasal spray or Chapstick. The odds they suffer from a nervous GI disorder—usually IBS—are good enough that no sane man should take that bet.

I start cringing right away. "Wait for it, wait for it," I'm thinking, and then someone onscreen asks this character, "So what do you do?"

And this poor sucker answers, "I'm a writer." And the audience nods knowingly, chuckles and "gets it." Of course they're a writer.

I was complaining about this not too long ago, and my son made an observation. "Uh, yeah, but Dad, a writer wrote this movie. So why do writers always portray themselves as losers?"

Indeed. Who else gets to control their image so completely? Athletes, politicians, movie stars ... none of them get to control what gets said about them. We writers literally control the levers of our whole culture. There's an entire industry of public relations people dedicated to influencing what writers say and think. So when it comes to writing about ourselves, you'd think that all fictional writers would all be taut, fresh-faced, nubile, morally flawless, and dentally perfect geniuses. Instead, we get Charlie Kaufmann and Liz Lemon.

So I'm curious: Why do writers always portray themselves as the kind of schlub you warn your kids away from?


Mark Terry said...

The flip answer is: because they're accurate.

But probably not. Yes, probably my favorite movie about authors is Wonder Boys, and I definitely see the central theme as people whose writing and imagination influences their lives too much (or what in the book is called The Midnight Disease).

I actually see that as more accurate than the writer in Finding Forrester, the sort of noble and heroic hermetic figure.

Although its portrait of the publishing industry is totally wonky, in Cheaper By The Dozen she's at least portrayed as a fairly normal person with a more hectic than usual life.

I've often thought the portrait of the novelist that's most accurate was in She's Having A Baby, where Kevin Bacon's got a full-time job, a wife, eventually a kid, and although his imagination runs away from him from time to time, and he's pretty constantly being told by people to give up his dream of being a novelist and there are pressures on him to be like everyone else, he somehow muddles through, balancing the creative impulse with real life.

LurkerMonkey said...

You know, I've never actually seen Wonder Boys. I should get on that. I hear lots of writerly types like it.

Natasha Fondren said...

I loved Finding Forrester!

I dunno. We're addicted to being honest, and this is a generalization, but a lot of artists, both visual and writers, find human flaws more beautiful than perfection. I guess in stories you hear about artists who get inspired by this beautiful, perfect muse, but the artist friends I've had got sick of drawing perfect bodies and much preferred someone not perfect.

Besides. Bad hair: check. Dresses, er, you know: check. Socially maladjusted: well, not exactly socially brilliant. Sexually frustrated: well, Glenn's gone for 7 months out of the year. Sarcastic and bitter: NO! I'm NOT! Smart? Most of the time, except when my memory fails. I'm OCD, ADD, and afraid of the phone. For crying out loud, I even have four cats.

I guess I can see the appeal of writing myself a happy ending. :-)

LurkerMonkey said...



As for me, addicted to lip balm ... yep.

Erica Orloff said...

First of all . . . run, don't walk, to see WONDER BOYS. You will adore it. Promise. In my top-10.

Second . . . I think most writers see themselves as misfits in some ways. Struggling to balance earning a living and being part of the real world with preferring to hole up in an office with fake people all day. I can tell you that (and you know me in real life) sometimes I can put on a good show of freshly showered, house in order, red wine on the table with snacks (ahhhh, the old days of Writers' Cramp, sniff, sniff). But catch me on a different day and under deadline and I am unshowered, full-on bedhead, house a shambles, child eating cereal out of box while sitting naked watching Sponge Bob . . . and the snapshot ain't much better than what's depicted in the movies.

LurkerMonkey said...


Yeah, I wish it weren't true, but ... I'm sitting at my computer with total bedhead, a sweatshirt pulled up over the lower half of my face, my lips horribly chapped and wearing dirty socks from the fire we built last night. Damn.

Melanie Avila said...

Well I am addicted to lip balm, but beyond that, those portrayals are not me at all!

Jude Hardin said...

Chapstick sucks. Carmex, baby. Carmex.

LurkerMonkey said...


You're nominated: give us a writer character who can save our reputations!

LurkerMonkey said...


I like the Carmex ... but for that taste. I consider myself an expert on lip balm, and I still go back to the reliable black Chapstick. But I'm a Tabasco guy, too, so I guess that makes me a traditionalist.

Allen said...

The reason we portray ourselves that way? Because it is more interesting and colorful than a guy in his BVD's sitting at a computer with a cup of coffee pounding away on a keyboard. There is an adventure built into that description. There is a back story that people will write about the disheveled guy that real writers want but don't have. This is our James Bond.

(sorry so late with the comment.)

LurkerMonkey said...

Ha ha! I love that (and might steal it someday): This is our James Bond.