By Elise Blackwell
Writers are overrepresented in popular culture, which makes sense. Novels and screenplays are, after all, written by writers, and writers are just as prone to self-interestedness as everyone else. The fictional writers in books and movies reveal several stereotypes about writers, the most extreme animating the Jack Nicholson character in The Shining.
Looking at a curious subset of this phenomenon—movies featuring creative writing professors as characters—reveals stereotypes of academy-based writers. In movies as different Husbands and Wives, The Wonder Boys, The Squid and the Whale, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Music & Lyrics, and Throw Mama From the Train, creative writing professors are men. They suffer from a variety of creative ailments (usually both writer’s block and professional jealousy) and personal problems (usually both disintegrated marriages and overuse of alcohol).
In the remake of D.O.A. starring Dennis Quaid, one creative writing professor is deranged enough by his life station to kill another. And in most of these films, the writing professors are portrayed as arrogant and selfish. Most are adulterous, and many are either sleeping with (or sorely tempted to sleep with) one or several of their students. They are generally disliked by their children, if they have them, and despised by their long-suffering and often more successful wives. They have no qualms about using the personal lives of their family members, lovers, and friends in their work. They tend to have little respect for editors, college administrators, and most of their colleagues. They don’t seem to spend much time in the classroom—much less reading student work, which is how most of our days are spent.
Often these characters lose their marriages, but mostly they get away with their bad behavior because they are geniuses, at least minor ones. Their editors and deans may not be happy the writer is taking almost a decade to write another book, but they figure it will be brilliant when it finally is published. If writers teach their classes hung over, well, the students are lucky just to be in the same room with them. After all, creative people—moody writers in particular—are different from the rest of us and must be indulged.
Of course there’s often partial truth underlying professional stereotypes. Graham Greene confessed for many writers when he admitted that he was tempted to take notes while eavesdropping on a mother weeping at the bed of her dying son. An attractive female friend who attended an M.F.A. program in the 1980s said it was so populated by satyrs that is was more like attending a Tailhook convention than a graduate program. Certainly writers are no less prone than the general population to divorce, alcoholism, sexual temptation, manic depression, and coveting the accolades received by others.
Here is where I declare that I enjoyed and continue to admire most of the movies I’ve mentioned. Several of them are good fun, and a couple of them are genuinely fine films that illuminate human behavior if not my profession. For the record, though, these films don’t accurately portray the lives of the vast majority of creative-writing professors. Most of us are simply too busy to spend that much time drinking and philandering, even if we were inclined to. About half of us are women, and many of us have never suffered writer’s block and view it as a luxury. Most of us are happy to see good books written by other people garner attention, and almost all of us take our professional relationships with colleagues and students seriously.
Perhaps my favorite film portrayal of a creative writing instructor is the Billy Crystal character in Throw Mama From the Train. True to stereotype, he’s a man who suffers writer’s block, in this case brought on in part by the staggering success of his plagiarizing ex-wife’s novel. But unlike the characters who generally populate these movies, he actually seems to spend a lot of time reading and responding to student work—often with remarkable good will. Or maybe I just like this flick because the writing teacher triumphs in the end, publishing a good new novel and living happily ever after.
The author of four novels, Elise Blackwell directs the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of South Carolina.