Monday, October 23, 2017

The One Thing Every Fiction Writer Needs

Keri Russell as Jenna in "Waitress" movie written by Adrienne Shelly

"The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say." - Anais Nin

It amazes me how some writers are able to muster up the courage to write about troubling and controversial feelings that most people won't even admit to, much less write about. Sometimes I'll read a writer's story and wonder: What did her mom think (and say to her) after she read this? I have definitely written my novels and stories from my heart, but I know that I haven't written entirely from my mind. I don't write everything I'm thinking, and I hold back for fear of what others will think about me after they've read me.

When I saw the movie "Waitress," I was blown away by how deep and honest the dialogue was. The screenplay was written by Adrienne Shelly who also directed and acted in the film. Tragically, she was murdered at the age of forty shortly before the film was released. The film is about a young woman's feelings about her unborn baby while pregnant. Shelly was also a mom whose young daughter was only two and a half years old at the time of her death.

Jenna is the lead character in "Waitress," and she is a compulsive baker of delicious pies. I use the term "compulsive" because she can't stop herself from baking them whenever she needs to release her emotions. She names the pies according to what she's feeling while she bakes. One pie is named "Baby Screaming Its Head Off in the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie" which is a good example of the unsettling feelings she's having during her pregnancy.

Jenna isn't happy about being pregnant at all, and she definitively says so to anyone who asks. But she feels a sense of obligation to have her baby. When her doctor tries to assure her not to be nervous during her first sonogram because it is normal to be nervous, she surprises him by telling him that she isn't nervous about her baby at all. Noticing how unenthusiastic Jenna is about her pregnancy, one of her friends gives her a notebook to write letters to her unborn baby, hoping this will summon up some feelings of warmth in Jenna. These letters are read throughout the movie, but instead of helping Jenna feel more bonded to her unborn child, she writes letters telling her baby how much she resents her. Later, when she has to pay for the crib, she writes the baby a letter telling her that the money she spent on her crib was supposed to be her money to get out of town and start a new life. She writes that now every time she puts her baby down in her crib, she's going to blame her for the fact that she had to pay for this crib and, in turn, couldn't start a new life. Once her baby is born though, Jenna immediately falls in love with her.  Shelly poured her entire heart out in the screenplay, and if any of these feelings and thoughts were actually Shelly's during her own pregnancy, it took an amazing amount of courage and self-examination to write these down for the script.

Amy Koppelman - writer of novel "I Smile Back"-  and Sarah Silverman who starred as "Laney" in the movie

Another writer who is incredibly brave is Amy Koppelman. In her novel, "I Smile Back," she writes about a wealthy mother who feels so much pressure to lead the perfect life of a suburban mom that it causes her to break down and secretly live recklessly by using drugs and having sex with strangers. Again, not autobiographical, but it was written as an exaggeration to show how a woman often struggles trying to live life in the role of a happy and well-adjusted suburban mom. Koppelman, who is also a suburban mom, has stated in interviews that all of her novels contain at least something of herself and her life. Koppleman's book takes courage to have out there because no writer would want anyone to believe that the things Laney does and says are in any way autobiographical. Readers often believe that at least SOME of a novelist's protagonist's thoughts and actions come directly from the writer's own psyche and experiences. It took a lot of courage to write so uninhibited and to take the chance that anyone would think Koppelman felt Laney's feelings or worse did the things she does in "I Smile Back." There is one scene where she masturbates with her son's stuffed animal and another where she tells a stranger she just met in a bar to lick her ass during a sexual encounter. Laney acts out due to fear and depression which is explained in much of the dialogue in the movie: "I just don’t understand why anyone bothers to love anything at all. I mean by the time you’re three you’ve pretty much figured out that everything you love is going to be taken away." Laney doesn't see the point of being happy when there is so much misery in this world.

Quote re having a child said by Sarah Silverman starring as Laney in "I Smile Back" movie based on the novel by Amy Koppelman 

I feel that both Shelly and Koppelman have successfully and commendably completed works with a no-holds-barred approach. They have dug deep inside their souls and wrote about the feelings that all of us women have lurking somewhere inside but would never have the courage to admit, much less write about.  Again, not everything a fiction writer's protagonist says should be deemed autobiographical, but we do know that many literary giants have admitted to basing their novels' protagonists on themselves and that events in their plot lines were often true events.

I still have yet to conquer this fear of what others will think about me when they read my writing. This is a hurdle that every fiction writer needs to overcome in order to be truly great. Of course, the best way to write is as if nobody will ever read it, and then, once it's done, just release it and throw caution to the wind! We have to become fearless in writing, same as we need to take chances in all other facets of our lives. For women, this often gets easier with age. Most of us can only become truly radical once we are older. We have to risk being not liked. We have to risk not being dutiful and good. We have to deal with the verbal onslaught and mistrust that will ensue once we have gotten our writing out there. It's not the end of the world. I guess that's the only way to be brave enough to write EXACTLY what we are feeling and thinking and to never hold back in writing ever again. To realize that whatever happens after we've released our writing to the public, it will never be the end of the world.

Adrienne Shelly