Thoughts on Box Office Poison

Image by Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay

In trying to understand the role of research in creative writing, I’ve taken something of a detour into research on creative writing pedagogy and the history of English as an academic subject. This information is helping me understand the larger context of how creative writing is taught and why conversations about the role of research may not be part of those teachings.

Anyway, one of the first books I found on the subject was Can It Really Be Taught?: Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy, a collection of critical essays edited by Kelly Ritter and Stephanie Vanderslice that was published in 2007. A lot of the essays, particularly ones that come early in the book, are fascinating explorations of why creative writing is taught the way it is and why, in the authors’ opinions, that needs to change. It reminded me a lot of conversations I’ve seen in the library and information science field about how information literacy is taught.

Toward the back of the book is an essay by Wendy Bishop (to whom the book is also dedicated) and Stephen Armstrong called “Box Office Poison: The Influence of Writers in Film on Writers (in Graduate Programs)” which, as the title suggests, is an analysis of how the act of writing is portrayed in cinema.

Or, more accurately, how it is not portrayed.

Bishop and Armstrong point out that writers in film are rarely if ever shown writing. This is because there’s no real action in writing. It’s just a person sitting somewhere with their hand moving across the page or their fingers tapping on a keyboard. To make writing at all cinematic, you have to resort to tricks like adding voiceover narration so the audience can be privy to what the writer is actually thinking or writing. The two examples of this that immediately spring to my mind are Christian in Moulin Rouge and Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys, who both write/narrate the story as the audience watches it happen.

So if writers in movies don’t write, what do they do? In the case of Grady Tripp, he teaches but mostly he goes through the experiences that he eventually writes about and turns into his new book. It’s common to show writers having adventures that then feed their creative work, reflecting the common advice in how-to books about collecting life experiences to use as creative fodder.

But, as Bishop and Armstrong points out, what writers are most often shown doing instead of writing is…researching.

Now, they are mostly talking about writer characters who are more like journalists than creative writers. Characters like the reporter in Citizen Kane who interviews people and visits an archive as part of an investigation into the mysterious “Rosebud.” Or like Will from Almost Famous, who goes on an adventure but also spends a lot of time holding up a microphone as he interviews his rock idols for an article that will appear in Rolling Stone. But the list of movies Bishop and Armstrong analyzed for their research includes many examples of writer characters who are novelists and poets, so it seems safe to assume that they are included in that conclusion.

So in movies, writers don’t write but they do conduct research of one type or another. It’s shown as a necessary part of the process. This is a huge contrast to what’s in how-to books about creative writing (though probably not journalism) in which writers only write and doing anything else besides putting words on the page or at least sitting in a chair with the intention of putting words on a page is basically treated as a form of creative truancy.

Of course, just because movies show writers doing research doesn’t mean that they somehow avoid the idea that the writer is a divinely inspired genius. There is no doubt that movies both reflect and feed into this myth. In fact, Bishop and Armstrong’s analysis shows that more often than not male writers are portrayed as macho heroes, beautiful losers, or WASP geniuses.(1) For example, Grady Tripp in Wonderboys at one points defends his creative genius by making a big deal about how he wrote his most famous work under the influence of pot.(2)

Still, the fact that research is shown as being part of the process at all when it is so rarely talked about in books about writing seems significant. Movies show that research is part of a writer’s life but writers don’t necessarily show that it is part of the creative process.

Bishop and Armstrong have a lot of interesting things to say about the influence that popular images of writers have on writers themselves. They almost ruin it near the end by suggesting that part of the reason literary writers are so seldom portrayed in movies is because they have been gifted with special powers that allow them to transcend normalcy in a way that might alienate the average viewer. It could be that they mean this at least somewhat ironically, but they suggest that a literary writer is the type of writer that writers in writing programs all want to be. Which I suppose must be true because these programs don’t really seem interested in serving those who might want to become other types of writers.(3)

But as problematic and inauthentic as depictions of writers are, at least they show that research is part of the process. I’m going to count that as a win.


(1) Meanwhile, female writers are either “cute nuisances” or sheep in wolf’s clothing. WTF

(2) This comes in a scene where a student tells him he spends too much time in the draft of his new novel describing the genealogies of the characters’ horses, probably as the result of being too high to make good decisions about what information belongs in the narrative and what can be left on the cutting room floor. He is never shown doing any actual research on horses. The viewer might infer that some of his knowledge might have come from his ex-wife, who is never shown on screen but seems to have ribbons and trophies for horse riding in her childhood bedroom. But the pot line makes it seem more like we’re supposed to believe that he pulled it out of thin, smoke-filled air. (And yes, I have seen Wonderboys many, many times.)

(3) Unrelated: There are a lot of unrealistic things going on in Jane the Virgin, but probably the most unrealistic thing of all is that her thesis for her creative writing graduate program is a romance novel. Honestly, I have no direct experience with this but it seems unlikely she would have even gotten into a program like that by identifying herself as a romance novelist.

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