I love films about writers. A good indie movie, The Magic of Belle Isle, is directed by Rob Reiner and stars Morgan Freeman as a writer who has stopped writing. Freeman’s character, an award-winning Western writer named Monte, tells his nephew, “Drinking is my full-time job now, and I can’t work two jobs.”
I like films where a hollowed-out character regains his voice from unexpected sources. In this case, it begins with a 9-year-old girl named Finn who yearns to write. She is the daughter of a single mom who lives in the house adjacent to Monte’s. Finn finds out he is a writer, and she stops by to ask Monte to teach her to create stories. By helping a child discover her inspiration, Monte gradually rekindles his own, which serves to remind me that inspiration cannot be forced. It’s intrinsic.
This movie tie-in serves as my intro to what writers need to know.
Incorporate your own life experiences.
This is not the same as the old “write what you know” cliche. We write to deepen what we already know, yet discover new knowledge as well. Monte tells Finn to “tell me a story and make me interested.” He instructs her to look outside and tell him a story of what she sees.
“I don’t see anything,” she says. “Keep looking,” Monte replies. “What don’t you see? See with your mind’s eye. Look for what you don’t see.” Finn looks again, and narrates an imaginary tale of intrigue, but uses details she knows from the island.
Writing takes us outside ourselves
Monte has spent most of his adult life in a wheelchair after a car accident. He tells Finn, “All the things I couldn’t do in the real world, Jubal let me do on the page.”
National Novel Writing Month is coming up, where the goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I’ve done this several times, and the “books” I created were all terrible. Only one, a mere skeleton of a tale, is salvageable. But the real writing is not the rough draft; it’s the slowly reassembled revisions.
In the film, Finn wonders why Monte uses a typewriter rather than a computer.
“I like that you write a bit slower,” he says. “I like that letters bite into the paper.”
Writers must connect to their work
At dinner one evening with Finn’s family, Monte narrates a treacherous event about his recurring character, Jubal McClaws, to the girls. As he describes a part that might give Finn’s 7-year-old sister Flora nightmares, their mother interjects, “Remember, it’s just a story. It didn’t really happen.”
“It happened to Jubal,” Monte says
My friends and family know better than to talk badly about my characters because my imaginary friends are real.
The subject finds you
Finn has fallen in love with Jubal McClaws, and she gets angry at Monte when he writes new stories about an elephant named Tony and a family of mice for her younger sister instead of penning another Jubal McClaws tale.
“But Jubal hasn’t come calling in years,” Monte tells Finn.
We can’t force inspiration. If the writing is true, and yes, fiction is true, the story comes from a real place inside the writer. Our characters are real. What I believed to be a stand-alone novel in Breakfast With Neruda has become four-part trilogy (math is not my forte) because Michael, Shelly and other characters came calling.
Use the right words
In a scene in Belle Island, Finn parrots something offensive Monte had said. Her mother admonishes by requiring the girl to learn three new words — her own words to be her inspiration. It sounds like a punishment of sorts, but to writers, it’s a gift. The dictionary is one of your best friends.
Read work out loud
The girls’ mother, Cassie O’Neil, with whom Monte harbors a secret crush, reads the Tony stories out loud to Flora, and later to herself. As she reads, she hears Monte’s voice.
Stories originated in the oral tradition, written work is relatively recent, and all writing has a cadence. Reading one’s work out loud allows a writer to see where syntax might drag, or lines of poetry need to be broken. If you hate the sound of your own voice, try the Speak Mode in Word.
Freeman’s character is in a wheelchair, and ironically he tells Finn, “Writing gives you legs.”
Revision is part of the writing process, and it’s never too late to revise a work
When Finn tells Monte she bought an old copy of his most celebrated book, but the last page is missing, he says, “You didn’t miss much. I always meant to change that anyway.”
I’m converting my first novel into a series of screenplays for television. It’s chance to make my work deeper, better. Fixing things that never sat well for me.
Don’t write in order to buy a house with a pool
Most writers will never own a house with a pool, but that doesn’t stop me from imagining myself sitting poolside, sipping a glass of Prosecco, deciding on what dress to wear for my appearance as an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for my film starring Meryl Streep Harrison Ford….but I digress..
Don’t give up
In Belle Isle, Morgan Freeman’s Monte believes his writing career is over, and Virginia Madsen’s Cassie O’Neil has given up on love. There are no guarantees, but the journey may be worth it.
Writing is a gift, unwrap it wisely.
— By Laura Moe
Laura Moe is the author of three novels and is board president of EPIC Group Writers. See EPIC’s events page for upcoming workshops. She is currently letting the draft of her fourth novel rest as she tackles screen craft.