A Writer's World

A Column by Molly Moynahan

Look Inward, Writer

Genius is a film about Maxwell Perkins editing Thomas Wolfe at Scribner when Wolfe wrote Look Homeward, Angel, a novel I read in college under the influence of first love. I recall liking and hating it in equal measure.

Wolfe died at 38 and like Perkin’s other authors, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, was a prodigious drinker. He also wrote everything long hand in pencil and was rumored to write standing up sometimes using the top of a refrigerator as a desk. The unedited manuscript ran to one thousand plus pages. One thousand penciled pages. No wonder everyone drank so much back then.

I liked the movie although many critics found Colin Firth unconvincing and Jude Law dull.  Ironically, a film about American writers and editors starred British actors and an Australian portraying a depressed F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Still, it was better than most movies depicting writers, which tend towards ridiculous gestures such as Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in Julia flinging a perfectly good typewriter out a window. I found that gesture not only irritating but, also, infuriating given the value of said typewriter and the fact someone on the sidewalk below could have been killed.

But this column isn’t about the movies but something that struck me halfway through which was the understanding that I had to stop trying to write something an agent would accept and a publisher would publish. Also, that people who marry writers and expect them to be happy and domestic need to have their heads examined. Despite my hatred for people who speak during movies I nudged my husband during one of Wolfe’s temper tantrums and said, “That’s what writers act like. Why do I have to take care of everyone and behave myself?” My husband didn’t answer.

So, I have rewritten one novel four times, my father didn’t like it and nor did any publishers and several agents. Finally, I let it go and tried to write a Young Adult novel and then we went to see Genius and somehow I realized that while I probably won’t die of tuberculosis of the brain like Wolfe, if I didn’t write what I need to write I might just explode like that character in Dickens who bursts into flames.

A dear friend who thinks I’m a good writer suggested I go back to memoir, something I have tried and left repeatedly. So now I am back to that in a very focused way. A memoir that covers the years from 1979 when I graduated from college through 1984 when I finally stopped drinking and killing myself, my oldest sister died, many others died of AIDS and the country was in a sort of weird free fall caused by Wall Street greed and post-sixties malaise.

I don’t claim to be Thomas Wolfe but then again, I’m better behaved and have managed to nurture my husband, son and two unruly male cats without running off and shooting lions like Hemingway.

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