"The Words"

Two weeks ago, I saw the film "The Words," and I haven't stopped thinking about it since. The movie is the story of three writers, played by Dennis Quaid, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Irons. If you've seen the trailer, then you know that the movie centers on Bradley Cooper's character (Rory Jansen) and how he published a story written by the Jeremy Irons character (The Old Man) as his own. The Dennis Quaid (Clay Hammond) storyline serves as a frame for the Cooper-Irons story.

What got me about the film was the way it depicted the life of a writer--especially the questions and doubts that writers grapple with. I especially liked that the film posed these questions without answering them. A clear answer would have been trite and moralizing. Instead, by leaving the questions open, it validates those doubts and teaches that every writer must find his or her own answer. 

Is a writer really a writer if he or she is never published?
Rory Jansen writes his heart out, produces two novels, but is consistently rejected by publishers. Because he cannot get published, Rory struggles to see himself as a writer. Does that mean he's not a writer? I grappled with this question. I know other authors who struggle with it, too. Somewhere along the line, our brains equate writing with publishing. But they're not the same thing. Writing is the act of putting words on a page. Publishing is printing copies of those words and selling them to other people to read. In my mind, if you're putting words on a page, and you're doing so consistently, you're a writer. Not everyone agrees with me.

Who should a writer write for: him-/herself or the market?
Early in the film, Rory meets with an agent who tells him that he has talent but his work is not marketable. Because Rory's novels won't sell, the agent won't sign him. Rory leaves the meeting dejected and ready to give up. This forms the crux of why Rory steals the Old Man's story: he's desperate to be published, desperate enough to commit plagiarism.

Some writers--and I've known at least one--write what the market calls for. They study the market, see what's selling, and then craft a story to fit that niche. Other writers write whatever their Muse calls them to write, regardless of whether its marketable. There's no right or wrong here (unless desperation to be published drives you to plagiarism. Plagiarism is theft, and despite the lack of consequences in the film, it is very wrong.) Each writer must follow his or her own path. Mine, I suspect, falls somewhere in the middle.

Who owns a story?
Rory finds the Old Man's manuscript by accident. There's no name on the manuscript or the receptacle in which it is found. Rory is captivated the story the Old Man tells. His captivation, coupled with his desperation, lead him to publish the story under his own name.

But was the story Rory's to publish? Did it belong solely to the Old Man? Would Rory have acted differently if the Old Man had put his name on the manuscript?

Rory does try to right his wrong. He pushes the Old Man to let him put the man's name on the book. The Old Man refuses. Does that mean he gave up his claim to the story?

When we write a story based on real events, especially if those events happened to other people, do we own the story we're telling? Or does the story belong--in whole or in part--to those other people?

Fiction or reality?
The last line of the film, and the question it poses, belong to Clay Hammond. In talking with a devoted (unhealthily obsessed?) fan, Hammond challenges her to continue the story he told in his novel. She wants to know what happened next. He pushes her to tell him. Then she wants to know "what really happened." Hammond tells her that she has to make a choice: she must choose between fiction and reality.

And there's the rub.

As writers, we often seamlessly blend real elements with fictional ones. We blur the line between reality and make-believe. We put real people in fictional worlds; we put fictional people in real landscapes.

So what happens when a reader wants to a clearer definition of that line? Do we give it to them? Would knowing where that line is strengthen or weaken the reader's connection with the story? And whose job is it to make that choice: the writer's or the reader's? Yours or mine?