Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Stranger than Fiction

Yesterday I watched the movie "Stranger Than Fiction" starring Emma Thompson as a previously successful writer who is struggling to overcome writer's block, and Will Ferrell as her hapless main character. He starts to hear her voice narrating his life and realizes that she is going to kill him off by the end of the book. In a strange twist (he works for the IRS) he is able to locate the reclusive writer and actually visit her, begging her to save his life. I won't tell you the end.

The movie was not the crazy comedy that the previews made it out to be. It was actually a very moving commentary on the meaning of life and art. The fine supporting cast included Dustin Hoffman and Queen Latifah, whose acting skills blew me away in "Chicago". Like Will Smith, hers is a major talent that is destined to go far beyond rap music. Emma Thompson gives a marvelous, sarcasm-riddled performance as the anguished writer and Will Ferrell absolutely nails the dramatic role of Harold Crick, the sleeping soul that is about to wake up. Like Jim Carrey, there is more to this comedian than meets the eye. It is definitely a movie worth seeing, especially if you are a writer.

The whole thing was funny and tragic and more than a little surreal. It ties into this wierd sort of double life that authors live. I find myself wondering sometimes what the definition of reality is. Is it simply those things which have tangible evidence? Or is the creative power which our Creator has shared with us powerful enough to create valid people and places in our imaginations? Certainly dreams have a reality of their own, jumbled though they may be, and God speaks to us at times with great clarity through them. The power of the "waking dream" of fiction is just as undeniable; we all have felt that haunting loss or those tears of joy at the end of a great book or movie. This is an experience we seek again and again; it allows us to both escape from and enrich our "tangible" lives.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Harold walks into Karen (the writer's) office and she sort of crumples in amazed awe in front of him, murmuring "Your hair... your eyes... your shoes!" She stares at him the way a mother stares at the fingers of her newborn child, amazed that the thing that has been growing inside of her actually has the very shape she recognizes and expects. He says "I'm Harold Crick" and she replies reverently "I know."

I've tried to "cast" certain actors in my book, looking for the right person to play the parts in my mind. But the truth is, they are themselves and no one else. I can't say exactly how this happens, but it does. It amazes me. Elinor, the heroine of "The Golden Gryphon" and Ginger, the young widow in "Tea by the Sea" are so real to me that I half expect to meet them on the street one day. During the time I was working really hard on "Tea by the Sea," I made a trip to Ocean City, NJ as I often do. I found myself experiencing a sense of loss that the tea shop and its proprietors don't really exist and that I couldn't visit them. It was very surreal and poignant. Am I crazy?

How does this happen, this ability to create in one's mind? I have no idea. It feels very much like a little bit of the God-breath breathed into me. Part of the plot in "Stranger Than Fiction" involves Harold trying to figure out whether the novel he is living is a tragedy or a comedy and whether it is plot-driven or character-driven. What amazes me is how much the characters in even a plot-driven book can influence the action by their choices.

I wrote the following on Tricia Goyer's blog recently, when I was struggling with how to stay motivated to write when I'm not sure anyone will ever publish the book - meaning it will never be read by anyone else. One of the authors there responded that if I could answer that question, I could write a best-selling book for Writer's Digest and be set for life. My response was this:

I think the "Writer's Digest" answer to this question is this: I don't care any more if it's publishable or not. I am writing this manuscript because if I don't it will eat me alive! I have to know what happens to my characters... and so do they. They deserve to know if they will live or die, succeed or fail, be loved or be betrayed. It has taken on a life and existence of its own that cannot be denied now.


Michelle Gregory said...

Stranger Than Fiction has become one of my favorite movies. I especially love the scene where Harold brings Anna "flours." (At first my husband and I thought that he had brought her flowers, but my friend watched it and pointed out that the packages held different kinds of flours for baking).

As far as finishing the manuscript so that it doesn't eat you alive... I completely agree. I became so familiar with my characters that I had to find out what happened. There are times when I miss them.


Tricia Goyer said...

I also loved that moving. It was me, but dramatized (although I don't have the same vices :-)

Right now I'm writing my 7th novel, and yesterday I was writing when one of my characters totally surprised me. How can that happen when I am in control? Or am I???

These people do become real, don't they. Although I would really have a heartattack if one of them walked into my office!

Christine H said...

Hi Michelle,
Regarding the "flours"... it took me and my husband a few minutes to "get it" because I recently placed a flower order from a mail order company that consisted of perennial roots and bulbs in bags. So at first we thought they were the same kind of flowers... until I recalled seeing a King Arthur Flour catalog for people who actually bake things using different kinds of flour! :D

It was a very clever pun.


Jen's Journey said...

Okay, so I have to watch this movie. I am not much for keeping up to date with movies. Our kids have a habit of interrupting enough times to make a two-hour movie into a four-hour movie. And, my dear hubby likes to have a running commentary going throughout. So, the movie is extended even more.

Note to self: Hmmmm need a portable DVD player in my room so I can watch a movie.

Tricia Goyer said...

Great post! and me too, Stranger than fiction is my favorite--it's perfect and quirky and goes right to the heart.