Role Models

Role Modelsdon music

'Write what you know.' We've all heard that, and most of us would agree that it makes good sense. It also might explain why so many fictional characters are writers – what kind of life do we know better? But it doesn't account for why such a percentage of these writer-characters are rich and successful, popular, gorgeous. I've seen fictional writers who are irresistible love magnets, writers who fight crime in their spare time, writers with super powers, writers with an active social life. None of this rings true to me, and after a while I feel inadequate, watching or reading about these superstars. No one's asked me to solve a local murder in years.


I suppose I can understand.

It's difficult to imagine a producer backing a series about a writer who does what most of us do – scribble in notebooks, deal with the day job, whine and complain to friends over beers, sit staring at the keyboard waiting for something to happen. (Although for all I know this is just my own experience and the rest of you are leading James Bond-type existences. My apologies if I've misrepresented you.) I imagine an accurate film about a writer would look something like Andy Warhol's Empire, which was just someone aiming a camera at the Empire State Building for eight hours of night-time footage. 'I loved it when she scratched her ear,' you might say, walking out of the theatre. 'And when the fly landed on the desk...magic!'

CRI 106679But to be fair, I'm only thinking about the more public and glamorous writer-characters out there. There are many more whose experiences ring true – uncomfortably and painfully so. Watch Miles Raymond's face in Sideways during the phone call that tells him that his book will never find a publisher. Or thrill to the exploits of Grady Tripp in Michael Chabon's The Wonder Boys as he labours for seven years on a three thousand-page novel that no one will ever read. Or you can have a look at three of my fictional heroes and role models. Here they are.

1) Karen Eiffel, Truth or Fiction (2006)


The film's about a man who discovers he's a character in a novel, but it's the author writing him who's the real star of this show, at least for me. Forget the assistant and the top floor office – we all know that's pure fantasy – and look at the woman herself. Karen Eiffel is a well of misery. She sits in a shrinking crouch, avoids eye contact or gives too much, seems agonised and enraged by herself and life in general, slouches around in bathrobe and pyjamas in the middle of the day. It's so familiar, and yet I never act like that, at least not around other people. But do I want to? Well...

These days you've got to be marketable to have a chance at success, or at least presentable. You're not allowed to stumble into the grocery store and wander up and down the aisles in a daze, with unwashed hair and a sweater your grandmother knitted you in 1986, growling to yourself about how your book sucks and everything sucks and why does anyone bother. But wouldn't it be a relief to stop smiling and give those neuroses free run, alienate the hell out of everybody? Karen Eiffel is allowed to be as odd and off-putting outwardly as she is inwardly, and I, for one, am jealous. She also gets to fulfil every writer's fantasy, when her main character walks into her office one day and introduces himself. Living the dream, this woman.

2) Harriet M. Welsch, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, 1964harriet2

Harriet is an eleven-year-old girl who carries a notebook with her everywhere, where she records it all: strangers' conversations, other people's lives, brutally honest observations about her family and friends. She claims that she's a spy, but she's really a writer, one of those extreme and dedicated types who are always writing. Of course someone finds the precious notebook and she becomes an outcast at her school, with even her best friends joining the 'Spy Catchers' Club' set up by a classmate to get revenge on Harriet. It's a nightmare in miniature for any writer who uses details from their own lives in their fiction. What happens when the real people involved find out? Harriet's former nanny gives her some advice: 'You have to do two things, and you don't like either one of them. 1: You have to apologize. 2: You have to lie. Otherwise you are going to lose a friend.' Words to live by, Ole Golly, you wise woman.

3) Don Music, Sesame Street, 1974-ish

'Oh, I'll never get it right! Never!' – Don Music

I've been saving the most compelling case study for last. The Don Music segments on Sesame Street always followed the same pattern: Kermit arrives in his reporter's gear to observe the famous composer at work. Don, his wild hair flying, his jaws flapping hysterically, his stringy arms waving, attempts to write a song at the keyboard. The first line is usually fine. Then he gets to the next and – agony! He can't find the right word! It's all hopeless, hopeless! Then Don collapses with his large head banging the keyboard, the last notes fading as he sobs with frustration. But Kermit will give him an idea and he will always complete the work, his black mood suddenly transformed to joy. I can't count the times that one of these scenes has played itself out for me - when I'm discouraged or frustrated, when I'm convinced that I'll never get it right, never. But Don gets through the process somehow and so do we all. Until the next crisis.

So, there you have it. Real writers, dammit. Role models and inspirations, even if they are fictional. Who are yours?

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