Why Writers Read (and Watch)


Before exploring the Drawn Together: International Cartoons exhibit at the Flint Institute of Arts as I mentioned in a previous blog post, my parents and I came to the FIA for the Sunday showing of Robot and Frank.


We sat in cushy seats and stared at a screen hovering over a white-walled stage as the film played before us in the dark, only a glow of the stage visible by the illuminating film as if the story were being acted out physically before us.


I love watching indie films, but I wasn’t used to this luxury.  Usually I’m bent over a laptop, balancing a bowl of pasta in one hand and with the other hand lowering the blinds to get a better glimpse at the screen.


No pasta was spilled in the process.


I had a long phase of watching indie movies last year when I was writing my graduate thesis.  After hours of scrutinizing over short story after short story, I rewarded my fried brain at night with an indie flick.


There’s something intriguing about films made outside the major film studio system.  The films seem to run wild with creative freedom where dialogue is grittier and characters are craftily and subtly developed.


But, then again, I’m speaking about the indie films that I chose to watch.


I watched indie films to decompress before bedtime.  But each film stirred up my creative juices as I analyzed the craft of the story and dissected what each character said or did.  I found myself scribbling down ideas for new short stories and solutions to old characters problems under lamplight for tomorrow’s writing session.


I’m never inspired to write after watching films with exploding buildings or speeding cars.


I’ve never stolen an indie flick plot or pasted an indie film character into my own writing.  To be blunt, I can’t even when I try. 


I learned this in grad school.  One class assignment was to take the structure of a famous short story and imitate it with another scenario.  I chose to imitate “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.”


There were lots of bold similarities at first.  The narrator introduced each character the same way, character traits were exaggerated upon in the same manner, and the plot marched along the same slope.


But as my story progressed, I couldn’t keep it parallel to the original story.  After portraying the comedy of the characters, I couldn’t ignore the tragedies of their lives that overwhelmingly surfaced.  My imitation took a life of its own.


My problem now was allowing my story to have its own life. I foolishly felt that I needed my professor’s permission to alter the course of the story.


My professor expected this to happen. “Let yourself trust your craft,” she said.


Sometimes the writer needs to see an example of a story that works in order to write new work or apply new solutions to old problems.


How does the writer extract these solutions?  By doing lots of scrutinizing and questioning.


Think back to the last great film or novel that you read.  What made this art resonate with you?  Was it the scenery, the characters, the plot?  What about this element stood out?  How did the artist convey it?  How can you apply this success to your own work?


That’s why it’s crucial for the writer to evaluate other writing.  When the writer evaluates what works and what doesn’t work in a story, the writer can then improve or learn from past mistakes from other writers.


After watching Robot and Frank, I developed the discussion for this blog post.