Last weekend, my friend Perk recommended a movie to me. “You’d love it”, he convinced me. “It is about writing”, he added. And that last sentence was how he got me to add watching a movie to the list of things I had to do that weekend.
Rebel In the Rye, the title of the movie I ended up watching on Sunday, was released in September 2017. It was written and directed by Danny Strong and based on a book Kenneth Slawenski authored entitled “J. D. Salinger: A Life”.
By this time, I am sure you can guess the movie is a biographical one. It portrays the world of legendary writer J. D. Salinger and vividly brings to life the experiences that shaped one of the most renowned, controversial, and enigmatic authors of our time.
Some of the stars who played various roles in the movie include Nicholas Holt, Zoey Deutch, Kevin Spacey and Sarah Paulson.
I hate spoilers so I won’t spend time to tell you about the storyline of the movie. Get it and watch it for yourself. Also, it is not a movie review so I won’t bore you with my impressions of it either. What I intend to do is share the writing-worthy lessons I picked from this movie that offered a tantalizing window into the life and times of a writer described by some as a little-understood genius who broke the rules and redefined American literature.
In the early scenes of the movie, Salinger’s mentor and lecturer in Creative Writing at Columbia University, Whit Burnett, spelled out the importance of a writer’s voice to the writer and his writing.
“Your voice is what makes your story [writing] unique,” he said. And he was quick to add a caveat, “But when the voice overwhelms the story, it becomes an expression more of the writer’s ego than the emotional experience of the reader”.
Take a moment a brood over that.
Burnett also in Salinger’s first class at Columbia made it clear to the students that there is a difference between wanting to be a writer and actually being one. This is a simple but very important statement especially to people who describe themselves as budding writers. My friend, Nesta Jojoe Erskine says, “There is no such thing as a budding writer. You are either a writer or you are not. There is no middle ground.”
Is there room for training and development for writers? Yes. But that room can only be explored through doing what writers do – writing and being a writer. There is no set time too fully blossom and receive an official certificate to tell you now you can fulfill your writing dreams. Even if you study writing as a programme or a course in the university, it does not qualify you as a writer until you actually write. The proof of the writing pudding is in the writing.
One of Salinger’s goals as a writer was to get published. His agent, Dorothy Olding pushed the idea further down his throat with the mantra, “Publishing is everything”. With this refrain, Olding advised Salinger in one of the scenes to do everything possible to get published in The New Yorker. “There’s nothing wrong in dumbing it down once in a while,” she said.
Publishing should not be the desperation of a writer. Desperation for anyone is not good. It causes you to do silly things – like dumbing it down. Stay authentic and true to your writing and your break out or breakthrough might come.
What if it doesn’t? The breakthrough – what if you never get published? This question was also answered in another conversation between Burnett and Salinger. The teacher spelled it out to his student that he may write the best works and may still never get published.
Seeing a surprised look on Salinger’s face after that statement, Burnett asked, “Are you willing to devote your life to telling stories knowing that you will never get nothing in return?”. Salinger disappointingly did not answer so Burnett did. “If the answer to this question is no,” he said. “Then go out there and find something else to do with your life because you are not a true writer”.
Going back to subject of publishing, while it is not everything, it is important. Every writer should try to get published but don’t write only for the sake of publishing. If this is the case, you must understand that the road to publishing is not an easy one. Rejection lurks in many corners of that journey and will ambush you a thousand times. That was a lesson Salinger learned the hard way. His mentor, Burnett, was the first person to give him his rejection notice. And it was right after showering praise on the same piece of writing. “This is the second most important lesson you will learn about writing”, Burnett told the young Salinger.
Typical of Burnett, he did not leave the lesson there. He went on with a solution. “What are you going to do now?” he asked. “Write another story. Then another one after that. And then another after that. And then another one after that”, he screamed after a disgruntled Salinger stomped out of the former’s office.
Write as many articles, stories, poems or whatever it is you write one more than the number of times you are rejected. Another one after your last rejection.
Finally, Burnett asked Salinger the question almost every writer has been asked or has asked himself or herself: Why do you write?
One of my mentors advised that you do not always have to have an answer to this question however I could not help but find Salinger’s answer to this question interesting. And more interesting was Burnett’s response to Salinger after his answer.
“[I write] because I get angry about a lot of things,” Salinger explained. “When I’m writing, I feel like I’m doing something about it [the anger]. Like I’m finally getting to speak my mind”.
To which Burnett replied, “Explore what it is that makes you angry and put that into a story”.
On this note, I leave you with a paraphrase of Burnett’s words. Find what makes you write and explore it to create the best pieces of art. We can only get better. It can only get better.