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Why I Hate Albert Brooks

By Wayne K. Sheldrake

There are too many movies about writers. Writers are convenient main characters-too convenient. You get built in inner conflict, and you also get a character that, guaranteed, has a boatload of time on his hands.

In Something About Mary Ben Stiller jaunts down to Florida to chase Cameron Diaz. In Finding Forrester Sean Connery has a lifetime to skulk around his apartment filing unpublished novels while, in his spare time, he mentors the next Richard Wright. Jared Harris, in How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog, has weeks of discretionary free-time to maunder about his insomnia and writer’s block. If he’s the model, playwrights actually sort of have to work, sometimes. They go to rehearsals so they can grumble about the bad acting

My favorite writer-movie movie writer is Albert Brooks. In one film he’s a script-writer that’s lost his edge and he hires Martin Scorsese’s muse, played by Sharon Stone, the perfect mentor for a self-doubting, middle-aged writer. As if Brooks needed a mythological bomb-shell to help, his wife is played by Andie MacDowell, and he already lives in what most Americans would consider a mansion. I love the type-casting: a writer with a foxy wife also spends most of his time with a glamorous chick.

In another 104 minute Brook’s movie, he plays an obscure fiftysomething sci-fi novelist who moves back to his boyhood home, recreates his teenage bedroom, and hangs out with his mommy. This is therapy for a third divorce. Presumably, writers have amazing divorce lawyers because, rather than working his petard off to pay alimony and child support to three ex-wives, Albert has time to cruise the mall and grocery shop for boutique jellies with Debbie Reynolds.

Implied in all of these flex-schedules, travel plans, self-analysis and literati riche is that writers are: 1) loaded with cash; and 2) work only when and if they damn well please, or if they are so enthused they can’t help it.

When I started writing full-time, my friends assumed I quit working. I realized most of what they knew about writing came from movies like Throw Mamma From the Train and The Shining. It was easy to shrug off the “when you get famous” comments, and I didn’t mind that people thought every book makes as much money as The DaVinci Code. But I was miffed when it was implied that I only worked when and if I damn well pleased, or if I was so enthused I couldn’t help myself.

‘It must be nice,’ they said. ‘You can make your own schedule. You can take off whenever you want to.’

‘Um, not exactly.’ I said. ‘If you want to be a writer, you actually have to write-a lot.’ Because writers are good at analogies, I tried one: ‘It’s sort of like owning your own business. If you don’t show up and open the shop every day, you don’t get any business.’

Still, there was no cracking the stereotype. An unemployed pal persisted in calling my message machine at nine a.m. every morning to recite the day’s Encore and Starz! schedule. Another habitually called to say, “Let’s go skiing.” When I decline, he asks, “Well, what are you doing tomorrow?” One friend, sincerely curious, asked, “So what are you writing now a short story or a poem?”  I didn’t have the heart to tell her I write nonfiction, but at least she was headed the right direction.

I resolved, however, to answer her question. The next day, I kept a log. I’d spent the first two months of 2006 rewriting a memoir and had just launched into queries and a book proposal. Here’s my day:

 

  • Searched my office and found Grants and Awards Available to America Authors; looked up the Barbara Savage “Miles from Nowhere Award” for unpublished book-length manuscripts of personal adventure non-fiction.
  • Revised “The Market” section of book proposal for University of Nebraska Press.
  • Wrote a letter to the director of Northwestern University Creative Writing Program (a friend) asking for a referral to an agent.
  • Tried to print out three copies of the first three chapters of the memoir. (Printer freezes on page ten. I slap it, tap it, and jiggle it for thirty minutes.)
  • Quick lunch of cold pizza. Checked mailbox. Nothing. Unloaded and folded laundry. Unloaded and loaded dish washer.
  • Jotted down notes for article idea on athletes who had survived open heart surgery.
  • Composed chapter outlines for the memoir.
  • Composed one page synopsis of memoir.
  • Typed a cover page for memoir.
  • Typed a letter to the Book Editor of the Los Angeles Times (a friend) asking for a referral to an agent.
  • Typed a letter to best-selling author and editor of America West Magazine (a friend) asking for a referral to an agent.
  • Printed out two current vitas.
  • Printed out two chapter outlines
  • Printed out two synopsis.

Around four, the printer inexplicably spit out another set of the first three chapters. While it hummed beside me, I checked and answered a few e-mails-including a nice one from a regional publisher who wanted to see the complete manuscript of the memoir, and one from the author of a book on wolves I hoped to review. I checked my phone messages to see what I’d missed on Starz! and Encore, then changed out of my pajamas and drove to the drug store to buy padded envelopes.

I never got around to a short story or a poem, but I did write (and rewrite) this.

What am I doing tomorrow? I’ll be writing cover letters to writer’s magazines trying to sell a light piece of about 1,000 words on writing life. If I can sell it, the proceeds will go to all those bills Sharon Stone has been sending me.
___________

Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Writer’s Digest.

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