Finding Forrester: A Film Review and Quandary About the Writing Craft

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

I recently watched the film Finding Forrester (2000) directed by Gus Van Sant. I saw it years ago and revisited it only this time with my writer’s lens. The film is about a fictional author named William Forrester (Sean Connery) who writes the great American novel and then disappears from the literary world like a Salingeresque legend until he is “found” by edgy teenager Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), whom Forrester catches breaking into his Bronx apartment.

There inside the top floor apartment overlooking the basketball courts, Jamal discovers a writer’s haven as Forrester’s home is filled with books, typewriters, file cabinets, stacks of papers, and artifacts. Jamal, who meant no harm to Forrester, whose escapade was done on a dare, scrambles out of Forrester’s door forgetting his backpack and inside it, his writing journals. Consequently, this unexpected encounter leads to a cat-and-mouse game of words that aligns the two characters in purpose and, later, in friendship.

Finding Forrester: A Film Review and Quandary About the Writing Craft

What I like the most about the film are the short discourses the pair have concerning the craft of writing that often end in disagreement and argument. The chemistry between the two very different and likeable characters is amplified by Sean Connery’s magnanimous presence that made me almost believe he was William Forrester. They are archetypes: the wise master and stubborn young apprentice. Classic.

One such exchange concerns the usage of conjunctions. Forrester believes the use of a conjunction to begin a sentence is sloppy, egregious writing. Jamal disagrees and very eloquently defends its usage:

“It was a firm rule,” Jamal explains. “Sometimes if you use a basic conjunction at the start of a sentence it can make it stand out a little bit. And that may be what the writer’s trying to do.”

Forrester raises his eyebrow. “And what is the risk?”

“Well, the risk is doing it too much. It’s a distraction and it could give your piece a run-on feeling. But for the most part the rule on using and or but at the start of the sentence is pretty shaky even though it’s still taught in too many schools by too many professors. Some of the best writers have been ignoring that rule for years—including you.”

Beyond their relationship and the journeys these characters face is another theme just below the surface, one I recall hearing about several times in my undergraduate classes and in conversations with fellow writers. It is a common question that can be applied to many subjects, a quandary much like the chicken-and-egg riddle tailored to the writing craft: is talent in writing something a person is born with or is it something that can be taught? A gift or an education?

It would seem that Jamal’s character fell into both categories. From the beginning one can see the burgeoning writer. His writing is both meaningful and cathartic. Jamal behaves like a writer, hungry to learn and disciplined. He carries a journal and often pauses in his day to record his thoughts. It is Forrester who makes the connection. He is the one who recognizes Jamal as a writer regardless of Jamal’s young age or social status in the community.

Jamal’s self-awareness of himself as a writer is also notable. He wants to be better and is humble enough to know that his writing would improve greatly under Forrester’s guidance. He is also ambitious and pursues Forrester relentlessly for it in the film. He baffles school administrators, teachers, and professors alike with his intelligence and talent. Some believe in him and award him with opportunity while others don’t, and call him out for it: Jamal is accused of plagiarism.

Is writing a gift or is it something that can be taught? The film, Finding Forrester, is metaphoric in this quandary. Writers are indeed driven by desire beyond self-improvement, the heart of which is simply the love of the craft—the absolute joy in making meaning with words, putting those words into sentences and forming paragraphs and pages until there is no more to be said. It’s a love affair that we are born into, a gift we inherit, pursue, and enjoy all our lives. And that is something that just can’t be taught.

Yet there are other facets to the craft such as ambition. Like Jamal, many writers possess that personal ambition—an overwhelming desire to be better at what we do best: write. Writers may identify with the young Jamal but how many of us have a Pulitzer Prize-winning mentor like Forrester? Instead, we seek out our own “Forresters” by learning about the craft from a variety of resources: books, undergraduate and graduate programs, author talks and lectures, fellowships in various writing communities, etc. So, yes, there is some education to the craft. And that education serves a dual purpose: improving the caliber of one’s writing and creating new sources of inspiration to draw from.


Mentor March: Writers Who Inspire Us

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

In the spirit of popular Twitter hashtags #FollowFriday (#FF) and #WriterWednesday (#WW), we bring you #MentorMarch, in which the Toasted Cheese editors share some of the working writers who are currently inspiring us. Not confined to any one genre, the list spans the spectrum of writing, including novelists, non-fiction writers, children’s authors, screenwriters, journalists, critics, bloggers, poets, and essayists, many of whom are multihyphenates.

Add your own inspirations on Twitter using the #MentorMarch hashtag.

Background Image: Suzy Hazelwood (Public Domain)

Ana George (Broker)

Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself), of course. He blogs and tweets. He’s also on Facebook. And he seems to enjoy engaging his public.

Justine Larbalestier (@justinelavaworm), author of How to Ditch your Fairy and Liar among others. She’s mostly a young-adult writer, but I’ve enjoyed her rich plots and interesting fantasy writing for myself. She blogged quite extensively, but then developed carpal tunnel syndrome, and now she pours most of her limited supply of keystrokes into her next book. The blog archives include quite a lot of excellent advice to up and coming writers.

Chad Orzel (@orzelc) has written a delightful popular science book called How to Teach Physics to your Dog and blogs at Uncertain Principles. He also tweets. It’s nice to see somebody who can actually explain the subtleties of modern physics (quantum mechanics, with a second book on relativity in the works) to people, doing just that.

Lisa Olson (Boots)

Wil Wheaton (@wilw). Besides being the King of the Geeks, he is actually an author. I find his blog amusing, right on track, and entertaining. His three novels (Dancing Barefoot, Sunken Treasure, Just a Geek) are on my “to-read” list.

Felicia Day (@feliciaday). Not an author, but a writer of scripts. She was kind of the front runner of internet serials (The Guild) and a total success at it. She’s also an actor. I love her blog and her tweets.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi (@inkyelbows). A children’s book author, but full of sage advice, awesome cartoons and all kinds of wonderful. She does online cartoons such as Will Write For Chocolate, and she is illustrating a book (I’m Bored) written by Michael Ian Black due out in 2012.

Jayne Ann Krentz (@JayneAnnKrentz) (aka Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle). A romance writer, I went through most of her Amanda Quick books. I loved The Third Circle and see that Wicked Widow is on my shelf. She had a blog in conjunction with some other romance writers, but it’s since gone defunct. Her website is still going—as is she.

And last, I follow all of the Toasted Cheese editors. Beaver‘s tweets are usually really awesome for writers or just for a good belly laugh. Baker is always hysterical—you can’t make up the shit she writes down. Billiard is always sweet and full of life.

Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

John Scalzi (@scalzi) makes me laugh on a regular basis, but he’s also been known to make me cry. He gives great advice about writing, and he once famously taped bacon to his cat. Need I say more?

Meg Cabot (@megcabot) is endlessly entertaining. I love her sense of humor, her interaction with fans, and I am in awe of her productivity.

Laurie Halse Anderson (@halseanderson), author of Speak, is quite simply one of my favorite authors writing today. I especially appreciate all of the resources she offers for teachers.

Seanan McGuire (@seananmcguire). Full disclosure—Seanan is a good friend, but I’d follow her even if she wasn’t. Her dedication and work ethic are inspiring, and she frequently posts fantastic insight and advice. The fourth book in her October Daye series, Late Eclipses, came out earlier this month.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi (@inkyelbows). Debbie is also a friend, and she never fails to inspire me. It’s not exaggerating to say that she is one of my favorite people, and her optimism and joy are contagious.

Amanda Marlowe (Bellman)

Lois McMaster Bujold is a huge inspiration in my writing life. Her characters are incredibly well-rounded, and so very, very human. She has set the characterization bar high, but it’s a goal worth striving for.

On Twitter, I follow the awesome writers of the TV show Castle, including the creator Andrew Marlowe (@AndrewWMarlowe and full disclosure, yes, we are related) and his wife and fellow Castle writer Terri Miller (@TerriEdda). And of course I follow Richard Castle as well, but I will let Baker say more about him.

Judy Blume (@judyblume) was one of my favorite writers growing up. May my child characters carry the same authenticity that hers do.

I also find a lot of inspiration and good advice from the various editing and query-critiquing blogs. My two current favorites are Evil Editor and Query Shark.

I follow quite a few other writers, many of whom are already mentioned elsewhere in this article, and all of whom inspire me in one way or another.

And I would be remiss not to mention the influence that Shakespeare has been on me both as a person and as a writer. I haven’t been able to figure out which of the many accounts attributed to him on Twitter are actually his, however, as none have yet been verified…

Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Roxane Gay (@rgay) writes short fiction, teaches English, and edits PANK amongst other things. Last year she had six (six!) stories make the Million Writers Award Notable Stories list. All of that is amazing, but she makes my list because of her blog: a brilliant mix of writerly angst, personal confession, breathtaking storytelling—and reviews of terrible (so bad they’re good) movies.

Tayari Jones (@tayari) is a novelist (her third novel Silver Sparrow comes out this spring), a creative writing professor, and a mentor to fledgling writers. That she finds the time to do all these things is an inspiration in itself. Of all the writers on my list, I’ve followed Tayari the longest, and having read her blog throughout the entire process of writing Silver Sparrow, I cannot wait to read it.

William Zinsser (born 1922) is the author of On Writing Well. You may have heard of him. What you may not know is that he blogs every Friday about “writing, the arts, and popular culture” at The American Scholar. He’s a fantastic storyteller and brings a unique perspective to a genre dominated by Gen-X and Millennial voices.

Kerry Clare (@kcpicklemethis) writes short fiction, essays, and book reviews. She’s also a long-time blogger (October 2000!) whose blog focuses mostly on books, reading and writing. A critic in the original sense of the word, she’s able to point out flaws without being mean and offer praise without being sycophantic. Her reviews have a double-goodness: they not only generate interest in reading the reviewed books, but are engaging reading in themselves.

Elisa Gabbert (@egabbert) is a poet and blogger. She’s written two books of poetry, That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness (with Kathleen Rooney) and The French Exit. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of her poetry, but I really like her blogging voice. In this interview, she says that she considers blogging as much of a form/genre as poetry—and it shows.

Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Susie Bright (@susiebright). I’ve followed Susie personally and professionally for at least ten years, after getting my hands on the early Herotica anthologies. Her passions so closely follow my own, I can’t not follow Susie everywhere I find her. I have an autographed copy of a collection she edited (squee!), several unautographed collections as well, and a naughty phrased pro-women button sent by Susie herself. I find her her “How To Write A Dirty Story” inspiring not just for writing erotica but for writing short fiction in general. I find her frequent Twitter and Facebook updates informative and inspiring as well. She can also be found regularly on HuffPo; her most recent column is “How to Get Your Favorite Author to Visit Your Home Town.”

Roger Ebert (@ebertchicago) I spend a disproportionate amount of time reading Roger Ebert every day. I’ve always read him and it never fails to surprise me how many people don’t think of Ebert primarily as a writer. His books are among my favorites, from his The Great Movies collections (also available in column format online) to Your Movie Sucks, his way with words has jived with my sensibilities (not to mention that we have similar taste, political opinions, etc.). Since losing his ability to speak, I’ve found Ebert’s ever-increasing proliferation of online writing still not enough to sate my thirst for his work. He tweets throughout the day, writes regular blog entries, and reviews current and classic films. He’s also on Facebook. I’ve subscribed to The Ebert Club (currently only $5 to subscribe, about to go up to $10 so get in while you can for $5) since the beginning and it’s so informative and fun that it takes me at least a day to savor everything in the weekly issue. I also own a rice cooker because of this.

Richard Castle (@WriteRCastle) is not only a fun writer, he’s quite a character. I follow him mostly on Twitter because he’s not on Facebook much. I hope that’s because he’s working on another Nikki Heat book. I was a little late reading Heat Wave but once I started, I could barely put it down. I don’t read many modern mysteries because it seems there’s a lot of clutter and “trying too hard” from the author (and not nearly enough female MCs). Castle’s laid back attitude (and extensive research) carries from his Twitter feed right into his fiction and it makes his writing a pleasure to read. Plus he’s 100% adorable so I tend to store his books face-down on tables.

Favorite writers/inspirations I follow include the already mentioned Neil Gaiman, Debbie Ridpath Ohi and TC editors & contributors. Feel free to follow my writing list.

Final Poll Results