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

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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.


A Guide to Designing Assignments that Require Students to Submit their Work for Publication

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By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Because Toasted Cheese is open to new and unpublished writers, we often receive submissions from students at all levels (graduate, undergraduate, high school, and occasionally even middle school). Some are writing students, but others are not. Some submit work of their own accord, while others have been required to do so as part of an assignment for a class. For those who submit on their own, their student status is usually incidental. They are writers first and foremost; they have something to say and their goal is the publication of their work—just like any other writer.

In contrast, those who submit because it’s required of them may not self-identify as writers, and in these cases, a desire to fulfill the requirements of the assignment is frequently their primary—and sometimes only—motivation for submitting. Oftentimes, a student’s reluctance to share their work and discomfort with the process can be painfully obvious.

On its own, “because it’s required” isn’t a great reason to submit. Students may end up frustrated and discouraged by a process that can leave them feeling embarrassed and rejected. The publications to which they are submitting may be annoyed by, or perplexed with how to deal with, a glut of inappropriate submissions. Teachers may be disheartened that a great idea in theory didn’t turn out as expected in practice. With that in mind, in this article, I walk through how to design a submit-for-publication assignment that is satisfying for all involved—teachers, students, and editors.

Background Image: Johannes P Osterhoff/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

The Big Idea

Let’s imagine I’ve decided to assign my students the task of writing a story, poem, personal essay, opinion piece, or the like. Since I want students to see that this assignment as something that has a real-world application, I think it might be a good idea to require the students to submit their final work for publication. As I design the assignment, I want to keep in mind the answers to the following questions:

  1. What’s the education level of the students? Are we talking creative writing MFA students or ninth grade English students?
  2. What are my goals for the students? What do I want them to learn from submitting their work for publication?
  3. How much time will be devoted to this assignment? Is it going to be a semester-long process or is it something that needs to fit in a one-week window?


Like any assignment, a submit-for-publication assignment needs to be tailored to the abilities of the students. While MFA students are presumably capable of submitting a piece of work on their own without guidance, ninth grade English students are not. The less experienced the students, the more time I’ll need to put into guiding the submission portion of the assignment, to deciding what the ultimate objective of the assignment will be, and to following up after the submission process. I don’t want to make the mistake of spending the majority of the allotted time on the writing portion of the assignment and neglecting the submission portion. If there’s not enough time available to do anything more than have students submit their work for publication at the same time as they turn in the first draft of the assignment to be graded, I should rethink the assignment.

A submit-for-publication assignment should include at least one round (preferably more) of critique and revision prior to submitting. From a submissions perspective, this is important for a couple key reasons. First, submitting to real publications involves third parties: the editors of those publications (who, keep in mind, are often volunteers). It would be thoughtless of me to require students to submit without first assuring myself that they are sending their very best work. Second, I want my students to feel confident about the work they are sending out. After all, the reason many students, including writing majors, don’t submit on their own is because they feel insecure about their work. Asking them to submit before they’ve received any feedback on a piece is likely to make them feel even more uncomfortable about submitting. A few rounds of feedback before the actual submission will go a long way to polishing their work and instilling them with confidence.

I will also need to consider how to direct the submission portion of the assignment so that students target publications that would look forward to receiving their work. For students, submitting their work isn’t going to be satisfying unless their submissions have a real possibility of being published. Similarly, if editors are to look upon student submissions favorably, they must receive submissions that are appropriate in style, genre, and quality for their publication.

Finally, I should ensure there is sufficient time remaining after the students submit for a debriefing stage where students reflect on what they’ve learned from the process and how they might put that to use in the future. Depending on class size and the time available, the debriefing stage might include class discussion, teacher-student conferences, and/or a journaling exercise. Topics for discussion could include similarities and differences in submission requirements, common errors made by the students, reasons for choosing particular markets (and whether those were the right choices), which publications were student-friendly, etc.

Goal: To Familiarize Students with the Submission Process

I now need to decide what specific goals I want to accomplish with this assignment. One common goal is to get students comfortable with the submission process. Accomplishing this goal breaks down into two key components: researching and finding a suitable market to submit to, and learning to write a cover letter and follow submission guidelines. Depending on the students’ level and abilities, I might focus more on one or the other aspect. For example, with younger students, the main goal of the assignment might be to have them learn how to follow guidelines and write a formal business email. With graduate writing students, it would make sense to focus more on market research.

When it comes to the mechanics of submitting, I know younger students need more guidance than just “follow the guidelines” or “submit via email.” Most will have never written a business email and as this is a transferable skill that all of them can use regardless of whether they go on to become writers, it’s worth it to spend some time on this step. Some points I should cover include: using a professional-sounding email address, filling in your name on your email account so it appears in the “From:” line, locating submission guidelines, filling in the subject line as per the guidelines (never leaving it blank), sending submissions to the correct email address, and addressing submissions to the correct person.

If I’m focusing on this aspect of the assignment, I’ll have the students practice submitting by sending their complete submission to me, along with a copy of the submission guidelines they are following. This will give me the opportunity to give them feedback on their cover letter, as well as to ensure that they have followed the guidelines, before they submit. If I ask students to provide me with proof of their submission by sending me a copy of their email, I will instruct them to BCC (not CC) me, so that my email address does not appear on the email. While the receiving editor being aware that the submission is for a class assignment may have no effect on the outcome, there is no reason to unnecessarily put the students at a disadvantage.

Market research involves students finding and reading various journals and magazines in order to find suitable publications for their work. At this stage of the assignment, I might have students write reviews of their top three or five choices, explaining why they would like to see their work appear in these publications, why they think certain pieces were selected for publication, and why these venues are the best fit for their work. To accommodate a shorter time-frame or less-advanced students, I might modify the assignment by providing the students with a list of potential journals to start from. Regardless, before the students submit, I will ensure that the submissions are spread out over a number of journals, perhaps by having students declare their intended market on a first-come, first-served basis. I will not make the mistake of allowing fifteen students submit to the same journal, as this serves neither the students nor the targeted journal.

Finally, if I don’t think the students’ work is ready to submit yet, I will not have them submit to an external publication. Instead, I will consider an alternative such as having them put together their own anthology. Depending on the time available, this could be as simple as compiling all of the pieces into a PDF ebook or as complex as having the students themselves design and edit the anthology, and have it printed. With the many print-on-demand options available, this would be quite doable.

Goal: To Have the Submitted Pieces Accepted

Another common goal is to get the submitted pieces accepted. To accomplish this goal, I will of course require one or more rounds of revisions during the writing phase of the assignment. Ideally, students will receive feedback from their peers as well as from me.

Preferably, students will complete more than one writing assignment before attempting to submit anything. In a course with several writing assignments, I won’t require the students to submit every piece. Rather, I will have the students to choose one or two of their best pieces to submit. Every writer knows that there are projects that are best left as practice efforts, ones that don’t turn out as planned making them unsuitable for the intended market, and ones that need to be set aside to rest before being revised once again. Building in room for failure, experiments, and mistakes will improve students’ chances at success, both because the writing process will be less tense and because they’ll have confidence in the pieces they choose, an empowerment which will show in their cover letter.

I also need to keep in mind the students’ level and abilities. While a ninth grader’s C-grade story is definitely not ready for submission to The New Yorker, an MFA student’s A-level story is not necessarily either. There can be a difference between an excellent job, given the time constraints and guidelines of the assignment, and publishable quality. More importantly, there’s a distinction between work that’s so exceptional that it’s publishable anywhere and work that’s publishable, given the right market. Unless I have Alice Munro or one of the 20-under-40 in my class, it’s unlikely my students will have success submitting to The New Yorker. My role at this stage is to judge each student’s work honestly and to guide them toward publications where they will have the greatest chance of success. This will mean different goals for different students even within the same class. Maybe I do have an exceptional student who should try submitting to The New Yorker. Great. But for most students, it makes sense to have a more modest goal, particularly if this is their first submission.

Young students will improve their chances at success by aiming for markets that are only open to or that openly solicit work from young writers. Some ideas:

  • School-affiliated publications. Some school magazines/newspapers accept work only from students at the sponsoring school, others from similar-age students regardless of the school they attend.
  • Other publications that only publish young writers.
  • General-interest publications with calls for work from young writers (for a young writer issue, for example).
  • Writing contests that are only open to writers up to a certain age or enrolled at a certain level of education.
  • Community publications, particularly if the student has written a non-fiction piece on an issue of local interest.

There is no denying that facilitating a submit-for-publication assignment is labor-intensive, but done well, it will be a rewarding and positive experience for all.

Markets and Other Resources for Young Writers

Literary Journals that only publish Young Writers:


Online Communities for Young Writers:


Additional Resources:

My thanks to Liz Baudler for sharing her insights as a creative writing student and editor.

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