What Romantic Comedies Teach Me About Writing

In the final scene of the classic screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, the straight-laced paleontologist, David, receives a visit from Susan, the woman who has turned his life upside-down during the preceding several days. She has damaged his car, torn his tuxedo coat, lost a valuable dinosaur bone (the “intercostal clavicle”), caused him to be arrested, sabotaged a series of crucial meetings with a potential funding source for his research, and in general made him look the fool, not to mention being responsible for the end of his engagement to his no-nonsense fiancé. Susan tops it off by destroying his reconstruction of a dinosaur skeleton when she meets him at the museum to apologize. Yet the film ends in their embrace after David has professed his love for her. Why?

The dismissive answer? The film is a romantic comedy and it has to have a happy ending. But I think there’s more going on, glimpsed in the form of David’s admission that he’s had more fun in the past few days with her than he’s ever before. In short, with her feels more alive. During their time together, he discovers aspects of himself that he had never explored, and even further, he discovers that he likes them. He knows himself better at the film’s end than he did at the beginning, and he likes himself more as well.

These lessons make up the essence of what romantic comedy teaches me: First, we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do; and second, we come to know and accept ourselves best by accepting the people and things we love and the situations into which they draw us. David realizes that he’s gone along with Susan’s shenanigans because part of him—a part previously unexpressed—wants to go along. The participants in a romantic comedy come out of the experience with greater self-knowledge and self-acceptance and, as a result, a greater sense of humility.

I have learned (and continue to learn) the same lessons from writing, and in much the same way. I embark on a piece thinking I know what I want to do. But in the romantic comedy that ensues, I make discoveries about myself, about language, about my strengths and weakness. The more deeply I get into the composing, the more it leads me astray in content, in style, in tone, in some fundamental way. Of course, I don’t always give in to these impulses. Often I’ve refused to follow where the writing goes; this usually leads to a piece that bores even me, to my having to do substantial revisions, or to my abandoning the piece altogether. My stubbornness has often meant long periods of not writing at all, mainly because I feared I would lose “control” of my work.

But I see the lessons of romantic comedy as the essence of my creative work. And I don’t just mean for writing fiction or poetry. Even a job application letter or a recommendation or a business proposal or an academic essay can become occasions for self-knowledge if I’m humble enough to allow the writing process to surprise me, to let go of my initial intentions and strategies and allow new ones to emerge. It requires patience and time and the willingness to face my fear. But the payoff is stronger writing and a more engaging experience for my reader.

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