Recently I saw Birdman, the brilliantly, darkly comic movie starring Micheal Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor who formerly made it big as the superhero Birdman in an action movie franchise. The plot revolves around him writing, producing, and starring in a Broadway play adapted from a popular Raymond Carver short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and every aspiring writer should see this movie.
That’s especially true if you’re desperately hammering away at that novel you’re trying to finish for National Novel Writing Month.
As it happens, I’m not taking part in NaNoWriMo, but I might as well be. I have a book contract with Penguin for a new novel that I’m supposed to finish by January, and I’m only halfway done. Yikes.
This past weekend I took a mini-retreat to a cheap condo in Maine and knocked out 34 pages.
“Good for you!” one of my friends cheered when I told her I’d typed so many words that my hands were lame.
Despite this progress, I was glum, because I had let Birdman into my brain.
What do I mean by that? In Birdman, Michael Keaton is haunted by his former glorious self as a muscled, half-bird, half-man hero. (One of the many inside jokes in the movie is that Birdman is masked and looks remarkably like Keaton did as Batman.)
Throughout the movie, Birdman—sometimes in the form of a movie poster, and other times as an actual character in shots with Keaton/Riggan, once even standing up to pee in the same bathroom, wings and all—basically tells Riggan that he’s worthless. Birdman bashes his confidence on a regular basis, trying to convince Riggan to abandon his effort to produce a play.
For example, Birdman says, “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” And “Now you’re about to destroy what’s left of your career.”
Every time Birdman did that confidence-bashing thing, I cringed, because a voice in my head has been saying I can’t write this new novel. My Birdman says things like this:
“Jeez, where did you get those tired metaphors? Talk about off-the-shelf, overused imagery! You should be ashamed to stoop to this.”
“Only a crazy person would write a chapter like that last one you cranked out. Or maybe a drunk.”
“Good thing your editor liked the last novel. Too bad she has to see this smelly disaster. Oh, wait. You don’t have a contract for another book after this one, do you? Too bad.”
Watching Riggan battle his inner Birdman made me come home from the movie theater and march over to my laptop. I will keep going. This novel might not be great art yet, but it’s not done yet, either. Here’s the truth: You have to write a book before you can revise it, and you have to wade through lots of junk to get to the good stuff.
So that’s what I’m doing. Every day, I’m just sorting through more junk. It doesn’t have to be original or brilliant. That’s for later, when I start cleaning and polishing. Right now I’m just telling a story. My novel will take shape. All I have to do is keep breathing life into it.
Happy writing, everyone!