Writing Romance as Wish Fulfillment?

My most consistently popular post on this blog is 7 Favorite Movies about Writers and Writing (and Reading). Last night I finally watched Becoming Jane (2007) starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy and now I find I must add it to my list.


To me, a movie makes the cut in the same way a book does — if when it ends there’s a little ache in my heart, a little place inside that now feels empty and full at the same time. This was such a film. When I turned off the TV at midnight last night, I found that I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even close my eyes even though the room was dark, I was in bed, and it was certainly time to retire for the night.

If you’re a fan of Jane Austen’s novels or of their film adaptations, you should pop over to Netflix and watch Becoming Jane, either alone or with a sympathetic companion.

I don’t read genre romance and I don’t write genre romance, nor do I aspire to. But I do like romantic elements in book or a film. I have, in the past, viewed the writing of romantic plots or characters as perhaps too common, not quite literary enough. I don’t know why — perhaps simply because the books one reads as an English major (other than Austen and Shakespeare) don’t tend to be terribly romantic.

Perhaps it is also because a lot of category romance in our day is overtly sexual. I’m not interested in stories like that. I am of the mind that sexual tension is far more interesting to read about than sex, and once characters get together, whether by marrying or sleeping with each other, the story is done in my mind. Think about it. Wasn’t The Office far more fun to watch before Jim and Pam got together?

There’s also a stereotype that women who write romantic stories are trying to fill some void in their own lives. But why should that have to be so? Doesn’t everyone want romance? Doesn’t everyone enjoy that lovely, terrible, desperate feeling of being utterly at the mercy of another person’s glances and smiles? Why do otherwise sensible people jump out of perfectly good airplanes? Because we like the feeling of falling. And that’s why we like romantic stories — we get to fall along with the characters.

There is some truth to the notion that writing romance can be wish fulfillment for an author. It was for Jane. And that’s what makes her story so beautifully sad. But it isn’t in every case.

When my husband first read the manuscript for I Hold the Wind he commented that it was a far more romantic story than I’d written before. I hadn’t thought about it, but I had to admit he was right. My initial reaction to this comment was to be a bit defensive. I didn’t write a romance! And then it was to worry that he might be a bit offended, that he might think I’d written something romantic because I was lacking romance. After all, we had been married for more than fifteen years at that point.

Of course both reactions were wrong. I didn’t need to be defensive. I should rather be glad that he thought it was romantic. That means it made the reader have a bit of that feeling, that feeling of falling. Zach likes romantic stories, especially when people get back together after a falling out.

And I didn’t need to worry about the writing being some unconscious wish fulfillment. I was simply following the story and the characters as they developed. I didn’t set out to write a romance — I set out to write a story about the books that stick with us. It became a romantic story naturally, because a guy and a girl were sharing and discussing books, which can be an intimate exercise.

It also became a romantic story because our relationship to the books we love can be like a romance. We fall for books like we fall for people. There are books we will never fully get off our minds, just as there are crushes in our youth (whether on a person we actually knew or a popular musician or actor whose poster we had on our wall) that we’ll always remember, no matter how many years we’ve been happily married. I know I have nothing to fear over Rebecca St. James and Zach knows he has nothing to fear over Donny Wahlberg (Mark Wahlberg, maybe). We don’t love those old crushes, forsaking all others. But we’ll never completely shake them. They are part of what makes us us.

Same thing happens with movies and actors. Zach and I have discovered recently that we have some mutual celebrity crushes (Jake Johnson, Chris Pratt, Zooey Deschanel). And because we’ve been watching movies with each other for 22 years, we love many of the same films and TV shows. Sure, we have our own separate flings — I will never understand his attraction to Burn Notice and he will never understand my attraction to Under the Tuscan Sun or The Last Unicorn — but by and large, we fall for the same shows: Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey, Gosford Park and The Boondock Saints.

I doubt he would fall for Becoming Jane, though I won’t tell you why. Maybe that film is just my little affair. But I do know this: I shan’t shy away from the romantic in my writing if that is where a story wants to go. Because we all like the feeling of falling, our characters included.

It’s a Banner Day in the Bartels House

My husband‘s first traditionally published novel releases today! You probably already read some of the great reviews that have been coming in. We couldn’t be happier. If you like suspense/thrillers, like edge-of-your seat action, like getting blindsided by plot twists, and like your humor on the sarcastic side, this is your read!

PlayingSaint1

Yesterday, Parker Saint’s only concern was his swiftly rising star power.

Today, he’s just trying to stay alive.

Parker Saint is living the dream. A cushy job at a thriving megachurch has him on the verge of becoming a bestselling author and broadcast celebrity—until life takes an abrupt turn that lands him on the wrong side of the law. To avoid a public scandal, he agrees to consult with the police on a series of brutal murders linked by strange religious symbols scrawled on each victim.

Parker tries to play the expert, but he is clearly in over his head. Drawn ever deeper into a web of intrigue involving a demanding detective, a trio of secretive Vatican operatives, and a centuries-old conspiracy to conceal a mysterious relic, he realizes for the first time that the battle between good and evil is all too real—and that the killer is coming back . . . this time for him.

“I don’t want to read the book. I’ll watch the movie.”

How many of you out there have heard this song from Switchfoot’s first album in 1997?

It was a favorite GenX anti-anthem of mine in college. I joined the members of Switchfoot in lamenting our generation’s general laziness and lack of ambition. But then this week I found myself in this very situation.

In 2003, Donald Miller’s memoir Blue Like Jazz came out and seemed to almost singlehandedly resurrect the memoir genre for the Christian subculture. Devotees sprang up everywhere I looked, so I figured I ought to read it for myself. However, despite enjoying memoir (I’ve read several over the past few years that contained some of the most lovely writing and emotion I’ve ever encountered in written form) I just couldn’t get into it. It seemed…I dunno…just a bit too whiny.

Whatever it was, I couldn’t relate, and so I couldn’t get past the first chapter. I’ve read nice quotes pulled out of that book and I’m sure Donald Miller is a great writer, but his story of growing up without a father, questioning God’s existence and God’s love, hiding his faith from others during college–it just didn’t resonate because my life experience has been different.

And that’s fine. Lots of people bought Miller’s book. Lots of people love it. He doesn’t need me to be a success.

BlueLikeJazzSomewhere along the way, Blue Like Jazz became a movie. A movie I had no interest in seeing, but that my husband, a compulsive consumer of Christian movies (both sincerely and ironically), kept badgering me about. Okay, badgering is too strong a word, but it kept coming up. And on an evening when there was nothing either of us wanted more than to finally sit down and vegetate, I said I’d watch it.

Blue Like Jazz the movie was pretty good. The acting was beyond the moon when it comes to Christian films. The book had been plucked for the most compelling storytelling bits. And it was made by the incomparable songwriter-turned-director Steve Taylor who wrote, among other things, most of the Newsboys songs I love.

The reason I bring this up is not to critique the book or the movie, but to talk about narrative. Narrative in a memoir and narrative in a movie are different. Unless we’re talking about some art house film at Cannes, movies generally have a stronger narrative and more forward motion than a memoir. A memoir feels recollected (because it is) while a movie, even if it begins with a voiceover from the narrator, and even if we then hear that voice now and then later on in the film, is experienced as though it is just now happening because we viewers get to see the action as it happens on the screen.

The medium isn’t necessarily the message, but it sends a message. It creates expectations in people that, when left unmet or when trampled upon, create dissatisfaction.

Occasionally you read an article that should really be given a book-length treatment. Occasionally you read a book that really only has enough substance for an article. Occasionally you read a short story that you wish was a novel. Occasionally you read a novel that would have been far better as a short story. Occasionally a memoir is better as a movie.

Is the form in which you are writing truly the best form for what you want to get across? Are you writing a novel because that somehow feels more legitimate than a short story? Are you trying to stretch a theme out to be a book when it would actually have more impact as a series of blog posts? What expectations do readers have of your chosen genre? Are you meeting and exceeding those expectations?