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.

7 Favorite Movies about Writers and Writing (and Reading)

I love stories about writers, writing, and books. I love movies about the same. So here’s a list of some of my very favorite movies about writers, writing, and reading. Most are movies I watch over and over again. Some I’ve only just seen for the first time recently.

I’ve left off some with great concepts but poor execution (I’m betraying my fantasy-obsessed childhood self, but I have to put The Neverending Story in this category because it is SO very cheesy when you watch it again as an adult) and I’m sure I’ve left off some good ones because I haven’t seen them (so please add them in the comments if you are so moved so I can put them in my Netflix queue). Also, I very much doubt I’m covering any new ground here, but for what it’s worth, and in no particular order…

[WARNING: These trailers give away a lot of fun surprises in the movies (Why do they DO that?) so if you just want to experience these movies without the little spoilers, please refrain from clicking and just go find them on Amazon Prime or Netflix.]

Adaptation


I know that you either love Nicholas Cage or hate him, and that will color your decision to watch or not watch this movie, but who doesn’t love Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper? No one. What I love about this movie: I love when writers enter their own story; I love the commentary on genre, on being true to one’s own style and method of writing, and on the tired old cliches that we love nonetheless; I love Nicholas Cage. There. I said it.

Stranger Than Fiction


Proof positive that Will Ferrell can act (ergo, the question is raised, Why doesn’t he do this more often?) and that he can be believably romantic. Also Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman are fantastic. What I love about this movie: Again, I love the mixing of worlds between writers and their characters; I love slightly illogical and slightly surreal stories that couldn’t really happen but the creators offer absolutely no explanation as to why it’s happening because it doesn’t really matter in the long run; I love how morbid and off-kilter Emma Thompson’s character is.

Midnight in Paris


Dare I admit that this is the first Woody Allen film I’ve actually seen? I’ve heard so much poo-pooing of his movies over the years that I haven’t sought them out. But this is a wonderful, magical film about writers, artists, and other creative types; about the seductive power of nostalgia; and about taking the right chances. What I love about this movie: Owen Wilson; the huge supporting cast of fantastic little surprises; the costuming and lighting; the unique storyline (which doesn’t come through in the trailer, but I’m not going to spoil it for you).

The Hours


This film enchanted me even before I knew I loved Virginia Woolf’s writing. The same story told through three different women in three different cities in three different eras–one writing the story, one reading the story, one living the story. What I love about this movie: Fabulous performances (how could they not be with that cast?); the examination of the power of story; the feeling that the words we write have life and meaning far along down the road.

Julie & Julia


Another film starring Meryl Streep? Yes. It seems the woman loves literary films as much as I do. But isn’t this movie about cooking? Yes, but also writing–a cookbook, letters, a blog. Writing your passion onto the page in the form of recipes. Writing about your life to your closest friend. Writing about your crazy experiment to perfect strangers. But always writing (and eating). This movie will make you hungry and inspire you to get Julia’s cookbook (the chapter on eggs alone can change your culinary life–seriously) and buy some really good knives.

84 Charing Cross Road


Oh, how far we’ve come in the world of movie trailers. This little bit gives you almost nothing of the tender quality of this film. Anthony Hopkins is a London bookseller and Anne Bancroft is a New York City bibliophile who can’t get the rare books she wants in NYC. These two characters begin a correspondence after WWII and get to know each other over a couple decades through letters and books. I loved seeing the economic and social differences between post-war Britain (with its deprivation and rations and ruins) and America (with its prosperity and expansion and optimism). A great film about the power of books.

Under the Tuscan Sun


She’s a writer whose marriage is over. At the behest of her concerned friends she takes a trip that will change her life and her writing. Based on a memoir (which I haven’t read), this movie is wonderfully brought to life through Diane Lane’s acting and narrating. The thought of spontaneously starting over in life (especially in a foreign country) is the impetus for many a literary character’s actions and holds such a romantic fascination for us, doesn’t it? Plus, it’s a movie about a house, an old house, and bringing that house back to life. What’s not to love?

Oh, I know I’ve missed some great ones, along with ones I haven’t had a chance to watch yet. And I haven’t included TV shows, but if I did I would put Mad Men in there.

What are your go-to literary movies?

“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?