As I pointed out a few weeks ago , most pop-culture depictions of writers at their craft bear no relationship whatsoever to the actual craft of writing, or anything else a writer might be doing with their time. (Except when they show us fighting space aliens. We do that a lot.) Conversely, some of the best depictions of what writing is actually like come from movie scenes which have nothing whatsoever to do with the profession.
One of my favorite such cinematic moments – and one which I find myself living right now – comes towards the beginning of John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) is having a breakdown, the result of his ordeal in Manchuria during the Korean War; his commanding officer Colonel Milt (Douglas Henderson) has come to his apartment to check up on him. The apartment is filled with books, on every conceivable topic, which Marco has been desperately collecting to try and calm his racing mind. When Milt asks him about them, he barely knows what he’s referring to when he says…
Yeah, they also make great insulation against an enemy attack! But the, uh, truth of the matter is that I'm just interested, you know, in, uh, Principles of Modern Banking and, History of Piracy. Paintings of Orozco. Modern French Theater. The… Jurisprudential Factor of Mafia Administration. Diseases of Horses and novels of Joyce Cary and… Ethnic Choices of the Arabs. Things like that.
Every writer knows exactly what Sinatra’s thinking in that moment. We all have a variety of projects in our heads at any given time, all of which require varying degrees of research. And since there’s no way of knowing ahead of time how much research a project will need, or exactly what topics will come up during the course of that research, the writer’s brain – as well as their coffee table – becomes a byzantine jumble of different, random topics, all jostling and bumping up against one another.
That’s certainly where I am now. I still have to finish shelving the Arden editions, the copies of Holinshed’s Chronicles and Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Spencer’s The Faerie Queene and everything else I was referring to when writing my SNC submissions. But now that those scripts are finished? There are a number of projects that I know I want to tackle next, but they’re all still in such early stages that I don’t know where exactly to go with them, or which one to address first. As a result, I’m sort of doing the preliminary research for all of them at once, and so my coffee table is further cluttered with material on New York civic planning and the history of Kwanzaa and U.S. Supreme Court decisions from the 1940s and the life of King James I…
Disorienting as it may seem, it’s par for the course when you’re a writer. And all things considered, it’s not so bad. It’s not as if anything else from The Manchurian Candidate has come to pass lately –
Oh, wait. Nevermind.