Andromeda: Boyhood’s Long Road to Success: An Inspiration for Wordsmiths

Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane: This is going to take a long time…

Whenever I’m feeling bad about how hard it is for me, my
students or friends to be novelists or memoirists—the years of self-education,
the long road to publication, the utter uncertainty that all that investment
will ever pay off—I find it refreshing to look at the movies. The Hollywood
movie business is so impenetrable that it makes New York publishing look like a
cakewalk. And I personally know many people who have written screenplays for
decades without seeing most—or any—of their work up on the big screen.
It isn’t only the beginner screenwriters who have a hard
time. Think of any favorite award-winning movie—Dallas Buyer’s Club, Gandhi, The King’s Speech—and there is some
story about how long it took the movie to get made, regardless of the talent and
experience attached.
I saw Boyhood last
week at Bear Tooth in Anchorage. What struck me, in addition to the great
acting and the constant deflection of the expected via a low-key, naturalistic
plot, was the fact that the director-writer, Richard Linklater, must have had an
incredible amount of faith, patience, and artistic integrity to lead such a
long-term project.

Boyhood, if you
haven’t seen it, follows the maturation of a boy aged 7 through high school
graduation, and was filmed a little bit each year, over nearly 12 years. It’s
not a documentary, it’s a drama, but a drama that unfolded flexibly, with input
even from the cast. Ethan Hawke contributed the bit about the Beatles’ Black
Album, a concept taken from his own relationship with his daughter. 
Actor Ellar
Coltrane got interested in photography during his teen years, and therefore so
did Mason Jr., the character he plays. The writer, Linklater, had imagined the
boy would grow up to be a musician, but when the actor discovered different
interests, Linklater welcomed the shift. That extension of freedom to one’s
actors, who were in turn inspiring the characters, seems something taken from
the novelists’ process. Your characters certainly don’t take over and write the
book, but they do surprise you, on occasion, or rather, you surprise you, finding storylines and moments and lines of
dialogue emerging without conscious thought, as a reward for all the time you
invest drafting and incubating.
It’s good to write fast, especially as a way to keep the
self-censors distracted. I’ll be teaching an online class this fall that takes precisely that quick-drafting approach, which has worked for novelists from Stephen King to John Steinbeck. But for some people and some projects, going
slow is the name of the game. Some projects—and I’m thinking especially of
memoirs that require an intense level of self-awareness, but also epic novels,
or nonfiction projects requiring exhaustive research—can’t be rushed. Also
worth mentioning is the manuscripts that are written quickly, but have to cool
a long time between drafts, or the manuscripts that are finished to a writer’s
satisfaction, but just can’t find a publisher for a long, long time.
How to sustain the drive and the confidence? How to run such
a creative ultramarathon without buckling? How to respect the long, natural
process of development—how to give it a name and the respect it deserves?
(In an excellent essay on friendship recently delivered to my inbox, Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to the German word naturalangsamkeit,
which means “the slowness of natural development,” as a property to embrace in
our relationships. He might have also said, in our artistic lives. Odd coincidence:
Linklater has been trying to do a movie about the American Transcendentalists, and has spent 15 years so far, trying to make something that isn’t the typical “bonnet movie period piece.”)
In the case of Boyhood,
Linklater wrote 12 separate scripts, and filmed 12 different short films,
adapting the overall story concept over time. He depended on his stars to stay
attached (think how much could have wrong with that, especially since there were
unproven child actors involved). How could he know it would work?
He knew it was a risk, but he—a lover of Tolstoy and a
disciple of the artistic long-shot— believed. He told, “I bet
the whole farm on what I thought would work with every ounce of my cinematic
being, the way we perceive time and cinema and the way we identify with people
put before us in a certain way. I thought, ‘Oh, there will be this cumulative
Slate critic Dana Stevens called the movie “a gradually
unfolding miracle.” Nice phrase isn’t it?
We’re usually not so kind and charitable when it comes time
to talk – or even think – about our own slow-brewing projects, and that’s for
the best. Overconfidence is not attractive.
But the occasional pep-talk doesn’t hurt. So here it is. Go
ahead and believe. Keep working on your own “gradually unfolding miracle.”

Our Tweety, flighty, ephemera-adoring world needs those
kinds of long-distance miracles more than ever.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour. She is a co-founder of 49 Writers and teaches in the UAA MFA low-residency creative writing program. She is also a book coach with a special interest in revision, narrative structure, and the lifelong development of the writer. Contact her at for more info on her book coaching services.

1 thought on “Andromeda: Boyhood’s Long Road to Success: An Inspiration for Wordsmiths”

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top