Molly Ringwald on writing and advice she got from Bret Easton Ellis
Molly Ringwald, who comes from a family of voracious readers, started writing as a child -- before she became an '80s teen icon who starred in such John Hughes films as Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club -- but says she never really thought she'd publish anything. Last year, though, she released her self-help memoir Getting the Pretty Back; the just-released When It Happens to You is her first novel.
In advance of her appearance at the Tattered Cover LoDo on Wednesday, September 19, we spoke with Ringwald about her writing process, her favorite authors and the advice she got from Bret Easton Ellis.
Westword: You've been an avid reader since a kid. What initially drew you to reading and then writing? Molly Ringwald: I've been reading since I was a kid. I come from a family of really voracious readers. Then I started writing pretty much all through school. Started writing pretty seriously in my late teens and early twenties, but I never necessarily thought that I would publish. It was just something that I did as kind of a creative outlet and something that I was interested in. So that's kind of how that happened.
I know there are a lot of people who say that writing is one of those things that really can't be taught, but you can obviously learn a lot of from reading a lot. What's your take on that?
I think you can certainly get better from being taught, but in my case I wasn't really taught because I didn't do the MFA program and I didn't even go to college. So it was really something that I learned through reading and also through writers that I know. I've always gravitated towards writers or musicians, so I think just having that community definitely helped a lot.
I heard that Hunter S. Thompson went so far as to copy The Great Gatsby and Hemingway's Farewell to Arms, and I think he just sat down at the typewriter and copied the books to see how it felt to write like those guys. Yeah, my husband has actually done that. Not with a typewriter. My husband's a writer and an editor. He has a really extensive journal where he would copy long paragraphs by hand. I think that's a great way to really study structure. I like to read books first just for the visceral reaction, and then if it's something that I really admire I go back and I think, "How is this done?" And then really look at the machinery and the technique. There are several books that I just go back and I read and reread. Yeah, I think that definitely helps a lot. What are some of those books? I would guess that Raymond Carver's books are some of them.
Definitely Raymond Carver. He's somebody I discovered as a teenager. I love his writing. I love his style. I think he went out of favor in the '90s because so many people tried to copy him, and that was when the big experimental writers kind of took over. He's just somebody that has always resonated with me. Joan Didion is another. There's a writer named Carol Shields that I really admire. Toni Morrison, whose style is completely different than mine, is pretty amazing. So many. And then the Russians: War and Peace and Anna Karenina and, of course Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. Dostoevsky. There are so many good writers. One thing about loving books is that you never run out of them, and you can always reread them.
Being an actor, writer and singer, do you find that they each complement each other?
Yeah. I definitely think so. Singing is something also, along with writing, that I've done for a really long time. It's something that I really enjoy. I feel like it's just in my blood. I was a singer before I was anything else because my dad's a jazz musician. I pretty much started singing with him almost before I could talk.
I'm sure they use different parts of the brain. But definitely I think they do complement each other. I definitely feel like when I write, you know, I read passages out loud and hear them musically. I can really tell when something's off or the music is not right. There has to be a certain meaning but for me there's a musicality to it as well -- a rhythm.
Has acting given you a better feel for writing dialogue?
Yeah, dialogue and also character. I just wrote an op-ed for the New York Times called "Act Like a Writer," and mentioned how it's always surprising to people when they hear that an actor has written literary fiction. But for me it's surprising, in a way, that more actors don't do it; it's so connected in terms of the character and the back story. As an actor you're always trying to figure out why a person does what they do; why they very often do exactly the opposite of what they're supposed to. And sort of the psychology of that is something I've always been interested in, and I think that's definitely extended into my writing.
There's another New York Times piece where you talked about getting an e-mail from Bret Easton Ellis and he essentially that if you hesitate writing prose based on other people's reaction, then you shouldn't write prose.
That was a very stern talking to. It's pretty funny since I was friends with him when American Psycho was coming out and there was such a huge reaction to that. And he was really upset with it, which I reminded him of when he sent me that e-mail, and was like, "Come on, give me a break. I was getting death threats." But yeah, I think it's actually really good advice because if you are concerned about what people think, there's just nothing more paralyzing than that. You know, fiction is different. If you're writing non-fiction you change names or you do composites or whatever. I think there's a way to be respectful of people, but I wrote a book of fiction and they're all invented characters. Were there times where your inner editor sort of came into play and maybe you thought, "What if my mom reads this?" or "what if my kids reads this?"
No. I totally turn that off. I'm very much a believer in the shitty first draft. I have no problem. I can really just sit down and write whatever badly, which is hard for my husband because he's a writer and he has a very strong editorial background so his first drafts are more like third drafts. For me, it all just kind of comes out.....I didn't really worry at all until there were galleys, basically. It's all always a little nerve-wracking to give your work to people that you know and care about. But my mom really loved the book, so all that worry was for naught.
There's a Thelonious Monk documentary, Straight No Chaser, where his sax player basically talks about recording with Monk and how they usually got one or two takes of a song because Monk thought that's where all the passion was. I don't know if you could relate that to writing, like the first draft is where all the energy and passion is.
I actually think there's something to that. That's interesting that you would draw that parallel. I do think that a lot of the passion comes from that first draft, and that's one of the reasons why I really do not like to think about anything. It's also like acting, too, in that once you do all the prep for your character you kind of have to turn off that other part of the your brain, that editorial process or that part of your brain that says, "Oh, there's an audience there" or "There's a camera in front of you." You have to turn all that off and just kind of be.
And it's the same with musicians. In fact, there was a study that was done. I'm not sure where it was done, but I heard about it on NPR --- they actually hooked up jazz musicians to find out what happens in the brain when they're improvising. Have you heard of that?
Yeah, I think I did read about that on NPR.
It was really interesting. There's actually a part of the brain that kind of lights up and another part that kind of shuts down in order to improvise. Yeah, I do think that comes into writing. Definitely if you're editing too much while you're writing, I think you can lose some of that spark. But it really depends. People write in all different kinds of ways. This is what works for me.
I read where you were talking about John Hughes felt like his scripts got worse as he rewrote them.
That's what he said. He said that he really didn't like revising and didn't like rewrites and he felt like his work got progressively worse. From experience, from working with him, I definitely felt like the first draft of The Breakfast Club that I read was way better than the subsequent drafts. But fortunately he brought in all the rewrites and he brought back all that stuff that he had cut. He wrote really fast. He wrote Sixteen Candles over a weekend. That was just kind of like the way that his brain worked. He wrote a lot. He just banged stuff out.
Are there things you took away from your experience of working with him that you apply to your own writing or acting?
God, it was so long ago.... I definitely respect my past, but I definitely don't live in the past. I think what I just got most from him was that he was somebody who had always told me from a really young age that I had to write and direct. And was very certain that that's what I had to do. He kept telling me that. And it always kind of stuck in my head as something that I had to do. So, now I've done part of it and now I just have to do the other part.
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