North Bay poet Terry Ehret critiques 'Finding Forrester'
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.
"I HAVE THIS very superstitious notion that talent doesn't really belong to people," states the talented Terry Ehret, her elbows resting on my dining room table, a cup of hot tea cradled in her hands. "I don't think we own our talent," she says. "I think we only borrow it."
Ehret speaks these words in a soft, expressive voice that only rarely rises above a murmur--though it always does so whenever she laughs. And she's laughing now.
"This all sounds silly," she continues. "But I truly think talent is something that only comes along for the ride during a person's life. If you're talented, then you are merely the chosen vehicle for that talent for as long as you live, and your only job as an artist is to be a good steward of that talent, to nurture it and make it bigger. Just a little bit. Then you die, and the talent is reborn into somebody else so they can get a running start. This is how we end up with child prodigies, people like Mozart.
"This is how you get Jamal Wallace," she continues, "a brilliant writer who's only 16 years old."
Jamal--the brilliant writer of whom Ehret speaks--is the fictional star of director Gus Van Sant's inspiring new film Finding Forrester. Played by Robert Brown, he's an African-American high-schooler who hides his desire to write from his friends, but accidentally becomes the pupil of a reclusive writer named William Forrester (Sean Connery). A cranky, agoraphobic author who once wrote the Great American Novel, Forrester long ago dropped out of sight, never to publish again.
When Jamal, acting on a dare, breaks into Forrester's prisonlike Bronx apartment, the boy accidentally drops the backpack that contains a number of his personal writing journals.
When Jamal finally retrieves his books, he finds that the mysterious old man has proofread every word, filling the books with corrections and underlinings and pithy critical notations like "This is constipated writing!" and "What do you want me to feel by this sentence?" and "Great passage! You should write more like this!" Before long, the boy is back in Forrester's home, on the receiving end of a first-rate writer's education.
Ehret enjoyed the movie. To put it mildly.
"It was thrilling," she says. "I'm thrilled anytime a movie happens to be about writing."
Ehret is the author of two poetry collections: Lost Body (Copper Canyon Press, 1993) and Suspensions (now out of print). In 1995, she won the coveted Pablo Neruda Prize for poetry for her poem series The Thought She Might: Picasso Portraits, selected out of hundreds of entries by the prestigious literary journal Nimrod.
Ehret is also a founding member of the 16 Rivers writers' collective, a small group of women writers who have taught themselves the ins and outs of publishing with the goal of producing their own high-quality volumes of poetry and short stories. The first two volumes--including a collection of poems by Ehret--are due out this fall.
She teaches, too. For several years, Ehret had worked with California's Poets in the Schools program, bringing her expertise to budding elementary-school poets throughout the North Bay. After teaching at the high school level for many years, Ehret now teaches her craft at both Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College.
Which brings us back to Finding Forrester.
"I loved the scenes where Jamal was sitting on his bed, hearing the next-door neighbors going at it, writing in his journal with his back against the wall," Ehret says. "That was so much like my own high school years: my back against my bedroom wall, my journal in my lap, writing, writing, writing.
"I identified with his sense that there just has to be something more than what he had," she continues, "that writing was the way to bring something better into being, to invent a world where he'd be more at home than the one he was physically stuck in. That was me."
So how would Ehret, as a writer who teaches writing, rate the teaching style of William Forrester? Was he any good?
"He kept telling Jamal, 'No thinking! No thinking! Just write!' " I mention. "Is this good advice?"
"It's dead-on," she replies. "Absolutely the right thing to say. I used those same words this morning, talking to a bunch of fifth graders. I was teaching them to warm up by 'free writing,' where you write as fast as your thoughts, faster if possible, with no censoring, no editing, no stopping, and no going back."
Forrester demonstrates that technique in the film when he sits down at a typewriter and pounds out a page in a minute flat.
"I was sitting there thinking, 'Yes! yes! Good advice, Forrester,' " Ehret says. "Don't think. That part comes later."
"What about the little remarks he wrote in Jamal's journal?" I interject. "What exactly is 'constipated writing'?"
"Oh. Well. constipated writing," Ehret explains with a grin, "is labored, self-indulgent writing, writing that is almost masturbatory. Writing that doesn't go anywhere."
"Have you ever written that on some poor kid's work?"
Ehret laughs. "Oh God, yes."
A few seconds tick by before Ehret makes another observation.
"What I saw going on between Jamal and Forrester was not the way my mentors worked with me," she says. "My mentors have mostly been women. They never messed with my writing like Forrester did. Instead, they'd talk to me. They'd talk about the things that matter in writing, and then they'd trust me to figure out what should stay and what should go."
Ehret's mentors did share another trait with Forrester: they believed in their protégé's writing.
"That's a very powerful thing," Ehret says. "To know that someone out there in the world has absolute faith in you, has absolutely faith that you will write something good.
"That," Ehret says, "is how you help someone to make their talent grow."
From the February 1-7, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.