Although we’re past the Christmas season, every writer should watch the movie “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” It’s the perfect examination of a writer’s life.
The title is a misnomer. Charles Dickens didn’t invent Christmas. He only revitalized interest in it. During the industrial revolution, employers saw no reason to close their factories and cease production on Christmas day. And many of the old customs of the British countryside, holiday feasts and dancing, did not fare well among the crowded housing and low wages of urban life.
Dickens’ novella “A Christmas Carol” reminded people of past celebrations and hit an emotional nerve that had them yearning for a holiday of goodwill. He also wrote other Christmas stories, but his first is best remembered.
But writing “Carol” was no easy feat, according to the movie, which is grounded in fact.
The film begins with Dickens on a lecture tour of America. Before the days of mass media, writers were treated like rocks stars. Dickens in greeted with standing ovations before he even speaks. How many contemporary writers have encountered a reception like that? Amid the clamor of the appearances, though Dickens would rather be at home, writing.
After the tour, Dickens’s publisher informs him that his last three books were “flops,” and an advance may not be forthcoming. The author is spending too much money on home improvements and he needs to borrow money. His wife is pregnant—again. Dickens needs to write another hit immediately.
But he’s out of ideas. As Dickens says, “Shakespeare—now there’s a man who could write. I doubt that he ever had a blockage.”
The author hates that his income depends on producing an endless stream of prose. “I’m sick to my teeth of writing for bread. I should have become a journalist.” Today, few authors can fully support themselves on fiction writing alone. They write in other fields, work a day job or have a second income from a spouse.
Dickens carries a small notebook with him and jots down unusual names of people he encounters. At a club he meets a man named Marley. “If you get the name right, the character should appear,” says Dickens. Many writers also keep lists of story ideas, names or trivia to use in their work.
Dickens hits on the idea of writing a Christmas story, but his publisher says no. Like many modern authors, he turned self publishing.
A small press quotes him the cost for the books, which will have color illustrations and fancy binding.
“You’ll have to sell every copy to make your money back,” says the printer.
Dickens replies, “That is my intention.”
How many authors sell every printed copy of their work or earn out their advance?
Dickens then hires the illustrator, Mr. Leech, who is taken back by the author’s demands and deadlines. “What you’re asking is impossible for an ordinary man,” says the illustrator.
“But you are no ordinary man,” says Dickens. “You are a genius.”
Later, when Leech receives copies of the text, he is again dismayed. “I am not a hired hand. I am an artist,” he says. “A jolly ghost (Ghost of Christmas Past). I can’t draw what I don’t understand.”
Can we have a show of hands from authors who have disliked the cover art for their books? I hate one of my book covers. My publisher hired the designer, a new person she wanted to try out. The first cover the designer gave me was appalling. I gave a concept to the designer, but she failed carry it out the way I wanted. Rather than making changes, the designer insisted she be paid. My publisher never used her again.
Now the pressure is on Dickens to write, as Christmas is only a few weeks away. “The characters won’t do what I want!” he moans. “I’m afraid if I can’t finish it I’ll never write again.”
His wife tells the servants to avoid him. “We must not disturb the poet when the divine frenzy is upon him.” Yes, we writers often say no to other obligations or friendly chitchat whenever we’re facing deadlines or feeling inspired.
When Charles neglects his family, his wife says, “I fear your characters mean more to you than your own flesh and blood.”
Authors often feel their creations are so real they can touch them. For Dickens, his characters actually come alive. He even takes Scrooge with him on a walk around London.
Scrooge is not an easy person to get along with. “I fear your representation of me is rather one-sided,” Scrooge says to his creator, “I have written a speech . . .”
“No!” Dickens shouts. “I’m the author!”
I’ve hear authors say how their characters will take over the story or move the plot in a different direction or say things that the writer didn’t plan. The clay tells the potter how to build the pot.
The other characters of “Carol” begin to crowd Charles’ small office. After he yells at them, one says, “Was he the author? No wonder he looked so depressed.”
The writer shouts to his characters, “Go on, back to work!”
In the end, of course, “A Christmas carol” was a smash hit and Dickens did sell every copy of the first run. People began to celebrate Christmas in high spirits, and Charles went on more tours just to read “Carol” aloud to eager listeners.
Would anyone pay me to read my writing aloud to them? Maybe not, but as long as they read and enjoy them, then my work is well done. And if I get “blockage,” I can watch the movie again and see how Charles Dickens overcame his obstacles.