Creativity, failure, and Mistress America: a non-review about me

All romance and failure.
This is probably too personal, too rambling and self-indulgent to be published on the Internet masquerading as a film review, but here goes nothing. 

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the library to borrow Tiny, Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed’s compendium of letters from her time as online agony aunt Sugar. I was in need of some wisdom that only the empathetic but bullshit-free Strayed can give.  I opened it to a page, and as luck would have it, sensing my doubts, it was a letter called ‘Write Like a Motherf*****’. It’s one of the most well-known of the letters Strayed wrote, a Google search will yield stores that sell coffee mugs with that title, the finale line of the letter, printed on them. In the original letter, Elissa, a “woman of 26, a writer who can’t write”, speaks of being “mentally immobile” and “sick with panic that I cannot override my limitations…to write well, with intelligence and heart and lengthiness”, of fears of inadequacy, failure and wasting life on something she might not have in her.

Cheryl responds with empathy, but also hardened perspective, as always. She speaks of feeling inadequate, a failure for not living up to her young promise of being able to meet her self-set age deadline for having written a novel. But, she says, that was not wasted time. She writes:

I’d finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked.

When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to…I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person.

I’d finally been able to give it because I’d let go of all the grandiose ideas I’d once had about myself and my writing—so talented! so young!… It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do.

The past year has not been easy. I haven’t felt good about this for a year, maybe more. When I’m able to write something, I feel dissatisfied. I’ve sat at the computer feeling immobile, incompetent, an imposter at what I do. That some person that I don’t even remember told me I was good once, and I took it too far. Blame it on being stuck in a degree for a year and a half that I hated and felt powerless to get out of, blame it on anxiety, even blame it on being a ‘smart kid’ and never being equipped with what to do when things don’t go as planned, when their brain just can’t do what they want it to. It’s easy to blame, but it’s not anything’s fault. My brain simply changed for reasons I don’t know why. The page stays blank, the hours tick by, the sinking feeling in my stomach gets heavier. It’s like the words were sucked from me or in a confusing mess, the once endless screeds just bursting to get onto the page fully formed vanished or impossible to untangle.

It’s an admission I’ve been avoiding viciously, because of how ashamed I am of it, how frustrated I am with myself, feeling like a fraud in the company of so many talented people. It’s embarrassing, and makes me feel stupid for thinking that I ever thought I had a chance in this dog-eat-dog industry. There are thousands better than me, thousands more committed people who can write screeds and screeds of insight at the drop of a hat, full of wit and style, while I keep staring at a blank screen. I tell myself its because they’re older with more life experience, but then I rebut myself with “but if you can’t do it now, when can you?”. Passion is no longer enough to get me through. Everything I write feels inadequate. How in the world am I going to compete with them for the precious few jobs, when I’ve been stuck in a funk while my early 20s, time to find success, trickle away?

Lola Kirke as Tracy

The past year or so has been a culmination of anxieties that bring me to tonight, sitting in a foyer of a cinema and then at home feeling like I should delete this ramble and start again, feeling utterly emptied out by Mistress America (a surprise, I haven’t been this passionate or affected by a film for most of this year), like someone took my fears and made a film of them, because I sure as hell saw them divided into the two characters of Tracy and Brooke.

Tracy (played with innocence and intelligence, with great comic timing to boot by the fast-rising star Lola Kirke) is passionate about writing. A newly-arrived freshman in college, she’s an outsider from high school who’s become an outsider in New York, feeling like everyone except her has been handed the book on how to fit in and be successful.

Sam Levy’s photography is colourful, but like Frances Ha, hides a loneliness in its wide shots. Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’s electronic soundtrack that harks back to the 80s feels exciting, but also empty. Early on, during a phone call to her mother, she says “you know the feeling of being a party when you don’t know anybody? College is like that, the whole time” (oh, does it ever). Holding onto the grandiose ideas of her being a writer, she unsuccessfully applies for the literary society. Then, she meets Brooke.

Brooke (played extremely energetically by Greta Gerwig, who is starting to become a ghost of old Hollywood comics like Carole Lombard) is a person whose energy is initially dizzying, and everyone seems to love(in the later part of the film you wonder if she was just an apparition, a comment on the countless films where young, white men find inspiration from tragic relationships with idealised women). She possesses the confidence that only a high-school popular kid can (turns out, she was). In one night, she sings with a band, and goes to multiple parties. The next day, she talks of her plans for a home-style restaurant and meets with investors, teaches a class at SoulCycle, and tutors junior high students. And because college life, being told to “make friends in classes” (who does that?) is boring, Tracy follows her along for the ride, and you can’t help but gleefully follow.

Lola Kirke and Greta Gerwig as Tracy and Brooke.

I’ll refrain from saying much more, because the film is such a series of delightful accidents that one must discover themselves. Because, despite it being brutally sad and honest, hitting many of my anxieties, speaking my mind about never following through on things, never finding a true place in the world, my god, is it funny. And quotable. And truthful. Particularly a 15 minute sequence that feels destined to be played out on a stage, it frequently feels like a one-act comedy, hitting its stride with such a breathless momentum that its compact 84 minutes fly by in an instant. It’s the magical alchemy that Baumbach and Gerwig hit with Frances Ha, hilarious, but also melancholic and doubtful about when the magic of life ends.

This is where it really hurts. Brooke, looking at her ability to have grand ideas but never move past that first stage, says “I’m just in love with everything, but can’t work out how to make myself work in the world.” While possessing the same approach as Frances Ha, Baumbach is more successfully treading the same territory as While We’re Young, the pursuit for originality and creativity as time ticks away. Baumbach and Gerwig accurately portray the feeling of when it hits its stride perfectly. When Tracy is with Brooke, finally feeling in-tune with someone, a part of something her writing flourishes. When creativity flows, it’s like being allowed on the inside of something, where you can just ‘get’ it perfectly. Tracy is a part of Brooke’s mad schemes, where everything is a happy accident, which inspires her with the same creativity and verve as Brooke. But when it doesn’t work, when the ideas don’t come to fruition for unnamed reasons, when it all falls apart, it feels like the end of a grand romance.

Tracy looks at the disaster around her, the work of writing, of fiction, of inspiration (or lack thereof), of feeling like a premature failure like Brooke. The magic has fallen away, leaving doubt in its wake. “You haven’t been dropped into your own body yet” she’s told. She replies “if I’m not in my body, where am I?”, can’t, won’t wait for such a thing to happen, for fear of it never coming.

After experiencing this, in stitches but then wanting to cry at the irreverent joy but also pain that when Baumbach gets, he gets, I can’t help but that own question and doubt about myself be exacerbated, but also puzzlingly quelled. I’m doubting myself, more than ever, feeling like this funk I’m in is never going to end. Where am I right now? Well, 1700 words later of rambling about Cheryl Strayed and my personal problems, I’ve admitted something about myself I’ve fought to deny for a while. With each paragraph I’ve written of this, I’ve fought against not continuing this non-review ramble, and just deleting it and writing a ‘real’ one that glosses over why Mistress America hit me so hard. That’s a development. But like at the end of Frances Ha, I’m wondering if it’s worth it. Promise feels so utterly overwhelming and exciting, but where does it go? Is the magic over forever? Should I just pack up while I can, before it gets worse? My initial feeling was this, sitting in that foyer thinking that I should just give up on my dreams, but now I’m feeling more optimistic, like Tracy and Brooke at the end of the film. I’m not ‘cured’ of my funk, my confidence in myself and my inspiration hasn’t returned. But, maybe thanks to the fantastic work on the part of Baumbach, Gerwig, and Kirke, that has allowed me to get all of this off my chest, it’s started returning.

Rating: 5/5
Mistress America opens in limited release around Australia on October 29. Please, see it.
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