3 Things David Lynch Taught Me About Writing

When my mom took me to see Mulholland Drive on my 18th birthday, this is what I knew: that the guy’s name was David Lynch and that he was behind Twin Peaks.

I remembered very little about the strange and dark T.V. show that my parents watched when I was much younger.  It wasn’t until years later – when I called myself a fan of David Lynch – that I watched his other films.

Mom always had a way of surprising me with movies.  The rentals she brought home to me always looked like artsy fartsy snoozefests.  But ever the movie junkie, I watched them anyway.

Each time, I was captivated by the craft and unique story-telling of these films, such as Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth or Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children.

Were it not for such films, my idea of story-telling would have been very narrow.  Mulholland Drive’s influence was very much the same.

I can’t spoil a plot that is confusing to begin with, so let me tell you a little about it:

A bright, young actress named Betty Elms, played by Naomi Watts, arrives in Los Angeles.  While staying in her aunt’s apartment, she finds a woman who suffers from amnesia after surviving an accident.  In a surreal narrative, Betty helps the woman unravel the mystery, and the film doesn’t end up in the same place where it started.

My first interpretation was that it was a movie inside of a movie.  Mom thought it was the dream of a failed actress lamenting what she lost.

There are several interpretations, but here’s what it taught me:

There are different ways to tell a story.  Lynch has a unique way of telling a story.  According to one interpretation of the story, the first part of the movie is a romantic dream sequence in which everything goes splendidly for Betty on her first day in Los Angeles.  In the second part, Naomi Watts’ character wakes up in the inescapable reality of her remarkable failure.

Lynch could have just told a story about a miserable bum of a Hollywood actress and her fall from grace.  Instead he shows us the dream she had for herself and contrasts that with the nightmare she created.  It’s an old story; an aspiring actress goes to Hollywood and becomes broken and disillusioned.  But he told it in a much different way.  You have the same possibilities with your writing.  Linear and static thinking will only cramp your style.

Challenge your audience.  Lynch’s work is like a riddle wrapped inside of a puzzle with an abstract painting in the center.  Even when you have the answers, it is still quite mysterious.  In Mulholland Drive there are several seemingly disparate elements: a cowboy, a crazy dream monster, and an old couple with cryptic grins.  What do they represent?  I have no idea.

Sure, I like my veg-out movies.  But as a reader I learned the frustration of an author beating me over the head, because they thought I was too dimwitted to take a hint.  Sometimes I just like to study the pieces, hold them gently, and feel their texture.  Challenge your readers to untangle the knot, and undoubtedly they will respect your for it.

Take risks. Mulholland Drive wasn’t exactly a blockbuster in 2001, which is tricky in a business that values squeezing every last dime out of a franchise.  (Fast & Furious 6, anybody?)  Watch Lynch’s other films, and you’ll find that they are in the same vein as Mulholland Drive: nightmarish visions interspersed with bizarre symbolism.  He took risks and has made a name for himself.

Writing already makes us vulnerable.  We don’t need the added challenge of setting ourselves apart from the status quo.  But you have to try something different to see what you’re really made of.

When I walked out of the movie theater, I thought to myself, “I want to write like that.”  Of course Lynch is certainly not the only filmmaker or writer to do any of these things.  There have been so many others, so I’d love to hear your comments below.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. I LOOOOOVE Lynch–and this post for putting him in a pedagogical relation to writing, where I agree he firmly belongs. Who, other than he, would have thought to include different filmic points of view of such foundational things as the single character? His characters change mid film! That’s not just a critique of Hollywood’s star system, that’s a new theory of personhood. I could go on, but there’s so much a writer could learn from Lynch. Another is the important way he judiciously borrowed from the French tradition of experimental cinema, making it palatable to American movie-goers. That’s no easy feat!

  2. Nice post. Even though I still have no Effing Idea what Mulholland Drive is about. I’m not any movie ever made me want to write in a certain way. Except for maybe reading Crichton and then seeing the movies Jurassic Park and Andromena Strain. Both of those made me want to write my own SciFi novel which I started and never finished. But I love that you brought my love of movies and my love of writing together. Good work!

  3. Mulholland Drive has a huge impact on me every time I see it. I think about it for weeks afterwards. The first time I saw it, it completely twisted my mind in the best sense. Lynch tends to do this for me. I would definitely suggest his entire filmography.

  4. P. C. Zick says:

    Twin Peaks was a brilliant series. We watched when our daughter was young, and then as a young adult she bought the DVD to watch. Compelling plot twists, tension building, and risk-taking in storytelling all contribute to a masterpiece.

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