That’s a question about creativity raised by the film “Starting Out in the Evening.” It follows an aging and mostly forgotten literary novelist who is forced from his routine when a young graduate student enters his life, ostensibly to research her thesis. It is a wooden and stilted film with some (mostly) unintentional awkward moments, though it does achieve a sort of grace by the end. The last thirty minutes are wonderful, and Frank Langella patiently builds a character, whom he proceeds to allow time to dismantle block by block.
I’m not a film critic, so I’ll stop with the analysis. What I should talk about is the subject…this is a film about the writing process, and, ultimately, the origins of creativity. Where does it come from? How do we channel it? The film doesn’t provide any real answers beyond the only one that someone who makes up stories can give: writing is just something you do. Asking why and from whence is for critics and English teachers. What matters is the process, which is what this film dwells upon and also what makes it interesting for writers.
Roger Ebert seconds this notion of the naivite of interviewers who ask the same old questions for which novelists and screenwriters have no real answer beyond what they think might sound good in quotes. About the graduate student who is interviewing Langella’s character, Ebert notes:
Soon she is discovering what every interviewer learns from every novelist: He doesn’t know what anything in his books “stands for,” he doesn’t know where he gets his ideas, he doesn’t think anything is autobiographical, and he has no idea what his “message” is. I am no novelist, but I am a professional writer, and I know two things that interviewers never believe: (1) the Muse visits during, not before, the act of composition, and (2) the writer takes dictation from that place in his mind that knows what he should write next.
Ebert’s two statements offer some of the truest understanding of the process as it works for me. Viewers who aren’t writers might drift off, but this film will raise interesting questions for anyone who spends a large portion of their time making up stories, tapping the keyboard with a limited idea where they are going and little to guide them beyond the faith that a story will eventually reveal itself if you are true to your compulsion and if you hang on long enough.