35 Movies About Writers and The Writing Life

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I don’t believe a solid, healthy writing practice is dependent on “inspiration.” It’s about commitment and dedication and being willing to put fingers to keyboard to pen to paper even when we don’t feel like it. Even when it’s hard or not our best.

That said, though, I AM inspired by much in life. Movies inspire me. Especially movies about writers and the writing life. If nothing else, they remind me that I’m not alone in the world with my magical, weird writer’s mind (which I wouldn’t trade for anything) and the importance of the truth telling we do.

Below are 35 movies (listed from oldest to newest) about the lives of writers.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

A screenwriter develops a dangerous relationship with a faded film star determined to make a triumphant return.

Director
Billy Wilder
Writers
Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.
Cast
William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Jack Webb, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton


All the President’s Men (1976)

“The Washington Post” reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncover the details of the Watergate scandal that leads to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Director
Alan J. Pakula
Writers
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (book)
William Goldman (screenplay)
Cast
Cast Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander, Meredith Baxter, Ned Beatty


My Brilliant Career (1979)

A young woman in rural, late-19th-century Australia aspires to become a writer, but her ambitions are impeded first by her social circumstance and later by a budding romance.

Director
Gillian Armstrong
Writers
Miles Franklin (novel)
Eleanor Witcombe (screenplay)
Cast
Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes, Robert Grubb, Max Cullen, Aileen Britton, Peter Whitford, Patricia Kennedy, Alan Hopgood, Julia Blake


The Shining (1980)

A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where a sinister presence influences the father, who’s working on a novel, into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from both past and future.

Director
Stanley Kubrick
Writers
Stephen King (novel)
Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson (screenplay)
Cast
Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone


An Angel at My Table (1990)

Janet Frame was a brilliant child who, as a teen, was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. Explore Janet’s discovery of the world and her life in Europe as her books are published to acclaim.

Director
Jane Campion
Writers
Janet Frame (books)
Laura Jones (screenplay)
Cast
Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Iris Churn, Jessie Mune, Kevin J. Wilson,
Francesca Collins


Henry and June (1990)

In 1931 Paris, Anais Nin meets Henry Miller and his wife June. Intrigued by them both, she begins expanding her sexual horizons with her husband Hugo as well as with Henry and others. 

Director
Phillip Kaufman
Writers
Anais Nin (book)
Phillip Kaufman and Rose Kaufman (screenplay)
Cast
Fred Ward, Uma Thurman, Maria de Medeiros, Richard E. Grant, Kevin Spacey,
Jean-Philippe Ecoffey


After a famous author is rescued from a car crash by a fan of his novels, he comes to realize that the care he is receiving is only the beginning of a nightmare of captivity and abuse.

Director
Rob Reiner
Writers
Stephen King (novel)
William Goldman (screenplay)
Cast
James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth, Frances Sternhagen, Lauren Bacall


Barton Fink (1991)

A renowned New York playwright is enticed to California to write for the movies and discovers the hellish truth of Hollywood.

Directors
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Writers
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast
John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub,
Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi


The Player (1992)

A Hollywood studio executive is being sent death threats by a writer whose script he rejected, but which one?

Director
Robert Altman
Writer
Michael Tolkin (novel and screenplay)
Cast
Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Gallagher, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Stockwell, Sydney Pollack, Lyle Lovett


The Pillow Book (1996)

A woman with a body writing fetish seeks to find a combined lover and calligrapher.

Director
Peter Greenaway
Writers
Sei Shonagon (book)
Peter Greenaway (screenplay)
Cast
Vivian Wu, Ewan McGregor, Yoshi Oida, Ken Ogata, Hideko Yoshida


With a Friend Like Harry (2000)

Harry knew Michel in high school; they meet again by accident, Harry inserts himself in Michel’s life… and things take a sinister turn.

Director
Dominik Moll
Writers
Gilles Marchand, Dominik Moll
Cast
Laurent Luca, Sergi López, Mathilde Seigner, Sophie Guillemin, Liliane Rovère, Dominique Rozan, Michel Fau


Wonder Boys (2000)

An English Professor tries to deal with his wife leaving him, the arrival of his editor who has been waiting for his book for seven years, and the various problems that his friends and associates involve him in.

Director
Curtis Hanson
Writers
Michael Chabon (novel)
Steve Kloves (screenplay)
Cast
Michael Douglas, Tobey McGuire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr., Katie Holmes,
Rip Torn


Adaptation (2002)

A lovelorn screenwriter becomes desperate as he tries and fails to adapt ‘The Orchid Thief’ for the screen.

Director
Spike Jonze
Writers
Susan Orlean (book)
Charlie Kaufman (screenplay)
Cast
Nicolas Cage, Tilda Swinton, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Susan Orlean


American Splendor (2003)

An original mix of fiction and reality illuminates the life of comic book hero everyman Harvey Pekar.

Directors
Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Writers
Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner (comic book series)
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (screenplay)
Cast
Harvey Pekar, Paul Giamatti, Shari Springer Berman, James Urbaniak, Daniel Tay

Swimming Pool (2003)


A British mystery author visits her publisher’s home in the South of France, where her interaction with his unusual daughter sets off some touchy dynamics.

Director
Francois Ozon
Writers
Francois Ozon, Emmanuele Bernheim, Sionann O’Neill
Cast
Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier, Charles Dance, Jean-Marie Lamour, Marc Fayolle,
Mireille Mosse


Secret Window (2004)

A successful writer in the midst of a painful divorce is stalked at his remote lake house by a would-be scribe who accuses him of plagiarism.

Director
David Koepp
Writers
Stephen King (novel)
David Koepp (screenplay
Cast
Johnny Depp, John Turturo, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, Charles S. Dutton


Sideways (2004)

Struggling writer and wine enthusiast Miles takes his engaged friend, Jack, on a trip to wine country for a last single-guy bonding experience. 

Director
Alexander Payne
Writers
Rex Pickett (novel)
Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor (screenplay)
Cast
Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh


Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (2005)

All but abandoned by her family in a London retirement hotel, an elderly woman strikes up a curious friendship with a young writer.

Director
Dan Ireland
Writers
Elizabeth Taylor (novel)
Ruth Sacks Caplin (screenplay)
Martin Donovan and Dan Ireland (additional dialogue)
Cast
Joan Plowright, Rupert Friend, Zoe Tapper, Robert Lang, Marcia Warren, Anna Massey, Georgina Hale, Millicent Martin


Capote (2005)

In 1959, Truman Capote learns of the murder of a Kansas family and decides to write a book about the case. While researching for his novel In Cold Blood, Capote forms a relationship with one of the killers, Perry Smith, who is on death row.

Director
Bennett Miller
Writers
Gerald Clarke (book)
Dan Futterman (screenplay)
Cast
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Allie Mickelson, Kelci Stephenson, Craig Archibald, Bronwen Coleman, Kate Shindle, David Wilson Barns, Michael J. Burg


The Dying Gaul (2005)

A grief-stricken screenwriter unknowingly enters a three-way relationship with a woman and her film executive husband – to chilling results.

Director
Craig Lucas
Writer
Craig Lucas
Cast
Peter Sarsgaard, Patricia Clarkson, Campbell Scott


The Squid and the Whale (2005)

Follows two young boys dealing with their parents’ divorce in Brooklyn in the 1980s, one of whom has a declining writing career.

Director
Noah Baumbach
Writer
Noah Baumbach
Cast
Owen Kline, Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, William Baldwin, David Benger,
Anna Paquin


Trumbo (2005)

In 1947, Dalton Trumbo was Hollywood’s top screenwriter, until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs.

Director
Jay Roach
Writers
Bruce Cook (book)
John McNamara (screenplay)
Cast
Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Maldonado, John Getz, Laura Flannery, Helen Mirren, David James Elliott, Toby Nichols, Madison Wolfe


Reprise (2006)

Two competitive friends, fueled by literary aspirations and youthful exuberance, endure the pangs of love, depression and burgeoning careers.

Director
Joachim Trier
Writer
Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt
Cast
Anders Danielsen Lie, Espen Klouman Hoiner, Viktoria Winge, Odd-Magnus Williamson, Pal Stokka, Christian Rubeck


Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

I.R.S. auditor Harold Crick suddenly finds himself the subject of narration only he can hear: narration that begins to affect his entire life, from his work, to his love-interest, to his death.

Director
Marc Forster
Writer
Zach Helm
Cast
Will Farrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah,
Kristen Chenowith


Atonement (2007)

Thirteen-year-old fledgling writer Briony Tallis irrevocably changes the course of several lives when she accuses her older sister’s lover of a crime he did not commit.

Director
Joe Wright
Writers
Ian McEwan (novel)
Christopher Hampton (screenplay)
Cast
Kiera Knightly, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Brenda Blethyn, Harriet Walter


Ruby Sparks (2012)

A novelist struggling with writer’s block finds romance in a most unusual way: by creating a female character he thinks will love him, then willing her into existence.

Directors
Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer
Zoe Kazan
Cast
Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Asasif Mandivi, Steve Coogan, Elliott Gould


Stuck in Love (2012)

An acclaimed writer, his ex-wife, and their teenaged children come to terms with the complexities of love in all its forms over the course of one tumultuous year.

Director
Josh Boone
Writers
Josh Boone, Rick Bitzelberger
Cast
Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly, Lily Collins, Nat Wolff, Kristen Bell, Logan Lerman, Liana Liberato, Michael Goodwin, Stephen King (voice)


Adult World (2013)

A naive college graduate, Amy, who believes she’s destined to be a great poet, begrudgingly accepts a job in a shop while she pursues a mentorship with reclusive writer Rat Billings.

Director
Scott Coffey
Writer
Andy Cochran
Cast
Emma Roberts, Summer Shelton, Chris Riggi, Shannon Woodward, Catherine Lloyd Burns,
Reed Birney, Manu Gargi, Cloris Leachman


Nightcrawler (2014)

When Louis Bloom, a con man desperate for work, muscles into the world of L.A. crime journalism, he blurs the line between observer and participant to become the star of his own story.

Director
Dan Gilroy
Writer
Dan Gilroy
Cast
Jake Gyllenhaal, Bill Paxton, Michael Papajohn, Marco Rodriguez, Kent Shocknek, Pat Harvey, Sharon Tay, Rick Garcia


Spotlight (2015)

The true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core.

Director
Tom McCarthy
Writers
Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy
Cast
Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci


Let Them All Talk (2020)

A famous author goes on a cruise trip with her friends and nephew in an effort to find fun and happiness while she comes to terms with her troubled past.

Director
Stephen Soderbergh
Writer
Deborah Eisenberg
Cast
Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest, Candace Bergan, Gemma Chan, Lucas Hedges


Shirley (2020)

A famous horror writer finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband take in a young couple.

Director
Josephine Decker
Writer
Susan Scarf Merrell (novel)
Sarah Gubbins (screenplay)
Cast
Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, Victoria Pedretti, Robert Wuhl


If I’ve missed one you know and love, please leave the title in the comments below, and I’ll add it to the list!

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Happy viewing!

Author Interview – Montrell “Chillin the Poet” Goss


What compelled you to tell the story/stories in your most recent book? (And specifically, why this genre?)

I wrote this story because a lot of the stories I listened to growing up were negative. They dealt with bullying and deaths. They had darkness. For example, the big bad wolf in The Three Little Pigs bullied them so he could eat them. In Goldilocks and the Three Bears she was responsible for breaking and entering and who looked bad? The bears. Those are just a couple of stories read to me over and over as a child. Hearing these stories put me in a place and created negative thoughts and from those thoughts, I became a bully. I found myself replaying what was read and taught to me. 

What obstacles—either inner or outer—did you encounter while writing the book?

When I was younger, a lot of my teachers judged me for not having a dad and labeled me a statistic. But I saw that what I learned was not right. So, with writing Chillin the Courageous Coyote Meets the Young Kids I was able to learn about myself, break the barriers and overcome the obstacles of judgment, and treat people who looked different than me or did not have as much as others may have had in a better way. 

How has writing your most recent book changed or added value to your life?

My book is not a traditional children’s book because my characters do not represent a certain race. They are multi-colored because I want every child to relate to the book. I have seen people not carry my book in their stores because I am a black author. However, through writing this book I have also gained a lot more respect and understanding from people that do not look like me. 

Did you self-publish, or did you go the traditional route? Why did you choose the route you chose, and what was that process like?

I chose to self-publish this book because I believe in myself, and I believe that people seem more genuine when you are self-published and trying to become more in life and become successful because they have seen my struggle and all the hard work it took to publish my books.

The process is easy for me because I have a team. I write the book and the team works on the other areas of the book before it can be published. For example, an illustrator from Forever Tattoo, a tattoo shot in Portland that sponsors me, helped me with the art for my first children’s book. I also have an editor I’ve worked with for the past few years

Are you friends with other writers? If so, how do they influence your writing? 

I am friends with other writers. We feed off of each other’s energy. We share thoughts and learn different writing styles from one another. It also helps see different views and brainstorm ideas. 

Do you maintain a regular writing practice? If so, what does it look like? If not, how do you stay engaged in your writing projects?

I stay engaged in my writing projects by writing the book. I go full force writing and completing it to have it out for people to purchase. My process for writing can be different, depending on the day. Sometimes I write every day. Other times, I write when I feel inspired, like when I’m watching a movie or a show and hear a word that inspires me to write. I also like to do free style where I just listen to music and say what is in my mind.

How many other books or stories do you have in progress right now?

I am in the process of writing my second book in a five-book series. In this story, we’ll find out if Triple C (Chillin’ the Courageous Coyote) will go to school. Stay tuned to find out.

Do you view writing as a spiritual practice?

I don’t view my writing as a spiritual practice, but I do believe that writing is a gift from God, and I use writing as a tool to speak. 

What would your life look like if you didn’t write?

Without writing I feel that my voice would not have been heard as much. Writing is a platform for me to speak to people in ways to share my story. Everyone has a story, and sometimes, they need to hear someone else’s story to help them speak. I believe that I do that for people. 

Why do you write?

I speak to people. I show people no matter the challenges in life they can overcome them. For me, I could not read or write well. I did not have any help from my teachers, so I taught myself and pushed myself. I took my pain of not knowing how to read or write well and turned into my passion. Now I am a published author.


Montrell “Chillin’thePoet” Goss grew up in a single-parent household. He is the youngest child among five siblings: three older brothers and a younger sister.

Growing up illiterate, Montrell made it his passion to teach himself how to read and write. Throughout his life, Montrell “Chillin’thePoet” Goss has experienced different adventures and achievements. Working as a coach, summer camp counselor, behavioral specialist with the school system, and now full time author “Chillin’thePoet,”  he has found himself in many positions that have allowed him to act as a male role model, and mentor to the people, especially youth, around him. Now the author of six books, Montrell’s mission is to try and help change stereotypes and statistics within the school system and his community through his writing. 

To learn more about Montrell and his work, visit his website: https://chillinscreations.com/

Lewis Spears – Author Interview

What compelled you to tell the story/stories in your most recent book? (And specifically, why this genre?)

Working with the young men in Jersey City through my non-profit, I saw how they made bonehead decisions when they weren’t in my presence. They saw a lot of the hard work that I was doing but they didn’t understand the why behind many of the decisions I made for the organization. I really wrote the book, You’re the Answer to the Problem: From the Hood to Harvard and Back Again, so that they could have access to the information I thought was pertinent. Like, growing up in the same environment as me or navigating the same streets or even having the same teachers in their classrooms. 

All of those played a role in why I decided to write the book, and the genre was very clear. It had to be non-fiction. It had to tell a story. The young men had to be inspired by it, and they had to know what to do in order to be successful. So, I thought that I would lay the blueprint out so that they could know: 1) that we have similar stories, and 2) that if I did it, they could as well. 

What obstacles—either inner or outer—did you encounter while writing the book?

When I first started writing the book, I learned that my wife was pregnant. I didn’t understand at all what that meant. I knew that the baby was coming. I knew that there was an expectation for me being a dad, but I didn’t understand how tumultuous it would be, especially for me. So, basically, the outer struggle was navigating the life of a dad and also working full time. 

The inner struggle came from a lot of stories from my past that I either forgot or put on the back burner. Writing the book with the help of a book coach and therapy, allowed me to put things into perspective and really hone in on who I am as an individual. So, the inner work was difficult in that I was unable to, by myself, unpack it. But I had a team. A book coach and a therapist to help me unpack and make sense of my experiences. Some things that I allowed to remain unseen on purpose or hadn’t spoken about on purpose, surfaced again, and it caused a lot of strife and discomfort, and sometimes sadness, because I had to relive it again. But the one thing I learned is that I’m not the same helpless young man I was back then. Although I have these memories, I don’t have to be victimized. I am victorious.

How has writing your most recent book changed or added value to your life?

So interesting because I was just talking about this the other day. I have a cohort of individuals who are like, “Oh, wow, you wrote a book! That’s amazing!” The point of that is that I’ve been amazing, if that’s the case. The book doesn’t validate. It just magnifies. And so, the added value is that I have a title as an author now. And people really understand my story, so they know it was difficult for me. 

People see me in these boardrooms. People see me connected with CEOs and presidents of organizations, but I started out as a kid who had very little resources and worked really, really hard to obtain what I thought the American Dream should be. 

Did you self-publish or did you go the traditional route? Why did you choose the route you chose, and what was that process like?

I chose to self-publish, and I self-published because I wanted to create a publishing company under my son’s name just to pay homage to who he has helped me become. And you know, when we talk about legacy, it’s making sure that we put those systems in place to begin the process of legacy. And not just with morals because we’re going to leave productive citizens who are morally conscious—we’re going to build those types of kids (because we have two children now)—but also, at this juncture in my life, I feel financially obligated to set them up in ways that I wasn’t. 

Are you friends with other writers? If so, how do they influence your writing?

No, I’m not friends with other writers, per se. The majority of my friends are teachers because I was a teacher for fourteen years. I also have friends I’ve been connected to since childhood. I am inspired and influenced by my circle. I have so many amazing people in my life who are doing great, great, great things, and I’m inspired by the work they do, in general. The social, emotional learning and the cultural competence type of work educating young people… I’m inspired and attracted to that type of work. 

Do you maintain a regular writing practice? If so, what does it look like? If not, how do you stay engaged in your writing projects?

Yes, when I’m inspired, I have my notes in my phone, a big chart of poster board paper on a wall at my house that I doodle on. It starts with many ideas that come based on experiences. There are times when I think about privilege. Then, I examine the privileges that I’ve had, and then I’ll write a note about privilege. The other day, I wrote about meritocracy. I started writing about that. Then, I started writing about my life as a man, as a husband, and as a father. Then, I’ll look to see if there are any themes in all of my thoughts. Typically, there are, and I try to string them together with quotes or transitional sentences to create a robust piece. 

Writing isn’t my strong suit, so I am the big-picture guy, and then, I have support in terms of editing and connecting things, having someone read it and ask probing questions, so that the project continues to build.

How many other books or stories do you have in progress right now?

That’s so funny because people are asking me about another book. The experience with the first book, and my only book, has been interesting. When I think about the process, there’s trepidation there. I’m trying to work past that. But, yes. The short answer is “yes.” And I need to write something around young men and how to educate them appropriately, how to discipline them. Something in that arena, because that’s the place I occupy with my non-profit. I can rise as the thought leader in this space because I’ve had so many experiences with the young men and edifying them, developing them. I really look forward to the project because I’m excited about this. This will be a how-to book. 

Do you view writing as a spiritual practice?

Absolutely. I think the work that writers do is to hold a mirror to society in many ways, and push society into a better place. I find it to be very spiritually edifying in many ways because you’re speaking to the masses, and the work that you do is going to enhance the lives of others in a tremendous way. 

What would your life look like if you didn’t write?

Interestingly enough, I thought that teaching was going to be something I did for the rest of my life. I thought that because it was something I love, that I would never let it go. But since writing the book, I decided I wasn’t going to teach anymore, that my life’s purpose was going to pivot me in a different direction. So, I would still be the founder and executive director of my non-profit, Kismet of Kings, but I probably wouldn’t have the notoriety or the spotlight for writing the book. It would probably be about being a trailblazer in this arena with young men of color, particularly in urban settings. 

Why do you write?

I write because it is therapeutic for me. There are social ailments that make me think, “This could be better,” and so I write about it because I know that if I have an issue, or if I see that things could change, it’s probably something someone else has thought about or someone else needs. So, I write so that I can change the trajectory of the next generation so that they can dodge pitfalls that might cause them to fail. I think that my parents did the same for me. I think it’s our duty as a generation to do it for the next generation.


To learn more about Lewis, visit his websites: thehoodtoharvard.com and www.kismetofkings.org. To purchase his book: http://www.thehoodtoharvard.com/

Julia Stoops – Author Interview


What compelled you to tell the story/stories in your most recent book? (And specifically, why this genre?)

Parts per Million is a story of loss and transformation. While there’s quite a fast-paced plot, on an allegorical level the novel is about passing through a crucible and emerging changed. The alchemy of transformation has always fascinated me, how seemingly bad experiences can push people to new levels. I was also fascinated by environmental activists, particularly those who put their bodies on the line to blockade logging roads and sabotage operations they consider disastrous for ecosystems and animals. I wanted the novel to explore that place where commitment and self-sacrifice intersect. When I wrote the first draft, the US was freshly post-9/11, establishing the surveillance state and gearing up to invade Iraq based on a false narrative about weapons of mass destruction. Huge protests were happening in Portland and worldwide, but the war went ahead, anyway. At the time, I was teaching media studies at the Pacific Northwest College of Art and was hyper-observant of the way the build-up to war played out in the media. It was a bizarre and frightening time, and it all came together as material for Parts per Million. The plot involves a crew of environmental/media activists — small voices in the cultural wilderness — trying to hold it together while their country heads for war, they uncover the biggest scoop of their careers, and they grapple with personal tragedy. So there’s quite a bit happening on the interpersonal level. We watch the crew struggle and evolve, and that plays out against the backdrop of history.

What obstacles—either inner or outer—did you encounter while writing the book?

Well, the initial obstacle was that I knew nothing about writing fiction! I’d written a first draft in a sort of obsessed state. I hadn’t heard of the NaNoWriMo challenge, but I essentially did something like that on my own, just madly typing out the story over the space of a few weeks. It was a relief to get the plot down, but I knew my writing technique was green and that the manuscript was not something I’d ever show anyone. So I joined the Pinewood Table critique group and that opened up a new world for me. I spent several happy years taking the novel through several revisions as I learned about voice and point of view and writing in scene and so on. 

As for inner obstacles, I was vaguely aware that I wasn’t overburdened by them. Occasionally I had doubts but I just seemed to plow ahead, because I felt like I had nothing to lose. My creative background is in the visual arts. I have an MFA in painting, I have a 30-year exhibition history, and I taught art at the college level. On the other hand, my writing practice felt very different from my art practice because I was so green — the lack of baggage turned out to be a creative asset. I was sort of free-floating with it, unattached to an outcome. In joining the critique group, I was just following a call to improve the writing, and doing that in a non-academic setting was perfect for what I needed right then. 

How has writing your most recent book changed or added value to your life?

The Pinewood Table introduced me to so many wonderful writer friends, and I love being part of that community still. I also really valued getting a handle on fiction writing as a craft. I write a lot for work, always have done, so I knew how to write in an academic or formal way, but fiction writing was a new adventure. I think it’s made my everyday writing stronger. 

Did you self-publish or did you go the traditional route? Why did you choose the route you chose, and what was that process like?

When the manuscript was shortlisted for the PEN Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, I thought I’d have a little better luck querying agents, but after a couple of years of rejections I seriously considered self-publishing. Yet I hesitated, because while the query process is arduous and fraught with anxiety, the self-publishing process seemed to be that plus learning a lot of technical and promotional skills. The sheer workload involved was intimidating, a learning curve I didn’t want to climb. I was almost ready to put the manuscript in a drawer when Portland publisher Forest Avenue Press turned everything around for me by acquiring the manuscript in 2016!

Are you friends with other writers? If so, how do they influence your writing?

Writer friends are the most supportive, generous people I know. I learned so much from not only the Pinewood Table teachers Joanna Rose and Stevan Allred, but also my peers at the table, many of whom have gone on to be published authors. Jackie Shannon-Hollis, Scott Sparling, Yuvi Zalkov, Kate Gray, Harold Johnson and too many others to list here. And the Pinewood Table is where I met the amazing Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press — years before she founded her publishing house. So yes, my writer friendships have positively influenced every aspect of Parts per Million.

Do you maintain a regular writing practice? If so, what does it look like? If not, how do you stay engaged in your writing projects?

These days my writing practice is simply a personal journal that I keep as the mood strikes. The desire to write Parts per Million was initially a surprise to me — I couldn’t fathom why I felt so compelled belt out that first draft. Then, as I revised the manuscript over several years, the cadence was structured by the Pinewood Table’s dynamic of working on a few pages each week, which broke the project up into manageable chunks. But I’ve never had a strict routine. I’ve always fitting writing around working, so it’s more been a matter of being flexible and adapting.

How many other books or stories do you have in progress right now?

My creative focus visual art, which is my first love. My current studio practice is a painting series that’s been in process for about 18 months. I’m exploring acrylic polymers and how they interact with each other under certain conditions. I feel like a chemist, or maybe mad scientist is more accurate — I barely know what I’m doing! But in truth that’s a bit like what writing Parts per Million felt like — fun and alchemical, stumbling about a lot but I just flowed with it.

Do you view writing as a spiritual practice?

Yes, indeed. All creative activity is a spiritual practice. Writing, painting, building computer programs, gardening, cooking — it’s all a dialogue between what we know and what we don’t know, always opening up to what’s next, what’s possible. It requires an openness and a willingness explore, perhaps to fail, and always to try again.

What would your life look like if you didn’t write?

If I may, I’ll change that question to “if you didn’t create”, and the answer would be, rather sad. Sometimes life gets very busy with work and other obligations and I don’t get into my studio for a couple of weeks. Then start to feel a little nuts, and question the meaning of everything. Creating is medicine. The output doesn’t have to be anything fancy or even something for other people to “consume”, but it has to happen. I need to enter that dialogue on a regular basis or I start feeling lost and lonely.

Why do you write?
This is a question I asked myself over and over when I went through the blast of the first draft. I was baffled! I was a visual artist, why was I writing? What business did I have doing this? I had no ambition to be a writer, and yet I kept at it through the first draft, and I kept at it through the years of revisions. In retrospect, I realize that I had the story in me — the story of loss and transformation — and it needed to be told in words rather than painting. Why, I don’t know. But my body knew that writing was the way to get the story out. The fact that it later got published was a different process, and while the eventual publication was a wonderful outcome after so many years of work, it wasn’t connected to my initial impulse to write the first draft. At that time in my life my creative expression shifted from visual to verbal, and I simply followed along. It was a strange and wonderful experience.


Julia Stoops was born in Samoa and grew up in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Washington, D.C. She is a native of New Zealand and has lived in Portland since 1994. Her Portland-based novel, Parts per Million, was shaped by her experiences in community radio journalism and anti-war activism, and was shortlisted for the PEN Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. A visual artist as well as a writer, Julia Stoops is a recipient of Oregon Arts Commission Fellowships for visual arts and literature, and was a resident at the Ucross Foundation in 2016.


Creative hub: http://juliastoops.com
Parts per Million novel: http://partspermillion.net
Visual art portfolio: https://www.juliastoops.net

Lois Ruskai Melina – Author Interview

What compelled you to tell the story/stories in your most recent book? (And specifically, why this genre?)

I’ve primarily been a nonfiction writer. I began my career as a journalist. I developed a specialty in writing about adoption and wrote three books on that subject that were published by HarperCollins. I had a second career in higher education that was brief but required writing academic articles. So when I wanted to move from journalism to literary forms, it was natural to start with memoir and personal essays.

When I started some of the essays for The Grammar of Untold Stories, I wanted to tell a particular story—something happened in my life that I thought was interesting or provocative. But the challenge with personal essay is to find relevance that goes beyond the writer’s so that the reader can connect to it in a personal way. The title essay, for example, started as something I was writing for our annual holiday newsletter, and for that purpose it would have been fine to simply talk about what happened when I visited my grandmother’s village in Hungary. But as I wrote, I began to think about the immigrants who were at the time trying to make their way from Syria through Hungary to other parts of the world and the conflicts in the United States around immigration. My grandmother’s story and, in particular, the role of language in both communication and identity, took on greater significance and, I thought, gave the story wider appeal.

Other essays were driven by a desire to write about a feeling. I was influenced by Lidia Yuknavitch’s writing to think about how sometimes, even in nonfiction, the point of telling a story isn’t to tell what happened but to use what happened to go deeper into the resulting emotion. I tried and tried to write the story of my getting fired from my last job, and it just kept coming out bitter and defensive, but in “The Fires of Dismemberment,” I don’t give any details at all about what happened, I just tried to describe how it not only feels to get fired but also the intensity of that feeling. 

What obstacles—either inner or outer—did you encounter while writing the book?

When I started writing these essays, I had written enough memoir and personal essay to believe that I had the ability to write literary nonfiction. I was not working and my husband was encouraging me to do what I wanted to do, which was write literary nonfiction, so I had time and support, which many, many writers do not have. I’m so grateful for that. What I lacked was what I’ll call a “professional support system.” I’d taken a couple of nonfiction classes and gone to a couple of workshops over the previous fifteen years, but I didn’t have an MFA or a degree in English that, in my imagination at least, would have provided me with guidelines on craft, a range of structures, a reading list to consult, a greater sense of why something worked or didn’t work. I didn’t have writers who could give me feedback or a mentor I could contact when I had questions or felt discouraged. So I didn’t know, for example, how to decide that an essay was finished—was as good as it could be. I didn’t know what literary publications to submit to. I sent out a lot of work that I realized later wasn’t ready to be sent out.

I signed up for a workshop with Lidia Yuknavitch without having read her work, but I decided I should read her memoir, The Chronology of Water, before taking the workshop, and it just broke open something in me, as did her workshop. From there, I took more workshops with her and met other writers, which led to a writing group that I have found to be invaluable in getting feedback on my writing. Lidia’s also been a great support for me and so many writers. 

How has writing your most recent book changed or added value to your life?

I didn’t write the book with the intention of “leaving a legacy” or writing a story of my life, but after I’d compiled the essays and read through them, I realized that there was a lot of my life on those pages, and lot of insight into who I am and what I found meaningful and hard and joyful in my life. The title essay describes my search to know more about my grandmother, and I realized this essay collection will live on after me and be a resource for my grandchildren, who are now 5 and 7. So I dedicated it to them, and they were the first people who received copies from me.

Did you self-publish or did you go the traditional route? Why did you choose the route you chose, and what was that process like?

My book is published by Shanti Arts, which is an independent book publisher in Maine. I was realistic about the prospects of an essay collection by an unknown writer being picked up by an agent or a major publisher, so from the beginning, I looked for a small independent publisher who would take good care of the book. I entered the manuscript in “contests” with publishers who chose one or two new titles a year. I was a finalist in three of those contests, which gave me encouragement to keep searching. But I knew that many small publishers tend to have a particular kind of book they’re looking for—a “brand” if you will—and I needed to find a publisher that would be a good fit for my writing. An author I know on Facebook announced that Shanti Arts was publishing her book, and because I was familiar with this author’s writing, I immediately thought this publisher might be interested. 

I was aware that with an indie publisher, I’d have to do a lot of my own marketing—even if I’d had a big name publisher that would have been the case. What was important to me was that the book design be high quality, that bookstores and individuals could easily order it, and that authors who’d previously worked with the publisher would recommend them. Shanti Arts checked all those boxes.

The publisher offered me a contract fairly quickly. The editor collaborated with me on edits and cover design. We had some COVID-related delays that made it hard to predict the publication date, but that was true for many authors at both indie publishers and major houses. Overall, it was a good process for me.

Are you friends with other writers? If so, how do they influence your writing? 

My husband reads much of my writing. He reads a lot of fiction and nonfiction, so while he isn’t a writer, he’s a good reader. He’s really helpful when it comes to “big picture” feedback—he tells me if something is confusing or too detailed or goes too fast or too slow. Now that I’m writing fiction, he gets very invested in the characters and their emotional journeys! He also knows that I don’t want line edits from him—I don’t want him suggesting different words or moving paragraphs or rewriting sentences. (He may not have always known that.) He’s also great at giving me an emotional response to what I’m writing. If he tears up or gets angry at something that happens in the piece, then I know I’m on the right track. I have a wonderful writing group that provides great feedback, too, but it’s nice to be able to have someone right there when I want an immediate response or need to talk through a difficult section.

He’s a painter, so he asks me for feedback on his work. We can also talk about our artistic processes, which is helpful even though we work in different media.

It’s interesting that we can give each other feedback on our most creative expressions without it becoming problematic in the relationship, unlike when we give each other advice on driving or cooking. I think that speaks to the respect we have for each other and for our own work.

Do you maintain a regular writing practice? If so, what does it look like? If not, how do you stay engaged in your writing projects?

I’m a morning person. Even in college, I was the person who signed up for 8 a.m. classes. So it isn’t surprising that I write most productively in the morning. I’ve been writing a long time, much of that time either working in a home office or working for myself, so I’ve become very disciplined and fairly acquainted with my own process. Once I was working on a big project and had a tight deadline, and friends were in town and stayed overnight. We had breakfast, and around 8 a.m., my husband stood up and announced he had to get to work and left, then I announced I had to get to work and walked into my home office, leaving our friends to depart on their own. I’m a little embarrassed by that now, but we’re still friends so I think they understood.

Exercise is an important part of my day. I either do that before I write or do it at the end of a writing session. I find it can be helpful to work out right after a writing session or if I’m stuck—the movement seems to allow things to settle and give me an idea of how to move forward. 

I know a lot of writers are having difficulty writing during this pandemic, but I’ve been able to continue to work. I’ve written through some difficult times—I’m able to block out both personal issues and unwashed dishes. But I also know that there are times when the writing just isn’t there and when that happens, I just take a break and let things germinate. 

How many other books or stories do you have in progress right now?

I’m working on a novel consisting of three separate stories braided together. I’ve never written a novel and now I’m basically writing three! The stories are set in Iceland, France, and the Pacific Northwest and each one involves relationships between a pair of women and explores identity erasure, betrayal, and faith. It’s a challenge, but this story came to me in a way that was very compelling in its synchronicity, and along the way I’ve had further synchronicity, which has reinforced the idea that I need to write this. So I persist. 

Do you view writing as a spiritual practice?

I haven’t thought of it that way. For me, being outside and interacting with nature is my spiritual practice. Writing comes from who I am and how I express myself in the world, so in that way it’s more psychological. That said, the psyche and the spirit aren’t separate, so I don’t want to suggest they are unrelated.

What would your life look like if you didn’t write?

I’d be one unhappy person, and I expect my relationships would suffer as well as my health. Writing is very connected to who I am and what I feel I’m called to do in the world. (Can I change my answer now about writing as a spiritual practice?)

Why do you write?

I write because it’s what I feel called to do. There’s sometimes an almost physical need to write, not just a psychological one. The biggest drive, though, is that writing is how I work out meaning and connect with others and live my fullest life. I hope that people read my work and find it interesting or meaningful—or both—because it means I’ve connected with them and contributed positively to someone else.


Raised as a city girl before Title IX provided many athletic opportunities for girls, Lois Ruskai Melina discovered her love of sports and the outdoors as an adult. Her relationship to mountains and water and wildlife and the female body shape her worldview and inform her writing. 

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Melina received a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Toledo and an M.A. in Journalism from The Ohio State University. She holds a PhD in Leadership Studies from Gonzaga University. She has worked as a journalist and in higher education.

Her writing has appeared in literary, mass media, and academic publications. Melina lives with her husband and their two dogs in Portland, Oregon, where she can often be found rowing on the Willamette River. She has a grown son and daughter and two grandchildren. 

More about Melina and THE GRAMMAR OF UNTOLD STORIES can be found at: https://www.loisruskaimelina.com/