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Writing 'beyond the montage'

Tara Ison
January 13, 2015

Tara Ison’s house never looks cleaner than when she has an impending deadline.

“I would rather clean my toilet than write,” confessed the associate professor of creative writing at Arizona State University.

That’s because writing does not always come easily – even to a successful writer such as Ison, who has penned dozens of screenplays, including the Hollywood cult classic “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead,” and is the author of three novels, a short story collection and a collection of essays.

Not only is writing hard, she says, but teaching someone to write is nearly impossible, although Ison appears to excel at both.

"You can teach craft, but you can't teach anything more," said Ison. "I can help a writer find what the story is, but I can't tell you if you're a writer. In order to be a writer, you must keep writing."

The typing montage

Long before she arrived at ASU's Department of English, before any of her critical or commercial success, Ison knew she wanted to be a writer. But knew little about writing itself.

Early in her life, Ison was attracted to what she calls the "cinematic image of the writer." It was an image she saw in the movies: elegantly dressed artists wandering through Europe, gazing out windows and fervently pounding away on a keyboard in a seemingly optimistic, action-driven "typing montage" – a cigarette and drink always close by.

When she looked back on how this cinematic archetype had captivated her imagination and helped steer her toward becoming a writer, Ison discovered other aspects of her identity that she believes have been shaped by film as well.

She explores these cinematic moments and what they have meant to her life and career in her new memoir, out today, "Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies" (Soft Skull Press, 2015).

"Films have a huge impact on me and how I view the world, and who I want to be in the world," said Ison, who writes in the introduction to her book that she often catches herself thinking: “Did I actually do that? Say that? Or did I just see it in a movie?”

Moviegoing, according to Ison, offers the viewer much more than an escape. It offers the opportunity to be highly engaged and even introspective. From the first movie she saw, Ison says she felt an instinctive, subconscious link between film and the forming of her identity.

“All of us who love to watch movies experience those universal points of connection,” writes Ison in her book. “We all have our own subjective, idiosyncratic collection of indelible cinematic moments.”

From screenwriting to teaching

Just two months after she graduated from college, Ison got a huge break in her career.

She and her writing partner sold a script to 20th Century Fox titled "The Real World." (The title was later changed to "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead.”)

Ison said it was an ideal time to start a career as a screenwriter in Hollywood.

"Studios were looking to hire new, young writers," she said. "They were willing to take chances – not like the box office blitz of today."

Her success only took her so far though, and she gradually became frustrated with the often incomplete process of screenwriting that ended abruptly with a finished script but no film.

As a result, Ison turned her attention to a story she knew would work better in a different medium than film – an intimate story of a mother and daughter living inside the most famous prison in America.

"Child Out of Alcatraz" was Ison's first novel. It was a finalist in the Los Angeles Times 1997 Book Awards for Best First Fiction.

Writing her first novel led her even further from Hollywood and back to school to earn her Master of Fine Arts degree. For the first time, she considered a career in teaching.

Ison, who has received numerous awards and prestigious fellowships, has taught creative writing at seven universities, including Northwestern University and Ohio State University.

"It is not always the case that an excellent writer is an excellent teacher, but Tara is just that," said Courtney Fowler, one of Ison's former graduate students at Arizona State University.

Fowler, who also served as Ison's teaching assistant, now teaches a variety of writing courses herself for ASU Writing Programs.

"In a fiction workshop or screenplay class, she gets invested in your story," said Fowler. "She interrogates plot lines and character motivation. She crystallizes intention. It's an amazing feeling to be a fledgling writer and to have someone read a bad draft and get what you were trying to do. … There is a warmth to even her toughest critique."

The (real) writer

In addition to her most recent book, Ison has written two other novels while balancing a teaching career.

Still, she admits to feeling some discomfort when calling herself a writer.

As she explains in her new book, she has long learned that the real work of writing is a far cry from that typing montage à la 20th Century Fox's 1977 film “Julia” – the film that helped burn into her brain those “abbreviated moments of typing that magically create art.”

The real writer, according to Ison, “is simply the one who writes. Who keeps writing. Who keeps at it, beyond the montage – for whom the writing is the story, not the musical interlude."