Writers are often obsessed with the lives of other writers, the more acclaimed, the better. I’m no exception and for the same reason I read all those The Paris Review interviews with writers and listen to all those NPR stories about writers—to glean some insight, some inspiration, some inkling into the creative process—I watch documentaries on writers. So here in no particular order is a list of ten of my favorites, which admittedly skew to female authors and/or poets, so feel free to add those I’ve missed for the benefit of us all.
TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM, 2019
Watching this last week inspired this blog post. I happened it upon by accident and stopped whatever I was working on to study the many facets of the Nobel Prize winning writer’s life and career. You should, too. Because it’s Toni Morrison.
NORA EPHRON: EVERYTHING IS COPY, 2015
Nora Ephron was one of the first writers I actively tried to emulate. I failed, of course, and the first novel I wrote—a sad imitation of Heartburn detailing my own disastrous marriage—remains in a box somewhere with my other early efforts. Made by her son Jacob Bernstein, this documentary reveals Ephron with the same honesty and humor that shaped her work.
HAMILTON’S AMERICA, 2016
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton reinvented the Broadway musical, and this documentary explores how and why Miranda achieved this feat. I saw this when it first came out and was reminded of it when the film version of Hamilton debuted on Disney+ last week. Which I’ve watched more than once. I know, I know, I’ve been watching a lot of TV during this pandemic. But I bet you have, too. And while you’re there hanging out on the couch, you may as well watch this documentary.
MAYA ANGELOU: AND STILL I RISE, 2016
Maya Angelou is a Renaissance woman of the first order—singer, dancer, actor, poet, essayist, screenwriter, memoirist, teacher—and ultimately one of the bodhisattvas who’ve blessed my life as she’s blessed the lives of all writers. This documentary gives you a sense of her grandeur; she’s the Grand Canyon of writerly grace and genius.
PUBLIC SPEAKING, 2010
Fran Lebowitz may be the funniest writer alive—and the one most riddled with writer’s block. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film is a triumph of monologue, malcontentedness, and satire. Lebowitz at her best—and she’s not even writing anything.
PS: If you haven’t read Metropolitan Life and/or Social Studies, now is the time.
WRESTLING WITH ANGELS: PLAYWRIGHT TONY KUSHNER, 2006
Angels in America is one of those works of art that takes my breath away every time. The first time I saw it, I was a lonely single mother as stuck in my personal life as I was in my writing life, watching the HBO mini-series alone at home in my bed after my youngest child was asleep. After I saw it I wanted to learn everything about the man who wrote such a masterpiece. This film gives us a glimpse into the many roles he plays in his work and in his life.
ALICE WALKER: BEAUTY IN TRUTH, 2014
The road from Georgia sharecropper’s daughter to world-renowned Pulitzer Prize winning author is a long and hard one—but Alice Walker travels that road with energy and elegance. This film shows how she does does it her way, every step of the way, and how the world is a better place for it.
AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE, SPALDING GRAY, 2010
Spalding Gray was a brilliant monologist whose life work was nothing if not witty and intelligent and original. Under Steven Soderbergh’s adroit direction, you see Gray’s life unfold in his own words, told only in archival footage of his stories and his interviews. A fascinating portrait of a one-of-a-kind artist.
JOAN DIDION: THE CENTER WILL NOT HOLD, 2017
A haunting look at a haunting writer and the joys and tragedies of her life—and how writing got her through the best and the worst of times. From the chaos of the 1960s to The Year of Magical Thinking, this is a writer’s journey you won’t want to miss.
A LIFE TOGETHER: DONALD HALL & JANE KENYON, 1993
Admittedly a sentimental favorite of mine, this Bill Moyers documentary tells the love story of poets Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, who lived not far from me on Hall’s ancestral farm at the foot of Kearsarge Mountain in Wilmot, New Hampshire. I fell in love with their poems—first Kenyon’s and then Hall’s—long before I fell in love with New Hampshire, although their poems helped pave the way. Resisting either is futile, as you’ll see in this piece.
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