Remember Throw Momma from the Train? That movie from the 80s with Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito? You can admit it. We’re all friends here.
The movie is an homage to and update of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Crystal and DeVito conspire to…well, the title really says it all. The movie earned Anne Ramsey—Momma—an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress, but the film is far from a cinematic masterpiece. I’ve seen some of the all-time classics: Casablanca, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, Sunset Boulevard, Metropolis, The Third Man, and so on. They were all clearly better movies than this Stu Silver-penned momma-throwing opus.
And yet, there is a line that is repeated in Throw Momma from the Train that has stuck with me more than “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” or “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” It’s “A writer writes, always,” spoken mostly by Larry, Crystal’s character, a novelist who teaches writing at a community college. I don’t know how seriously we’re meant to take Larry as a writer—in fact, I only saw this movie once, thirty years ago—but I think of Larry’s advice to his students often when I’m writing, teaching, editing or just deciding whether I should take on a given writing project. I use it as my own essay-writing advice.
What does it mean?
When I was working on my dissertation and having trouble remembering that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, I would tell myself, “The only way out is through,” and that’s basically how I define Larry’s maxim. If you’re going to be a writer, or finish a writing assignment, or get better at writing or even just get something off your chest by writing it down, the only way to do so is to sit down and write.
Over the years, I’ve heard other pieces of advice that boil down to the same thing. A friend of mine, when asked about his unfathomable prolificness as a writer, said, perhaps less poetically than Larry, “Apply bum to chair.” A former mentor of mine who is often affectionately teased about never using one word when ten will do said, “remember that the basic rule is this: if you can’t write good stuff, then write bad stuff. First, that keeps the momentum going. And second, sometimes when you write bad stuff it is actually better than you think.” When I made my first abortive attempt at blogging, Scott Eric Kaufman, a pioneering graduate-student blogger and critic who died in 2016 at the age of 39, sent me this note of encouragement:
Glad to see you’re blogging, however tentatively. Much as I complain about the lack of things to say, the feeling that I’m obliged to say ’em keeps my motor running longer than it would otherwise. In other words, it’s not a bad idea. I’m looking forward to reading you daily.
A writer writes, daily. I didn’t keep up that first blog, but I often thought of SEK’s advice when I was having the most trouble making progress on my dissertation. His image of blogging as a way to keep his motor running resonated with me. In trying to keep track of arguments and themes over five chapters and hundreds of pages, I found that writing letters to the editor was the perfect exercise to keep my motor running. It was very clarifying to write short, self-contained pieces, to craft tightly focused arguments, to “get in and get out” and, in some cases, to have the near-instant gratification of seeing the letters printed in a day or two.
There was a period where, trying to counteract the feeling that I was running out of steam, I resolved to submit a letter to the editor to a newspaper every day. Writing more as an essay-writing tip for people struggling with writing? It really helped! Especially for those of us with a tendency toward completism, to including everything possible in an essay, the demands of a letter to the editor—expressing oneself clearly and making a point concisely—can have a salutary effect. And sometimes, as in the example on the right (“Lessons from history”), I was able to incorporate my field of study, German history, into a letter to the editor.
I guess you could say that everything I know about writing, I really learned from Throw Momma from the Train.
What does any of this have to do with essay-writing help for students working on assignments for class?
“A writer writes, always.” You might be thinking, “OK, but Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood and Lindy Ledohowski are writers. I’m just a student trying to pass a class.” But “a writer writes, always,” doesn’t have to mean, “he who is a writer must always write.” It can also mean, “she who always writes is a writer.” In other words, writing a sociology essay, a blog post, a letter to the editor or a senior honours thesis makes you a writer. You are thinking like a writer, trying to write effectively and practising the craft of writing. Stephen King’s advice for writers applies to you as much as it does to any other writer: “Write every single day.”
You could call it the Throw-Momma-from-the-Train principle.
EssayJack is a great tool for putting this principle into practice. Becoming a better writer involves devoting time every day to writing, but the biggest barrier to doing that is the blank screen. It mesmerises you, taunts you, drives you to check your email one more time, to clean the washroom or to compose just one more tweet. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by…well, maybe that’s going too far. But the tyranny of the blank screen is real. It stops you—and me—from doing the work required to improve as a writer.
EssayJack can help.
Educational technology can do more than you might think. If you have an assignment due, use our academic essay template to banish the blank screen, break the task into manageable chunks and get essay-writing help throughout via our tips and prompts. But you probably don’t have an essay due every day. EssayJack is still valuable to you as a practice tool. Did you just finish a book that you liked? Hated? Use our book-review template to hone your skills at analysing literature. Do you have a strong feeling on an issue? Or just want to learn how to make your rhetoric more convincing and effective? Load our Persuasive Speech template. (Maybe you’ll even turn the result into a letter to the editor. If it’s published, send me a link.) If your teacher keeps telling you your five-paragraph essays need work, open up our 5-paragraph-essay template and practise practise practise. Our essay-writing software is also an essay-practising platform.
A writer writes, always. But she doesn’t have to write alone.
Useful samples and examples: https://essays.io/resume-examples-samples/