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The Big Short


What Michael Lewis Can Teach Us About Writing in the Real World

I went to see The Big Short last week. As someone who has worked as a writer, editor, writing instructor and book coach for 27 years, I am not a person who has a natural understanding or affinity for numbers, but I am a reader of newspapers, and I have a mortgage, and I am a generally aware citizen, and care about the state of our world, and I am just as susceptible to the buzz of a big movie as anyone else, so I thought it would be an interesting way to spend an evening. It was – though not in the way I expected.

I went to the movie with my husband, who has an MBA, is a CFO, and worked on Wall Street for several years after college. He is, in other words, a person who has spent 27 working with numbers. Throughout The Big Short, Rob was belly laughing. Totally cracking up. And I kept looking at him thinking, “What? What?” Afterwards, he declared that he loved the movie. He thought it was hilarious and important – a masterwork.

I understood the storyline – Adam McKay worked hard to make sure that someone like me would – and I understood what an important point the movie was making about our banks and our culture. It was, in that way, quite frightening, and also motivating in terms of making sure I continue to be an aware consumer and citizen. I also recognized that some of the acting was amazing, because I largely forgot that I was watching Brad Bitt and Ryan Gosling – which is hard to do.

But what I took away from the theater was this: a million questions about how it was done.

Not every movie – or book -- causes that reaction in me. I saw The Force Awakens over the holidays and also Spectre, and loved the experience of those movies. They were fun – Star Wars even despite the obvious plot holes and plot repetition. But with a movie like The Big Short, which by all measures shouldn’t work (a movie about banking and bankers and the arcane facts of trading?), I am just dying to know how.

How did the writer get the idea? How did he know it was a good idea? How did he organize the material the way he did? How did he choose whom to give a POV? How did he convince anyone else this story was a good idea? How did they get Brad Pitt?

When I came home from the theater, I hit the Internet to answer my questions. We live in extraordinary times, that we can do such a thing – just instantly get answers to almost anything. I learned all kinds of interesting things about casting, and the bit with Selena Gomez, and then I happened upon an article by Michael Lewis about his surprise that the movie got made at all. I want to share it with you today, because it’s a beautiful and profound explanation of what it means to be a writer in the real world.

What do I even mean by that? Well, it’s pretty easy to be a writer who sits in her room alone and never shares her work with the world, but to be a writer who thinks about her reader, and who thinks about the marketplace, and who is brave enough to want to be read and to do what it takes to make it happen – that’s hard. That's what I mean by being a writer in the real world. It’s what I work to help people become, and it’s what I want to be in my own work.

In this article, Michael Lewis shows us how it’s done – step by step, from the moment the idea hit him, through his exploration of it, through the doubt he felt about it, and all the way until the big movie rolled into the theaters. I annotated in yellow the passages throughout where he shows us these things, because it’s not always explicit. But it’s there – a subtext to everything he is writing. I explained my thinking so you can see exactly what I mean. I hope you take inspiration from it for your work in 2016.