This continues some of the concepts I was exploring in “Learning the Art of Revision” — specifically, it addresses how those ideas are reflected in the Studio Ghibli film, Whisper of the Heart. (And since I said that post was a ‘Part 2’ itself, I suppose this one should actually be ‘Part 3’ . . .) 😉
A few years ago my brother introduced me to the wonderful films of Hayao Miyazaki, and one that I fell in love with is called Whisper of the Heart. This is one of those films that falls into a category we just don’t have in American film — a realistic drama that’s animated. Though there are a couple of fantasy dream sequences, the story takes place in ‘the real world’, and the relationships between the family members and the interactions between the junior high school kids are all quite natural and believable.
It’s a story about a fourteen-year-old girl who wants to be a writer, and the first time I saw it I think I cried through most of it. It’s not a sad story — it’s just that I related so strongly to Shizuku that it made watching the film a very emotional experience. The way she spends hours writing when she’s supposed to be studying reminded me of my habit of taking two folders to every class — one for the class itself, and the other containing the story I was currently working on. (I did this from junior high all the way through college.) At every opportunity, I would write a line or two before attempting to return my attention to the subject of the course. There’s a scene in the film where Shizuku is doing exactly the same thing, and she can’t answer the teacher’s question because she wasn’t paying attention; she was working on her book instead.
But the part of this film that had the deepest impact on me is when Shizuku gives her completed manuscript to the elderly gentleman she’s befriended (who is also the grandfather of the boy she likes). The grandfather has asked to be the first to read her story, and she waits while he reads it, extremely anxious to find out what he thinks. When he finishes, almost before he can say anything she blurts out that she knows it’s not good enough — the manuscript is far from perfect, even after all her hard work.
The grandfather says she should be very proud of what she’s accomplished, but agrees that the manuscript is rough. On a previous visit the old man had shown her a geode, and he uses the metaphor of a rough stone with hidden gems inside; he tells Shizuku that she’s dug deep inside of herself to find the gems, and now she must polish them — and she has to be patient. Then Shizuku bursts into tears.
I think of that moment as a crucial coming-of-age milestone for a writer. There’s no question that it’s a significant accomplishment to get the muse to actually write down an entire story. But once that’s done, you’re only halfway there. Now you have to learn how to bring the editor in to shape and polish your creation so that others can enjoy it too. When you first fully understand this it’s a turning point — but it can be daunting; you’ve worked so hard just to create this thing, and now you’re told you have to do all this additional work if it’s going to fulfill its potential.
And I love the way this is handled in the film; I think Shizuku’s reaction at that moment captures exactly what it feels like. Also, too many children’s stories and films imply that if one has talent and passion they can learn to excel at something overnight. (I’ve read more than enough horse stories in which a kid who’s had only a few riding lessons at camp rehabs a neighbor’s old horse and wins a Grand Prix over the course of one summer; sorry, folks, but it takes years to develop the skills — and muscles! — to perform at that level.) Whisper of the Heart makes it clear that even learning to do what you really love takes work and time, but it makes the message very positive as well as realistic; there may be a long road ahead of you, but if you keep at it, you’ll get there — you’ll learn to polish that gemstone yourself.