5 Lessons Writers Can Learn from the Film 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

The 2018 film adaptation of Lee Israel's memoir Can Your Ever Forgive Me?, which details her criminal misadventures forging letters by famous authors, was met with critical acclaim—and it offers several valuable lessons for writers.
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The 2018 film adaptation of Lee Israel's memoir Can Your Ever ForgiveMe?, which details her criminal misadventures forging letters by famous authors, was met with critical acclaim—and it offers several valuable lessons for writers.

Going to see Can You Ever Forgive Me?, I was expecting two things. I hoped Melissa McCarthy’s break from raunchy comedies would be as gratifying as the normally comedic Jim Carrey’s performance in The Truman Show. I also hoped to pick up some helpful writing tips from the life lessons Lee Israel (McCarthy), the movie’s writer-turned-smalltime-criminal, learns. Neither pursuit was disappointing.

The movie, based on the 2008 memoir of the same name, tells the true story of the biography writer Lee Israel, who once had a book on the New York Times bestseller list and delighted readers with her magazine profiles of celebrities such as Katharine Hepburn.

Viewers are introduced to Israel during a grim-looking 1991, when she is fired from what seems to be an entry-level copyediting job and struggling to keep her writing career alive after publishing a commercially unsuccessful biography on Estée Lauder. (Israel rather embarrassingly finds many copies of this book in the clearance section of a bookstore).

Israel increasingly grows more depressed and struggles to stay afloat: She is months behind on her rent, and her only companion—her elderly cat, Jersey—is sick. Her agent says no one will be interested in reading the book Israel wants more than anything to write next: a biography of the vaudeville star Fanny Brice.

So, what can writers learn from Israel, whose life seems so bleak at this point? The lesson of Can You Ever Forgive Me? certainly isn’t that writers should do as she did, stealing letters by famous authors and actors from libraries, embellishing them with her own words and selling them to used bookstores. Nor should we write fake letters by famous authors, forge their signatures and sell them to wealthy collectors. (Spoiler alert: The FBI’s eventual discovery of Israel’s work tells us this is not the answer.)

Despite Israel’s downfall, Can You Ever Forgive Me? offers some great lessons for writers. Here are my top five picks:

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Photo © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation 

1. Your “failed” project may lead you to bigger success.

Israel’s research for the Fanny Brice biography there is no demand for is what helps her stumble upon her infamous forgery plan. Israel finds—and steals—a letter written and signed by the vaudeville great in a library book. Israel adds her own two cents to the letter—as a P.S. from Brice, of course—after a bookshop owner said the letter isn’t worth much due to its bland content. Thus, Israel learns the secret formula to her hefty letter profit.

(On a side note, I wonder if Israel’s now-famous forgeries are worth more money now, similar to how Bansky’s partially shredded ‘Girl with Balloon’ painting could increase in value due to the artist’s prank.)

Do not ever feel that you have wasted your time if you do not complete a writing project, or if that project doesn’t get published. This work can turn into something else, inspire another project or teach you some important lessons. No one has ever reached success without detours along the way. Save everything you write, and jot down your ideas even if you feel they are not “good enough”. You never know where this may lead in the end.

For example, not everyone dreams of working as an administrative assistant or high school teacher after earning their MFA. However, this experience gave Sandra Cisneros more insight into the problems facing the Latinx people of the U.S. and used this as inspiration for stories in now-legendary works such as The House on Mango Street.

More famous examples are included in the New York Public Library’s list of novels that began as short stories.

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2. It's a crime to write in anyone else’s voice but your own.

This lesson can be taken both literally and symbolically. Israel got herself into legal trouble by impersonating the voices of famous authors. This is not to say that writing in the voices of legendary authors cannot be legal and produce interesting results.

Take Geoffrey Woolf’s 2016 book of poems Learn to Love Explosives, for example. Book reviewers praise the poems for being written in the voice of a middle-aged version of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. However, Woolf adds his own wit to this voice, effectively creating an original voice of his own.

Speaking more figuratively, it is OK to read others’ work and try to emulate the voices of other authors or their characters in order to stimulate your own creativity. But like our fingerprints, we all have our own unique voice that is worth sharing. It is not a crime, but rather a shame to let this go to waste. In Can You Ever Forgive Me? Israel does this by hiding under the guide of authors such as Dorothy Parker. In doing so, she silences her own voice.

The takeaway for writers is that we shouldn’t try to write in a style that is popular or that we know will sell. Write what you feel.

3. Be pleasant to those around you, because how you treat others is crucial to your success.

This advice goes for any type of career. The way Israel treats her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) and others in her short-lived office job shows that the downfall of her writing career isn’t entirely due to the commercial failure of the Estée Lauder biography. Israel doesn’t mingle with other writers. Rough around the edges attitude-wise, she doesn’t do well promoting her work. She blames others for her own mistakes. At best, Israel is cold to everyone she meets. None of these are the qualities of a writer whom professional agents, editors, publicists and other writers want to succeed.

To ensure that you don't follow Lee Israel’s footsteps, you will need to do more than avoid literary forgery. If you’re in a critique group or another writing community, make an effort to be supportive of others’ work and helpful, rather than destructive.

Aim to be easy to work with for agents, editors and other professionals. You can disagree, but do so politely and try not to be unreasonable with your demands.

Be kind on social media to your readers and other writers. It will help you cultivate a stronger platform and make people want to support you more.

The Writer’s Digest Podcast, Episode 10: The Art of the Graphic Memoir

4. Being an introverted writer doesn’t mean you must subject yourself to loneliness.

The cat Jersey is Israel’s sole companion, and she admittedly ruined her last romantic relationship due to her aversion to emotional intimacy. She further alienates herself by being rude to everyone else around her. Yet we see the withdrawn Israel become more content with life after she runs into an old friend, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant).

It seems that Hock’s companionship helps stimulate Israel’s creativity, although she does not consciously know this. Eventually becoming her partner in crime, the dynamic between the two characters shows us that—whether to brainstorm ideas for our next project, offer an escape from a long day of work, or to pull off petty crime—sometimes all we need is companionship.

5. Don’t be afraid to open yourself up to criticism.

This was perhaps Israel’s greatest downfall. She admits that this is the reason she stuck to writing other people’s stories. The fear of writing in her own voice held her back.

Opening yourself up to criticism is a crucial step to becoming a better writer. Taking risks is inherent to being successful. It’s something we must gain the confidence to do.

For many years I lacked the confidence to read my poetry aloud at open mics. However, it was only after sharing my own voice with others that I gained insight on how to improve my work as well as gained more confidence to continue writing in my voice.

The process of opening yourself up to criticism is like love (another pool Israel was too afraid to dive into). Criticism is no doubt intimidating, yet the rewards of the process make it worth the vulnerability. Learning to take constructive criticism graciously is an essential skill writers need in their toolbox.

Eventually, the real-life Lee Isreal did write her own story—her memoir was published in 2008. I’m glad she did, as there are lessons we can all learn from her mistakes. I highly recommend this movie to any writers, book lovers and cat people out there.

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