National Writing Project

Why I Write: Susan Gerhard Finds Life in Cinema

Date: October 13, 2011

Summary: Susan Gerhard, a San Francisco-based writer and editor, became a film critic to explore the world of ideas that films present. The best movies are those that spark arguments at dinner parties, she says.


How did you become a film critic?

As I put off taking the MCAT and attempting to enter medical school in my early 20s, I was lucky enough to bide my time at an alternative newsweekly, where I wrote a variety of stories on live music (back when clubs were filled with cigarette smoke), health (adversely affected by covering live music), and film (an escape from both). I migrated to film because screenings not only got me out of the office in the daytime, but offered me an education in the world of ideas, narrative storytelling, and visual communication.

Plus, I had something to talk about at dinner parties. It doesn't work anymore. Movies are rarely discussed at dinner parties, and maybe that's a shame: The best haven't stopped offering up ideas, entertainment, new visions of life as we live it. Though, I suppose the best of YouTube offers a safer path to dessert. We used to argue a lot about the movies. Those were the best films to write about.

What have you written that are you most proud of—from any period of your life, published or unpublished?

It's certainly safe to point to unpublished pieces. But I do have two that I'm proud of. One was an essay I wrote to convince the Sundance Institute to offer me a two-year fellowship in arts writing in 2002. It was a story that called up scenes from my teen life with brothers in Ohio—beer-can collections, the classic Farrah Fawcett red swimsuit poster—to argue that Chris Smith's American Movie was a brilliant peek into dead-end Midwestern life.

The other unpublished story I'm proud of is probably the worst piece of writing I've ever sent into the world, my college entrance essay. More family scenes, these involving recreational drugs and, I think, kittens, used earnestly and melodramatically to speak to the then strong bond I had with my mother. It was naïve, but required a bravery I haven't quite attempted since. Finally, about ten years ago, I embarrassed myself on stage with this slight extrapolation from real life, which now lives in McSweeney's online.

How would you describe your writing process?

[I write] to communicate ideas others aren't already forwarding, to have an influence on the culture, and to occasionally entertain.

My writing process has been challenged by the Internet, and I find I have to turn all social networking off in order to concentrate for the time it takes to write. That said, the Internet has certainly sped up the research end of things, be it the factual background on films or director histories.

The other keys to my writing life are a drawer of chocolate, coffee, the extra day needed to sit on a piece before publishing, and firm deadlines. I don't often get that extra day lately, as I'm running a daily, socially networked Internet film publication called that's filled with original content and aggregated film business news requiring hourly handling. Unfortunately, I just got news that it's ceasing publication in a few weeks because it lost its funding, so perhaps my ability to concentrate for longer periods of time will return.

What's the strangest or most interesting thing you've ever written about or researched for a writing project?

I took a trip to England to meet up with the subjects of a story I was working on a decade ago about a father and his child evading the law to avoid taking medications they considered toxic. When I got there, this small four-year-old girl, supposedly a fragile, near-death exile, was suiting up in a life vest to swim down cold rapids.

A few years later, I became immersed for a brief time in the life of a man just out of jail, where he'd spent 13 years wrongfully convicted, and was attempting to exonerate himself. That story I was writing involved a well-known film, but went unpublished for a variety of good reasons.

How do outside forces influence or shape your writing?

I'm porous and very influenced by everything around me—people, chatter, posters, noise, traffic, light, moods. So, I try to limit those influences if they're not helping me build what I believe to be a truthful argument for whatever piece of writing I'm working on.

What's the best thing about being a film critic?

Festivals: I love watching films with the kind of people who go to festivals, take weeks out of their daily lives to immerse themselves in other peoples' stories, often told/unfolding at a very slow pace. Piling stories on top of one another can create an emotional overload that's strangely very cathartic. There's genuine "buzz" about film in the festival landscape, and not much of that kind of excitement about film outside festivals, as far as I can tell.

What's the worst thing about being a film critic?

I can't stomach certain genres, such as horror, and I'm not proud of that. I try to beg off those assignments, but when called upon to write or offer an opinion, I have to be honest.

Why do you write?

To communicate ideas others aren't already forwarding, to have an influence on the culture, and to occasionally entertain.

What authors, film critics and otherwise, have been most influential to you as a writer?

I don't yet see the influence of these beloved writers in my work, but hope to, someday: Janet Malcolm, Tom Wolfe (short polemics From Bauhaus to Our House, etc.), Wallace Stegner, and Graham Greene (who wrote film criticism).

I do, however, see the influence of my mom's homespun poetry there.

About the Author Susan Gerhard is a San Francisco-based writer and editor whose creative nonfiction, journalism, and criticism have appeared in a variety of international and local publications. She was a Sundance Arts Writing Fellow 2002–4 and a senior editor at the San Francisco Bay Guardian for many years.

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