What I learned about writing from watching Hallmark Christmas movies
For more than a year, I served as official caregiver to my wife of 46 years, Karen Clark. Two years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Two surgeries followed, along with three months of chemotherapy, and 37 radiation treatments. It has been a life-changing experience, of course, and I am happy to report that all her doctors express great optimism about her prospects.
As a caregiver, I can testify that four powerful forces combined to help both of us through our struggle:
- Medical science
- Prayer and magical thinking
- Comfort food (mashed potatoes and tapioca pudding)
- Hallmark Christmas movies
It is this last force I want to cover in this essay, which is meant as a parable, not for cancer patients or caregivers, but for writers everywhere. I try to learn something new about the craft every day and that includes the writing knowledge that comes from watching these happy holiday movies on my 55-inch screen.
But first picture this. A cancer patient is deep into chemotherapy. She has lost all her hair and may be losing weight. She doesn’t want to look in the mirror much because she thinks she looks like a prisoner in a concentration camp. No matter what the doctor says, she feels as if she is dying. She needs help coming to terms with this crucial concept: It is not the cancer that is making her feel this way. It’s the cure.
The poisons are hard at work, hunting down any ninja cancer cells now making their way through her system. She is laying a bet, of sorts, that these treatments will raise her prospects of avoiding a re-occurrence from 70 percent after surgery to maybe 85 or even 90 percent.
We’ll take those odds: a half-year of hell for many more years of health.
But what do you do while you are lying on a couch most of the day, feeling like you are dying? You watch Hallmark Christmas movies. They have become so popular, in fact, that, according to a story in the Washington Post, even former critics of their formulaic sentimentality, have come around. Each movie is a happy pill for what’s ailing us in America, a sweet alternative to popping opioids.
If you have not seen one, I encourage you to do so. In the meantime, the best way to introduce you to the genre — and it is as exacting a genre as a Shakespearean sonnet — is to offer you a movie treatment of sorts. Imagine, please, that I am pitching a movie to Hallmark. I have seen about a dozen of these, so it may turn out that I am actually writing a composite of the narratives I’ve witnessed.
Here we go:
A young woman, Marci McGregor, is headed home for Christmas. She is 31, single, but interested in a co-worker, a handsome, but slightly overbearing real estate developer in Miami, where she now lives. His name is Neil.
Marci is successful in her work, pretty, but not beautiful. She is unhappy in her personal life, but doesn’t know that yet.
She decides to travel home for the Christmas holidays. She grew up in Snowbound, Ohio, a rural town of farms and small businesses. Her parents raised her in a picturesque farm house out in the woods, but not far from town. Her dad was a successful attorney, who passed away not long ago. Marci’s mom Peggy runs a side business, always a big hit during the winter months, especially during the Christmas holidays.
People from all over the country travel to Snowbound to experience sleigh rides. Make that “one-horse open sleigh” rides. Since the death of her husband, Peggy is trying to keep up the family business, but is having a hard time. She secures the help of Uncle Nicky, but at the age of 80, with his white beard and flannel shirts, he looks like a Santa abandoned by his elves and reindeer. “I’m all tuckered out,” is his favorite expression.
When Marci returns to Snowbound, she is re-introduced to the magic of her childhood. A snowstorm blows in, threatening to extend her stay. Marci realizes her mother is no longer capable of taking care of the farmhouse on her own and tries to persuade her to retire to Miami and move into a condo.
Enter a nice looking — but not handsome — man named Mitchell Lawlor. Mitch is a neighbor of the McGregors. He is 39. He is the single dad of a cute — but not adorable — 8-year-old girl named Rosie. Mitch’s wife died three years ago (we never learn the cause) and he has tried his best to raise his daughter. Sometimes Peggy and Uncle Nicky help him out.
Mitch is the editor of the Snowbound Sun, a weekly newspaper that serves the surrounding counties. He inherited the paper from his dad. His father always assumed Mitch would move away to find a better job in a bigger town, but Mitch came to understand, after the passing of his wife, what it meant to live in a tight-knit community.
There is another woman in town with designs on Mitch. Mona is quite beautiful and wealthy — and, unlike Marci, blond and divorced. She wants to purchase and knock down several of the older farm houses, clearing the land and selling it to an agricultural conglomerate that has its sights on all of Snowbound.
Okay, that’s enough. You can guess the rest:
- Marci reluctantly begins to fall for Mitch.
- Mona senses the competition and does whatever she can to sabotage Marci.
- Neil keeps calling from Miami, wondering when Marci will be coming back to Florida.
- Marci reconnects with her mom and other townspeople, suddenly reminded of the blessings of small-town America.
- Marci begins to bond with little Rosie. Mitch notices this and begins to change his mind that he would never marry again after the loss of his wife.
- Uncle Nicky, it turns out, is not just a codger. Full of folk wisdom, he offers Marci gentle advice that clears her vision. “The weather may be warm in Miami,” he tells her, “but our hearts are warm here in Snowbound.”
- On a perfect snowy evening, Uncle Nicky offers to take Marci, Rosie, and Mitch on a horse-drawn sleigh ride. It is a transformative experience. When they get back to the farmhouse, Nicky takes Rosie into the farmhouse for some hot chocolate (extra marshmallows!). Marci and Mitch sit in the sleigh as the snow falls gently, each flake aglow. They kiss — but no tongue.
- Marci decides to move back home. She and Mitch will join forces, raise Rosie, fight off big agriculture, and do their best to preserve the values that make Snowbound special.
When I am watching these movies, I do my best to give myself over to the narrative. That means an abandonment of irony and cynicism, a relaxing of my critical muscle. Then, in tranquility — maybe with a beer in one hand and a pen in the other — I can list the requirements of the genre.
The protagonist: Young, white, pretty but not beautiful, in her late 20s or early 30s. She is successful, an ambitious professional woman who has moved away from the small town she was raised in to make her way in the big city. Never married, she has had men in her life, but never the right one. She is often played by a familiar actress, someone you recognize from television work when she was younger, the kind of performer where you say, “Oh, I know her … [snapping of fingers] … she was in [such and such].” The main problem with our protagonist is that she is successful, but unhappy — and she doesn’t know it. She desperately needs a return to her roots.
The setting: The main character must find herself in small-town America, a place with a Northern climate and a good chance of snow. Think Idaho or Ohio. The snow is magical. No paralyzing blizzards. The snowflakes must be as big as cornflakes, big enough to cover the ground for sledding and to cover the landscape for beauty. This snow floats from sky to ground even when the sun is shining. Since this movie is set at Christmas time, the town must have an appropriate name: Evergreen, Joyville, Holly Park, Pine Village, Snowbound.
Minor characters: We need a love interest, a man who may not attract her at first; maybe he is already engaged, or she knew him back in the day and nothing clicked. To form a triangle, there must be another woman, beautiful, entitled — but not entitled to him. A child is optional, but desirable, but not more than one, please. We need a wisdom figure with Santa-like qualities. Finally, to form another triangle of sorts we need another man — boyfriend, boss — who represents a gravitational force back to the big city and away from small-town values.
Story pattern: A number of archetypes — bending toward stereotypes — are at work here. The first is the classic tension between big urban and small town values. American literature plays out this tension in countless narratives. If you think they are just literary, consider for a moment the 2016 presidential election and its consequences.
The Wizard of Oz, written by a Midwesterner, gave us the theme of “there’s no place like home.” But this stands in constant contrast to the magnetic force of the frontier: “Go West, young man.” In the myth of the American West, people are renewed in their journey away from home. In the Hallmark universe, they are not renewed but corrupted. It is in the return to home that the heart is converted and paradise is regained.
The traditional hostility to Hallmark movies comes from a long-standing skepticism expressed toward sentimentality as an aesthetic experience. Scholars have noted that the sentimental novel and the pornographic novel arrive in Western civilization at about the same time — the 18th century. They are written, of course, for different audiences, but both have a parallel purpose: arousal. Pornography is meant to stimulate the senses in men. The sentimental story is meant to purge the emotions, to move women to tears. (For the record, I cried this morning after watching a Toyota ad on the telly!)
In spite of this appreciation of the Hallmark movies, I must confess that I am reluctant to enjoy them too much. Even to honor them as a genre feels, well, unmanly. (I suspect there is a strong feminist critique nearby as well, skeptical of stories in which a woman, say, gives up a promising career for family life in a small town.) Beyond unmanly, my appreciation feels uncritical. After all, it has taken me more than four decades to sharpen my skepticism, my ironic sensibility, my post-modern critique, my aggressive meta-cognition, my dark denial of truth-making. Excuse the jargon, friends, but an appreciation of Hallmark requires swimming against the tide of a half-century of literary and political criticism.
I find a colleague in a scholar named Rita Felski, author of a book titled "The Limits of Critique." I have no idea how she would react to my little story about the town of Snowbound, but I know she believes that a cynical view of the world — one that comes from a hyper-skeptical education — can often lead to a limited perspective of culture and the works that constitute it.
When we accept “skepticism as dogma,” as journalists often do, we align ourselves with both an effete intellectualism and a corrupt populism. Felski notes, “There is a growing sense that our intellectual life is out of kilter, that scholars in the humanities are far more fluent in nay-saying than in yay-saying, and that eternal vigilance, unchecked by alternatives, can easily lapse into the complacent cadences of auto-pilot argument. It is a matter, in short, of diminishing returns, of ways of thinking that no longer surprise us, while closing off other paths as ‘insufficiently critical.’”
When there is too much skepticism from political partisans, “… it can often take forms that are much less likely to garner sympathy from professors…: right-wing populism, hostility toward big government, grassroots opposition to multiculturalism and a scapegoating of migrants, disdain for out-of-touch intellectuals and an energetic debunking of their scholarly credentials.” For the record, Felski published this in 2015.
The metronomic critique that even responsible reporting constitutes “fake news” has turned skepticism — by way of cynicism — into nihilism.
So join me, if you dare, in front of the television set for the next Hallmark Christmas movie. Oh, wait, I saw that one before. Oh, what the hell, I’ll watch it again. It’s the antidote — at least for the moment — to all that ails you. Even cancer.