Over the weekend, my mom and I went to see the musical Finding Neverland. If that title sounds familiar, it’s probably because there’s an Academy-award winning movie by the same name. The semi-biographical film stars Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie, the mind behind Peter Pan. The musical, unsurprisingly, is based on the movie. Both tell the story of how Barrie was inspired by a single mother and her young boys, whose make-believe games ultimately sparked what would become one of the most beloved plays of all time.
I remember watching the movie years ago, and I admit I wasn’t particularly moved. The moment I heard the Broadway soundtrack? I knew I needed to get tickets yesterday.
I’m happy to say that it didn’t disappoint. It was visually stunning, funny, and downright charming. And as much as it’s about finding and embracing your inner child, it’s also about the art of storytelling. About writing. Naturally, I have a lot of feels.
So courtesy of J.M. Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family, here are the four important lessons I think all writers would do well to remember, especially when they’re feeling uninspired.
Warning: minor spoilers for Finding Neverland ahead.
Additional disclaimer: both musical and film versions of Finding Neverland are semi-biographical, meaning they’re basically fanfiction of J.M. Barrie’s life. Any facts I refer to in this post are from the film and/or musical. If you’re interested in a more accurate biography, try this or this.
#1. “Just” is one of the most useless words in the English language.
Peter Llewelyn Davies: This is absurd. It’s just a dog.
J.M. Barrie: Just a dog? Porthos dreams of being a bear, and you want to shatter those dreams by saying he’s just a dog? What a horrible candle-snuffing word. That’s like saying, “He can’t climb that mountain, he’s just a man,” or “That’s not a diamond, it’s just a rock.” Just.
–Finding Neverland (film, 2004)
Saying you’re “just” a writer or saying you’re “just” working on a short story is automatically putting yourself (and your work) down. Thinking that way creates a subconscious boundary—a self-conscious wall, if you will—and it’s not easy to tear down. It doesn’t help that not everyone in our lives fully supports or understands what writing means to us, and unfortunately, it’s those people who pick at our confidence, reinforcing the walls until we might finally look up and decide “I’m not good enough for this.”
I’ve dreamt the Big Dream. I’ve wanted to publish for as long as I can remember, and I’m sure a good portion of you have too. It’s true that not all of us will make it to that level, but that’s okay. Whether we publish or not, it’s so important to remember that we’re never “just” anything, and neither is our work. We are writers. Our stories, no matter how absurd, short, or messy, are worth more than words can describe. Our potential is limitless. Don’t forget it, and don’t give up when the going gets tough. Breaking those walls will make you all the Stronger.
#2. Write for anyone but the masses.
In the musical, J.M. Barrie’s devil-on-your-shoulder is portrayed by none other than Captain Hook, who (ironically enough) had a lot of great things to say. For me, one of the most ear-catching lyrics in the entire play was in the song Live By the Hook, during which Hook sings, “You need to use your pen for something other than satisfying them.”
“Them,” in Finding Neverland, is the collective London audience. London’s play-goers have expectations and ideas about what a play should and should not contain, and it obviously impacts Barrie in a negative way. At the beginning of both the movie and the musical, Barrie’s newest play isn’t exactly taking off. As he struggles to come up with a new idea, he finds himself falling even further into tropes and spiraling into a creative drought.
Of course, that all changes when he meets the Llewelyn Davies family. He stopped writing for anyone but himself and those boys when he was working on Peter Pan.
Barrie’s producer never thought Peter Pan would take off. He thought it was absolutely insane. We can see how well that worked out.
Sometimes it’s hard not to cave to outside expectations. It was hard for Barrie, too. But when you take that kind of chance, pull something completely out of left field for your own enjoyment (or for the enjoyment of someone close to you), you can create truly brilliant things.
#3. You can find inspiration anywhere. Nothing is too mundane to trigger your imagination.
One of the coolest things about the musical was that when J.M. Barrie saw something that gave him a new idea to incorporate into Peter Pan, everything sort of… slowed down. The music became light and airy, the lights dimmed, showing exactly what Barrie was imagining in the place of the everyday scene.
In one scene, he watches the Llewelyn Davies boys jumping on their beds, and all of a sudden, there’s a halt. We see stage hands coming out from behind the curtain to hold the children up in the air and swoop them around the room to simulate flight. In another scene, Barrie is being chewed out by his producer, and as the producer raises his cane, he freezes, and Barrie marvels at a shadow of Captain Hook’s hook appearing against the curtain behind them.
Sometimes you see things like that and you can’t help but think about how amazing the imagination is. It’s wonderfully precious. Take care of yours. Exercise it. Revel in it.
Real life doesn’t often leave room for us to play around. That’s why we have to protect our writing and reading time. But imagination time? We always have room for that. Keep your eyes and ears open, and as J.M. Barrie sings in Believe, “prefix ‘ordinary’ with ‘extra’ [and] you’ll see.”
And for #4, I leave you with this thought-provoking quote:
#4 “Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.”
Dana is a moderator and blogger for Story Scribes. When she isn’t studying pharmacy, her head is stuck up in the clouds of other worlds. An avid reader and writer, she’s currently working on getting out of her fanfiction rut and tackling original writing again.