PATERSON: The Blue-Collar Poet and Writing with a ‘Day Job’

By: Nicholas DiBenedetto

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Screenshot from Paterson (Creative Commons/ Flickr)

Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is Paterson in ways that I never realized something could be Paterson. The film’s star, Adam Driver, plays a bus driver and poet named Paterson, who lives in the city of Paterson, New Jersey, and whose favorite poet is William Carlos Williams (whose epic poem Paterson, is set in the same New Jersey city). The film’s plot is like an onion where each layer peels off to reveal a deeper layer of Paterson. But, unlike an onion, any crying that results from this delayering is less of a chemical reaction and more of an honest emotional response.

The film chronicles one week in the life routine of the eponymous character: he wakes up and goes to work as a bus driver, eavesdropping on the conversations of his passengers, and writing during the brief respites he has just before his shift and during his lunch break. Afterwards, he returns home to his wife Laura, an artist/aspiring cupcake shop owner/aspiring country music star. They share dinner before Paterson walks Laura’s English bulldog Marvin, stopping at his favorite bar for a beer, and makes conversation with the bartender, Doc.

As someone who works part-time and attends school full time, I found myself empathizing with and admiring Driver’s character. Writing within the confines of a daily schedule can often feel like a maddening effort, as I’m sure some of my student and work peers would attest to: on one hand, there is a struggle to decide what to write about, to find inspiration when one is making the same moves, literally, day by day. On the other hand, there is a struggle for time, to carve out a moment to do the physical act of writing. ‘Oh, I really miss it, but I just haven’t had time to write lately,’ or ‘I haven’t done anything worth writing about lately,’ are common excuses I’ve heard from my peers and that I’ve made to both others and myself. While I can still empathize with these sentiments to a certain extent, they are still, at their core, excuses.

Paterson’s life is mundane on the surface level, but his careful observation of his surroundings, most evident in the extended conversations he overhears on his bus, really amplify how poetry and inspiration can come from the most mundane places if one is willing to pay attention. In the aphoristic words of the old man in the electric wheelchair and the sailor hat (who has sometimes attended poetry readings at UConn): “poetry is all around us.” One such conversation Paterson overhears is between two blue-collar construction workers; they talk about women in the way one would expect the stock construction workers to talk about women, but Jarmusch’s careful writing and shooting of the scene show that their conversation is exactly that: all talk. Luis might claim that he hasn’t called Rita, the alleged bombshell, because he wants to make her play the waiting game. However, his hesitant voice and vague details suggest that he likely made up the story to impress his coworker. Jarmusch even includes Paterson’s observation of the young woman who shoots the men a glare just as she gets off the bus, clearly upset by their vocal display of sexist machismo. This, like most scenes in the film, reflect the subtle but calculated craft of Jarmusch that reflect a writer’s observations of the careful moves of daily life, and how inspiration can come from an overheard conversation or even the suggestion of a brief glare.

Recently, I’ve started to believe less in writer’s block and more in my own capacity to be lazy. I am quick to cry “writer’s block!” when someone chastises me for not having written or revised anything, but lately I’ve started trying to break down what that really means. I have a theory that writer’s block, or at least most forms of it, are rooted in laziness about the revision process. For many that write, whether creatively, or for school or work, revision is arguably the most difficult but also the most important part of the process. Because of how difficult it is to revise, I often find myself trying to get a poem or a piece of prose in as perfect a state as possible before committing it as a ‘draft.’ However, writing something perfectly the first time has never happened to me, and I doubt it ever will. Being preoccupied with achieving perfection the first time not only makes it harder to start in the first place, but also makes me lazier about the revision process: if the draft is already so perfect, why put as much effort into revising it? Being lazy about my writing and revising, and being insecure about producing something that isn’t absolutely dazzling (which has happened and will continue) has had serious effects on my writing process. So, I’ve started to conduct an all-out attack on these habits. I’ve started adopting more of a policy of just writing.

As for time, I don’t think that should be an excuse for anyone who wants to write. If one really wants to write they will find time. For Paterson, that time is just prior to work, on his lunch break, and in his study after work or during the weekend. For some professors, I’ve been told that carving out a block of time daily or weekly helps, whether it is first thing in the morning or late at night. Having my schedule relatively booked with attempts at the triadic balance of work, having a social life, and sleeping, I’ve adopted the strategy of always carrying something to write with and write on (paper, cardboard, napkins). I scrounge for any loose minutes or seconds when I get the inkling. It sounds stressful, but I’ve been relatively successful thus far, and I’d encourage similar attempts at others who are frustrated by the same kinds of excuses they come up with for themselves.

Nonetheless, while I can give as much writing advice as I please, there is no way it will apply to everyone. Some of it is acknowledging my own inexperience, the fact that I could change my mind with future experience, but some of it is acknowledging my own privilege when it comes to writing. I still have the advantage of being able to take creative writing classes regularly; the threat of not writing being tied to my GPA. Plus, although I go to school and work to pay for rent and food, I’ve never been at a point where I’ve been poor. I may be low income, but I’ve never gone hungry for stretches of time or homeless or had other people to take care of. I think it’s important to talk about those things when we talk about having to write to make ends meet, or while simultaneously trying to earn a living. A collection of essays edited by Manjula Martin called Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living involves popular writers speaking frankly about their financial struggles. In an interview with Joseph Frankel, Martin makes note of a kind of “writerly code-switching” that goes on when writers relate their own story of ‘struggle,’ notably commenting on her own story; “I have this narrative of myself as a scrappy college dropout who made it, when in reality, my parents work in a university and have my whole childhood. I was middle-class growing up.”

Paterson (the character) may not be affluent, to the point of hesitating at Laura’s request that they purchase a harlequin guitar, but there is certainly no financial struggle over the course of the film. No bills to pay; no jobs lost. One might wonder how different the character’s relationship with writing might be if he was more actively struggling against different economic barriers.

Nonetheless, I would recommend Paterson. The film’s presentation makes the smaller moments feel that much more profound in the scheme of Paterson’s life. There’s also a fair amount of balance in the film that makes even the minor characters feel well-rounded. Not having a huge cast of one-dimensional characters does wonders to bring the world within the film to life. I was worried at times that the film was going to force a moral message upon me. Paterson, notably, does not have a smartphone and makes mention of it when asked by others, but this movie doesn’t spend time demonizing technology as a new evil that ruins everything. Instead, the decision is balanced in the film, as not having a cell phone in modern day does come with notable disadvantages. I appreciated that the film didn’t try and take a moral high ground; especially because Paterson is about a poet. It could have really run the risk of being pretentious or high and mighty if there was a lesson woven into the story’s conclusion.

Paterson inspired me to rethink my processes and deconstruct the excuses I’ve made for myself with regards to writing. So, in that sense, I can recommend it to writers interested in the portrayal of the day-to-day experiences of a poet who writes primarily for himself. To others, I will recommend it as a quiet journey and celebration of life’s routine.

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