A New Book Explains How You Can Learn Everything You'll Ever Need To Know By Watching '80s Movies
Don't you (forget) to buy this book
It is an undisputed fact that everyone has a favorite John Hughes movie—even those people who aren't even totally sure what a John Hughes movie is. (For those people, it's Home Alone.) But for the many people who are Hughes fanatics, there is an abundance of choices when it comes to picking a favorite; whether you're a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, or a criminal, you'll find something or someone to relate to in The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, or, yes, Home Alone.
Hughes is perhaps best known as a teen-angst auteur, but he also proved adept at capturing the uncertainties inherent to life that are a common thread among all people—not just ultra-hormonal high school kids. His films are the kind that have a deceptive simplicity; their plots are all perfect elevator pitches, they don't rely on tricky camera work, they all have ultra-quotable lines and the ability to be watched over and over again. (This has definitely helped their enduring appeal; though I grew up long after Hughes' high school-set movies premiered in the '80s, I watched them all repeatedly on TV.) Simply put, whether or not you grew up far from the suburban Chicago milieu in which Hughes' films are set, they still have a unique ability to feel like home.
For writer Jason Diamond, who did grow up in that North Shore universe, Hughes' films not only portrayed his world but, in a sense, they defined it. Today marks the release of Diamond's memoir, Searching for John Hughes, which hinges upon Diamond's desire to write a biography (highly unauthorized) of Hughes, but centers around the way in which an adult Diamond set out to find Hughes, but really wound up finding himself. Diamond, who is now the Sports Editor for RollingStone.com and the founder of literary site Vol. 1 Brooklyn, had a tumultuous childhood and young adulthood in which he was abused by his father, abandoned by his mother, and left to fend for himself during many of his adolescent years. Throughout that time, Hughes' films served as a totem for Diamond, a reminder of what values were important to him in the world, and what kind of people and possibilities still existed. As Diamond moved into adulthood, and subsequently to New York City and worked toward a writing career, the importance of Hughes' films never wavered, and Diamond embarked on an ultimately doomed project to become the auteur's first biographer, and, perhaps, to capture some of that Hughesian magic for his own life.
While his biographical quest proved quixotic, Diamond learned real lessons about who he is as a writer and as a person; what resulted from that journey is this memoir, a beautiful account of figuring out why we worship at the altars of certain heroes and what that says about our own wishes for ourselves. Below, I talk with Diamond about his book, the importance of '80s movies, and what he'd say to the now-deceased Hughes if he had the chance.
It's fascinating to think how formative John Hughes movies were for so many people over the last three decades. For me, I felt like I moved through his films backward, starting with Home Alone, and then discovering Ferris Bueller and his Molly Ringwald movies as I got older. And they're so different his films, but they all have a specific Hughes shorthand, I think, and it's impossible not to just think of them all as coming-of-age movies.
Yeah, it's actually kinda surprising when I tell people how much Home Alone means to me because I think they're expecting me to be like, "Sixteen Candles!" "Ferris Bueller!" But I'm like, "I was 10 when Home Alone came out, so that was like the biggest movie in the world to me." But as I started working back, all the other movies became sort of, like, my life, obviously; as the book probably shows.
I love that this book serves as a really great example of the importance of how all written work is cumulative; it's all about the practice. You spent years focusing on writing an unauthorized John Hughes biography, and although it never came to be, now you have a memoir that centers around that experience, and that also probably wouldn't have existed if you hadn't spent years just writing on your own and for yourself, and believing in some way that you could do it. Is writing the most "fake it 'til you make it" career there is?
I don't know... there's a scene in the book where I'm at the reading—my first attempt at reading live—and I think, at that time, I really thought that all those people with their MFAs and people who had like really great internships, I thought that they had really just come out of the womb as writers. I thought that they were probably the most brilliant people in their high school, the most brilliant people in college, and I always just kind of felt really intimidated by that. But then I started realizing the more I got to know other writers, and the more I talked to them, that it's always a learning process, and that a good writer is always trying to get better. And that's kind of something that really has stuck with me pretty much my entire... I say career, which is basically like 10 years, like 10 years I've been a professional writer in some capacity. It's not as much faking it, but it's realizing that you're never gonna be the writer that you want to be, that you're always gonna be trying to figure out how to get to the next step, and trying to get better and trying to figure out how to work this sentence a little bit better. And so in a way it is, but I think it's less about faking it and more about the recognition that what you're putting out there is a constant work in progress, and that's the beautiful thing about writing. Editing is such an important part of the process and, you know, you put something out there to the editor, and they're not gonna like it, so you have to redo it, and so it's not the original thing you intended sometimes. So it is, in a sense, faking, but I think it's also just building upon what you've learned more than anything.
In the book, you reveal a lot about your very tumultuous childhood. I don't know if that had anything to do with you winding up becoming a writer, but it seems like you were able to make your own story line back then, and now, as an adult, you're able to do that literally on the page. Do you feel like your specific childhood is one of the main reasons you became a writer, or do you think that you could have actually had a very stable childhood and still wound up a writer?
I've definitely always wanted to write; that was the only thing I ever really saw myself being able to do. I don't mean that in an "I was born to do this" kind of way. I went to culinary school because I thought I wanted to be a chef, I thought I wanted to open my own coffee shop. I had all these ideas for things I could do for money, and for a job, but I always wanted to write. Like, what's that movie where he's like "I just want to dance!" Is that Billy Elliot?
Dazed and Confused! I mean maybe it's also Billy Elliot? But in Dazed and Confused before the party, they're riding around and Adam Goldberg's like "I wanna dance!"
That's such a great scene, the whole party thing. But yeah, I think it definitely informed me a great deal; it informed me how to pay attention. My childhood and teenage years, I learned how to pay attention to things, like all the things going on around me and the expressions people make with their faces. And when you're young and on your own, those kinds of things really help you to survive. I didn't realize until later on how important they were to me as a writer as well. There were a few years, my late teen years and my early 20s... that whole period is just a blur of me screwing up and getting drunk and kind of this arrested development phase in my life, and I think once I emerged from that, I slowly started putting together—very slowly, as the book shows—and I slowly started putting together some semblance of a life. I think I started to go back to some of those things that I used to... I don't want to say survive, but those things that I used to get by in the world, and I started realizing I could use those in constructive ways, and those constructive ways are through writing. Eventually, writing became writing and editing, which is my day job. Paying attention to those little details has become something that really stuck with me and helped me a great deal.
You wound up writing a memoir after many years of planning on writing a biography, so you went from wanting to write someone else's story to revealing your own. How was it to switch from writing about someone else to turning your gaze inward?
Well, I think something you see in the book, is that me trying to write about John Hughes' life was really just... very DIY. I mean, I joke that it was basically like putting on a punk rock show except writing a biography. So I did learn a lot through that, through attempting to do that, but writing about myself actually wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be, because I think a lot of the stuff I write, I tend to embed little personal tidbits into whatever it is I'm writing, because I like to connect with the reader as best I can. For me, the difficult thing was that a book is a much longer process than an essay. So I was sitting on these parts of the book for days and weeks at a time, and some of those things are very heavy; there are certain things in your life you might not want to sit and have to think about for like two weeks, and then sit back down at the computer and think, Okay, how do I distill this in a way that is interesting to the reader? Because that's a really strange thing to do. That's the thing about memoirs that I think a lot of people lose sight of; in a real memoir, the writer has to figure out a way to take their life story and shape the words and the sentences so somebody wants to keep reading. And that's a really tough thing to do. I didn't really think about that going into it, but I learned on the fly it's not easy.
I won't say you make it seem easy exactly, but the whole book hangs together really well. I thought the flow was really interesting because it's not really linear. The end point is a definite conclusion, but the going back and forth in time was a fascinating way to reveal your life.
I don't know if it's because maybe I watched Pulp Fiction too many times growing up... [but] I didn't want to write a transcript, basically. And I also kind of liked the idea of moving back and forth, a little bit. One of the things I realized during the writing of the book was I was challenging myself a little bit, which I think is another thing about growing as a writer, when you realize, "Oh, I'm subconsciously challenging myself to do this a different way and not just write it through." I was really happy about that; it showed me something that I didn't realize I had in me.
You had so many near-misses when it came to meeting John Hughes; ultimately, though, you never got to talk with him. Do you feel like that, in some ways, spared you any of the disappointment that inevitably comes along with meeting our idols? Or do you still really wish that you could have met him and talked with him?
I wish I could have met him and talked with him. Not so much in the context of being the 20-something-year-old who is attempting to write this biography on him, 'cause I think that probably would not have gone so well. I have a feeling there's a reason he kind of dropped out of sight, and it's probably because of people like me, who were like looking for answers from him. But, you know, if he were alive today and I was like, "Hey, I've written all these things about you. I've written this book about you. I just want to say thank you." I wish I could do that. I think about it all the time, and I really wish I could do that, and I can't now because he's dead. I think in some way the book is sort of my attempt to be like, "Hey, there John Hughes, if you're up there, thank you so much for all this."
And it's cheesy, because it's so easy; or it's weird because it's so easy to be like, "Maybe you're overstating how important something was to you then," but his movies have meant so much to me for so long, and I've looked at them from every angle whether it be a fan, a wannabe biographer; critically, I've written criticism about his films, and having looked at them from all those angles and still, feeling the way I do, still wanting to watch Home Alone every Christmas, still watching Ferris Bueller whenever it's on. You know, that says a lot to me, and it made me realize after I finished the book that somehow these movies have made their place in my life and I don't think they're ever going to leave, and I'm really appreciative of that. So even if I couldn't talk to him or interview him, I would like to be able to write him a letter saying that, and I think that's a lot of what this book is.