What makes us uncomfortable is often what’s most rewarding, said Susannah Grant ’84, taking a philosophical look at her career as an award-winning screenwriter and producer with credits including Pocahontas, Erin Brockovich and In Her Shoes.
“In the life of an artist, there is no one route to your destination. In fact, there isn’t even really a destination—it’s more of a way of being,” she said. “And that's a really fuzzy job description.”
Speaking to a group in Cole Assembly Room on March 30, Grant, a member of the College’s Board of Trustees, described her youth in suburban New Jersey and her days at Amherst as a shy student in Benjamin DeMott’s Shakespeare course. The road to Hollywood was rocky.
“When I got out of Amherst, I flailed,” she said. “No matter which job I tried, I just found myself unable to quiet the sort of insistent and panicky voice inside my head that was saying, ‘This doesn’t feel right. This isn’t it.’”
“I’d look ahead at what my life would be … in any of these scenarios—a teacher, a journalist, an actress. All these things I tried, and all I would see [were] the other paths being closed off by that choice,” Grant said. “These were the things that kept me awake at night.”
She found her solace in books and movies.
“I think that’s what we've always done as humans,” she said. “At the end of a long and challenging day, we have gathered around a campfire, and told each other stories. We do it, because it makes us feel less alone, more connected than disconnected.”
She started devoting the sleepless nights to writing.
“By writing down what I thought and felt, I knew it better. It revealed to me how I was really feeling. And secondly, I realized that that twitchy, impatient, unsatisfied voice in my head became oddly quiet. Not satisfied, but satisfied with being unsatisfied,” she said.
When Grant wrote her first screenplay “it was like a door was flying open.”
Acknowledged that she has serious concerns about elements of the entertainment industry, she pointed, among other problems, a dehumanization and marginalization of women, desensitization of violence, and romanticization of guns, as well as pressures to crank out happy endings.
“I don’t think it takes a genius to see how the celebration of this binary good-evil brand of heroism, weekend after weekend, year after year, can create a collective perception among people caught in the jaws of very real, very dire human problems, that the best person to solve them is an iconic, plastic, barn-burning billionaire who does whatever the hell he wants,” she said.
But there are the other films —Grant cited Manchester By the Sea and Moonlight— that don’t go for the easy answers. She also made note of the genre horror film, saying that it manages to look a racism in challenging new ways.
“My comfort with the gnarly wreckage of life, my comfort with discomfort, is the most important ingredient in my work and in the work of people I admire,” Grant said. “That, I think, is the real job of a screenwriter, or a poet, or a novelist, or a sculptor, or of any artist—getting comfortable with that discomfort, developing a practice of confusion, of not knowing, of living bravely in it when everything around you seems to celebrate certainty.”