Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

What Midnight in Paris Teaches Us About Every Artist

This weekend, my wife and I went to see Midnight in Paris, starring Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams.

I was surprised by how much it inspired me as a writer and artist.

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris, a film by Woody Allen

I dare say that it was the first Woody Allen film I thoroughly enjoyed. The score is definitively Parisian, the cinematography nostalgic, and the plot inventively clever. One reviewer wrote:

Midnight in Paris is a loving embrace of the city, of art and of life itself.

I couldn’t agree more. But what I loved about the movie is that it was made particularly for creatives. Here’s the plot in a nutshell:

  • A mismatched couple engaged to be married goes to Paris for vacation.
  • Aspiring novelist Gil (Wilson) spends his nights falling in love with the city, while his fiancee Inez (McAdams) criticizes his dreams.
  • One night as the clock strikes 12, Wilson’s character is transported back to the 1920s (his favorite era), meeting Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and others.
  • The protagonist ultimately must reconcile his passion for the past and living in the present, while being true to his calling as a writer.

While full of comic moments, Midnight in Paris makes a poignant commentary about the life of an artist.

Lessons about Art from Midnight in Paris

As a writer, I took great solace in how the film portrayed the basic struggles of artists and the inherent lessons in those struggles.

Paris Cityscape from Midnight in Paris

Paris cityscape from Midnight in Paris

Artists are misunderstood

Gil is not only misunderstood by Inez; he is disdained by her.

She and others regularly scoff at his lofty dreams of traveling and writing a novel. At best, he is tolerated by them.

This ultimately sends him searching.

We artists need to come to grips with the fact that to be creative is to be misunderstood, and at the same time temper this with the importance of not disconnecting ourselves entirely from the rest of the world.

We cannot inspire that which we are not a part of.

Artists are discontented

Gil is writing a novel about himself — it’s the story of a man who owns a nostalgia shop and cannot help but consider that to live in another time would be better, simpler.

Midnight in Paris

Gil, confused and discontented, from Midnight in Paris

When he finds himself in the company of those from that era, he finds that they, too, are longing for another “Golden Age.”

This struggle is what makes artists great. The longing for something more is what drives us to create transcendent works of art.

But it can also lead us to an an artist’s demise. Unchecked discontent can lead to unhealthy thrill-seeking (as with Picasso’s lust for new lovers and Hemingway’s obsession with adventure and alcohol).

Artists need community

The fact that Gil is so misunderstood and restless is what leads him to walk the streets of Paris at night.

When he finds a community of world-famous writers and artists that take him in, he learns two important lessons:

  1. He needs the companionship of others to be true to his voice as an artist.
  2. The community around him is not the right one.
Midnight in Paris

Gil in a mismatched community

He learns, as all artists must, the importance of embracing tension.

The main lesson?

You are not alone.

You, the brilliant artist, are not alone.

That’s the lesson every writer, painter, photographer, and film-maker must learn.

You, the creative person full of oddities and eccentricities that may have been the source of shame and embarrassment at one time, are not alone.

You, who feels so out of place in this world, are not alone.

The challenge

You must find a community that will encourage you, even if it means leaving the one to which you currently belong.

You must live in the tension of being misunderstood and dissatisfied with the way things are and being called to create art that inspires and leads people to believe in something more.

It is not an easy calling, but a noble one.

Further Reading: ‘Midnight in Paris,’ a Historical Review [NYTimes]

As an artist, do you feel alone? How do you deal with the tension of being different from the world but called to make a difference in it? Share your thoughts in the comments.

If this post resonated with you, you’d probably enjoy my free eBook: The Writer’s Manifesto

Get Midnight in Paris on Amazon. (affiliate link)

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

Ever Wonder If Your Blog Post Is Good Enough?

We built a free tool so you don’t have to worry about that ever again.

1. Pick your goal of the post
2. Answer 5 basic questions
3. It tells you if it’s good enough and how to make it better

Click here to use the tool.

  • Jeff- So fitting you should write about this movie this morning! I just saw it last night and loved it equally but came away with a different lesson: Every generation pines for a golden age.  One can use the inspiration of a past time to fuel creating art, but the key is to create from the present moment.

    • Thanks, Ethan. I gathered the same; maybe I didn’t communicate that was well as I thought I did…

  • Great article, Jeff. A fascinating insight and an enjoyable read.

    This line particularly resonated: “The longing for something more is what drives us to create magnificent works of art.” in terms of what we, as artists are moving towards.

    the flip-side, what we are moving away from, reminded me partly of the line in “Bird by Bird”, a book on writing and life, by Anne Lamott that reads,

    “..writing involves seeing people suffer and, as Robert Stone once put it, finding some meaning therein.” particularly when you consider our inner children or our inner artists suffering as well as witnessing the suffering of others – it motivates us to create.

    Thanks for tweeting this article, Ethan.

  • Jeff my wife and I went to this show as well.  It blew me away.  Focussed me in the here and now. To see the beauty of the “golden age” of my life, as I am living it. Your review was spot on and after the first 5 minutes of the movie my wife was giggling as she knew this was my kind of movie. 

    Love your take on community. So much of what it means to be a writer requires people. It took me home and reminded me of how lucky I am that I have a wife who loves and supports my writing addiction. When I am feeling different often she is the one to encourage me forward.  

    Another home run Jeff thank you. 

  • I use to watch all Woody Allen movies at the theater, but became put off by his crudeness. I thought this one sounded like one I wanted to watch because of the artist theme, when I saw the trailer on television. Thanks for the review.

    Tammie

    • I’m the same way, Tammie. I think you’ll like this one — not too crude at all, in my opinion.

  • Fantastic article!  Your points resonated with me.  Dissatisfaction is prevalent in my life, and I’m just beginning to understand that it can lead to great things.  Dissatisfaction can bring about change, and that longing definitely spurs on writing.  I feel very alone as an artist type, living with two roommates who don’t understand my dreamer tendencies.  Frustrating for sure.  I need to find a community, if for nothing more than my sanity.

    I plan on seeing this movie before the week’s over.

    • Yeah, it’s a double-edged sword — this frustration we artists bear. I hope you enjoy the film, Lizzie.

  • This, my friend, is so very good. I’ll be turning these thoughts over in my mind all day. Grateful to be in creative community with you.

  • Looking forward to watching this with my wife. Thanks, Jeff.

    The one thing I keep coming back to is this, ‘God has called me to this exact place and time at this exact moment. I have to be faithful to that calling.’ And sometimes, that is hard. When you are trying to be a change agent and movement maker… the resistance is formidable, but the calling is extraordinary.

    • Indeed. The fact that there is Resistance is a sign that you’re pursuing something great.

  • Okay, now I think I should see this movie.  I was on the fence about it, even though I was intrigued by the trailer.

    I loved the “artists are misunderstood” part.  It’s so true.  Everyone always says how much they’d love to write one day, or how sad they are having given up on their dream many years ago.  But when we tell them are chosen craft, they are also quick to dismiss our pursuits as misguided hope, or mindless wandering.

    It’s too bad that we need to sell a million copies of something before we are taken seriously, but people like tangible proof, I guess.

  • Maureen

    I’m curious to know if the couple stuck together at the end of their jaunt to Paris? (Maybe that can’t be answered here without spoiling the movie!) I just feel a little uncomfortable with the line, “You must find a community that will encourage you, even if it means leaving the one to which you currently belong.” If you are married, in God’s eyes you don’t have the choice to leave that community, even if you don’t feel supported by your spouse. Perhaps you can surround yourself with other creative types in other areas of your life, but it isn’t always possible – or in God’s will – to leave your community.

    • You’ll just have to see the movie, Maureen…

      And I agree — leaving a community should be taken with the utmost seriousness and hesitation. Nonetheless, we as artists are pilgrims and are sometimes called to leave. (I wouldn’t put marriage in this category.)

      • And, here I sit reading this at the 3 year mark in Casablanca, Morocco after leaving California 2008.  Since arriving the community built almost by accident, is an inspiring and totally different one.  Students, teachers, and a huge group of thriving and striving artists are my new friends. Having given up hope of the arts some thirty + years ago, taking a very left turn into business, now here returned to my first love … and painting regularly and teaching daily.  

        The best way so far was to curate two major exhibitions, of top local artists work.  This brought new friends, and good solid critic of my own work. So you are correct in the point, we must focus on helping the others more than ourselves. And, it just seems to work out. Summer is tough. The energy that I “steal” from my students is missing. So I now confront every single thing that keeps us stuck. Can’t seem to paint in the same genre two paintings in a row, must clean the studio, must over-clean the brushes, don’t like the old school toxic oils, white spirit,  can’t buy the non-toxic water mixable oils here, must import them….ya de la de ya. There is no legal market in which to buy films here (no one would buy there when you can buy from a street vendor for 2 dhs (about 30 cents), so I will have to download or buy a copy. You have inspired me to see the film. the above relates to your many posts, as well as this one –  thanks! 

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post. I can definitely relate. Being a “creative” is a fascinating subject for me personally, so I enjoy your posts. It’s a tough road, being a “creative”, but throw some spirituality and some mental illness on that creative fire and you’ve really got an explosive combination!  

    • Tough, indeed. But ultimately rewarding.

      • Anonymous

        Definitely! 

  • Saw this movie over the weekend, too. Not what expected at all, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I – like you – found it incredibly inspiring from a creative standpoint. Glad to see someone else appreciated that aspect of the movie, too!

    • Yeah, I was surprised by it, but thoroughly enjoyed it, Wes. Thanks for the comment.

  • Marcy Kennedy

    Thanks for this post 🙂

    My husband is 100% supportive, but the rest of my family feels I need to “get a real job” even though I’m a full-time freelancer who really does earn a living from her work. It’s something I’ve struggled to learn to deal with.

    (I wrote my reply to anyone who tells us to “get a real job” here: https://girlswithpens.com/2011/03/07/a-writers-most-difficult-challenge/)

    For anyone looking for a writing community on Twitter, I highly recommend #MyWANA. They’re a great group of writers dedicated to supporting each other.

    Marcy

    http://www.girlswithpens.com
    http://www.facebook.com/MarcyKennedyAuthor
    Twitter @MarcyKennedy:twitter 

  • Stephen Taylor

    Jeff you are an amazing writer.  I love this review and the lessons you took from it.  I’m going to just have to subscribe to your rss

    • Thanks, Stephen! Always open to feedback and suggestions. Feel free to share
      this post.

      • Stephen Taylor

        Are you asking me to guest post sometime?  I would if you will guest post on mine.

        • Um, no, but if you’d like to guest post, feel free to email me!

  • bethanyplanton

    You have thoroughly convinced me to add Midnight in Paris to my list of movies to see!

    • It’s a must-see!

      • bethanyplanton

        I do enjoy Owen Wilson films, and this one sounds like it is a much better film than his last several. 

        • He’s good in this, Bethany. A neurotic writer was a good fit for him.

  • You wrote exactly what I feel.  I feel like i’m often around the wrong community. I often feel disdained for longing to be creative. Thanks Jeff. I guess it’s time for me to go experience Midnight in Paris.

    • You’ll love it and find yourself in good company!

  • Very cool, Jeff. I like the artistic breakdown you present here.

    But wait, this was the only WA film that you have truly enjoyed? Just curious, what other films of his have you seen?;)

    You must see “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “September” if you haven’t yet. And, while you’re at it, you might as well throw in “Whatever Works” (with Larry David) as well. But definitely catch “Hannah” – one of my all-time favorite, most revisitable films!

    Best,

    Peter

    • Will do. (Admittedly I have only seen a few and was put off by the crudeness.)

  • UGH!  I want to see this movie so bad!  We had a date night last week, and I guess that movie wasn’t playing in Seattle yet because I couldn’t find it in a 25 mi radius on Fandango???  I may just have to wait for the Redbox. 
     
    Can you expound on this sentence  >>  You must find a community that will encourage you, even if it means leaving the one to which you currently belong.

    When I first read it, I thought you mean to cast off your community in search for another.  But, I think what you are saying is that sometimes our current community doesn’t meet this need and we have to go outside of it to get it met, not divorce ourselves from it.  Thoughts?

    • I think sometimes we find ourselves in the wrong community and it’s okay to find a new one. Whether you keep the old one is up to your conscience. We’re all looking for our tribe. It’s okay to quit sometimes. You should tea The Dip by Seth Godin. The best people in the world are quitters.

      • Thanks for the book recommendation.  I will def check it out!  I’ll have to ponder the community thoughts.  Not sure how I feel about that just yet, but I definitely understand where you’re coming from in the context of this convo.

        When I first started my blog, I was admittedly hurt when some of my oldest and dearest friends had (and still don’t have) no interest in reading it.  Honestly, it was hurtful that they wouldn’t even take a moment to read just ONE blog post.  But, I’ve been encouraged so much by my online community that I no longer look to these friends for the affirmation I need in the creative pursuits.  But, they’re still my friends.

        • Right, Keri. They still should be your friends. I’m not saying you live a life of bouncing around from new friend to new friend and never plant your roots, but we all must find a community that will support us. Sometimes, we creatives use commitment as an excuse to hide from calling.

        • Know how you feel about having friends that don’t have any interest in reading the blog.  Some friends and family do, but a lot don’t.  I don’t think my wife has read a post yet (though I’ve read excerpts to her on occasion.)

          I also totally relate with being encouraged by the other folks online, having discovered that, like Jeff was saying, we are not alone.

          Good post, Jeff.  I’ll have to check out the movie.   

  • amykiane

    Yes. I completely relate. I’m in the between stage of finding that type of community and pulling myself away from one that never seemed to encourage me although it wasn’t really a harmful community if that makes sense. Thanks for sharing this and about the movie. 

    • I’m sorry to hear about that, Amy. It’s essential for us all to find a community that will encourage and challenge us.

      • amykiane

        Thanks Jeff. God will work it all out. I have my husband & son & family that love me. God is using this time of transition to draw me closer to him and teach me that my worth is found in him.

  • Al Pittampalli

    So true, Jeff. For creatives, the people around us love us, but they often want us to fail. And it’s precisely because they care about us that this happens. As Pressfield tells us, they want us to remain as we are…but that’s the last thing in the world we want.

    • I love what Pressfield wrote about this in Do the Work. I think it’s important for us to commit to groups that hold us accountable, but sometimes we settle for the wrong communities.

  • Now I really need to see that movie! And, this was so good for me to hear. I think living in that tension is difficult for me, because I start thinking that I shouldn’t be writing. In the last few months I’ve gained more confidence in myself, but it’s still a struggle.

    • I think every artist struggles with this, Melissa — not feeling prepared or adequate or good enough. I think that the only way you find confidence in your craft is by doing it anyway. It comes, I’m finding, as you step forward in obedience to the call.

  • Keith Jennings

    Jeff,

    This is my favorite post of yours!  Beautifully written.  Deep.  And true.

    I struggled at a soul-level as an aspiring Creative in my 20s and early 30s.  I would say over the past five years (I’m now 40), I have made peace with the tensions and loneliness and, now, embrace it.  I use it as an energy source to propel my work.

    • Dude, tell me your secret! (And thanks…)

  • Keith Jennings

    Jeff,

    This is my favorite post of yours!  Beautifully written.  Deep.  And true.

    I struggled at a soul-level as an aspiring Creative in my 20s and early 30s.  I would say over the past five years (I’m now 40), I have made peace with the tensions and loneliness and, now, embrace it.  I use it as an energy source to propel my work.

  • Nick Hindes

    I believe I will going to see this film considerably sooner than I thought. Quite interesting as the theatrical trailer does not leave much to the imagination.

  • writesandrights

    I loved this film! I blogged about it, too, and about the idea the Allen presents: that artists are often drawn to the “if only” of living in a golden era, which really resonated with me. Although Woody Allen’s films and humor are definitely an acquired taste, I love that most of his work relates to artists and the creative struggle in some way or another.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 

  • I loved this film! I blogged about it, too, and about the idea the Allen presents: that artists are often drawn to the “if only” of living in a golden era, which really resonated with me. Although Woody Allen’s films and humor are definitely an acquired taste, I love that most of his work relates to artists and the creative struggle in some way or another.Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Cynthia Morris

    Jeff, 
    Thanks very much for this article. I love how you teased out the lessons for writers and artists. I admit that I was dismayed when I saw the movie, because the bones of the plot are the same as my novel, Chasing Sylvia Beach. 

    My character Lily finds herself transported to Paris, 1937 and has to figure out how she got there to find her way home. Along the way, she meets her literary idol, bookstore owner Sylvia Beach, and gets encouragement from Hemingway and Stein. (Too familiar, right?!) She finds her voice and finds her way despite having arrived too late for the party that was the 20s in Paris. 

    Your article reminds me that these are common themes, and that instead of being cliché, as I feared when I saw the movie, my book deals with themes common to all artists. 

    Thanks again for your analysis.

  • cs

    I already saw the movie 2 times, I love woody allen movies and the way he talks about love in a dark realistic funny way, this one I found was a bit different it was as you said more artistic, it really inspired me a lot as I feel very frustrated and like an outsider with the people I am more close to. I also think it really gets you involved and makes you feel part of the entire movie. I loved the way he gets involved with dali, hemingway, picasso, etc
    sorry for my english im from Mexico

    • Your English is great! I love this movie.

  • Brilliant post, Jeff – love the mash of artists’ perpetual questions and the subtle themes that the film brings out. 

    • thanks, man. it’s one of my recent fav’s.

  • Lareinenoire

    Just stumbled onto your blog, Jeff … I watched the film this past weekend and loved it as well. Great post; definitely what I needed to hear right now as an artist and writer myself. Kudos & thanks! 

  • Joan

    I didn’t realize that I have felt alone as an artist. Not only that, but I’ve tried to be something other than an artist, doubting that my writing is good enough to merit a readers attention. At the same time, my worldly credentials are lacking. This post inspires me, encourages me. I have a story to tell and an audience to inspire. One step at a time…

  • I love Woody Allen films.  

    What I realized about this movie is that it’s true we keep on wanting to be on that golden age same as the people who’ve been on that golden age that we wanted to be in.

    Anyway, yes, might’ve been a nature of the creatives.

    PS:
    Your blog is really helpful.  

  • Mary Aalgaard

    I also connected with “Midnight in Paris.” Your review is exactly how I felt when watching it.

  • I didn’t enjoy most of this movie very much. I’ve seen too many other Owen Wilson movies, so the idea of him as a writer didn’t make any sense in my mind. (Remember this is the same guy in Meet the Parents and You, Me and Dupree) I did love the portrayal of Hemingway though. That was fantastic.  

    • CityGirl

      Jim, remember that that’s what actors do, and that’s a real display of their creative ability – to portray totally different characters but have you believe in each one. Ref Charlize Theron cast as killer and no one believed she could pull it off.  That’s just one recent example that comes to mind. There are plenty of better ones….

      • I totally agree but obviously not all actors have the same range (or ability for that matter). I ‘m not saying it’s a bad movie, I’m just saying it didn’t resonate with me with the exception of the Hemingway scenes. 

  • Zsaz9

    I am by no means a ‘great artist’, there I go again… But I know in my soul that I have been searching all my life for a place to do my ‘Art’ and be who I truely. am

  • lilly

    You keep making me tear up. I just posted a comment  about your ‘clutter’ article and how reassured I felt about deciding to be a writer, and now this!  I am an artist and yes I do feel like I do not ‘fit’ anywhere. I have had a truly bizzare life, painful really which that had little to do with being a misunderstood artist. You can find out what I mean by that if you read my blog as soon as I manage to get it up and running which I hope you will do. I will be sharing interesting experiences from my rich but challenging life – I have learned so much about the subject, I am compelled to share my insights.

    You gotta love Owen Wilson, the photo of him sitting on the bed steering ‘quizatively’ into his own mind as if his thoughts where unfolding out before him is very telling about him as a person and an artist. However, one is tempted to conclude that for the girl on the bed, being creative means knowing what color nail polish goes with what.

    When I was a little girl, in the mid 50’s, I would often study the things on my mother’s dresser. I puzzled over one of her few toiletries she had, a bottle of  ‘perfum’. It was in a cobalt blue bottle shaped like a mango pit, flat and oblong with a swirly ‘silver’ screw on cap. It was lovely to hold and look at but it smelled awful. When she said my father bought it for her, I wondered if it was a reflection of how much he loved her to give her a gift that was so unpleasant. Interestingly, the name of the perfum was ‘Evening in Paris’.

  • DOCG

    what a inspiring review. read and re read it again. Shared it with my sis who is an Artist, hope she will like it. thanks, keep up the good work.

  • eureka

    The review about Midnight in Paris was very interesting. What got my attention was to find your own crowd as an artist. I think that will be the most difficult thing for me to do.

  • Scott Craig

    Jeff, Thank you for the Post. Appreciate the Lessons you bring out. Love the movie – A bit of a staple at our place, if in doubt, toss in “Midnight in Paris”! 🙂
    “It is not an easy calling, but a noble one.” I can hear Heminway say something like that in the movie. Thank you, Write On man, Write On!

  • Cindy Sykes

    I’m finding that most of your post have something in them that particularly resonates with me. How do I deal with the tensions of being different from the world but called to make a difference in it? First and foremost with guidance from a higher power giving me the will to know that I am here for a reason and must act on that to be true to not just my faith but also to myself. I’m glad my most recent request for guidance has lead me to you, I’m learning! Thanks Jeff!