Why We Write

April 20, 2008

Why We Write – Number 53: Curtis Kheel

Filed under: Uncategorized — Charlie Craig @ 11:34 am
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Number 53

Today’s piece is written by Curtis Kheel, Writer/Producer on “EUREKA,” and former Writer/Producer on “CHARMED.”

 

I’m not like other writers.  I don’t “gotta write.”   Yeah, you know who you are.  You’re the ones who have a writing day job, but also always have a screenplay, pilot, play, novel, short story, journal, or epic grocery list going on the side that you just can’t stop writing on your own.   I know all about you.  You’re everywhere.

I call you the “gotta writers.”  Because you “gotta write” all the time, even when you have free time that I would be using for anything but writing.

To me, writing is hard work.  Painful sometimes.  It’s a job like any other job, and unless I’m getting paid for it, I don’t want to do it,.  I really don’t get why people would do it for free on their own.  You don’t see accountants running home on the weekends and gleefully locking themselves away to crunch numbers just because they’ve “gotta account,” do you?

The truth is — and I know this won’t be inspirational even if it is truthful — I have no wonderful stories that I absolutely must share.  No moral messages I’m desperate to impart.  No colorful characters that simply MUST be given a voice.   Sure, I can come up with wonderful stories, moral messages, and colorful characters… but that’s work!  (And please don’t get me started on ‘spec scripts’, which in my world are an unfortunate but apparently necessary means-to-an-end).

I am writer for hire, pure and simple.  A “gotta pay-me” writer, if you will.  The applause and laughter in response to my work is a nice reward, but the paycheck is even nicer.

Still, I know I’m also in the minority in this respect, even though I am certain there are others out there like me.  Writers who remain silent when the “gotta writers” rattle on about their passion projects, making us feel like we should apologize for not having one ourselves.  Writers who inwardly roll their eyes when the “gotta writers” prescribe creative writing as some sort of magical cure for all of life’s ills. Writers who simply choose to write because it’s a decent-enough way to make money, not out of some deep, soulful commitment to the craft.

Sound familiar?  It’s okay.  You’re not alone.  I’m one of you.

If there was a world in which I could make the same living yet not write, I’d do that in a heartbeat.   Maybe the “gotta writers” can’t possibly fathom such a notion, but believe me, I can and I have.  Maybe it’s because I don’t “gotta write” that I often wonder about other paths.  In fact, every time I end up out of a work for a few months, usually around the time I start to worry that I’ll never work again, the same questions run through my head:  Isn’t there SOMETHING else I can do for a living? Something easier maybe?

Could I be a doctor?  No.  I feel sick at the sight of blood.

Lawyer?   No.  I feel sick at the sight of enormous law books that I’d have to read.

Indian Chief?  I suspect that I don’t meet the eligibility requirements.

Policeman?  I might get shot.

Soldier?  I might get shot

Teacher?  I might get shot.

Postman?  Either I might get shot or I might actually do the shooting myself.

Pilot?  I might crash.

Fireman?  I might burn.

Psychiatrist?  I hate listening to people whine about their problems.

Bartender?  Also involves listening to whining.  No.

Salesman?  Only if the product sells itself.  Literally. Cause that seems hard.

Handyman?  I can barely change a light bulb.

Mechanic?  I can barely change a tire.  Aw, hell, I can’t even do that.

Do-Gooder?  Yeah, right. 

Wizard?  Requires seven years’ study at Hogwarts, and I’d never get in.

Career after career, I can always find reasons why the other options are more objectionable than being a writer.  But maybe that’s the beauty of being a writer. I can try all of those professions, be all of those people, just by sitting at my computer and engaging in the fine art of storytelling.  Maybe that’s what the “gotta writers” have been trying to tell me all along.  Hmm, maybe that’s why I write…?

Nah.  It’s about the money.

 

 

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

February 12, 2008

Why We Write – Number 45: Thania St. John

Filed under: Uncategorized — Charlie Craig @ 8:52 am
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Number 45

Today’s piece is written by Thania St. John, Co-Editor of WHY WE WRITE and Executive Producer of “Eureka.”  Thania is returning for her 20th season of hour-long drama, pending today’s vote.

 

Thank you.  For reading.  For writing.  For inspiring.  For supporting.  Why We Write became what we hoped it would because of all of you.  Selfishly, it helped me through a very confusing time.  It gave my day structure and purpose.  It gave me a reason to talk to Charlie every day and map out a plan and argue over who’s right (okay, grammar is not my forte) and make each other laugh, just like we do in the writer’s room.  And every time I’d read a new essay by someone who took the time to share their very personal thoughts, I became awed by the emotion and the spirit and the fortitude of people who were previously just a name on the screen to me.  

You got the pleasure of reading their essays, I got the pleasure of reading their e-mails.  Each writer who contributed to this project did so with such excitement, such enthusiasm.  Sure, there were the usual insecure caveats that most of us express before we put ourselves out there for the world to read.  But there was also a sense of joy, of relief, of genuine thanks for providing an unusual outlet for their words.  And from the very start, I knew we had tapped into something special. 

Writers usually have the luxury of hiding behind characters to express their inner thoughts and feelings.  But here, there was no such safety net.  These essays expressed some deeply private moments, not only about writing but about life.  And experience.  I have so much more respect for every writer’s personal journey toward their goal after reading some of these stories.  Solitude, puppets, suicidal thoughts – laughter, gym class, getting laid.  We’ve all been through something to get here.  I applaud every writer who shared themselves with others on this site.  And every reader who encouraged them with their comments. 

I’ve learned a lot during these past three and a half months, about my Guild, my colleagues and myself.  When I first started in this business, I used to say I wrote because it was the easiest way to get “above the line.”  Then it was because it was lucrative.  After I had kids, it was doable way to be in show business without having to keep set hours (joke was on me, writing is 24/7.)  And as I moved up the ladder, it became the best way to keep “control” of my work (joke on me, again.)   But after these few months of taking stock and really thinking about what I do and what it means, to me and to others, I’ve realized something important.  And something that will give my life and work a new sense of purpose from now on. 

I write because I have something to say.

Sometimes it’s something funny, sometimes it’s something sad.  Sometimes it’s something serious and sometimes it’s something not very good.  But it always starts with a point of view.  An observation on life, on people, on how we treat each other.  In the writer’s room I call it the theme.  What are we trying to say with this story?  Once we figure that out, we can put our characters in interesting places, give them guns and fast cars and nuclear devices, make them kiss and kill, give them funny catch phrases and watch them struggle through the labyrinth we’ve created for them.  But if there wasn’t a reason to tell the story to begin with, all the fancy eye candy in the world isn’t going to make someone feel something when it’s over. 

I have something to say.  So does every other writer, whether they realize it yet or not.  It actually feels good to admit it.  And if walking around in circles, trying to get powerful people in towers to listen to us allowed me that epiphany, then it was all worthwhile. 

 

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers during the strike, and perhaps beyond.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

February 8, 2008

Why We Write – Number 42: Nick Wauters

Filed under: Uncategorized — Charlie Craig @ 8:33 am
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Number 42

Today’s piece is written by Nick Wauters, Staff Writer on “Eureka.”

 

Why do I write?  I guess I’ve never really thought it was a choice.  This is just the way I’ve been for as far back as I can remember.  Already as a kid, I could tell I was different.  I didn’t really know how, or what it meant, but as my parents will still tell me today, they always knew I was… “special” (sic.)  Many times, I have asked myself why this?  Why me?  Why did I have to be different?  Life could have been so much easier if I’d grown up to be… say, a waffle maker (no offense to waffle makers, and yes there’s a pay-off later). But the truth is, my head has always been filled with ideas, and for better or worse, I’ve never really been good at keeping my imagination to myself.

As a boy growing up in Belgium (Belgium… waffle maker… get it?), I was fascinated by film, television, theater, novels, comic books — anything that involved the imagination.  Sure, it got me beat up more than once by the jocks and bullies who loved picking on the faggy and geeky (yes, double-whammy) writer kid, but I didn’t care.  This was who I was.

I remember writing plays and musicals that I would then perform in front of my unwilling family trapped in our living room.  Throughout middle school, my productions would bring school operations to a halt.  Literally.  I guess I just assumed that everyone — classmates, teachers and custodians — had the same urge I had to see my material come to life.

I would often lock myself up in my room for hours, typing away on an old typewriter, writing entire seasons of shows I created — sitcoms, dramas, soaps, which I would then force my mother to read as soon as I’d finished typing the words “the end.”  I would then sit and watch intently, trying to gauge her every reaction as she made her way through the pages.

I eventually decided it was time for me to make my Hollywood dream come true (again, I just assumed everyone was born with a Hollywood dream.)  Being a Hollywood writer was the only thing I could imagine doing, and my parents were kind enough not to discourage me.  They probably assumed it was just a phase.

So I started sending out some of my scripts.  Using a French-English dictionary, I painstakingly wrote a cover letter explaining to Brandon Tartikoff that I would be honored to write for a network with such dedication to high-quality programming, and that if he would just have my scripts translated into English, he would see how great they were.  Yes, I know what you’re thinking.  But give me a break, I was thirteen and I had a dream.

After getting no response from Hollywood, I decided it would probably be a good thing for me to learn English.  Maybe NBC didn’t have the time or resources to get my scripts translated after all.  So I started watching TV shows on the BBC to complement my English classes, and that’s how I started picking up English.

I clunkily translated a couple of my pilot scripts and sent them to Warren Littlefield and his counterparts at the other networks along with a resume listing every play and school show I’d ever put together in my “career.”  I knew Hollywood was waiting for me. 

And this time, I finally got a response.  It was a very nice and short letter from “Beverly” in the HR department telling me NBC could not accept unsolicited material, but that they reviewed my resume and that although there were no openings at the time, they would keep it on file for the next six months should anything open up.  Sure, I thought it was a bit suspicious that all the responses I got from the other networks said exactly the same thing, but that was just a minor detail.  I just had to be patient and wait 6 months, right?

Many years and twists of fate later, as I walk around in circles and chant in my red shirt in beautiful downtown Burbank, I can’t help but look back and wonder how the hell I actually made it here.  Maybe it’s because I’ve always believed that somehow the rules of storytelling also applied to my own life, that whatever obstacles were thrown in my way, I would always prevail and eventually get my happy ending in the third act.  Maybe it’s because I never stopped dreaming, never stopped imagining.  Maybe it’s because part of me never grew up and established permanent residence in Never-Never Land. 

Writing is not just something I do.  It’s what I am.  I’m not saying I’m good at it (I wouldn’t be a writer without having insecurities), but that is who I am.  And although I am one of the lucky few who get to make a living out of it, I know that wherever my professional life takes me and whether or not I get paid for it, I will never stop writing, because I need to get that stuff out of my head.

And that’s why I write.

 

 

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

January 25, 2008

Why We Write – Number 28: Jaime Paglia

Filed under: Uncategorized — Charlie Craig @ 9:42 am
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Number 28

Today’s piece is written by Jaime Paglia, Executive Producer and Co-Creator of “Eureka.” 

 

I’d like to say that I write because it’s been a life-long dream.  I’d love to recall with a wistful smile how I still remember the feel of my first Ticonderoga #2 scratching across a yellow legal pad, or the clack of the keys on my grandfather’s classic Underwood.

But I can’t.  And I don’t. 

The truth is, I never had a clue what I wanted to do with myself, and in many ways, I still don’t.  I’ve spent a lifetime tormented by too many options, perpetual self-doubt, and chronic indecision.  I think the only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to do something memorable.  Like playing pro football.  But at 150 pounds, THAT wasn’t in the cards, so I went off to college with lofty goals and no direction, and to fulfill a general requirement, took a course in playwriting.  Our first assignment was to write a scene about a misunderstanding between two characters.  Being a wholesome, small-town kid, I conceived of a meeting between a businessman and a guy he thinks is an auto broker…but turns out to be a pimp.  The two men talk about what “type” the businessman is looking for and the double-entendres start flying.  Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, but trite as it sounds, when we had the table-read, people laughed.  A lot.  Which was, quite simply, intoxicating.  More exercises led to writing plays and eventually, screenplays, which got more laughs, until a realization began to slowly dawn on me: if I could actually make a living doing this, I’d never have to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up.  There was a limitless cast of potential characters I could create and try on.  I could be the hero, the villain, the sidekick.  The drifter, the lawyer, the spy.  The love interest or the love-lost.  Winner or loser.  Damaged or healed.  I could be as confident, charismatic or as witty as I rarely felt in real life.  (How many times had I thought of the thing I wished I’d said half an hour after the moment had passed?  No more.)  I would always have the perfect one-liner, the most romantic proposal, the most devastating comeback.  Well, maybe not PERFECT, but a damn sight closer than in real life.  Best of all, I could experience all of this from the comfort of my own house.  Plus, let’s be honest, it’s just a damn cool job.  And fun.  Okay, fun as in painful.  Often, like getting root canal.  Like writing this essay, which given that I’m on strike, is all I’ve written in over two months, and I’m convinced is pure crap.  Honestly, I hate every word and will regret having written it the moment I send it out for public viewing.  But that is the life I’ve chosen.  I’m one of the few, incredibly fortunate, deeply pathological people who actually gets to make stuff up for a living.  And once we get a fair deal and everyone goes back to work, maybe I’ll create a character whose brilliant observations and impeccable comedic timing change the world.  Then I’ll get to inhabit that guy’s skin for a little while.  Which isn’t all bad.

And if I’m lucky – on a good day – people will laugh.

  

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

January 8, 2008

Why We Write – Number 12: Judd Pillot

Number 12

Today’s piece is written by Judd Pillot, Executive Producer of “According to Jim.”

 

When I was about eight my parents gave me an old TV.  Very old.  So old that if I grabbed it with both hands a jolt of electricity would zing up my arm, shoot through my chest, and, I presume, my heart, zang down the left arm and back into the TV.  It is possible mom and dad were trying to kill me.  It is also possible that, due to both faulty wiring and parenting, I was destined to become a writer when shows like Gilligan’s Island, Batman, and Leave It To Beaver were electro-plated directly onto my psyche.

 

With every episode I was convinced:  “Oh my God, they’re actually going to get off the island.”  “There’s no way Batman’s going to escape this time.”  “Thank God Beaver’s gonna get away with his crazy scheme.”  I bought it every time.  I was a little slow.  Maybe it’s because I was a kid, maybe it was the random, prolonged shock therapy, but I just thought television was heaven in a box.

 

When I got a little older, it was The Dick Van Dyke Show that really got to me.  You could hang out with funny people and drink coffee and eat pastries for a living?  You could marry a woman like Mary Tyler Moore?  And she’d wear those pants?  More heaven.  Sign me up.  I was lucky to know early on what I wanted to do.  Writing was a dream that I had to go after.  And not that great American novel crap.  TV!  

 

My first joke for television.  1986.  Duet, a romantic comedy for the brand new FOX Network.  The pilot script described a mystery writer who lived in a low-rent neighborhood.  Narrator:  “Outside his window a neon sign flashed ‘Completely Nude’.”  Nervously, I pitched.  I said I thought it would be funny to add:  “It was so low-rent that the sign actually flashed, ‘Completely Nud’.”  The showrunners laughed.  And the cast laughed at the table read.  Then the network laughed at the run-through.  Finally, the night we shot, the line came up and the audience laughed.  In life, there is no better high.  Okay, the birth of your children.  But the approval of two hundred tourists is right up there. 

 

I’ve written a lot of television since.  And believe me, tons of my jokes haven’t score as well as that first one (examples not germane to this essay).  But there isn’t a day that I drive onto a lot, or walk onto a soundstage, or sit down in a writers’ room that I don’t get excited.  Granted it’s a different kind of jolt than the one I’d get as a kid – but it still makes me tingle.  And every day that I don’t drive onto a lot, or sit in that room, well…I’m a writer.  Without the story crafting and the jokes, the speeches and the silences, the search for just the right word, it’s just strange.  I might not feel completely nud, but something is definitely missing.

 

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers during the strike, and perhaps beyond.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

January 7, 2008

Why We Write – Number 11: Bill Lawrence

  Number 11 

Today’s piece is written by Bill Lawrence, Creator of “Scrubs” and Co-Creator of “Spin City” and “Clone High.”  He finds himself boyishly handsome.  

 

When I was eight, I recall my dad, red-faced and neck veins bulging, screaming at my mom to “Speak only when spoken to, dammit!”  I knew I should probably abide by the same rule, lest I wanted to face the rage that jumped into his eyes whenever Mom dared to mention maybe slowing down on the scotch, especially if he was going to drive my sister to work later (all the while hating her for having a job when he did not).  So that was my home – cold, and shadowy, and so full of fear that it was blaringly quiet.  For me there was only one safe way to express myself: writing.

Now, in fairness to my dad, none of that is actually true.  I don’t have a sister, and my parents were/are lovely and supportive.  They remain crazy in love, walk the street holding hands, and probably even occasionally have sex (it is truly weird and disturbing).  The reason I told that badly constructed, melodramatic, fake story is to tell you this real one: I write because it is the only way to get paid for being full of shit.  The implication, of course, being that I, personally, am full of shit.  I am.  Seriously, ask any of my friends (acquaintances won’t cut it – most of them still find me truthful).  When I’m on the phone, the writers on my show play a game called “truth/lie/exaggeration,” categorizing each statement into its proper station.  It’s not a malicious thing, mind you.  It’s never to screw someone over or further my career.  It’s always about making the story better.

All the men in my mom’s family are large mouth bass fishing guides on the St. Johns river in rural Florida.  I do not enjoy fishing.  If you do, congrats – you’ve apparently found a way to enjoy sitting around all day doing nothing. Call me and explain it, I’ll finally be able to get close to my uncle and cousins.  It’s too late for me to bond with my grandfather.  He actually passed away out on the river.  In my head I always think that he knew something was physically wrong, maybe even felt pain in his chest, but he was unwilling to boat home because he had a good feeling about catching a ‘big ‘un’.  Now, my grandpa actually died at home in bed (of Parkinson’s, an annoying player in my life brought back by Mike Fox).  The point here is that I don’t like fishing, but man, I love fishing stories.  I watched my mom’s family tell them, hone them, add to them – it was a science that ended with a basically true tale that would be told over and over to any listener’s delight.  I officially became one of these storytellers when I was with my father’s family (much bigger fans of money and Connecticut than fish) and my uncle on that side told me what he thought was a charming anecdote.  When he finished, I said, “that was pretty good, but next time you tell it you should say it happened to you and not your friend.”  When he said “But it did happen to my friend,” no one had ever uttered something so irrelevant.  I knew how to make the story better.  I was two years old.

That’s what writing is to me – crafting a beautiful lie (beautiful, really?  Give me a break I’m being artsy).  It has to have some element of human emotional truth or whoever your audience is will turn the metaphorical channel.  Anyway, back to the original question.  Why do I write?  As an acknowledged bullshitter, I thought I’d start with some of the lies writers tell.  I don’t write because I couldn’t do anything else.  I’m a bright guy, I could hold down a number of jobs.  I could run a hat shop.  I don’t love writing.  Nobody does – it’s worse than fishing.  Anyone that tells you that he loves to write has either never written anything, or, is in fact, an alien.  Throw water in his face, if he is human he’ll get embarrassed and admit he’s never written.  If he’s an alien, the water will burn his skin and kill him like in the Mel Gibson movie SIGNS. 

Now the truths.  I write because as horrible as writing is, having written something is pure pleasure.  I like that my parents have something to talk to strangers about.  I like ending the previous sentence with a preposition because I’m an artist.  I write to get laid (that cliche about actresses only sexing up directors is just that, a cliche).  I write to find love (with this one actress I thought I was writing to get laid, now nine years later I have three kids and a wife who constantly tells me to hold the wheel at “ten and two” when I drive).  I write because I honestly couldn’t do anything else, and I love to write (that’s a callback from the previous paragraph).  I write because parentheticals actually arouse me (they do).  I write for money.  I write because it makes me feel cool even though I know I’m not.  I write for revenge on everyone that ever wronged me.  Tim Stenger, you know what I’m talking about.  I write  to heal (myself, not the world – I’m not a wizard).  I write because I’m lucky;  we all know how many elements of success are beyond our control.  I write because I secretly believe luck had nothing to do with it. I write because I’m arrogant, because I’m insecure, because I’m depressed, angry, joyous, drunk, bored…  But most of all, I write because I’m full of shit.

  

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

January 3, 2008

Why We Write – Number 9: Katherine Fugate

  Number 9

Today’s piece is written by Katherine Fugate, Creator and Executive Producer of “Army Wives.”  Her feature film credits include “The Prince & Me” and “Carolina.”

 

i am a damaged soul.  i think all artists are. 
 
somewhere in our youth or childhood, something wicked this way came.  and we’ve been hurt.  we’ve been let down.  our hearts were stained.  frayed and soiled.  we weren’t saved.  and we didn’t like it. 
 
so we became artists.  writers, actors, painters, singers.  and, i find, we recognize each other when we walk into a room full of strangers.  we wear a certain ethereal glow of ennui and energy.  of languid optimism.  because we’ve learned, that despite whatever childhood wounds we drag around in our battered suitcases, we can rewrite them.  we can change the outcome.  we can give the world hope.  think about it. 
 
now, he runs through the snow on new year’s eve because he realizes he loves her.  now, she sobers up instead of dying on the highway.  now, the parents find the cure and save their ill son after all the doctors gave up hope.  now, he stands up in the courtroom and tells the truth, even if it means he will go to prison.  now, the angel gets his wings.
 
when i was 10, i read A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle.  you could fold the very fabric of time or space if you wanted to.  i wanted to.  and i could, for the first time, envision a place where alternate universes lived.  where damage could be undone.  where, to rescue your brother, love is an emotion that the evil IT could not understand. 
 
the novel was rejected 26 times for being “too different.” 
 
i named my only child after a writer i never met because she gave me hope.  Madeleine just turned 1. 
 
which means this time last year, a child was yanked out of my belly and a TV series was yanked out of my heart.   both have been incredibly rewarding and incredibly challenging.  

just as my daughter’s first steps will be written in my memory, this strike and all the steps we take will be written into history books.   we are folding time and space now, recognizing a technology that will redefine how we give hope.  how we change the outcome. 

this strike is just one of many steps on our journey.  there will be damage.  there will be stains.  there will be false hope.  but it will end.   we will go back to work.  but it is our resolve, our willingness to keep taking those steps that will determine the outcome. 

so everyday, i’m out there, walking the line. 

i do it because i believe in fighting for a fair deal.  and because i believe in my daughter, Madeleine, and what it means to be a mommy she would be proud of.   

 

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers during the strike, and perhaps beyond.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

January 2, 2008

Why We Write – Number 8: Damon Lindelof

  Number 8

Today’s piece is written by Damon Lindelof, Co-Creator and Executive Producer of “Lost.”

 

I was listening to the news on NPR the other day and two things occurred to me.  First, only assholes feel the constant need to tell you they listen to NPR (does anyone ever say, “So I was watching the CW last night…”?) and I guess that makes me an asshole.  The second was that in the midst of listening to the story in question, I had finally figured out how to succinctly sum up why I write.  It goes a little something like this —

There’s this ninety-year old woman named Rose who, after honking her horn repeatedly at the school bus idling in front of her, decides she has much more important things to do and guns her Honda Civic around the bus.  Before she realizes that the bus was stopped for a very good reason indeed, Rose finds herself watching a freight train bear down on her and almost instantly, it smashes into the passenger side of the Civic and pushes it a good hundred feet before screeching to a stop.  Forgoing all the gory details, Rose  is pronounced dead at the local hospital and the attending doctor in the ER is tasked with notifying next of kin.  Turns out Rose’s husband has been dead for decades, but she has a couple sons and a daughter.  The doctor calls one of her sons and his wife answers the phone.  The son isn’t home, but the wife offers to take a message.  The notification ethics, however, forbid the hospital from telling anyone but next of kin about Rose’s death and so they ask when the son will be home so they can call back.  

And the wife responds “He won’t be back for two months.”   And the hospital says, “Well… do you have a number where we could reach him?”  And the wife says no, she doesn’t.  And why not?–

Because he’s in space.

As in outer space.  As in orbit.  As in one of a handful of human beings who have the unique distinction of not being on the fucking planet. 

The son, Richard, is working on the International Space Station doing repair work.   And as he floats in Zero-G, he is blissfully unaware that his ninety-year old mother has just been flattened by a train.

I shit you not.  This really happened.

And what does this family’s personal tragedy have to do with why I write?

Because to me, this is an amazing story.  And as soon as I hear it, my brain is already hammering out the scene where Rose’s other kids debate as to whether or not to even tell Richard.  The daughter, Christine, insists on telling him that mom died peacefully in her sleep and holding the grisly truth for when he’s back on Earth.  Richard’s brother Michael, however, demands they tell Richard all the gory details.  Why?  Because it was Richard’s fault she was still driving at ninety.  Michael’s been trying to get her into assisted living for over five years now and if stupid fucking Richard had just fucking listened to him, she’d still be fucking alive! 

Fortunately, I think, the decision is not up to Richard’s siblings.  He is, after all, a member of the military, so this would be a NASA issue.  And it turns out in their guidelines there’s this thing called the Dual  Plume Protocol.  The Dual  Plume Protocol, or DPP, was officially incorporated into NASA’s Psychological Charter this year.  Let me back up — 

In September of 2001, the space station was manned by three people — an American and Two Russians.  As they were orbiting over the Northeastern United States, the American called Mission Control to report that he could see (with his naked eye) two massive pillars of black smoke rising up through the atmosphere.  When they answered back, explaining that the black smoke was all that remained of the Towers, the American took a long, sorrowful pause and responded – “I wish you hadn’t told me that.”

As a result of the DPP, NASA started actually asking the astronauts who are leaving the planet what their personal wishes are regarding notifications of earthbound tragedies.  And this is like, a very detailed document because it covers everything from worldwide catastrophes (i.e. Katrina or a Tsunami) down to things that would only affect the astronaut him or herself (i.e. their mother’s Honda getting pulverized by a freight train) and it must be signed and notarized before launch. Why?  Because the emotional state and focus of these guys is critical.  They’re being sent up to perform missions on a space station and after spending millions to train them (Richard is one of three people alive who has the skill set to execute these specific repairs) it costs BILLIONS just to get them up there to perform them and the last thing NASA needs is for someone to go batshit with grief on the day they’re supposed to fix the thruster converter thigamajob.

So I’m sitting there thinking how Richard may have filled out his DPP Form…

And I realize there’s no such thing.

I made it up.

Yeah, I remember hearing about the astronauts on the space station having seen the carnage over Manhattan from orbit, but that’s got nothing to do with the story of Rose’s death.  In fact, I don’t know how many kids she had or, for that matter, whether or not they can just send an email to Richard (can you get email in space?) and dispense with all the formality. 

But where’s the drama in that?

So that’s why I write.

I write because I can’t help but make things up.

I write because I love to tell stories.

I write because my imagination compels me to do so.

I write because if I didn’t, I’d be branded a pathological liar. 

Oh, and also because I’m still trying to make my dead father proud of me.

But that’s none of your goddamn business.

 

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers during the strike, and perhaps beyond.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

December 31, 2007

Why We Write – Number 7: Steven Peterman

  Number 7

Today’s piece is written by Steven Peterman, Executive Producer of “Hannah Montana.”

 

I grew up in Milwaukee.  Nobody wrote for a living in Milwaukee.  You worked at Allis-Chalmers making farm equipment, or at one of the breweries making Pabst, or Old Milwaukee, or Schlitz. Or, like my dad, you owned a tavern, a bowling alley and eventually, the only Italian American restaurant in town operated by Jews.  Be a writer?  That was crazy.  I was going to be a rock and roll god. 

I remember songs since almost before I could talk.  Perry Como and Brenda Lee. Elvis singing “Jailhouse Rock.”  Roy Orbison singing “Cryin’” on Ed Sullivan at Grandma’s house, with Uncle Jerry laughing because Orbison looked so goofy with his bad toupee and his big black sunglasses and me wanting to hit Uncle Jerry with a folding chair from the dining room because maybe Orbison looked freaky but Jesus, his voice could break your heart. 

I wanted to affect people the way Orbison did, or Van Morrison, or the Beatles.  There was just one problem. I was short.  And I wore glasses.  And my fingers were too stubby to ever be able to duplicate Mark Knopfler’s brilliant live version of “Tunnel Of Love.”  And that high tenor that made old women weep at my Bar Mitzvah went away, leaving a shaky baritone which would never again hit the high notes Tom Petty can reach after rolling out of bed and lighting a cigarette.  Plus, when I grew my hair long I looked less like Jimmy Page and more like my Aunt Syl, who I loved and miss dearly but would still prefer not to resemble.

Okay, that’s clearly more than one problem.  So I tried to be sensible.  I graduated high school, went off to college, graduated, registered at law school, hyperventilated, ran away, lived on a kibbutz for six months, went back to law school, registered, went to three weeks of classes, hyperventilated and ran off to New York to be an actor, where, four months later, I was playing a law professor (!)…on Broadway (!)  In the film of this, that last run-on sentence will be a very amusing montage, assuming it isn’t cut to move the action up. 

After six years working and starving, I moved to LA where, amazingly, I worked more than I starved.  Theatre, movies, movies of the week, guest shots, pilots and series that almost made it.  It was fun, and exciting, and there were times when I lost myself in the character and it was almost as good as a guitar solo.  But that didn’t happen often enough, and the series never came and I started to get too hungry and desperate and started sucking at auditions and knew I had to do something.

That’s when friends who had given up their own dreams of acting to become working writers, encouraged me to try it.  I of course responded, “Why the hell would I want to do that?”  From what I could tell it was lonely, ridiculously hard and most of them looked miserable.  Especially the comedy writers.  They looked awful.  And it was no wonder.  Actors were treated like shit until they got the job.  Then it was great.  Writers were treated like shit until they got the job, and then they were treated worse.  

So I avoided it.  Until I ran into Gary Dontzig at the gym.  I met Gary doing a play at the Old Globe in San Diego.  I thought he was boring and he thought I was over the top.  Later, I realized he was much better than that, but had been stuck in a boring role.  He still thinks I was over the top.  I was, but I did it brilliantly, and the part demanded it.  Anyway, I ran into Gary and bitched about life and said I was thinking of writing.  And he said he was, too.  Years later he confessed that he hadn’t been, but actors are so competitive he felt compelled to lie.  He actually called me later and invited me over to throw ideas around.  To this day he doesn’t know why he did that.  I was so surprised I said…”uh, okay.”  I hung up and told my wonderful, increasingly impatient wife, Susan, who I’d been smart enough to meet in between working and starving in New York, that I was going to piss away an afternoon at Gary Dontzig’s.  Susan, the only one who was bringing in any income, reminded me that I wasn’t doing anything else the next day, since I’d already been to the gym that day and had to “rest my muscles.”  (She failed to understand that as an actor I had to keep my body in the phenomenal shape it was.  Fortunately, writing has no such requirement.) 

So I went to Dontzig’s.  And something clicked.  Because we were different.  Because we weren’t best friends.  Or even friends (this was before we became brothers).  We each brought something different to the party, but overlapped enough to meet somewhere in the middle.  More importantly, he believed in putting something, anything down, where I would have stayed on our first sentence from that day in 1984 until…now. 

We wrote a spec “Family Ties.”  It was 75 pages long.  Yet surprisingly easy to cut.  Much like this piece.  Our friends said it was good.  So we wrote another.  Just to make sure we could.  And we got an agent, and then, our first job.  And another.  And then Diane English and Korby Siamis read us and we got on the original staff of “Murphy Brown” and now it’s twenty years later and I’m a writer.

And it’s still ridiculously hard, and I frequently look miserable.  But I’ve grown to love it almost as much as I hate it.  I still love hearing something I’ve written get a laugh.  Or make people cry.  Or think.  I love that I can write characters I’d  never have gotten to play.  I love working with actors and directors to fix a scene.  I love editing.  I love walking onto a stage where 120 people are working on something that wasn’t there before writers put it on paper.  And I love being stuck in a room with people so wonderfully funny they can make me laugh at two in the morning when minutes before I hated every one of them and prayed for an earthquake that would send the building crashing down, killing all of us if it meant getting out of the fucking scene.

That’s why I write.  I’ve been unbelievably blessed.  I’ve worked on shows that were considered important and shows that weren’t.  Shows that were fun, and shows that weren’t.  And now I’m doing “Hannah.”  And a few months ago we were sitting in the writers room, staggering toward the thirtieth episode of the season, and someone at the table said, “You know, in twenty years people are going to come up to us and say, ‘I grew up watching your show.’”  

It’s not quite being a rock star.  But it’s close enough.  I wish us all a speedy and successful end to this miserable but necessary and noble effort.  Considering what Disney’s gonna make off “Hannah” I feel quite confident in saying we deserve every nickel. 

 

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers during the strike, and perhaps beyond.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

December 28, 2007

Why We Write – Number 5: Greg Berlanti

  Number 5

Today’s piece is written by Greg Berlanti, Executive Producer of “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Brothers and Sisters.”

 

I’ve never considered myself much of a writer.  I’m not particularly great at it.  On my best day I don’t have half the talent of many people I’ve been lucky enough to hire and to work with.  And this is not false humility.  Ask any writer who works with me, they’ll tell you how much I rely on their abilities, how often I struggle to craft the simplest of scenes.  I know a lot of other writers feel like they suck too, but that doesn’t make it easier (I know this because a large part of my day is convincing other writers they don’t suck.  Once finished, I go back into my office and convince myself I do suck all over again).  The problem is, regardless of my limited writing talent, I love telling stories.   Creating a character, a world, a whole universe out of nothing.  That part I can’t get enough of.  I think about myself and storytelling the way Bill Clinton described himself and the Presidency, and I’m paraphrasing here, “There are guys who have done it better, but there’s no one who’s enjoyed it more.”

As a kid, the first storyteller I wanted to be was Jim Henson.  I designed and built puppets and had a business performing for birthday parties.  If you’re curious what the rock bottom of the middle school caste system is, it’s The Kids Who Play With Puppets.  Seriously, The Kids Who Played With Magic used to beat the crap out of me.  Anyway, a day or so before the birthday party (even then I needed a deadline), I would sit and design a story based on the little facts of the birthday boy or girl’s life.  Each time I sat down to do this, staring at the blank page in my Trapper Keeper, I would grumble to myself, “I hate this… stupid birthday… I’m never gonna think of anything.  I’m the WORST BIRTHDAY PARTY PUPPET GUY EVER!”  And then inevitably, I’d get some small idea that would lead to the next idea, and to the one after that, and in a few hours I had a story.  At which point I would think to myself, “I love this!  I’m a genius!  I’m the best BIRTHDAY PARTY PUPPET GUY EVER!”  Eventually,  because I liked the idea of having sex in this lifetime, I dropped the puppets.  But the internal monologue and its cycle from self loathing to self fellating is still pretty much the same. 

Okay, so now let’s fast forward to 1996.  It was about a year after I moved to Los Angeles and I was paying my bills working as a phone operator at the prestigious Sherman Oaks Galleria Business Center.  The girl that trained me was leaving for junior college to study “hotels and stuff” and because she knew I wanted to be a writer she promised to introduce me to her high school friend, Ricky Schroeder, as soon as she got back.  At night I would drive home to the studio apartment I rented in Beachwood Canyon, beneath the Hollywood Sign, and think to myself, “I’ve never been further from Hollywood in my whole life.”  But the worst part about this time?  I had stopped writing.   And I had never stopped writing before.  From middle school to college, puppets had let to plays, which lead to screenplays.  But after having my first few masterpieces resoundingly rejected by every studio and agency in town  (I was one of those dudes who thought a color script cover would make a difference) I had let my discouragement consume me.  A good friend of mine from college named Julie Plec (now a writer herself on the show Kyle XY) took me out for lunch where she read me the riot act for giving up on my dream before I even had a chance to fail at it.  I tried to offer up some lame excuses, “I’m tinkering with a new idea, I’ve got a meeting with Ricky Schroeder, etc.”  But she knew it was all bullshit.  I finally opened up about how Hollywood had confirmed my own instincts about my lack of talent.  Julie reminded me that there was a time in my life when I never cared about how successful I was at writing, just how much I loved it.  I went home that day and began work on my fourth script, which was… also resoundingly rejected.  As were my fifth thru ninth scripts.  But my tenth script, my tenth script I wrote in Los Angeles got me a lawyer, an agent, and my first job as a paid writer.

What’s the rest of the story?  How did I get here from there?  Writing.   See, that’s why I write.  Not because I’m great at it.  As I mentioned above, most days I feel barely passable.  I write because I love telling stories.  And as I share my stories with the world, my own story gets better and better.   Writing has been responsible for almost every amazing thing that has ever happened to me.  I’ve met thousands of people, made hundreds of friends, had my scripts shot all around the country, worked with stars I grew up admiring,  and seen other actors go from oblivion to household names.  I’ve had crew on shows I’ve created meet,  get married and have children all because I had an idea one day while I was driving and had the fortitude to see that vision through.  When I think about my life now, all thanks to writing,  I think about that classic exchange from “Broadcast News” between William Hurt and Albert Brooks, courtesy of everyone’s writing hero Mr. James Brooks, 

“What do you do when your life exceeds your dreams?”  

“Keep it to yourself.”

I guess that’s the other reason I write.  One day, if I’m lucky enough, I hope to write a line half that good. 

 

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers during the strike, and perhaps beyond.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

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