Why We Write

February 12, 2008

Why We Write – Number 45: Thania St. John

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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.

January 21, 2008

Why We Write – Number 24 – Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Vorhis

Number 24

Today’s piece is written by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, Creators and Executive Producers of “Sleeper Cell.”  (Editor’s note: Thus this is the first essay which is truly a “Why WE Write.”)

 

Why do we write?  We swear we are not patronizing you with use of the “Royal” we, for we are in fact a writing TEAM.  Kind of like the New York Yankees or the Cincinnati Reds, only much less successful.  After devoting more than a minute but less than an hour to the question we have arrived at several answers…

First up: we write because of our own AUDIENCE FRUSTRATION.  We both love movies.  We both grew up watching movies constantly.  For better or worse movies for us served much the same purpose as the Code of Hammurabi, the Old Testament, the Constitution of the United States and Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book have served for various constituencies in the history of the world: they were our guidebook for life.  When we got old enough to understand how they got made we wanted to make sure we’d get to see more movies we would enjoy — and sometimes the only way to do that is to write that movie yourself.

About a year ago we sold an original spec screenplay called “Nottingham.”  The simple premise of the story is Robin Hood retold from the Sheriff of Nottingham’s point-of-view, with the Sheriff as the hero rather than the villain.  Why did we write it?  Because one of us grew up loving Robin Hood and the other has a lifelong obsession with Medieval history and we both wanted to see this new version of the classic story for ourselves — the last Robin Hood movie having been the Costner version from over 15 years ago.

The same holds true for television, in terms of our writing growing out of our frustration…

One of us was born and bred in New York, the other lived there for half of his adult life.  After 9/11 we both wanted to somehow turn our personal emotional trauma into something cathartic, maybe even positive — and we were incredibly frustrated by the half-baked, wishy-washy (to quote Charlie Brown) attempts to deal with themes of terrorism and counter-terrorism in the context of popular-culture.  All of which exploded into the creation of our Showtime series “Sleeper Cell” — a show that both of us desperately wanted to see, but was nowhere near the airwaves at the time.

But deep as our audience frustration may be, it probably isn’t the only reason we write.  There are the tender and heartfelt reasons as well.  A few years back we wrote an animated feature for Dreamworks called “Kung Fu Panda.”  We wrote it so that our kids could finally watch something we had written.  The punch-line is that by the time the movie finally comes out this Summer, most of our kids will be too old to want to see it.

There is also the attempt to play God, to create a world almost exactly like this one, populated with characters who are slight variations on people we know, have known or have wished to be.  A world that’s not the Real World but the World As It Should Be — at least in our not-so-humble opinion.

We write to surprise each other, to entertain each other, to make each other laugh or cry, to send each other jumping into the air with excitement over a perfect line, an unexpected plot-twist, a brilliant character insight or an amazing action scene — not to mention in order to frustrate the hell out of each other, push each other’s buttons to the edge of physical violence and drive each other insane.

We write to avoid wearing suits to work on a daily basis.

And last but not least, we write in order to avoid becoming pornographers.

After all, we do live in Los Angeles.

 

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 20, 2008

Why We Write – Number 23: Kalinda Vazquez

Number 23

Today’s piece is written by Kalinda Vazquez, Staff Writer on “Prison Break.” 

 

My father named me after a Star Trek character.  Kalinda appeared in only one episode of the Original Series, in which my namesake, a member of an alien posse, attempted to overtake the Enterprise and her crew.  Needless to say my intimate relationship with television was damn near a birthright.  I remember watching Star Trek as a child — in awe of the fictional universe that so inspired my father, he was compelled to name his first born after one of it’s characters.  (That’s one hell of an influential fictional universe.) 

My father’s love for TV and film – and good story telling in general — was either contagious, genetic or both.  I loved these mediums for their entertainment value – but I also loved them because they made me think about things I might not have thought about before.  The really good bits –say the ending of Close Encounters of a Third Kind or a particularly salient argument between Archie and Meathead on All in the Family— even challenged the way I looked at the world.  It didn’t take long for me to realize the more stories I consumed, the more my imagination grew, and the more I wanted to create some stories of my own. 

I came out to Hollywood six years ago without knowing a soul.  I didn’t have a degree from a film school or much of a resume to speak of.  Leaving my family and friends behind was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever been faced with, but in moments of doubt and homesickness I propelled myself forward with the knowledge that I wanted to tell stories and share them with others.  I started working on feature screenplays and then a couple years ago decided to try my hand at the television format.  After getting the opportunity to work as a writer’s assistant on Prison Break I was promoted to staff writer in April of ’07.  I could barely believe it was a reality.  Everything I had worked for had finally paid off. 

I’ve been keeping up with the “Why We Write” essay series.  Speaking as a baby writer, the authors are a pretty intimidating group – one with which I don’t have too much in common with.  I haven’t run my own show, and I certainly haven’t come close to hitting the triple digits in terms of episodes under my belt.  Hell, I’ve only been in the guild since June.  The first day of picketing was the same day my first episode – which I co-wrote with the indomitable Zack Estrin – aired on network television.  I felt such an incredible mixture of emotions.  On the one hand, I was thrilled that something I had helped conceive and write was being viewed by people all over the country.  On the other I couldn’t help but think – D’oh!  Just when I’m starting to get some traction the rug is being pulled out from under me!  But I know that as untimely as I find the strike (and let’s be honest who’s it timely for…) – I also recognize that the issues at hand could not be more relevant.  To turn a sci-fi connotative phrase: The future is now.  I know it’s the newer set, to which I belong, that will really be affected by this new media business.

I write because it’s who I am.  It’s how I think.  I can’t stop my imagination from running away from me.  My mind is always racing, pondering whimsical even nonsensical things.  Things like – what if a miniature spaceship floated through my open window?  What if my neighbor was a serial killer?  What if I saw a T-Rex poke its head out from amongst the palms in the Hollywood Hills.  All I can do is try to organize my thoughts – contain them and put them down onto paper.  And maybe, just maybe, something I write will make someone think – possibly even propose a challenge or two.

So maybe all the big shots who’ve submitted essays aren’t as different from myself as I might have thought.  We are all writers after all, and though the process for each of us is unique – we are unified by a passion for what we do.  In many ways, the strike has been the great equalizer.  On any given day on the picket line in either LA or New York, the line may have a showrunner next to a staff writer, a story editor next to a future guild member – an oscar winning documentary film maker next to someone who just sold their first feature spec.  The thing of it is, stripped of our titles, stripped of our salaries, stripped of our “jobs” – we are all still writers.  I am still a writer.  No matter what the AMPTP does, they can’t take away that core portion of my identity.  Of our identity.

           

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 19, 2008

Why We Write – Number 22: Reader Submitted Essay

Number 22

Today’s piece is written by Kristi Castro, Poet. 

 

 

I write because I breathe. 

 

I write because paper is cheap.

 

I write because words wait in my brain.

 

I write because I’ve wanted to be a Beat since age 10.

 

I write because I want to.

 

I write because I can’t bear a blank page.

 

I write because it makes me laugh.

 

I write to make sense of the world.

 

I write because my hands need to move.

 

I write to make people laugh.

 

I write so I can call myself a writer.

 

I write because it is all mine.

 

I write to decide my fate.

 

I write because horses need to fly and the sky isn’t always blue.

 

I write because I was born.  Words are in my blood. 

 

I write when I am confused.

 

I write because it doesn’t cost as much as film or therapy.

 

I write because of loneliness.

 

I write because I know others agree.

 

I write because they don’t.

 

I write because of the wind.

 

I write because the world is heavy.

 

I write because there are no swing sets around.

 

I write because pimento cheese is lumpy.

 

I write because America scares me.

 

I write because somewhere inside of me there is still a tiny ten year old wearing red, white and blue, singing I’m Proud to be an American.

 

I write when I see nothing else.

 

I write because some people do not see the point of writing.

 

I write because a professor once wrote, “I am convinced you are a natural poet.”

 

I write because it is the only thing I can do, so I write.

 

I write because no matter how much I sympathize, I am not on strike, so I write and look to a day when once again, everyone can.  

 

 

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 18, 2008

Why We Write – Number 21: Jack Kenny

Number 21

Today’s piece is written by Jack Kenny, Creator/Executive Producer of “Titus” and “The Book of Daniel.” 

 

Why I write.  The short answer is because my acting career stumbled into the toilet.  Although that’s not entirely true, still…I could read the writing on the wall.  It was from my agent, and it said “stop calling me!” 

My first actual writing job happened completely by accident.  I was living in New York City, and I had wrangled an audition for a math series – yes, a TV show about mathematics – for Children’s Television Workshop, called “Square One.”  They were putting together an ensemble of actors, and wanted us to bring in two monologues.  A monologue for a childrens’ math show?  Okay.  I scoured the shelves of the Drama Book Shop.  Nothing.  I ravaged my extensive hardcover collection of Fireside Theatre plays.  Nada.  Not even in “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God.”  Damn.

There was a surprising dearth of appropriate monologues about mathematics.  Not even Geometry, which everyone knows is hilarious.  You’d’ve thought at least David Mamet would’ve cranked out a one-act about “fucking fractions,” but no.  So, as a last resort, I decided to write something. 

I figured I’d get there attention by doing a bunch of different characters in one piece – show them what an asset I’d be to their ensemble.  “Such range!  We must have him!!”  I ended up writing a monologue (a three-minute one-man show, really) about all of the Odd numbers going on strike to protest their being called “odd”.  It started with a news bulletin (doing my famous Walter Cronkite), and segued to interviews with people in various walks of life whom this crisis has affected:  Julia Child unable to measure out recipes; Mario Andretti unable to shift gears; Russian rocket scientists unable to launch, forever stuck at 10- (If you haven’t guessed, I do accents and voices.  Kinda.) 

They laughed.  They liked it.  Did I have a second piece?  As luck would have it, I did:  a short monologue – the number “zero” talking to his therapist about his feelings of inferiority.  “Even my closest friends think I’m nothing!”   They liked that, too!  I imagined my fortunes doing a 180.  Success on TV!  A regular role on a series – okay it was PBS, but it was TV!  Could movies be far behind? 

Then I got the call – they wanted me.  Could I do two scripts right away?  Just two episodes?  I thought they were looking for an ensemble.  “No, no, no.  They don’t want you as an actor – they want you as a writer.”  They what?  A writer?  Does it pay?  “You’ll have to join the Writers’ Guild.”  What’s that?  Are they as good as Actor’s Equity? 

So, for the first time, I stood behind the camera and watched actors breathe life into something I had written.  It was cool.  It was great.  It was like crack – and I was hooked.  And I wasn’t the nervous one for a change!  I was the writer! 

Friends often ask me if I miss it.  Do I miss acting?  Sure.  I like acting.  But I love writing.  I love creating characters.  I get to act out all the parts in my head – and change them if I want!  But the best part is, I can write whatever and whenever I want.  I don’t have to wait for someone to ask me to, or to pay me to.  I can write alone in a park, or in a Starbucks, or on a plane…  You try to do that with acting and they tend to lock you up.

 

 

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 17, 2008

Why We Write – Number 20: Eileen Heisler

Number 20

Today’s piece is written by Eileen Heisler, Writer/Producer of “Murphy Brown,” Creator and Executive Producer of “Committed,” Developer of “Lipstick Jungle.” 

 

I write because I sucked at gym.

Seriously, I have thought this through.   If I’d been remotely good at the shuttle run, or able to keep my head suspended above the chin up bar for more than two seconds, I’m convinced I never would have become a writer.  I wouldn’t have had the need for it.  I would have been just fine.

But as it is, I was horrible at gym.  Horrible at gym in the Midwest, land of swinging blond ponytails and Friday night football games… last picked, familiar with the shouts of “Move in, move in,” to the outfielders when I was up to bat at softball… right field, spotter, “manager” of the pom-pom squad… yep, you heard me right… manager.   Of the pom–pom squad.

I pressed the button on the boom box.

But don’t feel bad for me… I did okay.  Because something clicked in me very early.  Something that saved my life.  One day during “Presidential Physical Fitness testing, (yes, it was as horrible as it sounds and mandatory every single year of my school career) as I struggled to hold my chin above that blasted bar, arms shaking like crazy, fellow classmates watching my dismal failure as I tried to last three… yes, three measly seconds… it hit me. 

Hey, I can be pathetic up here, and people will laugh at me… or I can make fun of myself… and get a laugh.

Ahhh… what a world of difference there is between getting laughed at and getting a laugh.

A laugh earned is a beautiful thing.   And it feels good.   Maybe as good as hitting a home run, or making that touchdown, or doing that perfect cartwheel.  (Yeah, I had trouble with cartwheels, too.  Full disclosure).  And like those feats of athletic prowess so seemingly effortless among the most graceful of the blond ponytailed set… getting a laugh is hard. 

And not everybody can do it.

Well… that was it for me.  I was funny.  And making people laugh was fun.  It was fun in elementary school, it was fun in jr. high, and fun in high school… when one day in gym class I was walking my assigned laps around the track, freezing in the Chicago cold (yes walking, I was in a play that night and wanted to save my voice) when I was loudly and publicly informed by my gym teacher, a Mr. Mike Battista, that my refusal to run instead of walk indicated that “my priorities were all screwed up.”

I knew they weren’t.  They were exactly right.  And I hoped I’d have the chance later, free from the pressures of Midwestern gym classes, to capitalize on my strength instead of suffering through the public humiliation of my weakness.  To use what I was good at in a land where talent was currency and nobody cared if you could do a chin up.

And not too many years later, I did.

‘Cause if making one person laugh was fun… the possibility of making millions laugh with words I thought of was a dream come true. 

So I packed my stuff and drove it in my mom’s Honda from the cold to the warm.  And I wrote, and I kept writing, and I got myself a writing partner who, ironically, has a swinging blond ponytail (don’t know what the hell reason she has to be funny, but she is,) and after a few years of making ourselves laugh in our apartments way into the night… we finally earned the pleasure of making people laugh for money.

And the kick of it was still the same.  Getting to spend that many hours of your life laughing is a pretty beautiful thing.  Because sitting around a table with funny people takes the sting off the hard part… the lack of sleep, the lack of exercise, the scary pressure of deadlines and network executives and fickle audiences, and empty pages waiting to be filled at 1am, for run-throughs set to happen the very next day. 

It was 17 years ago I first got paid to write a script, and I’ve had the privilege and the curse of working pretty steadily since.  I’ve eaten more dinners in styrofoam at tables in writers’ rooms than dinners at home with my family.  I’ve run shows, taken network notes, not taken notes, reveled in hits, and mourned shows cancelled after 13.  I’ve remembered how much fun it is and how lucky I am … and forgotten how much fun it is and not felt so lucky.

And the strike has given me time to think… given us all time to think about why we do what we do and whether it’s always worth it.  Why do I write?  What do I miss when I’m not writing?

And I think it comes back to the laughs.  There’s an image in my mind of one particularly fantastic Murphy Brown filming where I looked up at the audience and saw rows of people actually throwing their heads back in laughter at the scene they were seeing before them.  I still remember it as though I could see them in slow motion.   It felt amazing.  And I did remind myself to freeze it there for the future, knowing it was special, and that I might need to pull it out later.  And it’s that moment I think about today.

It sounds whore-y maybe, but I’ll admit it — I still love the thrill of knowing something I thought was funny is funny to other people too.

And I love that long after high school I got to write a joke in a script about that gym teacher, a Mr. Mike Battista.  You remember, the one who told me my “priorities were all screwed up?” 

And it aired on tv for millions of people to see…  giving me what I believe people commonly refer to as… the last laugh.

And that, my friends, is 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 16, 2008

Why We Write – Number 19: Jane Espenson

Number 19

Today’s piece is written by Jane Espenson, writer for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Co-Executive Producer of “Battlestar Gallactica.” 

 

I had a lot of Barbie dolls when I was a kid.  Close to a dozen, I think.  I remember that I loved them, but looking back, I’m not sure why.  I knew at the time, vaguely, that I was supposed to make up stories and act them out with the dolls, and I actually remember trying to do that, and failing.  The problem was that I didn’t know these girls.  I didn’t know their backgrounds, their quirks, what distinguished one from the other.  I didn’t get the premise of how eleven identical ludicrously-shaped teenagers had met.  But most of all, I didn’t know their voices.  Without that, I was uninspired.

The dolls I REALLY played with were the characters from M*A*S*H and Welcome Back Kotter and Barney Miller and The Odd Couple and The Love Boat and Starsky and Hutch.  I would fall asleep making up stories for those shows in my head.  But I was a brutal audience.  I couldn’t enjoy the made-up stories if I couldn’t make myself believe them.  And I couldn’t believe them if the voices weren’t right. 

So I would keep tinkering, reworking the same scene over and over in my mind every night until I could hear it.  I assume that I was doing the same thing that impersonators do when they learn to take on the voices of others.  I was just doing it silently.

I’m not old enough to have gotten my start writing for the radio. But I wrote as if I did.  Because I was so focused on the word, the image meant less to me.  I’ve since learned the power of the image, but deep in my heart, finding the exact right word for that character is still, to this day, the most important thing.

Even now, when I’m stuck on a line, I’ll lie down in a quiet room.  And I’ll listen, just like I did when I was ten.  If I’m lucky, I’ll hear the line.  Heck, I’ll hear the whole scene.  Then I just have to type it.  Note that this is why I don’t write at The Coffee Bean.  It’s not quiet enough and they don’t let you lie down.

I’ve been lucky, during my working life, to get to write for Ellen, Buffy, Lorelei, Starbuck and so many more unique characters.  Getting to step into their voices has been incredibly fulfilling.   The fact that Buffy has continued beyond its televised run into the world of comic books is amazing and wonderful to me.  Her voice lives on.  Starbuck, of course, has also not finished saying what she has to say.  When a fair agreement is reached, I look forward to listening to more of what she has to say.  And writing it down.

Are there kids out there somewhere now, writing lines for Apollo and Starbuck in their heads as they fall asleep?  Am I not so strange that there can be other kids like me?  I hope so.  And I hope when those kids start pursuing careers, that there’s one here waiting for them.

 

 

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 15, 2008

Why We Write – Number 18: Danny Rubin

Number 18

Today’s piece is written by Danny Rubin, writer of “Groundhog Day.” 

 

I once wrote a screen adaptation – true story – of a novel written by Bill Maher.  Ben Stiller was the would-be director of the film.  The subject matter was Bill’s recollection of his first year as a stand-up comic.  Every part of this project was fantastic and, as I always do before embarking on a writing-for-hire cruise, I vowed not to fuck it up.  I would listen well, be aware, and be worthy.  I would bring this ship to port.  It was the voice of Dan Hedaya running through my head, asserting repeatedly (as he did in Joe versus the Volcano): “I know he can GET the job, but can he DO the job?” 
 


My experience after Groundhog Day was that everybody kept hiring me to write another Groundhog Day.  That’s what they asked for.  And somehow these movies never materialized: the ship wasn’t getting to port.  I seemed to be getting something wrong.  Clearly nobody was asking me to write another trapped-in-time in Pennsylvania story, so what they were asking for, I assumed, was another innovative humanistic comedy with a surprising and unconventional structure.  Bad guess. They in fact really did want another trapped-in-time comedy, or something similar.  It didn’t have to be in Pennsylvania, of course.  We could set this one in, say, Ohio.  Think outside the box, they told me.   
 


Be all that as it may have been, I was determined that my writing on this Bill Maher project would be as normal by Hollywood standards as it could possibly be, no matter how crazy they asked me to make it.  The out-of-the-box strategy was not working well for me, even though that is exactly why I was being hired. Anyway, I took the novel’s jumble of characters, locations and time frames and I straightened it all out.  I gave the script a clear central character and a clear central story that led to a clear climax, and I included as much dialogue and comedy material from Maher’s book as I could. 
 


To skip to the ending: Bill thought my script was too normal.  “Why do you hire the Groundhog Guy to write a script that anybody could have written?”  
 

So, here’s a question: if the summary of my career so far is a repetition of some variation on that sad scenario, then what the heck is the allure?   
 


By the way, True Story is the name of the funny and interesting novel I was adapting.  The title refers to the line frequently spoken by stand-up comics, usually to sucker the audience into the funny lie they are about to be told.   
 


If you think about it, the very phrase “True story” helps in the dramatic process known as “Suspension of disbelief.”  No matter how outrageous the story being told, the audience will go along with it – at least for a while – simply because the narrator has told us it is true.  
 


In a film such as “Groundhog Day,” suspension of disbelief is absolutely crucial.  If the audience is spending the whole movie thinking, “That’s stupid – days don’t repeat like that,” then they will never be able to enjoy the entertainment, to connect to the emotions, and for some, to even conclude that days really DO repeat like that.  None of the clear-ringing truths revealed to many by the movie would be audible were it not for the audience’s original commitment to believing in something impossible.   
 


In order to write the thing, I, too, had to commit to the reality of this unreal world.  How would Phil react to this situation?  How would his life proceed?  I couldn’t look to any research to tell me what would happen.  Facts couldn’t tell me the answer.  Like Luke Skywalker, I had to search my feelings.  To this science-trained east-coast guy, that phrase even now sounds stupid, but that’s what happens when you write a fantasy, or any drama, really.  To search for truth in a world that can’t exist, a person needs to rely on intuition.  What FEELS true?  Writing seems to be a constant search for an inner resonance, a true-ringing singularity.     
 


In Hollywood neither logic nor intuition have served me particularly well.  Luck seems to be the most reliable guiding force, with maybe a modicum of talent and goodwill thrown in.  Figuring out the Byzantine logic involved in pleasing Hollywood is not, believe it or not, the best part about doing this for a living.  Spending my days believing in impossible things and chasing them towards an inner truth, now that’s a pretty good gig.

 

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 14, 2008

Why We Write – Number 17: Hart Hanson

Number 17

Today’s piece is written by Hart Hanson, Creator and Executive Producer of “Bones.”

 

Obviously, I write because something in my psyche went horribly wrong.  You know what I’m talking about.  If I were a healthy, fully-integrated, functional human being I’d explore the ocean floor or build bridges or perform heart-transplants on blue babies.  So would you.

My number one job?  Blimp driver!  C’mon!  Drifting over big cool events waving down at throngs of the earth-bound?  Flying at about the same speed as a wobbly drunk crossing the street?  How sweet would that be?

 

If I ever give therapy a shot, my first question to my imaginary yet insightful therapist will be Hey! Why do I write?  Is it the cliche psychological desire to stand out from the crowd in a very large noisy family?  Or is it something less solipsistic along the lines of a dime-store philosophy which maintains that we are defined by whom we touch, how we touch them and in what numbers?

 

Or are we all simply the sum of our limitations?  I don’t build bridges because I’m afraid of heights?  I don’t pilot a blimp because I’m color blind?  I don’t perform heart-transplants on blue babies because blue baby hearts make me weep? 

 

I do know that writing is one of the three things in my life I’ve put a lot of sweat-equity into.  I don’t mean the la-de-dah moral compulsories like “be-a-good man-husband-son-brother-father-friend.”  I mean palpable, self-serving, pushful, venal pursuits.  For me, aside from writing, the other two such pursuits were music and science.  But something I can tell you categorically about musicians and physicists is that if you spend enough time amongst them you soon discover whether or not you are in their league – whether or not you share the weird magical rhythms of their thinking processes, whether you possess that extra Third-Eye which allows you to envision the building blocks of reality without your head imploding or the Third-Ear which not only hears the Lost Chord but instructs your fingers how to play it on a Fender Telecaster. 

 

For me there was no Third Eye or Third Ear, so ZAP!  Keep moving, nothing to see here.

 

Early on I was determined to spend my life in serious-minded literary writing.  As a result, I write a murder show for network television.  For the Fox network.

 

I don’t need my imaginary therapist to figure out that one — genuine artistes are willing to forego health, love, underarm hygiene, financial security, family, and fun-on-the-weekends to pursue their art and I was never booked to be that guy.  I want my wife to like me and I like clean teeth.  Besides, one of my first rejections from a literary magazine said, “We found much to admire in your piece, especially the punctuation.”

 

The PUNCTUATION!

 

Read between the lines, pal.  Nobody ever praised Thomas Mann or Saul Bellow for their punctuation.  

 

Besides, genuine artists don’t pander to an audience and I always envision you out there … you and your friends along with an extra smattering of acerbic celebrities, historical figures, the Nobel Committee, Stephen Fry, my idiot cousin’s idiot husband, courtesans, my entire high school, and maybe Jimmy Page in the last row.

 

The truth is my main qualification for being a writer is that I am a whiz bang typist.  I burn up the keys, baby!  I will kick your ass typing.  I learned on a Remington unmarked manual typewriter so you sit me down in front of an ergonomic keyboard, well, I’m faster than all those girl celebutards I refuse to differentiate between but you know to whom I’m referring; they have issues with underwear.

 

But all of the above answers the question, “How I Came to Write” which is different from “Why I Write”.

 

I write because I’m totally confused by the world.  I never know what’s going on.  I absolutely never know what absolutely anything absolutely means.  I ask and the good-hearted, intelligent souls around me do their best to explain but I don’t get it.  I don’t get quiddity or science or religion or psychology or why we laugh when people fall down or why people come together or why we drift apart.  I don’t understand my friends or my enemies and I definitely don’t understand time or gravity or mob mentality or Crocs or botox or why people take some other people seriously when they so very, very obviously should not be taken seriously.

 

Writing is a way for me to organize the chaos around me. I can corral bits of the sloppy world into a clean white area measuring 8 ½ x 11 inches, where it is apprehensible.  Then actors and directors and the DP and the crew all explain it back to me on 35 millimeter opaque celluloid squares twenty four times per second  and sometimes — rarely, but sometimes — I go “Oh!” and I don’t wish I were a physicist or a great guitar player or a blimp pilot because for those few fleeting seconds, I understand some small facet of some small thing.

 

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 11, 2008

Why We Write – Number 15: Mark Gaberman

Number 15

Today’s piece is written by Mark Gaberman, a writer on “Jeopardy.” 

 

There are 61 blue boxes available to play in one game of “Jeopardy!”.  We make 230 shows a year—that’s 14,030 boxes that 8 of my friends and I have to fill.  I have learned things about Queen Victoria that I never really wanted to know.  Some information about car repair that I have since forgotten.  Morgan Freeman has spoken words in celebrity clues that I wrote for him.

He was God, you know.  At least twice.

I love to fill in those blue boxes.

I’ve had Alex Trebek rap Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice”—he had his mind on his money and his money on his mind that day.  Did a category called “Death and Texas” just because I liked the title (and finding stuff about people dying and/or getting killed in Texas turned out to be remarkably easy).  I’ve learned about Jean Sibelius, and word to the wise, if you see “blah blah blah this Finnish composer blah blah blah…”, Jean Sibelius might not be your worst guess.  Well, at least if I wrote it.  I’m just not that up on my Finnish composers.

I think for any writer, there is an indescribable thrill at having your words come to life onscreen.  For the 9 of us, those words are literally on the screen itself for everyone to see.  I’ve been with the show for a decade now—7 years as a writer, I’m one of the newbies—and I still can’t wait to see how my categories will play during that day’s shooting.  I know the others feel the same way about their material, too.  It never gets old.

Until one tanks.

Contrary to what some may believe, we aren’t out to stump the players.  Challenge ‘em to the limit, you bet, but to us, a 3-contestant deadball basically means we failed to get even one of them to where we thought they could go.  Oh, the horror that is the triple stand-and-stare.  The eternity that is the few seconds between the time Alex finishes reading a clue and the head-scratching, how the hell do they expect us to know that? reaction it gets from the contestants.  Then, DOOTDOOTDOOT!  The merciful sound that ends their suffering and then has Alex saying something like, “ooo, sorry, we were going for Slovenia.  Slovenia.  Select!”  Maybe I reached way too far and used Kurt Bevacqua in a clue instead of an easy Babe Ruth, just because I thought it was funny that Tommy Lasorda said Kurt Bevacqua couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a bleeping boat.  Or perhaps these 3 particular players weren’t quite ready for an entire category of “to Heloise and back”.  Another 3 might have been all over it.  Luck of the draw there.  Or maybe they just never knew that Fitzgerald wrote “The Great Gatsby”.

Nah, they should’ve known that.  That one would probably just make me mad.

That, however, is the beauty of our game.  I get just as floored as anyone who watches the show if that butcher from Boise knows that obscure fact I discovered about Pushkin.  Baffled if that insurance agent from Des Moines doesn’t know Lincoln was president during the Civil War.  Positively mind-boggled when that lawyer from Pensacola doesn’t put enough on a Daily Double with an opportunity to go ahead, late in the game (you’d be amazed how often betting like that happens.  Trust yourselves, folks!  No guts, no “Jeopardy!” glory!).  But the fact that I helped create all that…it’s a feeling I really miss, and one that I look forward to experiencing again soon.

I love to go to work each day.  To see my friends.  To learn something new.  To try and be creative and contribute to something a lot of people seem to enjoy.  To actually get paid to do it. 

I love to fill in those blue boxes.

 

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.

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