Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"Why I Write"

Like most people growing up, I never thought of writing as something that anybody did. When I watched The Cisco Kid on television, I focused on Cisco and Pancho and if I thought about it at all – which I didn’t – I imagined the words that came out of their mouths were words they made up themselves. Why did I imagine that? Because the words that come out of my mouth were words I make up. Why should it be different for Cisco and Pancho?

My view of the non-existence of writers was likely enhanced by the fact that I didn’t read books. Unlike TV watchers, book readers are not misled into imagining that books write themselves. A giant tip-off is that the author’s name is plastered on the cover of the book, and other places as well. This information not only tells readers who exactly wrote the book, but more importantly – in the generic sense – it brings home the fact that books are written by actual people.

Here’s how oblivious I am. I once mentioned to someone that I didn’t write fiction. To which they replied, “Every show you have ever written has been fiction.” This Flash! was like throwing a pail of cold water in my face. It was an earthshaking wake-up call.

I write fiction? Really?

I never thought of it that way, I really didn’t. I wrote for real people. I’d go down to the soundstage for rehearsal, and there they were. Yes, the real people – the actors – were playing fictional characters, but I never made that extra leap in my thinking. True, the actors were playing fictional characters, but that was the actors’ issue.

I was writing for real people.

Also – This is wonderful. I’m trying to defend my assertion that I don’t write fiction, which is ridiculous, because I do. Anyway, as I plow ahead – in contrast to a sitcom script, fiction, real fiction – and it’s one of the reasons I rarely read fiction – is abounding in – or replete with, if you will – description.

A sitcom script is almost totally bereft of description. It’s ninety per cent, or more, dialogue. A few simple stage directions: “X enters”, “Y” exits, barefoot “Z” steps on a thumbtack and hops around – nothing elaborate. No

“The crocuses were in bloom.”

I could never write description. I don’t know a crocus from a philodendron. I can’t tell a chipmunk from a squirrel. I don’t know a lot of colors; I never remember what color coral is. Description requires a detailed knowledge of things, and I know hardly anything. Forget detailed knowledge; I don’t even have general knowledge. I, quite honestly, know very few things. Lift the hood of a car – I don’t know one thing that’s under there. Okay, the motor, but that’s it.

When confronted with it in a novel, description bores the pants off me. Nothing’s happening. Which brings me to my biggest problem with fiction. When something does happen in a novel, you know it isn’t true. The things they’re telling me happened in a novel – they never happened. Some writer made it all up. Yes, some novels are placed in historical settings. The historical part happened – Austerlitz – an actual battle. Prince Igor, or whoever?

No existo.

In works of fiction, nobody’s name mentioned anywhere in the novel can be found in the locale where the novel is set’s phone book; and if it can, it isn’t them. It’s somebody with the same name.

To me, fiction writing seems arbitrary. I once read a novel that came highly recommended; it was like, somebody’s favorite book. I don’t remember the name of it, or what it was about, but I remember one moment, when the main character, a woman, was leaving her eye doctor’s office after a check-up, and the author added this detail. These aren’t the exact words, but it was something very close to this:

“Her eye doctor would later be killed in a plane crash while on a vacation trip to Switzerland.”

This detail had nothing to do with the central story of the novel, or any minor sub-story. It’s a totally extraneous – and meaningless – detail. While I’m reading that sentence, and all I can think of is the author, and the question

“Why did he kill the eye doctor?”

I mean, first of all, there was no eye doctor. He didn’t exist; the author made him up. Now, since the eye doctor didn’t actually exist and this detail didn’t affect the story in any way – it didn’t change a thing – please tell me

“Why did he kill the eye doctor?”

Now, I’m completely pulled out of the story. The relationships, the suspense, the resolution, they’re all meaningless to me. Why? Because now I’m aware that just like first, putting in and then, knocking off the eye doctor is a totally arbitrary writer’s choice, so is every single detail in the book. None of it happened for real, so any of it could have happened any way the author decided to make it happen. So what the heck am I reading?

A writer’s choices, choices which could easily have been different choices, if they’d been made by a different writer, or the same writer, if they’d decided to rewrite and reconsider what they’d written. They could change small stuff:

“Her eye doctor would later be killed while on a vacation trip to Latvia.”

Or bigger stuff. Maybe in his rewritten version, the writer could let the eye doctor live. Or have him be run over by a bus. Or maybe he’d give him a rash. Or a boyfriend. You see how arbitrary this is?

The last piece of evidence in my futile assertion that I don’t write fiction is that I always tried to derive my sitcom stories from situations that actually took place. In one series I created, Family Man – which ran for seven episodes on ABC – every episode story was based on an actual event from my life, either stories that happened to me as an adult or to me as a kid.

When the set for the living room was being conceived, I asked the set designer to duplicate my actual living room for the show. The exterior for the house is the outside of my actual house. And the backdrop – normally a generic backdrop you can rent, with a street and a tree and a dog – was, for Family Man, a photographic blowup of what you actually see when you’re looking out the back windows of my house. Some people thought this was hubris, duplicating my own house for a television show. To me, it was just a question of making it real.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you should sense, I hope, because it’s true, that I don’t make anything up. I just tell stories that happened to me. I try and make them interesting, first in my selection, and then, in the way that I tell them. But I never invent anything. It’s not a question of integrity; I literally wouldn’t know how. The fake stories would sound really fake.

My explanation for why I write this way instead of some other way comes, once again, in the form of a story. It’s an embarrassing, and somewhat cheesy story, but what am I going to do? It’s what happened.

I was twenty-three, recently returned to Toronto after a year and a half living in London. I’ll tell you about that another time. I was at loose ends – no prospects, no plans – I’m living in my mother’s apartment. One morning, my mother’s left for work, and I’m hanging around in my pajamas. Suddenly, and to my genuine astonishment, I find myself with a yellow legal pad on my lap and a pen in my hand.

I’m writing a story.

The story was about something that happened to me that mattered. I had no previous interest in getting the events of that story down on paper, but now I was doing it, and while I was doing it, I was simultaneously thinking,

“Why am I doing this?”

But I kept writing. Until I was finished. I read it over. It seemed right, the events and feelings as I remembered them. As I put down my pen, two of the strangest, most unexpected, words flew spontaneously out of my mouth. The two words were these:

“I’m immortal.”

“I’m immortal”? What was I talking about?

As far as I can tell, it’s this.

I had written something, something that had actually happened to me. Now the story was outside of me, and it had the chance – not a great chance, but a chance – of being around after I was gone. The process of writing something that actually happened down, getting it outside of my own personal corporeality, made me feel – correctly or mistakenly – immortal.

I showed that story to two people. By now, it’s long gone. So that “immortal” thing may have been slightly overblown. But that’s the way I felt. Like that stuff will outlast me, and maybe stick around.

Maybe that explains why I sometimes go back and rewrite some of my posts after I’ve already published them.

Immortality demands your best work.


Dimension Skipper said...

One of the most famous science fiction stories ever written is "Nightfall," by Isaac Asimov. Characters have names like Theremon 762, Beenay 25, Sor 5, Faro 24, Yimot 70, etc. When the story was (much) later expanded by Robert Silverberg to novel length I couldn't help noticing that one of the main characters, Aton 77, had become Athor 77. That change was always a head-scratcher for me. I mean, I could see if it had changed from Aton 77 to Aton 86, but not Athor!

Out of curiosity I just Googled to see if I might come up with an answer after all these years, but no luck. I did find this page though which indicates there were other subtle changes like that. (It had been years between the time I read Asimov's story and when I read Silverberg's expansion or perhaps I would have noticed and remembered some of the other alterations as well.)

John said...

If what you write is real how can you rewrite it? Do you have a time machine so that you can go back replay the events and dialog touching up your mistakes. God knows we all wish we could, perhaps that's why we like fiction. It's like life but with a good editor.

Mike said...

If you read more fiction you might not end up writing phrases like this:

"the locale where the novel is set’s phone book"

What is that? Try: "the phone book where the novel is set."