Monday, October 27, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Nineteen C"

Thanks for the feedback on my series ideas. I really appreciate it, especially the fact that three different proposals were singled out. Although I am a little hurt about the other three.

A mother brings home two sweaters for her son, a red one and a blue one, instructing him to try them on. The son comes out wearing the red sweater. The mother complains,

“What’s the matter, you don’t like the blue one?”

Accompanying a synopsis of the series ideas, I threw in one-sentence explanations of where I believed these ideas came from, so you could get some sense of connection between the writer and the idea. None of these ideas are products of personal experience – I was never a baseball star, the king of a small European principality, or a woman – but they all in some way, emanated from a certain aspect of my being.

A man I knew once quoted another person who said,

“Everything is like something else. What is this like?”

That’s a useful question when you’re trying to create. You’re a Canadian, but nobody cares about Canadians. A dead end? Not necessarily. You can take that “being a Canadian” feeling, that essence of Canadianness, that distinctive Eu de Canuck, and transform it into a character people might care about, like, say, a fellow from another planet, a planet that’s decent and polite and provides everyone on the planet with affordable health care, and you’re on your way.

“The Visitor From The Planet Nice.”

A simple adjustment. The character’s still essentially you – so you can write it from the inside – but with a, hopefully, popularity-enhancing makeover. Here’s a point I’m continually relearning. You don’t have to worry that you’re writing isn’t personal. It’s always personal. Why? Because you’re the one who’s writing it.

After posting “Story of a Writer – Parts Eighteen A and B, it seemed like I had more to say about creating ideas for television series. I can only draw from my experience, which is limited because, well…I’m limited, but, hopefully, that experience can still be of assistance.

“I’m limited.” What does that mean, that I’m willing to talk about in public? For one thing, it means I have not been blessed with limitless confidence, limitless vision or limitless flexibility. The consequences? A shadowing sense of self-doubt, little aptitude for anticipating trends (there’s a woman named Faith Popcorn who does that for a living), and an inability to create shows and write them in the style that happens to be currently “the way it’s done.”

Most of us are not groundbreakers, trendsetters, or even trend spotters. Our contribution is our version of what’s already there. Sometimes, it’s pure imitation, but at its best, it’s an imitation, professionally executed, with a little bit of “Earl”, or whoever you are, thrown in. Put it all together, it spells…paycheck.

That’s the first step. Understanding what they’re doing, and trying to fit in. The rest of the process… Clueless. I am totally stumped on where ideas come from. I know they come from somewhere. Somewhere in me. I didn’t steal them. No elves sneaked in at night and typed them on my computer. It’s a little like magic. You don’t have an idea. And then you do.

An Insight that Helped Me Get Started

My experience led me to the conclusion that television comedies could be situated just about anywhere. The setting for the show may seem to matter a lot but, ultimately, it’s not life and death.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was set at a television station in Minneapolis. I’ve read the Mary pilot script several times, looking specifically for the answer to this question: “Did Mary Richards have an ambition to work in television news?”

She didn’t. There was an ad in the paper and she answered the ad. That was it. The newsroom arena, though clearly important, did not feature prominently in the pilot storyline. The episode’s highlights are a hilarious job interview scene between Lou and Mary – which could have taken place in any pretty much any job setting – and there was a farcical final scene, where a drunken Lou Grant barges in as Mary’s breaking up with her boyfriend, which, again, has nothing to do with the news.

The setting is secondary. You select a setting that you and, hopefully, the audience, will find interesting and enjoy returning to. A small hotel in Washington, D.C. A microbrewery. A struggling movie studio in the 1930’s.

Revisiting these series ideas, I discover a common thread, which is that they’re all examples of small, struggling enterprises on the brink of extinction. I never noticed that before.

What does that mean to me? It means what I already said. Even when you’re not writing about yourself, you’re still writing about yourself. I always feel small, struggling and on the brink of extinction. There you have it. I’m not creating in a vacuum.

Those enterprises are me!

If the setting isn’t key, what is?

Character and relationship.

That’s what really matters. That’s why people come back. Yes, comedies need to be funny, but comedies that are only funny don’t last. For a show to succeed, the audience needs to care about the people. (Even unlikable people like Larry David.)

Now that I think about it, every series involves a struggle, whether it’s The Office, where they’re struggling against the mundanity of the workplace, or Everybody Loves Raymond, where they’re struggling to survive their family, or on M*A*S*H, where they’re struggling to, literally, not die. It would appear that everyone feels small, struggling and on the brink of extinction. Who knew?

The struggle is the core of the series. You then populate it with a cast of identifiable characters, characters drawn from life rather than the traditional sitcom bag of tricks, you allow those characters represent themselves in a truthful and entertaining manner, and you hand in the script and you see what they think.

I guess that’s what I did.

In High School, I had a classmate named Tom Jefferson who always got a hundred in math. I said to him, “Tom, how do you get a hundred in math?” Tom thought about it for a moment, and then replied, “Well, I sort of look at the questions and I kind of figure out the answers.”

I hope I’ve been a little more helpful than that.


Olli Sulopuisto said...

Read alone this would be an interesting post.

Read together with the previous installments this is great post.

Anonymous said...

I love your honesty and humor. Although writing about yourself must be its own reward, I feel like you've shared a wealth of insight and humanity. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the personal and insightful explanation of your creative process. It also sheds light on the challenges we all face in creating a life. Your courage to keep digging for the truth is inspiring.

Anonymous said...

I picture something more w-a-a-y out of the box for you, you're too creative to just do "basic life stories". Even this journey you're currently on (at least that's how I imagine it), how fun to watch a sitcom (or movie) where all of your proposals come to life...maybe they're discovered in a dumpster, and some version of your younger self dedicates his life to getting them produced.

But you're not dead yet, not even close. However, no one can argue with the fact that you're powerless, though possibly good with lemons. You catch on, and start leaving signs everywhere to influence the direction of your scripts. You're scrambling about town, trying to get your vision corrected...

...or perhaps you're born into a dynasty where they cater to your every need. Maybe you're Saudi Arabian. Earl's World, his quirky observations, treated as golden, but mainly because your servants are trying to avoid their own beheadings.

C'mon King Dr. M's husband, be challenged, yet unafraid to fail. It's definitely YOUR story that all of us are waiting for.

~Cheering patiently by the sidelines.