Friday, April 23, 2010

"Searching For My Voice (Again)"

I received a little booklet once, I don’t know who sent it to be, but what it was was a compact codification of how a writer on a show’s writing staff ought to behave in order to maximize their helpfulness to the show runner. What it boiled down to was one simple rule:

“Write like the show runner.”

This instruction is cold, but it’s accurate. If you want to be of maximum service to the show you’re working on, imitate the style of that show’s head writer, (who is invariably also its creator and show runner).

More than anything, when a show runner receives a script written by a member of their writing staff, they are praying that when they read the script, they will think, “This sounds like I wrote it.”

They’re praying that, because if the script doesn’t sound like they wrote it, the show runner will be stuck having to rewrite it, so that it does. Show runners hate that. (They also love that, because it makes them feel indispensable.)

When I started writing half hour comedies, I would find myself writing like the people who hired me. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It wasn’t like, “If I don’t write like the people who hired me, I’ll get fired.” It was more, “I like this show. I know what they’re doing. I’m going to write like they do.”

It felt good when my bosses liked what I did. It meant I had done a good job, the ”good job” being defined by how successfully I had mimicked the writing of the people who were praising me.

It’s not just pragmatic for a writer to write like the people who hired them, it’s a natural step in their growth as writers. When you’re just starting out, your “writer’s voice” is not fully developed. Copying someone else’s style helps you hone your craft, and strengthen your confidence. Think of as it the writing equivalent of “training wheels.” Once you get your sea legs under you (sorry about mixing transportational metaphors), you have the muscles and the self-assurance to strike out on your own.

Not that everything I wrote sounded like somebody else. Though each episode’s beats were meticulously worked out in lengthy story meetings, there were always gaps in the narrative, where something undiscussed needed to be injected. It was there that the scriptwriter’s originality got its moment to shine.

I recall a Taxi episode called “The Great Line” in which, “John”, a wide-eyed Midwesterner (subsequently dropped from the series), was given a sure-fire line to pick up a girl in a bar, and he used it. The “Great Line” – and it didn’t come from me; I never picked up anyone – was this:

“Forget the preliminaries. Let’s get married.”

In the episode, the line worked too well. John actually wound up married.

The next day, John returned to the taxi garage, shell shocked and distressed. He didn’t want to be married. And he spelled out his reason:

“I always thought they were connected: You get married, you have kids, you get old, and you die. Somehow, I believed if you didn’t get married, you wouldn’t die.”

That line was me. For better or worse. It reflected a number of my core characteristics – innocence, anxiety, deep thinking and ridiculousness. I was proud of that line, especially when it got a big laugh from the studio audience. For me, the laugh was a vindication. I could not only successfully imitate others. I could also succeed as myself.

(My bosses seemed to appreciate my contribution. At least at the time. It seems noteworthy, however, that when “The Great Line” aired in a slightly shortened version in off-network reruns, John’s fear-of-marriage speech had been edited out of the show.)

Though they’re naturally hungry to write in their own voice, writers need to patiently bide their time until they create the show. (At which point they can insist that other writers write like them.) I finally did that, most significantly, with Best of the West. It was really fun. And highly satisfying.

Well, sir, as I mentioned last week, I’ve been invited to contribute a commentary on a website called My first potential submission, which I shared with you in April 15th’s Self-Inflicted (Writing) Wounds, didn’t feel right. Despite the setback, however, I am determined to try again.

It’s a different venue. It’s like starting over. Once again, I need to discover my own voice.

More on that next time.

(I have chosen to wrestle with this problem in public. I hope watching me work my way through the process may appeal to aspiring writers, as well to people who simply enjoy watching somebody struggle.)


growingupartists said...

It's always appealing to watch you struggle, Earl. Besides, your sudden use of parentheses must mean you're really refining and clarifying.

Great gift!!

growingupartists said...

P.S. Love being called "the public" instead of your actual cheerleaders and friends.

Go team Earl!!!

A. Buck Short said...

Earl, not tired enough to sleep, so that's why you're getting one of theeeeeeeese.

I don’t know what could possibly have occupied all my time April 15 that it was one of the few days I neglected our civic duty to pop in on your blog. Knock me over and call me scofflaw. Oh wait, now I remember; and I’m pleased to announce it was one of the few days ever where I actually had a chance of exceeding your own allotment of creativity. They say Leavenworth can be quite balmy in the spring.

So catching up on all things Pomerantz, I went back to read “Self-Inflicted Writing Wounds.” I’d like to reassure that, au contraire, you have indeed found a voice – and it’s Andy Rooney’s.

Not necessarily a bad thing. A wonderfully succinct facility with the simple declarative sentence. The endearing habit of qualifying an immediately preceding or following point faux-interruptively in iambic drollameter. Best of all, any fool can plainly see doesn’t currently have any voice like you or Andy Rooney showing up on a regular basis. So you’re covered either way. (Or as I believe Leland Hayward may have written in the Call Me Madam Playbill, “Neither the character of Sally Adams nor Miss Ethel Merman resemble any person living or dead.”)

I join the others in wishing you bon mots and a successful seizure (of this opportunity) at one of the few internet news venues with genuine screen-cred. PD seems to have accomplished this not only with an impressive stable of seasoned and genuine newshounds still working at some of the nation’s most prestigious papers, but even more significantly with approximately 700 former NY Times and Washington Post editors and Washington bureau chiefs who had the good fortune to have been offered early retirement downsizing buyouts.

In many ways it could be an even better star turn op than HuffPost, where even your prolific outpouring ran the risk of being lumped in dilettante dilecto with the likes of AlecBaldwinJamieLeeCurtisJohnCusack

Not to mention Ken Levine and Madeleine Albright, whom I am given to understand frequently ghostwrite each other’s posts.

Tell me about it. I’ve been posting political satire for several years on Daily Kos, the blog that my screen name generally links to from here. The problem isn’t they’re so far left they’d downsize Trotsky if somebody hadn’t already given that guy the axe years ago. It’s that they’ve got 7 gazillion so called diarists. You can work on something for two days and its up and gone in 60 seconds. If somebody wasn’t looking at the exact moment, you’re history.

Really, how hard could this PoliticsDaily gig be? Your new colleagues may wear the mantle of journalism’s illuminati, but look closer. Your buddy Henneberger honed her craft at the New York Times’ Washington and Rome bureaus. Now I can understand DC, but really how much could there possibly have been to cover in Rome, NY? Sure things could get a little Erie now and then, but not in a newsworthy way; and it’s certainly no Utica. And the assistant editor was Washington bureau chief for The Reader’s Digest. What’s that job? You cut an article out of another magazine and you mail it in to them?

Your only concern is how to brand yourself uniquely as an aging, yet still hip, fresh California voice among all those Washington insiders and Beltway pundits. Hope this is not too presumptuous (as if the rest of this hasn’t already been), but I’d like to suggest a name for your column: SansaBeltway.

PS. As for the views on contemporary news media you expressed so eloquently last week, well why just talk about it when, as a sometime visitor across the pond, you can sing it?

dodz said...

why are seeking your voice is it gone?

michelle said...

i love your voice. if i have anything "natural" as you call it, in mine, it is partly because of you.