Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"The Elasticity Of Time"

I used to think I knew the answer to this, but I am now no longer sure.  (I enjoy certainty, although less so when it’s wrong.)

I have tried recently to…wait, not yet.  First, this.

The issue in question is “The Elasticity of Time.”  I mean, I know time itself is not elastic.  Time goes “tick, tick, tick” and every “tick” is another second going away and never coming back.  Whether you want it to or not. 

There goes a second.  There goes another one.  And there goes… I better stop counting and keep writing.  Otherwise, a lot of time’ll have gone by, and I’ll have nothing to show for it.

A familiar mantra during my harrowing show-running era:

“I’mrunningoutoftime!  I’mrunningoutoftime!” 

I invariably heard myself chanting that internally when, during a rewrite, we were stuck on the same page for what appeared to be the remainder of our lives, the time inexorably ticking by, the writers, creatively, standing entirely in one place.

Which brings me – unexpectedly – to where I was actually trying to go.

There was this husband of a writer on a show I was running who did not understand why she had to work such outrageously long hours.  It sounded like he was blaming me for tht.  But that was only because he was. 

In that regard, he was only partially correct.  (But, when it comes to rebukes, even “”partially” pisses me off.)

Almost every sitcom, especially at the beginning of its run when a reliable rhythm had yet to be discovered – both a conceptual rhythm and a collaborative rhythm – experiences excruciatingly long rewrite nights.  Even later, for most shows, the late night work sessions do not smaterially abate.  It comes with the territory, and you just have to live with it.

But this husband did not want to live without his wife.  In response to the situation, the man suggested this, in my experience, never attempted before or since idea:

Why not set a deadline – of say, two hours – to complete the rewrite.  And require that work to be completed within that pre-allotted time. 

The joke comes to mind, “The doctor gave me six months to live.  I told him I couldn’t pay the bill.  He gave me another six months.”

You give yourself a two-hour deadline for your rewrite, and you don’t get it done.  What do you do then?  Go home?

Or do you give yourself another two hours?

The suggestion implied that if you imposed a specific time limit, you could complete the work faster   Time being, according to this theory, entirely “elastic”, you can, with the deadline in mind, compress you effort – i.e., polish off the assignment in a shorter period of time. 

There are a lot of reasons sitcom rewrites proceed long into the night, and on some unfortunate occasions, into the early following morning.  One is:  They’re hard.  Two is:  You’re exhausted.  Three is:  It’s a creative undertaking which, by its nature, does not conform to the inexorabilities of the clock.  (Few writers are mechanistically “Funny on Demand.”)  And Four is:  Creating the appropriate ambiance in the room – essential to getting the job done – requires strategic pacing, invigorating side-trips, moments of gestating contemplation, a pep-rallying blaming of the actors, and even, on occasion, an elaborate pitched battle involving water guns.

Among other things. 

I am no expert on “Rewrite Night Proficiency Maximization.”  My predominant recollection was screaming “I can’t do this!” continually in my head. 

Of course, not everybody was like me.  There are writers who luxuriate in rewrite nights.  People who enjoy the collegiality of the room.  People who come to life facing a (near) impossible challenge.  People who work less well alone but whose abilities are enhanced by the comedic “give-and-take.”

And people who are either single or unhappily connected, and the last thing they want to do in the world is go home.

Overall, my view is that the creative process, with appropriate encouragements, advances at its own, undeterminable pace.  That is simply the way it is.

Then – and this is only the most recent example of contrarial information in the matter – I am preparing for our trip to Turkey, for which I am required to get a sufficient number of blog posts ahead so I will not break your hearts with “The guy just took off, and he left us nothing to read!”  And I discover, trying to keep faith with my self-assigned responsibilities, that, in the time that it regularly takes me to complete one blog post, I have instead completed two blog posts, and a first draft for a third!

I am entirely confused by this accomplishment.  How exactly did that happen? 

Could that writer’s irate husband have actually been correct?  There is evidence that he may have been, not only from him but, more discombobulatingly, from myself.  Though I did not exactly give myself a deadline with my blog writing (other than my departure for Turkey), the time pressure had unquestionably made me go faster. (And my output did not get detectably worse.)

I am now outvoted two-to-one, two of those votes being me, standing ambivalently on both sides of the argument.

Which inevitably leads me to wonder – being an honest man, and faced with this factual contradiction – why I put up with those excruciatingly late hours in the rewrite room when I apparently didn’t have to?

Or did I? 


Wendy M. Grossman said...

My feeling is that yes, you could have done it in less time - we all procrastinate and goof around when faced with deadlines and knowing it's going to be a long night. But my guess is also that the adrenaline you'd have needed to do the work in fewer hours *consistently* would have brought its own form of burn-out.


Mel Allen said...

One would think, at least this one, that if you could have done the job in a shorter time, you would have. But, since every week is a different story bringing new/different challenges, there isn't a sure-fire formula to abbreviate the time-frame.

Interestingly, tonight's Rick Steve's adventure was in central Turkey. Just think how much money you could have saved if you'd stayed home and Netflix'd your vacation.

More importantly, tonight's winners are the Giants and the Royals.