Wednesday, March 20, 2013

"Why Being A Writer Is Harder Than Being A Football Player"

I recently saw Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, talking in an interview about when he knew it was time to “hang ‘em up” and finally retire.  His words were familiar, repeating the mantra, I would imagine, of all competitive athletes. 

Elway explains that, even at his advanced (for football) chronological age – 52 – his mind tells him he can still play.  But his deteriorating body inevitably gets the last word.  And, for him, that word was undeniably, “You’re done.” 

There is no reprieve from this terminal prognosis.  Your body dictates your fate, and over time, that body inevitably wears down, and you can no longer perform at the high level that once ranked you “up there” among “the best there ever was.”

It happens in all sports.  The lightning-fast base stealer who has “lost a step”, a phenomenon who once regularly beat the tag “by a hair” is now regularly thrown out by that same “hair”, or, if he keeps playing, a hair and a half.

The quarterback whose arm strength has diminished over time – though, at the end of his career, he has made up in “know-how” what he has lost in natural ability – the “bombs” he once lofted into the end zone just over the defender’s outstretched arms, eventually fall short for game-killing interceptions.  

The basketball player who, through wear and tear, has been deprived of his “hops” (his ability to jump), his once thundering “slam dunks” now clank harmlessly off the rim.

Guy Lafleur was an electrifying hockey player for the (dreaded, if you’re from Toronto) Montreal Canadiens.  His success was primarily predicated on his blinding speed.  Slowed by age, however, Lafleur, who once eluded punishing body checks with ease, now found himself pasted against the boards like a swatted mosquito.

The championship caliber snowboarder…I better quit while I’m ahead.  I have no idea where I was going with “snowboarder.”   In truth, I really only needed one example.  But I was having too much fun to move on.

But now, thankfully for people who have other things to do today, I shall.

It is different with writers…is where I was going. 

Nothing happens to our bodies, except maybe they flab up due to the sedentary nature of our profession.  (Or, though not as frequently, a writer falls asleep on their keyboard and their computer screen topples over and lands on their head.  I may take that out in my next pass, because, like the government coming to take all our guns, that really never happens.)

Writers can experience job-induced mental issues.  Stress.  Burnout.  Or, as I have suggested elsewhere, PTSD.  (You wake up screaming in your bed after nightmares about insufferable network notes.)  But my guess is that most writers had psychological issues to begin with.  They’d have probably gone around the bend regardless.  Though they’d have missed the experience of having their hopes and dreams beaten into the ground.

At this point, I shall digress from my usual wall-to-wall Earlathon, and relate a story about somebody else.

I shall not mention their name, and I shall keep the biographical details deliberately sketchy, because…we’ll you will see why in a minute.

In his prime, he was a wonderful, successful – both commercially and artistically – highly respected writer.  His signature series remains recognized as one of the all-time best.  Having worked with him, I can personally attest that, aside from his prodigious talent, he was also extremely nice, a considerably rarer combination that one might imagine.  In his treatment of others, he was unequivocally someone to emulate.  I tried, but…what can I tell you?

Okay, so he gets older.  “Older”, for a writer, not meaning he forgot how to type, or turned cloudy about the alphabet (“I can only remember four vowels!!!”)  In truth, I cannot definitively explain what it means to get “old” as a writer.  But, as a Supreme Court Justice famously said about pornography, I know it when I see it.

(The core issue in becoming scriptorially “out of step” involves a differing sensibility, which, in comedy, relates directly to the perception of “what’s funny.”  The brackets reflect an uncertain whispering swipe at an explanation.)

The once-lauded writer hungered desperately to stay in the game.  Hoping to reinvigorate his career, he hooked up with a young partner and wrote a pilot (or perhaps it was short-run series that was mercifully cancelled, I can no longer remember which.)

The new show jettisoned everything the writer had been rightfully famous for.  In a painful effort to mimic what was currently in vogue, it was broad, blatantly sexual, mean-spirited and dumb.  Watching it, I became progressively more horrified, thinking, “Man!  To lower yourself this much just to stay in the game.” 

It was agonizing to behold, a declining “class act”, suddenly “tatting up” and sporting low-hanging jeans.

I have contemporaries who believe they can still “bring it”, and they keep pitching ideas.  Another almost contemporary tried consulting on a current series but voluntarily left, because “I did not understand what they {the show’s writing staff} were laughing at.” 

Me, after the phone stopped ringing, I wrote a spec screenplay and a couple of spec pilots, but when they were unceremoniously shot down, though furious and deeply hurt, I dutifully, if unwillingly, departed from the field.

(The conundrum here is a classic one, and not easily resolved.  When you find yourself drowning, do you fight furiously for your life, or, accepting the inevitable, do you relax and just Zenfully let go?  And how do you determine when to do what?)

Lacking the athletes’ signals from their bodies, and often being technically better than they’ve ever been, writers are blinkeredly unaware when they’re finished, at least in the marketplace.  So when the time comes, it is viscerally shocking and cognitively incomprehensible. 

It is in that way – and, admittedly, that way only – that being a writer is harder than being a football player.

Or a baseball player.  Or a basketball player.  Or a hockey player.  Or, yes, a championship caliber snowboarder. 

Though I do not know what they lose.


Mac said...

Man, that's depressing. Then you look at Bob Dylan who was supposed to be out of ideas years ago, and he came out with Time Out Of Mind (I think, I'm not a Dylan fan) which his fans said was one of his best ever. What if he'd just packed it in after the fourth of fifth stinker? How did he know to keep going?
How do you know when the tank's empty? Woody Allen came out with "Midnight In Paris" recently - not a classic but respectable enough quality, and how many howlers did he have to make before he got to that?

Andy said...

The hope is that today's kids' future kids will look at some of the aptly described broad, dumb offerings of today and swing back towards a cleverer character-driven tone (albeit in a modern way) a la the classic MTM era you and I were weaned on, versus moving in an even broader, dumber more salacious direction. But I doubt it. Very insightful look into a seasoned writer's dilemma, Earl.

Anonymous said...

I think you are confusing great comedy with most of the comedy that is currently on TV. There is a market for good, character driven comedy. You just need to create a new way to reach your audience. The Mary Tyler Moore show, Bob Newhart, WKRP, Frasier, The Odd Couple - what I deem "the classics" - get better with age. Please do not think you have nothing to offer because someone doesn't think there's a "market". Your scripts have brought me too much joy!

Kathleen said...

Yikes. Did not mean to be Anonymous, though that's what they call me here at the Home For The Demographically Irreverent. I have such trouble navigating these Internet thingy's and deciphering the "two words"...

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