Why I almost went into screenwriting instead of fiction (and why I didn't.)
Today’s Writing Music: “The Garden That You Planted” by Sea Wolf
Today’s Reading: The Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders
Hey everyone! Last week, over at Tablet Magazine, they ran an essay I wrote about converting to Judaism called “Am I a Jewish Writer Now?” — check it out if you’re interested!
Earlier, I wrote a little about finding boundaries for ever-rising stakes in fiction, and I opened with a short rant about a TV show I’d been watching that helped bring the topic up in my mind. I’d wondered if it was the influence of our collective TV watching that was pushing fiction writing into the “rapids” and maybe at the same time, pushing us away from the joys of quieter storytelling.
I’ve wondered about this especially because, well, I love “quiet” stories and novels. And I think that quietness is one of the few things fiction can do better than television can. By “quiet” I mean, telling a story emphasizing character over plot, particularly through internal thought and feeling, using a prose style that prioritizes poetic language and detail. Which isn’t to say that nothing should happen… I think there still needs to be plot and conflict and all that good stuff.
But I also think that if that’s mostly what you want from a story then it is just always easier to turn on the television.
And I don’t mean that as any shade.
I LOVE television. Love it love it love it.
For a long time I thought I might write television (or movies) instead of fiction. There was a period in my twenties when I watched so much TV that my friends would often joked that I had come to “the end of television” because whatever they were recommending, I'd seen already. (This was back in the days before streamers, when Netflix was just a cool new website that sent you DVDs in the mail… which I was also burning through each week.) Back then I’d burned out the On Demand button on my remote control. I binged whole seasons of ER and The Sopranos and The West Wing and Gilmore Girls back when doing so meant making multiple runs out to Blockbuster Video over the course of a weekend.
I love television.
I'd been an avid reader as a child, but this was at least partly because my mother didn't allow video games or cable TV at home. This meant that I had my nose in a book all the time, but it also meant that when I could watch lots of TV (at a friend's or staying with my grandparents in the summer) I’d watch it until my eyes bled.
Growing up, I often felt left out of conversations my friends were having about TV and movies that I wasn’t allowed to see (or video games I couldn’t play). I started to just pretend I also knew everything about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and GI Joe, even if I had not actually seen them. (NOTE: Lying a lot, perhaps also good training for a future fiction writer.)
In the third grade, my friends and I all teamed up to write a script for Ghostbusters III and I just pretended I’d seen the other two movies like they all had. As far as I know, none of them ever realized I didn’t even know what Slimer was.
It went on like this for most of elementary school. I’d excitedly mainline Saturday Morning Cartoons whenever I had a sleepover at a friends’ (not often, as I also had crippling homesickness—a good subject for another post sometime) or when I was staying with my grandparents. I associated an illuminated TV with total liberation. I guzzled it up when I could because I never knew when I’d get more. I had to watch three hours of Hanna Barbera cartoons while I had the chance, so I’d know what The Jetsons and The Flintstones were, even though by the time I did, most of my friends were deep into Terminator 2 (which was Rated R, so I had no hope of ever seeing—and which I, in fact, have still never seen).
During the school year, my TV time at home was strictly limited to PBS and, later, after much bargaining, one hour per day of The Disney Afternoon (provided homework was done already). In middle school, I ran a months-long petition to get my mother to allow us to watch Full House together just once a week. Then I watched most episodes in constant terror that someone would swear or make a sexual joke of some kind and it would all be banned again. (My parents weren’t religious, which I cover in my Tablet essay—but they definitely believed in bad cultural influences: no water guns or sugar cereal either.)
But as I got a bit older, my parents began leaving me and my sister home alone on summer days when we didn’t have camp, while they went to work. My sister and I would plan our entire day around watching as much TV as possible—The Price is Right and Guiding Light and Sunset Beach, followed by reruns of Magnum, PI, Charles in Charge and The Hogan Family, and then 90210 in the afternoon. If we did our chores quickly during commercial breaks, we could often keep the TV on all day long. Only when we saw my mother’s car coming up the driveway, did we rush to our battle stations: TV off, clean any mess on the coffee table, get out our summer reading books, pretend nothing had been going on. (I think now that my mom probably knew full well what we were up to and had realized by then that she could ease up and we would not become violent, oversexed morons.)
During those years, I taught myself to program the VCR so that I could record the reruns of The Wonder Years that aired at 3 AM. These would go out of order, so sometimes I’d get one with Kevin in middle school, and the next time I might see him in high school. Determined to re-chronologize the plot somehow, I studied the TV Guide in the paper each week. I tracked the episode numbers so I could figure out which ones I’d seen and which I’d missed—in the pre-Internet days there was no other way to know if I’d seen them all, of if I’d accidentally skipped some crucial juncture in the long-running saga of Kevin and Winnie’s love.
One of my next writing collaborations was on a TV pilot with my best friend Josh—we watched a lot of Seinfeld together. (Also more on this in my Tablet essay!) To do this, I had to stay up late on summer weeknights, to catch the reruns at 11 PM. Josh had his own phone line (the extravagance!) so I could call him after my parents went to bed and I’d watch the show with the volume at 3.
I loved it. I wanted to write my own show. And soon, Josh and dreamed up our own TV show, HELP ME, where he and I played ourselves as kids, but in each episode we’d imagine our future life as adults (married to our current school crushes) with three kids each, dealing with all our grown-up sitcom problems. We wrote pages and pages of character details, and then eventually typed up four full episodes, before mailing the pilot script to CBS (we wanted NBC, but weren’t sure we were that good). Alas, they wrote us a nice, short letter explaining they didn’t accept scripts from unagented preteens.
In the long run, I have my parents to thank for all the bans on video games and TV, as it left me most often running around in the woods with my friends, imagining my own fantastic worlds, and reading books so voraciously that we were usually at the local library at least twice a week. I'm sure I wouldn't have become a writer without those boundaries.
But because television was forbidden fruit, so to speak, it always held a big power over me. Once I started working at Dunkin Donuts and had my own money, I'd bike three miles into town with my bag full of sugar-encrusted tip change just to rent a few movies every week. I had a whole long list from my then-girlfriend of movies she thought I should watch: Midnight Cowboy, Funny Girl, Goodfellas… every night was like the best movie I'd ever seen, because it was!
In my first year of college, I nearly ended up in academic probation, I was so entranced by everything I had to watch at my disposal. Suddenly we had T1 internet downloads, unlimited access to Napster and LimeWire. Meanwhile my roommates basically communicated in obscure references to The Simpsons and Family Guy episodes… plus no one could believe I’d never seen The Godfather, or Blade Runner, or Good Will Hunting. I had so much to catch up on—decades of incredible stories, just waiting for me.
At some point, in a later college workshop, I turned in a story about a group of grungy New Jersey teenagers driving around town looking for a missing friend—it was based on some real drama I’d been involved with back home. I was quite proud of the story, but my professor hated it, and commented wryly that he expected that the “Scooby-Doo Mystery" I’d crafted was due to my taking too many screenwriting classes.
He was… a jerk, and it’s worth mentioning that I was never taught anything useful about plot construction in his Fiction workshops—that was something we only ever got into during Advanced Screenwriting—but it did get me thinking about what the differences really were between TV & Movies and Fiction.
The biggest news in Literary Land at the time (circa 2001) was that author Jonathan Franzen had pulled his novel The Corrections from Oprah’s Book Club. My professor was very impressed with this—as if Franzen was somehow helping us all to win an epic battle between lowbrow TV and highbrow Literature. We heard all about how Franzen allegedly didn’t have a television, let alone the internet. I believe at some point he told us that Franzen also typed everything manually, blindfolded and naked in a closet.
Let’s just say it didn’t make me want to read the book. It pissed me off, in fact—the implication in his mind being that the world of TV and the world of Literary Art were mutually exclusive. And that was a problem for me because I loved both, a lot. I saw a ton of artistry in TV (and I hadn’t even seen The Sopranos yet). Plus, when a girl in our class turned in a workshop story that was clearly just a warmed-over Sex and the City episode, our professor had raved about how her story was so incredibly original because he'd never watched this incredibly popular show. By not watching TV, he was clearly missing out on a huge element of the contemporary culture. How can you write about the world if you’re snobbishly avoiding all of its most popular forms of communication and storytelling?
So what to do?
I was writing three full-length screenplays at this time, and had also written a number of one-act plays that I put up with my acting friends. (Shout out to Witness Theatre!) These typically got great reactions and I loved the collaborative nature of the process. I especially loved that it let me work with my friends all the time. And in my Advanced Screenwriting workshops we actually had fun: helped each other brainstorm plot point ideas, and read things aloud together—a far cry from the competitive seriousness of my Fiction workshops, where I continued to feel like I couldn’t get much love from my classmates or professors.
Meanwhile I’d gotten a campus-wide fellowship to write and make my own real movie. A second script I’d written had gotten me into the final round of a national contest. I'd sent the third to someone I knew working in Hollywood who wanted to show it to people there. It felt like there was a door open there, whereas in my Forms of Fiction workshop I kept banging into locked ones.
And my Advanced Screenwriting instructor was awesome. He came in each week and told us about cool scripts he was writing for different studios. We pitched him our ideas for, at one point, an animated movie he’d been hired to write that was supposed to be “Animal House But With Real Animals”… it was silly, but it was also exciting. Unlike in Fiction, where I had no idea how the business side of things even worked, in Screenwriting we talked about it a lot.
We talked about it during a year-end party at his amazing Harborside loft, and we drank bottles of fancy wine from a case he had seemingly casually ordered. We talked. He told me about being flown out to LA and having big meetings. He’d been a fiction writer himself, and published a novel. Fine, good. Didn’t light the world on fire. But then he’d adapted it into a script that he sold for ten times as much money… to Matt Damon, who also wanted to star in it.
But by the second year in his class, I began wondering what was happening with that, and with all of these projects. When would we see something in theaters? Animated Animal House? The Cricket in Times Square adaptation we’d discussed together? There had been, in one school year, four or five of these at least.
Finally, I asked him.
“Oh, well, none of them ever get made,” he shrugged.
He explained that, for example, Animal House But With Animals had already been killed over at DreamWorks, he said, because “our” script involved Owl Professors and Jeffrey Katzenberg hated birds.
“But I still got paid,” he shrugged. “I still had fun writing it.”
Still, it threw a big old bucket of cold water on how I envisioned life as a screenwriter. He'd written over 40 scripts, he told me, most on spec for a paying studio. None of them had gotten made. That's just the way it went. He took their notes, made their changes even if he thought they were stupid, and after all of that, the scripts sat on some shelf somewhere forever.
(I did look him up just now, and discovered he's got a bunch of great credits now for TV and movies, and he’s executive produced some too, including recent award-winners!)
But he was pretty happy back then, even without all that. He had the cases of wine and the Harborside Loft. He wrote for a living. He watched movies all day and got paid for it. That's what really mattered to him in the end, but I worried that it wouldn't satisfy me. I already didn't like the idea of being told what to write, or being told that what I wrote was good but that some powerful guy didn't like birds. (These days I expect that guy would just be an algorithm.) And sure, I might complain that sometimes editors reject my work because it is too “quiet,” but hell, at least I wrote what I wanted to. And at least those editors are genuinely trying to balance art and business. (For a glimpse into the balance being struck in the TV world now, just look at what's happening at HBO Max/Discovery +.) As someone has explained it to me lately—if what you want to do is make a lot of money, you don’t get into buying and selling books. And in a way that’s sad and frustrating, but in another way it shields the industry (somewhat) from these kinds of evil market forces.
But back to college. Around the same time that I was beginning to see the cold business side of screenwriting for what it was, I begged my way into a graduate fiction workshop with the unthrilling-sounding title of Landscape and Setting. Yes that’s right. An entire class about descriptive writing. Taught by Jean McGarry, our stalwart program chair, we often would spend an entire three-hour class dissecting a single paragraph, word by word.
And I… loved it?
We didn’t talk about plot. We didn’t talk about characters. We just talked about writing. Prose. Sentences. Metaphors. Adjectives. Verbs. Nouns, of course. We read D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land and Unframed Originals by W.S. Merwin and Ruskin’s theories about painting landscapes, so we could discuss how to write them better. It was really difficult, and really serious, and not usually a lot of fun at all.
And I loved it.
McGarry also kindly helped me rewrite a story I had been struggling with for a year, a piece about a young figure skater recovering from a car accident. Very little happened in it. The girl went out on her roof and spied on her elderly neighbor while she was gardening. She talked a little to her crazy father. The big climax at the end involved her rollerskating and crushing caterpillars under her wheels. It was called “Indehiscent”. The story was “quiet”.
It would have made for a very boring movie. Unlike my usual stuff, there was very little dialogue at all. The elderly neighbor died, but this happened “off screen”. The car accident that killed the girl’s mother and ended her ice skating career had occurred before the story began. Most of the story was just the girl's thoughts, my playing with metaphors, images, landscapes.
It was no Scooby-Doo Mystery, in other words.
At one point as I was rewriting it, McGarry recommended I read the story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken. So I went to the campus library— something I almost never did in college, because I thought it was where boring people went to study alone, quietly. (I often wrote my stories in the wings of the theater between rehearsals, or in my dorm room while my friends all gabbed and crammed for their exams behind me.)
For some reason the library's only copy of the Aiken story was in a very old edition in the Special Collections room. I had to sit and read it while someone watched, to make sure I didn't damage the book. I couldn't make a copy or even use my pencil to take notes while the book was open. They gave me special gloves to wear and a ribbon to turn the pages.
So I sat and read the story, then read it again. It was so quiet in the room. It was so quiet in the story. Like my story, this one was all about what was going on in the head of an isolated boy looking out of his bedroom window at the world. Aiken wrote it in 1934, in a world before television. But it strikes me now that the basic image is the same. The boy looking through a square of glass, to learn what he can about the world, and about the secret stories all around him. He was me. He was me as a kid who couldn't watch TV. Maybe he was also me when I was watching it in secret, feeling guilty for lying to my parents about it. In this way he was the girl in my own story too. And so was I.
I still consider “Indehiscent” the first real story I ever finished, though I'd written dozens in classes before it. That was the one that made me into a fiction writer. It was the one I'd use in my MFA application that winter. And it was one of the first pieces I'd publish, many many years later. (In an online journal that I realize now is sadly gone, so maybe I’ll have to publish it again!)
McGarry's class was one of my last fiction workshops in college. But it got me to finally really pause and take in the quiet. To think about what I could do with words and sentences that TV and movies could not do. The story got me into one MFA program (of the seven applied to!) and when I went to my orientation there the following year, I met a bunch of my future classmates during the Orientation in New York City.
One of the first I met was eager to brag that just like my old professor, he didn’t ever watch television. He didn’t even have one.
Fortunately I had a lot of practice, growing up, pretending that I did watch TV that I didn’t really, so it wasn’t too hard to pretend I didn’t, when I did.
And while I would, finally, give in and read The Corrections later that year… the very first thing I did after that Orientation, when I got into my apartment—no Harborside Loft, but a nice tiny studio on the fourth floor of a crumbling walkup—was to run down to Blockbuster and rent The Sopranos Season One. Discs 1-4… just to start.
Writing Towards the Fun #33:
More next time on the differences between TV and fiction! (This initial post has now turned unexpectedly into a three-parter!) But here’s a quick assignment that will prepare us all for that discussion.
Think of a favorite scene from a TV show or a movie—one you really love, for whatever reason.
Watch it again, and type it out in screenplay format (there are a ton of examples out there if you just Google around, or use this one.) Don’t get too hung up on the formatting and indentations and whatever else. This is just for fun!
Now, see if you can find the real script online somewhere. These are often up on fan websites now for free. Compare your version to the “official” one. The dialogue should be mostly the same, but how did they handle the action, description, setting, etc.? How did you?
Now take the same scene and rewrite it as a piece of prose. Reformat the dialogue, turn the descriptive points from the script into descriptive sentences. Notice what you can do now that your aim isn’t necessarily primarily to communicate things quickly (as you usually must in a script).
What about thoughts? In prose, you can go into your characters’ minds in ways you can’t in a script. What happens when you begin to show what’s going on in their heads?
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