Wednesday, September 3, 2008

My Own Personal Essay: Why TV?

Blame BooM, who asked for this.

'Tis the season for essays, and BooM decided to get into the hated spirit by picking me and four other lovely contestants (like Kira...and Michael--he's especially purty) to write about why we chose TV. Or, in her words:

"What made you want to be a TV writer? Was there a defining moment? Was it an awakening? Did you always know?"

Here goes.

In order -- 1) See below, 2) I dunno, 3) yeah, I think so, and 4) not by a long shot.

What made me want to be a TV writer was the pilot, really. My pilot. Eventually it became our pilot, and it got a lot better, but before that it was mine, and that's when I got hooked. But let me back up.

I can't remember a time when I wasn't a writer. Growing up, I wrote short stories, novels (or at least the beginnings of novels), short plays--I even wrote and drew the levels for what would have been an awesome Ninja Turtles video game when I was 8. It opened with Shredder capturing the turtles, and you got to play as Casey Jones, Splinter and Mecha Turtle to save them! Cowabunga, indeed.

Every once in a while the thought of writing a movie even occurred to me, but never in a serious way, and for some reason TV writing never crossed my mind.

Also--let's be honest here--when you got right down to it, at that time being a writer to me meant being a NOVELIST. Books. Stephen King. C.S. Lewis. Frank Herbert. Those were writers. The idea that people actually wrote movies and television was something very abstract to me.

And then, suddenly, I realized that I was going to graduate college, and I had no idea what being a writer meant in terms of a career path for me. Sure, I could write anywhere, but what would I be doing in the meantime? Trying to put my English degree to good use at a Procter & Gamble desk? Continue working at video stores? A restaurant? This may come as a surprise, but Cincinnati isn't exactly full of jobs in creative industries. At least not that interested me.

Then I made the decision to move to L.A. during the semester before graduation, and almost immediately I began writing a feature. Just to try, you know? Because why not? And it was baaaaaad. Like, really bad.

But I finished it.

After years of writing well-received but not-very-useful short stories and telling myself I was going to hammer out a novel but not doing it, I had finally finished something big. Bad, but big. And it hadn't even taken that long! (Did I mention it was bad?)

So I made the long trek here in my battered '95 Ford Escort wagon and got a a Hollywood Video and, briefly, a Coffee Bean. So much for jobs I couldn't get in Cincinnati.

But I kept writing...intermittently...getting about halfway through three or four more feature scripts, none of which satisfied me. Everything just had to be so final, and there was no room to deviate from the story and explore the characters or anything interesting. What if I had other ideas for these people? Where could I put them? How could I tell those stories?

During this time, I was also catching up on all the TV I had somehow missed in college. Whole seasons of Buffy, Angel, Firefly, West Wing, Sports Night, Scrubs, Coupling, Freaks and Geeks... Something had happened to television while I was busy doing literary analyses and discussing the various merits and problems of Fight Club and The Matrix, and the number of really good shows I was able to watch blew my mind.

After several months had passed and, bored at work, I had picked up an internship at a small production company where I (mostly) worked as a reader, poring over (mostly) bad scripts, something made me open up that first bad script I had written and reexamine it. Not even the script itself, but the core concept. It practically begged to be made into a weekly TV show. So that's exactly what I did. I reimagined it as a one-hour pilot where I only had to tell one story and set up the world and the characters. Suddenly it went from awful to pretty darn good. I finished it in a weekend, writing 20 of the 43 pages in a day! I was ecstatic. Until someone told me that "one page=one minute" does not apply in TV land.

So that was a rewrite.

But the setback didn't deter me, because by then I was hooked. I had discovered the power of ongoing stories and characters I could allow to change slowly and in small ways rather than the big, sweeping arcs that are required of most movies. I started thinking of television writing (much of what I liked, anyway) as similar to the "installment novels" of Hardy or Dickens. TV was a way to tell the bigger, longer, more intricate and character-intensive stories that I loved. And the more I discovered about working as a writer in television, the more I knew it was the best place for me. Far better creative control than features; a storytelling process that allows for collaboration as well as individual work; deadlines to keep me on task...

And yes, BooM, it's also nice to have that steady job and (even more importantly) steady paycheck coming in.

In the end, though, it all comes back to the medium. Television lets you to do things as a writer that no other medium allows, and those things just happen to be what I love most about writing and storytelling. To be completely pompous and silly about it, TV chose me as much as I chose it.

(And, um, it probably doesn't hurt that my writing partner and now-wife is an even bigger devotee of television than I am :)

Now, BooM has been forced to answer her own meme, which you can read here.

And I get to tag 5 more people, so I'm going to have to pick on my (old) writer's group...and others.

1. Amanda Pendolino
2. Jane Mountain
3. Matt Thornton
4. Adam Marshall
5. Kay Reindl

Let's hear it, folks. What's your tale?


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