Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Reading, Writing, and TV

I’ve pulled out Stephen King’s “On Writing” book again, which I think is one of the best books out there for inspiring and helping writers. It’s part autobiography, part “how to.” He aims for 10 pages a day, seven days a week. I’m currently aiming for 5 pages a day, 5 days a week.

One piece of advice from King is “…TV… really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs. .. I’d like to suggest that turning off that endlessly quacking box is apt to improve the quality of your life as well as the quality of your writing. And how much of a sacrifice are we talking about here? How many Frazier and ER reruns does it take to make one American life complete? How many Richard Simmons infomercials? How many whiteboy/fatboy Beltway insiders on CNN? Oh man, don’t get me started. Jerry-Springer-Dr.-Dre-Judge-Judy-Jerry-Falwell-Donny-and-Marie. I rest my case.”

Granted, King published this book in 2000, missing what many critics believe is the second golden age of television, which started right about the time “Lost” hit the airwaves. (And I can’t help but notice that King, a notorious Red Sox fan, did not list televised baseball games in his list of TV time-wasters.)

Obviously, following this advice is a huge problem for me. As most people who know me know all too well, I am a huge television addict. I also love to read, watch movies and follow sports (after all, sports are stories, too.). While it’s essential for a writer to make time each day to write, does it have to preclude watching TV? Or can a writer actually learn something from following her favorite shows?

My TV addiction started early. I remember being seven years old and absolutely obsessed with The Addams Family. (I’m not that old… I fell in love with syndicated re-runs.) Morticia was my favorite character, and I just loved how Gomez would kiss her arm when she spoke French. It took me several more years before I realized what her name actually meant.

In elementary school, it was “The Bionic Woman.” And not just because we shared the same name, and she finally made my boy’s name cool for girls. She was tough. And she had that on again, off again thing with Steve Austin that was so intriguing. Plus, unlike Wonder Woman, she didn’t have to wear a silly costume. “Charlie’s Angels” was big around the same time period, but my mother never let me watch it.

My next TV obsession was M*A*S*H. I loved Hawkeye’s one-liners, his skill as a surgeon, and his passion for his beliefs. I also wanted to be Hot Lips – another tough woman who didn’t take shit from anyone.

In middle school, I graduated to soap operas. One Life to Live and General Hospital were my addictions of choice. Soaps are – or at least they used to be – a wonderful place for strong, female characters. All My Children had Erica Kane; One Life to Live was always known for Victoria Lord Riley Buchanan, although hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Karen Wolek was my favorite. Luke and Laura on General Hospital captured the nation’s attention, but mine was captured by Monica Quartermaine, the surgeon with a tongue as sharp as her scalpel.

My current addictions include “The Good Wife,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Private Practice.” And I’ve set my DVR for several well-reviewed new TV shows, including “The Mob Doctor.”

What does this list tell me about who I am as a writer? Clearly, I am drawn to strong, funny female characters. And it’s a plus if they work in the medical profession. While as a reader, I always listed Stephen King as one of my favorite authors, I was never able to develop a plot scary enough that it would hold my attention as a writer.

TV – especially good TV – has a lot to teach writers, no matter what medium they write for. Character development, pacing, plotting… everything but how to write an effective description. For that, you really need a book.

So, I’m going to disagree with King’s advice about staying away from TV. I agree that mindless TV – the Seinfeld rerun you’ve seen a million times – is a waste of time. But watching quality TV – your “Good Wife,” your “Mad Men” – can be as helpful as reading a good book – if you watch it mindfully and pay attention to details.

But those hours I spend watching HGTV… really, I have no excuse for that.

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