Breakfast at The Cottage: First Day, First Script

What it felt like in the video room

By now you know my personality. I can talk to anyone and I hustle. But I do get anxious. Anxiety hits at night and keeps me from sleeping. It doesn’t matter if it’s a new job, new account, or big presentation. The days prior to these events build up internally. It dissipates once I’m in the moment. Before that moment, I’ve lost hours of sleep, consumed gallons of coffee, and perspired through countless shirts. It’s been this way as far back as I can remember. 

It was no different before my first day at Tapestry International. I sat in my room night after night and fretted the what-ifs. What if they ask me to operate a camera and it’s a kind I don’t know? What if I mess up a show and it airs? What if I trip and fall and pull down video machines and they spark a fire and the whole place burns down? “Would you lie down,” said Brittany. “But shower first. You’re sopping wet.” 

And then it arrived. Day one. I drove from my house to the historic firehouse in a state of terror. When I got there, the owner walked me in and introduced me to everyone again. Everyone smiled and said hello, like they should, and then went about their business. She pointed to my desk and told me to get comfortable. The fear and anxiety lifted. Sitting in my chair, I swiveled around and checked out the environment. I had a colorful blue-green apple desktop, a paper tray, and a lamp. Very nice, I thought. My first work computer. An empty desk sat to my left and more empties were behind me. The other two writers were to my right. They were both hunched over their keyboards tapping away. Anxiety lifted. I had no problem breaking the ice. “Good morning,” I said. They looked up at me and grinned at each other, not at me. 

“Glad you’re here,” said the woman. 

Interrupting here. I go back and forth about whether or not I will use real names. Unless there’s a good reason, from this point forward I will use faux names. A colleague who reads these – for some reason – recently compared my writing to Anthony Bourdain’s. Holy shit that’s a great compliment… for a few reasons. First, his writing is raw and simple. If something tasted like crap, he came right out and said it tasted like crap. My promise to myself as a writer is always to do the same. It’s a principle I apply to all my writing and that I carry with me from my time  with Norman. Second, he built a following that is the envy of any writer. But even though I go for raw, I don’t disparage people. And that’s where our styles differ. He often, and humorously, went after people he didn’t like. That can be tempting at times. But I’m much more interested in understanding and capturing that person’s thinking than I am in criticizing it. If I am going to insert my opinion, I prefer to craft an entire piece from that angle so the reader isn’t tasked with sifting through what’s fact and what’s just my soapbox bullshit. 

I don’t take down anyone in this story. Still I won’t use real names. 

So there I sat, the internal terror faded and eagerness taken over. The two writers – we’ll call her Anne and him Stan (clever) – looking at me, their own eagerness all over their faces. “We’ve been needing help for a long time,” said Anne. “Yeah, we’re swamped right now,” said Stan. “We’re two weeks into writing our next season and we’re already behind,” said Stan. “And we need you to help us pull footage.” 

The season was for the television series Assignment Discovery. It was a show written for high-school-aged viewers. Sometimes episodes were completely new. Other times they used primetime documentaries – written for adults – and rewrote them for younger folks. When I started, Anne and Stan were cranking out at least three, sixty-minute episodes a week. That meant they wrote sixty page scripts and found and pulled the footage for their scripts. It was unsustainable. They were burnt out.

“You’re primary job is to help us pull the right shots,” said Stan. “We’ll give you our draft scripts. In each script, we’ll tell you what kind of shots we’re hoping for. Follow me,” he said. We walked to a small, dark room still on the second floor and close to the editing suits. Behind the glass door, green and yellow lights blinked along stacks of machines and television screens. “Sorry to say this, but this will be your home for a while,” said Stan. Go grab your chair.” 

He showed me exactly what he meant. We went through his script and then he showed me how to use an index to find tapes with different shots. If I couldn’t find what they wanted, I could use a third-party, but that was a last resort. 

And that’s where I sat for the next three weeks. Holed up like a mole in the video cave. But damn I was intent on finding the best footage for those scripts. Every morning, I handed Anne and Stan their shots list and the tapes and they handed me their next episode. 

Then one night – though it was always night in my workspace – Stan opened the door. “Got a minute?” He asked. Ah shit, I already messed up and I’m fired. “Don’t worry. You’re not fired,” he said. Must’ve read my facial expression. “Spoke with Nancy. We’re always behind, as you probably noticed. We figured hiring you would help. Well, it’s not going as planned. We realized first drafts to Discovery Channel are the bottleneck. We need to write faster, but there are only two of us.”

“How can I help?” I said. 

Stan held open the tape room door. “Follow me,” he said. I popped up from my chair and walked behind Stan across the open wooden floor and to his own desk. “This is where you sit? asked Stan.”

“Yup.” 

“Never see you here. You’ll be plopped here more from now on. I printed next week’s theme and episode titles. Those are next to your keyboard. Take a stab at the first episode. It’s an easier one. Just have to cut thirty minutes of the story down and write all the intros, outros, and interstitials. You know what we do. Try to get me a draft before the end of the day tomorrow. If you can get a week ahead, Anne and I can then catch up and then skip ahead of you. I’m right next to you if you have any questions or if you want to knock any ideas around. This is the fun stuff. Show us you can kill it and you’ll stay a writer and we’ll all just get our own footage. I’ll check in later and see how you’re doing.”

Holy shit. Only a few weeks in and I was getting my chance. I excitedly made my two phone calls – one to Brittany and one to Norman. I hung up. The damn anxiety returned. Holy shit I actually had to write a script.

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