I stared at the blank screen. The Apple’s blue glow encircled my face, pressuring me. All my studying, dreaming, hustling, came to this point…. and I freaking froze.
Jumping in here. As I began crafting this installment, I had every intention of saying that the advice Norman provided at this point was more about the writing craft and business. But as I jotted down the outline and read through my old notes and thought about our world today, I realized my error. Norman’s advice applies to nearly everyone.
But I’m not a writer… you may be thinking. I’m not a storyteller. That’s crap. We’re all both. I’ve been reviewing a lot of resumes for work lately and each time I think to myself, I wish so-and-so approached their resume like a story. Resumes are a chance to quickly tell your career story. We build slides and presentations. Good god, depending on your profession, we’re doing this multiple times a week. Even if we’re only crafting an executive level recommendation, and keeping it to two or three slides, we are still answering basic questions of who, what, where, when, and why. If we treat it like a story, we understand the executive audience and pepper the story with content that will connect with them.
You may not have the word WRITER in your title. Odds are you’re still writing every day.
I stared at the blank page. The blank page stared back at me. Who’d flinch first? I typed the word The and then quickly deleted it. “Who opens a show with the word the?” I said out loud.
Assignment Discovery – the show – followed a simple pattern. Each week had a theme. Every episode contained elements of that weekly theme. Each episode also had a theme. It was the writer’s job to construct that episodic theme. The Cold War was the week’s theme. My episode was about JFK’s health and about his back channel communications with Fidel. That was my assignment. Writer’s block said no.
So I phoned a friend. “Norman. Hi. Sorry I know it’s late. I’m stuck.”
“Didn’t take long,” he said.
I told him about the need for a theme. I told him about the theme for the week. “Best way overwriter’s block,” he said, “is to write through it. You’ll never get it onto paper if you mull it over in your head. Your first draft can be a throw-up draft. But at least it’s down on paper and you can react to it. Get yourself out of your head and just let your fingers or your pen go.”
“Thanks I said. We’ll see how this goes.” I hung up and stared at the screen a few more minutes. I breathed deep and then typed. I typed without looking at the screen at all and just let myself bleed onto the page. After about an hour I looked up, feeling a little sweaty, and realized that I had finished the script. “Hot damn!” Then I did something that I wouldn’t do today, mainly for the planet. I printed my 60-page script and read through it, marking it up with pen. I took my handwritten notes and typed them into the second draft. I had words on the page but I still struggled for the theme. Once I had the theme, I’d adjust it all.
What’s the theme? What’s the theme? JFK hid his health problems from everyone. JFK held backchannel communications with Castro through a reporter. I stepped away and took a breath. He hid things… personal things. That’s not unusual. Everyone hides things. He needed to keep those discussions with Castro secret, especially because they took place after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Everyone has secrets, though. “Shit!” (I remember screaming that loudly) I went back into the script, adjusted it, finished the second draft, and then emailed it to Stan.
That night, I went home satisfied and pretty damn proud. I finished my first script. The next morning, I walked to my desk, Stan already at his, and said, “I sent you my first draft last night. When you get a chance, can you read it?”
“Already did. Nicely done. I just sent it to the executive producer at Discovery for first draft comments. You can start working on the next episode.”
“Yeah, man. Congrats. You’re a television writer. Pretty exciting stuff.”
“No, it’s terrifying. We didn’t even review it together and you sent it to the producer?”
“Don’t sweat it. They’ll make comments regardless, so just get it out and start working on the next one.”
“Don’t sweat it,” I said, “it’s too late. I’m sweating. How long for the comments to come back?”
Stan wrote on a notepad. He was already deep into his own work. “Takes a day. Sometimes faster. I research for the next show next to your pen holder.”
“Yeah, I got you one and stuck some pens in it. I put a few notepads there, too. Some large pads and some for your pocket. You’ll go through them faster than you realize.”
I dug into the content for the next episode. Ding. The email chime scared me. The subject said Draft 1 Comments. The producer turned around her comments in half a day. I opened the attachment and scrolled down. One redline. Two redlines. Three, four, five. Entire paragraphs were rewritten. Red filled the script. I failed. “Stan, can we go over all these comments together? And can we go through my first drafts before we send them to Discovery?”
He laughed. “That bad? She’s probably just giving you the rookie treatment. We’ll take a look. Let it sit for a while and work through that next episode.”
I printed the script again, red ink included, and I threw it into my bag to take home. It sat in there the rest of the day and no matter how I tried to ignore it, it weighed on me. Maybe writing was only a dream. Maybe my ambition and my talent didn’t match. Many people want to be football players, but suck at football. I finished the first draft of the next episode but it didn’t matter. The comments stuck to me. I couldn’t shake the critique. I hopped in my truck and called Norman. “Norman, breakfast tomorrow? See you at six.”
I barely slept that night. My dreams shattered. I ran through the comments in my head. At some point I just dressed for the day, wrote my own notes on the script, and then left for breakfast.
I walked into The Cottage. Norman sat at our table, legs crossed, coffee steaming against his face as he sipped. Rain splattered the windows and the clouds appeared green. It was early in the year for a thunderstorm, it felt like a summer storm. Norman turned to me. “How’s your new job?”
“That’s why I asked you to come. I reached into my bag, grabbed the scribbled on script, and handed it to him. Executive Producer notes are typed in red. My new notes are in blue ink.”
“Sit down,” he said. I did. “Do you want to be a writer?”
“Yeah,” I said. But I hesitated.
“Do you want to be a writer?”
“Do you want to be a writer?!” Norman smacked the table. I’d never seen him so excited.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Good. Remember what we talked about way back? About thick skin?”
“Yes. I need thick skin.”
“Always. Even when you think you’re at the top of your game, someone will try to knock you off the mountain. If that person means anything to you, take their comments seriously. Do what you did with these notes. Sometimes editors make good recommendations. Your sentence is passive. Unless you want it that way, change it. Let your editor or producer challenge you. If it’s subjective or something you don’t want to change, tell them to go to hell. This is your show after all. You’re going to have to stand up for yourself. But it’s a balancing act. Now, let’s go through these one at a time.”
We sat at our table and went through each comment, one-by-one. We ate our eggs, drank our coffee, knocked around ideas, and completed the next draft. “I Feel better,” I said and sat back in my chair.
“Good. Editors are good at what they do. Let them help you be a better a writer. But they’re not writers, so if they try to be, tell them to scram. Got it?”
“Got it. Thanks.”
“Of course, I’m always willing to do this with you. At the least, I get a half-decent breakfast,” he said loudly.
“I’ll make you a reservation at Denny’s next time,” said the woman from behind the kitchen curtain.
“Service is too good there,” he said.
“I have to get to the office,” I said.
“Feel good to say that? The office. Sounds so official.”
“It’s so different,” I said. “Like I’m an adult.”
“You’re in a new stage of your life. A good one. Savor it.”
“I will.” I stuffed the script in my bag and slung the bag over my shoulder. “Do this again in a few days?”
“Sure,” said Norman.
I headed to the office reenergized. I wasn’t giving up.