I used to write for television. Mostly how-to shows – trying to get you to believe you could wallpaper your bathroom yourself. Sorry about that.
But I enjoyed it. I’m a teacher at heart so the idea of putting together neat little segments on tools and processes was fun for me. Until I learned that how to television is not, as it happens, about learning how to anything.
The powers that be at these nameless networks know that the vast majority of people are never going to pick up a paintbrush, or a hammer, or god forbid, a circular saw. Our audiences used our wallpaper hanging video as, well, video wallpaper. They listened to us while they did other things, fascinated, apparently, by endless shots of plywood being cut. Tile being laid. Screws being screwed. Our work was the background buzz of their lives.
I do understand this fascination with watching other people’s work. I once spent an afternoon on my front porch, sipping coffee as a guy from the city used a backhoe to carefully picked out chunks of sidewalk while leaving the tree roots intact. He was fast, accurate and by god, an artist. I was spellbound.
Then there was the time I hired a guy to remove a stump. Ever see a stump grinder at work? These machines look like prehistoric beasts, swinging their great saw-toothed heads back and forth, grazing on wood and bark. It was mesmerizing. And hysterical, when a garbage truck drove by and released a screech of air from its brakes just as the beast took a big deep bite into the earth. The operator did a cartoon run in midair, certain that he had struck a gas main and was about to be blown sky high.
I tried to learn the skill of writing how-to without really explaining anything, but it went against the grain. It was a formula and I wanted to write something useful, interesting, entertaining. None of that was wanted. The goal was familiar. Soothingly bland. That’s why every how-to or house flipping or cooking show is basically the same. Different hosts, different cities, but the same projects, with the same lack of detail, over and over again. Other people doing things we will never attempt, but like to think we might. That’s entertainment!
I did write for a show that broke the mold. Or rather, created a new one. It combined interior design with childbirth. (Don’t ask.) We were to build drama by suggesting that every single birth was a terrible crisis and each nursery reveal a joyous homecoming. I did my best to take the footage I was given and create entertainment…to fit the odd template the network wanted. High drama in the birthing suite. Thrilled reactions to the nursery.The trouble was, the new parents were joyous at the hospital and usually stunned and aghast at what had been done to their house in their absence.
I tried. Really, I did. But our contact at the network was never happy. She returned my first script for the show with the notes, “This sucks.” “You’re killing the show.” And my personal favorite, “Write better!”
I called my boss in a panic. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “She always says that. About everything.”
So I kept writing. She kept finding new ways to make me feel like a failure.
She did me a favor, actually. Brutal feedback doesn’t faze me. My writer’s skin was toughened from all the abuse. I’d probably still be doing it, if the economy hadn’t tanked and put all the freelancers like me out of work.
But I’ve come to see that as a gift.
I’ve had to learn how to. How to tell stories I love. How to write to my own specs, not someone else’s. How to carve out a living without selling my soul. How to yes, “write better”.
It’s work, you know? And sometimes very hard. But I feel a sense of accomplishment anytime I push a novel a little further toward completion, or submit a short story, or offer up something for feedback from my writer’s group. It’s my work.
And I remember the last time I heard from the woman at the network. The show about babies and nurseries had just been cancelled and she was suddenly out of work. My phone rang and it was her, sweetly greeting me as if we were the bestest friends. Hey, Jayne,” she said. “Keep me in mind if you ever needed a producer, okay?”