Saturday, January 9, 2010

"So what do you do?"

How does a writer know when he is a writer? I am sure that there are countless explanations out there, and I am afraid to look at most of them because I suspect that, like several I have read, they are going to tell me that a writer usually gets a sense of his vocation at an early age: he loves reading stories and hearing others tell stories. The authentic writer begins writing early because there are stories inside him that are begging to be told. He sees story potential in all kinds of real-life situations; his imagination works with news stories, bits of family dialogue, conflicts with friends, incidents observed on the bus or at a hockey game. His life is about writing. Of course, he would like to be published so that he can make his living at what he loves to do, but no matter - whatever happens or does not happen with his work commercially, he will continue to write; he has no choice.

I definitely do not fit this profile.

I am about to become fifty-nine years of age. At fifty-four I ended a career in education that had been going nowhere for a very long time, but I had no idea what I was going to do next. Around the same time we started watching the TV series The West Wing, which was written by Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The American President). I have never been a fan of TV series, dramatic or otherwise, but I had heard from "reliable sources" that The West Wing was very good. So we bought the first season on DVD, started watching it one Friday night, and were immediately hooked. The writing was intelligent, witty, and very warm. Martin Sheen was human and utterly believable as President Bartlett, and some of the other characters, like Toby (Richard Schiff) and CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) brought idiosyncratic depth and vitality to the show. What I loved about The West Wing was the way it depicted relationships. I do not think it would be particularly challenging to make the inner workings of the West Wing dramatically interesting in terms of plot, but creating believably human relationships among characters engaged daily in momentous affairs of state was, I imagine, no small creative task. In this Aaron Sorkin succeeded brilliantly and consistently. Unfortunately, Mr. Sorkin left the series after four years; as a result, the following three seasons were considerably less compelling.

Watching The West Wing (and I watched some of the earlier episodes more times than I can count), I began to feel that I would like to try my hand at writing my own TV series. By this time I had returned to the Catholic Church and had somehow recovered my childhood fascination with the priesthood. So I decided I would create a series about a Catholic priest and his parish. I bought two volumes of scripts selected from the first four seasons of The West Wing so that I could copy the format as well as study the writing more closely. For the next three years I wrote and rewrote several episodes of the series I called Father Tom.

Most of my time was spent writing the pilot for the series. At first, the act of writing did not seem to be that difficult; I had a number of ideas stored up and ready to write down. Before I knew it I had a two-hour pilot and a couple of additional episodes. I did not, however, have a clue about how to write drama. Friends who read my work were kind but also constructively critical. Some of the criticism I received was devastating, however. A priest who read the first part of the pilot was brutal; with his help I made the discovery that one of the most disheartening things a critic can say about your work is that it is boring. Nevertheless, I was determined to use all criticism to re-evaluate and improve my work. Books on screenplay writing and writing for TV also helped me a great deal.

As I continued to work on Father Tom, I also began to watch other dramatic series like Six Feet Under, NYPD Blue, The Sopranos, and The Wire. This exercise was instructive but sometimes discouraging. I often felt that my writing came nowhere near to matching the depth and complexity of the plots and characters in these dramas. Part of my problem was that I had no technical advisor; I really needed a priest that I could interview extensively and follow around as he worked through his day. I had to make do with reading books about priests and parishes.

Eventually I came up with a pilot that I thought might work. A friend who works in TV offered to pass my pilot on to a producer, so in October of last year I finally got up the courage to stop tweaking it and sent it on to my friend. I think he is still sitting on it and has not passed it on to anyone. I am afraid to imagine why. Yet perhaps this stall is a good thing as the pilot is indeed still in need of work that amounts to more than tweaking. I have recently been watching the HBO series Oz, and I can see where my own work can be dramatically improved (double meaning intended).

After I handed over my pilot script, I decided to give TV writing a rest. In the meantime, I thought I would try writing a novel. Now, boys and girls, can you guess what the novel was going to be about? Yes, a priest!! I thought I had a great idea for a story, about a theologian who kind of comes into his own, spiritually and psychologically, at Vatican II. I was excited about the project and set about reading all kinds of background material, most of which was fascinating in itself. Yet when it came to actually writing the story, the ideas for plot were there but they refused to develop into a full-blown story. And I could not get a handle on the main character. I quickly abandoned the idea of becoming a novelist.

So here's the thing: I loved writing the Father Tom series and will likely go back to it soon. But I am no Aaron Sorkin, no Alan Ball, no Ed Burns. Take Alan Ball: he wrote the Academy-Award-winning film American Beautyand created the TV series Six Feet Under and True Blood. Each of these highly successful projects is unique, one utterly unlike the other. I am interested in studying and writing about the Catholic Church, more specifically about Catholic priests, fictional or real. That's it. No vampires. No cops. No doctors. No funeral directors. Unless they are Catholic. Maybe I can write a pretty good TV series about a parish once I acquire enough understanding of how a parish works, of how a priest's mind works, and how a successful TV series works. But will I ever be a writer for 24? Will I ever be show runner for Grey's Anatomy? Not likely. So I guess I really cannot call myself a writer. Well, perhaps I could say that I am an amateur writer or a student of writing.

I actually like being a kind of work in progress. I am not good at prayer in the old-fashioned sense, but lately I think of my work as a kind of prayer. My study and research and writing are really my ongoing conversation with God (not many others are in on this conversation right now). I do not have a plan from day to day for what I am going to read or write; I just go with whatever happens to inspire me at any given time. I certainly have no illusions about becoming famous on account of my writing although I would like Father Tom to be produced as I believe people will like it and may be encouraged to think about the Church and their faith in a slightly different way after they have watched it.

When people ask me what I do I don't usually have a straightforward simple answer. I would like to say that I am a writer, but I fear that the next question would be "What have you published?" and I would have to answer "Nothing." So instead I go into a long explanation of my background and how I came to be in the situation I have created for myself, including the building of a large garage at the back of our house, half of which is my office - my "creative space" where I (and the dog) spend the better part of the day "following my bliss," as Joseph Campbell says.

From now on, when people ask me what I do, I should simply say, "I pray."

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this frank and generous sharing. I too am now 59, I too saw my earlier career in education fizzle a few years ago(a second career, after my first carrer in market research) and I too now see myself as a writer in training.

    My interest though is not in fiction - but right here, in writing about the church and gay Catholics. At this stage, it's only on my blogs, but I plan to develop into more formal writing for print publication.

    Go ahead, call youself a writer. It might not be what pays the bills (yet), but by the sound of it, it's what you do.