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Write On

Archive for June, 2010

Distractions

"USA v Algeria World Cup Match" image by jasonwhat

"USA v Algeria World Cup Match" image by jasonwhat

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been so into the World Cup. I’m not much of a soccer fan, so why have I been glued to the TV during these games? Sure, there’s an element of national pride at stake – after all, I did get pretty into the Olympic hockey in February, even though I’m not much of a hockey fan at all. And ESPN has been promoting the hell out of the Cup, so my awareness of its existence has certainly been heightened. But most of all, I think I’m just a sucker for any sporting event that takes place during weekday mornings and afternoons. Most daytime TV is so unappealing to me that any semi-decent sporting event – March Madness, the Summer Olympics, the first couple days of a major golf tournament – almost always ropes me in.

Of course…I have a job. I’m supposed to be working during the day. Which means the World Cup has the potential to be something of a distraction.. So, the big question: how do I keep distractions from becoming a problem? Well, like most anti-vuvuzela U.S. viewers, I can turn the sound off. That’s the great thing about sports (and, to a lesser extent, cable news) – you can watch it on mute and still get something out of it. Or, I could leave the sound on, and turn away from the TV. Enjoy those sarcastic British announcers calling France’s play “pathetic”! It’s like listening to talk radio or music while you work – it only requires part of your attention. Think of it like this: most of us can do two things at once, but three is a lot harder. Watching soccer and listening to soccer both take my attention. That doesn’t leave a lot of my brain for work.

Or, another idea: each hour, give myself 5-10 minutes of uninterrupted, sensory overload soccer time. When it’s over, devote myself fully to work. This has several benefits: it forces me to work without distractions, lets me enjoy the soccer fully (albeit on a reduced basis), and allows me to rationalize my soccer-watching as “clearing my head time”.

When working at home, I have a similar problem – I love to play online poker. (Don’t worry, my life savings are not at risk – I like to joke with my wife that while I do have the addictive gambling gene, I also have the cheapness gene, and they cancel each other out. Also, if I go to Vegas for a few days, she doesn’t have to worry about me being tempted by any strip clubs. I’ll be at the poker table the whole time.) Online poker is available to me 24-7, and, as it happens, involves being at my computer – yes, the very same computer I write on.

For a while, I thought I had come up with an ingenious solution. I would simultaneously write and play in a low-stakes online poker tournament. As long as the TV and web browser were shut off, this fulfilled my “one distraction maximum” rule – plus it kept me anchored to my seat and forced me to write. Eventually, however, I realized that I was not devoting my full attention to the writing. So now, I try to limit myself to no more than thirty minutes of online poker per day. This allows me to get in just enough action to fulfill my jones but not so much that it’s affecting the amount of work I get done.

We all have things that take our attention away from what we’re supposed to be doing. The key is figuring out a way to make sure that they only take away a tiny part of our attention – or, alternately, all of our attention for a tiny portion of our time.

Passion

guy watching sports on tv by D.Reichardt, creative commons license

"watch TV" by D.Reichardt, Creative Commons License

A couple of years ago I met with a literary agent about a semi-humorous food blog that I had been keeping. He thought the blog would make a great book idea, so I tried turning it into a book proposal. I sat down at the computer to write up the proposal and found out I did not care about the topic nearly enough to write a book proposal about it, let alone an entire book. I dropped the book proposal, and the blog soon after that.

Which reminds me…a couple of years before that, I kept another blog for a while. It was right after the 2004 election, and I, like a lot of people, was pretty upset that the American people had, inexplicably to me, decided to re-elect George W. Bush. I decided to channel this energy into an idea: the first blog solely devoted to the 2008 election. Looking back now, this was a very clever idea (and as such, got a brief burst of publicity on a couple of much bigger political blogs). But I didn’t have the expertise – or the passion – to execute it. I lost interest shortly after people actually started reading it. It fell apart even faster than the food blog.

After reading these two anecdotes, you may think of me as a lazy person. Here I found myself with a couple of projects that had real potential and I basically gave up on them as soon as they got a tiny bit of buzz. Well, you might be right. But there’s a fine line between being lazy and understanding what you are passionate about. When I decide I do care about something (like getting a job writing jokes for a late-night TV show) I’m perfectly willing to work hard on it. But if I don’t…then, yeah, I guess I am lazy.

When deciding whether to give up on a project, it’s important to ask yourself: am I going to use the time and energy that I would have spent on this working on other things that I’m more passionate about, or am I going to be on my couch watching the same Sports Center over and over again? If the latter is your answer, you should at least try to muster the passion to get up off the couch and look for the remote control. If it’s the former, then you’re not being lazy – you’re probably just being smart.

The length of the project is also a huge contributing factor. It’s easy to power your way through a page of ideas even when you’re not totally excited about the task. That’s what makes you a writer. But something massive like a book or a movie script? You gotta have that passion. Or a writing partner who can motivate you. Or, a giant check.

Did you notice that both of the projects I quickly lost interest in were blogs? Let’s hope that’s a coincidence…

Jokes

Every day I wake up in the morning, make some coffee (see last entry), read the headlines (in case you were wondering, CNN.com, Google News, the Times and the Post) and think, “What can I joke about today?” Some days the topics are easy to determine. If the Yankees won the World Series the night before, or let’s say, hypothetically, oh, I don’t know, some congressman has to resign after admitting to getting into tickle fights with his male staffers, well, there’s your comedy. But when the big headlines are all about various earthquakes, plane crashes, and attempts to reform the hedge fund industry, that means it’s time to dig pretty deep into the “Weird but True” section of the Post. (Thank you, guy in Scotland arrested for stealing a glazed ham while naked!)

Sometimes, though, the toughest part isn’t finding stuff to write about, but trying to figure out what stuff can actually be joked about. When you’re working for a show, you learn the host’s preferences over time, but each new news story presents its own unique challenges. This isn’t a dilemma faced by monologue writers alone – it’s something everyone who’s ever wanted to make a joke in print or at a party should think about. Let’s take some recent news stories as examples:

The oil spill. This story began when an oil rig exploded, killing eleven workers. Definitely not funny. And while everything since has been plenty tragic, there’s a key development: an angle. You might not think it’s funny that thousands of fish and birds have died, but barbs directed at the bumbling fools at BP who caused this disaster are a perfectly legitimate (and potentially hilarious) expression of rage. That’s why the jokes have been flowing nearly as fast as the oil itself for weeks. Another possible villain: the Obama administration. Did the President drag his heels in response to the spill? In the end, it may be the talk show hosts rather than the historians who help decide.

Catholic Church molestation scandal. Tough one. Jokes about priests molesting young boys have been a staple of conversations with your uncle at holiday barbecues for, what, a decade? But post a one-liner about it on your Twitter feed and you might lose dozens of offended followers (or gain hundreds of new fans.) Anything that mentions or even remotely alludes to the despicable acts that led to this scandal in the first place, I personally won’t touch (bad choice of words?) But an oblique reference to the hot water the Church finds itself in? Yeah, the world can handle that. It’s like the BP thing – when you have a big juicy target in your sights, sometimes you have to aim your fire and worry about the collateral damage later.

Celebrity deaths. Here are the rules: when a young actress who should be enjoying the peak of her career dies under tragic circumstances, you’ll never see someone on TV joke about it. When an old character actor who enjoyed a long and fruitful career passes away, wait six months or so and eventually he’ll become a go-to reference. When the King of Pop dies, retire all of your classic jokes about how weird he is and start writing some about the quack doctor who killed him instead. When the Taco Bell Chihuahua dies…well, you’d better have ten jokes ready the next morning.

Again, there are no hard and fast rules about this stuff – I’m just telling you the thought process behind my joke-writing. If you’ve found an outlet for all of your Haiti jokes, more power to you. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be sitting here waiting for Vice President Biden to say something else stupid…