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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

What Do You Get When You Put Writers in a Room…

“So, do you guys all sit around a table and write the scripts together?”

Writers Diana Son and Charlie Rubin

Diana Son and Charlie Rubin (Law and Order: Criminal Intent)

People used to ask me this and I’d wonder where they got this idea. “The Dick Van Dyke Show”? It couldn’t have been farther from our reality on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”. Not only did we not have a table around which we could all SIT, let alone write scripts together —we didn’t even have a writer’s room. That’s right. No room at the inn. Our showrunner believed in his writers’ abilities to, well, write and that’s what he wanted us to do. It requires a completely different skill set to be able to pitch ideas out loud, respond to other people’s ideas spontaneously, and to cobble together story lines in your head or on a marker board than it does to write. Not to discount that method, many writers do excel at it. Some have reputations for being “great in the room.” I have heard some shows rely on the writer’s room so much they even have exercise equipment in them! But Rene Balcer was not one to have his writers toss out motives for murder while sweating it out on the elliptical.

Instead, each writer met individually with Rene to break story – based on an idea we brought to him or one that he offered to us. Sure, L&O shows are “ripped from the headlines” and we often came in with articles from newspapers, magazines, foreign newspapers we’d found online, etc. But the headline story would serve the purpose of setting the episode in motion. It was just a jumping off point. We couldn’t surprise, unnerve or reward the viewer if we merely added dialogue to stories whose endings they knew. We would twist the story away from the original headline story.

For example, Marlane Gomard Meyer’s episode “Happy Family” was loosely based on the murder of investment banker Ted Ammon. He was found bludgeoned to death in his East Hampton home while in the middle of a divorce and bitter custody battle with his wife. In the end, it was his wife’s plumber-boyfriend with the mile-long rap sheet who was ultimately found to be the killer. We would never do that. In Marlane’s script, the estranged wife’s boyfriend is looked at as a suspect, but so is the nanny, and the wife herself, but the killer turns out to be one of the couple’s adopted sons, who’d been brainwashed by his mother that when she died (she has terminal cancer), their father would send the boys back to the Ukrainian orphanage they’d come from.

Meeting one on one in Rene’s office we would spend hours talking about who the characters were so we would know why they did what they did. Characters that only appeared in one or two scenes still had complicated back stories. That’s what distinguished “Criminal Intent” from the other shows in the franchise. We were to explore the psychological motives of everyone involved. Even the red herrings had plausible, complicated reasons for killing the victim – even though they didn’t. After spending around two weeks breaking story with Rene in his office, we would go off and write our drafts. And when I mean off, I mean off-campus, off-site, off to wherever it was we were most comfortable writing. For some people it was home. For me, it was The Writers Room in the Village, a non-profit urban writer’s colony where writers of every persuasion – novelists, poets, journalists, etc — share a loft space partitioned into, one must say, rather attractive carrels. I discovered it in 1997 and have written every play, and just about every screenplay and TV script there ever since. It is my writing home. I’d email my scripts to Rene from The Writer’s Room and he’d fax the script back with notes. Meanwhile, he’d started meeting with the next writer “at bat.” That’s how I started to think of it. We were batters in a lineup. And it remains, several shows and years later, my favorite way of working.

But after 5 years at “Criminal Intent,” including 2 years under the showrunnership of Warren Leight, the friend who first mentioned the job opening to me so many years ago, I decided to leave. I took a year off to hang out with my kids – including newborn twins – and work on (and not finish) a spec pilot. By the time I was ready to go back on a writing staff, I was to find out that getting on a show in NYC was not going to be as easy as running into a friend on the 1 train.

One, Two, Three – Jump!

I was terrified when Elana Levin contacted me to write four blogs for the WGAE website. I’m used to scribbling words for a group of characters played by actors so talented they made every word so much better than it looked on paper. It was great hiding behind them, but I don’t have them to protect me anymore, so I said yes.

I am not a risk taker by nature. I don’t drive anymore, I’m not athletic, and I’ve never bought a lottery ticket. Swimming in creeks or rivers where fish (or even minnows) might be lurking scares me. We rented a house upstate for years. When we walked home from our neighbor’s house after dark I was sure the bats fluttering above were waiting to swoop down and nest in my hair. My husband had his hands full helping me co-exist with nature. I’m from two edgy and wonderful cities, Detroit and New York and I am very comfortable in both places. But nature…yikes! I’ve made some progress, thanks to my husband Tony.

Being uncomfortable is good, sometimes. My high school drama director cast me as science prodigy Tillie in “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” – dyed my hair mousy brown, wore polyester and baggy knee sox as I cradled my dead rabbit at the end of the play. My mom’s best friend didn’t recognize me. Great moment for the girl usually cast as the ingénue. My college boyfriend Michael was determined that I get my license. He taught me to drive. Yes, I did drive for awhile. Grace Bavaro sent me from the restaurant to the TV studio. My friend Nancy Williams Watt generously encouraged me to add my voice to the voices of the Guiding Light characters. Super bosses Paul Rauch and Ellen Wheeler would often call me in on Friday and tell me I’d be doing a very different job at Guiding Light on Monday. I always lamented the fact that I never had time to “train” for any of these jobs. My husband watched me freak out and then witnessed my wonder when I realized how great it is to learn something new. Not that I mastered every job, but it’s so exciting to go into a dark, scary place, turn on the light and see that it’s not so scary after all.

Children play with dog

photo by Tony Hurst

And it’s fun to help someone else get over their fear. Our landlady upstate asked us to keep our two big dogs Scout, a curly coated retriever, and Annie, our beautiful German Shepherd, on leash when we walked the road – turns out our two little neighbor girls were terrified of dogs. We kept the dogs in check, but the girl’s curiosity outweighed their fear. They were frequent and welcome visitors. At first they yelled “Put Pointy Ears (Annie) in the house” as they came up the road. But after a short time, they reached out their little hands to pet curly Scout. Finally they got to know old Pointy Ears. Little girls and big dogs became fast friends. Eventually they got a dog of their own!

I know that it’s time to challenge myself. I wish I would have prepared in certain ways – learned to type, kept my license, finished my degree…but then, maybe the ride would’ve been different. More sensible, but less fun… Truthfully there’s very little I would change about my experiences.

I’m grateful to the people who thought outside the box when I couldn’t, who gave me a little push. I’m glad I took a breath and said yes to this writing assignment. I learned that I want to take more chances! Thank you for having me here for the last few weeks. I had a really good time.

Pancakes at Polonia and Sandwiches with Scout…

Tradition: “The handing down of stories, beliefs and customs from generation to generation”.

Pizza Jeffrey Tastes

Pizza by Jeffrey Tastes

My Detroit nieces visit their native NY every year. I call and ask what they’d like to do while they’re here. Their response – “Pizza at Delizia”…”go to China Fun” …walk to the “little park” (as little girls they played in the big sprinkler at John Jay Park on hot summer days). They also loved visiting the Guiding Light studio, mostly because of the vending machine on the 4th floor! We do something new every year – a play, a museum, a walk on the High Line. But a Delizia slice, China Fun veggie dumplings and the little park are mandatory.

Those are our NY traditions. My sister and I always meet at the Grand Central clock and start walking. Our NY tradition…

During my early New York years my phone rang every Sunday at 10 am. My dad, “casually” checking in, and hopefully bringing me a funny story from home – the best ones involved his younger sister, my Aunt Fran and Cousins Bill, Rob and Jane! When he died, my phone rang at 10am on the Sunday after I got home from his funeral. It was Aunt Fran, well aware of our Sunday morning tradition.

Detroit is a town that has been through so much turmoil, we treasure the sharing of laughter and stories and tradition – which usually involve food! One of my favorites I shared with my friend Margie. We worked at Kresge’s in downtown Detroit during high school. Friday was payday and once we’d pocketed our fat paychecks we’d hurry over to Coney Island for lunch.

Right after GL was cancelled. Margie and I (with sisters Susie and Janice) paid a late night visit to the Coney Island. I’m so glad we did because Margie died suddenly six weeks later. She was a Guiding Light viewer, by the way. She got her patients at the VA hospital in Detroit hooked on GL. After she died, Susie found a bag of Soap Digests in her room, with GL articles flagged. Margie was stunned when we were cancelled. “What will I do when I’m working Thanksgiving or Christmas? My patients like to watch the holiday shows.”

Pancakes by RobertBanh

Pancakes by Robert Banh

At Guiding Light, we shared traditions with our audience…the Bauer BBQ, the funny Thanksgiving, the Christmas crawl… We also had traditions that involved pajamas, Munchkins, Ivory soap, red wine… After GL, my new traditions include pancakes at Polonia with David and sandwiches with my beloved dog Scout (and Tony, my husband). Scout’s tail would thump extra hard when I walked in with that Ottomanelli’s sandwich on Fridays. She loved traditions!

So many have spoken out since the latest soap cancellations were made public last week/ Spoken angrily, emotionally and eloquently… I hope the cancelled shows find a new home. I hope we support the four shows that remain. As for bringing us more “information”– soaps serve information with comfort, continuity and a little escape on the side. We remember the letters – the pregnant teens who wished for a brother like Frank, the woman with Down Syndrome who assured us that Fletcher and Holly’s baby would be okay, women who saved their own lives after Bert Bauer and Lillian Raines saved theirs with early detection for cancer, mothers who learned to speak English watching soaps. About that young demo networks are seeking. The world is scary these days. You think kids are only interested in hunks and train wreck TV? The kids who came to GL wanted to meet the dads, the uncles and the big brothers – the guys they could count on. We all, young and old, want something we can count on every day.

“When we are good, we change people’s lives.” – Jerry ver Dorn. What a responsibility and what a joy. Soap opera might be transitioning but it has to survive somehow. It’s part of our American storytelling tradition.

New York, Unplugged (Title by Tony Hurst)

Some people know a great deal about many things. I know…one or two. Number one – don’t get so electronically “plugged in” that you forget to look around. I just learned how to text and as of today, own nothing that has “I” in front of it. When I walked into the Guiding Light studio with a Blackberry, one of our production coordinators laughed. With good reason… the Blackberry is in a drawer and I chat on my old flip phone, which my colleague Liz wryly refers to as “retro”. I do appreciate technology. I love e-mailing friends at five am, reading my nieces Facebook postings and even chatting on Twitter. But I’m glad I’m a latecomer to the technology game. Being too plugged in would’ve distracted me from my favorite hobbies – eavesdropping, talking to strangers, perusing restaurant menus and looking into apartment windows. It’s amazing what you can see and hear out there in the world when you’re paying attention. It’s particularly true in NY. So much life spills out onto the sidewalks… where to look first? Some days it’s hard to look. But more often than not I see something, hear something or meet someone who changes my life. Imagine if I’d been texting when I walked by the dog adoption group on First Avenue – I wouldn’t have seen Scout. If my husband Tony had been checking his e-mail in the elevator he wouldn’t have seen me when the door opened – hmm, I’ll have to ask him how he feels about that.

Here’s the second thing I know. Don’t be afraid to venture out on your own. If you can’t go to an event without a date you’ll miss some great events. Me, I’ve always loved going to the theater alone. On a Saturday afternoon in 2001 I bought myself a ticket to see “Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine” by Warren Leight. I’d loved “Side Man” and was looking forward to seeing John Spencer on stage. Halfway through Act One, I noticed the man next to me writing in a notebook. During intermission, Nosy Nelly (me) asked about the notebook. Turned out he was a critic who worked for a paper in New Jersey. We chatted about the play and John Spencer. End of show, Phil kindly mentioned that he generally gets two tickets to the plays he reviews and would be happy to take me as his guest if I’d be interested. I gave him my number at the studio and we said our goodbyes. I couldn’t go the first time Phil offered the extra ticket , but I was free the second time he called. My friend Danielle insisted on walking me to the theater. She wanted to make sure she could ID Phil in case I turned up missing the next day. I think they discussed this at my 50th birthday party. Well, one play led to another and another – good, bad, first runs, revivals, Broadway, off B’way and across the Hudson. I don’t get to the theater alone quite as often these days, but I can’t complain. Thanks to Phil I’ve seen so many wonderful plays. “Kimberly Akimbo”, “Curtains”, “God of Carnage” – and of course “Shining City”. We had to walk around the block after that one!

Tonight I’ll rush out of work, grab that M86 bus going west, then take the 8th Ave local to 42nd street. As I reminded my husband this morning, I have theater with Phil. This will be the 73rd show we’ve seen together, thanks to his generosity – and my nosiness. We’re friends. As the years have rolled along, we’ve added Jazz in July, Christmas Morning Coffee. If we never saw another show, we’d still have our traditions. As Phil says, “Good for us… are we lucky, or what?” I know I’m lucky. So…no ear buds just yet. Windows to peer into, people to meet. Try it. Maybe you’ll adopt a wonderful dog, meet your future partner…or just see someone who inspires a character in your next project, or even better becomes a character in the story of your life.

P.S. – the Technology Gods rapped me on the knuckles for this one. My phone and my internet were out for the first part of the day today!

Crossing Town on the M86

I took the M86 bus west early this morning. A trip made seven days a week for months while writing Guiding Light. We started our work day at the Starbucks on 86th and Columbus, armed with the shiny, pink flowered schoolgirl notebooks we’d buy from Jay at the deli across the street. I still have that stack of notebooks under my couch, covered with dust and dog hair. I haven’t bought a notebook since.

Riding through the park I thought about two things as I watched the first dog run of the day. Two worries. The task of writing this blog and the fact that I was heading to meet a young person at the above-mentioned Starbucks who wanted my advice about television writing. I’ve never written a blog before. I HAVE spoken to young people about daytime television, many times over the years. They generally find my story amusing – the fact that my waitress job led me to my 17 year gig at Guiding Light. They’re impressed by the jobs I held there (lots) my Emmy (one) and the fact that I loved my work so much. But they wanted solid tips… advice. The truth is, some wonderful people gave me a chance. I showed up, accepted assignments, made my deadlines and was so damn happy they let me stay. When it ended, I staggered out of the studio, back into my “real” life, did my best to keep walking and talking, and finally got an office job just as the money ran out! What am I going to say to Nicole? Why didn’t she get in touch with one of the writers still writing TV? They could talk to her about sustaining and surviving in this business. I don’t even know Nicole very well. I’m not a television writer anymore. The flowered notebooks are under the couch. What do I say? Okay, I’ll buy the coffee. It’s the least I can do after wasting her time this morning.

Nicole arrives. I buy the coffee. She’s looking for answers. I ask her questions. What is she writing? What does she watch on TV? What did she study in school? Premed, then Columbia film school. Wow. I’m surprised by the stuff she’s working on and interested in her take on daytime. A friend calls while we’re there. When I explain our meeting she says “talk her out of it! Tell her to run back to med school.” I can’t. I am more practical than I used to be – keep your day job, money stress is paralyzing. But if you want to write, do it. Say you’re a writer. Don’t be shy. Take a class, work on a web series….I can’t talk her up to my EP and try to get her a sample deal. But I won’t tell her not to go for it. This could be a great time for young writers. Shows are tumbling left and right but still, exciting things are happening. Out of the ashes… I am dazzled by the people who are pouring their hearts into making web series. We still want to tell stories. The audience still craves them. We’ll have to tell them differently, we won’t make that 80’s and 90’s money… but stories will be told. And something tells me that Nicole – or Danielle or Brett or the Rebeccas or Nidhi or Michelle or David or Kimberly – one or two or all of them – could be the Irna, Agnes, Bill or Claire of the future. Why not?

Nicole and I finish our talk and go our separate ways. I hope I encouraged her without giving her false hope. I hope she has a story to tell. I’m feeling lighthearted and hopeful myself, with a couple of stories rattling around in my head. I buy myself a pink flowered notebook from the deli before I get on the 86 going east.
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Jill Lorie Hurst was raised in Detroit in the 60’s and 70’s, the daughter of a mother who watched CBS soaps and a father who loved New York. She studied theater and English at Wayne State University. She moved to New York in 1982 and started a ten year gig as a waitress in the garment district before finding a home at Guiding Light. Jill spent 17 years with the CBS soap as a receptionist, a writer’s assistant, a script writer, script editor, breakdown writer, story producer and finally, part of the co-head writing team until the show went off the air in September 2009. When CBS deactivated her ID, Jill spent 15 months or so wandering the city streets before settling into an assistant job in Manhattan. She has recently joined the writing team of Venice the series and is working on her first play. Jill lives in New York City with her husband Tony, dog Jocko and cat Molly.

A few months after I turned 21,

A few months after I turned 21, I quit my job writing ads for college textbooks, and began my life as a freelance writer. I managed to get assignment writing about comedy in New York, which meant I got to hang out in comedy clubs and watch a hundred self-loathing guys self-destruct. I also stumbled upon an “all-girl comedy troupe” called the High Heeled Women.

We went out for drinks after their performance .I’d written jokes for comics, I knew a little about how to structure a sketch, and given my expertise, they agreed to pay me ten dollars an hour to write for them. Or with them.

There were four High Heeled Women, but two of them, Mary and Cassandra, wrote the act. None of us had air conditioning so we used the Blimpie’s on West Tenth Street as our office. Mary laughed at everything I said, Cassandra was less animated. Once in a while she’d nod and say, “Funny.” In hindsight, they were good cop/bad copping me. We’d start a sketch, I’d come up with a good one-liner, Mary would laugh, and Cassandra would shake her head. “Why would my character say that?” “Because it’s funny?” I’d reply. She was appalled. Cassandra had been with Second City, she’d performed improv with people who’d gone on to superstardom, she’d played in front of more drunks than I could imagine. Along the way, she’d developed a code.

Comedy came from character. If you wrote a joke that wasn’t true to the character, you were cheating, or “schmuck-baiting the audience.” You also needed to have “conflict.” One character has to have something the other character wants. I was reeling. The comics I’d written for, they just wanted one-liners that could get the drunks to listen. Cassandra wanted one-liners that made “internal sense” to the character, furthered the plot, and still got the drunks to take their hands off their neighbors’ laps.

It was not a dream job. Ten dollars an hour didn’t go very far, sometimes checks bounced. Also, for the first year, my credit read as follows: “the girls write all their own material.” Even so, Mary and Cassandra were the first actors I wrote for. The idea that lines could not be randomly distributed among the actors on stage was annoying at first, but over time I internalized it. I learned about “ticker moments”, about high jokes and low jokes and how to pair them (“blow me” sounds funniest in a high British accent, or an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice). I learned to make sure nightclub owners paid in cash.

After a while, Cassandra began to feel she’d shortchanged herself. Others in the group were booking all kinds of work because of the material we’d crafted for them; meanwhile Cassandra no longer had a signature piece in the show. I started to write a monologue in her voice, about a neurotic woman facing a romantic conflict, between her high feminist ideals and her low desires. Arnold Schwarzenegger courted her in the bit by saying “blow me.” Eleven times. The first night Cassandra performed it, she killed. Anytime anyone else performed it, they died. As Cassandra had taught me, the audience always knows when they are being schmuck-baited.
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Warren LeightWarren Leight is the show runner and Executive Producer of the FX drama Lights Out. Formerly, he has been the show runner and Executive Producer of HBO’s Emmy-nominated In Treatment (Peabody Award, Humanitas nomination), and Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Warren’s play “Side Man” won the 1999 Tony Award for Best Play, and was a 1999 Pulitzer Prize Finalist. Other plays include No Foreigners Beyond This Point (Drama Desk nomination), Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine (ATCA nomination), and the book to the musical Mayor (Drama Desk nomination). Warren was the former President of The Writer’s Guild of America, East, and is a current member of the Dramatists’ Guild councils. Warren was raised in New York City. He lives with his wife and daughters in New York.

Story and Structure

“Euripides in Museos Vaticanos” by serguei_2k

Is plot dead?

I had a recent argument with a playwriting student who thought it was. It wasn’t just plot that was dead. She told me that the whole concept of character-driven narrative structure in dramatic writing, the so-called “well-made story”, was out-of-date, bourgeois and boring.

Actually, to say we were “arguing” is putting it strongly; I teach in a low-residency MFA program, and so our discussion was not only quite civil, it was quaintly epistolary, conducted via letters over several weeks. What’s more, this student is no kid. She’s also smart as a whip and has worked as a theater professional around the world. She’s mulled about this kind of thing for years. And so I gave serious thought to what she had to say. In the end, I still disagreed.

By the end of the semester, we may not have seen things eye-to-eye. But she taught me a lot about postmodern theatre and I read a bunch of plays I hadn’t read before, many of which I thought were terrific. I also like to hope I convinced her, even a little, of the continuing power of that ancient (I would actually say hardwired) form, the well-told story. Most important, because I had to defend my position, the exchange made me think hard about something I’ve spent years taking for granted: the importance of that strange thing we call narrative structure.

Every writer in the guild – screenwriters, TV writers, news writers – depends on structure. It’s our go-to weapon, our primary tool of choice: kind of like our t-square/hammer/calculator/Singer sewing machine, all rolled into one. Without a solid structure, a story, any story, slowly collapses in on itself like an improvised Lego suspension bridge. I’d go so far as to paraphrase Thomas Edison and say that good writing is 1% inspiration and 99% structure. Sure, dialogue is important; but like everything, it serves the story. And story is basically all about structure.

Structure, of course, isn’t some kind of rigid code, a one-size-fits-all Iron Maiden into which one must cram one’s genius. Good writers are constantly tinkering with structure, which arises from specific characters, their situation, their wants, and their problems. Good story structure, after all, can be anything: it can be loopy and deconstructed; it can turn chronology inside out, shatter the fourth wall, break reality, and be as full of surprises, misdirections, and dead ends as a moonlit neighborhood in Venice, the kind you chase a murderous dwarf through because you’re convinced it’s a kid in a red raincoat. So what makes structure good? As has been said of music, if it sounds good, it is good. If the structure makes organic sense with the story that’s being told, if it drives the action… then it’s good. If you’re riveted to your chair, if you keep your hand off the clicker, if the ending resonates so much that you’re still talking about it weeks later… then whoever the writer is, she or he has earned that paycheck.

Non-Fiction Writers Producers UnitedRecently, some WGAE colleagues and I were talking with a room full of producers/writers who work in non-fiction TV—(this means shows like The First 48, Steven Seagal: Lawman or Four Weddings) mostly for cable. One producer/writer was talking about a show she works on, which features a medical pathologist who performs autopsies. A colleague of mine said she was a fan of the show and that she was always delighted there was a surprise ending, a twist at the end she hadn’t expected. The producer/writer gave a wry smile and said, “Yeah… because we put it there.” Of course, it’s something we all knew intellectually… and yet there it was a visceral reminder in a specific example. The producer/writers of nonfiction TV are masters of story structure, the same as the rest of us; and they deserve to join our ranks and get a union contract.

A Little Bit of Soap

Dishwashing soap, gloves etcThe day I killed Ryan, I started to live again.

The year leading up to the fatal shooting was the most trying time of my life.  The prime time show I’d been writing for was cancelled and the movie I’d been contracted to write scrapped.  The production company with whom I had a development deal shut down and for the first time I was unemployed.  My personal life was worse.  My father had a stroke, a close friend was dying, and my husband abruptly left me for another woman.  My life had become, well, a soap opera.

My heart broken, my pride wounded, my bank account dwindling, I poured out my heart to a friend who was an executive with NBC Daytime.  She responded with what seemed an absurd non sequitur, “Have you ever thought of writing for daytime?”  I laughed, “You mean, a soap?”  She explained that NBC was looking for new blood for their daytime division and thought I might be good for them.  At another time in my life, I would have rejected the idea out of hand. A soap opera?  The genre of baby switches and evil twins?  Where people came back from the dead?  Really?  I’d written for prime time!  I’d had films produced!  I had theater credits!  But now I was a single mom, the sole support of two pre-school aged children and I needed a job.

Prior to that day, I’d never even seen a soap unless I’d passed one on the dial on the way to a PBS station – a snob with no firsthand knowledge of the field.  Still, I accepted an assignment to write a few sample stories for “Another World” and I had to start watching the show.  The first day, I had trouble keeping the characters and the three or four storylines straight.  The next day there was some overlap, but also different characters and other stories.  In a week, I’d seen all the characters in the concurrent stories … and I was hooked.  I wanted to know if the evil countess Justine Duvalier (a dead ringer for the saintly Rachel Cory) was really going to wall up her future daughter-in-law in her cellar.  Was Sharlene’s alternate hooker personality going to ruin her chance at love?  And who was stalking the nurses at Bay City General?   In short, I’d gone from being a snob to being a fan.  I got it now.  I understood that a soap opera can have drama, comedy and tragedy all in the space of an hour.  The characters have developed over months and years and have histories and rich and complicated relationships.  They are friends you root for, lovers you wish for, children you worry for, the family you can count on to be there for you day after day.  Soaps are escapism in the purist form.  Watching “Another World” took me away from my own problems.  Writing for it gave me a whole new life.

I wrote my sample stories and was hired as a staff writer for “Another World.”  I was glad to have a regular job and a steady income and I loved inventing stories, loved getting into the heads of characters and taking them on a journey.  I loved being able to stay in New York and have a predictable enough schedule to spend time with my children.  My bad year was over.

Which brings me to Ryan’s murder.  There are certain “special days” on every soap opera, among them weddings, births and the death of a major character.  Within three weeks of my writing for “Another World,” I was entrusted with the shooting of one such beloved character, Ryan Harrison.  It was an important episode and after I wrote it I was informed that my contract had been picked up, that I would be writing for a soap for the next 13 weeks.  That was 15 years ago and I’ve written for daytime dramas without interruption ever since.  Incidentally, Ryan was really dead when I “killed” him.  Unlike many soap opera characters, he did not come back to life.  I am happy to report that I, however, did.

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Shelly Altman

Shelly Altman

Shelly Altman currently writes for ABC’s “One Life to Live.”  Prior to her Emmy Award-winning work in daytime television, Shelly wrote extensively for prime time (“Kate and Allie,” “True Blue,” “Katts and Dog,” etc.) and for film (“Sweet Lorraine,” “The Gnomes’ Great Adventure,” “Jewels of Main,” etc.).

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.