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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

composure and creativity

More trouble sleeping. My pattern now seems to be to wake up at about 3:30 and lie fully awake for all or most of the time until the alarm rings at 5:30. This morning I dozed off at around 5:00, time enough to have some dreams when the alarm went off. The mornings are dark again, and now cool as well.

I didn't manage much book-work this morning. For one thing, I'm trying to learn how to get the most out of Google News, which I've made my new homepage. For another, I had to return a call on some possible copywriting work, and review some material before talking to the new prospect (I didn't manage to get hold of her). And finally I had an appointment at 11:30 for dental cleaning. It all combined to trim away my regular writing time.

I find I can do creative work only when my mind is clear and undisturbed with emotions or stress. Back when working in TV this was an important consideration. Both Warren and I felt that way, and knew we were creatively useless after any meeting involving the network, so we tried to schedule these for later in the day, after we had already done any writing we were going to do. Here on the West Coast people in television often have to start their day early to be in sync with the powers in Toronto, three time-zones away.

I remember one day when Hart Hanson, our story editor during the development phase, told us he had been roused from bed at about 5:00 that morning by the CBC executive in charge of our show (he was an employee of the CBC at the time).

"Cripes," I thought, "there's no way I'm doing that for anybody."

I think part of the problem might be that writers often accept the low status often accorded them by others in the TV industry. There are problems of self-esteem among those who can be so easily overridden, rewritten, and fired. The writer is vulnerable too because his work is submitted to criticism before anyone else's. No one else has had a chance to screw up yet when the writer is being mauled. But I'm keenly aware of the magnitude of the writer's input, which in some ways is the majority of the creative effort of a production. So I push back against those who try to minimize the writer's input.

I remember a conversation with the producer, Michael, at the height of the frenzy of production. I was stressing some aspect of the script, or worrying about it, and he said, "Everyone on the show thinks their contribution is the most important."

He was mischievously yanking my chain, but I still had to say, "You think the hairstyles are as important as the script? Zoom in on a hairstyle for half an hour and see who's still watching at the end."

It irked me. Sure, the stylist might complain as much as I did (I have no idea--I just named that job at random), but she had only appeared on the scene when the show was funded and her weekly was assured. The writers had worked almost for free for three years, subjected to relentless criticism and attack by those making large salaries, and with utterly no guarantee of success. I was gambling with my house and my marriage, both of which were in real jeopardy over the strain. And I suspect that the hair stylist was not getting calls each day dunning her for the next hairstyle, because the crew had to start building sets and getting locations lined up for the next episode. No, it was the writers who were being called for the next story.

"Just let us know what the story's about, where it's set, so we can get our crew to work!"

By then we'd become hardened, and could work through (though only after phone calls and faxes--not after a face-to-face meeting; those were just too draining and demoralizing sometimes).

But over all, I need tranquility and composure to be able to work creatively. That's another reason I like to get at it first thing in the morning, the earlier the better.

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