Oh, television (they sighed collectively). Enemy of productivity, demise of the would-be genius. “Some mute, inglorious Milton here may rest,” we cry, “some Cromwell ruined by The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” But why, then, have I learned almost as much about writing from reality TV in the past five years as from my collections of Paris Review interviews?
I’m not referring to the brain-eating shows, the Bachelors and Survivors and Who Wants to Marry a Bigamists of the world. What I’m addicted to — what I can actually justify, after a hard day of work — are the talent-based reality competitions (rigged and scripted though they may be) in which participants are judged by experts in the field, not voted off by the whims of the American public: Top Chef, Project Runway, the late and lamented Work of Art. The ones that are like mini-MFA programs in which the funding is slowly cut, one participant at a time. The ones that mimic, actually, the real-life selective winnowing of the creative pool, until only one or two of even the most talented make it out with a dynamic career.
Part of the fascination for me is that I work in a medium in which I will never fully witness a fellow practitioner in the process of creation. I have been reading and writing stories all my life, and yet I’ve never seen anyone write a story. It’s a little unfair. Painters get to watch their teachers paint. Musicians might attend a master class. But the act of writing is infuriatingly private. This secrecy is at the root of that incessant, mind-numbing interview question: what is your writing routine? What we’re really asking, I think, is the impossible: show me how you write! Give me a picture! Let me watch you draft your next novel, please, Mr. Chabon! You won’t mind if I camp out here on your couch for the next six to seven years, will you? So until some kind of web-based technology enables a writer reality show — some sublime cross between Big Brother and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — I’m content to watch visual artists struggle to impress their idols; to empathize as fashion designers realize they’re good, but not that good.
Granted, whatever grains of wisdom I pick up, supine on the couch, I still translate into writerese. And perhaps this isn’t a bad thing. After all, we learn best by metaphor, when we think we’re just laughing at someone else’s idiocy. Hence the parables of Jesus, the fables of Aesop. When Michael Kors tells a designer that “the length is unresolved,” I have no idea what he really means. The dress usually looks fine to me, except when it looks hideous. But lord, do I know what that means for a story.
So, at the risk of revealing my Truman Show Delusion, here are The Top Six Lessons I Had to Learn From Reality TV Because Chabon Said No About the Couch Thing:
1) Don’t throw it all on the plate. The cruelest challenges on the cooking shows are when they lay out a table of rare, expensive ingredients. After weeks of cooking from gas stations and dormitory trash cans, the chefs finally have all the truffles, caviar, foie gras and aged parmesan they could dream of. And then, sure as Augustus Gloop, they self-destruct. They are utterly unable to edit themselves, to throw away (!) ingredients so expensive and rare they couldn’t afford them in real life.
It’s a more helpful version of the “kill all your darlings” maxim. Watching an overzealous chef throw a bit more onto the plate, and a bit more, and a bit more, I finally understood what Faulkner must have meant: just because it’s gorgeous doesn’t mean it’s necessary. And if it isn’t necessary, it’s too much.
2) Your collection must cohere. For years before I put together my own short story collection, I’d been trying to study the way albums and great poetry or fiction volumes were assembled. But halfway into Blood on the Tracks or The Things They Carried, I’d lose focus and get lost in the amazing work. It was only watching young fashion designers grapple very openly, very visually, with the same struggles of assemblage and theme that I was finally able to think about how any kind of collection should flow. There’s that delicate balance between cohesion and diversity. And then there’s the matter of order and pacing: lead with the newest, wildest thing; hide your quieter stuff in the middle; finish with your grandest piece, your wedding dress.
3) Make it personal. It’s just great, sadistic TV, of course, when the butter sculptor breaks down in tears and says he’s dedicating this next sculpture to his grandmother, who died of low cholesterol. But it’s also a reminder to put ourselves wholly into our art, to leave nothing in reserve.
This emotionality is often taught out of us as we study literature in high school and college: in an academic setting, we are expected to analyze books rationally and objectively. A personal reaction would be out of place. And after studying the greats in as cold a way as we possibly can, as we summon our courage to write our own stories, we risk writing as clinically as we’ve just read. There is a place for the personal, the emotional, the gut-wrenching in our writing. If it’s sad, we should make ourselves cry. If it’s funny, we should be laughing. And sex scenes… well, that’s up to you.
4) Don’t be afraid to start over. The most brilliantly planned challenges are the ones where they give the artists just enough time to second-guess their work. It seems so generous, telling the sleep-deprived dress designers they have an extra day to finish. But then, around two a.m., there’s always that one guy who hits the breaking point. He tears it all up and starts over. Sometimes, you’re cheering. Sometimes you want to reach through your TV and throttle a girl as she re-primes her canvas, as she tosses her risotto down the disposal. The great thing about writing: you don’t have to throw away the first try. (Aren’t you glad you work with words and not vegetables?)
5) The basics matter. Salt and pepper. Neat hemlines. Punctuation.
6) Everyone gets bad reviews. It’s even harder to get a writer to admit this than to convince one to write a story in front of you. If you judged only by Facebook and the AWP hallway, every writer always has fabulous readings at fabulous bookstores, is so thrilled to scrub toilets at Bread Loaf, and is absolutely humbled by the blurbs he just got from Ann Patchett, Salman Rushdie, and William Makepeace Thackeray. It takes at least three hard drinks to get to the truth: the life of any artist is nine tenths rejection and despondency. Even successful books will get reviews so harsh they’ll make you look up all the bullies at your middle school just to thank them for preparing you.
Since there’s limited time and whiskey and schadenfreude in the world, it’s sometimes helpful to absorb this information third-hand. To get the full effect of the judging sessions at the end of any episode, you have to understand that the celebrity judges are these people’s absolute heroes. I never recognize the names, so I just plug in the writers who would make me the most nervous in a similar situation. (Handy guide: Valentino = Garcia Marquez; Rick Bayless = Richard Russo; Andres Serrano = Annie Proulx.) Watch the sleep-deprived artists blubber and apologize and defend themselves. Watch their faces as they realize the first dress, the one they threw out, would have won. Watch as Tom Colicchio tells them they forgot the salt. Watch as Anthony Bourdain (= Denis Johnson) says the appetizer made him gag. Feel that you’re not alone in the universe.
Perhaps I’ve just outed myself as a philistine. Everyone else with any artistic integrity is watching Fellini films and drinking Ketel One while I’m finishing off a warm box of wine and catching reruns of Groomer Has It.
But it’s cheaper than therapy. And it’s cheaper than an MFA.
And be honest: you’ve heard that voice over your shoulder too, as you sat there wondering if you’d messed up your story beyond redemption. It’s a friendly voice, the savvy and optimistic and dapper uncle you never had. He tells you he’s concerned about your taste level. He asks if you’re prepared for the judges’ response.
He claps you on the shoulder and whispers: Make it work.
Might we be so bold as to suggest that you subscribe to Ploughshares?