In one of the four episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show I stayed up way too late watching the other night, Rob decides he wants to be a writer.
Laura points out that he’s already a writer. Rob rejects the idea. Writing for television doesn’t count. “I’m not a writer that you read. I’m a writer that other people say what I wrote.”
A writer, a real writer, as far as Rob’s concerned, is someone who writes and publishes novels. In 1964, Rob would have been thinking of the likes of James Jones and Norman Mailer, of the recently dead giants, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, of the up and comers John Updike and Philip Roth. In the show he’s specifically thinking of his old friend Harvey Bellman who’s just sent him a copy of his first novel.
Think of this. Rob’s the head writer for the wildly popular Alan Brady Show and he’s jealous of a first-time novelist who apparently struggled for years in obscurity and penury to finish his book.
Well, not jealous, he assures Laura.
Envious? she suggests.
“Green with it,” he admits.
The world of Rob and Laura’s a long time ago now. Can you imagine it, a television writer today envying a novelist? Someone like David Simon or Matthew Weiner feeling a sense of failure or loss because what they’ve written for The Wire or Mad Men makes them not writers people read but writers that other people say what they wrote?
Two graduates of a prestigious writers’ workshop meet at a bar, and one congratulates the other, “Sue, I just heard you sold another script for Nurse Jackie.”
“The New Yorker rejected my short story.”
TV writers envying fiction writers. That’s like saying what they really want is to be bloggers.
There’s still something about having published a novel, isn’t there? To being able to go look yourself up in the library, to find your book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble and turn it face out or find a clerk and ask if the store would like an autographed copy?
Who reads the credits on a TV show anyway? Who remembers the names of the writers of even their favorite episodes? Lots of shows get praised for their writing these days, but when you get down to it the credit for how good these shows are go to the producers and the actors. David Simon didn’t write every episode of The Wire, David Milch didn’t write every episode of Deadwood. Thomas Pynchon, though, he wrote every word of Inherent Vice. Jonathan Lethem wrote every word of Chronic City.
When Maud’s novel hits the bookstores, she’s going to be my Harvey Bellman.
Kurt Vonnegut once said he’d rather have written Cheers than everything he’d written himself. But I’d think that every writer who ever worked on Cheers, every writer who’s ever written for television, would be tempted to trade in their residuals to be able to say they’d written one novel like Slaughterhouse-Five .
Maybe. Would depend on how old they are, I guess. Born after 1980? Can you name your own generation’s Harvey Bellmans?
Laura reminds Rob that he’s been writing a novel. Rob scoffs at his own efforts. To him, his unfinished novel is an abandoned hobby, like his friend and neighbor Jerry Helper’s attempt to teach himself Spanish guitar. “I’ll finish my novel the way Jerry’s going to learn to play Malaguena.”
I have a small but satisfying reputation as a writer thanks to this blog. I’m proud of some to the work I do here and grateful for the attention of my readers, of whom I would bet I have more in a year than many novelists have in a lifetime, which is a way of saying that many novels go almost entirely unread. But I was born well before 1980. I went to grad school with five or six Harvey Bellmans. I’m not saying today’s one of those days, but there are days when I’d rather be able to go into a Barnes and Noble and find my own book on a shelf than have written a single post.
There are days, more days, however, and again I’m not saying today’s one of them, when I wish that instead of heading east to Fort Wayne out of grad school I’d headed west to LA with instead of the manuscript for a novel in my suitcase the floppy disc with a script for St Elsewhere to sell on spec in my jacket pocket.
A book is a fine thing, but for how much longer? When books are all electronic and we’re all reading Harvey Bellman’s latest on our Kindles or whatevers, will having published a book feel the same when there’s no book in hand to feel? Will having written a book feel any different than having written a TV script…or a blog?
If Harvey Bellman emails me his new novel instead of sending it via snail mail wrapped in brown paper and string and he types a note at the top instead of inscribing the actual paper title page with a pen will I be green with envy?
Will I be inspired to write a novel of my own?
Laura encourages Rob to use his long summer vacation to get back to work on his novel. And he does.
Well, he tries.
He holes up in the den---back then, houses had dens instead of home offices---and for three days doesn’t get anything done. Laura thinks he’s procrastinating but Rob insists he’s writing. Writing, he says, isn’t only done with a pen or a typewriter while you’re sitting at a desk. Writing is done in your head and no matter what else you appear to be doing you’re working at your writing as long as you’re thinking.
“Standing, that’s working. Sitting is working. Pacing is writing. I do my best thinking then. Looking out the window, that’s writing. Brushing your teeth is writing. Anything’s writing,” Rob says. “The hardest writing is showering.”
Laura will have none of it.
“Darling,” she says, “You know the one thing that’s not writing?”
“What?” says Rob.
“Explaining to your wife what writing is.”
Rob takes her point. But he says there are too many distractions at home. He goes off to a cabin in the woods for peace and quiet. He gets no work done.
It’'s not the book you will have in your hand someday that makes you write. It’s the book that’s already in your head pushing to get itself down on paper…or onto the screen of your laptop.
Rob is a writer. But he has other things that are more important to him to write at the moment.
You know what else isn’t writing? Writing about a television character not writing.
Time I should get to work. Excuse me while I go look out the window.
Speaking of Malaguena.