Race to the Computer

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

Once, a famous writer gave a talk to a lot of aspiring writers. This kind of thing happens all the time – and not just at colleges and universities, but at weekend scriptwriting workshop seminars and writers' conferences, that sort of thing. I've done a few myself.

Now, what the writer wanted to talk about to the hundreds of aspiring colleagues he had in the audience was "writer stuff" – you know, finding your voice, staying true to your vision, creating vivid characters.

What the aspiring writers wanted to talk about was "working writer stuff" – you know, how much do you get paid for this, or that, or a draft, or a pitch, or a rewrite, do you need a manager, how do you find an agent, how do you lease a BMW. Important stuff, the writer acknowledged, but stuff that comes after the other stuff.

But writers, in general, love giving these talks, love giving advice, because it's a close to writer-ish activity as you can get without actually having to write, which is something that all writers – or at least all honest writers – hate.

I remember hearing the story of a famous novelist – one of those puffed-up, cloak-wearing blowhards -- giving a writers talk to a huge crowd. And the questions from the audience, predictably, got pretty nuts and bolts. What time of day do you prefer to write? What kind of pen do you use for corrections? Do you outline every step? Do you keep a notebook? That kind of thing.

The famous writer rolled his eyes pompously, and then told everyone his private writer's method.

"I don't write outlines," he said. "I don't write anything at all, really, until it's all vivid and written in my head."

"In fact," he went on, "I forbid myself from writing. I consciously avoid the computer for days, weeks, as I work it all out in my head. And then, when I can stand it no longer, when my head is full, I race to the computer and begin typing."

"What happens," was the next the question, "If you don't get to the computer in time?"

Which is a fair question, I guess, if you believe the writer in the first place. If you believe that as he went about his day – getting the dry cleaning, picking up scotch tape, remembering to buy batteries – he was actually thinking. That he was actually working things out in his head. I mean, I've been a professional writer for 18 years, and I'd love to confidently rationalize that my daily list of errands – all mixed up in the most inefficient order as possible, to maximize the time spent away from the computer – somehow counts as time on the clock, working time, writing time.

I'd love to think that the time I spend staring into space, scribbling in a notebook, really is putting money in my pocket, to get down to the heart of the matter. But the truth is, even when my mind somehow, against all nature, does drift to the work at hand, the script I've promised and been paid for, more often than not I start thinking about how great it'll be when I've written it. Can't wait for this thing to be done, I'll say to myself, fingers poised over the keyboard. Then I'll really be able to relax.

And then I get up and go to a movie.

I'm not complaining. I've probably come about as far as a person with my kind of epic, biblical-scale laziness can come, and still be able to afford to eat out once in a while. And luckily for me, the entertainment business, up till now, was designed to sustain exactly this kind of slovenly personality type.

I'm not sure that's going to last, though. There are ominous signs around town that writers are starting to get more diligent, more industrious, more entrepreneurial, which are all code words for: writers are starting to write. And that's going to make the rest of us look bad. Which is the real answer to the question: what happens if you don't get to the computer in time. Someone else gets there first. That's all for this week. Next week, a happy ending. For KCRW, this Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long