“I’m sorry,” I said. “You must have the wrong number.”
“Oh.” He paused, and kind of laughed. “Well… do you need a satellite dish?”
“No, sorry,” I said. “I don’t even have a TV.”
“You… what?” he asked. “WHY NOT??”
Whenever I get asked this – not a lot, but enough – I get embarrassed. I don’t want to come off as self-righteous or pretentious; I’m not a card-carrying TV atheist. I love my cell phone and I have a deeply meaningful relationship with my laptop. I just… don’t have a TV. I never have. Of course, I’ve lived in houses with TVs, grew up with TVs, am not opposed to watching TV when it’s convenient, but I’ve never personally owned a TV, and I really see no need to in the future. (When I moved to Chicago, my father practically begged me to let him give us one of his extra TVs. He didn’t understand how I could be okay without one. I love him and I generally let him give me trinkets that he thinks will improve my life, over the door hangers and night lights and rubber bands, but I wouldn’t take the TV.)
Yesterday, Laurie Halse Anderson posted a blog entry about TV. Specifically, she says that writers should turn off the television.
“Some people see their television and movie-watching as a critical part of becoming better writers. They feel that the exposure to Story structure (Plot A, Plot B, Plot C, character arcs intersecting, etc.) that they get out of watching well-written shows helps their writing. I've had folks argue with me that they must watch TV to write books and write them well enough to be published.”
She goes on to say that she disagrees with this, that the only way to become a better writer is to read books. (I would add: and to write!)
On one hand, this is pretty straightforward, good advice. I don’t know about you, but TV really makes me dumb. For me, TV has always been a sort of pacifier, something to soothe me, to shut out the world, and keep me from thinking too hard. Kurt Vonnegut said, “What passes for culture in my head is really a bunch of commercials.” Last year, I lived in a house with like six TVs (though only three or four of them actually worked) and I found myself engaged in such noble pursuits as rushing home to catch two full episodes of “Kate and Ally” and hotly debating which team had a better chance to become the Ultimate Coyote Ugly Girls. I really wasn’t writing much at all.
So yeah, absolutely. Turn off the TV, sell it on Craigslist, chuck it out the window.
But. I must say, in the sake of fairness, that the person who taught me how to plot was an avid TV watcher. He claimed to have learned everything he knew about plot from watching tons of TV as a teenager and young adult. Granted, this person was the kind of freaky genius who learned from nearly every experience, and who was reading Nietzche at fourteen, so maybe he’s the exception to the rule. I know also that he’d read some “How to Write Your Screenplay” books before we worked together, and maybe reading them taught him more about plot than watching TV did, but he always credited his understanding of plot to watching TV. (Of course you don’t need TV to learn about plot. When I think of plot, I think of Romeo & Juliet. Its tragedy is its inevitability.)
On the other hand, Mr. I-Learned-Plot-From-TV’s characterization skills were a lot weaker, which perhaps supports Laurie Halse Anderson’s claims after all:
I see a consistent weakness in the writing of young people and writers who don't read much. They fumble with narrative description. They are great at dialog and they often get the bones of their story laid out well. But the actual description of scene action, setting, the observation of small details which reflect the emotional journey of the character - all that stuff is not up to snuff.
Her observations are consistent with what I’ve seen of young writers, as well. However, N. and I were just talking about how some shows are all character and relationship, with very little plot. That one Cosby episode where there’s a snake in the basement? All character, and it’s absolutely charming. What makes it sparkle is watching each well-drawn character react to the problem of a snake in the basement. The analytical watcher could learn about character from a show like that, but you could probably learn just as much by watching your family talk to one another over dinner.
Then there’s the question of culture. TV saturates our culture. It’s in the doctor’s offices, the restaurants, the salons…. “To tivo” is a common verb. Sweeps week passes for news in even the most legitimate newspapers. Sometimes I wonder if what we call culture isn’t being replaced by what TV writers call culture. As a writer, it’s your job to stand apart, witness the world, and then tell about it. Can you tell the truth about our culture if you don’t watch TV? Are you too far outside without one?
The moral of the story is… I guess I don’t know. I’m a little surprised that I’m debating this with myself at all, when a few years ago I would have said,
absolutely, get rid of your TV if you want to be a writer. Read more books and write more stories and stop watching the antics of those wacky Keatons. But now…maybe I’ve just lost the militant certainty of youth, or maybe I’m just loathe to be prescriptive in anything when my own life is so up in the air. Maybe I still haven’t gotten over that one commercial where the sad TVs look to the sky. (What passes for culture…)
What do you think? Kill the TV or learn from it? Study dialogue and character on your favorite shows, or on the bus ride home? Watch to join the culture, or turn it off to tell?