Friday, February 20, 2009

First Post

I’ve done a terrible job keeping up with my writing since I abruptly closed the last blog.

Ironically, now that I've just gotten a new job as a writer's assistant on a new TV show, my closest colleagues have recommended I take down the old site immediately, or risk getting fired.

But it's time to start something new. The Next Big Gig. Having the daily blog deadline for my blog "The 40 Year Old Assistant" was fantastic. I’d make a good journalist because I can always put out if there’s a deadline, but without people waiting for my material, I languish.

This is why Raw Impressions was so effective (not to mention its antecedent Ben Krywosz’s Playwright/Composer Studio at New Dramatists and ASK Theatre Projects.)

I’d spend crazy hours pounding away random thoughts and then I dismantle the blog and I can barely get out word one.

At my new job, I type about 2500 words a day in the room. That’s no small feat. I heard John Updike wrote 3 pages every day. That’s about 1000 words if that’s Courier 12-point, single-spaced. Now those 2500 words aren’t my own,but the very act of being at a keyboard and writing that much must have some effect. One thing is I come home and the last thing I want to do is sit down at the computer.

I’ll spend time with my girlfriend, cook, watch a movie, tv, listen to the radio, see friends…anything but write. This is even when I have some great ideas and projects, not the least of which is a TV show named after my last blog “The 40 Year-Old Assistant”. People enjoyed it so much I figured I could write it for another medium. I began to outline it as a half-hour Showtime dramedy/comama like ‘Californication’, but as soon as I began concocting the character he turned into…not me. In making it for TV I started using broad brush strokes. Nuance seemed inappropriate. Instead of me, I needed a character with a back story I could pitch. Next thing you know, instead of an avant-garde opera composer/former day trader turned 38 year odd assistant, I’d made a guy who’d made it big as an iBanker in NY, made kagillions, then lost it all in the financial crisis, got barred from ever working in finance, had his hot model girlfriend leave him as he descended into bankruptcy such that he calls up his old college buddy and asks if he can crash on his couch in LA for a few weeks as he puts his life back together. His friend has decided to trek through India for 6 months, so he can walk into his life and essentially step into his old buddy’s shoes. He’ll take the room in his apartment, his car – even his job – as an assistant in a small film production company. All this happens in the first few minutes of the show. But see how it sounds so…TVish. I wrote the outline and then put it down wondering what I was doing? And why I’d perverted a perfectly good character and story into a hyped up version of some alternate reality. I’m still not sure, but until I figure it out, I’m not sure if I should keep writing it. Or is that just an excuse for being lazy.

Since I got the job, I’ve written almost nothing ‘til this blog tonight. And it’s been three weeks since I started the job (and closed The 40 Year Old Assistant blog). Granted, I think my many friends’ suggestion to shut it down or jeopardize my new job may well have been sound advice, but I was not only thrilled to have begun to find an audience for the blog, I was thrilled just to be writing.

I was concerned before I began that I would never be able to create a blog that would be successful because from my brief analysis of what’s out there, the most popular blogs are either:

1) Extreme Niche Subjects
2) 100% Political
3) Autobiographical Slutworld Confessionals

And while I’d be happy to contribute to all three (Avant Garde Opera, My Modest Proposal on the Middle East Peace Process and Crackwhore Pornstar Love) I don’t think most people want to hear about any of the above from me – especially the last.

And here I feel most frustrated. Because while certainly men talking about their sexual proclivities abounds in literature and in the media, do you know of any widely read sites where guys talk about their sexual escapades (with the possible exception of Tucker Max who disgraces himself with every drunken character he types in an attempt to outdo Hunter S. Thompson when in fact he’s at best a ‘Huff’ to Hunter’s ‘Sopranos’).

What am I talking about? I’m talking about the Anais Nin effect. Sure Henry Miller wrote more, but who would you really rather read? We want to hear the women being dirty because they’re not supposed to. Men ‘we’ expect it from and it’s disgusting, but women talking about sex it titillating.

Hence the rise of Diablo Cody from stripper blogger to Oscar winner. Sure she’s got some verbal flair, but have you seen The United States of Tara?

The list of Slutblogs long one, from “girlwithaonetrackmind” who wraps up her most recent entry by telling female readers to “Go masturbate right now!” to “The Washingtonienne” aka Jessica Cutler – which was a steamy DC blog that detailed the author’s trysts as she took up to $400 cash to be anally reamed by any one of a six pack of high level DC wonks. This blog lasted a whopping 2 weeks before the initials of her johns were decoded, she was found out and she was summarily fired and given a book and TV deal in a matter of hours. They still haven’t made the TV show yet, but I know they’ve been working on it.

Most recently annoying is “Dating A Banker Anonymous: Are you or someone you love dating a banker? If so, we are here to support you through these difficult times. Dating A Banker Anonymous (DABA) is a safe place where women can come together – free from the scrutiny of feminists– and share their tearful tales of how the mortgage meltdown has affected their relationships.”

Not only have they gotten more hits than these chicks could nose up in a night at Nobu, but all they do is bitch about not being able to get bottle service at clubs anymore, etc. in a way that would make most folks vomit just a little in their mouth. But they’re hot chicks who wear skimpy outfits and talk like trashy school girls. It’s Gossip Girls for ‘adults’. What’s more, not only have they been covered in The Huffington Post, and the New York Times, but now they’ve been exposed as a fraud. It’s maybe two women just making this stuff up and now what happens?...You guessed it! They just landed a book, TV and movie deal.

Yup. Many of these steamy female sex blogs have ended in book deals and sometimes much more. Do I sound bitter? Probably. Why? I enjoy writing about sex. Well, what I actually enjoy is writing about the dance around sex. The awkwardness, the potential and sometimes realized humiliation, the utter train wrecks as well as the sweet unexpected and tender moments. It’s all about the context, not the banging. The actual in an out is much less interesting to me. In some ways what I find most fascinating is the art of wooing. But on occasion, there needs to be a graphic element is only in one’s head to juice it up. And I fear coming from a male mind I won’t land with the audience I hope to.

Speaking of porn, I wrote to Annie Sprinke a decade ago and asked her for advice on how to be successful. For those who don’t know her, she’s a former porn star cum performance artist. One of her best gigs was to get onstage in stirrups and ask people to come right up to her, open her up with speculae and have a good look at her cooch. I mean REALLY look at it – like you’re a doctor. In bright lights. Few people other than medical professionals get to do that in person and some folks found the experience revelatory (others were wierded out if nothing else, by the fact that she’s talking to you the whole time).

I never saw that show, but I knew her by reputation and because we ran in the same circles since we knew a few people in common and had performed at the same venues. Her houseboat in the Bay Area burned down 10 years back and I made a modest donation to her rebuilding fund. This started a brief correspondence where I asked what advice she had for me. She said one thing – Have great, sexy pictures of yourself.

I took her at face value, went out and hired a photographer for the first time in my life. He was amazing and we’re still friends today. He took what are some of the best photos anyone has ever taken of me. But I wanted to appear sexy and I didn’t know how. If I were a woman, for better or worse, I could tell you the buttons in our current society that will make a man’s head spin. But for a man to look sexy? Every woman has a different set of desires and much of that has to do with a man’s personality, his way of being, his wealth, career and a host of other contextual factors. George Clooney was cute before ER, but as soon as he started saving the lives of little children on national TV everyone had to have him. (And it didn’t hurt that in real life he was making some serious bank too.)

My point? I think I need new pictures. BUT even if I had them, that’s not enough for success. I would need to create the context and there’s only a certain number of women who’ll be interest in a 40 year old assistant – whether to date or to hire. (That number has risen geometrically in the last three months as unemployment has skyrocketed, but still…)

And now, finally, here’s what I can say about my current assistant position. The treasured TV Writer’s Assistant spot.

The hope is once in this place, you’ll become friends with writers who’ll introduce you to agents who’ll think you’re on the edge of getting your first script or even staff writer position if the show continues on to a second season and you get bumped up, so, the job in some ways, is just…to be everyone’s friend. And one way to do that is by gaining intimacy so you know people secrets and then be sure not tell anyone your friend’s secrets.

Part of why it was a good idea to stop the last blog was because what goes on in the writer’s room is sacred. I’m not saying that everything that comes out of it is holy or even good. But even if the show is terrible, every writer’s room is a sacred space. For me, I think it’s like the way every theatre is a sacred space and even if I just saw a production of Checkov that makes me want to gouge my eyes out, I would never utter a bad word against the production in the theatre in which it occurred. Similarly, in a writer’s room, not only is there gossip new and old that floats around every day, many writers dig into their own personal history when pitching stories in this show. And these stories are sometimes dark, hard, and private. I would never share any of those things. And as far as spreading gossip, aside from being in bad taste, as well as a sin I repent for on Yom Kippur, spreading that on the net could certainly lose me my job.

So what CAN I tell you about my what I do?

It’s easy. Anyone who tells you otherwise is crazy. All I have to do is sit at a desk and take notes. I’m the court stenographer. I’m also the court jester.

Not all writer’s assistants are court jesters, but I find the role suits me well and hasn’t gotten me into trouble yet. The advice given to me originally by former WAs, was to keep my head down and don’t speak unless spoken to.

I did that for about 5 hours until the creator of the show turned to me jestingly and said, “And what about you! You haven’t pitched a single idea today!” I made some joke back and he laughed. That was a good start. I wasn’t going to take that as a wide open door, but it's nice this early that he's interested in my input – even if in only in jest.

For the next few days I tried once or twice a day to interject something – usually having to do with the story based on a personal experience. I mentioned my 12 hour wait in an emergency room. Getting turned away from a private hospital because I didn’t have insurance and limping out with 2 broken bones after they called me a cab and suggested I take a ride down to County. Sometimes they seemed interested, most often not. I began to feel like I was pushing the boundaries of my position.

So I changed my tact, instead of coming up with or commenting on stories, I now will
1) Convey a bit of research I do on the spot - based on their conversation
2) Make a joke.

Both have been the way to go. The room always enjoys a good laugh and I seem to have the creator’s buttons. He enjoys razzing me and I dig back at him. Sometimes I’ll make a funny about the characters. Sometimes about other things. Timing is always key. I’m always looking for that ever so brief lull in conversation in order to finish someone’s sentence with…essentially a MadLib. Good thing I liked Mad libs as a kid. It’s one of the few forms of humor I seem to excel at. Just please don’t ever ask me to tell a straight up joke. My dad is great at that, whereas I have a friend who has a stand-up bit about how bad I am at telling jokes.

Now what is my REAL job as a writer’s assistant? I write down everything everyone says. And I filter out some of the junk. I leave in some of the ‘junk’ because sometimes the writers come up with 7 ways to tell a story and land on one, but the next day or week another part of the episode changes and now they want to use one of those other ways they came up with and I have to find it and tell them the other options they already discussed.

Have I done this before? No. I’ve only seen notes from two shows before and both were rather different. One pretty specific, the other just the more bold points – seemingly not showing many flawed the ideas discussed and only leaving the ideas that were landed on. There’s a certain craft to it. No one told me what they wanted me to do. No template was offered. So I get concerned I’m just making up the format. I don’t know if I have too little or too much detail. Should I bullet point ideas?

At the end of the day, a head honcho asks to see the notes. I spend and hour cleaning them up, and then send it off.

As I wait for his feedback, I talk with the Writer’s Production Assistant who knows nothing about TV and is proud of it. She tells everyone there. “What’s an EP?” she asks. “An Executive Producer.” I fill her in. She’s not embarrassed not knowing because she doesn’t even know if she wants to be in the business. She’s not really a writer. Hasn’t written a spec. Thinks she might enjoy working in craft services. All that jazz.

If you’re reading this and thinking. I want to be a writer! I want to work in TV! I have a half dozen specs! Why don’t I have that job? Trust me. I know. How’d she get the job? She knew the right person who knew the right person. That’s it. No resume necessary.

Don’t get me wrong. She’s sweet (and 25ish) and she’s fine at her job, which is primarily to stock the kitchen, get the lunch and make the coffee in the morning, but there are people out there who’d kill for this position and for her it’s just a job.

Half an hour later I get feedback on the notes.

I’d begun to think I did them wrong. I should have grouped them by character not in chronological order. I should have reformatted them. I should have only left in the ideas they liked, not every idea that came out of their collective mouths.

Finally he comes in to say… “They look perfect.”

Perfect. That’s it. Nothing more. In the next two weeks I get the creator saying to the woman who hired me “He’s good!” right in front of my face. And I get “If only every writer’s assistant knew what the hell they were doing like you.”

Well, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m making it up. And they’re just notes.

Well, ‘perfect’ notes. ☺ I could have skipped home.

I was just playing the secretary, but my God, what good way to end my first day.

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