Ernest Hemingway was once asked how he began a new novel, and he famously replied, “First I defrost the refrigerator.”
Or I thought he famously replied that, but you never know, so I started my work on this piece by Googling up “hemingway defrost refrigerator.” 352 results, none of them all that definitive, but who cares, because the second page had this link to Halloween-themed boozes, and that pretty much fascinated me (black vodka!) until I thought of something that really needed doing, like checking my fantasy-football team’s midweek injury update. (Let’s just say that the road to second-to-last place goes through me.)
The point being, Hemingway was a piker.
I am a member of the Writer’s Guild of America, West, and my guild went on strike on November 4 against the studios and corporations that make TV shows and movies. At first, my friend Chris (like me, a conservative TV writer) worried that we would lose our membership in the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy if we were seen on a picket line. But picket we did, wearing red shirts even, and the mood the first few days was pretty upbeat. I attended a “showrunners” picket and got my picture on the Internet, which wasn’t half as exciting as getting to meet Jason Katims, who is the showrunner of Friday Night Lights, the best show on TV, bar none. (Seriously, whatever you are doing right now, stop it and go get the DVDs of the first season. It’s like a Larry McMurtry novel in 22 chapters, and it’s a crime that the Emmys overlooked it.)
At first I thought the studios had seriously miscalculated by allowing this strike to happen. If there’s anything writers are good at, it’s not working. I thought they played right into our hands, and we would dazzle them with our limitless supply of not working expertise. I should be careful about pulling back the curtain too far here, but it turns out that being a TV writer involves a certain amount of goofing off. And that certain amount, from my experience, is a ton. I have spent weeks — weeks – running around an office suite with my fellow writers, shooting each other with Nerf guns. (We would play out scenarios like “drug deal gone bad.”) One show I worked on began and ended every day with several hours of multiplayer Halo on the X-Box. I have written entire scripts while simultaneously playing Internet poker, and one memorable Election Day in 2004, I wrote a script while watching election returns and obsessively reading “The Corner.” Yes, I’m that good. (Or that bad — your call.) Maybe not all writers are like me — for instance, I understand that the writing staff of Frasier wasn’t allowed to talk about anything but the script when they were in the writers’ room. And when they had food brought in, they ate off real plates with silverware. As I sit here and scarf my pizza off a paper plate and look at my shelves which are conspicuously free of Emmys, I can only think that’s crazy.
Anyway, soon after the strike began, I realized how wrong I was — writers are good at work-avoiding, which is vastly different from not having any work to do. Seriously, I came up with the idea for this piece because I only feel comfortable when I know I’m not doing something I should be. Avoiding the work of writing this has really allowed me to get into the latest craze sweeping Hollywood, which is called Deadline Hollywood Refreshing. DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com has become the indispensable source of strike news, rumor, and incessantly whiny user postings. (Some of which may or may not have been mine.) Run by a LA Weekly journalist named Nikki Finke, the site frequently employs Drudge-style “bombshell to come” headlines, which leads to an hour or so of frantic page-refreshing to get the goods. But even that, satisfying though it is, can’t fill an entire day of nothing to not do.
Many of my colleagues took to filling their free hours making funny videos for YouTube. This one made by my friends Danny and Tim is my favorite. I’ve used some of my time to finally make a little headway on the frighteningly large tower of books that have stacked up by the bed, and so I really enjoyed Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Terrific stuff. Have you heard of it? Someone should make a movie of it, it’s quite something. (What’s that you say? Did they? Tom Hanks? Well, that seems wrong.) Of course, I’ve also gotten all my holiday shopping done, I’ve reorganized the stupendous mass of wires behind the TV, and I’ve gotten pretty darn good at Guitar Hero for the Wii. (While you are out getting Friday Night Lights, pick up a Wii. You’ll thank me. Or curse me — your call.)
Most of the time, I try to avoid too much self-examination, but with all this time on my hands I can’t help but wonder, why all the procrastinating? I think the fact is, writing is basically the art of facing and, hopefully, conquering your fears. The empty page is a terrifying place, but no less scary than that same page filled with drivel sure to expose you for the fraud that you are. (Go ahead, e-mail me and tell me this whole thing is drivel. I’ve already beaten you to it.) When I procrastinate on a script, typically I dawdle until the actual deadline for turning in the script looms, providing a counter-fear that can outweigh and banish the other fears. Now there is no work, and so no deadlines to motivate me. As the strike limps into its second month, and the contract talks appear to be getting nowhere, and many, many good people stare up at the prospect of a Christmas without a job, one thing is becoming clear to me: I am going to need to learn how to defrost my refrigerator.
– Warren Bell has been a sitcom writer and producer and a member of the WGA for 18 years. He is currently executive producer of ABC’s According to Jim, which will return to the air sometime in 2008. He lives on a small lake outside Los Angeles with his two sons and his wife Jessica, who, it should be noted, is always right.