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Those Who Can, Do

It’s your faithful correspondent, John “Sunny Boy” Vorhaus, coming to you live from Sofia, Bulgaria, where I have been hired to recruit and train writers for the Bulgarian version of Married… with Children. Since this whole part of my life, the part where I go running around the world teaching writers, flies in the face of the awful stigma, “those who can’t do, teach,” this month’s missive is especially directed at those of you who want to share your gifts through teaching but fear that it will, in some sense, distract you or divert you from your writer’s life. There’s certainly that risk, but the gain is so bountiful that I think you need to take that chance.

And I’m here to tell you that you can have it all.

So, “Sherman, set the way-back machine for 1989.” I’m teaching at the Writers Program of the UCLA Extension, while struggling to keep my TV writing career afloat. I was definitely burdened at the time by the above-referenced nostrum about how those who can’t do, blah, blah, blah. Then along came a student who blessed me by saying, “How about those who can do, do both?” The clouds parted, the sky turned blue, and my path suddenly became clear before me. I would spend half my time writing and half my time teaching, and I would have a balanced, fruitful life, and not go crazy. Life was good. Bar some random bumps in the road, life has been good ever since. I have built a body of work I can point to with satisfaction and I have introduced thousands of writers around the world to the idea that they, too, can live the writer’s life. I don’t know which achievement pleases me more. Both accomplishments occupy pride of place on my whole-life résumé. (The, whole-life résumé [1], by the way, is an awesome and fulfilling exercise; you should check it out.)

So now I’m in Bulgaria. I’m engaged in the daunting task of taking a 25-year-old television show that was never written with the rest of the world in mind and bringing into the here-and-now of a place where domestic sitcom production has yet to take root, or take flight, or take something, possibly strong analgesics, I know not what. This is an unintentionally hilarious exercise, because part of my job involves just explaining all the cultural references that littered the original Married… with Children, and whose meaning has often been lost to the sands of time – if, indeed, they were ever at all clear in the first place.

Consider the phrase I used above, “Sherman, set the way-back machine.” So far as I know, it was never used in Married… dialogue, but if it had been, how would you go about explaining it? “Well, see, there was this cartoon called Mr. Peabody and Sherman, and Mr. Peabody was a scientist who took this kid, Sherman, on trips to the past via this device called the way-back machine, and in American culture when someone (at least someone of my generation) says, “Sherman, set the way-back machine,” they mean, “Let’s go back in time, but not in an entirely serious way.” Sure, that’s clear. That’d help you if you had to translate that phrase, or even the sense of it, into Bulgarian.

I’ve taken pains to point out to the writers I’m working  with here that theirs is a particularly interesting (by which I mean daunting and potentially frustrating) job of creative problem-solving. Those Married… scripts were pretty tight, especially the early ones, and you can’t just go about making changes willy-nilly, lest the whole story unravel like a cheap sweater. So you have to look at the script joke by joke, figure out the intent of each one, consider the cultural references (if any) that drive the joke, then strip the whole thing down to its abstract qualities and rebuild it on a new foundation of cultural references that work for Bulgaria in 2012. If you don’t happen to have a cartoon character with a time machine, you have to hunt for something analogous, and if you can’t find something analogous, you have to make up something that works just as well. Script adaptation is really cultural, comic and emotional detective work. It’s one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever done.

But it isn’t writing, at least not my part of the process. So when I slope back to my lodgings at night, I boot up my laptop and bang away at my current novel or screenplay, or I write monotribes like this one here. Often I spend my idle time making up words. Can you spot the one I just made up? It substitutes for “missive” or “column” or “article” or “blog post” ‘cause I’m sick to death of all of those. And as I point out to my writers, on this job you get to make up words, too, because it’s not just a writer’s right but her responsibility to advance the language – any language.

Meanwhile, I’m learning more about Bulgaria than I ever knew or even imagined. I’ve learned about its wars and political history, and how potholes are a national problem and obsession. I’ve learned that its King Ferdinand was the first ruling monarch to fly in an airplane. (In 1910; true fact, not bar fact.) I’ve packed my brain with new data, made new friends, gathered new information. Can anyone tell me how that wouldn’t make me a better writer?

Someone once asked me to describe the globetrotting part of my business model. I said, “I travel around the world exchanging information for experience and money.” Which is a pretty good gig. I owe a lifelong debt to that student who said, “Those who can do, do both.” She didn’t know it, but she was setting me free. So if you’re burdened by, “Those who can’t do, teach,” I encourage you to set it aside. The math of it is so simple: teach; you’ll learn. What could be bad about that?

About John Vorhaus [2]

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!