True story: When I was seven or eight years old, I found my calling. I was inspired to become a drummer by Micky Dolenz, the drummer for The Monkees.
Or so I thought.
It turns out the music on the early Monkees albums was not actually played by Micky, Davy, Mike and Peter. Instead, like the vast majority of rock and pop albums in the ’60s and early ’70s, it was played by a group of professional studio musicians who became collectively known as the Wrecking Crew, which included drummer Hal Blaine, whom many consider “the most recorded drummer in history.” Seriously, if you listened to an hour of music on the radio in the ’60s, you probably heard about 40 minutes of Hal on drums. Check out this partial discography, to give you some idea of just how omnipresent his drumming was.
As I grew older and more serious about music, I began to pay far more attention to who was playing drums on the records I liked. I would take deep dives into the recorded works of particular favorites like Hal, who has had an indelible imprint on my own drumming. And I was fortunate enough to grow up in the age of vinyl record albums, most of which came with this mystical, magical thing called “liner notes,” which told you who did what on that record. <begin grumpy old fart rant> If you ask me, one of the biggest downsides of the transition to digital music is the death of liner notes. </end rant>
Although I eventually was allowed to take some drum lessons, and went on to attend a major music conservatory, I determined early on that while books and theory were nice, there was no substitute for directly studying the work of the artists who were actually out there DOING the thing I wanted to do.
When I started getting serious about writing, I took that belief along with me. While I’m an admitted geek about writing how-to’s that explore the theory and mechanics of this thing we do, the way I learn the most useful lessons about writing is to read the books of authors I admire, and then ask, “how did she DO that?”
Which is why I’m embarrassed to admit to a major blind spot in my study of writing. It’s something I’ve known about myself, but have long ignored. But something happened a couple weeks ago that woke me up to what a significant gap it really is, and made me aware that it was time to change my behavior.
So what was it? Just an episode of a show that’s been off the air for 15 years.
In which Keith crushes on Aaron Sorkin
I’ve been an avid Aaron Sorkin fan for many years. I love nearly everything he’s written, and his highly distinctive style – in particular, his dialogue – has been a massive influence on how I write, and even how I speak.
Whether you’re a fan or not, there’s no question that the guy is a heavyweight, with a body of work filled with legendary films and TV shows including A Few Good Men, The Social Network, The Newsroom, Moneyball and many more. But to me the crown jewel of Sorkin’s creations is The West Wing, which is officially Keith’s Favorite TV Show of All Time®. (Incidentally, I’m usually not one for choosing favorites. I don’t have a single favorite author, or drummer – I like far too many of them to choose just one. But The West Wing wins the TV show category for me, hands down, and it’s what made me such a Sorkin fanboy.)
So a couple of weeks ago, I decided to re-watch my alltime favorite episode of The West Wing (which I’ve watched enough times to be able to quote most of the dialogue, but it still slays me every time). But this time around, I was struck by a new thought. This episode was from the sixth year of the seven-season series. I was aware that Sorkin had left after season four, but suddenly, 16 years after the episode aired, I found myself realizing for the first time that my favorite episode was therefore not written by Aaron Sorkin. (Yes, Keith is quite the quick learner. Do try to keep up.)
Then who the hell wrote it?
Presenting Keith’s new crush
The episode in question is Drought Conditions, a masterful piece of storytelling that combines sexual tension, politics, violence, comedy, grief, environmentalism, not one but two mistaken-identity scenarios (one of which directly involves the audience), and wait – it even has a drum solo at the end. A freaking DRUM SOLO. Seriously, this one checks off every box I can think of, and it still holds up after more than 15 years (and, I’m sure, more than a dozen viewings).
And as it turns out, Drought Conditions was written by Debora Cahn, whom I now know to be quite the heavyweight herself, with an Emmy and two Writers Guild of America awards to her name, along with writing and producing credits that include Grey’s Anatomy, The West Wing, Homeland, Paterno and more. Yes, one could say that Deb’s got some game.
As I began to explore Cahn’s lengthy list of credits, I found myself falling even more hopelessly in love with her writing. Holy crap – she also wrote what is probably my second-favorite West Wing episode – The Supremes – and came up with the story for numerous other beloved episodes, and was a staff writer on SO many of my other favorites. As the great philosopher Keanu Reeves once said: “Whoa!”
Down the rabbit hole I went, hungry for more insight into this writer who had been dazzling me for more than a decade. To my delight, I found podcasts that Cahn recorded about those two beloved episodes, which revealed her to be extremely smart (no surprise there), and highly articulate (ditto) about her background and writing approach. Incidentally, these were part of a huge series of West Wing podcasts co-hosted by former West Wing star Joshua Molina and Hrishikesh “Hrishi” Hirway, which I suspect I will be spending much of the foreseeable future exploring. For your listening pleasure, I submit:
- Debora Cahn discussing The Supremes, with Joshua Molina and Hrishi Hirway
- Debora Cahn discussing Drought Conditions, with Joshua Molina, Richard Schiff and Hrishi Hirway
Okay, enough with the fanboy geekfest. Suffice to say, I have a new writing crush. And it only took me a decade and a half to learn her name. My bad, Debora. My bad.
On the need to be curiouser and curiouser
I’ve long embraced the fact that TV and movies represent a huge influence on my writing, from The West Wing to The Sopranos, from Friday Night Lights to Richard Curtis rom-coms, from The Avengers to The Incredibles. I’ll analyze the techniques I see, in terms of story structure, character development, conflict, dialogue, escalating stakes, and so on.
In other words, all the key components of storytelling that we use in the books we write.
But while I’ve always paid attention to which authors resonate with me most powerfully, I’ve been largely oblivious to who writes the movies and TV shows I love, and in retrospect, I’m finding that’s a pretty big pothole in the logic that drives most of my decision-making. I mean, here I am trying to be a “serious writer,” yet I’m blithely unaware of the very writers who are influencing me both directly and repeatedly onscreen, with just a couple of exceptions (like Sorkin). I think that needs to change.
I remember a professional drummer I met in Orlando back in the early ‘80s, who played on the same circuit of clubs I was working. Expecting to enjoy some “shop talk” with him, I asked him what he thought about such-and-such drummer, and learned that he never looked at liner notes, had no awareness of who played drums on what song, and frankly didn’t care. He didn’t read Modern Drummer (then the Bible of drum magazines), and was unapologetically incurious about other drummers in general. He’d simply learn the drum parts to popular songs, and execute them faithfully – and utterly without embellishment – onstage in his cover band. And he was a pretty decent drummer!
While my years of teaching drums had led me to realize what a wide range of people can be attracted to the same instrument, I’d never seen somebody reach a professional level – and, for that matter, actually choose to play professionally, because that in itself is an unusual and challenging choice, requiring a lot of dedication and hard work – who lacked any interest in other drummers. I just couldn’t wrap my head around his lack of curiosity; to me, he seemed to be almost a different species.
But when I look at my years – hell, my decades – of movie and TV watching, I find surprising similarities in my own arbitrary incuriosity. I suppose I might try to write it off as a result of my cynicism towards Hollywood, and – more on the nose, perhaps – towards the concept of celebrity, a form of popular worship I dislike intensely. But in my efforts to distance myself from the cult of celebrity, I may have pushed back too hard. I make no effort to know many actor’s names, and Hollywood gossip is the last thing I care about. But my obliviousness has also led to a self-induced ignorance that, as I write about it, really embarrasses me. I’ve been “serious” about writing for more than 20 years. So would it kill me to watch the damn credits at the end?
Why it’s kind of a big deal – for me, and possibly for you
For those who think this post is getting a bit hand-wringy (hey, it might be a word), I have another confession to make, which is why this actually is kind of a big deal for me:
I watch more TV than I read.
There – I said it.
To qualify that, I don’t watch much TV. It’s never on during the day, and we don’t usually turn it on until 9 or 10 pm. But that still means I watch it two or three hours a day, mostly long-running dramas or movies. And when I compare that to how much time I spend reading actual books, I have to admit, TV is winning. By a longshot.
Ahem – cue the excuses: I’ve got a fulltime corporate writing job, which means I’m reading and writing nine or ten hours a day at work, so when I step away from the laptop, I’m not necessarily all that inclined to pick up a novel and read some more. This is not something I’m proud of, but it’s just the way things are in my life currently. And I suspect – particularly during this delightful era of COVID – that it might be just the way things are in some of your lives, too.
So if most of the storytelling I’m ingesting is coming to me via my television, I submit that it probably makes sense to pay more attention to the source of those stories.
Of apples and oranges
While I’ve been focusing on the similarities between books and screen entertainment, I’d be remiss if I ignored the differences. In addition to the fact that TV and film both leverage the visual aspect of storytelling in ways that books cannot, the actual creation of the stories we watch often reflects a massive team effort. That’s a situation vastly different from the typical book, which is usually written by a lone author, or perhaps a duo.
And as I think we all know, with a movie or show, it’s ultimately the director who truly shapes the story, using the raw material the writer(s) provided. As a result, many directors become stars in their own right, and often with good reason. My point? If, like me, you are influenced as a writer by TV and movies, it might be useful to get to know your directors. Here’s where IMDB is your friend. What else have they done? Were they writers before they began directing? Again, the rabbit hole awaits, because you’re likely to find countless articles and interviews with these people. For a writing nerd like me, this represents a treasure trove of geeky fun.
SIDE NOTE: Sifting through Cahn’s credits found me trying to decipher a confusing lexicon of seemingly very similar terms. Sometimes her credit was “written by,” but other times it said “story by” or “staff writer” or “teleplay by,” or even just “writer” – and sometimes it listed more than one of those terms for the same episode. If you’ve ever wondered what the differences are between all these terms, this article does a good job of identifying and clarifying the distinctions between what initially seems like a bunch of synonyms. I found it pretty enlightening. As that truly annoying social media meme would say: I was today years old when I learned what those terms actually meant.
In Jerry Seinfeld’s famous (and useful) “three rules of life,” he implores us to “pay attention.” I try to adhere to that, but this recent discovery on my part has belatedly identified a pretty big gap in my Seinfeldian compliance. And as I’ve already stated, I want to change that.
But this is not just about scolding myself – or anyone who’s reading this, in case it’s coming off that way. This is about the thrill of discovery. By finally taking a moment to check who wrote my favorite episode of my favorite show, I found myself swept up in a vortex of new-to-me information, full of happy surprises. Wait – she wrote THAT? and THAT???
Best of all, as I delved deeper into Cahn’s oeuvre (okay, that came out sounding WAY dirtier than I intended), I became more and more convinced that maybe I do have a favorite writer after all.
How about you?
Do you watch more than you read? Do you skip the credits? Do you know your writers and producers and directors, oh my? Who are some of your favorites? Please chime in – and above all, stay safe. Thanks for reading.