Friday, May 06, 2011

A Writer in the Wasteland

Happy, Friday, everyone. Frankie here, and the sun is finally shining in Albany after several days of rain. I have to confess that I'm among that minority who loves cool, rainy spring days. But the sunshine does have a way of making one feel more optimistic about life in general. At least until the temperature hits 80.

I had intended to write about setting today. I have a new mystery set on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I even have a photograph or two. But since the book is only half out (made a debut at Malice Domestic, but not yet readily available), I will save setting for next time. Instead, I'm going to tackle the subject of television.

Last evening I pulled Stephen King's On Writing from my office bookshelf. I started to leaf through the book and came to the chapter in which Mr. King states, "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot." He goes on to discuss the various ways in which one can squeeze in more reading time (taking a book along to read in waiting rooms, theater lobbies, and check-out lines; listening to books on tape; being rude and reading during meals; reading on the treadmill). I was nodding in agreement until Mr. King advised weaning oneself from the television "to improve the quality of your life as well as the quality of your writing." I should mention that I had migrated into my living room as I was browsing through Mr. King's book. I realized with a blush of embarrassment that my television was on. Anderson Cooper had been interviewing one of his colleagues about Pakistan as I read.

What was on could as easily have been a movie or a sitcom or a cop show. I have the television on a lot in my house. I grew up with television.

However, Mr. King's observations about television did give me pause. He asked how many reruns of Frasier one really needed to watch. Since I love Frasier and have been in the process of re-discovering all my favorite episodes on the Hallmark Channel, Mr. King touched a nerve.

How much brain rot have I suffered since the day I convinced my mother I could do my homework while watching television? How much better a writer might I be at this moment if I had spent my time reading the classic books that I intend to read some day when I have the time. I was an English major, true. But there are still books to be read. War and Peace, for example. Perhaps I would be a better writer if I had settled down with War and Peace instead of watching movies on TCM.

On the other hand, I am not sure I would have more time to read if I turned off the television. Often television is simply "white noise" in my background, in the same way music is for some people. I find music distracting when I'm reading or making notes about a book I am writing. And since I teach popular culture, I have an obligation to be up on the latest fads discussed on television that I sometimes surface enough to notice.

When I do focus on what is on the screen, I don't think I shut off my brain. In fact, even though I grew up watching television with my family, I really prefer watching alone when I am focusing. That's because it has always struck me as rude not to carry on conversation about what one is watching with the other person or people sitting there. But when the program is of enough interest for me to focus, I find myself using whatever I am watching as a springboard for my imagination. I don't want to have to explain to someone else that, yes, we are watching Law and Order, but I was thinking about something other than what you're now commenting on.

Television may be "a vast wasteland" (that quote is from a speech by former FCC chairman Newton Minow, not poet T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." You see, I do know the difference). Mr. King may be right when he argues that writers should read, not watch television. My grammar would probably be better. My mind might be clearer. My thoughts might be more profound.

But I wonder if I would be a writer if I had not grown up watching television. The books I read fed my imagination. But the images I saw on television and the stories that I watched unfold fed my sense of wonder. Perhaps I would have drawn enough from the books I read to move on to the next step of becoming a writer. Perhaps I would have been a writer without television, but a different sort of writer. I'm not sure. But I do believe I learned as much from television as from the books that I read.

I was an African American child of a working class family growing up in the South, and television brought the world into my living room. Or, at least, Hollywood's version of the world.

So, yes, I am a writer who reads with my television on.

Is a steady diet of television bad for writers? Yes, if the writer or would-be writer never picks up a book. Aside from anything television might do to our minds, there is the issue of what it does to our health. If you've been following the recent research, sitting too much can be deadly. And most of us sit when we watch television.

I wonder if I bought a treadmill and read War and Peace while watching another Frasier rerun. . .

You may now object to my defense of television . . . and, by the way, no offense to Mr. King, who is one of my favorite writers even when I disagree with him about television.


Jarvis said...

I was raised the opposite of what parents should do with their kids in terms of television consumption. I was an addict, and if the experts were right, I'd be burnout, zombie. Guess again. I'm a freelance writer, and I often credit my TV, movie consumption as my resource for creative writing...not the wording exactly, but my voice is filled w/ pop culture references. So I'm with ya on this one.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

. . . and since television always have drawn on the same myths and archetypes as the books we read. . .