The negativity inherent in the title of this article definitely captured our attention. After we read it, we felt that it would attract that of our visitors as well.
Bottom line: Yes, the writer of this article dishes on TV writing pretty well. But what she says is true. And what she recommends for writers is, well, absolutely on the proverbial money. (Yeah, using that old phrase was a fine example of “lazy writing.” But, well, you know….)
by Noelle Sterne
As a writers, you are sensitive to words. After all, they’re your currency. Even when you’re taking a break to watch TV, you may unconsciously be evaluating—with disdain or grudging admiration—the words you encounter. Developing sensitivity for lazy language can help you assuage any lingering guilt for taking breaks, especially with TV shows.
Admittedly a rationale for marathon TV watching, I discovered that television shows can teach valuable lessons in our writing, especially to spot those standard scripted sentences like “I want my lawyer,” “Crash cart, STAT,” and “We need to talk.” Once we recognize the penchant for too-easy language, we can learn from and avoid it in our writing.
Here I describe two types of lazy language and suggest lessons we can learn from them and remedies to apply in your own work.
In an episode of “Raising the Bar,” a (belated) TV series about public defenders, a lawyer defends elderly twin brothers who have illegally cashed a deceased friend’s Social Security check. Instead of acknowledging the seriousness of their case and listening attentively, the brothers (played by actual old-time comedians) barrage the attorney with a constant stream of jokes.
One brother rattles off a story about an old man who goes to the doctor. When the doctor asks for samples of bodily substances, the patient replies, “Doc, just take my underwear.” The other brother shouts, “No, stupid! Underpants! Underpants! Specific is always funnier.”
Lesson: He’s right. Specific is also, well, more specific. How can you sharpen your language?
Remedy: Say you’re writing a mystery set in winter in Chicago about a man in dire circumstances. You’ve supplied enough of the backstory to show him believably forced to rob a shipment of expensive fur coats. You write, “Jeffrey pulled on his jacket and headed out the door.”
Given Jeffrey’s poor circumstances in a freezing Chicago night and his motive for his choice of robbery, the story is enlivened and our sympathies deepened when we know what kind of jacket he pulled on. His personal situation contrasts radically with what he’s robbing: “Jeffrey pulled on his windbreaker, much too thin in the brutal weather, and headed out the door.” Or, better: “Jeffrey pulled on his thin windbreaker, threading his hand into the torn left sleeve, and headed out the door.”
One Sentence Fits All
Today’s trendy colloquialisms show up in many television shows. A ubiquitous offender I’ve heard on almost every primetime show is a question with particularly annoying tortured syntax.
One example: In a series of TV movies adapted from Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone mystery novels, a Los Angeles homicide cop fired for drinking becomes sheriff of a small New England town. With recurring regulars and often absorbing plots, at some point almost every character asks another that same question….
About a month ago, Quinn and I were having dinner with a friend who was discussing a personal situation that had gone sour fast. He was explaining the story and the various causes for the souring, including the personalities and quirks of each person, and gestured to me saying “you know what I mean, Bri. You also don’t have a lot of empathy.”
That’s not a direct quote, and it also wasn’t by any means an insult, but what he was saying was essentially “you, Bri Castellini, do not appear to be a person whose behavior is motivated by and taking into account empathy and the concerns or opinions of others, so you’ll understand why this personal issue got out of hand due to what I’m assuming your own experiences have reflected.” This was very interesting to me, not the first time someone has made this assumption in New York (important: only in New York. This had not been a problem previously. Back to that later), and the most hysterically false statement of all time.
It’s also not overly surprising that this has become a fun new personality trait ascribed to me by people who I’ve only become friends with over the past two or three years. In part it’s a victory- a major contributor to my former mental health spirals has been vanquished! It’s also very much a symptom of a concentrated campaign of overcorrecting.
Let’s back up and make clear that I do not lack empathy. As a child and into my college years, I was an emotional wreck due to my inability to separate my feelings from those around me. I would alternatively brag and complain to my mom that I felt like my whole school’s therapist, because everyone I came into contact with would end up spilling their dark secrets to me within an hour of us meeting. I knew about the suicidal thoughts and cutting practices of four separate girls who I had a single class and no further contact with. We weren’t friends, I was just there, seemingly trustworthy, and overly interested in carrying complete strangers’ burdens.
With actual friends, it was even worse. Almost all of my energy was spent worrying about friends, giving them a 24/7 ear to chatter to and replacing the time I knew I needed for myself with their sadness, their pain, their worries. I’m not saying I was some amazing martyr who sacrificed “me” time to those around her (because being a martyr is almost always as destructive as being a narcissist), but I spent far more time pretending I was ok to spare those around me from further pain than actually being ok. I was obsessed with being the group mom, the rock, the personified safe space. I had two high school boyfriends who I dated for far longer than I should have because in both cases, I knew (correct or not) breaking up with them would remove a vital, non-girlfriend-specific position in their lives for a while.
It wasn’t that I wanted everyone to like me, though I was a teenage girl so of course I did. What mattered more than that, though, was for everyone else to be “ok” in the way I defined it for myself. That’s not how the world works and it certainly isn’t how teenagers worked, but I wanted it anyways, and I silently drained myself in situations I was uncomfortable with or relationships I knew were toxic because I saw pain and distress in their faces and couldn’t bare to be the one to cause them more. I never wanted to end friendships, for me, but more importantly for the position I assumed I was filling for THEM. Maybe they needed a punching bag. You know, for their emotions. And I was strong, right? I was strong enough to take a punch and be that release for them, wasn’t I? I was one of the few kids in my immediate friend group whose parents were not only together but seemingly happily so, so what the hell did I have to be sad about? Because of my familial structure, I assumed I was best built to be the sturdy, stable one, and I took that incredibly (and dangerously) seriously.
Then, in what was a surprise to me at least, my parents separated the final semester of my senior year of high school, divorcing officially my first semester of college. My dad moved out on Valentine’s Day. Suddenly, the “stable” one wasn’t so stable anymore.
That’s when things started to shift, because for the first time, I had an external source of distress I could pile my years of intangible anxiety and depression onto. As if I’d pre-stocked misery just waiting for something appropriately externally bad to happen. And what happened with all my friends who I’d spent almost a decade supporting in whatever way they required? Predictably (in hindsight), they got impatient.
See, that’s the thing about being such a martyr that you don’t divulge your own feelings for fear it would make you a worse support system for others. You set a precedent that your problems, if you even have them, are secondary. You train the people around you to take what they need and give nothing back, and a lot of the time, it’s not even their fault! How can you expect other people to set your boundaries for you? Literally constantly I was assuring people that I was fine, I was stable, I didn’t need anything from them, I live to serve. And we all got used to that system, as toxic and destructive as it was in the long-term.
Of course, at the time, I didn’t see it like that. I saw everyone else as selfish users who were entirely at fault for getting impatient with my pain (because suddenly it competed with theirs when previously theirs was uncontested). I was furious that no one was asking me how I was or if I needed anything past the first week or two. Couldn’t they see I was in pain? My entire worldview and the way in which I understood love and relationships was crumbling around me! The stability and foundation I’d used as a central pillar of my identity had been demolished! I didn’t know who I was or where I fit in the world anymore, and yet they were going about with business as usual, a business I was no longer qualified for. The first 75% of my emotional resume was no longer accurate.
Over time, as I moved away from home, met new people, matured, and went into the world a bit, I took stock of my own behavior and my mental health. I learned that therapy wasn’t a bandaid for weak people but an important and sometimes permanent fixture of peoples lives that did not in any way influence their internal God-given “strength.” I learned to pick my battles better and leave room in a relationship (platonic and romantic) for both parties to grow and change and mature instead of insisting we pick our roles and stick with them from the moment we met. I learned to start seeing my identity as fluid without being wishy-washy, I got more confident in my voice and my skills and my place in my own life. More importantly, though, I learned to leave a little space for myself.
I own that much of my past interpersonal misery is a mess of my own making. I recognize my own position in the destruction of codependent relationships I’d previously blamed solely on the other party. And somewhere along the line, a mix of confidence learned during 6 years of competitive public speaking, confidence learned from healthier, more balanced friendships, and confidence in my own opinions completely overhauled my outward displays of emotion and empathy.
No longer did I rely on tearing myself down to build others up or give up my own comfort entirely for the comfort and wishes of others. I got into comedy and evolved my self-deprecating humor into self-aggrandizing humor, along the way starting to believe some of the nicer things I joked about myself. I got better at judging the balance of power in relationships, taking myself out of those that seemed one-sided or ones that I wasn’t actually happy in. My own feelings were no longer taken for granted, replaced with making decisions not to help or hurt others but because I needed help or was being hurt. I didn’t stop caring about other people, but I did make conscious changes to the way in which I cared about them. If someone wanted to do something I was uncomfortable with or during a time when I knew I needed to recharge, I politely declined, and those who recognized thst it wasn’t a personal attack on their invitation or needs are the ones I gave more energy to. Eventually, I’d rebuilt a support system and identity not around my perceived stability lent by the idea of my parent’s marriage but around being honest and transparent about who I was, what I wanted, and how I was feeling from moment to moment.
I also realized that it didn’t matter what everyone thought of me, just what the people I respected thought. And this, friends, is where we meet back with the intro of this post.
Part of learning to pick my battles was learning I didn’t have to react to everything. Sometimes, even though reacting let off endorphins in the moment, the ensuing prolonged unpleasant interaction wasn’t worth it. So I learned to emote by necessity, not be default, which has led to many people making certain assumptions. I occasionally come across as cold or dispassionate when navigating complicated emotional terrain or professional decisions. It’s not that I feel cold or dispassionate about the situation, but I don’t have to weep to act with empathy, and sometimes I act with empathy and understanding while not myself being emotionally invested. Being emotional and emotionally invested is not mutually exclusive from (nor required pairing with) empathy. I can treat those around with me with respect and also not get emotionally involved in every moment of our interaction, and I’ve started to get pretty transparent about when I am and am not emotionally interested in continuing an argument or interaction.
Because another part of picking your battles is retreating from them not out of defeat but out of disinterest. This comes off as passive-aggression usually (and sometimes it is, because my default emotion these days is frustration, something I promise I’m working on). “Let’s just do the thing you were saying. I don’t care about this argument anymore so let’s just go with yours.” To me, that sentence means literally what it says. I, Bri Castellini, don’t care about this argument so I’m retreating and accepting your position or solution. If this is uttered in a professional scenario, it means “you care more than I do about your position and given that, I no longer feel we need to debate. If you believe in your side this strongly and I don’t, then let’s go with your thing. Otherwise we’re going to go in circles and that doesn’t sound interesting or productive.” Unfortunately, it comes across (apparently) as “I don’t care about you or your opinion but I hate being around you so I’d rather this argument ended so I can be around literally anyone else and seethe about you behind your back.”
And, well, sometimes that’s true. Except I’m rarely in those scenarios these days because I make a point not to put myself in situations or arguments with people or for projects I don’t want anything to do with. It’s safe to say that if I am there, I want to be. Outside of work I am being paid to do, I am not obligated to be around anyone, or do anything, so my making a choice to go out, or make a project collaboratively, or whatever, is a choice I made and stick by. I try not to do pity invites anymore because it’s a waste of everyone’s emotional energy. I’m more comfortable saying “I don’t want to go out/do a thing with you, not because I’m busy or because I hate you, but because I don’t want to go out/do that thing” and “This has been fun, but I’m ready to go home now, so I’ll see you later.” I’m also more comfortable saying “I have to go to bed” or “I’m logging off now” instead of spending eight hours long-distance consoling people because, and say it with me, I am not a trained mental health specialist and have my own shit to work out so I cannot be someone’s sole emotional support. Not because I don’t want to be, or because I hate talking to [insert whoever here], but because it is not my sole responsibility that other people are ok. If they are my friends, my responsibility is to be there when I can, be supportive when they need it, take them to the ER at 1am if the situation arises, and treat them with respect and kindness. My responsibility is not that their every emotional need is taken care of by me, specifically, or by a person I assign as the sole architect of their well-being. I am responsible for me, and sometimes me needs a damn break, and with as much kindness as I can, I have gotten a lot better about making that clear and setting boundaries as necessary.
And it has made some people describe me as cold or unempathetic. But I hope if you take away anything from this post you take away this: being externally emotional all the time and being available 24/7 does not equate to being or acting empathetic. I know who I am and what I feel and while I’m always open to being clearer about why I’ve said something or used a seemingly “dispassionate” tone, I think it’s a failing of the way we’re taught to interact that I can’t be taken at my word. If I have a relevant opinion, trust me, I will tell you, and in most circumstances I return the favor of taking people at their word. What do I gain from mining every communication for secret meaning? Wasted time I could be using to swoon over the epic love story that is Ryan Atwood and Seth Cohen (yes, I’m watching the OC for the first time and unironically loving every beautiful bromantic moment). You either say what you mean or don’t get upset when the other person takes you at your word. It’s not my job to DaVinci Code every interaction, and I will not apologize for that.
Life is about choices, and I have chosen to live mine for me, with other people. Not for other people. Important and healthy distinction.
Again, I am not offended or upset that people have started making assumptions about my ability to feel empathy, because those whose opinions I care about either don’t make those assumptions or will learn through knowing me not to. Either way, I’m the same person, and what other people think of me doesn’t factor into that. I don’t care what you think of me, not because I don’t care about you or your opinion, but because I cannot depend on external factors or opinions to construct my identity. That’s a recipe for disaster I’ve cooked up far too many times already.
I just think it’s interesting the way in which we define and perceive empathy in others, and think that perhaps as a society we should re-examine our labeling of those around us.
Or not. Life, I repeat, is about choices, and the only choice you can make is your own.
Bri Castellini is an indie filmmaker and Community Liaison at Stareable, our favorite web series hub. Watch the remarkable Ms. Castellini’s award-winning web series, Brains, HERE. See Sam And Pat Are Depressed HERE. This post first appeared on her seriously cool blog.
I’m tired, y’all. Absolutely wiped. This blog was gonna be about something else but then I sat down to write and damn near fell asleep in this Starbucks.
I have agreed to too many film projects, I am working a job where I have more responsibility than ever before in increasingly terrifying areas I feel wholly unqualified for, I am attempting to be a person with interests and plans outside of work, and I am tired.
I get home, and I’m tired. I wake up, and I’m tired. I ride the subway and I’m tired. I go out for drinks with a friend and I’m tired. I’m tired. I’m tired.
Acknowledged but ignored depression symptoms aside, every day I feel like I’m failing someone, because somehow I found myself in positions I never planned on being hired for and they all need me at once. Sometimes I see an email in my inbox or a Facebook message and I am just crushed by the weight of anxiety and exhaustion and I tell myself- tomorrow. Tomorrow I will be able to handle it. Then tomorrow comes and I can’t, but I do anyways (usually) because I’ve promised. I need this. It is a part of the hustle to be in all places at once with at least ten irons in the fire and even if nine of the irons are things you don’t ultimately want to be doing, they are adjacent to what you want to be doing and so you do them in the hopes that they’ll open a door to something more down the road.
Which is the most exhausting part of the hustle- there is no guarantee that any single thing will turn into what you need it to, so you can’t prioritize because each thing, even small things, could potentially be The Thing. The Thing that takes you to the next step, where there’s a whole bunch of other new things that you won’t be able to prioritize because you’re not going up stairs, you’re rock climbing in the dark up a rock wall that’s constantly being rebuilt.
And I am tired. I make a to do list for the week ahead and I feel preemptively exhausted. The hustle must go on, but only if it doesn’t make a husk out of me, because husks can’t be creative and do all the things they dreamed of when they were in school to learn how to write better stories and build better worlds.
Sometimes it’s exhilarating, to have a networking event one night, drinks with friends you want to work with another, three emails in your inbox asking for advice or for you to come on board a new project, a day on set next weekend and a pre-production spreadsheet for another project ripe in your Google Drive. So many cool things happening that I get to be involved with! That my name is attached to and that I’m proud of!
But mostly it is exhausting because sometimes I just want to listen to a podcast and enter data into a spreadsheet, or be told to make X number of calls to people off a pre-made list, or reorganize a storage closet, or file library books back into their shelves from a stack on a cart. Sometimes I don’t want to be in charge of making all the decisions or coordinating all the little pieces- sometimes I just want to be a piece who’s told her basic, banal instructions and can get to work. Sometimes I just don’t want to be in charge.
I started playing D&D a few months ago, and anytime I talk about this with people who know me even a little bit, they ask without fail if I’m the DM (dungeon master, or the person who creates the world and leads the other players through adventure). I’m not, and even as I get more confident as a player, I don’t think I want to be. I understand why people make the assumption I’m either the current DM or the next one on deck, because I’m a psychotic control freak, but I cannot tell you how much of a relief it is to be able to show up to someone else’s home with a case of beer and some sour gummy worms and all I had to do to prepare was throw two sheets of paper and a small bag of dice into my purse before I left. Better yet, I trust that when I show up to my DM’s home, I will have to do nothing but enjoy myself and roleplay as a chaotic neutral germaphobic hafling with a budding drug kingpin career and a problem with authority who names every creature she summons from her Gray Bag of Tricks after herself.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful for the opportunities I’ve been given or for the innumerable wonderful projects I have been asked to be a part of. It is an honor and an insane privilege to spend my weekends on film sets and in meetings with other creative people to make new worlds come to life. But sometimes, like today and the past three months, I am tired. That doesn’t take away from the honor and privilege, but it does add a fog that makes it real hard to feel useful or happy.
There isn’t really a solution to this problem, because for now it makes the most sense for me to continue doing all the things and most days I’m happy to be doing them, but my god, the hustle can get so hard to keep up when you’re three years in and you still aren’t verified on Twitter and every day you’re more tired and still broke with no clear way to move to the next stage.
Sam And Pat Are Depressed season 2, coming soon to a screen near you. #ad
Bri Castellini is an indie filmmaker and Community Liaison at Stareable, our favorite web series hub. Watch Bri’s award-winning web series, Brains, HERE. See Sam And Pat Are Depressed HERE. This post first appeared on her seriously cool blog.
Thoughtful commentary from The Guardian. No, for reals…we forking mean it!
by Ellen E Jones
f there’s one thing that hit Netflix show The Good Place is absolutely, definitely not about, it’s The State of the World Today. Intentionally, anyway. For one thing, this feelgood sitcom isn’t even set in our world, but in a non-denominational afterlife you might call “Heaven”. This is the Good Place of the title, where Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finds herself in the show’s opening episode and soon concludes she’s been sent in error.
The Good Place is for the likes of beautiful philanthropist Tahani (Jameela Jamil), silent Buddhist monk Jianyu (Manny Jacinto) and earnest ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper). Eleanor, on the other hand, is the kind of garbage person who reads Celebrity Baby Plastic Surgery Disasters magazine and sells fake medicine to the elderly for a living. Still, understandably, she wants to stay, so spends most of season one trying to keep her secret from Michael (Ted Danson), the angel-architect overseeing the Good Place neighbourhood.
The other point is that The Good Place was midway through its first season on NBC when the 2016 US presidential election took place. Even after the world entered into its Trumpian twilight zone, The Good Place’s showrunner, Michael Schur, was keen to ensure his writing team did not get sidetracked: “We talked a lot in the room about, this is not a show about Donald Trump,” he told New York magazine before the season two premiere last year. “These characters are dead. These characters don’t even know that Donald Trump is president.”
Most importantly, though, The Good Place couldn’t be about Trump, Brexit, Windrush, #MeToo or any other contemporary talking point, because that’s exactly the sort of thing that fans watched the show to escape. While for some, The Handmaid’s Tale was a perfectly timed misery-watch, this show offered the opposite sort of distraction. By 2017, political drama and comedy were on the wane in TV generally, with once-popular shows such as Veep, Scandal and House of Cards all either cancelled or embarking on final seasons. Schur, meanwhile, was known and loved as the creator of optimistic, easy-watching sitcoms that found silliness and fundamental decency in the lives of local government officials (Parks and Recreation) and police officers (Brooklyn Nine-Nine). The Good Place, with its pastel hues and twee, euphemistic cursing was his most whimsically escapist yet.
Or so it seemed, right up until the season one finale, which first aired on 19 January 2017, the night before Trump’s inauguration. This was the episode in which – plot twist! – Eleanor discovered that Michael (Danson) wasn’t an angel-architect, but a demon-bureaucrat who’d been messing with them all along. It wasn’t just Eleanor who belonged in the Bad Place (AKA Hell), but Tahani, Chidi and Jianyu (actually another imposter called Jason) too. And, what’s more, they were already there. They had been obligingly torturing each other as part of Michael’s reality TV-meets-Sartre experiment since episode one. As Eleanor’s catchphrase-coining moment of realisation had it: “This is the Bad Place!”…
Mark Evanier, one of the biggest writing talents in TV, comic books, and blogging has been writing a series of articles on the bugaboo of all creative people, rejection. As he puts it:
This is a series of articles I’ve written about writing, specifically about the problems faced by (a) the new writer who isn’t selling enough work yet to make a living or (b) the older writer who isn’t selling as much as they used to. To read other installments, click here.
But before you click, why not try out this post, Part 23 in the series, for size:
by Mark Evanier
As I’ve probably mentioned more than once in past installments of this series, I’m not a big fan of a piece of advice that is often dispensed to wanna-be writers and actors and musicians and all sorts of folks who aspire to the careers that many covet. It’s the old “Never give up, keep at it, don’t let anyone discourage you and you’ll eventually get your dream” advice. I don’t think that’s true.
When you hear that, you’re almost certainly hearing it from someone who did achieve their dream. If people don’t, they don’t tell you that. So in a way, it’s like someone who won the lottery telling you, “Hey, if I won, so can you! Spend every cent you can on lottery tickets.” That may be good advice for two or three people per lottery but not for most. The odds of winning one recent PowerBall were one in 292 million and they rarely get much better than that.
The odds of you or anyone attaining a dream in the creative arts will, of course, depend a lot on what that dream is, how suited you are for the position and what kind of access you may be able to get to those who hire. Included in the “what that dream is” factor is the question of specificity. If you say “I want to be a working actor,” you stand a better shot than if you say “I want to be a working actor who takes over playing James Bond, wins many Academy Awards and earns $20 million per movie.”
And sometimes, the dream can be so narrow that nobody can see it happen. At the Baltimore Comic-Con last year, I had a brief conversation with a reader of this series who wants to write Marvel Comics…but not just any Marvel Comics. He wants to write all the Marvel Comics. This is approximately what he told me — and remember, this is a person who has never written even one comic book of any note. Nothing for Marvel, nothing for DC, nothing for Dark Horse or IDW or Boom or any of those…
“I want to do a run on Fantastic Four. I’ve read it for years and I have great ideas about how it should be done. This will be the definitive series, the one everyone will point to and say, ‘That’s how F.F. should be handled!’ And then I’ll do a run on Spider-Man and show everyone how that book should be done, a run on Thor, a run on The Avengers and so on…”
This is not going to happen. And even if it could happen, it’s a pretty unhealthy way to approach a new career. This guy’s goal should be to get to write one issue of one comic for anyone. If he can achieve that, he can aspire to writing a second something somewhere.
All writers, even the lousy ones, are real good at fantasizing. Often, we’re too good at it. Dreams are great but making a dream into a reality requires dealing with that reality.
You can have an idea for the greatest movie ever and, hey, maybe it really is that. But it still has to be written and marketed and even if some big, legitimate producer says he wants to make it, you’re still only about 15% of the way to the start of principal photography and light years from opening at the IMAX. I’ve known writers who didn’t have their breakthrough screenplay finished but they’d done eight drafts of the Oscar acceptance speech to go with it….