“Just do it!” That’s what they all say, isn’t it?
Well for writers who also have to make a living to support their writing habit, coming back to that blank page is not always easy. Especially if the gig you have to pay the bills “in between” your writing projects requires ten hours a day of your undivided attention and two times a week of air travel away from home.
I write this article in the hopes of offering support and inspiration to other writers who are familiar with the pendulum which swings from time alone at home to write, to having to be out in the world to support financially that time alone at home to write. To do so, I will address what I had to go through to return to my ‘personal’ writing after a six-month stint as a writer/producer for a television show, which re-creates the near death experiences of outdoor enthusiasts. Not only was I taken out of my element as a writer who is used to staying at home, but I was expected to climb the highest mountains, trek across recently erupted avalanches, fly in helicopters, and belay down slot canyons in order to direct the very fragile subjects who were recalling nearly dying in similar circumstances. For many, what I was asked to do sounds exciting, exhilarating, breath-taking (no pun intended), a bit wild, and as my younger brother put it: “people would ‘kill’ to have my job.” Maybe some people would kill in order to have my job, but what stands out most for me, is a comment my cameraman said to me over a 16 ounce beer at one of our wrap parties—and that is that every time I got on the plane to head home after one of these marathon two-day shoots, I would turn to him, look him straight in the eye and say, “Why can’t I just work for the food channel? I mean food doesn’t talk, it doesn’t move, and for the most part, it doesn’t risk dying, because it is already dead.”
The Positive Side
The positive side of writing and producing for hire for six months is I made enough money to be able to take the entire summer off before actively looking for work again. My hope and intent was to get back to my writing. What I did not anticipate, was how long it would take me to do so and how arduous a task it would be. My contract came to an end in late May 2001. My daily rhythm for the prior six months could be broken up into two categories, prep and post shooting days and travel/shooting days. While prepping for a shoot, a typical day consisted of waking up at 7:00 am, getting to work by 9:00 am, staying on the phone until 1:00, breaking for a short lunch, having meetings, getting back on the phone and attacking the computer keyboard in either a search for information or a downloading of information in a race against the clock before sleep walking home at 7:00 or 8:00 at night feeling depleted and brain dead. On travel or shoot days (which were often one in the same), I would wake up at 4:00 or 5:00 am, pile on the various gear necessary for whatever outrageous conditions I would soon find myself in, oversee the cast and crew and make sure all of their bodily and psychological needs were met, drive, fly or hike to our location, conduct interviews for three hours, and then break for a brief lunch, which often consisted of a Subway sandwich and a diet coke.
After lunch, I would direct the re-enactments of non-actors in situations that nearly killed them, such as getting hit by a boulder in the middle of the night, being swept up by an avalanche, becoming impaled by a tree while falling off a moving snowmobile, or falling into a hidden river beneath a glacier. Since the crew included only a cameraman, and myself it was my responsibility to handle all the food arrangements and props and makeup. Props for such a show could be both challenging as well as humorous. I will never forget the weight of the dummy we borrowed from the rescue team that had used it in CPR training. He was so heavy and real looking, we didn’t know how to pack him for travel. My cameraman ended up folding him awkwardly into a large duffle bag, hoping he would pass for carry-on. When we got to the x-ray machine at the airport, an attendant asked, “what ‘cha got in here, anyway, a dead body or something?” And then proceeded to unzip the duffle bag only to be greeted by the hard and dirty hand of the dummy. “We’re a film company,” I would say, smiling, hoping we would not miss our flight due to the delay. After that experience, I resorted to using only blow-up sex dolls for dummies. They are a lot lighter to travel with and at least they float when you throw them in water. But try to make a plastic blow-up doll look real with clothing and make-up… It only works in a wide shot while moving very fast as in when tossed off a 200-foot tall waterfall. Anyway, after dressing and undressing the dummies, retrieving them from icy waters after each take, or climbing the mountain 25 times to tumble the paper mache boulder down toward my camera man, or offering Kleenex to the wife of the man who is telling me how his life has been forever changed by the fall he took while ice-climbing, and throughout it all, racing against the impending darkness that told us our time was running out on the shoot day, we would pile into our various four wheel drive vehicles and drive directly to a restaurant for a “fine” dinner, before falling into bed into some non-descript hotel room by 10 or 11 at night only to a repeat performance the next day at 5 in the morning.
The adrenalin rush of days like this that accumulates over time is very difficult to come down after. My hopes of writing every day the first week after six months of this lifestyle went out the window. That first week, I could barely brush my teeth in the morning. Only a few days earlier, I had considered myself a responsible and functioning adult, aware of and responsive to the needs of many more people than just myself and accountable for over a hundred details as well. Now that it was all over, I was reduced to a mild form of catatonia. I kept losing my car keys, I could not find my driver’s license when I went to write a check at the supermarket, I could barely make myself a meal and I was afraid of turning on my computer. After all, I might risk having to respond to someone’s email.
Taking A Holiday
What I needed more than anything was a vacation. If I could only get away, I mused, I could begin writing again. The dream vacation vacillated in my mind as two very strong images. One image had me lying in a bed in a white room with a white nightgown on, catered to by men and women dressed in white, serving me white food on white plates on white trays, and smiling down at me with condescension and feigned compassion. The other image pictured me sitting in a hotel room, looking out the window at a spectacular view of the mountains and the sea, with a cool pink drink in a large frosty glass in my hand and an open journal and pen in my lap. I opted for the second picture. Fortunately, the exchange rate in Europe this summer was incredibly good. I took my frequent mileage card and booked myself on a trip to Santorini, a volcanic island off of Greece. On a Greek Island, I decided, at least I could write. And if I got the vacation out of the way early in the summer, I would not feel deprived and anxious about not having had a vacation, later in the summer.
The hotel on Santorini was a bargain. For forty dollars a night, I had to myself a small studio with a loft bedroom, a full kitchen, and a private balcony overlooking the Santorini-Island shaped swimming pool which fell into the azure sparkling Aegean sea outlined by the black lava mountains hovering in the distance.
Every morning I would make myself breakfast out of freshly cut fruit, and wander out onto the terrace to eat it, hoping to find the energy to write. But those first few days, in the early morning, all I could do was take in the view. By 9:00 am, which is usually my best time to begin writing, the pool attendant would turn on the radio through the loud speakers. As I was often the only one awake (most people in Greece, locals and tourists alike, stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning and sleep until noon), I would wander down to the pool and ask him to turn it off. With a mixture of charm and embarrassment, he would ask me, “oh, it you bothers, the music?” And I would nod my head. But instead of turning it off, he would just lower the volume slightly and switch the radio station from Rock and Roll to sappy Greek music. Letting my feathers be ruffled was not a good way to relax-and it was certainly not a good mood enhancer for writing. For much of the day, I would end up lounging by the pool and reading the novel a good friend of mine had lent me. I was not writing. I was reading. Then I would have lunch. Then I would take a nap. Later in the day, when the assault of the summer sun had begun to wane, I would meander a mile or so into the town of Oia and then down the 400 stone steps dotted with donkey droppings to the tiny port with the taverna that would become a favorite. There I would take a seat at an outdoor table, watch the fisherman two feet away cut open the belly of the fish he just caught, sip my Ouzo and jot down a postcard or as the days went on, a journal entry. I was not working on my writing, no, I was drinking Ouzo and watching the sunset, but I was writing, or at least I was beginning to think about writing. During these days of recovery, that was all I could do. It was all I had the energy to do. It was all I had the drive to do. It was all I had the desire to do. Think about writing.
While I punished myself once in a while during those 10 days of vacation for not really writing, looking back, it was just what the doctor ordered. What I did not understand then, but I fully understand now, is all those days were a form of preparation. Though at the time, it was not conscious, every single day during my time in Greece, I was performing a tiny act toward writing. Like a woman who is not yet aware she is pregnant, something was beginning to incubate deep inside me. Like an athlete who works out every day, or an opera singer, who practices her scales, what I was doing, even if it was very little, was honing me for something I could not yet name. The daily act of reading the delicious words from my dear friend’s book was beginning to air a flame I could not build a fire from yet. The afternoon exercise of writing a letter or a journal entry, was flexing and beginning to tone a muscle I had forgotten had ever been taut. The early evening ritual of sipping my Ouzo and inhaling the salty sea breeze and dipping my bread in yogurt laced with garlic and cucumber become a meditation of rest and rejuvenation and the planting of seeds in the soul.
Returning To Reality
When I came home to Colorado, I still had trouble getting into a daily rhythm of writing. It took me nearly a week to readjust to the time change alone. Every excuse confronted me like an uninvited guest. There were always dishes in the sink to wash, bills to pay, friends and family to see, phone calls and emails to return, and laps in the pool across the street to swim. But after 5 or 6 days, finally rested and revitalized and no longer able to go to sleep at night with myself if I did not realign and it better be soon, with what it is I am here to do, I, yes, began WRITING.
It all begins in the morning. I wake up, naturally, around 7 am. I go downstairs and I meditate or clear my mind for about 20 minutes. Then I do a few prayers that I have concocted over the years. One of the prayers always asks for an ease and joy around writing. I fix myself some green tea and a bowl of cereal, hobble upstairs to my computer, turn it on and read my daily horoscope. I usually chuckle, than check and respond to emails and then brush my teeth. I have a rule for myself which only works for me and that is I do not get dressed. The utter rebelliousness of staying in my nightgown as I begin my workday is enough to keep me coming back for more every morning. The other rule I set for myself is to not answer the phone, at least until noon. I look at the clock and usually by now it is about 8:30 or 9:00 am and I pull up whatever writing project most intrigues me for the day. Sometimes I open the file of one that feels easier to tackle than another. And then, with as little thought and self-judgment as possible, I begin writing. I do an exercise that a writing teacher gave me a few years ago and that is I do not allow myself to lift my fingers from the keyboard for at least a half hour. That half hour usually turns into a two or three hour writing session with ease. Then I break for lunch. Then I return phone calls. Then I get dressed.
In the afternoon, I swim, do errands, visit with friends, or continue writing by not writing. By this I mean, I take a walk and work out the glitch in that one paragraph by flexing my muscles. I read and get inspired by someone else’s words and find a hidden solution to what earlier that morning seemed like such a conundrum. I drive to the grocery store and pass a dead deer on the side of the road and that becomes the missing metaphor for the scene I have been struggling with. I have a conversation on the phone with the man I have been seeing and his complete and obsessive habit of writing every morning for two to three hours serves as a model of inspiration and continual admiration, as well as a tinge of competition for me. Hey, whatever works, right?
I guess what I am saying is for those of us who are never more satisfied in our lives than when we are writing; everything in life is about writing. It is all a part of the same dance. And if we simply remember to view it that way and honor the need for rest, play, chores exercise, interaction with others, and times away from our writing so we may long for it once again—we will better master the rough times when we feel utterly uninspired and resistant and unable to write. Even doing the dishes can be a part of writing when it is in between the trips back to the computer. And if all else fails, just do it. It works.
Ms. Kaplan, not content to write only full-length feature film screenplays, is also working hard on her first TV sit-com, KNOCK YOURSELF OUT, with writing partner Charlie. She is also putting together a cross-cultural TV drama series, SHADOWS OF THE HEART, a mix of up-lifting stories—written by a number of well known screenwriters & writers—that blend myth and magic with a touch of the supernatural.
Amid all this, Sally has been working full-time as an Independent Producer and writer for TV company, Warren Miller, producing and writing a number of segments for a ‘True Life Adventure’ series. Sally is also an A.F.I. award-winning writer/producer for such works as CROSSROADS and, MAN ON THE PLANE.
© Sally Kaplan