Today’s piece is written by Carol Mendelsohn, member of the WGA Negotiating Committee as well as showrunner and executive producer of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and co-creator and executive producer of CSI: Miami and CSI: New York.
Once, a long time ago in Upstate New York, far above Cayuga’s waters, on a cold winter’s night in a rundown cockroach infested dump that passed for a house in Collegetown, one of my roommates drew a picture of me. She did this because it was Saturday night and she wanted me to go out and I wanted to stay in and watch TV. (Footnote: back in the seventies, Saturday night was the best night of television. ALL IN THE FAMILY. MASH. MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. CAROL BURNETT SHOW. LOVE BOAT. Imagine that).
Anyway, upon seeing the drawing, my other roommates heartily nodded their approval, for Ilene Greenberg had captured the true essence of me with her number two pencil and a sheet of plain white paper. (INSERT CSI SHOT HERE).
Okay, I’ll give you a clue, which is what I mostly do when I’m not walking the picket line for a fair deal in new media. My head was square. And protruding from the top of my pancake flat skull were two rabbit ears. Not the plushy, furry kind. Ilene had drawn a human television set. (Second Footnote: This was the Dark Ages, before plasmas, DirecTV, Electronic Sell Through and Streaming).
I was one of the first viewers to loyally embrace television. I was only three when my family’s first black and white TV set was plugged into the living room wall. It was more cabinet than TV, but I loved it with a passion that has consumed my entire life.
I quickly became a walking encyclopedia of TV facts and trivia. I watched everything, which in Chicago was only three network stations and the great WGN, Channel 9, which played Hollywood movies, all day and all night, when the Cubs weren’t in season.
My childhood, except for school and going to movies on State Street, revolved around that TV. It was years later that I found out people actually feared television was going to destroy the movie business. If they’d only asked me, I could’ve told them TV wasn’t going to cannibalize theatricals. TV was additive. Love one, love both.
In high school, one of my teachers took an informal poll. She asked our class, “How many hours of TV do you watch a week?” I watched 49 hours. From the moment I got up in the morning to the moment I went to sleep. TV was my best friend.
In study hall, while others were studying, I was conjuring up episodes of the Big Valley and The Virginian in my head. I could hear the voices of my favorite characters. And when a line I made up didn’t sound right, I’d rewrite it. Some things never change.
I never told anyone about these ‘voices’. I didn’t want to be labeled as a crazy. It wasn’t until I got my first staff job that I confessed my eccentricity. And that’s when I discovered that someone else heard voices, too.
Writers hear voices. Which is why I never think of writing as writing. To me, it’s more like dictation. Which raises a fundamental question. If I’m not doing the writing, who is?
Due to the overwhelming sense of camaraderie and solidarity I now feel toward all writers on the picket lines, at Friday rallies and membership meetings, I can be honest here. I believe that when certain WGA members pass on, they go to a Writers Room in the sky. And when you are stuck on a scene or a story isn’t working, if you just ‘knock on the door of the universe’ before you go to sleep and ask for help, those Writers in the Sky will pull an all-nighter and have a fix for you in the morning. (Third Footnote: This in no way should be construed as a template for a Streaming or Electronic Sell Through deal, as no payment is involved).
A writer is born, but never dies. His or her work lives on. Even in the head of some kid from Chicago.
So why do I write? I write because I hear the voices of those Writers in the Sky. And I believe there’s a deal to be made that will put us all back to work, but that it has to be negotiated by people on both sides of the table who know the value of those voices.
Installment #4 of WHY WE WRITE is a series of short essays by prominent television and film writers and conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John. (Contact them at [email protected]). I have asked the AMPTP to give me original content expressing its side of the current strike, but the group has declined to date.