This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
Last week, after discussing how my idea for a short memoir (a mem-ella, if you will) was overwhelming me, my professor implored I use his generative trick: write 800 words everyday. Typically, I’m firm in my disapproval of the “a writer has to write everyday” mentality, but something about this seemed reasonable. Here’s a graduate professor with three jobs and a kid at home, someone who in our first class admitted — unprompted — to “having a hard time paying the mortgage right now” — and somehow he’s managed to hit a word count seven days a week.
For the first four days, the writing came easy because I had ideas already. But pretty quickly, the images in my head were expunged and turning to the blank page day after day became increasingly unlikely. As the motivation decreased, my guilt skyrocketed. Clearly it was a personal lack; some inability of mine to produce worthy content day after day. Whatever resistance I had to “good writing only happens when you write,” however ironic that might seem, disappeared. Which is to say, all I wanted to do right now was binge-watch Modern Family on Hulu. And I did. And I think’s okay.
I started watching Modern Family after deciding I could not, would not, should not, re-watch New Girl or Community or Bob’s Burgers for the ump-teenth time. My friend recommended the show, I had grown up seeing it every now and again, thought sure, why not. Typically, starting a new show is difficult for me. I like the comfort of knowing what’s to come, in not being surprised. Something I can put on during my day-job as a content writer and zone out. But Modern Family seemed worth the risk, and I jumped in.
Now, I’m on season five. Each half-hour episode follows an impressively large cast of characters — twelve in total, and all related. And every episode includes them in some way that never feels contrived, that is surprisingly laugh-out-loud funny and yet full of heart. Despite not watching Modern Family to learn anything about storytelling, or to even think about writing, there’s quite a lot to gain. I’ve convinced my roommate to rewatch it with me, made my boyfriend fall in love with it, and am fighting the urge to turn it on right now instead of writing this, or my mem-ella, or reading for school.
You might be thinking, But binge-watching is such a waste of time. It’s not like you’re doing the creative upkeep while working during the day, you shouldn’t turn to it after five and waste more time. You have to write to be a real writer. And many would agree with you, including my father — who told me a few days ago that “Ricky Gervais’ wife writes for twenty minutes every day; she said it’s like a muscle you need to exercise.”
But here’s what I think we, as writers, should recognize: the idea that we should be writing everyday is outdated and noninclusive. Most of us have to work day jobs to supplement whatever freelance work we can get, if we can get it. Gone are the days where one essay a month pays the bills.
And, in many instances, I find that forcing myself to write anything forces bad work. But! You might be saying. You need to write the bad stuff first before getting to revise it and make it good! Yes, but shouldn’t we still enjoy the first part? Or at least find it an exciting step towards the cliff? Our hearts racing at the possibilities of what could come next, a quickening pulse that reminds us this could go horribly wrong but it also might not and oh, what a thrill it will be when it goes right.
My father used to make fun of me for watching cartoons as a high schooler. In response, my mother would say: “It keeps her creative.” Binge-watching a show on Hulu or Netflix or Peacock may not seem constructive in the doing, but it cleans your mind, leaves a blank slate. All the triggers and frustrations from work, from being a mother, father, care-giver, all the many roles you may occupy doing the day, get to go somewhere else for an hour or two or three. You can hit a reset button, open your mind up to interesting storylines, suspenseful mysteries that may remind you why you love that genre, or even comedic sitcoms that make you think about families and all their different personalities.
By relaxing and not forcing anything, we open ourselves up to random ideas that pop up five seasons in. We can learn about pacing, about dialogue. How to quickly construct compelling and believable conflicts that buoy a piece along in service of a greater climax. Are you binging Inventing Anna on Netflix? How does Shonda Rhimes keep you engaged as the viewer? How does each episode begin and then end? Why can’t you turn away? Or think of Emily in Paris. Is this show totally earnest, or a shadowy parody of its very content? Where can you feel the screenwriter’s hand?
But most importantly, by binge-watching television, we learn rest. As writers, we cannot write or take care of ourselves and each other if we are constantly firing. We cannot create our best work if there’s no energy left in the tank.
Sink into that couch, put your feet up. Let your mind wander into new storylines and see what comes up in response. How can we create when there is nothing to react to or rail against? Television and movies allow for much more physicality than we can often get away with in writing. How do they do it? What keeps you watching? Give guilt no weight here: you will be surprised, the quiet work active viewership demands.