Posted in Writing

If You Want to Be a Writer, Turn Off the Damn TV


In his 2000 craft book, On Writing, Stephen King says,

But TV came relatively late to the King household, and I’m glad. I am, when you stop to think of it, a member of a fairly select group: the final handful of American novelists who learned to read and write before they learned to eat a daily helping of video bullshit.

This quote got me thinking about my own childhood. I was born in 1984, and I started reading vociferously from the time I can remember breathing and thinking. I loved books. Still do, of course. Books were the first magic. Some of my favorite memories are getting together with my next door neighbor Thomas and reading for hours on summer afternoons. I adored the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine, read at least forty of them during third and fourth grade, but I loved trying other authors too, authors who wrote in every genre.

My younger brothers never got into reading. They were into video games. My youngest brother especially got so obsessed with Super Nintendo games I don’t think I ever saw him pick up a book. I wonder if I had been born a decade later if books would have meant as much to me. And I especially wonder if were growing up in today’s world, with not only thousands of video games options but the kind of TV content I always dreamed of as a kid.

I remember when I was ten or eleven, by now super obsessed with movies, and I thought of my vision of the ultimate future: the ability to turn on the TV, look up any movie by title, and then just play it on demand. Remember what watching movies at home was like in the early 1990s? Crappy VHS. Square boxes. There was a charm to 1990s home entertainment, but options were kind of limited, and it occurred to me recently, without really paying attention, that the future I could only imagine in 1994 has come true. You turn on the TV, go to Amazon, type in a movie title, and it’s there. Holy moly.

And it’s not just movies. Of course television for the past few years has entered a new golden age, not just in the sheer amount of content, but the sheer amount of good content. I’m watching The Handmaid’s Tale right now (finally!) and am just overcome by how good it is. Every episode is like a powerhouse movie. And this is just one show. One highly acclaimed show of dozens and dozens and dozens…

Where I’m going with this is that today’s writers have an infinite amount of distractions to prevent them from doing the work: writing. When I was young, when there wasn’t nearly as much distraction with film and TV, and, of course, the Internet, I could read for hours on end, then spend a couple hours writing a new short story. My brothers let the tube take them over, and so they were born into a generation that had way more storytelling options than the old-school flat pages of a book.

Early on his craft book On Writing, Stephen King says that he’s relieved he was the last generation of American novelists to grow up learning to read and write before becoming glued to the television set, and in the same line of thinking, I’m relieved I was born just early enough, in ’84, to allow books and writing to overtake my life rather than the TV set. I watched my share of television as a kid, sure, but I don’t remember it ever being omnipresent in my life. My fond memories are me getting home from school and running to my bedroom not to take out a phone, or put on a movie, or turn on the TV set, but to read, read, read. And maybe do a little writing.

I’ve lost that a little. I’m so paralyzed by the amount of content there is to watch, both in film and TV, that any free hour of the day I have I try to set aside to watch something, not necessarily read. I do force myself at least 3–4 hours a day to write, whether it’s this blog or my latest novel or a new screenplay, that’s a given, but one love I’ve lost in a way is allowing even one hour a day to read.

I started reading the classic novel Rebecca for the first time on Saturday afternoon, and two days later I still haven’t returned to it, even though I LOVED the first three chapters. I love it so far, but in a way it’s easier, isn’t it, to watch TV or a movie. It’s easy to watch Handmaid’s Tale because I can glance at my phone occasionally, I can just relax and watch the tube, rather than flip through the pages and better utilize my brain.

But at least I started in a good place as a child, not being fed mindless crap from the TV before I became a total bookworm. I think what King is saying in this quote is not that you have to turn your back on media entertainment to be a good writer. He’s saying that the foundation he had as a child began in the right way: as a reader.

It’s something I hope for every aspiring young writer, that from the earliest age possible you become enamored by books and pour through as many authors, as many genres, as you can, before you let the other sources of storytelling — like the daily helping of video bullshit — take over your life.

You’ll be better off in the long run.

And so will your writing.

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