Revelations of a Fringe Binge (or why I love TV)

Re-post of a blog entry I wrote several years ago (still relevant today):

I grew up spending hours a day in front of the TV.  I went through a period of my life, in my late 20’s and early 30’s, where I gave it up for the most part.  I couldn’t tell you who Doug was seeing in the ER, or who Johnny Depp played on 21 Jump Street, or who shot JR.  I felt a sense of self-satisfaction at my TV abstinence.

My reasoning was purist–anything consumed in mass quantities is bad for you, whether it’s drugs or alcohol, or something as seemingly benign as Dance Dance Revolution (although that at least has physical exertion associated with it).  In short, I didn’t want my brain to waste away from mindless viewing of other people’s fictional lives.

So I have to confess I was a little embarrassed last week when I watched four entire seasons of Fringe in about a week and a half (great show–I’ll write about it in an upcoming entry).

I spent one guilt-filled hour after another consuming every detail of this disturbing yet addictive show.  But I walked away from it a better person, and here’s why:  it made me a better writer.

I’ve come to view television (and movies, and other books) in a different light since I began to take writing seriously.  Nowadays, when I get into a story, I examine it to see what makes it so compelling.  Why was I so obsessed with it that I had to watch it streaming from Netflix over my smart phone for hours while I was working an overnight shift? Why did I get so annoyed that I had to stop my binge for five minutes when one of my kids fell and was gushing blood?  (This didn’t really happen, by the way–as a writer, I like to embellish a little.  Please nobody call DFS)  And how can I turn my stories into THAT?

It made me want to drop everything and create that same level of suspense in my story.  After I walked away from my eye-glazing trance when the fourth season was over (the fifth season isn’t on Netflix yet–I need to clear a few days from my schedule when it is), I was able to see places in my manuscript where I could throw in little hints instead of giving too much away, where I could create a cliff-hanger here or there, where I could make a little more tension between the main characters.

So for now, when any story sucks me in so intensely, I am going to shrug off the guilt and let the show sweep me away, and I’m going to justify it as a boost to my creative abilities.

Or at least, that’s what I’m going to tell myself.  Now leave me alone–I’m off to watch Hannibal!

“Anne with an ‘E'”, Netflix

This is one of those addictive, binge-worthy series that sucked me in so hard that I had to finish it all in one day.  I literally cried through the entire first two episodes of this show.  As a caveat, I have not read the original book by L.M. Montgomery, or seen the 1930’s movie by the same name, so I can’t speak to the series’ comparison to the original.  But I was immediately taken by the compelling story of a rather plain orphan girl with a strong imagination trying to fit in after she is taken in by hardworking and aging farmers who were expecting to adopt a boy to help out.

But more than an emotional journey of a young girl seeking love and acceptance after a harrowing life, “Anne with an ‘E’” is a metaphorical commentary on the competing beliefs of judging humans by their utility versus accepting others solely based on their intrinsic worth. In primitive cultures, those among us who lacked the ability to “do things,” and instead were born with creative imaginations, were given a place: as shamans, medicine men/women, spiritual healers—known to their people as quirky and socially awkward but held in high regard nonetheless. But post-modern society doesn’t hold that space for artists and freelancers, a.k.a. “leeches on society.”  Instead, like our protagonist Anne, their imaginations are only acknowledged subsequent to the great works that they are responsible for—like when Anne’s sharp mind finds a solution for a baby with croup or a raging housefire.  Einstein is another example.

Anne’s journey for acceptance continues on when she attends school and attempts to become just another person in the community. She finds that sometimes she must subjugate her peculiar nature and hide who she truly is just to assimilate. How much she allows her true self to shine through versus how hard she works to conform to society’s expectations is the enduring theme throughout.

Review-War Machine (Netflix)

You know a historical movie is good when you rush out to research actual history after watching it. That’s what happened after I watched this comedic fictional version of events based on General Stanley McChrystal’s stint running the war in Afghanistan (2009-2010). I was captivated by the personalities involved and the complexities of our military operations there. It’s easy to say, “We should have pulled out all our troops,” but when you watch the general’s impassioned reasoning, you start to root for him and you hope he’ll be provided with the additional 40,000 troops he requested, if for nothing else, just to see how much more the conflict gets bungled.

We see very little fighting though. Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that politics in war is the same as politics everywhere-complicated and full of diplomatic landmines. But while this is no “Full Metal Jacket” or “Saving Private Ryan”, it was fun to see Brad Pitt portray a swaggering, arms-out-to-the-side rigid general. It was also a laugh and a half to watch Michael Hall, best known from Dexter, playing Michael Flynn’s character. Yes, that Michael Flynn. The interesting part is that the movie was filmed before Flynn became infamous for botching his role as director of the NSA (why on Earth was he ever appointed-he was a paid lobbyist for Turkey. But I digress). But Hall was still able to successfully adopt Flynn’s over-the-top angry and constantly incensed persona.

At any rate, I walked away from this movie curious about the story’s historical significance, and I ended up researching McChrystal’s real story (spoiler alert-the movie was fairly accurate). I also felt compelled to research the history of the conflict in Afghanistan (spoiler alert-our military is still playing the same war games, using the same reasoning). I guess we never really learn, we just switch out players.

I Wanted To Believe (and so I wrote)

I read a blog post from talented writer Shelly Drymon entitled “Writing Just for Self-Expression”:

This topic interested me, because I do write just for fun.  I’ll never forget the first time I did it, thirteen years ago.  Before then, the only writing I did was journaling.  And that was fun too.  But I was addicted to the show “The X-Files” (which I still love, and nerd that I am, I have to announce that X-Files is celebrating twenty years from the time the first episode was aired–today.  A sacred day for us Philes).  It had endearing characters, interesting plots, and aliens.  What could be better?

But the writers left certain *ahem* adult aspects out of the plot, for a long time anyway.  We waited seven years for that first “real” kiss between Mulder and Scully, and certain stories lingered, desperately in need of a satisfying resolution.  This is when I discovered something called “Fanfiction.”

Now I would like to say that I know for sure that fanfiction began with The X-Files, or that term “shippers” was introduced because of the show, but I suspect some Star Trek fans out there would object.  What I can tell you is that I eagerly read those first stories based on the show thinking I was going to get a continuation of some of the episodes.  And I was disappointed, I am sorry to say.

Now, I know there were some good stories out there, ones where Mulder and Scully set out on new adventures, or we got to see what happened between “The Truth” and “I Want to Believe”.  But most of what I read was just soft porn–X porn, if you will.  There was no story, or it was something you would see in a bad Jenna Jameson movie.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  But I wanted more.

So I wrote my first story.  The first one was horrible, I’m sure, and I doubt that it is still floating around in cyberspace anymore.  But I wrote more.  And over the years, I have returned to fanfiction writing, and I’ve learned some things from it (and from books and online courses–let’s give credit where credit is due).  I learned to release stories in chapters–I tended to write the entire story all in one sitting, and learned that fans found 10,000 words all at once to daunting.  I started out writing stories picking up where episodes left off, having the partners eventually give in to their chemistry just for self-gratification.  And then I wrote original stories of my own.  This led to me eventually writing my own series of short stories (stay tuned–I will be releasing the first installment of “QuID: Quantum Investigation Division” in October), and fanfiction for another show (Law and Order: Special Victims Unit).

What did I discover from this experience?

1.  Writing can be fun, even when you have no followers (although it’s even more addictive when you DO get a following).

2.  X-Files in particular is fun to write, because the topics are ENDLESS.  My new series will be paranormal/science fiction as well, because I like the unlimited subject matter.

3.  The most important thing I learned from writing fanfiction is that it is cathartic.  Sure, I want a publishing deal where someone hands me a big fat check to sit around and write another novel.  But the reason I write goes way beyond this.  I write because, when I feel my worst, like the universe is out to get me, when my soul is tormented, I can sit down and torture my characters, and get my feelings down on paper.  I do my best writing this way.  As sadistic as it sounds, I put my characters through hell, because that is how I release the emotions from me and put them onto the paper, killing two birds with one stone.

The converse goes for when I’m in a good mood.  That’s the perfect time to write humorous stories (for you X-files fans, I wrote an ending for “Small Potatoes” called “I’m Not In Love” that you won’t want to miss).  And when I’m horny. . . well, you get the idea.

So yeah, I do strive to be a better writer and sell my stories.  But I would write anyway–I have discovered that I can’t NOT write. And that, my friends, is the true meaning of “passion.”