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Saturday, June 15

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Writers cannibalize their lives all the time. They feed on their experiences and memories — as well as those of others — to produce text that ranges from true art to, say, most of what airs on FOX. Of course, there are certain autobiographical elements in almost every piece of fiction writing (and in memoirs, too — unless you're James Frey), but it takes a particular kind of author to make one of their main characters a writer. And it takes an even more specific writer to have this character write about the process of writing itself. At this point, is it even fiction? Is it some sort of transparent projection? Or is it laziness, falling back on a knowledgeable subject rather than doing necessary research for unfamiliar occupations and processes?

The most recent and glaringly obvious Mary Sue offering is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I enjoyed the pilot, but the three episodes that followed left me annoyed and perturbed at creator Aaron Sorkin's take on what qualifies as good writing, comedic or otherwise. It's bad enough to have to wade through the increasing number of smug, self-referential "in jokes" about Sorkin's antagonistic history with NBC as well as his highly publicized battles with drug addiction. But for him to condescendingly proclaim from on high that the show-within-a-show is "too smart" for a focus group really chaps my hide. So far, Studio 60 has invoked Gilbert & Sullivan, Molière and Strindberg — as well as commedia dell'arte (which would have been impressive indeed had a single character correctly pronounced the term — to prove its high-brow smartitude. The head writer, played by Matthew Perry, is constantly touted as an award-winning genius. However, when the viewing audience gets a glimpse of his awesome prowess, this characterization loses any strength. The "quality" on-air sketches briefly shown are "The Nicolas Cage Show," a scene featuring a screaming overweight golfer, the game show "Science Schmience" and the cutting-edge "Pimp My Trike." Really? "Pimp My Trike"? This is commedia dell'arte? Then again, I went to a state school; maybe I just don't understand this type of "humor." Exalting Matt as an amazing writer doesn't work at all when the output in substandard Saturday Night Live fare.

Last week's episode revolved around plagiarism. The questioned ownership of a not-at-all-funny 90-second monologue caused several mishaps during and after the live broadcast. A visiting reporter tells the network president an accusation is as good as actual proof: "You might as well accuse him of being a sex offender." Would it surprise you to know that Sorkin has been accused of, well, not exactly plagiarism, but of not giving another writer the proper credit on a West Wing Emmy-winning screenplay? Or that he named one of Studio 60's hack writers after this collaborator? I didn't think so. Which makes the decision to have the "bad" writers refuse to divulge exactly who offered the stolen material result in winning the respect of the "good" writers even more puzzling. Didn't Sorkin just liken such a heinous act to rape or pedophilia? Why should the "good" writers reward the "bad" ones for not turning over the culprit? This seems to contradict Sorkin's exalted stance on the writing process itself. Also, it's safe to say ratings have plummeted since the first episode; viewership has declined from 13.4 million to 8.8 million.

Television isn't the only arena for such practices. Cameron Crowe's film Almost Famous is an admittedly autobiographical take on Crowe's early years as a music journalist for Rolling Stone. The teenage protagonist tours with a band and becomes overly involved with both the musicians and their groupies, or "Band Aids." His editor reminds him, "They are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it." Near the end of the tour, the guitar player tells the teen to "Write what you want." He does.

Even more involved with writing himself into a movie is Charlie Kaufman. He won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for 2002's Adaptation., which is not itself an adaptation but a film about Kaufman writing about a film adaptation. Confused yet? I'll let Wikipedia explain:

The screenplay is based on a true story. Based on the success of his screenplay for Being John Malkovich, Kaufman was hired to write a screenplay based on Orlean's book [The Orchid Thief]. However, he soon realized that the book simply couldn't be filmed. As he came under increasing pressure to turn in a screenplay, the "adaptation" became a story of a screenwriter's attempt to write a screenplay about a book that can't be adapted into a screenplay. Kaufman handed the script to his employers in the firm believing he would never work again. Instead, the backers enjoyed the script so much they decided to abandon the original project and film Kaufman's screenplay instead.

Kaufman created a fictional twin brother named Donald and gave him writing credit on the screenplay as well (although Kaufman only got one Oscar statue). Untangling what is "true" and what is merely influence or inspiration makes Adaptation. an interesting exercise in what the kids today call "meta."

But, the most blatant and egotistical perpetrator of the "writers writing writers writing" technique is author Stephen King. Writers are either protagonists or main characters in the novels 'Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Stand, It, Misery, The Tommyknockers, The Dark Half, Bag of Bones and The Colorado Kid; the short stories "The Body," "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet," "Secret Garden, Secret Window," "The Night Flier," "Dedication," "Umney's Last Case," "In the Deathroom," "The Road Virus Heads North" and "1408"; and the teleplay "Sorry, Right Number." Several if not all of these characters experience the crushing pressure of writer's block, or they detail the authorship process itself. Write what you know and all, but yikes!

King took this one step farther in his The Dark Tower series. The first book of seven, published in 1982, introduced Roland, the last gunslinger in a world similar to ours but much more desolate and dangerous. In book five, Wolves of the Calla, the disgraced priest from 'Salem's Lot joins the narrative and the quest. This in itself is not that unusual; King often incorporates or alludes to other characters throughout his works. However, at the end of this installment, a physical copy of 'Salem's Lot convinces the characters that they must go between worlds to find its author, Stephen King.

At this point I stopped reading the series. There was no way I could suspend my disbelief that much — plus I thought it was… tacky. Yes, even for Stephen King. In the sixth installment, "The Gunslinger hypnotizes King and finds out that King is not a god, but just a medium for the story of the Dark Tower to speak through. He also implants in him the suggestion to restart his efforts in writing the Dark Tower series, which he has abandoned of late, citing an uncanny feeling that there are those who strongly don't want him to finish it." Really? Not a god, but an oracle? In the final book, King uses his real-life, nearly fatal encounter with a minivan to kill off one of the main characters, who sacrifices himself to save the horror schlockmeister. Is placing oneself so completely into one's work the ultimate example of involved creativity, or is it simple hubris?

One might argue that Kaufman is the bigger offender; after all, his percentage of putting himself in his work is much higher than King's. But that's only because King's output is both staggeringly prolific and a bit frightening in its own right. And yes, I realize that a writer (me) writing about writers (Sorkin, Crowe, Kaufman, King) writing about writers (Studio 60, Almost Famous, Adaptation. and King's enormous C.V.) writing about what they know (writing) isn't exactly lending credibility to my opinions. Maybe I should outline my personal writing procedures here, not as a navel gazing exercise but as a serious attempt to convey my take on what it all means.

Nahhhh. That's not pop; it's wankery.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the CW's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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