In the late 1980’s I loved Thirtysomething, the show with the ensemble cast that depicted the travails of yuppydom amongst a group of friends in upper middle class Philadelphia. I would curl up in my sofa bed (the springs of which my much older back would not now abide) in my studio apartment on the upper west side and watch every Tuesday night at 10pm. Legit Old school. No DVR. NO On Demand.
If you aren’t old enough to remember this show, it doesn’t matter. I just want to talk about one powerful episode that has stayed with me for years because of what it says about the writing process. The name of the episode, written by Joseph Dougherty is Michael Writes A Story, and it’s worth watching if you care about the craft of writing.
Ok, so the main character, Michael loses his job, and at loose ends, wondering how he’s going to support his wife, daughter, and new baby on the way, indulges in a little escapism and decides he’s going to take a writing course at the local community center to finish up that novel that has always been inside of him but has never seen more than a short draft (It’s called The Girl With the Kool-Aid Smile, and from that I think we are to infer that perhaps it is better that it has seen nothing more than a short draft).
Anyway, when Michael arrives at the first class he is full of obnoxious bravado and believes the other students there will be “novices” and that he will just be sharpening his skills. As he enters the class he runs into Nancy, his best friend’s estranged wife who, coincidentally, is also taking the class because she is trying to write a children’s book. She is an artist by trade , so the pictures of her children’s book come easily to her, but she is far less sure of her ability to write or tell a story in words.
The writing teacher, Ivy Dunbar, is played to perfection by the actress Lorinne Vozoff. Ivy is clearly not an author of blockbuster airport reads. You are quickly made to understand that her work has an erudite, academic following and that Michael and Nancy have both read her as undergraduates. Ivy has flyaway hair and no makeup. She is a bit heavy. She has the look of someone who is more concerned with the life of her characters on the page, than life itself. Ivy as a teacher is not dismissive of her students, but neither is she about to coddle them. She begins the class by giving Michael, Nancy, and the rest of the assemblage some pithy advice.
She says, “I am not going to teach you about writing. You already are writers or your wouldn’t be here, believe me. But you do all need to get past where you are, past the need to stand between the work and the reader so he’ll know how clever you are. Because good writing is writing that appears not to have been constructed, but to have ripened like a banana. The key to this is honesty. There are no rules in writing except honesty. If you learn that, you will have spent your money well.”
Who doesn’t wish they were in that writing class? Ivy gives the class the first assignment. She says not to spend more than an hour on it because she is just checking everyone’s “basic wiring.” She asks them all to write about a parting.
Right after class, Michael and Nancy go for coffee at a diner. Things are a bit weird because Nancy’s estranged husband is Michael’s best friend . Michael and Nancy order coffee, begin talking, and it soon becomes clear to Michael that Nancy is waiting for someone. She tells Michael that there is a new man in her life but that she doesn’t want to go into detail because Michael is so intertwined with her ex-husband. The new boyfriend shows up and then in a subsequent scene we see Michael trying to fulfill Ivy’s first assignment about a parting.
This is where fascinating aspects of the writing process come up. Michael does not need to grasp for subject matter for his assignment. That much is clear. The story that he wants to tell, the one that is on his mind and in his soul is the one of sitting with Nancy in that diner and feeling so conflicted about seeing his best friend’s wife moving on with a new man.
But Michael has a problem. If he writes this story as it happened, how can he read it aloud in class the next week?
Nancy will be there. Michael tries to solve the problem by setting his story about the events in the diner in a kind of cheesy film noir setting with the characters’ portraying himself, Nancy, and the new boyfriend like Mickey Spillane gangsters and gun mauls. At one point, the character who is supposed to be Nancy is described as wearing her “chemise the way lesser women wore diamonds” and later she opines that she and others are all “socks in God’s hamper.”
Meanwhile, Nancy, with unassuming innocence, her belief intact that she knows nothing about writing, writes about a parting as well. She writes in third person about the day her estranged husband, left the house for good. Her prose is honest, spare and arresting. She talks about the moments after he leaves and how she could not remember later whether they had “kissed or shaken hands” and how after he was gone she “walked about the house turning on the lights.”
As Ivy’s incredulity quickly indicates during the next class, Michael has not gotten the assignment right. “Socks in God’s hamper?” she queries sardonically when he finishes reading. On the other hand, Nancy has nailed it. And the reason why is patently clear. Nancy has been honest and told the story in her soul. Michael, due to his conceit about his skills as well as the complicated circumstances of the writing class, has not told the truth. He may have had valiant reasons for being dishonest, but the writing doesn’t care. Writing, as Ivy Dunbar told us, demands honesty, and Michael has not only lied, he’s done exactly what Ivy told him not to do: stood like an orange flashing highway barricade between himself and his reader, throwing around phrases like “God’s hamper” and “ennui” so everyone thinks he is clever. Spoiler Alert: No one does.
Ivy is pretty merciless, Michael is chagrined, but one thing is clear. Michael really needs to tell this story because despite the fact that it is logistically difficult for him to tell it with Nancy in the class or the fact that Ivy panned his first draft, he keeps motoring through draft after draft.
In a subsequent scene Michael is talking with Nancy’s ex-husband who, clearly a bit regretful over the split with Nancy, tells Michael that when he and Nancy were in college and he had to go away for a weekend, he gave her his watch to wear so that she might feel close to him. When he returned and they made love, he says he remembers the watch on her wrist hitting the headboard of the bed. Nancy’s ex husband asks Michael to tell him if Nancy starts wearing another guy’s watch.
Hearing this, Michael in fulfillment of another one of Ivy’s writing assignments, hauls out his whole cast of Mickey Spillane characters again, spewing mixed metaphors and hackneyed similes, but amongst all this verbiage, he includes one image that breathes and lives. His female character may be wearing a frock of chemise the way lesser women wear diamonds, but she also wears a watch which when she is in congress with her lover hits against a bed headboard and marks off the seconds and minutes of life.
When Michael reads this new assignment in class, Ivy is no less exacting but she gives him one word of encouragement. “I liked the watch,” she says.
Ivy may well have liked the watch; it was true and honest, so honest and well written that even submerged in the Mickey Spillane prose Nancy, who is sitting in the seat aside Michael, recognizes it and rubs her wrist, clearly feeling naked and violated and betrayed.
Michael may have just crossed an ethical line, but he got honest and the writing got good.
I don’t know Joseph Dougherty, the writer of this episode, but I wish I did. Dougherty’s episode does so much more than tell a good story. It tells a good story about how to write a good story. It brings up the ethics of telling someone else’s story, the exacting demands that writing can have on one’s life, and the notion that writing is not a substitute for living, but what I took away from the episode 30 years ago in my little studio apartment on West 66th and why I still remember it today and use it in my writing classroom is because of its basic premise.
Dougherty underscores that some stories demand to be told, and if we get in their way with subterfuge or big words, we do more than dilute them, we destroy them.
We’ve got to learn to be quiet enough to hear those stories roiling around in our souls and then brave enough to let them tell themselves without our egos getting in the way.
Sounds easy but it’s not. And the task becomes even more challenging when you try to help your students access their soul stories.
What’s your soul story? Can you hear it? Stop and listen.
Cristina James , May 12, 1017