Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense

The writer’s defense

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“This book will be the death of me,” the writer Jose Chung broods to himself halfway through my favorite episode of Millennium. “I just can’t write anymore. What possessed me to be a writer anyway? What kind of a life is this? What else can I do now, with no other skills or ability? My life has fizzled away. Only two options left: suicide, or become a television weatherman.” I’ve loved this internal monologue—written by Darin Morgan and delivered by the great Charles Nelson Reilly—ever since I first heard it more than two decades ago. (As an aside, it’s startling for me to realize that just four short years separated the series premiere of The X-Files from “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense,” which was enough time for an entire fictional universe to be born, splinter apart, and reassemble itself into a better, more knowing incarnation.) And I find that I remember Chung’s words every time I sit down to write something new. I’ve been writing for a long time now, and I’m better at it than I am at pretty much anything else, but I still have to endure something like a moment of existential dread whenever I face the blank page for the first time. For the duration of the first draft, I regret all of my decisions, and I wonder whether there’s still a chance to try something else instead. Eventually, it passes. But it always happens. And after spending over a decade doing nothing else but writing, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it’s always going to be this way.

Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways of dealing with it. In fact, I’ve come to realize that most of my life choices are designed to minimize the amount of time that I spend writing first drafts. This means nothing else but the physical act of putting down words for the first time, which is when I tend to hit my psychological bottom. Everything else is fine by comparison. As a result, I’ve shunted aspects of my creative process to one side or the other of the rough draft, which persists as a thin slice of effort between two huge continents of preparation and consolidation. I prefer to do as much research in advance as I can, and I spend an ungodly amount of time on outlines, which I’ve elsewhere described as a stealth first draft that I can trick myself into thinking doesn’t matter. My weird, ritualistic use of mind maps and other forms of random brainstorming is another way to generate as many ideas as possible before I need to really start writing. When I finally start the first draft, I make a point of never going back to read it until I’ve physically typed out the entire thing, with my outline at my elbow, as if I’m just transcribing something that already exists. Ideally, I can crank out that part of the day’s work in an hour or less. Once it’s there on the screen, I can begin revising, taking as many passes as possible without worrying too much about any given version. In the end, I somehow end up with a draft that I can stand to read. It isn’t entirely painless, but it involves less pain than any other method that I can imagine.

And these strategies are all just specific instances of my favorite piece of writing advice, which I owe to the playwright David Mamet. I haven’t quoted it here for a while, so here it is again:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

As I’ve noted before, I badly wish that I could somehow send this paragraph back in time to my younger self, because it would have saved me years of wasted effort. But what Mamet doesn’t mention, perhaps because he thought that it was obvious, is that buried in that list of “achievable steps” is a monster of a task that can’t be eliminated, only reduced. There’s no getting around the time that you spend in front of the blank page, and even the best outline in the world can only take away so much of the pain. (An overly detailed outline may even cause problems later, if it leads to a work that seems lifeless and overdetermined—which leaves us with the uncomfortable fact that a certain amount of pain at the writing stage is necessary to avoid even greater trouble in the future.)

Of course, if you’re just looking to minimize the agony of writing that first draft, there are easier ways to anesthetize yourself. Jose Chung pours himself a glass of whiskey, and I’ve elsewhere characterized the widespread use of mind-altering chemicals by writers—particularly caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol—as a pragmatic survival tactic, like the other clichés that we associate with the bohemian life. And I haven’t been immune. For years, I’d often have a drink while working at night, and it certainly didn’t hurt my productivity. (A ring of discolored wood eventually appeared on the surface of my desk from the condensation on the glass, which said more about my habits than I realized at the time.) After I got married, and especially after I became a father, I had to drastically rethink my writing schedule. I was no longer writing long into the evening, but trying to cram as much work as I could into a few daylight hours, leaving me and my wife with a little time to ourselves after our daughter went to bed. As a result, the drinking stopped, and the more obsessive habits that I’ve developed in the meantime are meant to reduce the pain of writing with a clear head. This approach isn’t for everyone, and it may not work for anyone else at all. But it’s worth remembering that when you look at a reasonably productive writer, you’re really seeing a collection of behaviors that have accrued around the need to survive that daily engagement with the empty page. And if they tend to exhibit such an inexplicable range of strategies, vices, and rituals, ultimately, they’re all just forms of defense.

Written by nevalalee

September 12, 2018 at 8:21 am

The doomsday defense

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Note: Plot details follow for the X-Files episode “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat.”

You don’t usually get to pinpoint the precise moment at which your life changed, but for me, it occurred at about a quarter past nine on the evening of Friday, March 31, 1995. I was watching television in my bedroom, just a few feet away from a set that had been inconveniently placed against the wall by the foot of the bed. Because of its location, the most logical way to watch it was seated on the rug, all but pressed up against the screen, which meant that I experienced much of the second season of The X-Files from a position where I was close enough to touch it. That night, the episode was “Humbug,” and the scene that grabbed me the most was the Alligator Man’s funeral, which culminates in a character played by the circus performer Jim Rose clawing his way out of the grave to drive a steel spike into his own chest. After the attendees spill out of their chairs, Mulder waits for a beat and then deadpans: “I can’t wait for the wake.” And while this was far from the first outright joke to appear on the show—it had the usual number of quips and smart remarks that you see in any procedural—something about that line felt different from everything that came before it. It seemed to stand slightly above and to one side of the action, inviting us to note how absurd it all was before diving in even deeper. In allowing Mulder and Scully to be ironic about the situations in which they found themselves, it singlehandedly expanded the possibilities of a series that already seemed capable of anything. But it also brutally awakened us to how limited the show and its audience had been all along.

I thought of this moment again while watching the show last night, in which Mulder, now decades older, digs through a carton of videocassettes, looking in vain for a tape that no longer seems to exist. When Scully says that it can’t have been that good of an episode, Mulder shoots back: “It’s not about the episode, Scully. It’s about my memory of seeing my first Twilight Zone. It changed me. You don’t forget that.” The author of these lines, of course, is Darin Morgan, and I’d like to think that this exchange is a nod to the undeniable fact that his work changed the lives of countless viewers when it first aired more than twenty years ago. The core of Morgan’s achievement—which I define as the episodes “Humbug,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “War of the Coprophages,” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” along with “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense” and “Somehow Satan Got Behind Me” from Millennium and “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” and now “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” on the current revival—is my favorite body of work by any single writer on television. Over the years, it has certainly meant more to me than any other. Morgan is often remembered as the writer who introduced a note of black comedy into The X-Files, but his real contribution was his insight that humor is the only way of dealing with certain truths that can’t be ignored. A fluke monster or zombie isn’t nearly as terrifying as the knowledge that after a lifetime of struggling for love, approval, and security, we’re all destined to die alone. Not even Mulder and Scully can do anything about this. What else can you do but laugh?

“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” is probably the last episode of The X-Files that we’ll ever get from Darin Morgan, and it plays like a valediction to a show that has consumed more of his life—and mine—than either of us had any right to expect. (If “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” was Morgan’s most modest effort since “Humbug,” “Forehead Sweat” returns to the insane formal experimentation of the two episodes featuring the writer Jose Chung, and its only real shortcoming is the unavoidable absence of the late Charles Nelson Reilly.) In typical Morgan fashion, it starts out as a riff on the Mandela Effect, complete with a reference to the Berenstain Bears, and then quietly begins to drop hints that our existential predicament is worse than we ever suspected. Morgan’s central theme has always been the futility of our pretensions in the face of death, but now he implies that even Mulder and Scully may have been wasting their time all along. He pins the blame on one figure in particular, and it isn’t the Cigarette-Smoking Man. Beneath its surface whimsy, this is the angriest, most politically charged episode in the history of The X-Files, and while some of its gags about a border wall may seem too on the nose, Morgan is writing for a future audience that will hopefully find them more obscure. But he’s also posing a question that feels all too relevant. Now that we’re living in a time when crimes can be committed in plain sight because millions of Americans seem willing to forgive, overlook, or deny everything, what’s the point of a government conspiracy? Mulder has devoted his life to searching for the truth, but even if he finds it, it’s possible that nobody will care.

Morgan doesn’t have an answer, and our world continues to change too rapidly to be satirized by even the most sophisticated works of art. (At one point in the episode, a character refers to “our current president” uttering the phrase “Nobody knows for sure.” I couldn’t place the reference, so I looked it up online, only to find that Trump had tweeted it about the status of the Dreamers just the day before the episode aired. As a radio host on The Simpsons once marveled of a computerized disk jockey: “How does it keep up with the news like that?”) But maybe the overall arc of Morgan’s career offers us a reason for hope. He never felt entirely at home in the writers room, and his skepticism toward the show itself was manifested both in his fondness for Scully—no one has ever done a better job of writing for her—and in his open contempt for Mulder. For years after leaving the series, he kicked around Hollywood without any writing credits, and he often came off as ambivalent toward his own accomplishments. Now he seems to have made his peace with it, and his status as a relative outsider allows him to express his affection for the show’s legacy more honestly than someone like Chris Carter ever could. “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” was like an olive branch to the characters with whom, for better or worse, he’ll always be associated, and “Forehead Sweat” feels like his farewell. At the end, with a sentimentality that would seem excessive coming from anyone else, Scully says to Mulder: “I want to remember it how it was. I want to remember how it all was.” So do I. In particular, I want to remember Jose Chung, whose last act, after being fatally attacked by an axe murderer, was to point to Terry O’Quinn and ask: “Don’t you just love that mustache?” And when I remember Darin Morgan, all I want to do is thank him. For all of it.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

April 1, 2011 at 7:57 am

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