Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Millennium

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.

The X Word

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"Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Man"

Note: Spoilers follow—really!—for the upcoming season of The X-Files.

As a longtime X-Files fan eagerly awaiting the show’s upcoming return, I’ve spent the last year consuming even the tiniest scraps of information about the new season. Casting announcements, photos from the set, the briefest of teasers—I’ve studied them all, not so much for clues about what was coming as for the small tingle of pleasurable anticipation they inspired. Last week saw the release of our thickest slice of information yet: a full featurette, The X-Files Reopened,” with more than twenty minutes of interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and clips from new episodes. It was great to see David Duchovny, the agelessly beautiful Gillian Anderson, Mitch Pileggi, and Chris Carter, and I was especially glad for the appearance of a surprisingly trim-looking Darin Morgan. Morgan, the writer responsible for such classic casefiles as “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” is one of my favorite authors in any medium, and the prospect of a new episode from his brain is one of the most exciting aspects of the show’s resurrection. As I listened to him describe his episode and caught glimpses of the new scenes, however, I noticed that much of it seemed familiar. And I finally realized that not only did I know a lot about this episode, but I’d read an early version of the script in its entirety.

At this point, a little background information is probably necessary. After his short but triumphant run at The X-Files, including an Emmy win for “Clyde Bruckman,” Morgan moved to Millennium, where he wrote and directed a pair of excellent episodes. And after that—nothing. Like many a great screenwriter before him, Morgan spent more than a decade in the wilderness, with rumors of new projects occasionally surfacing but nothing produced under his byline. (I know this because I actually created his Wikipedia article, a fact that I occasionally forget when I go to look him up and find myself reading my own words.) Morgan tended to pop up in projects produced by his brother Glen, another X-Files veteran, and his first televised scripts in many years took the form of two installments of the supernatural teen soap Tower Prep, which aired in 2010. Before that, however, he’d worked as a consulting producer on his brother’s reboot of Night Stalker—the original version of which had influenced Chris Carter himself—that aired for a grand total of six weeks five years earlier. Morgan wrote a script for the show, titled “The M Word,” which was never produced. But the teleplay was made available as a bonus feature in the box set of the series, and it later turned up online, which is where I found it years ago. It’s smart and funny, like everything else Morgan has ever written, and you can still read the whole thing here.

"Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Man"

And a quick comparison of the X-Files promotional footage and the Night Stalker script indicates that Darin Morgan’s “new” episode, titled “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” is close to an exact remake of “The M Word.” In the segment of the featurette starting around 16:33, Morgan says that he had wanted to make a monster in homage to Creature from the Black Lagoon, which precisely matches the description from the teleplay:

The man-sized creature looks reptilian, resembling a horned lizard (including, obviously, some occipital horns). Its features also have a humanness to them, in the manner of Jack Pierce’s classic Universal makeup designs of yore. In short—it’s a monster!

The scene that follows, in which the monster scares a couple of stoners in the woods, appears to have been faithfully shot as written, down to the line “Did that just happen?” A later scene, in which Mulder and Scully interview a transgender character who shot at the monster, also tracks a scene in the earlier script almost word for word, including the opening camera move in which Mulder is seen through a hole in the witness’s purse—”Looks like you gave it a pretty good shot!”—and the memorable exchange: “It was only wearing underwear.” “Boxers or briefs?” Both feature a scene in which the hapless protagonist is surprised to see that his hand is transforming. And this character’s name in both episodes, which is a slight plot spoiler in itself, is Guy Mann.

As far as I know, no other media outlet has noticed that a script for one of the most highly anticipated and closely guarded reboots of the year is basically available online for anybody to read. An article by Den of Geek from last summer refers to the “possibility” that the script was derived from “The M Word,” and a few astute fans on X-Files message boards have also made the connection, but that’s it. I haven’t done more than skim the old script, mostly because I don’t want my first experience of the episode to be ruined, but part of me feels slightly disappointed that Morgan didn’t write a new story from scratch: he understands the appeal of the original show so well—and was responsible in such a large part for creating it—that I wish he’d done more than plug Mulder and Scully into an existing equation. Of course, this script has probably been revised in ways that we haven’t seen, and I suspect that when Morgan wrote his original Night Stalker episode, he was secretly thinking of The X-Files anyway. And I can’t blame him for wanting to rescue a premise that he thought was lost: Morgan’s writing process has always been a laborious one, and it makes sense that he’d try to recover those sunk costs. (As Jose Chung once said: “Unlike profiling serial killers, writing is a very depressing and lonely profession.”) If I were in his shoes, I’d have done much the same. I’m still looking forward to it more than anything else due to air on television this year. And if the revived series takes off and we’re lucky, maybe Morgan will start afresh, and solve a new equation for X.

The Darin Morgan files

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Darin Morgan in The X-Files episode "Small Potatoes"

Yesterday, I finally listened to the fantastic interview between Kumail Nanjiani and the writer Darin Morgan, which took up nearly two full hours of the former’s ongoing podcast about The X-Files. If anything, it was too short: Morgan came fully prepared with stories about his brief tenure on my favorite television show of all time, and they only managed to get through “Humbug” and “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” (They’ve promised a reunion to cover “War of the Coprophages” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” and I’ll be awaiting it even more eagerly than the next installment of Serial.) I’ve written about Morgan here before, but I don’t think I’ve made it clear how great my debt to him really is: if I were to make an objective list of the writers who have most influenced my own work, he’d rank in the top five. And I can trace it all back to one line in “Humbug,” after a circus performer performs an impromptu eulogy at a funeral by driving a railroad spike into his chest. After the rest of the crowd has dispersed, Mulder observes, still seated: “I can’t wait for the wake.” And while I was already a fan of The X-Files, something in that moment opened up a new world of possibilities: it’s no exaggeration to say that my sense of the genre’s potential been quietly but permanently expanded.

After listening to the interview, I turned, naturally enough, to Darin Morgan’s Wikipedia page. I was primarily interested in learning more about his current gig—the show Intruders, which, like most of his recent work, was produced by his brother Glen—but I ended up being confronted by something strangely familiar. It wasn’t until I’d opened the page and read the first paragraph, in fact, that I remembered that I’d created that article more than ten years ago, back in Wikipedia’s wild early days. (It’s a reflection of how important Morgan is to me that this article was one of the first I contributed, right after the one for mix tape.) And I was a little startled by how much of my original text is still intact, although unseen hands have done a helpful job of providing necessary references and citations. This is a reflection both of Wikipedia’s curious inertia, in which some pages can go untouched for years, but also to the apparent stasis of Morgan’s own career. Ten years ago, I was able to accurately describe Morgan as a writer best known for six offbeat episodes of The X-Files and Millennium, and that hasn’t really changed. Since then, his only visible productions have been two episodes of the show Tower Prep, one episode of Those Who Kill, and his aforementioned work on Intruders—the latter two of which aren’t even listed in the article yet, although I’ll probably add them if I have a spare moment later today.

Charles Nelson Reilly and Lance Henriksen in "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense"

So what happened? I’m hoping that Nanjiani and Morgan will discuss this further in their next chat, but the reason isn’t hard to pin down: it’s some combination of the natural uncertainty of a writer’s life and Morgan’s own discomfort with the television medium. Trying to write for a living, particularly in Hollywood, is so tenuous an enterprise that it’s not surprising to find acclaimed writers—even those with Emmys—toiling for decades without any new credits to show for it. There are countless examples of screenwriters who made one big splash and haven’t appeared anywhere since, and this doesn’t mean that they haven’t been working: for a given writer’s name to end up on a movie, not only does the script have to survive the development process, but all the ensuing factors involved in production and arbitration have to line up just right. If anything, it’s more surprising when it happens than when it doesn’t. The conditions in television are somewhat different, but in his interview with Nanjiani, Morgan reiterates that he never felt especially comfortable in the writer’s room. (After seeing the first dailies for “Humbug,” which were nothing like what he’d seen in his head, he was physically distressed to the point that he nearly got into a car accident on the way home.)

What’s funny, of course, is that Morgan has continued to work in television ever since, albeit sporadically, and he says that his experience on The X-Files was by a large measure the best he would ever have, even if he wasn’t able to appreciate this at the time. (He notes that his episodes were shot with a minimum of network interference, whereas his scripts these days come back with pages of notes, and his thoughts on this are enlightening in themselves—he thinks that the constant threat of cancellation has compressed the timeline in which a television series can evolve, creating enormous pressure on writers and executives alike.) It isn’t hard to imagine a world in which Morgan had a career more like that of his old colleague Vince Gilligan, or even of Charlie Kaufman, whose work he anticipated by half a decade—and under far greater constraints. And the fact that he hasn’t serves as another reminder of how much lies outside a writer’s control, regardless of talent or recognition. This isn’t a lesson that Morgan needed to be taught: from “Clyde Bruckman” on, one of his great themes has been how little we can influence or understand the tricks the world plays on us. I don’t know what Morgan’s life has been like in the ten years since I created his page on Wikipedia, but I suspect that it would make an interesting movie. And Charlie Kaufman would probably get to write it.

Learning from the masters: Darin Morgan and The X-Files

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Originally this post was going to be about The Simpsons, which has obviously been a major influence on everyone’s inner life, but since my wife pointed out that I could easily do a whole week’s worth of posts on the fourth season alone, I’ll be saving it for another day. Instead, since my novelette “Kawataro” will hopefully be appearing in bookstores next week, I’ll be talking about the work of art that has influenced my published fiction more than any other. Because until The Icon Thief comes out next year, I’m really just the author of this blog and three novelettes in Analog, with a fourth to come, all of which have been deeply influenced by The X-Files.

Television is a funny thing. One’s experience of it, more than any other art form (aside perhaps from music), is usually the product of timing and proximity. If you grew up in a house like most in America, in the days before our lives were taken over by other glowing rectangles, the television was always on, and your tastes were inevitably shaped by whatever happened to be on the air when you were at an impressionable age. I’m hugely thankful that I born at a time when I could watch the best years of The Simpsons as they aired—especially now that the glut of more recent episodes is driving those episodes out of syndication, so that many younger viewers won’t have seen them at all—but I’m even more grateful for the fact that I was thirteen years old on September 10, 1993, when The X-Files premiered.

Looking back, it’s hard to say why this particular show grabbed my imagination. At first, I was a little skeptical of the premise—I couldn’t see how these two FBI agents could have a new adventure every week and then never refer to it again—but once I got past the anthology format, I found that this was the television show that I’d been waiting for my entire life. It was suspenseful, beautifully crafted, often very clever, and built on a compelling sense of mystery and paranoia. (This was also the year in which I read Foucault’s Pendulum and saw JFK. Take that year away, and I’d be a different person entirely.) My discovery of a vast online fandom played a major role, as did the world of fanfic, where I wrote my earliest stories, and which set me on the course on which I continue today, at least as far as my short fiction is concerned.

The big lesson that The X-Files taught me was the importance of formula. Formulas play a huge role in all episodic television, where the pace of production means that writers and producers need to fall back on certain basic structures. Watching a television series over the course of multiple seasons is the easiest way to get a sense of a formula’s strengths and limitations. What set The X-Files apart is how it discovered, almost by accident, a formula of extraordinary versatility and suppleness: two investigators, an atmospheric location, and an inexplicable event. (It’s so good a formula that I’ve happily appropriated it for some of my own stories.) There’s something reassuring about how each episode falls into the same rhythms, and even more so when the show pushes against its own conventions—another illustration of the power of constraints.

Which brings me to Darin Morgan (whose Wikipedia page I created years ago, although I take no responsibility for its current state). Morgan is a television writer who wrote only four episodes of The X-Files and two more of Millennium, and yet his work continues to resonate. He was the Charlie Kaufman of television, long before anyone had ever heard of Charlie Kaufman: funny, ingenious, and formally inventive, with a deeply despairing view of existence, in which the true secret is not some government conspiracy but the fact that we all die alone. And his work was most interesting—notably in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”—in its struggles against, and subtle contempt for, the show’s own limitations. Perhaps this is why Morgan fell silent for more than a decade: he needed the formula to give shape to his flights of originality, and without Mulder, Scully, and Frank Black, he was never the same. Which only demonstrates how powerful a formula can be.

(Even as I write this, though, I learn that he’s resurfaced as a writer for Tower Prep, of all things. I’m very curious about this…)

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

April 1, 2011 at 7:57 am

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