Should Writers Kill Our Televisions?

I figure this is an appropriate post for the #1 TV-watching day in the U.S. Enjoy the chicken wings, football fans!

But first, congratulations are in order. In Nathan Bransford’s Most Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Contest last week, 2 of the 17 winners (out of more than 1500) are regular followers of this blog!

Congratulations, Ann and Ben. Maybe some of that good writing mojo will rub off on the rest of us.

Memoirist Ann Best got an hon. mention for her wonderfully evocative piece, and Beniot LeLièvre placed among the six finalists with a powerful opening that contained the line—

“It’s local custom to shell up in a living room and anesthetize your dread of the coming week with a massive dose of televised entertainment.”

It gave me chills—not only the great writing, but the timeliness of the message. I realized I’ve been doing just that—anesthetizing my dread. I watch about three hours of TV a night—sometimes more, as I zone out and numb my brain to all my lurking fears.

Strangely, I’d often rather read a book, but I feel a bizarre obligation to watch—as if regularly going comatose in front of a cathode ray tube is a requirement for membership in modern civilization.

I guess this is because I belong to the first generation to grow up with TV. Everything that made Boomers who we are came from television—from the chirpy mind control of the Mickey Mouse Club, to the first-ever televised horrors of war, to the astro-turfing of the Tea Party.

Boomers’ psyches were formed in a time when TV dominated American lives. Everybody we knew watched the same shows. Missing an Ed Sullivan show on Sunday night meant you couldn’t join in the conversation on Monday morning. The average Boomer has spent two years of life just watching TV commercials.

And even though I lived for long periods far from television—a decade or so traveling the world as a hippie vagabond, and more in the theater as an entertainment provider rather than consumer—I came back to it every time.

TV-watching is my default mode.

But I’m about to put an end to that. I’m having a birthday in a couple of weeks and my gift to myself is—NO TV. My Direct TV service ends on February 22.

OK, I’ve gotta admit this is partly out of financial necessity. Direct TV has tripled its fees in the last month and my health insurance has gone up twice in the past six. It’s easier to do without TV reception than a house, which I would lose if I got sick with no insurance.

But I’m embracing the change as positive because I’ve been feeling for a long time that TV is standing in the way of my success as a writer. It’s wasting my ever-dwindling time—time I could spend writing and (just as important) reading.

And there’s what Ben LeLièvre said: television anesthetizes us. I’ve read it reduces your metabolism to a lower level than sleep.

Writers need to be fully alive. We need to be paying attention. We can’t do that if we’re hypnotized drones offering up our free will to corporate advertisers.

We also need to get our plots and characters from our own original observations of life—not old TV scripts.

Plus, when your head is stuffed with teleplays, your fiction suffers. As editor Victoria Mixon said in her great post, 6 Ways to Shoot Yourself in the Foot : "Far, far too many aspiring writers these days are trying to write fiction the way they see storytelling done in television and in movies. But fiction isn’t screenplay. The page isn’t film. They’re not the same medium.”

They say if you want to be a success at something, act like a successful person. If you ask most successful writers how they do it—writing a couple of novels a year, doing the publicity, marketing, reviewing, and social networking—plus staying connected with family and friends, they almost all start by saying:

“I don’t watch a lot of television.”

The television age is fading. It’s becoming a medium for people who have given up on their own lives in favor of watching Snooki’s.

“Nobody watches TV but old people,” my twenty-something nephews told me recently. They won’t watch one even if it’s on in the same room. They’ll boot up their laptops or grab a book—as if they could catch geezeritis just from glancing at the screen.

Statistics say they’re right about the TV demographic. According to an article in Gawker last August, Television has become seriously engeezerated in the last ten years: The average age of a TV watcher is now 55. The most decrepit watch Fox News, and the merely middle-aged watch the other Fox—the one with the Simpsons. And the Superbowl.

(I wonder why network executives don’t notice this and give older actors and un-botoxed newspeople work—instead of doing pathetic stuff like hiring unfunny hotties du jour like James Franco and Anne Hathaway to host the Oscars. Execs—go ask Grandpa if he’s ever heard of Franco or Hathaway—I dare you.)

I’m not saying giving up TV will keep my brain cells from aging, but my looming birthday reminds me I have a limited amount of time on this planet—and I think I’ve already offered up enough of it to the television gods.

I know I’ll go through a little cold turkey. I’ll miss my ritual of eating dinner with the local newscast (I know—how geezerific is that?) And I won’t be able to watch the much-anticipated second season of Justified, or next summer’s Mad Men, until they come out on Netflix. But I’ve got a library nearby (until CA shuts them all down, anyway) and a pile of unread books and literary magazines waiting for me—not to mention all those BBC radio dramas I can listen to on my laptop. I’ll be fine.

In fact, I think my home entertainment is about to get an upgrade.

So what about you? Anybody still watching the boob tube? Have you given it up recently? Did it affect your writing?


A final note: I belong to a fine organization called the SLO Nightwriters (SLO stands for “San Luis Obispo” and is not intended as a description of our mental functioning.) Every year we hold a 500-word flash-fiction contest, and recently there’s been a poetry category as well. This year’s theme is “illumination.” There are cash prizes. Info is at the Nightwriters Website.

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