As a professional writer, I’ve always been pretty good at not writing. Not writing, in fact, is one of my chief skills. I can not write anywhere -- on a plane, in a coffee shop, in my office -- and I often feel that a day spent without not writing is a day wasted. I even keep a notebook by the side of the bed, in case I wake up with an idea at 3 in the morning and don’t want to write it down in case I don’t forget it.
So, obviously, the prospect of a writers strike puts me in a curious position. Among the many proclamations and communiques issued by the leadership of the Writers Guild of America, as it marches its membership to glorious and pointless suicide, is an alarming list of things we’re not supposed to do if there’s a strike. Mostly, these involve some form of writing, which is something I tend not to do anyway. But left purposely vague, it seems to me, is the whole notion of noodling. You know: not really writing writing, but noodling around an area. Playing with an arena. Staring off into space and thinking about a scene you might write if you could, you know, just grab two days or a weekend in Big Sur and plow through it.
When I think of writing, that’s pretty much what comes to mind: sitting around, drinking a pumpkin latte and checking my e-mail every seven seconds. And my question is, if there’s a strike, am I still allowed to do that?
Or, for that matter, this? Right now, I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Venice, surrounded by muttering derelicts, writing prose for the Los Angeles Times. But what if I suddenly wrote
INT. COFFEE SHOP IN VENICE -- DAY
Rob sits at a table, typing on his MacBook Pro, surrounded by muttering derelicts. He looks up from his computer.
I’m pretty sure if there’s a strike, I won’t be allowed to write something in this format. In fact, in the angry, paranoid atmosphere of a WGA labor dispute, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the guild leadership was organizing a network of spies to station at various writers’ hangouts around town, like the Office in Brentwood or the 18th Street Coffeehouse in Santa Monica, to identify the traitors and scabs among us.
One of the derelicts next to Rob leans over and peers at the screen on his laptop.
(into a small microphone under his shirt cuff)
It’s confirmed. Repeat: confirmed. A Final Draft document is open on the desktop. Move in!
Rob quickly shuts the laptop and hurries off.
In 1988, when the last WGA strike reached a settlement -- and in this context, the phrase “reached a settlement” refers to the moment that the guild membership, exhausted and broke after five months, whimpered its way to an unconditional surrender -- a few days later there appeared all over town, like crocuses poking through the snow, an awful lot of spec scripts.
The town was flooded with buddy comedies, cop dramas, blended-family sitcoms, erotic thrillers and cop-partnered-with-orangutan projects. So many, in fact, that it was clear that a lot of striking guild members, when not picketing on Lankershim or brooding about their ill-treatment, had been doing a good deal more than noodling around an idea.
Although they publicly claimed to have spent the five-month strike merely thinking about writing -- and the three days after it up in Big Sur, you know, just plowing through it, totally focused -- it was hard to deny that some guild members took the strike as an opportunity to hit reset on their careers. So among the foreclosures and the cancellations and the force majeur’ed contracts, there was, apparently, a bright side. Something to look forward to, I guess.
But that was back in 1988, before Starbucks and iPods and Wi-Fi. Back then, most writers wrote at home, so it was easy to sit in the backyard, away from prying eyes, and work on your serial killer spec in between strike meetings. Things are different now. These days, writers sit in public places all over town, earbuds in, laptops out. The strike is going to change all of that.
For my part, though, I think I’ll find the not writing part of the strike pretty easy to comply with, as it so closely matches my normal daily routine. So if you’re a WGA spy and you see me at the Coffee Bean, laptop open, clicking and typing away merrily, I assure you I won’t be writing. I’ll be frittering away my time, surfing the Web and sending e-mails. You know, business as usual.