NEWS

Michael Winship: 'Why We Write' — and why we don't, for now

Michael Winship, columnist

As the nefarious Miss Hannigan of “Annie” fame would say, “Why any kid would want to be an orphan is beyond me.”

Same goes for many of us who write for a living. Why we’d want to put up with the stress and strain is beyond us, and yet we do it, obliged to put words to paper or computer screen for love or money or ... what?

“It is a strange force... that compels anyone to be a writer at all,” Dorothy Parker wrote. “The writer’s way is rough and lonely, and who would choose it while there are vacancies in more gracious professions, such as, say, cleaning out ferryboats?”

The members of the Writers Guild of America are now in their third month on strike against the big global media conglomerates that control the Hollywood studios and television networks. As part of that effort, many have been contributing to a series of online essays collectively titled “Why We Write.” You can read them at http://whywewriteseries.wordpress.com.

For me, the urge was fostered in part by a mother who, in a semi-successful effort to get at least one of her four children out of her hair, used to plunk me down at a downstairs table in front of her vintage Smith Corona Clipper typewriter. I would bang away at it, copying photo captions out of Life Magazine, index fingers flying over the keys, eventually achieving a speed that in later years eliminated the need for touch typing lessons.

At the same time, we kids weren’t allowed to stay up late to watch TV, so at the breakfast table, Mom often would describe in lavish detail the plots of the sitcoms she had watched the night before. Not surprisingly, when the real thing was seen during holidays or school vacations, Andy Griffith and the sailors of McHale’s Navy often couldn’t hold a candle to her dramatic reinterpretation.

Were these maternal influences enough to kick-start a life writing for television?

Perhaps. There were plenty of other factors. Regardless, it has been a good, lively career, taking me places and bringing me into contact with people otherwise impossible. And creating rare moments like the afternoon I was walking down the street behind a mother and her 6-year-old daughter. The girl was telling her mother a story she had heard on TV and I realized it was something I had written.

But, as Dr. Johnson told Boswell, “No one but a blockhead ever wrote but for money.”

And so we’re still on strike. While there are other issues in play, primary remains our demand to fairly be paid for the use of our work on the Internet and via other forms of new media, some of which, in all likelihood, have yet to be imagined. Television, we believe, is merging into cyberspace and we deserve recompense for streaming and downloading of what we create — whether it’s an episode of “The Office” or something totally new that’s exclusive to the Web.

Relative to the usual show-biz finance, we’re asking for so little — around $120 million or so across a three-year contract — that recently, the global investment firm Bear Stearns issued a report stating, “From Wall Street’s perspective, we estimate the impact of accepting the (writers’) proposal is largely negligible.”

So why are the studios and networks so resistant? It would be easy to say greed but it’s also about fear, fear of the unknown. We know that the outlook for new media is uncertain. It’s a risk we’re willing to take, a future we’re eager and willing to explore, either with or without them.

As president of the Writers Guild, East — some 4,000 men and women living and working this side of the Mississippi (there are 8,000 or so in the Guild, West) — I’ve been witness to a solidarity and unity that are as jaw-dropping as they are inspiring.  

Why do we write? As another of my literary heroes, James Thurber, wrote to some inquisitive boys 50 years ago, “I write because I have to write and it’s a good thing a writer gets paid. If I juggled because I have to juggle I couldn’t live…

“You can also say that writers could get more written if they didn’t have to answer so many questions about why they write.”

Michael Winship, a native of Canandaigua, is a freelance television writer in Manhattan and president of the Writers Guild of America, East.