Andy Bobrow, a writer for Community, has written a piece for Medium called “How Writing for the TV Show Community Cured Me.” What he was cured of is a serious malady called Shit Writing Syndrome
I’ll assume you’ve never heard of it. I hadn’t. Webster’s Dictionary defines Shit Writing Syndrome as “a disorder that turns one’s writing to shit, for example, by causing one to quote this dictionary when describing the disorder.”In the piece, Bobrow tells how his writing had turned to shit (before he joined Community, he wrote and produced a string of really terrible sitcoms), until he was lucky enough to land a job working with Dan Harmon. In a fictionalized conversation between himself and Harmon, he talks about how he was cured, or at least sent into remission.
“Everyone’s writing is shit and it’s incurable. All you can do is manage it.”
And that’s when he told me the secret, the answer, the whole Kwanzaa.
“The first step, which you’ve already taken, is to open your eyes and see the shit on the page. The second step is to drink because it fucking sucks knowing how bad you are. It’s depressing. You can skip the drinking step if you want, it’s not a requirement. But the third step is also to drink, so you’ll have to skip two steps. You do pills? Weed?”
“I do Pop Tarts.”
“That shit’ll kill you.”
“I know, I’m working on it.”
“Okay, step four for you is sugar. Step five is delete. Keep the two percent that isn’t shit and delete the ninety-eight percent that’s shit. Rewrite it. Within your re-write, there will be two more percent that isn’t shit. Then just keep tossing the shit and replacing it until the ratio is tolerable.”
“How do I know when it’s tolerable?”
“I don’t know, make up your own answer, you’re the fucking hero in this, finish your own story, find your own Nemo, Schindle your own list.”
And that began the amazing exhausting process whereby Dan Harmon rewrote my shit, and his shit and everyone rewrote everyone’s shit until it was significantly less shit.
Have I slayed the dragon? No. I basically still suck. It’s still a daily struggle. And I’ll be honest, most days I just settle for shit so I can get home and see my daughter. She’s way more important than writing good. For Christ’s sake, it’s just television, it’s not life.
As evidence of the Harmon remedy, Borbrow links to two versions of the script for his episode “Mixology Certification”: the first draft and a near-shooting draft. The latter is, indeed, a whole lot less shitty.
This is a good reminder to anyone who’s found writing discouraging that first drafts always suck, and that writing, like everything, is built on practice and mistakes. Of course, it probably helps to have Dan Harmon behind you with a vodka in one hand and a red pen in the other, but if that’s not available… yeah, practice and rewrites.
Vivian Kane has a whole lot of lists that need Schindling.