Saturday, September 10, 2011

Samuel Park talks about how Reality TV Prepared Him to Become a Writer

Let's start with how much I love Samuel Park's This Burns My Heart. And don't just take my word for it, it's an Amazon Best Book of the Month, an Indie Next List Pick and a Kirkus Reviews' Editor's Pick. Publishers Weekly went nuts for it, calling it a "dramatic, suck-you-in chronicle of finding a thrilling love affair." About the way the heart tricks, fights, saves and ruins us, it's just a gorgeous read.

Now let's talk about Park's love for reality TV. He's written this ferociously funny piece for the blog, and I'm honored to have it--and him--here. A zillion thanks, Mr.  Park!

How Reality TV Prepared Me to Become a Writer

I have a love to confess, a love that dares not speak its name: a love for cheesy, competitive reality televison. I hugged Amazing Race before its Peabodies, yelled at The Apprentice through its Omarosa years, and learned to smize with Tyra in her Top Model show. Over the years, I inadvertently discovered some nice tips for writers from these fabulous contestants!

Survivor: “Personality Counts/Listen to the Room”
The first person voted out of Survivor is always the most annoying one. The person who is bossy, demanding, difficult. Or just plain weird. Take season 21 in Nicaragua, for instance, when the tribe had to decide between voting out Jimmy Johnson and Wendy DeSmidt-Kohlhoff at the first tribal council. Wendy turned to be a big talker, the kind who is oblivious to the social cues from the people around her. Regardless of who was willing to listen, she just kept (nervously) talking and talking--attracting negative attention to herself. Publishing (as in a lot of the arts) is very much a social game, and an appealing personality goes a long way. Writers are constantly interacting with people—their agents, editors, publicists, magazine and newspaper writers, booksellers, readers. Being kind to others and attentive to their needs goes a long way toward establishing those relationships (and staying in the game!). Don’t give people an excuse to want to get rid of you, or not respond to your emails.

The Apprentice: “Never Say No to Yourself”
If you watch the Apprentice, you know that the Trump’s worst pet peeve—worse than failing a task, worse than raising no money—is having a contestant who doesn’t stick up for himself. Contestants who quit, who say “You should fire me.” Trump treats those contestants like chopped kidney boiled in sewage water. According to the logic of the show, you have to go out with a fight. Likewise, as a writer, I’m a strong believer that one should never (psychologically, subconsciously, through self-doubt) offer yourself up as the one who gets kicked out of the writing game. There are enough people out there wanting to say No to you, that there’s no point in you saying no to yourself. Honestly, I never say no to myself. I always say “Yes,” as in, Yes, you should represent me. (Charming smile.) Yes, you should acquire my book. (Fingers crossed.) Yes, you should give me a blurb. Even if you’re convinced that you’ve done a terrible job and you think deep down that Trump should fire you, don’t say that. Don’t fall on your own sword. Have the passion to believe in yourself and your work.

Amazing Race: “Follow the River Where It Takes You”
The Amazing Race is kind of like the world’s most complicated grocery errand, the Hitchcock in North by Northwest version of figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B. The contestants I find the most interesting are the ones who seem to forget that they’re on a TV show. They’re the ones who try to board a different flight than the others (and not the one already booked by the producers); or who overthink and forget that the clue boxes have to be in plain sight enough for all the teams to see it from afar. You see, the producers want the contestants to get from Point A to B, just not at the same time. They don’t want anyone stuck, or left behind, so they’ve plotted out the paths ahead of time. Likewise, the most successful writers are the ones who trust the path laid out in front of them. I, for instance, made some mistakes early on by offering suggestions to my publicist that really did not make sense for my book. Eventually, I figured out to just trust the experts. The whole let’s-try-this-instead approach can work wonders if you’re a maven/genius, but for most of us mortals, it’s a clue that you don’t want the successful path that’s been thought out and meticulously laid out for you by people who know better. Don’t overthink; just enjoy the ride.

Project Runway: “Leave it Up to the Gods (or Michael Kors)”
One of the reasons I think this show has been around for so long is, I suspect, because they almost always get the winner right. And there’s something very reassuring about that. Over each season, people cry, struggle, worry, suffer (in TV as in life), but at the end of the day, what’s supposed to happen, happens. The contestants work very hard, but at the end of the day, they have no control. As I mentioned in the previous item, which this one is kind of an extension of, it’s up to the Gods (or Michael Kors and Nina Garcia). I think for writers, it’s the same thing: we work very hard, down to every colon and semi colon, but at the end of the day it’s in the hands of readers. I find the lack of control incredibly frustrating, but also enormously freeing. Not having control allows for surprises—you get reviewed in places you didn’t expect to, you get sales from a demographic you hadn’t thought about. Giving up control is hard to do, but ultimately, it allows for something to come into your life that’s even better than what you were planning for.

Top Chef: “Luck Counts for a Lot”
During Season 7 of Top Chef, Angelo Sosa looked like he was going to win. He’d been on a roll up to that point, winning the most individual Quick Fire challenges, and going toe to toe with his other competitors, Kevin Sbraga and Ed Cotton. It was anyone’s game at the end. However, on the morning of the final competition, Angelo woke up with a bad, bad virus. He was so sick he was barely able to compete, delegating most of the cooking to his sous chef, Hung Huynh. In the end, Kevin Sbraga won. What if Angelo hadn’t gotten sick that day? Likewise, what if your agent submits your manuscript, and the one editor who’s likely to love it happens to be swamped, or having a terrible day? I have a friend who’s a best selling novelist. He tells me that he used to think luck accounted for 30% of success as a writer (the other thirds being talent and hard work). Now, he thinks it’s actually 70% luck.

The Bachelor: “Do It For Love”
I actually don’t watch this show, but it’s the only one where love is involved, and I wanna end by talking about love. Back in my early 20s, before I had a serious relationship, I told a friend how much I envied her relationship with her husband, how she had someone to go out with to restaurants and parties and other events. They got to be looked at by other people, as a couple. She replied to me that relationships are actually not about the public space, but the private one—it’s about being domestic with someone, at home. The other people don’t really matter. I think it’s the same with books. So much hoopla is spent talking about advances, royalties, book tours, sales rankings, and reviews. But at the end of the day, it’s just you and your book—how you feel about it, and your feeling of accomplishment over it. Just as those reality contestants have to go back to their own lives when the shooting is done, writers have to return to their manuscripts after all the noise of publication. That’s the real relationship, the real feeling of success. Only you know what it took to write it. Only you, in the end, really cares that it’s there. After all else gets eliminated, it’s what’s left. You and your work—you and the thing that you love, the wondrous relationship you have with your craft. Speaking of which, I should go now. My next novel awaits, and so does the new season of Survivor!


Kelly O Mcnees said...

This is brilliant.

Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Agreed. I especially liked that you bent the integrity of the theme a little just to get Love in. It was worth the bending. Beautiful, helpful piece!