I don’t know if anyone ever told me, “Those who can’t write, edit,” or if I made that up on my own, but that little aphorism haunted me. Meanwhile, my grandiose writing projects were all going nowhere for the same tedious reason. The minute I tried to commit them to paper, or otherwise turn them into something tangible, my imagination coughed and sputtered like the cheap Renault convertible my girlfriend drove in college. I’d write a bit of dialogue using that miraculous software that automatically formats it into a screenplay for you, and I’d be instantly paralyzed from the neck up. Here was incontrovertible evidence that I wasn’t half as good as I imagined myself to be. The voices I heard so clearly and powerfully in my head became inert and alien on the page. I was surprised by how mortally embarrassed you can be by writing something nobody else will ever read. Even looking back over those one- sentence descriptions of TV ideas in the first paragraph of this essay, I am humbled by how inadequately they convey the vividness they had as I conjured them. It’s like hearing a recording of my own voice. That can’t be how I sound. Oh, but it is.
I could never forge through this. My confidence always collapsed under the weight of my withering self-criticism. I couldn’t bear the awfulness and keep going. Even as I’m writing this essay, I have to stop myself from scrolling back to previous parts and banging my forehead against the keyboard as I see how short I’ve fallen of my expectations. My mind goes uncontrollably to whether it might be better to scrap the whole thing and write a different Riff — like, I’ve got a few stray ideas in my notebook here about the glassy office tower they’re building next door to where I live and how it obliterates what’s left of the spirit of Greenwich Village. Or about this ’80s band called Talk Talk that started out making bland pop hits like Duran Duran but then rejected fame and made a couple of crazy, weird, beautiful records until mysteriously vanishing. That Riff will practically write itself, I just know it.
A promiscuous imagination like this is dangerous for writers. As an editor, I can see that clearly. I know that the next brilliant brainstorm is never going to be the one that will just write itself, any more than the last one did. Ideas, in a sense, are overrated. Of course, you need good ones, but at this point in our supersaturated culture, precious few are so novel that nobody else has ever thought of them before. It’s really about where you take the idea, and how committed you are to solving the endless problems that come up in the execution.