Learning All the Time

My first writing teachers

I was a latchkey kid. We didn’t have that term, though, so I was just a kid who came home from school at about 3:00 and whose mom came home from work at about 5:30. Through most of elementary school, I was watched by the neighbor mom, Mrs. Herbst, and then later by an older lady near the school, Mrs. Margis—they fed me lunch, and made sure I didn’t get into trouble before Mom got home. But by sixth grade or so, I was just on my own. I’d walk the four blocks home from elementary school (or from the junior high bus stop, at the same corner), and have a few hours to myself. Sometimes I’d work on a model car, or play some street baseball with the other kids, or ride bikes; but a lot of it was TV.

This being 1968 through about 1974 or so, we were at the beginnings of syndicated TV, of television producers selling re-runs of nighttime shows to local independent channels to fill their afternoons. TV stations had a set formula—morning game shows, mid-day soap operas, late afternoon re-runs, and then into evening network programming. So there was a whole generation of kids who grew up on afternoon sitcoms. The Beverly Hillbillies. Gilligan’s Island. Hogan’s Heroes.

I think that my storytelling instincts were imprinted early, early on. On the couch, with my Nestle’s Quik, watching The Beverly Hillbillies.

I love ensembles of characters, one of whom might be “the lead” but all of whom have knowable strengths and personalities. I love knowing that things might get sideways for a while, but they’re going to come out okay. I love knowing that we’ll get to see that same family of characters engaged in new problems from scene to scene; that they’ll push each other and test each other and bark at each other, but that at the last word, they love each other, and will step up when they’re called upon.

I love that the imperious were always mocked and the generous always rewarded. Sgt. Schultz and Col. Klink had the nominal authority, but Hogan and his crew had the cleverness (and the ability to see past the bullshit) to actually run the show. Mr. and Mrs. Howell were buffoons, their suitcase of money perhaps the least important asset that the islanders had. Mr. and Mrs. Drysdale were buffoons, she always offended by the boorish neighbors, he alternating between obsequious and outraged. There’s no story line better for a middle school or high school kid than the people with authority being the dumbest people in the play, trying in vain to uphold their meager rules. We lived that every day, running our independent adolescent nation while everyone pretended we were just a colony of our adult masters.

So when I write stories now, they’re often about the purportedly weak who find a way to overcome the nominally strong. They’re about ensembles, and the ways that they grow to love each other even as they snipe and goad and push each other to greatness. There’s a protagonist, but it’s impossible to say that the other characters aren’t equally important. Some of them surprise me by taking ownership of some part of the story, making their own strengths and desires apparent. (Nobody ever anticipated that the one spin-off from Cheers would be the nebbish psychologist Frasier Crane.)

I’ve been reading novels for fifty years, but I think those afternoons with TV sitcoms made more of an impression on my storytelling life than any other thing. And I have no apologies for it. I’m a big fan of pleasure.