NOT JUST A JOB, AN ADVENTURE
By John Vorhaus
Hello to all readers of Jagged Edge. I’m supposed to be here pimping my new novel, Lucy in the Sky (a delightful coming-of-age story set in Milwaukee in 1969, available at www.tinyurl.com/Lucy1969 -- so consider it pimped) but I’d rather use this space to share with you my recent experience of working in Sofia, Bulgaria because it has something to say to writers and teachers, and you might be one or another of these, or both.
I was sent to Bulgaria to recruit and train writers for the Bulgarian version of Married… with Children. Since this whole part of my life, the part where I go running around the world teaching writers, flies in the face of the awful stigma, “those who can’t do, teach,” I was thinking quite a lot about what it means to want to share one’s gifts through teaching, but to fear that it distracts or diverts one from a writer’s life. There’s certainly that risk, but the gain is so bountiful that I always feel I need to take that chance.
And I’m here to tell you that if you do take that chance, you’ll probably have it all.
So Sherman set the way-back machine for 1989. I’m teaching at the Writers Program of the UCLA Extension, while struggling – no doubt I was struggling – to keep my TV writing career afloat. I was definitely burdened at the time, burdened by the above-referenced nostrum about how those who can’t do, blah, blah, blah. Then along came a student who blessed me by saying, “How about those who can do, do both?” The clouds parted, the sky turned blue, and my path – literally – suddenly became clear before me. I could spend half my time writing and half my time teaching, and thereby have a balanced, fruitful life, and not go crazy. Life was good. Bar some random bumps in the road, life has been good ever since. I have built a body of work I can point to with satisfaction (including the fun and frothy Lucy in the Sky – pimp, pimp) and I have introduced thousands of writers around the world to the idea that they, too, can live the writer’s life. I don’t know which achievement pleases me more. Both accomplishments occupy pride of place on my whole-life résumé – the list of things I’ve done that have manifestly made my life worth living. (To see my whole-life résumé, click here.)
So now I’m in Bulgaria. I’m engaged in the daunting task of taking a 25-year-old television show that was never written with the rest of the world in mind and bringing into the here-and-now of a place where domestic sitcom production has yet to take root, or take flight, or take something, possibly strong analgesics, I know not what. This is an unintentionally hilarious exercise, because part of my job involves just explaining all the cultural references that littered Married… with Children, and whose meaning has often been lost to the sands of time, if, indeed, it was ever clear in the first place.
Consider the phrase I used above, “Sherman, set the way-back machine.” So far as I know, it was never used in Married… dialogue, but if it had been, how would you go about explaining it? “Well, see, there was this cartoon called Mr. Peabody and Sherman, and Mr. Peabody was a scientist who was a dog who took this kid, Sherman, on trips to the past via this device called the way-back machine, and in American culture when someone (at least someone of my generation) says, “Sherman, set the way-back machine,” they mean, “Let’s go back in time, but not in an entirely serious way.” Sure, that’s clear. That’d help you if you had to translate that phrase, or even the sense of it, into Bulgarian.
In working with Bulgarian writers, I took pains to point out that theirs was a particularly interesting (by which I mean daunting and potentially frustrating) job of creative problem-solving. Those Married… scripts were pretty tight, especially the early ones, and you couldn’t just go about making changes willy-nilly, lest the whole story unravel like a cheap sweater. So we had to look at the script joke by joke, figure out the intent of each one, consider the cultural references (if any) that drove the joke, then strip the whole thing down to its abstract qualities and rebuild it on a new foundation of cultural references that would work for Bulgaria in 2012. Viewed on that level, script adaptation is really cultural, comic and emotional detective work. It’s one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever done.
Meanwhile, I learned more about Bulgaria than I ever knew or even imagined. I learned about its wars and political history, and how potholes are a national problem and obsession. I learned that its King Ferdinand, in 1910, was the first ruling monarch to fly in an airplane. (True fact, not bar fact.) I packed my brain with new data, made new friends, gathered new information. Can anyone tell me how that wouldn’t make me a better writer?
Strange and wonderful things have washed up on my beach. They keep washing up on my beach, and all because I made the decision years ago not to let my fear of not writing (or my fear of being thought of as a non-writer) keep me from teaching, something I’ve always found richly rewarding to myself and, one hopes, also to others. I commend it to your attention: teach; you’ll learn.
Someone once asked me to describe this part of my business model. I said, “I travel around the world exchanging information for experience and money.” Which is a pretty good gig. In fact, it’s a calling. To put it another way, “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.”
Hmm. There’s a cultural reference I’ll probably have to explain on my next trip.
John Vorhaus has written five novels and many books on poker. His comedy writing text, The Comic Toolbox, is considered a classic how-to book for writers, and will be making money for someone long after he’s dead, buried and gone. He tweets for no apparent reason @TrueFactBarFact and secretly controls the world from www.johnvorhaus.com.