x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The perils of taking too much time away from work

You don't need to take a holiday if you are seeking inspiration. Just think about retiling the pool.

Once, early in my career, I was sitting the writers' room during a particularly gruelling rewrite, and we were all stuck on one joke. This happens a lot in writers' rooms. On good days, we'll breeze through most of the script revisions like a team of professional athletes.

And then, for some imperceptible reason, it all comes to a halt. Usually, it's one joke - one simple line of dialogue that we just can't fix. One witty line no one can come up with.

It is usually the last line of a scene - what professional comedy writers call a "scene out" or "the button". It's an important line. The last joke has to be a big one. The audience needs to laugh hard as the transition to another scene takes place, or for some reason they'll lose their attention. I don't know if this is neurologically sound, of course, but it's a superstition that no comedy writer, of any era, will question.

Travel as far back as the Greek comic playwright Aristophanes and you'll see that each scene ends with a big joke. Moliere, too, made sure his buttons were uproarious.

So there we were, stuck on a scene button. There were about nine of us in the room, maybe a dozen Emmy awards among us (none was mine, of course) and several seriously rich guys (not me, of course) who had expensive cars and giant houses and even second houses, usually near some very expensive body of water somewhere, precisely because they were able to come up with things like the last joke in a scene. But at that moment, we had nothing.

One veteran writer turned to another veteran writer, who was staring into space.

"What do you got?" he asked.

The other writer shook his head and smiled. "Not a thought in my head," he said. "Not even thinking about it. I was thinking about redoing the tiling around my pool."

We all laughed.

And then, a few seconds later, that same writer who had been lost in redecoration contemplations blurted out the winning joke.

What we needed, apparently, was a little mini-holiday from all of that thinking. We were thinking about that one joke so hard that what we needed to do was think about something else, even if it was only for a moment or two.

That's the power of a vacation - even a mini one. But for a writer, being on vacation is a lot like not being on vacation, in that wherever you are, you can write. Or not.

And since most writers spend most of their time not writing, it's a little weird for a writer to suddenly declare, after a few months of writing-avoidance, that he's going on vacation. From what? From, frankly, feeling guilty about not writing. Because for a writer there are two real modes: not writing, and feeling guilty about not writing. It's different for other people in other professions. I have a friend in finance who convinced himself for several years that by taking his family to Hawaii for their vacation, he was leveraging the time-zone system in a brilliantly efficient way. He could get almost a full day of work in from 3am to 9am, when his kids woke up. And then he could hang out with them on the beach, by the pool, snorkelling, feeling stress-free - after all, the markets back in New York were long closed. Everyone he worked with was home. As far as he was concerned, he had come up with a perfect workaround to his workaholism - he could work and go on a holiday at the same time.

"It's special time with my kids," he'd say. "These are precious memories for them. I get to focus on them and just be with them, you know? This is what they'll keep in their hearts. This is how I want them to think of their childhood. Just them and me on the beach in Hawaii."

Except what he didn't realise - until his wife and children staged a kind of intervention - was that by getting up at 3am and working for six hours and then hanging out with his kids, by 2.30pm or so he was an irritable monster. The precious memories his kids were collecting were of a mood-swinging crazy man who at a certain point every afternoon began screaming at them for no reason, and then fell asleep.

Which is why holidays are tricky things. Mine, in fact, began today. I'm spending two weeks lazing along the coast of Greece, although honestly during that time I have to write a few columns and deliver a script revision, so how much fun could it possibly be? Maybe the veteran writer had the right idea: don't go on a long vacation. Instead, take a series of mini holidays every 30 minutes or so. Next year, I promise.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl