x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The privileged get off easy when writing gets personal

Write what you know, young writers are told. But with the internet, sometimes you know too much - or think you do.

When young writers ask older writers for advice, they usually hear the same thing: write what you know, the old guys will say. Don't try to invent an entirely new world, or create characters you've never met. Instead, write from your own experience.

Unfortunately in Los Angeles, this means most writers end up crafting scripts about private school tuition and driving a Prius. So maybe it's better advice to write what you know, as long as you don't end up sounding like a privileged jerk.

In Hollywood, we call that being "relatable". The key to any story or any character is, can the larger audience - that is, people who do not live in the Los Angeles area and do not work at a movie studio - relate to the world and the challenges the characters face?

I have a friend who went through some big changes in his life, and the more he thought about it, the more he thought his story would make a great television show. But about five minutes into pitching his idea to his agent, his agent stopped him.

"Just because you're going through something," his agent said, "doesn't make it a show."

But to have any longevity at all in this writing business, you're always looking for something real, something special to write about, as long as it doesn't make you look like a privileged jerk.

For instance, two weeks ago I found myself in the office of a haematologist - that's a fancy term for "blood doctor", which is a word they had to invent because the other word that describes pretty much the same area of medicine is oncologist, which means "cancer doctor", and that's a scary word. The point is to get people into the office, not send them terrified in the other direction.

I was sitting in the haematologist's examination room and he was giving me some alarming possible outcomes about a series of blood tests I was tricked into allowing - my feeling is, no tests means no bad news.

But last week I went to my doctor for a routine physical, and something odd showed up in my blood test results, and so here I was sitting in the examination of a specialist in blood diseases.

He had just taken some more blood from me, and as he left to get the results, he looked down at my iPad, pointed to it and said: "Promise me you're not going to go on the internet while I'm getting these results."

"OK," I said.

"No, seriously. People always do that - they Google their symptoms or search the web for all the possible diseases their test results point to, and it's just totally counterproductive. So just don't do it. Right now, Google is not your friend."

"OK," I said. "I won't go on the internet."

And then he left the room and I immediately went on the internet, and for 20 terrifying minutes I Googled all of the terms and possibilities he had just carefully described to me, and the result was that in the time he was out of the office I went from a guy who had a couple of odd blood irregularities he was checking out to a guy who was hoping that he had a certain kind of leukaemia that doesn't kill you right away and that, apparently, according to one site I found, there's a pill for.

I mean, that was the best option I could identify on Google. I was hoping for leukaemia. My fingers were crossed for leukaemia.

"You went on the internet, didn't you?" the doctor said when he returned with some preliminary results to find me staring slack-jawed into space.

And then he told me that the initial tests were OK, but that he still wanted to do a few more, including one with the increasingly terrifying words, "bone" and "marrow" and "biopsy" and so those tests are scheduled for this week - but I've adopted my doctor's advice: Google is not my friend. There are things I don't need to know right now.

"You're going to hate this," a friend of mine said when I told him the story. "But that would make a great show. Sort of unlikeable guy gets some kind of awful cancer, and it totally changes his life. Funny scene in the waiting room with the iPad. Eventually he recovers. Or not. Depending on which way you go with it."

"I'd like to go with the way that he recovers," I said.

"Sure, yeah, obviously," my friend said. "On the other hand, you've got to write what you know."

Not this time, I thought to myself. Until I find out what's wrong with me - if anything - I'm choosing not knowing. I'll write what I don't know, at least until the tests come back.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood