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I was writing my first episode of Mash in a hotel room with French furniture from the Wilshire Boulevard period, and I noticed I had begun dancing around the room.
I was in the hotel because the architect who was doing renovations on our house had promised me the work would be finished by the time I came back to town for the second season of Mash, whose first season had paid for the house in the first place.
Renovations, like rewrites, take longer than expected, and I had made things worse by insisting that the house look like the plan we had agreed on before I left town. "I don't want that big excrescence in my living room," I had said, using the biggest word I could think of for a modernist hump on the wall the architect was proposing. Sure enough, when I got back to L.A., the house wasn't finished, but there was the hump, big as life, and just as excrescent. I took a sledgehammer to it and knocked it off the wall. This made my point, but set back construction another three weeks.
So, here I was, working on my first serious try at a television script in the cool, contemplative solitude that can only be found in a cheesy, fake-elegant hotel. More and more, I found myself taking a sledgehammer to my own scenes and dialogue, and after a while I was dancing.
I was dancing because, after hours of rewriting a scene, I had finally solved it and had crashed through to something I knew would work. "I can do it ...! I can do it!" I chanted, dancing and jumping for joy until the thought intruded that there were another few dozen problems to solve before I'd be finished.
This was the first time since I had decided I wanted to be a writer at the age of eight that I was actually working on something that might be seen by millions of people. Every little writing victory was therefore charged with emotion.
I've thought, since then, how lucky I was that my first script was one in which so many problems had already been solved for me. The show had been on the air for a year: I wasn't creating characters from scratch; I wasn't imagining a whole new world.
As an actor, I had already researched the time and place. I'd read that the Korean winters were bitter and, in a series of two-handed scenes, I let a humble pair of longjohns go from one shivering body to another through a string of deals, love offerings and extortions. It was, of course, similar to a device used by Schnitzler in the film La Ronde, so even some of the plot was borrowed.
In this way, I was able to concentrate on the pleasures of putting words together, discovering the voices of the characters, tracking the subsurface tectonics of their emotions. This made my victory dances a whole lot easier to come by than I realized at the time. Even after I had written a number of episodes and was exploring new paths, I was still making use of the work of people who had first explored the territory.
It was something of a shock when I began working on the first feature-length script I'd try after writing for Mash. Since it would be three times longer than an episode, I assumed it would be about three times harder. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be about 27 times harder.
Suddenly, I had to create, through research and imagination, a new world, populated by characters I had to build from their heads to their toes. I had to find out how they would act on one another in a way that would plunge them into Act Two and let them climb out through Act Three. I was all by myself on a huge construction site.
Hemingway said that writing is architecture, not interior decoration. I was learning that, even with all the rewriting, it wasn't renovations, either.
Now I was taking a sledgehammer to the foundation itself, redesigning it time after time, from scratch.
After all that, when I would finally crash through to something that worked, I would feel--and every writer must feel something like this--a thrill, a rush of joy, a desire to dance around the room.
I still feel it. And, once in a while, I still dance.
* * *
Alan Alda has written five screenplays: The Seduction of Joe Tynan, Four Seasons, Sweet Liberty, A New Life, and Betsy's Wedding. He wrote eighteen episodes of Mash, one of which, Inga, won him an Emmy for writing.
Excerpted from The First Time I Got Paid for It... by Peter Lefcourt Copyright © 2002 by Peter Lefcourt. Excerpted by permission.
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