The Next Best Writer
I’ve been selected to take part in a reality television series called “America’s Search for the Next Best Writer,” although I am not sure what they are looking for — the best writer, or the second best? For the next three weeks all the participating writers will live together in group housing called “The Stable.” We will sleep upstairs (the “Hay Loft”) and work downstairs in carpeted cubicles. On the morning we arrived we found a printer and computer in each of our cubicles as well as an ergonomic desk chair. We were immediately given our first task: type up a fabulously catchy first page of a novel and then print it out. We had two hours. When the clock began we all started typing furiously, and it was only much later when we realized what the real challenge was: each of our printers was out of toner. Could we determine the cartridge number, find a computer store that delivered, and change the cartridge by ourselves? The writer from Miami could not. She was disqualified.
The next day on “America’s Search for the Next Best Writer” a dark van picked us up and took us on a circuitous route. Eventually the driver stopped at a bus stop to pick up a famous writer who laughed when we recognized him and talked about Hollywood, where he’d just been on set; another movie was being made from one of his books. When he called Julia Roberts “Julia” a reverent hush descended.
Not too long ago, the famous writer said, I was just like you: unknown and hopeful. I had a regular nine-to-five job, and I had to carve out time to write. It was not always easy, he said.
For our next challenge, he told us, we were to continue writing the novel we started the previous day, but we had write it during our “day job” — answering phones at a local business.
Almost all of us sailed through this challenge with ease. One writer got extra points for making ten copies of her chapter on the office’s Xerox machine. But the writer from Texas was booted off the show for failing to locate the “boss key” or to set up a dummy spreadsheet cover. He was also fired from his job answering phones.
What would we do without Wikipedia? That was the title of our next challenge. All of us writers were to do some research on different topics based on the books we were writing — for me, 19th century theatre — without internet access. We had two hours to come up with six interesting facts and incorporate them into our next chapter, without being obvious.
This is where things in the competition got ugly. Jumping on our hybrid scooters provided by the sponsors, we raced to the nearest branch library. But the two writers who arrived there first teamed up to guard the resource section, allowing no one else in. Words were exchanged, angry asides. I was fortunate enough to find an old memoir in the stacks, but other writers had to resort to pranks. One flirted with a librarian who agreed to pull a book out of the hold pile for him, another resorted to the children’s room where she bribed a middle-schooler to give up his iPhone. When she was found scanning googledocs on the library network, she lost the challenge and was eliminated.
Portrait of the Artist as a Housewife
On this episode of “The Search for America’s Next Best Writer” we were all given minivans and the studio’s makeup artist covered our tattoos. Inside each minivan were two crash car dummies the size of young children, which (who?) were strapped into car seats in the back. Our challenge that week was writing while parenting. For the next three days, we were told, we must wake early every morning and, before we sit down to write, make breakfast for our children, pack them a lunch, and drive them to school. Sounded easy enough, but new challenges were thrown in along the way. Sometimes we had to struggle to get the children out of their Halloween costumes that they just tried on “for a minute,” or find their shoes or do a quick load of laundry before we left. Once they were in school, we each had several errands to run before we could get down to work, and sometimes the school principal or an elderly neighbor stopped us to ask for help in a friendly way.
The good news was that we were all given laptops to help with this challenge. After picking up our children from school we drove them to soccer or basketball or gymnastics practice, and we could write in forty-minute blocks on the bleachers or in our car as we waited for their activities to finish. Then there was dinner to figure out. Luckily we were provided with a freezer full of Trader Joe’s entrees. The writer from Cincinnati stopped at McDonald’s one evening and forgot to order his oldest child’s hamburger the way she liked it, without pickles. He was eliminated.
Portrait of the Artist as a Housewife, Part 2
Surprise! A new baby has been added to the family. Each writer was given a baby monitor, a Baby Bjorn carrier, a stroller, and a bouncy seat. The babies were supposed to have two naps every day, during which time we could choose either to write or to take a shower. However as it turned out only the baby assigned to the writer from Kentucky slept. The rest of us spent all our time trying in vain to get our babies to go down for their naps. And these were not crash car dummy babies, but the real thing! They cried and cried.
The writer from Michigan was discovered pouring a teaspoon of Jack Daniels into her baby’s formula, and was eliminated. The rest of us were given babysitters for ten minutes so we could brush our teeth and change out of our sweatpants.
Eat Squid with Vigor
A wonderful surprise: our real families were flown in and we were allowed to go out to dinner with them.
My family chose a Peruvian restaurant noted for being slow. We passed the time in our usual way: discussing which super powers we would choose if we could choose any. When he was younger my son wanted to be a superhero with “a name that sounded like Influenza.” This superpower spread mayhem through the distribution of tiny particles that increased in strength when landing on unwashed hands. (My definition, not his.)
However now my son is a teenager and has more sophisticated ideas. While waiting for our food to arrive he decided he wanted the “Sleep” super power, which would consist of either never having to sleep, or being able to sleep with his eyes open in class while still making the correct responses. My daughter was in favor of the super power that carried you into a book. We all liked this idea. At first I thought I might want to be in a Patrick O’Brian book because of all the great seafaring action, but my husband pointed out that there was a lot of bloodshed and “rousting about of brains.” That might be unpleasant. So I settled on Jane Austen since a broken bootlace was about the worst mishap you would find there. My husband opted for being Aragorn, and my daughter would be happy as one of the four children in Half Magic (I would, too, actually).
At last our dinner arrived. As we tucked in my husband declared that he loved seeing a boy eat squid with vigor. All was good.
The next day our stand-in cloth children and fake babies were gone; now we were to demonstrate how we would promote our work if we got the chance to do that instead of writing. Many of my competitors jumped at the chance.
We had to build a media platform, gain followers, and most importantly find passionate evangelicals (the executive producer’s words) for our as-of-yet unwritten novels. The writer from New Orleans cornered the twitter market and made serious headway into Instagram, while the writer from Toronto, Ontario, constructed collages of her work (with captions since her chapters were still unwritten) on Pinterest. I was at a loss as to how to gain a following until I hit upon the idea of creating a fictional web log, called a flog, which I would use to write satirical blog posts. I wrote one flog about a book group and another one about a flu shot misadventure before a producer found my site. I was eliminated.
“A flog is not an actual thing,” the producer told me during my exit interview, off camera.
“I thought it was funny,” I said.