Like every writer, I have my habits—the practices I can’t write without. I have to be on the couch in a certain cozy, reclined position, a pillow that’s not too hard but not too soft propping me up. If I’m in the planning stages, I like to write by hand, which means I must have a very particular type of pencil and my designated brand of notebook to jot down my thoughts. While I’m perhaps a bit overly rigid about these rituals, they’re nothing to be ashamed of. But there’s one piece to my writing routine that I don’t readily admit to—my complete inability to write unless the TV is on.
It wouldn’t be so bad if I wrote while watching Mad Men or Deadwood or some other critically acclaimed show. But no, what I turn on is an SVU marathon or a Lifetime movie or even Kardashians reruns—the type of brain-rotting shows that are blamed for so many of our cultural ills. It’s embarrassing to admit that I need the TV equivalent of junk food to write. But it’s this mindlessness that I find so helpful to my writing.
There are some practical purposes to writing with the TV on. One of my writing professors once told me a story about how when he was a student, his teacher would make him type on top of pages of Hemingway in order to incorporate the rhythm into his own writing. TV serves this purpose for me—while no Hemingway, Benson and Stabler’s prattle gives me a rhythm to follow when pounding out sentences and dialogue. TV also provides little packages of atmosphere and tone and mood for me to draw upon or write against or provide inspiration for my own world building—the murkiness of Elementary, for instance, or the heightened drama of Grey’s Anatomy.
For many writers or other creators, music fills the role of providing atmosphere, rhythm, and mood. But music keeps me too wrapped in my own thoughts. TV takes me out of myself and softens the solitary, high-pressure nature of writing. When it’s just me and a blank page, without fail a voice in my head pops up to say “You can’t do this, it won’t be good enough, the challenge is too much and your skills too little.” When that voice starts jabbering, I look away from the page, and watch the TV instead. I give myself a break from creating to just observe. I watch the nonsense of a Lifetime movie and remind myself that even if I’m overwhelmed with the task of writing, at least my husband isn’t leading a double life and trying to murder me. Trashy TV gives me a respite from my thoughts while not completely absorbing me, as Mad Men or American Crime Story would. And it leaves part of my brain active enough to get unstuck, to work through the temporary block while Khloe shouts at Kim. And then, after a few minutes, I return to the page, soothed and focused.
Ultimately, I don’t like to admit to this Writing-while-Watching habit not because watching the Kardashians is so very shameful (well, okay, maybe it is), but because it’s the crutch I use to get over my insecurities as a writer—my fear of not being good enough, of putting a lot of time and effort into something that might be bad in the end. But I doubt these anxieties will ever go away, even if I manage to become a bestselling writer. So if it’s between writing with the TV on and not writing at all, well, then, a Criminal Minds marathon it is.