Like many other writers in the public eye, Stephen King has said in a bunch of interviews that he thinks watching television is one of the worst things a writer can spend his or her time doing. As far as I’ve seen he hasn’t spent a lot of time elaborating on why he feels this to be the case, but he makes the claim often. Maybe King doesn’t say more because it’s self-evident. He certainly seems to think so. Also, I admire the courage of a writer from the baby boomer generation for so vocally rejecting one of the defining appliances of his youth. For me, though, the best thing about King’s pronouncement is that I’ve started re-examining my own TV habits.
I don’t think of myself as having a television problem, but I probably could, and probably should, cut back. I often watch for a couple hours in the evening. Yes, it’s mostly a waste of time. Not entirely because I sometimes write about television. Though I mostly enjoy watching sit-coms and I don’t know that I’ve ever written about those. The shows I tend to write about are ones that I watch more for analysis than for simple entertainment. Not that I don’t enjoy watching things like True Detective or The Killing. I do, and I recognize that Netflix and other streaming services are ushering in a new golden age of television where shows can become more novelistic as their stories arc over full seasons and beyond. But I’ve also watched a fair number of things that I didn’t enjoy for writing projects. The Following comes to mind. The Poe connection notwithstanding, I know wouldn’t have made it more than a few episodes into that one if I hadn’t accepted an assignment to write about it.
But the question still remains, why exactly is television so terrible for writers?
At the risk of rehashing a million arguments made in the 60’s and 70’s, I think I’ve got a few cogent arguments that will have aspiring writers turning off the tube. If you need more convincing, you can track down Jerry Mander’s 1978 classic Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. For my part, I’m not worried about how TV affects society as a whole or the mass of watchers as individuals. I’m just thinking about how it impacts those of us who write.
First, TV sucks down time we could better spend on other activities. Every hour you spend staring into colorful, dancing pixels is at least an hour you don’t spend writing. Of course you can’t write every hour of the day. Nobody does that and nobody expects you to. But if you haven’t gotten your writing in for the day for whatever reason, then what the hell are you doing sitting in front of the TV before bed? The other thing about time, which is always at a premium, is that when you’re not actively writing you need to be reading. One of the neglected secrets to success as a writer is spending as much time as possible reading the work of other writers. You’re learning more about your craft even when you’re just relaxing with a book. You’re hearing new ways to describe things. You’re observing different ways to tell a story. And most importantly, you’re exercising the verbal aptitude of your brain.
In fact, this idea of verbal aptitude brings us to the second major problem with television for writers. As its name implies, TV is a visual medium. It’s audial too, but the primary way it works is by riveting the attention of our eyes. It shows us moving pictures. US television broadcasts at a rate of 24 frames per second. If, like they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, then that’s 24,000 words per second. That’s a full-length novel’s worth of description every three to four seconds. Processing all that information should be exhausting, but it’s not. Instead it teaches our brains to become lazy, at least in terms of our verbalization of things. The part of us that works to put into words everything we see and experience just can’t keep up with 24,000 words a second. No way, no how. So instead we shut down that part of ourselves. We stop exercising our verbal aptitude so that we can just let the pretty pictures wash over us. That means, TV shuts down the inner writer dwelling in each of us. That thought alone should terrifying enough to make you keep your television in a locked cabinet.
Third, TV is an anti-literacy machine. Okay, that sounds hyperbolic, but you don’t have to believe me. Test it out on yourself. Give up television for just one week and devote those hours to reading instead. You don’t have to read anything in particular, but maybe pick two or three novels of those novels you’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten around to. The typical American watches about five hours of TV a day. That’s 35 hours of reading during your one week experiment. So, if you honestly convert your television hours straight over to reading hours, you’ll probably read a few books over the course of the next week. You’ll certainly get through one or two even if you’re a slow reader. But this experiment isn’t even about the missing time you’ll rediscover. It’s about the shift in your thinking. Your brain will feel different after a week of reading a few books instead of watching TV. Your verbal aptitude will be heightened. When you walk around in the world, you’ll find yourself internally describing things in words. You’ll find yourself making different observations, connecting ideas in different ways, being more literate. You’ll also be inspired to buy a couple more books to replenish the ones you finished reading last week, and that promotes literate culture even beyond the limits of your own skull. As will the increased writing you do.
And that’s why television is so deadly for writers. It wastes your time. It reduces your verbal aptitude. And it alienates you from your own literacy. Thanks to public schools, most Americans can read. So we’re not actually illiterate, but when we don’t read or have no interest in reading, we become aliterate. When that happens, book culture stagnates and dies. Some people might think the endangered state of book culture doesn’t affect them. It does. Deeply. But that’s an argument for another time.
If you’re a writer or want to be one, then you already know what sort of world you want. One with books, and more of them.
So, I think I’ll give it a try. Starting now, I’m committing to one full week of reading instead of watching TV.
If you decide to join me and do this too, stop back by and let me know how it goes.