How We Spend Our Days: Elle Johnson

Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer ELLE JOHNSON.

My alarm goes off at four am. I lie in bed, holding my cat Squeaky’s paw in my hand, paralyzed by how much work I have to do. Right now my days are pretty much fucked. My second alarm goes off at four thirty. I put that one in a different room so I’ll have to get up. I steep a cup of tea and get to work on my memoir. I’m a firm believer in giving your best writing time to yourself and for some reason I like writing when it’s still dark out, but not night-time. I feel like I’m getting away with something. As if I’m stealing time.

At six fifteen I bike to the Y and swim or lift weights for forty-five minutes. I always intend to stay for an hour but as the minutes tick away I grow anxious, aware of the work I have to do. Lawrence Kasdan said being a writer is like having homework for the rest of your life. I love that. I race home to shower, dress, make breakfast, pack a lunch, and look over the notes from yesterday’s writers’ rooms. Yes, rooms, plural. I told you my days are fucked.

I bike to work. (It’s only three miles each way. I’d feel guilty if I didn’t.) At the office I make a second cup of tea, peel an orange, grab my laptop, binder full of room notes and research, perch my reading glasses on top of my head and head into the writers’ room for Bosch. Today we are breaking story for season five based on Michael Connelly’s latest bestseller, Two Kinds of Truth, and it’s gonna be good.

In a TV writers’ room, everyone must be on the same page. While the old hands–and this room is full of them–know what the fuck is going on, the rest of us have to talk about it–and sometimes around it, under it, and over it–until we arrive at the place where those guys have already landed and are waiting for the rest of us to catch up. For that reason, the elder statesmen hate being in the room.

Today we are breaking my episode. We have color-coded index cards tacked up on cork boards lining every wall of a conference room. Each color represents a different storyline, and each card has a different scene or beat from that story written on it. Right now, my cards are still organized by color, but once the story is broken, the cards will be put up in a crazy mosaic that will allow us to identify where a story or character is quickly. I’m at the phase where I have so much story swirling around I’m not really sure what’s in each beat even though the cards give a vague idea. Like “Bosch talks to investigators.” But what does Bosch talk to investigators about, exactly? What’s his theory of the crime at this point?  And how does this scene move the overall story forward? Is it a procedural or more of an emotional beat?  Some of the other writers are annoyed, even dismissive, of my questions. Nevertheless, I persist. One of my coworkers has told me I have a remarkable willingness to be difficult. When really it’s just that my desire to write a great script overrides any concern I have for being polite or liked. Ten minutes later, one of our assistants starts asking questions I already know the answers to and I’m annoyed, dismissive. Shit definitely rolls downhill.

We break for lunch, and instead of eating with the other writers I have lunch in my office to work on my episode. I’m feeling anxious again. I comb through the daily room notes, make lists of questions for our detective consultants. My brain feels swollen, my chest tightens. I’m struck by the idea that I might not be able to do this. (I’ve been doing this for twenty years.)  That this might end up being the worst script in the season. (My scripts have all turned out pretty well.) That I won’t know how to write it. (I have lots of tricks to help jump-start my process.) Spiraling down a rabbit hole of insecurity makes it hard for me to sit still or read words on the page. I hyperventilate. I wonder if the elder statesmen ever feel this way. I remember the David Mamet quote that writing never gets easier because every new project is different and the writer has to have a new experience in order to make the writing good and authentic. I focus on the experience of the story, the experience I want the audience to have. I think about the emotional content of the scenes. It’s a cop show, and the moves of the investigation determine a lot of how the story unfolds. But what of the emotional beats? How does what’s happening in the case influence our characters and vice versa?  Michael Connelly says this show isn’t about how cops work a case but how a case works on the cops. There’s an emotional story for Bosch that if I write it right–that is, execute it well–could be very compelling and maybe even a better engine driving the story than the case beats. That gets me excited. Snippets of dialogue come to me. Themes emerge. I jot down notes, knowing that these early thoughts are what save me from facing a blank page when it’s time to write the outline and then the script. I start writing scenes for fun. It’s a relief to finally be with the words, figuring out the moments, getting inside the characters. I finish out the day on a high note. Just in time, because now I have to go to job number two.

I don’t usually work on two shows at once, but this year I was offered the opportunity to be a co-showrunner on a project I really really love. It’s a character piece. A limited series for Netflix starring Octavia Spencer about Madame CJ Walker, the first black millionaire in the early 1900s. But I love being on Bosch and couldn’t imagine not writing one more episode, so I signed up for double duty. The hours are killing me and making me feel more alive. Having more work and less time has forced me to be efficient.

At five pm, I drive over the hill to my second job in Burbank… and start the process all over again. We break story until nine. By the time I get home I’m exhausted. I open a bag of popcorn and curl up on the couch to watch TV–which is also kind of like work for me since I need to keep up with what other shows are doing. Squeaky crawls into the curve of my torso and sticks her paw in the palm of my hand. Peeps lounges in the bend of my knees. What seems like seconds later I wake up to a late-night talk show. I put my iPhone with the alarm set for four thirty in the guest bedroom, crawl into bed, and ever hopeful set the alarm on my nightstand for four am.

~

NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…

1. What book is on your night table now and why?

  • Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly. Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington and The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Du Bois. The Fact Of A Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. The pages of each are heavily underlined, dog-eared, and riddled with colorful post-its. Right now everything I’m reading, or re-reading, has to do with the projects I’m writing.

2. What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written and why?

  • The second season of the show Ghost Whisperer I* wrote an episode that dealt with reincarnation but was really about abortion. During the first season I wrote an episode about a ghost who was adopted. When he haunts his biological family he finds out his teenaged sister is pregnant. I wasn’t allowed to present abortion as a choice this teenaged character might consider. I wasn’t even allowed to use the word abortion in the episode. That’s when I knew I had to figure out how to write an entire episode about abortion.It was called Deja Boo and was about a ghost who kept getting reincarnated. Melinda, the titular ghost whisperer, finds out that she is pregnant and that this reincarnated ghost is going to come back as her child unless she can help him solve his problem and send him into the light (the premise of the show and her job each week). The episode is about how difficult it is for Melinda to decide what to do. In the end, because she is the ghost whisperer, she sends him into the light, effectively aborting her own child. It might have been a dog whistle most of the viewing audience could not hear, but I was proud of how I got this subversive storyline on the air. Just when you thought the Friday night at 8pm timeslot was silly pure fluff.*At that time in my career I was using my given name, which is Lois. How I started Elle is a story for another time.

3. Any obsessions?

  • Noise. Blocking it out mainly. I have misophonia so little sounds drive me insane. A bird chirping. Water dripping from my neighbor’s broken gutter. I can deal with the construction next door but that one construction worker who whistles all day long makes me so angry I can’t think.  In order to ensure good writing days I use a white noise machine, ear plugs, and noise blocking headphones, often I will use all three at once.

~

Elle Johnson:

 

IAM
IAM
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