Wrights Write? Damn Right!
The Insights I Gained by
Misspelling a Word
I love the English language but have an unfortunate tendency to butcher it with my spelling. And having gone to high school in an analog world without the benefit of autocorrect technology, this was a source of frequent embarrassment. I got into the habit of using a dictionary whenever I was in doubt. Still, some of my misspellings slipped through and landed in my assignments.
Case in point: a paper that was returned to me with the word “playwrite” circled in red.
I learned that while there are people in Hollywood who worked as screenWRITErs, their friends who worked on Broadway were known as playWRIGHTs.
I didn’t give it any further thought. But at some point—maybe reading something about colonial history—I realized that the spelling was not just one of those arbitrary eccentricities of the English language. I discovered that there were other wrights: boatwrights, wheelwrights, cartwrights.
Ever since those analog days I had wanted to be an artist who expressed himself with a unique, singular voice. Artists were my heroes—especially writers and musicians. To my knowledge, nobody ever put a master craftsman on a poster, whereas a huge image of Jerry Garcia was affixed to my bedroom door.
After college I was still passionate about expressing myself artistically. But I discovered that in order to make my living as a writer I would have to learn specific skills. My musings—no matter how authentic—needed to be presented in established forms if I expected to get paid for my efforts.
The form I initially tried to master was the sitcom.
In those days, each episode had a specific size (30 minutes, although the actual broadcast time was closer to 22) and shape (two acts, preceded by a cold open and followed by a tag). Those basic components were an assemblage of subcomponents: individual scenes. My job was learning how to make those basic elements and assemble them as skillfully as possible.
Assembling components… that has always been the essence of craftsmanship. Boatwrights learned to join ribs to a keel, cartwrights learned to attach spokes to a hub. A sitcom writer learns how to join the two acts of an episode together. To do it skillfully required mastery of craft.
For example, a skilled carpenter is taught how to connect two pieces of wood with a dovetail joint. A sitcom writer stokes a sense of anticipation by introducing critical information at the end of the first act in order to better connect it to act two.
I saw that great tags were made by resolving a subplot or delivering the punchline to a running joke.
Every story required exposition, but the writers who mastered their craft wove it into stories in subtle, interesting ways. (To learn a great device for adding exposition to a story, see the section in Blake Snyder’s first book, Save the Cat!, entitled “Pope in the Pool”.)
I soon began to appreciate the expert craftsmanship displayed by the writers of great shows. Week after week they built funny, exciting, and compelling episodes. They demonstrated great skill, creativity… and artistry. Their art was not something distinct from craft—it came with the mastery of it. And if I was still inclined to draw a line between artists and craftsmen, my dictionary had the information which allowed me to erase it forever. The key word was technique: “a way of carrying out a particular task, especially the execution or performance of an artistic work … .”
By the way, I found that definition in the same dictionary I used in high school all those years ago. I took it with me when I moved out of my parent’s house and have held on to it ever since.
As for the Jerry Garcia poster, my mother tossed that about an hour after I left.