Thursday, October 8, 2009

Another TV Type Turns to Fiction

Ah, another television reporter takes a step
into the world of fiction. (Now hey, I don't want to hear one catty word from you all.)
Writing for TV can make you--tough. Tense. Cynical. It can also show you the world, which is often wonderful, and often terrifying. And always complicated. After years of writing for TV, (and winning tons of awards), Michael Cogdill decided he'd take the step into fiction. And, he'll tell you, he fell in love.
And here's here now to give you his own breaking news.

Let's call it: The Affair of Writing

I anchor the late news on WYFF4 television – NBC in the Western Carolinas and Georgia. A newscast – so often fraught with helicopter live pictures and word of the worst of times for often innocent souls – leaves the people who bring it to you wired at the nerves and longing in the heart by a work day’s end. Coming home at midnight with all that energy, I vented the power of it on fiction. She-Rain, over a span of a decade, emerged as the result.

And, thus, came my love affair with such hours as 4:30 am. It grew out of lust for an utterly different world, and a love for the sway of language. Countless mornings I drew myself away from She-Rain and came to bed at the breakage of dawn to my extraordinary wife, Jill, who not only tolerated this tryst. She knew and embraced its beginnings. Thankfully, she still does so, as a muse, an editor, and my great love.

Great television writing calls for sentences of no more than 22 syllables or so. It must spark with active voice, and it dies without action. Powerful storytelling lives in lines that open with a sense of wonder. They should never merely end. They should land with power aimed for the human heart. The trouble is, we in television keep writing about the same things. Over and over, we tell of common trauma resurrecting itself in differing lives. Along with my work as an anchor, I tell long-form stories that have won me a few awards over my career.
When colleagues ask me how to win Emmys writing about the same terrible human events, I always say – spray the events with active, high-caliber words to create that sense of wonder, then get deep down into the humanness of it all. Down where those events find their making. Find the heart, then let the viewer hear it.

This will seem the oxymoron of a media hound’s lifetime, but I believe all writing – even hard-news journalism – ought to aim for some brush with beauty. A few days ago, I read a critic chiding Pat Conroy for his “purpled prose.” I doubt Mr. Conroy troubles himself much at this, given the legion of fans adoring his way of calling deeply human events to life in fine lines of storytelling. And yes, it’s easy to go way too far. Yet when Scott Fitzgerald in a magazine piece described an ocean as the color of blue silk stockings or the irises of children’s eyes, he taught us all how efficiently a line of beauty can find its way into a reader’s heart.

One of the great storytellers in the history of television, Bob Dotson of NBC News, gave me some advice that will serve any writer well – when you think of that beautiful little line that rings with music and clarifies the whole story, write it down. Put it on a scrap of paper, scrawl it on your hand, write it anywhere that’s legal. Never rely on your memory. Seed the future of your story with the scribbling of your present time. Even if you write on your leg while steering a riding lawn mower, get that thought some permanence. Reader, please, if you get ideas that way, let me know. Let’s share in the bizarre comfort of odd places where our writing suddenly arrives.

In just such a peculiar way, She-Rain whispered to me, even on the news set in a commercial break. Many a night, the novel would slip me her number again. I’ve often come home with a scrap off a news script, scribbled full of lines and ideas that would rise to full life at 4:30 the following morning. She-Rain became a solace from the world of news, yet she drew from what that world taught me about the telling of a deeply human story. The terror and beauty common to us all.

So here’s to writing that grows out of that longing for an utterly different world. Here’s our affair with language and the rising of a tale. May those we love understand that we who write simply can not help but stray there. Thankfully they know us, and love us anyway.
HANK: And that's a wrap. (I've scribbled on many a script myself!)

She-Rain will be published in early March, 2010. Read the opening pages here:


  1. Michael! I see from our stats you have many many visitors..and I guess you've left everyone speechless! PLease keep us posted on what happens with you book..

    Tomorrow--true confessions. Yes, a new author is brave enough to tell the whole truth. Are you brave enough to do the same? Come see how fearless one reader can be.

  2. Hank, I sure will. I'm deeply grateful for your kindness in letting me guest here. Thank you for spreading the She-Rain word.

    I'd love to hear your comments on the opening pages, up on the blog:

    Jill says I've been rendering women speechless for years, though it's yet to work on her!!