What Paddy Chayefsky's Notes on 'Network' Teach Us about 'Parenting' a Screenplay
Self-doubt and constant scrutiny help turn "Network" into a narrative masterpiece.
Though Sidney Lumet's 1976 film Network has become both a classic dramatic satire and a bafflingly accurate prophecy of the rise and domination of the infotainment news machine, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky had a hell of a time writing it.
After the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts acquired files Chayefsky left behind after his death in 1981, the public was able to peer into the mind of a writer who appeared to constantly doubted himself about his ability to not only bring closure to a complicated narrative but also find thematic cohesion and clarity between the A and B storylines.
In this video essay, Sage Hyden of Just Write explores the notes Chayefsky took while working on Network, revealing the writer's arduous and consuming creative process in hopes of finding the path he took to turn his scrappy, often overreaching narrative into a powerfully poignant work of
We writers can be a fickle brood. We fall in love with an idea, inseminate that idea with our own creativity, and watch as our beautiful narrative baby bursts into the world, placenta and amniotic fluid and all. We're so happy that our creative juices were able to bear fruit that we show our baby to everyone who has sight and light up cigars and talk about how hard and wonderful the process was and how we're better, wiser people now that we've gone through it.
And then, the crying and the shitting.
We realize, one lonely night, that our baby is, in fact, a baby and requires our care because it is not yet viable for life apart from us in the adult world. It needs attention—so much attention—and after so many sleepless nights of hearing the cries of our narrative children and wiping up shit, we often throw in the baby wipe. We abandon them—I'm talking baby-in-a-basket-in-front-of-a-fire-station abandon. And why? Well, often because it's not fun anymore. It's an exhilarating experience doing the horizontal mambo with our ideas and picking out character names like newborn onesies with ducks on them. Though a lot of us love the thought of "parenting" a story, we aren't all that thrilled about actually doing it.
"Artists don't talk about art. Artists talk about work. If I have anything to say to young writers, it's stop thinking of writing as art. Think of it as work."
Chayefsky stuck it out. He fed those babies at 3 a.m. and changed those shitty diapers. He worked diligently on the problems he saw in his story until he finally found solutions. He parented the fuck out of Network, and look at it now— all grown up and going down in history as one of the best screenplays ever written.
He urges young writers to be sober-minded about their craft, to think of it as work instead of art. It's a great way to approach storytelling because while we love to wax poetic about our love of art, we say nothing of the work required in order to not only bring that art to life but to also bring it to maturity. We want to be "parents," but we don't actually "parent." We want to be writers, but we don't actually write.
If that's you, join the club, my friend. There's a lot of us in here. But instead of us giving excuses on why "we can't," let's give advice on how "we can." Let's talk less about art and more about work. Let's not be deadbeat parents to our script babies.