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On Writing While Surrounded by Great Writing and Writers

Media executive and writer Josh Sapan’s life has been surrounded by great writers. Here, he talks about how he discerned his own writing voice while surrounded by the writing voices of others.

I’m not a writer. Not by any stretch. I can say this with certainty because I’ve been surrounded—by birth, marriage, career, and accident—by great writing and great writers. It’s been one of the pleasures of my life.

(Hitting the Road: How to Find the Courage to Try New Writing Paths)

I live in New York City with theatres minutes away from my apartment. Just a few weeks ago, I saw Fat Ham at The Public Theatre. In this all-African American take on Shakespeare, Hamlet is an overweight, queer, young kid living in Brooklyn with his needy mother and vain hustling uncle, who has killed his father. The writing by James Ijames is spectacular. It won the Pulitzer.

Not all the writing I’ve been proximate to is Pulitzer material, but much of it has been at the top of its own form.

My father squeaked through Erasmus High School and began selling shoes after his time in the army. My mother encouraged him to find a career doing what he loved. He became an advertising copywriter and creative director. His words had a clarity that I marveled at then and remember well today.

For Ballantine Beer, he wrote the long-running “Ask the man for Ballantine” tagline. For Bonnie Fluff Clothes Softener, the voiceover accompanying the image of the slowly folded, clean laundry was “Kiss your clothes with softness.” For a furniture print ad, my dad cast his own 6’5” frame at a tiny desk. “How Long Should a Man’s Legs Be?” read the headline.

My father-in-law found his way to a scholarship at an Ivy League college. He, too, had an irresistible frugality, clarity, and poignancy of word as the head of advertising and promotion for the ABC and NBC broadcast television networks in their golden age. When out to humanize Olympic athletes, he wrote one of the greatest lines in the history of promotion – “Up Close and Personal” – which introduced the stories of their lives beyond athletics.

On Writing While Surrounded by Great Writing and Writers

They were both "Mad Men." I don’t know if that’s what drew me to a script by Mathew Weiner in 2009 when AMC, the company I was CEO of, decided to move from black-and-white films to original dramatic TV series. The first meaningful series we did was "Mad Men." The writing from its visionary creator, Mathew Weiner, is legendary. It was exciting to have had any hand in making it come to life.

Vince Gilligan who had worked on "X Files" had a show that TV networks wouldn’t make. The script for "Breaking Bad" read like an independent film unbound by archetypal TV characters. For more than a decade, I had the opportunity to read and see great TV writing like this come to life on AMC, Sundance Channel, BBC America, and IFC Films.

Earlier on I rented the cabin I owned in the Pocono Mountains to friends for the summer. They then passed it on to friends of theirs. A TV publicist named Ellen Frey was a fly-fishing fan who loved being 50 feet from the Delaware River where the cabin was. She introduced me to her fiancé, Frank McCourt, a schoolteacher who was writing a novel.

They married at that very cabin after Frank rowed down the river in a canoe to meet Ellen in a great white suit and that novel he was writing at the time—on the porch—was Angela’s Ashes, a masterpiece that would earn him a Pulitzer and National Book Award.

On Writing While Surrounded by Great Writing and Writers

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Sometime later, when my wife and I were having dinner with my son’s godmother, she brought along an Irish writer she had met at a retreat: Colum McCann. Colum had been at Frank McCourt’s bedside when he died. When I told him about Frank and the cabin, he began to visit it and write there.

Colum wrote parts of his prize-winning novel Apeirogon looking out the window watching the Delaware freeze into big chunks of ice during a cold stretch in winter. When I sit down to write, I think of them all. The contemplation is intimidating.

I know that I am not writing like those greats. I am writing, well, like me. Once I get a little momentum, my thoughts and words merge. I stop making comparisons; I don’t judge. I move into the satisfaction of just having found a different voice. The voices in Third Act: Reinventing Your Next Chapter have helped me consider my third act. I am grateful to be able to share their stories and curious to discover my own.

Among the Mad Men my father knew was Bill Bernbach, who founded the eponymous BBDO adverting agency. One of the great ad lines Bernbach penned in the 1960’s is a legendary one for Volkswagen: “Think Small.” Steve Jobs’ Apple Computer and ad agency Chiat Day later came up with another immortal line: “Think Different.”

I find both to be good counsel.

Build Your Novel Scene by Scene

If you want to learn how to write a story, but aren’t quite ready yet to hunker down and write 10,000 words or so a week, this is the course for you. Build Your Novel Scene by Scene will offer you the impetus, the guidance, the support, and the deadline you need to finally stop talking, start writing, and, ultimately, complete that novel you always said you wanted to write.

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