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Jane Espenson

Why We Write essay ala Jane Espenson

Wednesday 16 January 2008, by Webmaster

Number 19

Today’s piece is written by Jane Espenson, writer for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Co-Executive Producer of “Battlestar Gallactica.”

I had a lot of Barbie dolls when I was a kid. Close to a dozen, I think. I remember that I loved them, but looking back, I’m not sure why. I knew at the time, vaguely, that I was supposed to make up stories and act them out with the dolls, and I actually remember trying to do that, and failing. The problem was that I didn’t know these girls. I didn’t know their backgrounds, their quirks, what distinguished one from the other. I didn’t get the premise of how eleven identical ludicrously-shaped teenagers had met. But most of all, I didn’t know their voices. Without that, I was uninspired.

The dolls I REALLY played with were the characters from M*A*S*H and Welcome Back Kotter and Barney Miller and The Odd Couple and The Love Boat and Starsky and Hutch. I would fall asleep making up stories for those shows in my head. But I was a brutal audience. I couldn’t enjoy the made-up stories if I couldn’t make myself believe them. And I couldn’t believe them if the voices weren’t right.

So I would keep tinkering, reworking the same scene over and over in my mind every night until I could hear it. I assume that I was doing the same thing that impersonators do when they learn to take on the voices of others. I was just doing it silently.

I’m not old enough to have gotten my start writing for the radio. But I wrote as if I did. Because I was so focused on the word, the image meant less to me. I’ve since learned the power of the image, but deep in my heart, finding the exact right word for that character is still, to this day, the most important thing.

Even now, when I’m stuck on a line, I’ll lie down in a quiet room. And I’ll listen, just like I did when I was ten. If I’m lucky, I’ll hear the line. Heck, I’ll hear the whole scene. Then I just have to type it. Note that this is why I don’t write at The Coffee Bean. It’s not quiet enough and they don’t let you lie down.

I’ve been lucky, during my working life, to get to write for Ellen, Buffy, Lorelei, Starbuck and so many more unique characters. Getting to step into their voices has been incredibly fulfilling. The fact that Buffy has continued beyond its televised run into the world of comic books is amazing and wonderful to me. Her voice lives on. Starbuck, of course, has also not finished saying what she has to say. When a fair agreement is reached, I look forward to listening to more of what she has to say. And writing it down.

Are there kids out there somewhere now, writing lines for Apollo and Starbuck in their heads as they fall asleep? Am I not so strange that there can be other kids like me? I hope so. And I hope when those kids start pursuing careers, that there’s one here waiting for them.