3 Writerly Do’s and Don’t’s Gleaned from J.J. Abrams’ ALIAS


In an effort to catch up with all the pop culture I missed during the decade I was without a television, I am now semi-professionally binge-watching old shows. Hence, Alias. Though I was still living at home with an actual TV when Alias premiered in 2001, my family had strict TV rules—we could only watch for an hour or two each week. Thus, I spent all of my allotted television time watching Felicity because I was, like, totally Felicity Porter. At least in my head.

At school I had a few friends who were really into Alias but I just didn’t get it. Okay, so there’s this girl-next-door grad student who is also an international spy who is also a butt-kicking double agent who wears bad wigs and has really toned arms? Its convoluted nature turned me off, just as Lost did. But then I found out that the guy who created Felicity also created Alias (and Lost!). Mind = blown. J.J. Abrams is essentially a demigod. While I’ve only watched 2 of its 4 seasons, I feel so committed to these fictional people that I’ve composed a list of writerly Do’s and Don’ts based on Sidney Bristow’s life. Here is what I came up with:

1.      Don’t go to grad school and get recruited to be a spy. I cannot reiterate this point enough. Though you might find true love in the form of Michael Vartan’s dreamy Vaughn, you will also lose your fiancé, your friends, and your soul. Sidney Bristow just wants to be a teacher. But the whole international spy/butt-kicking double agent thing cramps her style. Her influential professor is on her back for not reaching her potential and, worst of all, she turns in a lot of shoddy work. If you do go to grad school, particularly a creative writing graduate program, make it count. Be selfish of your time. Devote yourself to writing. It is a rare and glorious thing to be given 2-3 years to simply be creative. It’s easy to take that for granted. So learn from Sidney Bristow: throw yourself into the thing that matters most. For her, school had to take a back seat while she was busy saving the world. For you, it might be something totally different—like crafting the first draft of your book.

2.      Do exploit your family’s crazy dynamics to get good writing material. Naturally, you should be honest and compassionate about your exploitation, but exploit it nonetheless. Like a lot of writers, Sidney Bristow’s angst comes from the double whammy that is her poor relationship with her father and her (presumably) dead mother. These motifs dominate a lot of really bad creative nonfiction and loosely veiled fiction by newer writers. This is okay. I’m serious. Because you have to write a lot of crazy terrible stuff about your messed up family to find the narrative that will sing. This takes time. A lot of time. Some writing teachers try to steer students away from potentially maudlin topics like a grandmother’s death or first intimate encounter. But it might be worth revisiting these topics, if only to sift for raw emotional material that will illuminate a character you’re fleshing out or a draft that needs tightening. As Sidney’s narrative arc shows, family dynamics cause pain and delight for pretty much everyone. They are worth exploring in our writing because of the humanity they reveal.

3.      Do curate your online authorial presence with extreme caution. Because no matter how friggin’ awesome Victor Garber is as Jack Bristow (or, “Papa Bristow”, as I like to call him) I can never really believe him since all I can see is the horrid Bill Atchison from First Wives Club (remember him as Goldie Hawn’s pathetic husband?). This is just to say that nothing ever dies online. Nothing. For writers, this means that the angsty and criminally embarrassing Live Journal account you had in the early 2000s and thought you deleted will actually haunt you forever and ever. When posting things to social media sites or your own blog/website, just ask yourself one question: “Will I be ashamed of this ___ years from now?” You can bet Victor Garber has had some second thoughts about his run as Bill Atchison, though probably zero regrets about beingLiberace in Behind the Music and, quite obviously, sub-zero regrets about being Jack Bristow.

Amy Lee Scott Resized

Amy Lee Scott received an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. There, among other things, she learned how to pop corn the right way–in a heavy pot over medium heat. Her essays have recently come out in Bellingham Review and The Gettysburg Review. She and her husband live in Dearborn, Michigan where she is working on a collection of essays about loss, memory and adoption. Her writing and mounting obsession with roadside oddities can be found at: http://clubnarwhal.blogspot.com/.

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2 Responses to 3 Writerly Do’s and Don’t’s Gleaned from J.J. Abrams’ ALIAS

  1. I admit I haven’t seen the series, but now I’m intrigued! I see episode-watching in my future, during middle-of-the-night baby feedings. 🙂 Only Amy could get this much constructive information from a TV show! I love it.

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