In an already glutted reality television market comes a new offering this fall: Project Write Stuff. Twelve aspiring writers compete to win a book deal, a year’s supply of coffee, a cat-a-day desk calendar, but best of all: exposure. After the failure of Project Diamond Cutters, the network is desperate to repeat the success that followed Project Pickle This. The all-star judges include author Philip Booth, whose novel’s protagonist shared a name with the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, a coincidence that shook him to his core; literary agent Marie Hickman, who rejected the 2018 blockbuster, Vampires Who Love Like People, the highest grossing memoir in history; and book blogger Pete S., who brags that he used galleys to subdivide his apartment.
Project Write Stuff follows the traditional formula, starting with twelve contestants who face weekly challenges and the threat of elimination. Though eleven of the contestants described themselves as fiction writers with several novels in the drawers of their minds, there was a lone poet in the mix. Xavier, who describes himself as a “longform experimental poet who proudly uses synesthesia and dyslexia to color [his] work,” eagerly exclaimed in the introductory segments, “Fiction is over. Readers are looking for a new experience and I know that I have what it takes to redefine what poetry means in America. People might say they hate poetry, but they just haven’t experienced the Xavierian Epic, a form I created while I worked on my MFA.”
Each week the contestants are faced with a new challenge, their first being to craft a short story in any style. Upon receiving their challenge, the group was given thirty minutes to draft, and a budget of $100 for supplies, which most used to purchase mini pies, while pocketing the change. Back in the workroom, each writer was provided with a typewriter, word processor, and HP laptops, leading to eye rolling and scoffs by many who sighed audibly as they searched for Microsoft Word.
The next forty minutes of the show, or eight hours for the contestants, was spent in the workroom. With spacious desks, the writers spread out their supplies and began to work. Since it was the first episode, this gave the viewer a chance to get to know the writers. We met Robert, a fiction writer from Brooklyn who had graduated from his MFA program in the spring. “I’m all about process,” Robert told the camera during his interview. Wearing a red plaid button down shirt, he described the importance of a writer’s space. “ Before I start writing I have to get my space in order, Feng Shui for the soul,” he commented, a spark developing in his eye. Holding up a finger and smirking, he quickly reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a battered brown notebook, and jotted something down. “So yeah, my writing space is really important to me.”
The writing time started out smoothly, but after about twenty minutes had elapsed (the show kindly keeps a tally in the corner), things began to break down in the workroom. Zooming in on Melissa, a barista from Brooklyn and a recent graduate of an MFA program, it was clear that she was starting to become uncomfortable. When the camera panned behind her, her word processor had been minimized and she was trying to open a web browser. Getting more and more frustrated at the error message, she broke the fourth wall and asked for help connecting to the internet. A disembodied voice quickly told her that there was no wifi, in order to keep the competition fair. With this previously unknown bit of information brought to light, many writers began to panic.
“I’m pretty disappointed about the lack of internet,” Julia, a recent MFA grad from Brooklyn confided to the camera. “I usually use it for research to give my characters quirky diseases.”
The writers found other ways to help with the process, with some chatting about their influences (while Samantha praised Joyce’s “The Dead” as the perfect short story, the rest nodded vigorously, mumbling about “the use of words” in Ulysses) over mini pies. Others found ways to straighten up the workroom. “People never clean behind the fridge, so I’m glad we were able to help out,” explained Timothy, a bespectacled MFA graduate and rooftop beekeeper from Brooklyn. “It was pretty nasty,” he added.
When it came time for workshop, the previously amicable environment became tense. “This is Project Write Stuff,” shouted Xavier, throwing his Moleskine to the ground, “not Project Typing.” Many in the group cooed at him, clearly nervous about the imminent meltdown. “Your ideas are the best, but you actually only wrote a sentence and then doodled a dragon,” Melissa explained. “Genius takes time,” Xavier shouted, and then bolted out the door.
After spending some more time writing, editing, doodling, snacking, and cleaning, the contestants were done for the day. Their housing was void of paper so that no one could continue writing. The camera caught Xavier, who had finally calmed down after his earlier outburst, writing notes on his arms. Is this cheating? It was up to the judges to decide. “But you can’t just shut off the fountain,” he explained. In the end, it barely mattered, as many others recorded clandestine voice memos and utilized mnemonic devices to remember their ideas. “It came to me when I woke up,” explained Timothy. “I just need to remember, PLATYPUS, which stands for…well, you’ll just have to find out!”
For judging, the contestants were seated in a circle, with the three judges at a desk in the middle. They read quietly as the contestants shifted uncomfortably in their seats. In the end, it was poor Timothy who was sent home. “This is like Steinbeck meets a garbage truck,” Eric S. said, tossing the crumpled pages into the ceremonial trash bin.
Tune in next week, when the writers will be put into teams to complete a short story by way of the exquisite corpse.
Jennifer Ray Morell is a writer and music photographer from New York City. Her work has appeared in The Ruckus, Tin House, Underwater New York, and Sundog Lit.