Personal Essays

The Rough Cut

When you share your life with a reality TV editor, you learn that reality often winds up on the cutting-room floor.

“Our second act is weak,” my wife, Maisie, says over coffee one morning. A cardinal whistles outside on the magnolia tree. “We have lots of holes.”

It’s an idyllic spring morning in upstate New York, and we sit at our dining room table talking about the life story of a Supermodel-Turned-Actress. My wife edits reality TV shows, you see, putting together biographies of the rich and fabulous into one-hour blocks—42 minutes, 34 seconds to be exact. The Famous Supermodel-Turned-Actress is her latest assignment.

Until recently, Maisie only infrequently shared shop talk about her job. The status of whoever’s life she was chipping away at remained in a midtown editing suite. I would watch the shows when they aired like any dutiful husband, watch her name go by in the credits, and then I would go back to my desk, where I write about my own real life.

Then we pulled up stakes out of the big city and moved upstate near Albany, N.Y. so I could take a job teaching writing. When Maisie learned she could work from home, we rejoiced at keeping her career intact. Leaving Brooklyn would be a major lifestyle change, we knew. So would my wife working at home.

That’s when the conflict between real life and reality TV life started.

Three years, two young daughters, and one mortgage in the suburbs later, what we did not know was that the biggest change, and the one constant in our lives, would be that our house will be taken over by whoever’s life story is being assembled. We have shared our marriage with the hagiographies of a series of famous people: the Hard-Partying Actor, the Randy Politician, the One-Hit-Wonder Rapper. My wife is tasked with compartmentalizing each life into digestible segments.

“I don’t have anything about her early modeling days in Paris,” she complains to a producer over the phone, simultaneously breastfeeding our six-month-old. “Plus,” she says, “there are no cliffhangers.”

My wife has never been one for cliffhangers or drama. A native Manhattanite who went to a private all-girl’s school on the Upper East Side, her only time spent out of the city was at an Ivy League college. Drama’s my job. I’m the one from a blue-collar Catholic New Jersey clan. Her family discusses the state of the economy over dinners; mine makes farts jokes and weigh heads on my uncle’s meat scale. She does yoga; I play heavy metal guitar. She deliberates; I act out. She is the patrician yin to my Turnpike yang.

To paraphrase what Dolly Parton once said about her appearance, you might say reality TV is cheap, but it takes a lot of work to look that cheap. When I met her, she was the music editor for a Famous Film Director who partied with rock stars. I was an aspiring poet out of graduate school with student loans and no publications to my name. I thought she was the most sophisticated woman I ever met. When I got the chance to chat her up at a party in Williamsburg, I pulled out all the stops and tried my best at urbane chest-puffery with my knowledge of punk bands and obscure-o music trivia.

It didn’t work. “I didn’t understand a word you said for the first two weeks we dated,” she likes to tell me.

Luckily, she liked me, despite my propensity to blab on and on about whatever was on my mind, and after a while, I calmed down, and she opened up and shared center stage. We make a great team: the neurotic, self-centered writer and the nerves-of-steel post-production supervisor. She switched to picture-editing and I to memoir-writing. We moved from Williamsburg to Park Slope, like many couples do.

For years, Maisie was my editor. She reviewed a fresh printout that depicted a slice of life, and she would offer comments that were incisive and gentle-handed. In other words, she played the role of writer’s spouse.

It wasn’t until we moved up here, with our real life of preschool and play dates, that I got the full sense that my wife works with far more exciting material. My life now competes with groupie tales too risqué for final cut, score-settling spouses, and cocaine binges on the Sunset Strip. I grew jealous of my wife’s subjects and was strangely drawn to them. With that kind of material, a producer, and an interviewer to extract stories out of me, my work would be easy, I thought. Maybe some of it would rub off as I mined the little nuggets of interestingness I do have in myself.

Things came to a head last summer, when my adversary was a Heartthrob TV Actor. He’d had so many epochs in his career, so many cliffhangers, that her job was easy. I was off from work. I watched episodes of his shows in bed. As if out of some competition with both editor and subject, or just to put off whatever I was working on, I researched aspects of his life that had no chance of making final cut: sex scandals, records of musical side projects, magazines with Heartthrob TV Actor gracing the cover bought off eBay. It was as if I developed a crush on the other man. With each tight-jeaned squat he made with his pistol, each shirtless chase on a speedboat, I felt the balance tip in his favor. I started to work out, grew in my stubble, and skipped our screenings. By the time she moved onto the Troubled Child Actor, I think we both exhaled a sigh of relief.


* * *

The celebrity’s life breakdown, I have learned, looks something like this:

  • Act I: Striking out one’s own
  • Act II: Overwhelmed by fame
  • Act III: Success on own terms
  • Act IV: Personal crisis
  • Act V: Finds peace personally and professionally

For some subjects, it’s a study of microscoping in on the decisive moment of a person’s life, then making other, more artificial ones equally significant. Then a tease-out before the commercial.

The story of Supermodel-Turned-Actress, Maisie tells me over dinner, is harder than most. Besides the lack of cliffhangers, “there’s nothing about her relationships” in the footage, she tells me. There will have to be mop-up interviews to fill in the holes of a story. To paraphrase what Dolly Parton once said about her appearance, you might say reality TV is cheap, but it takes a lot of work to look that cheap.

As I write this, stacks of unauthorized Supermodel-Turned-Actress biographies fill our living room and bedside tables. A sentence from a random page: “She had little clue that this was anything more than just another TV gig, but life was soon going to get a whole lot more complicated.” Three-ring-binders full of research clips rest alongside our two-year-old’s Playhut Disney Princess hideout tent. Footage of cameos and archival news reports burnt onto DVDs rest beside Elmo’s Greatest Hits on the entertainment center. My wife seems to be able to balance her star-studded life and our rural suburban life just fine. Me, not so much.

“When the Famous Director broke up with her, her life was shattered.” My wife says this into the microphone with bravura and a straight face. Usually a low talker, my wife transforms into an announcer, annunciating every word in an exaggerated manner. She is recording her scratch track voiceovers. This is the period before she screens for the network’s executives. It’s a heady time—which means I have to shut up when I’m near her office. I always sneak near her office when she’s at this stage, maybe because she keeps her door shut. I turn into one of our needy cats during this stage. Sometimes she loses her voice.


* * *

In ancient Rome, editor (munerarius) was the title for a gladiator owner who often took Caesar’s place to determine which combatants lived or died. I think about this when Maisie gets to the fine-cutting stage, when she fires up her computer with gusto and chips away at footage seconds at a time. The same sentence repeats over and over again. In this metaphor, her special multicolored keyboard is the editor’s wooden sword handed to the gladiator whose life is worth keeping. She really gets into it, in other words. I told her she has to wear headphones now.

I think my wife is excellent at what she does, but never brags about her work. When she’s praised, it’s all the more gratifying. A few shows back, she was assigned the story of a Wholesome Brother-Sister Singing Duo. Unlike the Cantankerous Actress or the Action Star with the Unconventional Haircut, the Singing Duo cooperated fully with the production. Maisie flew out West to interview them. They were rather ho-hum and mellow and hardly spoke to each other, but when the camera went on, they sprung into action, relived the song-and-dance act that made them famous.

Months later, out of the blue, the Wholesome Brother called her at home.

“I just wanted to say that my wife watched the show and said it was one of the best things she’s ever seen about us,” he said. “I know people in your line of work don’t always get the thanks you deserve, so I wanted to call you personally.” He didn’t see the show, but still, to get a thank-you call from a famous person certainly brightened our day.

Tomorrow, after researching the childhood of a Reality-Star-Turned-Philanderer, my wife will dig up the front garden beds to plant flowers. I will sit upstairs in my attic office, trying to write about the most difficult subject: myself. There are lots of holes in my story line, but there’s the in-house help to figure out where the missing pieces go.