A couple of years ago, I took part in plotting the second season of the
Netflix series “Sense8.” The first season was developed and written by
the sisters Lilly and Lana Wachowski, who also directed it—and whom I profiled for this magazine—and J. Michael (Joe) Straczynski, with the
help of Tom Tykwer, James McTeigue, and Dan Glass. After the first
season, Lilly decided to expend her energies elsewhere, and I was
brought in, along with the novelist David Mitchell, to help write the
second season. In September of 2015, I spent a week with my co-plotters
and Julie Brown, the script supervisor, at the Wachowskis’ studio, an
office at Kinowerks, in Chicago, devising situations and imagining
twists and turns that would form the story lines for the show’s second

A large number of the American writers I know, and I know a few, are
involved in writing or developing long-form narrative television. One
reason for this was recently provided by John Landgraf, the C.E.O. of FX
Network, who said that four hundred and fifty-four scripted original
series had aired in the U.S. in 2016; he thought that the number could
rise to five hundred this year. Apparently, the industry needs writers
and, black-hole-like, is sucking in galaxies of them. Until I was asked
to work on “Sense8,” I’d never been interested in that particular black
hole, even though I had come to believe that American television had
overtaken narrative literature in its ability to deal with contemporary
realities. No novel has addressed the Bush years’ crypto-fascist notion
of “leadership” with the same clarity of thought as “The Sopranos.” If
you wanted to understand the waste laid by the so-called War on Drugs,
you wouldn’t read a novel—you’d watch “The Wire.” Television, in other
words, offers opportunities to confront and report from the world as it

Before “Sense8,” my screenwriting experience consisted of co-authoring a
script with the Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić for her comedy “Love
Island,” in 2014. The rest of my writerly life had taken place in the
self-imposed isolation of my head. I don’t take part in workshops or
writing groups; I don’t share ideas or drafts with my fellow-writers for
feedback; I make all the decisions and am responsible for every word in
the book that I am writing, acknowledgments included. My solipsistic
authorial habits would seem to feed into a common misconception about
writing, which is that it is merely a conduit for the writer’s
interiority, and that a good writer—or even just a capable one—possesses
the skills to transfer the contents of that interiority onto the page
with as little loss as possible. Much of the creative-writing industry
depends upon that misconception and the promise, implicit or explicit,
that the acquisition of those skills is unconditionally achievable. I’ve
grown to be suspicious of that notion, as I have learned that writing
generates the content and therefore transforms—or even creates—the
interiority. Writing is a means of interaction with the world, and
therefore it changes the writer. If it doesn’t, it contains no discovery
and merely reproduces the already known and familiar. Writing, I
believe, should be a matter not of execution but of transformation.

My screenwriting experience confirmed my belief. While Lana, Lilly, and
Joe were responsible for the foundations of the show—for all the
characters and their narrative trajectories—my role was to make
proposals that would be taken up by the other people in the room and
spun around a few times. The version of the proposal that emerged would
have little to do with the original, yet belonged to me as much as to
everyone else. In the course of one of those spins, I realized that,
whenever I spoke or listened to someone, I was looking at the center of
a circle that was delimited by the participants. Somehow, we started
calling this space, and the collaboration that it housed, the Pit. A
whole Pit-related phraseology soon emerged: “I’m going to throw this
into the Pit.” “Let’s spin it in the Pit.” “The Pit concurs.” “The
Pit needs a pendulum.” I enjoyed losing myself in the process, which
felt all the more fascinating for the fact that the distinguishing
characteristic of the heroes of “Sense8” is an ability to inhabit
someone else’s mind. All this may be yesterday’s news to the film,
television, and theatre people out there, but I’d never experienced the
pleasure of temporarily losing my intellectual sovereignty—of watching
my bright idea be destroyed, only to be transformed into something
entirely different.

After that week in 2015, David and I went back home. (My home is about
five blocks away from Kinowerks; David’s is in Ireland.) For the rest of
the year, we were regularly assigned scenes to write on short deadlines.
Cognizant of their place and role in the larger narrative, we were
tasked with working out the dialogue and the details, tossing in our
suggestions for a remote Pit spin. “The Wolfgang and Lila dinner, 2-3
pages, tomorrow,” Lana would write in an e-mail. The following day I’d
submit the requested two to three pages. Lana and Joe would perform the
bulk of the Pit work, developing, amending, or just rejecting the pages
we sent in. Over the course of three months or so, I sent in some
hundred and twenty pages, happy in the knowledge that not a single one
of them would make it to the final seven-hundred-page script in the form
in which I had written it.

Lana and her crew spent eight months shooting the second season of
“Sense8,” in fourteen different locations around the world. Watching the
two-hour Christmas special, in 2016, and then the rest of the season, I
kept thinking, I did this, I am part of this. But I had great difficulty
remembering exactly which scenes had begun their evolution in my head. I
was everywhere and nowhere in it.

In expectation of Netflix renewing the show, David and I signed
contracts to keep the following summer free to write Season 3. In the
meantime, Joe moved on to other projects; the three directors got busy
directing elsewhere. Then, within a few weeks of the release of the
second season, “Sense8” was cancelled. This led to some soul-searching
and operational considerations, whereupon we decided to invest the time
we would have spent on “Sense8” into developing a New Project, whose
bits and pieces had been spinning around the Pit for a while.

This time around, there were no preëxisting characters or story lines.
At Kinowerks, the Pit processed ideas, noting them down on cards, then
sticking the themes, locations, lines, and characters (subsequently
stratified into primary, secondary, and tertiary categories) to metal
boards with little magnets. The Pit also devoured enormous amounts of
chocolate and shared a feeling familiar to those who, at some point in
their life, spent time playing in a sandbox with their favorite friends.
Over a couple of weeks, in the most stimulating creative process that
I’d ever been part of, we came up with the structure, time frame, and
story lines for the series, and began to write the script for the pilot

Meanwhile, “Sense8” refused to enter the void. Perhaps as a result of
the show’s narrative complexity, it had both viewership numbers too low
to please Netflix and fans passionate enough to spark a spontaneous
campaign to renew the series. The campaign featured petitions, phone
calls, and the sending of single flip-flops to the Netflix offices—in
reference to a scene in which a heartbroken character looks in misplaced
despair for a misplaced flip-flop. It’s impossible to know to what
extent all this influenced the big bosses, but when Lana proposed making
a two-hour special to close Season 2, Netflix agreed.

The resurrection of “Sense8” was as joyous as its cancellation was
painful. Since David and I were already all keyed up, we suspended work
on the New Project, adopted a slogan—“The Pit Don’t Quit”—and set out
to write a script. We cleared the metal boards and put up new cards
featuring the characters of “Sense8.” Working twelve to fourteen hours a
day, six days a week, we turned out pages full of ideas that would
vanish into the Pit only to emerge reformed. Within a week, we had the
plot outlined; within three, we had a hundred-and-sixty-page writers’
cut of the script, which we celebrated by going out to dance all night.
We spent the following week cutting the script down to some hundred and
thirty pages that could go out to the producers, the assistant director,
and the location scouts, all of whom were eager to start preparing the
shoot, the dates for which were quickly set. The production team’s
reactions and suggestions resulted in another, shorter draft—the reading
version—which went out to actors. The final version of the script would
be created in preparation for and during the shoot, and shaped by all
the people involved in production. In this way, the script left the
small Pit to enter the big Pit, where the words that it’s made of will
dissolve into images.

In my literary projects, the plotless structures I gravitate toward
allow me to seek connections and meanings that emerge primarily not from
characters and events but from language and the potentialities of
thought within it. I think inside endless semantic, syntactic, rhythmic
variations. Both David and I were continuously tempted to apply our
respective colored pencils to the pages of the script (David’s
grammatically persnickety alter ego is named Lawrence and likes to use a
green pen), but there was little time and even less need to attend to
the language in the way we were accustomed to. We did, however, often
discuss the structure of individual events and their positioning in the
larger plot. For instance, the second season of “Sense8” ended with a
cliffhanger, the resolution of which would necessarily prohibit certain
future plotlines. There was, nevertheless, an infinite number of
possibilities for the plot that would follow; not unlike language, our
plot was a discrete combinatory system, in which from a finite number of
elements any number of combinations could be made. From our respective
couches (which Lana, David, and I named, for reasons that I cannot
explain here, “Illumination,” “Ireland,” and “Doom,” respectively),
before making any notes, we spent hours reshuffling the abstract, as yet
nonexistent structure of the story.

During one of those sessions, I had a near-Proustian involuntary memory
of a time, some thirty years ago, when I was a freshman at an
engineering college. My friend and I were studying together for an
advanced-differential-calculus exam, solving tough integral problems,
until we ran into one that we could not break. For two days, for at
least twelve hours a day, we sought a solution; the process required
reducing the integral to some identifiable type and then applying a
preëxisting algorithmic protocol. (We finally called in a math-genius
friend, who looked at the unbreakable integral and solved it in just a
couple of steps.) The memory made me realize that plotting a narrative
is a logical, algorithmic operation, albeit one that has an infinite
number of possible outcomes, rather than one correct resolution.
Building a plot is like creating an algorithm from scratch, starting
before the problem is even defined and then backtracking after the
desired solution has been selected.

The memory also suggested that my subconscious was following a logical
algorithm. My dreams are usually amorphous, featuring a field of
confusingly connected events—a description that also applies to most of
my work, as well as to my waking mind. The subconscious authority
governing my dream life, however, had lately begun to insist that the
events and the characters in my dreams be logically connected, that they
follow one another causally. In recent dreams, I’ve struggled to connect
discrete events, so much so that I’ve woken in despair. Once, I dreamed
that I was a screenwriter trying to untangle a plot knot. Some dreams
have featured “Sense8” characters, others those from the New Project,
who sometimes act like real people in my dreams and are sometimes just
structural problems that I have to solve.

Back in my early years in the U.S., at the time when my English was in
transition from tourist to survival mode, I’d catch myself dreaming in
English, and noticing, in my dream, that the people who shouldn’t be
talking in English were doing so. Even more bizarrely, I would recollect
English conversations with my family or friends, which would certainly
have taken place in our native language. I interpreted those dreams and
memories as my subconscious mind welcoming this non-native language. If
I hadn’t absorbed the new language in that way, I wouldn’t have been
able to write any of the books I’ve written in English, or to have lived
a full life in this language. I am writing this on the last day of the
Pit’s screenwriting session, overwhelmed by the feeling that the sandbox
is about to be dismantled, that my friends will go back to their
separate lives and careers, and that, very soon, I’ll be returning to my
former, stark, monastic literary practices. What the experience of
exultant plotting at Kinowerks may have done to my mind, I cannot begin
to know, at least not yet.