On Writing: The Audacity of Sincerity

baby-monkey-2Babies are the worst. They’re loud and needy and smell terrible. And I’m not just talking about human babies here. Dog babies and cat babies and otter babies and deer babies and little monkey babies – all babies are awful. They ruin everything and we should really be doing something about it. I think the only good baby is a chicken baby that’s still in the egg because you can use that baby to make an omelette. Basically the only good baby is an edible baby. People are always so excited to show off babies in pictures and in person and all I can think is, if we had gotten to that baby sooner we could have made it into a pie.

Sorry. I got some troll in my throat. Where was I? Oh, yeah. A writing blog.

Surprise is an essential element of creating a story. If you can catch the audience off guard you can heighten the emotional impact of a moment. A scare that is unanticipated is scarier. A joke you don’t see coming is funnier. A defeat that catches you off guard is more crushing. Surprise isn’t much of a reaction on it’s own though. For example, it’d be pretty surprising if you were reading this and I just

 

porcini

Yeah. I GOT YOU. MUSHROOM FOR NO REASON. PORCINI MOTHERFUCKER

Anyway…

Surprise for it’s own sake might be novel. I mean, it is by definition surprising. But what’s the value in that? It’s not particularly entertaining for the audience and it doesn’t really do much to improve a story. Honestly, surprise for no good reason is mostly just a great way to irritate people.

Which is where we’re at now as a culture. In the 21st century, in modern America, being contrary because it’s unexpected, being a knee jerk Devil’s Advocate, has been elevated to a celebrated pastime. I do it sometimes. We all do it sometimes. We have allowed this lazy cynical childish nonsense to take over our discourse, our media, and even our political leaders. If you find an ugly hat, you should put it on because who would wear an ugly hat OH MY GOD? If you see a lot of people enjoying a television show or movie or band or ugly hat you should definitely go up and well, actually because liking a thing just because you do is so gauche. If it’s not ironic, if it’s not done for LOLs, it’s not worth doing, right?

lockers

Male privilege and casual misogyny included!

I obviously take a dim view of this trend and yeah, I’m pretty impatient with it now. There’s a whole spectrum of contrary smugness from the trucker hatted hipster drinking cheap beer that’s not really hurting anyone (except wine cooler “vintners” and beret milliners) to the predictably shitty goblins that are attracted to every comment section on every website to that piece of human excrement that sicced a horde of cretins with keyboards on Leslie Jones because of something about an old B-movie and lady on the internet. I’m painting it all with the same brush here and that might not be fair but fuck it. I’ve seen too many links to listicles explaining the top 10 reasons why X is overrated or Y is not as cool as you thought it was. I’ve had too many arguments about whether incendiary rhetoric is sincere or just trolling. Just trolling. This is a thing we have to wonder now. Is the creep that sends a barrage of rape threats to a female comedian a serious threat or “just a troll?” Is the spray-painted swastika for real? And what the hell locker room is all that talking happening in? Is it a magical wink, wink, no for real though, boys will be boys locker room where you can just say things you don’t mean because the lockers are full of bullshit excuses to avoid taking personal accountability?

NOPE

NOPE

I know there has always been hyperbole and there will always be some jerk that throws a rock at the pretty girl and some oddball eccentric that will try to convince us that Vegemite isn’t salty hate sewage and that like most things the internet and mass media proliferation has just put a magnifying on it but I can’t help but feel it’s still more than that. I’ve seen some argue that the increase in trolling is in response to “Social Justice Warriors”, the new term for the straw man “PC Police” (the 90s are back, you guys). The argument is that everyone is so sensitive and so serious -remember the Joker’s catchphrase? trolls love the Joker- that the trolls just have to take them down a notch. Really they’re the heroes here. This is where my ability to write really fails me because I don’t know the right word that captures the sound of a wet shit and an eye roll and a middle finger and pure undiluted contempt that I think is the appropriate response to that. I mean, there’s so much wrong with that idea that it gets caught in my throat while I’m shame vomiting that I struggle to even have to respond to it. I’ll try to distill it though. These people that the trolls are trying to take down are mostly from communities that are already down several pegs or are speaking out in favor of those communities and the trolls are most often the ones already privileged above everyone else. Trolls aren’t fighting the power. They are the power. They aren’t standing up to the Man. They are pushing down folks that are already down because they’re petty, pathetic, monster people. And that’s it. That’s all the nuance they deserve. Fuck them. You know. For LOLs.

I think I understand trolls just a little bit and that understanding all goes back to big surprises in a story. When there’s a plot twist in one of my stories I’m always really excited to know if a reader saw it coming. 99% this is because I want to know if the story works, if it entertains or evokes the emotion I want it to evoke, if the surprise manages to sneak around their defenses and bring along my real point. But 1% of it, I’m ashamed to admit, is about just knowing if I pulled it off. Did the trick work? Not the deeper narrative stuff, no – I want to know, did I get you? And if I did, I know it means I understood you a little bit and there’s a tiny sense of control and satisfaction in that. Me fooling you in a story is my version of me outrunning you on a football field. It’s a momentary jolt that for just that moment, for just that thing, I was better and I won. I think every ironically tacky fashion accessory, every sorry/not sorry, every Top 10 Reasons Why Alf Was the WORST buzzfeed post, every racist troll comment is about them getting you. People have become addicted to surprise and the rush of shocking someone else.

We live in an era where we are always social, where we are always being broadcast. The sense of private self is shrinking. This is an unintended side effect of social media and our internet connected lives in general, I think. It’s this world, like we’re all characters on the Truman Show, that creates the addiction to surprise and shock. It’s a distorted Hawthorne Effect ; we are observed and we feel a compulsion to reject the observers. But the observers are literally everyone. There are billions of Big Brothers now. So, I get it. There’s a certain punk rock refutation of the status quo going on here but at a certain point when everyone is a punk rocker, isn’t it most punk rock to be Pat Boone? When irony is no longer surprising, I certainly hope we will see a resurgence of sincerity.

 

On Writing: What Happens Next – Or – Send in the Clowns

Say, theoretically, something unexpectedly bad happens to you, your family, your world and you’re stunned and you’re trying to figure out what happens next. Here’s what happens next: next happens next. It just does and you won’t be completely sure what next is going to look like but it’s going to happen and then it’s going to happen again. There’s an inescapable gravity to next. It takes you kicking and screaming toward the future and doesn’t always do it politely.

What you feel, what you think, what you need, it’s going to vary based on the situation, the person, and the likelihood, however remote, of a new Tom Waits album. But you’ll need a next and fighting against it or expecting it to be different than it is for you or others, well, it’s as futile as fighting against the sunset. So the first thing you do is accept your next and if someone else is there with you and they’re also spun around upside down scared/sad/hurt/freaked out, you accept their next too.

And next will lead to next and that will lead to next again and I think you get the picture.

I’m in a philosophical mood about unexpected twist and turns and nexts tonight so I hope you’ll indulge me a bit. I don’t mean to be obtuse or to obfuscate the source of this mood. Yesterday was our Election Day and while I don’t like to get overly political here I think most people that know me or have read my work can guess I was With Her and I was pretty decidedly Not With Him. Anyway, the election is resolved and it didn’t go down the way I expected or wanted and about a half of us are now pretty stunned and maybe a little afraid. Maybe we’re a lot afraid. So I’m writing this for all of us but really I’m writing it for me. Writing this down reminds me.

I know it’s just politics but I also know a lot of people, myself included, feel this an awful lot.

There are commonly quoted stages of grief but I don’t necessarily put all my confidence in them. We’re not commonly quoted people and oftentimes commonly quoted wisdom just doesn’t fit right. What I do have confidence in is that sooner or later you’re going to want to stop with all the fucking nexts, all the thinking, and all the feeling, and you’re just going to need something that takes your mind off of things and that’s not only totally acceptable, it’s completely healthy. This is why we have troubadours and storytellers. This is why we have Channing Tatum.

That’s why, in this last part of a strange rambling blog, I’m calling on all of you. We comedians so work on your jokes. We need songs so practice your instruments. We need men in capes so sharpen your pencils and draw them. We need storytellers so tell us a good one.

I’ve been introspective and I’ve been depressed. I’ve been looking for my purpose and at least for now I’ve remembered what it is. I’m a clown and I swear I’m gonna go all out to make you laugh. I’m a storyteller and I’m going to do my best to earn your attention, to earn your distraction.

Take care of yourselves and the world around you. Be patient with yourself and with everyone else. Accept next on next’s terms because next isn’t going to negotiate with you. And when you’re ready, put on a big red nose and some silly shoes and help get the world back to normal.

And if right now you’re over the moon and celebratory because things went your way? Well, not everyone is and we’d all appreciate it if you were gracious and patient with us.

On Writing: Hey Ho! Let’s Go! The Ramones Way

 

“Ramones”

[1st verse:]
New York City, N.Y.C.,
Pretty mean when it wants to be,
Black leather, knee-hole pants,
Can’t play no high school dance,
First tone, hear ’em go,
Hear ’em on the radio,[Chorus:]
Misfits, twilight zone,
R-A-M-O-N-E-S
R-A-M-O-N-E-S
RAMONES

[2nd verse:]
Bad boy rock, bad boy roll,
Gabba gabba, see them go,
C.J. now hit the gas,
Hear Marky kick some ass,
Go Johnny, go, go, go
Tommy o-way-o,

[Chorus]

[3rd verse:]
Bad boys then, bad boys now,
Good buddies, mau-mau-mau
Keep it up, rock’n’roll,
Good music save your soul,
Dee Dee, he left home,
Joey call me on the phone.

[Chorus]

Writing is never not hard. Even if it’s fun or fulfilling or meaningful, it’s always hard, and the hard part is especially hard for me right now. I’m having a kind of existential crisis. I’m thinking a lot about what I’m trying to do and if it matters and where I’m going next and if it’s worth it. It’s a funk it’s been in for a few weeks and it’s really lousy. Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe I took some criticism on the chin a little too hard. Or maybe it’s some kind of late 30s “why hasn’t it happened for me yet?” self-pity. I don’t know where it’s coming from or how to address it exactly but over the weekend I heard a radio story about a street being renamed in Queens and it reminded me of the best Christmas morning in the history of Christmas mornings.

addWhen I was 11 years old I received four amazing Christmas gifts that forever changed my life; the 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook, a set of clear green dice, and two cassettes – Mötorhead’s 1916 and the Ramones All the Stuff (and More) Volume 2. I liked Mötorhead a lot (who doesn’t?) but I fucking loved the Ramones. I listened to that tape until it was worn out. Since that Christmas I have never been without the Ramones. I had tapes and then I had CDs and now I have digital collections. While my taste in music has sometimes changed (the less we talk about that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tape I got from Pizza Hut the better), the Ramones have been in constant rotation since the first time I heard “Beat on the Brat” in my friend Shawn’s living room.

There’s a Ramones song for just about everything I’ve ever felt or done. I learned more about dating from “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and “I Just Want to Have Something To Do” than I think is strictly healthy and as I got older and struggled with anger and isolation and depression I replayed “I Wanna Live,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment,” and latter favorites “Strength to Endure” and “Poison Heart” until I felt understood and my foot tapped more than my heart punched my brain. There is never a bad mood or wrong time for me to listen to the Ramones. They are, as weird and possibly personally condemning as it may be, my collective spirit animal. Yes, if you get past all that Hemingway and Chabon and DeLillo and all the snarky jokes and even past the D20s and X-Men comics, you’ll find the very center of my soul is kept company by four awkward bony-kneed punk rockers with bad haircuts and leather jackets that started playing their nervous two minute songs years before I was born thousands of miles away. ramones-crest

Creatively, the Ramones were always one of my biggest inspirations. They started something in a garage in Queens, something that was a little bit of a throwback, a little bit amateur, and a lot cocky. They imagined punk rock as a thing they could just do. They didn’t need anyone’s permission or approval. They didn’t care if they weren’t classically trained musicians. They had these weird catchy songs, a mix of nihilism and humor, and a lot of energy and they just did it and it went around the world and across generations to inspire musicians in London and Seattle and even awkward lonely wanna be writers in 1991 Southern Oregon. My lifelong love of the Ramones and punk rock instilled in me the creative virtue of making things just because you want to, because you feel it, even if it’s not cool or worthy or successful.

So here I am twenty-five years later still listening to the Ramones years after all of the founding members have died and here I am still being inspired. The questions I’ve been asking myself lately have answers in these familiar songs.

In the radio story I linked above there’s a quote by Monte Melnick, the band’s long-time tour manager, that’s stuck with me since I heard it:

“They did what they could with what they had, which was their music. That’s the Ramones way.”

 

ramones-banner

On Sexism and Gender Bias

This isn’t a blog about writing and it’s not fiction. This is a blog about gender politics and I am implicitly allowed to write my thoughts about it here because I want to and because I have toxic male privilege and I’m protected.

That I am implicitly allowed to write my thoughts about sexism and post it on the internet and not really fear significant reprisal for it is the definition of toxic male privilege. Honestly, as a middle class heterosexual white male I’m pretty sure I’m implicitly allowed to write my thoughts about anything I want and if anyone objects to it I can get righteously angry about being excluded. I probably won’t get rape threats emailed to me. I probably won’t get harassed on Twitter. Even if I do, I don’t imagine I’ll find them very intimidating. I’m a middle class heterosexual white male – there’s a pretty big infrastructure of support for me to lean on if anything gets scary and even if that infrastructure fails me, I’m a big guy and no one really threatens me. It’s not that I’m a bad ass pugilist that can drop kick my way out of any confrontation – it’s that I’m physically tall and physically big enough that usually no one confronts me. I walk around bad neighborhoods at night and I scare other people without meaning to. I can write whatever I want and no one can say anything about it. Superman is cooler than Batman because Batman is dumb and traditional masculinity is a systemic virus that needs to be confronted.

It’s not bold for me to point out toxic male privilege because I have toxic male privilege and I’m protected. But I’m not done pointing out what I want to point out and I get to go on as long as I want, so sit tight, dear reader, because I’m backing up the knowledge truck.

I don’t think most people see a woman and immediately think misogynistic crazy things anymore. Sure, there’s a vocal subsection of trilby-wearing M’lady “nice guys” with creepy Asian culture fetishes and YouTube channels about why the new Ghostbusters movie is a pogrom against men, but most men and women are less overt about the bias. Then again, I’m a middle class heterosexual white male and if men are immediately thinking crazy misogynistic thoughts about women still they aren’t telling me about it because I have toxic male privilege and I’m protected. Anyway, what I think is far more insidious than the cretinous knuckle-draggers that see a woman and think “LADY MENSTRUATION FEMINAZI BAD”, is the way that traditional masculinity has so dominated our culture that even feminism needs to be more masculine to be taken seriously.

Somehow as a society we’ve determined that these traits are the traits of a a straight-shooting go-getter that’s probably honest and competent : boldness, brashness, loudness, anger, aggression. These are, not coincidentally, traits often associated with masculinity. These are also the traits on clear display with some of our current US presidential candidates. The opposite traits are traits generally associated with a docile 1950s housewife: demureness, politeness, quiet, gentleness, willingness to compromise. These are also the traits we consider signs of weakness and of someone that’s easily manipulated even if we don’t consciously admit it. We’ve been programmed to believe that someone yelling his opinion with conviction without reading from a teleprompter is genuine and someone cautiously exploring nuance and allowing for compromise is wishy-washy. A funny grammatical note here – I had to use his as a pronoun in that last sentence because male gendered pronouns are the standard and when you use a “hers” in place of a “his” it’s a political statement. I also used his because let’s be honest, that first example is almost certainly a dude or maybe just a man-hating lesbian that really needs to lighten up. The second example should probably shout some more or just let her husband shout for her so she doesn’t seem shrill. If I seem glibly angry and cynical here it’s because I am and I get to be because I have toxic male privilege and I’m protected.

Here’s the takeaway, folks – masculine behavior is so much the implicit norm that just by consciously or unconsciously supporting these behaviors and discouraging their counterpoints we are perpetuating toxic male privilege. We are perpetuating sexism. If I have a conversation with another man and he doesn’t get angry and isn’t bold enough and if I tell him that he’s weak I’m being a fucking sexist even if there isn’t a woman within 100 miles. It’s not that masculinity is bad or that these traits are bad it’s about balance and it’s about accepting that traditionally masculine traits and traditionally feminine traits are not inherently better or worse than each other. Men, especially online where toxic masculinity is endemic, should endeavor to be more demure, more polite, more willing to compromise and women should feel empowered to be more bold, to be express anger in whatever way they want without fearing reprisal. When a  man shuts up and listens, it’s sexist to dismiss him as “stupid SJW” and when a woman stands tall and speaks her mind it’s sexist to tell her #NotAllMen because sexism is both about literal gender identity and the gender identity that’s coupled with gendered traits.

I don’t think we need to eliminate either set of gendered traits but we need to equalize them and create space for men and women to be both when appropriate without the toxic masculine infrastructure smacking down anyone that steps out of line. We need to celebrate traditionally feminine behaviors much more and we need to maybe reconsider our Pavlovian response to demagogues and straight-talking macho bullies. Anger should not be conflated with sincerity and loudness should not be mistaken for righteousness any more than politeness should be conflated with docility or willingness to compromise dismissed as spinelessness.

As a writer and a former editor, the saddest and most predictable thing I encounter when I talk to other writers is that women are all too often too self-deprecating, shy, and insecure and men are all too often cocksure and overconfident and neither have any honest correlation to the work. I take it for granted that I write well. I’ve always been told I write well. I work hard at it and I’m a middle class heterosexual white male so I’m implicitly going to be given the benefit of the doubt from a lot of readers. Just like how when I was in college and raised my hand during writing workshops I was absolutely confident that my contributions were going to be essential to everyone else. Just like how I get to write this blog and have confidence that it’s pretty smart and I might get some high fives. I might even get the link retweeted and go viral and that’s not scary – it’s awesome because nothing bad can really happen to me on the internet. That confidence and validation is sexist. I have the direct and undeniable benefit of toxic masculinity both because of my biology and because I, like a lot of men, really embody those traditional masculine traits we were shown in comic books and Arnold Schwarzenegger action movies at formative ages while the girls were being told not to interrupt and to not dress too slutty or drink too much at parties.

I think the internet makes it worse and I think it’s because this technology really favors men. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and the comments sections of everything reward controversy, brevity, and volume. While not implicitly made for men these online socially spaces definitely favor boldness, brashness, loudness, anger, and aggression over demureness, politeness, quiet, gentleness, and willingness to compromise. It’s built into the algorithm. Facebook hides long posts because if you’re not LOUD and BRASH in your opening couple lines, who cares? There are tools to engage in longer form discourse that embody some of those counter traits for sure – Tumblr and personal blogs like this – but these spaces are kept effectively separate and to get people outside of these communities they must go through Dudetown. It’s not that Twitter and Facebook and Reddit need to shut it all down and remake themselves more aligned to these traditionally feminine traits, it’s that we need to recognize the impact of gender bias implicit in these tools and try to be better people when using them.

In a just world, I should be shouted at by men and women for my presumptuousness, for having the arrogance to interject my point of view about sexism from my lofty man throne while women are being harassed for reporting news, or criticizing video games, or drawing comic books wrong, or wearing the wrong clothes. And I certainly shouldn’t be gloating about my inherent masculine power while women are still being sexually assaulted behind dumpsters by promising young athletes that used to eat so much more steak before being caught digitally raping unconscious women. But arrogance and presumption are traditionally masculine traits and I’m pretty confident no one is going to be call me out on it – and if they do, just one last reminder, I have toxic male privilege and I’m protected.

On Writing: Kill Your Tokens (Diversity and the 21st Century Writer Part 2)

damthatswhack

It’s been a while since the first part of what I knew was going to be a series of posts about diversity in writing. This isn’t a topic I want to rush or schedule so if you’ve been waiting for this follow up, my apologies for the delay.

In this post I want to write about tokens. I’m not talking about coins that you put into cheap nickel arcade machines but about token diverse characters that are often plunked into cheap creative machines with similar consideration. Below is the definition of tokenism in this context taken from Wikipedia (emphasis added by me):

Tokenism is the policy and practice of making a perfunctory gesture towards the inclusion of members of minority groups. The effort of including a token employee to a workforce usually is intended to create the appearance of social inclusiveness and diversity (racial, religious, sexual, etc.), and so deflect accusations of social discrimination.

Now, I’m talking about a story and not a workforce but otherwise that hits the nail right on the head and highlights a common and really problematic continued trend in media content. To be clear it’s not that a minority character in a story is automatically a token but only when that character exists as a transparent effort at faux diversity. These token characters are often either homogenized or “translated” to the presumed mainstream (white, male) audience or have their Otherness played up to such a ridiculous extent that they become parodies of real people, more like exotic props than fully realized individuals. Token characters in this way are also frequently inessential to the primary narrative. They serve as lightning rods, drawing strikes away from the main character (and the creator) to solidify the protagonist’s heroism. Basically we can tell that our hero is such a great guy because he even has a colored/gay/lady friend and it’s totally not a big deal, you guys!

pieface_2

Green Lantern and his token Eskimo friend named Tom.

Back to Wikipedia for a finer point:

In fiction, token characters represent groups, which vary from the norm (usually defined as a handsome, white, heterosexual male), and are otherwise excluded from the story. The token character can be based on ethnicity (Black, Hispanic, Asian, et al.), religion (Jewish, Muslim, et al.), or be fat or otherwise unattractive, homosexual or a woman character in a predominantly male cast. Token characters usually are background characters, and, as such, usually are disposable, and are eliminated from the narrative early in the story, in order to enhance the drama, while conserving the “normal” white characters.

It doesn’t take a lot of time to think of say, fifty examples of tokenism in popular media from the “urban talking” black friend to the predictably catty gay one. Tokenism has become so pervasive in our media that it’s easy for content creators to fall into the trap accidentally and for audiences to ignore it. So many popular franchises are so shockingly monochromatic, masculine, and heteronormative that the one or two outsiders immediately stand out in contrast.

In the first part of this series I made a case for why modern writers should take diversity into account when creating a story. It might seem paradoxical then that I’m also decrying tokenism as it seems like it’s natural solution to increase diversity in your content. There are two huge problems with using diverse characters as “accents” in your work in the service of diversity though. First, tokenism is a post-narrative device. That means it’s a device creators add-in after the narrative has already been established. Tokenism happens when you have a story nearly completely finished and then someone says, “hey – maybe there should be a black guy in the Star War?” A character introduced in that method frequently feel like an afterthought and often ends up a token. This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes a creator asks “hey – what if this character was different?” and that spins the whole story in a new and interesting way or sometimes the inclusion of diversity just isn’t a big deal. Laurence Fishburne is the master of being cast as a previously white character (Jack Crawford, Perry White) and being perfect and awesome at it because he’s a great actor. In these cases when a character has nothing that makes them inherently not diverse, it can be effective to open things up a little and bring in a different kind of character background but this doesn’t mitigate the bigger problem that can come up with tokenism.

You guys should watch Black-ish because Fishburne

You guys should watch Black-ish because Fishburne

The second big problem with tokenism is that it creates scarcity of character types. This is a huge problem in modern content and it can be an issue for non-token diverse characters as well as tokens. By including just the one featured diverse character that character naturally can be interpreted as the representation of all members of his/her background. Going back to Laurence Fishburne for a moment – he’s great as Jack Crawford and Perry White but he’s also one of the very few people of color with a significant role in those properties and there’s nothing about his characters that reflects his identity as a black man. It’s a different kind of silly ignorance to assume that the black experience means that Perry White would need to be from the ghetto or that Jack Crawford would be defined as being a constant target of institutionalized racism. Those stories wouldn’t be served by Fishburne’s character constantly talking about being black in America but when those roles are the only representations of modern African American identity they have a gravity to them. The thing is, it’s not fair to make Jack Crawford or Perry White the standard bearers for the modern black experience but with a scarcity of options it becomes harder not to. Yes, there are plenty of examples of Perry Whites and Jack Crawfords that are 100% authentic as shown on the screen and there are also plenty of real world examples of diverse people acting just like the stereotypes that have been lazily used to define them (the fabulous gay friend, the sassy sistah, the sanctimonious white male writer dude in Portland, etc.). That’s not the point. The point is, when you have just one diverse character, that puts a spotlight on your character and that character will be judged by his or her proximity to and similarity to assumed stereotypes.

Everything on the Internet needs more Lando.

Let’s talk a tangible example of the impact of scarcity. There’s a TV show I really like called the 100. I’m not going to go on a geeky rant about why I enjoy it but I’ll let Devin Faraci do it over at Birth.Movies.Death.  Anyway spoilers, you guys), in a recent episode of the 100 a fan-favorite character died in a way that evokes the Bury Your Gays trope and this has created a significant schism between the show creators and fans. The thing is, characters are always dying on the 100 but this death hit fans especially hard because of two reasons; first, the character was much beloved and fans don’t like to see beloved characters die and two, the character that died was a rare LGBT character on TV and one of two significant characters on this show -the other being the character’s surviving lover. If there were 7 LGBT characters on the 100 and the creators killed one of them, fans would still be upset but because of the scarcity of representation both on the show and  in all media, the blow is amplified. When content creators just use token or Laurence Fishburne diversity in characters they are going to create poorer stories and alienate some of the audience.

Alright, so how do you make sure to avoid tokenism in your content? Well, character authenticity is the first place to start. The characters should feel real if they look like you or don’t look like you. They should always have a core of truth. Avoid the bland and the fetishistic Other. Be aware of these concepts. But that’s not enough. It’s also necessary to include more diversity in stories. Maybe a particular story doesn’t allow you to include a completely diverse cast – that’s okay. That happens and that’s true to life. But in the next story or the story after that, look for different types of truth that do reflect the modern, diverse world we live in. Maybe none of your stories support the kind of diversity I’m talking about. Well, I would encourage you to imagine some different stories for a variety of reasons (if nothing else because of audience expectations and desire) but even then – that’s okay. Not every story needs to, not every writer needs to. BUT if you’re not going to be including more diversity in your content I think you should support others that do.

One final caveat: diversity in storytelling is a complicated and nuanced topic.  You see that photo of Lando? Lando is arguably a token but he’s also one of my favorite characters of all time. Some of that comes down to Billy Dee Williams’ natural charisma and some of it is the character itself but good things can come from questionable creative origins. I grew up in a really small town that was overwhelming majority white. But I had Lando and I had the X-Men and eventually in my teenage years I had every movie Samuel L. Jackson would ever do at the video store and, along with a lot of other fictional and real-world experiences, those characters populated my earliest conceptions of diversity in the world. My older brother has been an out gay man since high school, something that was not easy to do in our tiny Southern Oregon city. I remember movies and stories that featured gay characters that followed (the Birdcage, In & Out, Will & Grace), narratives that I hated as they represented stereotypes that didn’t reflect the reality of my brother, the reality of our lives. My brother wasn’t comic relief. He was my brother. He was a million things and those narratives were maybe three. But the funniest thing happened. Those narratives that I despised for being overly simplistic helped some people, even in my own family, connect to the gay experience. Nathan Lane in the Birdcage, over the top drag queen stereotype that he was, mattered. There’s a lot to think about with representation, tokenism, privilege and the power of stories to open or close minds. There is no simple right way to deal with it as a content creator – or a good person. The most critical thing we can do is talk openly about it and, more than that even, listen intently.

On Writing: The Five Minute Reader

pornhub audience

“I wonder what’s on pornhub, you guys!”

Back in January the popular porn site Pornhub reported that roughly 4 billion hours of pornography were consumed by their 21.2 billion visitors in 2015. Meanwhile, some studies estimate that the average American only reads about 19 minutes every day with those 25-34 averaging closer to 8 minutes. Oof. Do you feel that? A whole lot of discouraged writers just threw up their hands and said, “*&%$ it – I’m going to pornhub.” pornhub ad

Those are really discouraging numbers and they bear out from my anecdotal experience. I asked some friends how many minutes they spend just reading every day and got numbers between 5 and 10 minutes. You see one of the advantages pornhub has over reading (aside from the SEXOMGSEXNAKEDNAKEDSEXSEX) is that you can just queue up some light to medium core pornography on your iPad while you’re making coffee in the morning and checking up on Facebook notifications. Visual and audio media are tailor made for the modern multitasker. Reading a novel or a story or a blog post is a different value proposition.

Friends don't let friend read blogs while juggling chainsaws

Friends don’t let friend read my blog while juggling chainsaws

Sure, you could be watching three-quarter-core porno while you’re reading my blog but I think we all know that’s probably not happening. My blog kinda kills the porno mood, I’m afraid – unless you find insights on the publishing industry and creative content generation real steamy. No, if you’re reading this blog, or one of my stories or books, that’s probably all you’re doing. And if you are reading this and also doing pilates or chainsaw juggling or watching double decaf mocha core porno – you’re reading my work wrong. In fact you’re reading any author’s work wrong if you don’t give it your undivided attention. I don’t mean that you, dear reader, dear, awesome, click-my-link and tell your friends, reader, is wrong. No, you’re my favorite. But there’s a right and wrong way to read and just like it would ruin your pornhub experience if you paired it with my cogent literary analysis, it ruins my cogent literary analysis when you pair it with slappy slappy ding dong chicka chicka bow wow video taped naked stuff.

He’s more of a Franzen guy.

This is a really challenging time to be a writer of long-form fiction. There’s still a devoted reader base that reads a lot. I know several folks that are reading a book a week. But it’s not mainstream like it once was. You can be reasonably sure people have seen House of Cards on Netflix and make some passing reference to it during a dinner conversation but try bringing up the latest Michael Chabon book and you’ll probably get blank stares. I mean, obviously this isn’t true for every dinner table but in a country where F. Scott Fitzgerald used to be famous and could make a respectable Jazz Age living selling short stories, we’re now in a place in our history where reality TV stars get bigger book contracts than Pulitzer Prize winners. The written word is not as valuable as it used to be on a large scale.

All right. The end. Wow, that sure was a bummer.

But I'm totally rocking the haircut tho

But I’m totally rocking the haircut tho

Alright, here’s the silver lining: reading is coming back. It’s not roaring back all once but younger people are reading more than their elders. Digital readers and social media has changed things. There are 40 million members of Goodreads – and it keeps doubling. Now, that’s not 21.2 billion pornhubbers but it’s nothing to sneeze at. Where there’s a culture of reading there are readers and the culture of reading is increasing. Readers are finding and sharing new books with thousands or hundreds of thousands of readers in minutes. The average number books Americans read, skewed of course by voracious readers, is about 12. If you extrapolate from that – there are over 300 million people in the US and if you squint and look on the bright side of life you could take that 300 million times 12 and ignore a lot of complicated statistical considerations and yadda yadda algebra and end up with OHHEYSOMEONEMIGHTACTUALLYREADTHISAFTERALL.

The death of reading has been pronounced since before most of us were born. Radio was going to kill it. Then motion pictures. Then TV. Now it’s pornhub. And pornhub is a fierce opponent but storytellers are still here and readers are still reading. It’s really easy to be daunted. I can get 5 minutes? Is that all? We have to earn reader’s loyalty and attention just like we always had to. It might mean the stories have be better or different than they’ve been. It might mean that we have to write for a smaller but more passionate demographic and forget our delusions of being F. Scott Fitzgerald. It might mean changing the expectation of what long form fiction is to the modern reader. It’s a challenge but what’s one more impossible set of odds to overcome? It’s still a hell of a lot easier than chainsaw juggling.

On Writing: Writing the Revolution

I’m a pretty big political junkie. I follow the news for both parties pretty closely and I like to talk politics. Politics being politics those conversations often turn into (hopefully) civil debate and I enjoy that. I don’t think it changes many peoples minds when we debate an issue in person or on Twitter or Facebook but, if the conversation goes well, I think it changes the perspective on our “opposition.” It’s really easy to imagine that people that don’t agree with you are crazy fanatical “others” but in most cases people that don’t agree with you are just your neighbors, coworkers, friends, and family. They want similar things you want. They just think there are different ways to get there. I think some of those ways are completely wrong ways but I try, like I hope a lot of us try, to see some common ground between us, even if the only thing we have in common is that we seem to enjoy debating politics.Cthulhu2016

2016 being an election year it seems like a lot more people are interested in the stuff I’m interested in pretty much all the time. There are memes and hats with stuff written on them and hashtags and people wearing very serious clothing talking very seriously on television about very serious things. This happens every four years. People get really engaged because the presidential election is like a super-sized edition of American Idol where the winner gets the nuclear football instead of a record contract. I’m not dismissing the presidential election. I’m not dismissing any elections (did you guys know they happen more often than every four years?) but I think that political engagement and revolution happens every day not just Election Day. Voting is not the only act of civil engagement you can and should engage in. It’s only just a little bit about what being a citizen is all about.

It seems like this year there’s a lot of division between pragmatic versus idealistic ideas. Candidates either have status quo shaking new plans to fix America or more centrist establishment-reviewed ideas. I was talking to a friend of mine about that divide the other night and I was talking about what defines my political idealism. I consider myself an idealist. I’m a big ol’ sappy optimist that believes we can change the world if we come together fifteen times before coffee. I’m a Superman guy, not a Batman guy. I believe that my fellow Americans, and really all of the citizens of the world, are inherently capable of good works and understanding. I think we can save the planet, feed the hungry, house the homeless, hug the bears, treat the sick, and have a really good Star Trek television show with Bryan Fuller as the show runner even if CBS thinks it should go on some silly digital subscription service that no one wants to have to get. And I think we should do those things and believe in those things even if they are hard or improbable. I think we should do impossible lofty insane-sounding things for no better reason than because we’re sincere decent people trying to do good in a world that doesn’t always make that easy. So that’s me, the idealist.

Lex2000All that said, I don’t believe any of the presidential candidates can do a thing to really change the world for the better alone. I think that any movement that depends on a popularity contest of a single person is a movement that I can’t get behind 100% because it’s a game show between candidates pretending through strained smiles that they’re perfect in every single way and their opponents are evil. Sure, some candidates are more genuine and some are more fake but the same mechanism that picks a prom king and queen is what we’re working with as a baseline. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a candidate that I don’t wholeheartedly support now (or haven’t, historically) and it doesn’t mean I’m cynical. It means our system of government requires a majority of over 600 people to do anything of significance. That’s not cynicism – that’s high school civics. Our founding fathers didn’t want a monarchy. They divided government on purpose. They didn’t want one person with their name on the currency telling us how it’s going to be. They wanted checks and balances and yeah, some of the rules and ways those checks and balances exist are convoluted at best, but that’s the USA and bumper stickers and tweets aren’t going to change that. I see and I read so many of my peers getting very excited about THE candidate that can change Washington and I want them to be excited. I don’t disagree that their candidate has some smart ideas. But I want them to stay excited and stay engaged every day after November 8, 2015. I want the citizens of my country to vote and put that little “I Voted!” status thing up on Facebook and keep voting and going to rallies and donating if that’s what they want to do and then still not be done.

VoldemortVaderSo, how do you stay engaged in politics outside of our election process? I think the answer is to create. I think creation is the ultimate form of revolution. Telling stories, making art, these things aren’t partisan. They’re not covered by CNN as events but they matter more than another in a series of shouting matches between people standing behind podiums. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed the way a lot of people thought about civil rights with words, not a ballot box. Star Trek showed us a future we could aspire toward where old conflicts of race and religion were overcome in favor of a brighter, more optimistic future. Will & Grace showed Middle America that gay people are nothing to be afraid of. The idealism I talked about before, it sneaks into those works and into our minds. I said before that I don’t think civil debate or political rhetoric changes most people’s minds but I do think that stories and art can open them. Stories and art cut straight to our shared humanity. They appeal to our better angels. They inspire us and reassure us. They relate to our anger and to our hope. At a time when politics splits our country in half, there are still stories and art that we all connect with and through that connection to the work, we are connected to people we are so sadly divided from the rest of the time.

I create as an act of idealistic rebellion. I create to entertain and to educate and to challenge. I create because I have too much energy and engagement that one presidential election isn’t nearly enough to sate my passion for making the world a better place.

If you can’t create or don’t want to create yourself, support creators you care about, that you know, that speak to you. And support creators that haven’t created anything before, young people, or disaffected, marginalized people. Reach down past the vitriol and the slogans and feel that idealism, that sense of possibility, and give into it. Explore different worlds as a prism to see yours differently. This doesn’t preclude or replace supporting your favorite presidential candidate. It just makes our world better or at least more interesting every single time.

On Writing: Stories About Tacos, Chihuahuas, and Just Not Feeling It

If you look at the post chronologically before this one you’ll see that it’s months old and that’s the longest gap I’ve really ever had posting things on this site. Which prompts me to tackle the question of why in this ever-so-brief return.

I haven’t been neglecting this site (and my also in arrears podcast, Rough Draft Out Loud ) because I’m not writing. I’m always writing. I’m always working. I’m a happy workaholic. When I watch TV with my wife and strange co-dependent chihuahua freeloaders, I’m thinking about stories. New stories. Old stories. Stories about tacos. Yadda yadda yadda stories. I’ve got a few novel-length things I’m picking away at, some older manuscripts I’m editing, and other sometimes non-sequitur plots and schemes. Nothing I want to post about right now. Which is the pivot to why I haven’t been blogging much lately:

Freeloader.

Freeloader.

I haven’t felt like blogging much lately.

Creative work is different than other kinds of work. It requires a deeper level of honesty and engagement. A good creator doesn’t create because it’s been X number of days/weeks/months since the last creation. He or she creates because it’s time to create. There’s a funny balance between creating when the fickle muse comes to you and only then and creating so you can monetize your creation and pay for tacos but that balance is for the creator to figure out. It’s not for the audience. One of my favorite films of 2015 was Max Max: Fury Road. That was a pretty good movie right? It was good because the people making it put good work and energy into it. If they were just putting it out to fill a production schedule, I’m not sure it would have been all that great.

I’ve thought about this especially regarding my favorite old beardy writer man named George RR Martin. Martin isn’t done with his new Song of Earth, Wind and Fire book yet and the popular HBO series is now going to move past where the books are. This is disappointing and challenging to his devoted reader-base and I think that’s understandable. But do you want a new book or do you want a good book? Ideally you want both but Martin isn’t a factory and you can’t hire more people and make it go faster. He’s can create when he can create and he’s done when he’s done.

I’m not comparing my blog to Martin’s books and I know I have a much smaller base of people really clamoring for my nonsense (hi Mom!), but it’s a concept that not just readers need to understand – I need to understand it too. There have been times that I have put out blog posts (or podcast episodes…) that I was less than 100% engaged in because I felt like it was more important to have regularity than it was to have quality. Now, in our year of the Blade Runner replicant 2016, I see the error of my ways. Half-baked blog posts just to get views and trending lines burned me out a little bit and it led to material that didn’t live up to my standards.

So, when you or me see that I haven’t post on my blog for a few months and you or me wonder why that is – the answer is that I didn’t have anything to blog or say. And that’s okay. Now, I suggest you look at my pet chihuahua, and go back to my previous blog posts if you still want some good quality nonsense. I’ll post more but like LL Cool J says, don’t call it a comeback.