Blog

On Writing: Past Prologues and the Lie of Scarcity

blue-title-page

I was doing some picking up and light reorganization in my living room when I found a black binder behind some things on a bookshelf. When I pulled it out I found that it was a printed copy of a manuscript I wrote more than 10 years ago called Blue. Blue was envisioned as a big family drama heavily inspired by episodes of “Six Feet Under” and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I don’t think I have a digital copy of this book anymore. I lost a hard drive in late ’06 and then another a few years later so most of my work from this time period is lost. Over the last week or so I’ve been reading sections from it aloud to my wife before bed and boy, do I have some thoughts about it now. It almost seems unfair that my wife gets this perfectly preserved window into who I was when I was 24 years old. More than a photo album, this book- a great big emo time capsule overcrowded with song quotes from early 21st century indie bands- says a lot about who I was then and what I thought life was all about. It also gives me a lot of insight into my evolution as a writer and, in it’s raw poorly edited form, highlights my biggest creative Achilles Heel.

vincent-adultmanFirst off, on a very personal level, there are a lot of funny 24 old delusions that I see now in Blue and they make me laugh. Like how all of the “mature” characters were accountants. I thought I really understood stuff back then and wrote characters that were 10, 20, or 30 years older with the kind of confidence that only idiots and fools can manage. At 24 I was barely out of college and literally started writing this book while I was staying with my mom. I barely had a real job let alone a career. I had more debt than income and I don’t think I owned a piece of furniture that wasn’t very second hand. But I was damn sure I knew what the inner life of a 60 year old woman was all about.

businesscat

GET ME ACCOUNTS PAYABLE RIGHT MEOW, YOU GUYS

I was also surprised to discover that there was a lot of doing it happening in the book and by doing it I mean the sex which I was clearly an absolute master of at 24, as all 24 year old are. The truth of course is that I started writing this on Valentine’s Day after going out stag to a party that depressed the shit out of me because I was nursing a relatively fresh heartbreak. I remember that I sat in my car in the parking lot in my mother’s apartment complex after bailing on that party either waiting for her- that haunting 24 year old her- to call or pick up her phone or say what I wanted her to say or say something at all and she didn’t. I took all that rejection and awkward longing and I started writing this book. So, it’s not surprising that it’s crazy thick with sexual and romantic frustration but back then I thought that was subtext. I thought I hid my feelings the way writers can in thoughtfully obscured characters and plots but reading it now it reads like a business cat emoji, self-conscious tear stains, Neutral Milk Hotel songs, a dirty cartoon of stick figures doing it, and a tiny note scrawled in the margins that says “but why didn’t the pretty girl…?”

Anyway, as satisfying as it is to kick my younger self around a little bit for being young, the constructive thing I’m getting out of re-reading Blue is seeing a really bad writing habit on full display without any hint of self-consciousness. It’s like my creative super-villain is just hanging out in that book, totally not hiding at all, kind of waving at me and pretending we’re best friends. Part of me is like, “dang 24 year old Erik, he was right fucking there and you just invited him over to watch Gilmore Girls WTF?” and the another part of me sees the value in getting to know my enemy, the Lie of Scarcity.

The Lie of Scarcity is the lie that creators tell themselves when they are convinced that the thing they are making needs to have everything in there because there will never be another opportunity to create a thing ever. It’s a lie that there’s a finite number of creations you can create, a scarcity of creative output, and therefore you better stuff it all in there whether it fits or doesn’t fit. It’s a lie I catch myself believing all the time. It’s a lie I find myself whispering right now. “Put more in this blog post, Erik. ALL THE JOKES. ALL THE THEMES. MORE PICTURES OF OTTERS.” I have to say no, shut up, this blog post has enough in it, and otters don’t even have anything to do with this so why would I put them in here? But in Blue, I did not say no. I gathered up my feelings and experiences and reflections of my entire life and I put them on the page and I’m telling you guys, that make the page pretty crowded.

others-cute-baby-sea-otters-free_189729

god damn it

In no particular order here are some of the big ticket plot points in Blue (SPOILERS): mental illness, cancer, bad sex, alcoholism, the death of a spouse, sex addiction, bulimia, coming out as gay to friends and family for the first time, suicide, good sex, abortion, chemotherapy, Catholicism, puritanism, drugs (obviously), weird sex, turning 30, 12 step programs, genital lice, homophobia, divorce, and kind of boring sex. I’m probably missing some of the sex in there and some of the other drama but you get the general idea that there was not a life event I knew anything about that wasn’t included. I was clearly ambitious but in a book that was around 400 pages long there was nowhere near enough room to cover each of these elements (and the NINE main characters) with appropriate care and consideration. Some things came out as well-thought out, if a bit lacking in depth and wisdom, and others were well under half-baked. I got feedback that it was challenging to keep track of everyone and everything that was going on back then but I discounted it. I couldn’t imagine the narrative working without all the switchbacks and subplots and reading it now, I know I was right. The narrative wouldn’t work which is why I needed to fundamentally reconsider the narrative itself. I needed to get past that Lie of Scarcity, tell my anxious writer brain that wants to write every writing thing every time I write, and find the beating heart of the story, the part of the story that was true and necessary and personal. I know now, and I knew then, what that was but I complicated it. It would have been better to write 3 books with some elbow room in them than to write 1 standing room only but I guess when I was 24 the only future I could imagine was becoming an accountant and I needed to say what I had to say before the accountant truck picked me and took me to the business things store to get my ties and highlighters.

No kids! It's a trap! The Post-It Notes are a TRAP!

No kids! It’s a trap! The Post-It Notes are a TRAP!

I wish that I could read this book now and not relate to the anxious urgency 24 year old Erik felt writing it but I can’t. I still feel it. I don’t know what story will be my first to break through, to be my published success story. As I write this, it’s the one year anniversary of my literary agent expressing interest in representing me. A year ago, I was sure that was it. I was sure I was on the fast-track to my dreams. But I’m still writing. Will the book that initially got my agent’s attention be the one? Will the next one I wrote? Will the one I’m working on right now? Those questions are with me when I sit down to write and the Lie of Scarcity tells me I better be sure I’m writing enough. I never know what story will be my first impression and I never know which one will be my last. No writer ever does. It’s why the Lie of Scarcity can be so insidious. It’s also why you should keep your old shitty writing to remind yourself what’s at stake.

On Writing: Censorship and Book Deals for Trolls

F*ckin kittens

F*ckin kittens

There’s a media personality popular with a certain kinds of internet folks and the alt-right political movement that got a book deal and it’s all over the news. I’m not going to name him because he’s built a reputation of galvanizing a lot of shitty people to do a lot of shitty things to people that criticize him online. It’s not that I’m afraid of Pepe the Frog loving “u mad?” bros- it’s that I have a lot of other better things to do with my time and don’t want to give this fellow any more publicity than he already has. Anyway, this book deal he’s made with an imprint of Simon & Schuster known for incendiary political nonsense is worth some money and has led to a lot progressives calling for public shame and a boycott for the publisher. To counter this, the fans of Mr. If Women Don’t Like Being Harassed Online They Should Quit the Internet have cried out CENSORSHIP CENSORSHIP FREE SPEECH U MAD? and come out of the woodwork to find every social media or news post with a comments section discussing this to argue about how the SJWs are persecuting them etc. This is exactly what the provocateur and the marketing people at the publisher want. It would be sad funny if it wasn’t so sad cynical.

This whole debacle is an interesting prism to consider what free speech means and doesn’t mean. First, the primary source for many of these arguments in the US is the First Amendment in the Constitution. It reads a little something like this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The first key takeaway from this, really, the first word, is that this is about Congress and/or the federal government. Congress can’t take away your condescending Willy Wonka memes because that’s a violation of the First Amendment but if you post one of them in a comment on my webpage, I can delete the fuck out of it. This extends to other people’s web pages, and yeah, it includes stuff like Twitter and Google. There is no constitutional protection for being an asshole on webpages you don’t own and/or host on the internet. This extends further to other private industries. Coca-Cola has no obligation to print that Coca-Cola tastes like brown pee on their cans just because I have opinions and want them to and book publishers have no legal obligation to publish my erotic sasquatch Battlestar Galactica versus Sharknado fan fiction even though they obviously should because C’MON. This means that Captain Fat-Shaming Works and his just tellin’ like it is sycophants are not having their legal First Amendment rights violated if any website, book publisher, or crazy sign carrying street masturbator decline to peddle their smug shitty propaganda.

So that’s it! Argument over! … Well, not quite.

There’s a big chasm between what is legally okay or not okay and what is morally okay and not okay. There’s a famous (misattributed) quote from my second favorite Frenchman, Voltaire that reads:

My #1 Frenchman (obviously)

My #1 Frenchman (obviously)

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Now despite all the gifs you’ll find with this quote and Voltaire’s 18th century French mug this quote is a paraphrase or possibly even a completely invented sentiment. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth thinking about. Free speech remains free because people fight and suffer for it’s freedom. I don’t like anything about this particular Purveyor of Mean-Spirited Fart Noises Translated into English but if his free speech is being impinged, I’ll (reluctantly, gosh) stand up for him.

Phew. Well, there’s a reversal. And… scene! … Nope.

u mad?

Boycotting and protest are also free speech and they should not be curtailed or denigrated by your racist cousin or misguided college friend who unironically call people SJWs on Facebook. So, if the meticulous coiffed cretin upsets you (he should, he really should – he’s awful), I think it’s not only legal and right but totally awesome to boycott him and make fun of him as often as possible. Free speech is messy and it’s supposed to be messy. We want to hear dissenting opinions. We also want to be able to tell those weird hateful dissenting opinions to shut up and leave Leslie Jones alone because the Ghostbusters remake was a pretty good movie that was only really hampered by audience expectations and the typical big budget movie foibles and god dammit I want to see a sequel because that cast is cool.

That’s it. That’s really it. Unless the government itself tells Author X he can’t write his ugly snarky poke-the-libruls-because-LOL dreck, it’s all fair for criticism and think pieces and protesting (though -again- you know this is what he wants, right?). I’ve read some people get upset that student groups got organized and got him uninvited or even banned (THE HORROR) from college campuses and I think those are slightly murkier waters as those institutions are paid, in part, by federal dollars, but most schools empower the student body to make choices for themselves. If enough students say they don’t want a lousy troll oil salesman to come and insult women, minorities, or people with the temerity to not be skinny, then that’s also freedom. So shut up about it. I mean, you can still complain about it, legally, but it would be really nice of you to just do it into a pillow in your closet so that the rest of us don’t have to listen to it all the time. Maybe if you tried doing that people wouldn’t hate you so much and they might even invite you to parties that have chips and dip. Just a thought.

My second least favorite meme after Lipton Kermit.

The real question to me is should we let this guy get under our skin? He wants to get under our skin. That’s his promotion engine and for every voice of outrage there’s some petty butt hole that latches on to it to believe he’s being marginalized when really it’s just that no one likes him because he’s a petty butt hole. Calling him out is the definition of feeding the trolls and we all know that’s not a good idea from the prescient documentary on the matter Gremlins 2: the New Batch. But not calling him out allows him and his ilk to normalize. We’re seeing the alt-right go mainstream in our media and politics right now. We’re seeing people who would have been marginal whackos elevated and placed next to normal, reasonable people as if they are equivalent (I’m looking at you, Alex Jones) and if reasonable people don’t say, “hey that guy is literally a neo-Nazi!” than we could have some real big problems coming up.

So I think people, especially young people who have the energy to stay up until past 10 o’clock at night on Tuesdays like super heroes, should engage and speak their minds. Sometimes that’s going to sound, to outsiders, like it’s overly sensitive or even shame police-y. I get that. You can’t write content for anywhere and not be aware that it’s pretty easy to offend someone these days and that there are a lot ways for that offense to explode and become a story that overshadows the intention of what you wanted to write. I’ll be honest and say it’s not ideal. I wish I didn’t have to worry so much about it and I wish that if I offended someone they would give me the benefit of the doubt that it was unintentional and not necessarily representative of everything I’ve ever done or will do but that’s not where we’re at. If/when people find my screeds about sending all double-jointed mutant freaks back to Minnesota where their cursed kind escaped from the Devil’s North Wind, I’ll just have to face that criticism like a professional. As much as all of these alt-right acolytes think that “political correctness” has run amok and we need to get back to the good old days when a comedian could just tell a rape joke and have people slap knees and say, “god dang, sex assault is HILARIOUS!” we’re not going to go back to that. Personally, I’m okay with that trade. I can be more careful with what I say if historically oppressed groups get a chance to recover from millennia of self-centered straight white dudes running the show. Just so long as we don’t let any of those double-jointers get into positions of power. They can’t be trusted because ropes can never hold them.

So in conclusion, I don’t have the answers to how we should interact with and push back against people like My Little Racist Pony and the great news for me (and the world frankly) is that I don’t need to have an answer. I’m not supposed to have an answer. No one needs to have an answer because we all get to express our version of our answer however we like because freedom of speech, you guys. Open dialog is important and with ideas bouncing off of other ideas, I have confidence that we’ll sort it out

But seriously. Not Otis is a real fermented sack of vomit and hair product, right? Can someone please make me a Chrome plugin for me that replaces his name with a smiling poop emoji and a great sucking sound as if all worthwhile conversation and human decency has left the room?

On Writing: Of Galaxies Far Away and a Long Time Ago

star-wars-posterI’m a writer because of Star Wars. Those laser swords and space ships exploded my childhood imagination and created a gateway into a fantastic world where heroes win because the Force is with them and even the most terrible monster can be brought back from the Dark Side. I adore the mythology and the imagery and the simple earnestness of it. There’s a little bit of it in every story I’ve ever written.

The element of Star Wars that I think is the most important, and the most glaring when it’s missing, is hope and ultimately the realization of that hope. When times are dour, when the good guys are outnumbered by the bad, there is always the corny certainty of hope. I’ve written a lot of blogs about writing and expressed a lot of different points of view on this site but this is a message that’s central and critical and most personal to me: do it with hope, always. Write. Live. Watch the news. Buy a movie ticket for another Star Wars movie and hope it doesn’t have Jar Jar Binks and poo jokes in it. Do it all with hope.

That’s it’s for now. More soon. Happy Life Day everybody!

 

PS: Rogue One was pretty, pretty sweet, you guys. STAR WAR!

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 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.