Brokeback Mountain (2005)
For the first time in my life, I wished I was gay. Let me explain: Brokeback Mountain, a tale of two sheepherding cowboys who fall in love, is simply a beautiful film. In every major aspect: directing, photography, acting, writing, music…it succeeds. If this were a story about a man and a woman who found each other, and through cruel fate could not be together, it would still be a good film…although one I’d be less likely to see. In that case, we’d seen it all before. If the man and the woman were black or American-Asian, it would be far more interesting, because of its rareness. Such filmmakers would be not only taking chances, but would be exhibiting greater creativity and intelligence, because the symbols used to build the experience are not culturally agreed-upon. Each moment, each image would have to be selected much more carefully. They would be adventurers in a relatively strange land.
But this…to create a touching story of the heart using images that (for all practical purposes) have never been seen in a mainstream American film, is a breakthrough of staggering proportions. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet one summer caring for Randy Quaid’s sheep up on an isolated mountain. Attraction grows. And boils over into the physical. And then the summer ends. The two men go in opposite directions, crafting similar lives, all the while knowing…or believing…that they can never be together.
And there are lies and betrayals, hurt and hilarity, violence and that very very precious thing called love. Ultimately, the film is about what happens when you cannot be yourself. When you must pretend to be something other than what you are, and the soul-killing consequences.
I have simply ached for a film that would tell a simple, honest, erotic love story such as white audiences get a hundred times a year. People ask me: why is the sexual content so important to you, Steve? I can make guesses, but that’s all they are. I do know that that content is incredibly important to white audiences…otherwise they wouldn’t pay to see it again and again. And wouldn’t reject it when the images are of two non-Caucasians. We can argue about WHY that is, but the statistical evidence is incontrovertible.
If I were gay, I suspect that “Brokeback” would hit me like a nuclear bomb. That I might not love all aspects of it, but that I would see myself represented more directly, simply, and honestly than Hollywood has ever done before. In a story that my straight brothers and sisters have seen so often that many of them, even those of excellent will and open heart, will dismiss it as plebian. I might wish for a different ending, or varying story elements…
But the sad and terrible thing is that for all its flaws, it is a courageous breakthrough. I understand that it will not be to all tastes. No, contrary to rumors, there is no buck-naked graphic sex, although what there is will still be too much for much of the straight audience. But it is still a film from an alternate world, in which love and human variation are viewed through a different lens than that used in this culture, at this point in time. A good thing? A bad thing? It’s not for me to say.
All I will say is that, for a hundred and thirty four minutes, I saw the world through different eyes. And that, my friends, is Art.
An easy, easy “A.”
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:56 AM
Monday, January 30, 2006
About ten days ago, a student attending the April Path workshop in Portland sent an e-mail asking if Scott and I had heard of George Leonard's ITP, a whole body-mind discipline created in the early 90's, which includes visualization, affirmation, and the "ITP Kata," a series of movements designed to nurture the body in advanced, balanced fashion. Encouraging their students to add martial arts, weight training, aerobics, advanced meditation, and more, Integral Transformative Practice does bear an eerie resemblance to The Path as Scott and I have designed it, and Leonard and his partner Micheal Murphy (founder of Esalen) have impeccable credentials. Leonard, a 5th degree black belt in Aikido and former editor for Esquire magazine, is a gentleman and a scholar, and I am delighted t have come across his work, which I promise you will influence my own. His book "'The Life we Are Given" is simply excellent. I hope there are another thousand teachers like them toiling away right now with similar creations. The Path is getting wider...and I love it!
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:45 AM
Saturday, January 28, 2006
A comment from a reader on my last post :
A nitpick: you may be able to think of socio-biological reasons for homophobia, but afaik, homophobia isn't all that pervasive among human cultures--a fair number have room for homosexual acts. Imho, there's probably socio-biological pressure to strongly encourage fertile sex, but that still leaves a lot of room for non-fertile sex.
I don't have a problem with some believers and non-believers being good people to live with--I'm inclined to think that benevolence is a matter of temperament (possibly cultivated), and people choose the parts of their nominal belief systems that suit their temperaments.
The one I have a hard time with is understanding people who are passionate bigots. Where do they find the energy, and why are they spending it on *that*?
and my answer:
I would say that passionate bigotry is, at this point in our social development, a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, literally a mental illness. Thomas Jefferson could own slaves and consider blacks mentally inferior (and engage in behavior with Sally Hemmings that would be considered grotesque sexual harassment and abuse of a power position) --and still be a good, balanced, and intelligent man, a product of his time who enjoyed the perks of his class. For a man today to engage in similar behaviors would be absolutely abhorrent. We hav to include context in our assessments. when I run inot men who rant about women, or whites who rant about blacks (or vice versa) or Christians who rant about Moslems (or vice versa) or Liberals who rant about Conservatives (or vice versa) I sense an overall damaged energetic.
My “Structure and Flow” class will be conducted this Sunday at the International Arts Academy at 20628 E. Arrow Highway #3, Covina, Ca 91724, at 1:00.
The class will be conducted through March, so don’t miss this opportunity!
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:38 AM
Friday, January 27, 2006
Writing Who You Know—part 5
So this is the wrap up. Our basic premise is that if you begin with the assumption that human beings are human beings, and that most people are behaving according to values and beliefs that make sense to them, the trick is in bending your head around that notion. Listen to the national discourse and you’ll see countless instances where people misunderstand each other to the point that they deny one another humanity.
As a thought experiment, try wrapping your mind around some additional positions;
1) The far left and far right, politically, each seem to think the other side is un-American, traitorous, cowardly, etc. Stand outside the system and formulate a theory as to why this happens, and what it means. Start with the assumption that neither side has a higher degree of patriotism, honesty, compassion, or intelligence. Can you do it?
2) Gay and Straight. The sociobiological roots of homophobia are rather obvious. Can you see the issue from each side without moral condemnation?
3) Christian and Moslem. We are still suffering the after-effects of centuries of war, colonialization, and cultural arrogance…on BOTH sides. Radiacals on both sides would like to “kill them all” or “invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them.” Can you step outside the system of thought that says one side is “right” and the other “wrong” and see what BOTH sides are doing to increase the tension? I promise you that leaders on both sides are incapable of this. I also promise that from within that system, there is no solution. Yin and Yang must be resolved to create the Tao.
4) Atheist and Believer. The saddest one, for me. The question “how shall we prepare ourselves for the next world” has probably led to more death than any other question in human history. More war, more repression, more torture, more pain. On the other hand, the question “how shall we live in this world to be good, moral, loving people” tends to unite us, and is a question that tends to avoid the nasty traps. Regardless of your own beliefs, can you step outside, and see that there are good, decent, loving, intelligent people who don’t believe in a conscious deity? And that that there are good, decent, loving, intelligent people who do? To what do you attribute that? Can you postulate a difference without resorting to pejoratives on either side?
There are so many more dualities. I invite you to look into them. Yes, there are types I have trouble with: child molesters, rapists, serial killers, Nazis, Klansmen, etc. But all are human. To see their humanity is not to excuse their behavior. To sympathize or empathize is not to refuse punishment.
What is needed in this world is clarity, and as much of it as we can get. As storytellers, purveyors of fiction, parents of children, merchants of worthwhile goods and services, or whatever…we must understand each other, even if we disagree. If we cannot, there will simply be more wars, more violence, more hatred. And that is not a legacy I would pass to my children, if I have any say in it at all.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 2:03 PM
Thursday, January 26, 2006
Actually, Jasper Johns on my blog posted the obvious solution for all of this: find members of the target group, and have them read your text. I’ve had writers from Harlan Ellison to Greg Bear use me to vet such material, and appreciated the consideration massively.
As you might guess from reading my work, this is an area where unhealed wounds still lurk in my psyche. The commitment to rise above that damage is strong, but then so are the constant reminders that my life, thoughts, and reams are not held to be as valuable by the culture…simply because of the melanin content of my skin. Because of basic human nature, it would be perfectly normal to adapt the attitude that racism is the result of group inferiority on the part of the racist: in other words, that if white people have imposed thee hundred years of slavery on my ancestor, then followed that up with a century of Jim Crow and another fifty years of denial as to the negative effects thereof, it must be a sign of some special moral weakness on their part.
Further, if it is demonstrable that history textbooks in America are strongly slanted toward a Eurocentric view of the world (I always loved “World History” texts that were, exclusively, European History texts. The clear implication being that all that was important in the history of the world originated in Europe. Arrgh) then it would be natural to respond by developing an Afrocentric view of the world.
Would anything be more natural and normal? Don’t Asians (not so)secretly hold that Japanese, or Chinese, or whatever are the best and smartest? Don’t Native Americans hold myths saying that they are descended directly from the divine, and all others were created later? This is about as typical as any human response could be, and yet…
If I allow myself to fall into this trap, the cycle of hate and fear continues for another generation, and when I think of the devastation it wreaked on my own life, I REFUSE to use the tools of my enemies, I refuse to fail to see the humanity in those who have wronged me, I refuse to fail to see the good and loving people of all colors who have helped me along my road.
When I wrote “Lion’s Blood,” my story of Africans colonizing America, I tasked myself to give the Irish slaves more humanity, more “inwardness” than I had ever seen a white author give black characters. I wanted them to live and breathe, have hopes and dreams and sexuality and intelligence. This was the great sin of “Gone With The Wind”—not that it depicted a slave society, but that it denied the slaves any hopes and dreams of their own. Not for a moment could you assume anything other than that those slaves loved being slaves, that they perceived this as being their natural place in the universe, and that all was right with the world—until those damned Northerners upset the apple cart. This movie is, in adjusted dollars, the most successful film ever made, or is ever likely to be made. It is the single dominating mythology of our culture, and the damage it has wrought has been incalculable.
How to avoid this? First, start by assuming that members of the “other” group have the same hopes and dreams and needs that you have. That, as Sting once said about the Soviets, they “love their children, too.” Give them the same soul, the same intellect. THEN look at the differences in their behaviors, and ask yourself what circumstances would induce YOU to behave in that way. Yes, you will occasionally be wrong. Sometimes there really aren’t equivalences. But more often than not, there are.
1) Black rioting. Confused by riots? Then look into history at those conditions that have triggered whites to riot. Usually, they involve a perception that their lives are at risk, and that the system has broken down.
2) White Racism. Believe this is disproportionately present in white culture? Look at tribal warfare around the world. Look at Religious wars, and class wars, and the social pressures used to keep women in their “place.” Human societies fight like hell not to change. And about 5-10% of any group are simply bad, bad people. These will do the nasty work, and about half the remaining society will turn its head and let it happen.
3) Illegal immigration. National boundaries are artificial. Human beings moving to where the resources exist is a natural fact. It is also natural for any group to attempt to protect its boundaries and definitions of self. When these two drives collide, there will be problems. Yes, protect your boundaries, but be aware of that 5-10% who will try to “stir the troops” by demonizing the behavior of others.
4) Sexual competition. My favorite bugaboo, and the one that pushes my buttons. We’re having a flood of cinematic images of white men with black and Asian women at the same time that black and Asian men are presented as relatively sexless. It is infuriating, and totally predictable. If the shoe was on the other foot, black males would create a fantasy universe in which they were the only desirable Alphas.
And on and on. When you see unfair hiring practices, splintered families, disproportionate crime, higher dropout rates, massive cultural denial, or whatever…before leaping to the conclusion that this means that group X is terribly different from group Y, FIRST ask yourself what would induce you to behave in the same way. What would make you that angry, that dysfunctional, that hateful, that despairing.
And if you don’t believe anything would, look into your own life: are you really that balanced and healthy? Have you really mastered your body, your finances, your relationships? If not, what damage stopped you, what pain? If you can answer that question, extrapolate from the individual to the social, and you’ll begin to understand human history, and those of other racial groups, on a whole new level.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 9:12 AM
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Write Who You Know Part III: Gender
Can men write about women? Can women write about men? Well, of course people have been doing both for centuries, but the question continues to arise.
It is my belief that it arises primarily from those who have strong political axes to grind, especially those who have a bad, or non-existent record of relationships with the opposite sex. This is similar to the “Men are From Mars” crowd who believe there are vast differences between the genders. It’s been my experience that the more difference people think there is, the less likely they are to have ever had a long-lasting, satisfying relationship with the opposite sex.
However, all of this is speculation. While these essays cannot avoid representing pure opinion on my part, I want to label that as such, directly. In fact, it is important that every writer have ideas, opinions about males and females, because the relationships between men and women are among the most consistently successful story elements worldwide.
You should have an opinion, and be prepared to defend it. That opinion should be congruent with the way you live your personal life, and conduct your relationships. So, clearly labeled as my opinion, here we go.
I think that men and women are about 99% the same. The basic biological difference is that women are the ones who get pregnant. This leads to a certain degree of specialization: more estrogen on one hand, more testosterone on the other. So males are larger, stronger, possessed of more burst power and aggressiveness, necessary for defending the home. Women are longer-lived, and have better tolerance for certain long-term endurance and pain activities, related to their need to survive childbirth.
Because human beings require an exceptionally long period of training before they are ready to begin their own adult lives, this specialization has been exaggerated by society. More than in other species, males have been conditioned to conduct more of the affairs of the outside world: business, war, etc. Women conditioned to conduct more of the affairs within the home. This accelerated during the Industrial Revolution, and didn’t REALLY start breaking down until the advent of reliable birth control.
The social strictures are quite resistant to breaking down, and we are seeing some of that stress in our political and economic structures today. They almost certainly WILL break down, however, at which time we can be pretty certain that the pendulum will swing in the other direction a while. If men and women are pretty much the same, then they have equal wills to power—they express it a bit differently, perhaps, but
1)both seek control over their environment.
1) Both seek to “norm” their own behavior. “Why won’t men commit?” “Why are women so clingy?” each side stumping for the other to behave the way THEY do, given their reproductive roles in a dyadic biological unit. Huge amounts of male and female behavior relate directly to this split. Women get pregnant, men don’t.
2) Both sides tend to harbor beliefs that they are superior. It is SO childishly easy to lead a group of men or women into comments about the advantages they have over the other side, and how they can do (almost) anything the others can do…and then some. Try it sometime, but be subtle. Superiority complexes run rampant, folks. Don’t be smug.
3) Both sides want to live, to reduce pain in their lives, to have love and success. They may prioritize things like freedom and security a bit differently—it’s easy to figure out which side would TEND to favor security over freedom or vice versa, isn’t it?
There are many other things, but the core of it is that biological difference, and the social conditioning to reinforce it. Both nature and nurture. Endless stories can be, and have been, written about people who don’t match these stereotypes—and in fact NO ONE matches them precisely. But there are starting points.
So…can men and women write about each other? Give me a break. If you’d been raised in Mexico City, would you speak Spanish? All boys and girls have aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, and what not. We are absolutely surrounded by each other. If you don’t understand the opposite sex, you don’t understand yourself.
That said, I will, again say that these are just my opinions. Your obligation is to have your own, and think them through so that you can defend them, and express them, in your work.
Its vital, and the arguments alone are nine kinds of fun.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 11:58 AM
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
So let’s start with the question: “can human beings write
I think that, within useful limitations, the answer is yes.
There are certain universals that can be assumed about
life forms. The first is a riff on Descarte: "I live, therefore I exist."
It must be a thing, conforming to the laws of physics as we
understand them--or as they may be understood in the future.
Further, it must conform to definitions of
“life” otherwise, whatever it is, it will not be recognized
and defined as such, until those definitions change. So,
then, what are the characteristics of living things? In
general, living things:
1) Exchange energy with their environment. Otherwise,
the energies of their life processes would violate laws of
2) Reproduce. Either said living thing has existed
throughout all time in its current form, or it was
spontaneously created at some point, or it is the end-point
of an evolutionary process. While great stories have
been written about creatures that do not reproduce, this
is a fairly safe bet.
3) The number of total offspring produced exceed the
number that die. Often, but not always, this means that
the said alien form, if “conscious,” has some investment
in some of its offspring surviving. Even if it eats all of
its children it can catch, if it eats ALL of them successfully,
consistently, there will be nothing for the next generation.
While good stories can be written about such creatures, it
is, again, a safe bet that creatures either care about the
survival of their young, or are damned inefficient about
4) Are concerned with their own survival. In other words,
will move away from “pain” and toward “pleasure” unless
there is something seriously wonky going on. Creatures
that consistently place themselves in lethal peril probably
won’t live to reproduce.
Beginning with such basic principles, it should be possible
to extrapolate nicely, creating non-sentient creatures which
are plausible, and sentient creatures with solitary existences
or social interactions that make a certain amount of sense
Such creatures will usually protect their young, have
strategies for avoiding danger, have social rules that
guarantee that the population remains stable or grows
(overall). If you deliberately change one of these basic
principles, you are at least doing it consciously.
Further, they will have strategies (conscious or unconscious)
for receiving energy from their environment. If these are
complex strategies, they will have ways of passing them
on to their offspring, which implies language or some form
Begin then, with the most basic chakras: survival, reproduction,
comfort, and you will probably be safe. Violate these
CONSCIOUSLY, and you may create a classic. Do it
unconsciously, and you create an unbelievable piece of
pulp. The creature in “Alien” whose motivations seem
impenetrable initially, becomes less opaque once we
understand its lifecycle. That very believability increases
it’s mystery and terror. We see a lethal animal, rather
than a man in a rubber suit. And that makes all the
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:09 AM
Monday, January 23, 2006
For years, at Science Fiction conventions a panel with the title: “Can Human Beings Write About Aliens” has been popular. I’ve been a speaker on several of them, and enjoyed the debate. Inevitably, in time I also participated in “Can Men Write About Women?” and “Can Americans Write About Foreigners?” and “Can Christians Write About Moslems?” etc.
Last year, I attended a play (“Permanent Collection”) with my wife Tananarive. The play dealt with the stresses of a black curator taking over an art collection in a white suburb, and insisting on African pieces taking a more prominent position. After the play, we found ourselves wondering if the writer was white or black. Recently in the L.A. times (January 15th) the author of the play, Thomas Gibbons, wrote of his struggles and conflicts, being a white playwright who has often written black characters. Well. Mystery solved, controversy begun. Can Whites Write About Blacks?
The real question hidden beneath all of this is: can one person ever write about another? Gay and Straight? Conservative and Liberal? Southerner and Northerner? Ultimately, it becomes ridiculous. Taken far enough, we can only conclude that no human being can write about anyone but himself. But wait…how many people really know themselves? The entire premise of Lifewriting is that one can most accurately determine one’s hidden values and beliefs by actively engaging in three things: a healthy intimate relationship, a satisfying career, and a dynamic physical body. Let’s be honest—what percentage of the human race has ever had all three simultaneously? That suggests, then, that we usually can’t even know ourselves. In that case, no one should write about anything at all.
Absurd. We have an obligation to write about the world we see, about people other than ourselves, and about the deepest reaches of the human heart. This week, we’re going to build a theoretical model of how this can be done. But the basic premise is: extend to others the same basic motivations and needs that you yourself feel, your own humanity, your own fears and loves, and you will be right more often than wrong.
You may disagree with my philosophical positions on some of the issues we’ll discuss: that’s fine. It isn’t important that you agree with me. It IS important that you develop your own opinions, and be prepared to defend them in literary form. You might write in accordance to your opinions, or deliberately go against your opinions, or consciously choose the opinions of someone of another group…but ultimately, your own beliefs are visible in your work whether you want them to be or not.
So you might as well choose.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:07 AM
Friday, January 20, 2006
We've opened registration for the second Path seminar, this one in Los Angeles. Understand something: the Portland seminar sold out in three weeks, three months before the date (April 22nd). We're opening registration for the next one NOW, setting a date of June 24th. Coach Sonnon and I agreed that the prereg should be 1/2 the price of the workshop at the door, so that our Tribe--Lifewriters and Rmax devotees, can afford to experience this new technology NOW.
I tell you honestly: I've been waiting my whole life for this announcement. When I taught Lifewriting, there was something missing: I had no way to anchor the changes in people's bodies, and therefore the context of their ordinary lives drained their energy and excitement away far too often. As happens with almost any workshop. Unless you become a "workshop junkie" going back over and over again, you just can't hold the breakthroughs. This is going to be different. Why?
Because, for the very first time that I know of ANYWHERE, the heart of this workshop is going to be the cultivation of physical/emotional energy and physical flow. Physical flow can easily be channeled to academic or artistic or emotional/spiritual pursuits quite easily. Even if you come "only" for the physical benifit, you're going to get an individually calibrated exercise program, which can be performed by ANYONE, from Grannie to Grandmaster, and safely put yourself in the "Zone." Scott is an absolute master at this. Then you're going to commit to just one hour a week of such practise (20 mintues three times a week). You will also refine goals in each of your three major arenas. The FlowFit exercise not only raises the energy, and provides sound basic all-around fitness (basic fitness in only an HOUR a week, and I'm not kidding at all) but is specifically designed to remove fear-reactivity from the body. Believe it, don't believe it--the workshop is experiential. You'll see for yourself. So--raise your energy, increase your clarity, remove the limiting fear...what in the heck do YOU think is going to happen? Please, please, please (as the Hardest Working Man In Show Business used to say) do yourself a favor. Go to
At the Rmax forum and ask yourself if this isn't worth the investment of a few hours and dollars of your time. The world needs all of the loving, centered, powerful, energetic, autonomous warrior/ healer/ poets it can find.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:04 AM
Thursday, January 19, 2006
the following terrific note was on my bullitin board this morning, concerning the phenomenon of Flow:
There is one situation where I can reliably invoke the conditions of flow: a complete loss of time sense, my needs (or perhaps more precisely, my desires for) food and sleep become secondary ( I lost ten pounds the last time I allowed myself to partake of this activity), and a complete mental focus upon a single subject. So why am I being cryptic about this mystery activity? Because I find myself rather chagrined at admitting just how lost I get in this pursuit. I’m referring, of course, to computer games.
I’m primarily speaking of strategy games (think Civilization or Warcraft for you fellow gamers out there), or first-person shooters with a strong story and strategy element (i.e. Halo, Marathon), though I can certainly get lost in far simpler arcade-style games. But what I experience when I’m playing these games strongly echoes what this fellow Csikszentmihaly speaks of - the “narrowing of attention”, clearly defined goals, depth of concentration, etc.
And yet, though flow seems to be described in such glowing terms, both by Steve and now by Mr. C., it seems to me that it is not necessarily such a good thing purely in and of itself. Flow in service of writing a story, designing a house, fending off blows in a martial arts contest? Yes, excellent, wonderful applications. Getting lost until dawn getting to the next level in the stupid game? Somehow it seems to be less than admirable use of the time. For me the answer has been to delete the bloody games from my machine, just to prevent me from getting lost in them again. And though they sound fun to me, I don’t even dare to check out any of the online games - I know they’d just be rapacious time sinks to me, flow or no.
So, my comment is to ask: Is flow a desirous thing in and of itself? Obviously, I’m tending towards the answer that it is not, if it can be invoked in the pursuit of less than productive ends. And yet, I see no hint in this excerpt that there can be anything negative in the state of flow. I recently read somewhere on Coach Sonnon’s site where he stated that he didn’t believe in hobbies, that they were (I’m paraphrasing from memory here) distractions from the pursuit of one’s true goals. I think that is a partial answer to the question. But if flow is such a powerful and positive force, is there perhaps some good to be gained in its practice, even if it is through such a suspect path?
You've touched an important point: No, Flow is no more important in and of itself than, say, protein or food or water (less vital to life, of course) each taken out of balance or context can kill you, or cause great harm. The knowledge that you can achieve this state is excellent--have faith that it is possible to find it in more social, healthy, life-affirming and building activities as well. When you meditate, seek the same state. When you write or read, seek the same immersion. There is nothing wrong with you--games are great fun! Just understand that you have hit one of the currents in your life, and must learn to construct a "turbine" there to harness some of that energy!
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:59 AM
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
As I’ve said before, Dr. Hans Selye, the popularizer of the modern concept of stress, confessed that he had slightly mis-labeled the phenomenon of human reaction to adverse (or even pleasurable!) circumstance. Instead of Stress (pressure per unit area) he should have said “strain” (deformation per unit length). In other words, it’s not how much pressure you’re under, it’s whether that pressure bends and twists you out of shape. When you’re “in the zone” you don’t feel the pressure—in fact, the pressure just locks you into a flow of creative energy. If you are balanced, that energy spirals “up” through the different levels of your existence, giving you the strength to deal with issues in every arena of your life. As you deal with them, you free up more energy to deal with the next level, and so forth.
Of course, this sounds easier than it is, otherwise we’d all walk on water. The Lifewriting approach to writing says to create a link between our inner concerns and the outer work. Through meditation, introspection, or journaling, we find the little kinks and knots in our consciousness, the things that plague us or engage us, and write about them, make them core issues in our work. In that way, we create little teaching metaphors that link our conscious and unconscious minds in such a way that everything we do to improve ourselves makes us better writers, and everything we write automatically makes us better, healthier, happier, better integrated people.
But, again, how do we keep from getting thrown off-track by life? Those who have read me for a while will know that there are certain images in film that really push my buttons. We needn’t go into the specifics of them right here. Ahem. But it hit me last week that there was absolutely no way to avoid them, if I was going to expose myself to popular media. What to do?
I decided to experiment with a new approach. Every time I saw one of the images, I would consciously Be Breathed (from the Five Minute Miracle) for sixty seconds. Further, because the thrust of the technique is to concentrate only on the EXHALATION portion, I decided that as my diaphragm relaxed (creating an INHALATION) I would concentrate on my heartbeat. This created an inner “soft focus” as I had to center into a sense of relaxed concentration. In sixty seconds I was calm, and had a rush of energy. Only about an hour later, BANG! The media threw another of those irritating images at me. Another sixty seconds of Be Breathed/Heartbeat Meditation.
And so on. And it got to the point that I was laughing the next time I saw the trigger images. On Sunday, the opener of “24” came on, and I was thrown for a loop, but did the breathing again. Out of my emotional pain came a mini-essay, written in pure flow without editing, that received more answering e-mail than anything I’d written in many months. Wow. By managing my pain until I could express rather than just hurt, I touched people. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
So…find a good stress-relieving breathing technique from yoga, Tai chi, or get my Five Minute Miracle. Every time something happens that ordinarily knocks you off balance, breathe for sixty seconds. You’ll be delighted by the results.
The most complete set of tools ever gathered
for the writer can be found in the Lifewriting
Year-Long course, available at www.lifewriting.biz.
Stressed out? The Five Minute Miracle may be
the answer. Do yourself a favor and order it at:
Copyright 2006, Steven Barnes and
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Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:43 AM
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Flow and Core Transformation
“Contrary to expectation, "flow" usually happens not during relaxing moments of leisure and entertainment, but rather when we are actively involved in a difficult enterprise, in a task that stretches our mental and physical abilities…”-- Mihaly Csikszentmihali
The phenomenon of Flow is perhaps the most sought-after quantifiable quality in human experience. It is immersion in the process of writing. It is rapture in lovemaking. It is ease in our personal affairs and finances, the sense that we are engaged in a pleasing and contributory life work, for which we are appropriately rewarded. It is “runner’s high” and also joy in our personal relationships. It is the antithesis of “writer’s block” or any other stoppage of our life energy.
The reason I address the physical, mental, and emotional arenas in a newsletter supposedly about writing is that, in working with thousands of students, I find that they generally have the technical knowledge needed to succeed, but lack the ability to “take the brakes off” in one or another of these other arenas, and find their energy “stuck” there.
In a wonderful book called “Core Transformation,” Connirae Andreas of NLP Comprehensive in Colorado lays out perhaps the most important concept to arise from the entire NLP community. It is this: that any behavior, no matter how brutal or evil, is ultimately an attempt to approach the divine. I had difficulty believing this until they laid out, in convincing pattern, case after case where the actions of apparent monsters were attempts to satisfy some twisted need. And that if that need were satisfied, the “monster” would feel safe enough to express healthier emotions, which would lead to honest and healthy interactions, which would lead to a feeling of love and contribution, and from there to a sense of true connectedness with community and universe.
It was amazing, and in working with clients, I found this single concept to be like emotional nitroglycerine: violence is the result of anger, anger is the result of fear, fear and love compete for the same place in the human heart. Fear blocks flow.
Examined in the context of Maslow’s Hierarchy of human needs, and the yogic Chakras, a model of human energetics presents itself rather obviously. The model suggests that when our most basic needs are satisfied, we automatically integrate at a higher level. While not precisely exact (that would require calibration on an individual level) the process leads to an understanding regarding our experience of creative genius and flow. Understanding this will help you grasp why certain writers and artists wrestle with the same themes year after year, or in a more personal sense, why I talk about certain racial and gender issues in my blog and in these notes: these are MY areas of damage. I am working with them and through them. They express themselves in my work, and manifest in my meditations. All I want to express in life is love, but my own fear and pain “stop” my flow, and where that flow stops, stories often start.
The most important three arenas, the ones that devil most people, are those of personal finance, physical health/fitness, and sexual/intimate relationships. Please remember that this is a blunt tool, not intended as some know-it-all prescription or declaration that all human beings must be buff, and monogamous, and rich. Lord knows such a proclamation would be idiocy: it doesn’t even match the true values of most of the best people I’ve known. But as a rough model of human experience, it is worth looking at with ego set aside before discarding.
I know some of the arenas where my energy is bound. Every morning, I write these notes, rarely copyediting much, just flowing and speaking the first truth that comes out of my mind and heart. You read about what frightens me today. Or what engages my curiosity. What my subconscious drives me to seek out in entertainment. What demons I wrestle with in my writing.
It just pours out, pretty much unfiltered. Just Flow. And my prayer is that as I engage with these issues that push my buttons and stretch my limits, there will be moments of truth that no amount of calculation could produce. And that it is those moments that keep the readers of these messages coming back: not that there is something unusual about me. Quite the contrary. That I am engaged in the same creative journey that all human beings take between cradle and grave, and that the only thing that eases the existential loneliness is sharing. And that the only reason we continue to progress beyond the muck is that we learn from others, and therefore have the obligation to report back from the very edge of our experience, even if what we find there is “too revealing” or embarrassing. I know no other way to live, or to write.
Ultimately, all that there is is structure, and flow.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:42 AM
Monday, January 16, 2006
RIP David Palmer
There is a kind of grotesque and melancholy déjà vu to this note. To write, on the day celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday of the death of the most powerful, intelligent and honorable black fictional character in the history of the most powerful entertainment medium in history makes my fingers shake a bit.
Last night, on the season opener of my favorite television series, “24” former president David Palmer was assassinated. Yes, no life is sacred on that show—it is one of the things I love about it. Yes, Dennis Haysbert, who for four seasons portrayed the complex and decent man who became the moral anchor for a show about extreme actions in extreme circumstances, is going on to star in another show, executive produced by David Mamet. You have no idea how much I hope that show succeeds.
Yes, the producers obviously understood the impact that his death would have on viewers who appreciated a viral dark-skinned man presented as a natural leader embraced and cherished by his country. Wayne Palmer, David’s brother, featured prominently in both hours of the season opener, and Curtis, a black CTU agent, was also on site for support. That’s the way you do such things, if you give a damn.
But still, it hurts. It was supposed to hurt. And it did. I had guessed that this might happen, based on hints from the network, and oblique spoilers posted on the web. But when my family and I sat around the television, lights dimmed, freshly popped popcorn in the bowl, awaiting the first new eagerly-anticipated episode in more than six months, and Palmer went down from a sniper’s bullet, it hit us hard. Gasps of disbelief. Prayers that the wound was not fatal. Uneasy recognition of the similarity of circumstance with the death of Martin Luther King. Unconscious on the part of the creative team? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I almost cried.
Please remember how precious few hourlong dramas there have ever been on television with non-white leads. “Deep Space Nine” was the first to succeed—that is, to last more than two seasons. There have been countless comedies. Humor allows us to release tension, and there is literally fantastic tension still stressing race relations in America. So laughter is fine, but perception of non-whites as fully human beings with hopes and dreams and sexuality is still rare as bats with 20-20 vision. And real leadership positions rarer still—note the number of black or Asian actors in supporting or second-billed roles as opposed to leads, and you will understand what America really, truly thinks in the privacy of their homes, in the dark of the movie theater.
David Palmer was not the lead on “24.” But from the first moment he appeared, it struck me that I had never seen a black man so virile, so intelligent, so obviously H.N.I.C (ask a black friend) on television in my life. I had literally spent my entire childhood without a single such image. Cosby on “I Spy” came preciously close. And it took a gifted comedian like Cosby to defuse the discomfort. Greg Morris on “Mission: Impossible” came close, and you had better believe that the studio got hate mail by the bag. “Negroes aren’t that intelligent…” was the most polite of the bunch.
So I mostly stay quiet, even though every single day, on television or in film, I see the images of white males as the lords of the universe held high, and apparently all females of all groups swoon for them, while black and Asian males, apparently, are either gay, already married, or uninterested in sex. Fascinating revelation of American fantasy life, don’t you think? And don’t blame the studios: when they make movies going against that stereotype, they almost always bomb.
And I hold it in. And eagerly devour any crumbs thrown my way. And David Palmer was the whole loaf. And that particular dream, so long deferred, died last night. And I write this on Martin Luther King’s birthday, and want to laugh, and cry.
I still love “24.” I still love Hollywood. I still love America. But God, sometimes it really, really hurts to wonder if I’ll ever be loved back.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:23 AM
Friday, January 13, 2006
The awe-inspiring physicist Richard Feynman said that if the entire history of Western Science was to be wiped out, the single concept that would reconstitute it most rapidly is the atomic theory: that everything is made out of these little tiny primal building blocks, and that all natural phenomena can be explained by their interactions and structures.
Well, I think that’s a terrific way to start a conversation. Trying to ride on such mighty coattails, I’d say that the entire Lifewriting concept is based on the idea that our quality of life reflects our quality as human beings: the outer world we experience is a reflection of our inner world.
In respect to writing, this means that our energy, our perception, our ability to access our knowledge, our empathy, our extrapolative capacity, our poetic potential, our discipline…all of these things relate not merely to our educations, but to the bedrock of our consciousness and the height of our spiritual vision.
This is why I talk about relationships, politics, physical fitness, mental health, and so forth, in addition to the traditional subjects for writers and writing teachers such as plot, characterization, and so forth. This is why you hear me rant about things like racial stereotyping and so on…because they are MY personal demons. The question of race relations in America has impacted my life since childhood. For years I pretty much ignored it in my writing, and then due to a conversation with a friend, I was forced to face it. The conversation was with a brilliant computer engineer named Darnell Gadberry, with whom I’ve had tons of wonderful debates on subjects so wide-ranging I couldn’t begin to list them.
I said to Darnell that I’d noticed that in the almost twenty years since I’d come into the science fiction field, no other black male writers had entered professionally. I was beginning to feel like a coward not to specifically address racial issues, felt that I was avoiding them out of fear that the market would reject me, and that my career would fail.
Darnell looked at me, and said one of the wisest things anyone has ever said to me. “Steve,” he said. “Eventually, someone is going to have to address these issues. Write these stories. If not you, who? If not now, when? And why in the world would you want to write stories for the pleasure of people you wouldn’t want to have in your home?”
Ouch. And so I wrote “Blood Brothers,” and “Lion’s Blood”, and “Great Sky Woman.” Because they are true to the boy I was who wanted to write, and because there is no one else. And that is an honest quest.
What is YOUR truth? What is most important to you in your life? What are you most afraid of? What is your secret love? These will be the core of your writing, as they should be the core of your life.
Try this thought: what are the three most important things in your life, one in each of the three major areas? For me, they are
3) The martial arts, and things relating to them.
2) Writing, and things relating to it.
1) My relationship with my family and friends.
That’s it. If it doesn’t related to one of those three arenas, I don’t care. You might ask where spirit lies. For me, spirit is the invisible space marked off by these three points. The divine is the Name that Cannot be Named. It is like the wind: we cannot see it, but we CAN see the grass bending, and can attend to that.
I beg you to clarify, in your own mind, the three things most important to you. The things you are willing to die for. Those are the things it is worthwhile to live for. Clarify this, and you gain a kind of power you may never have known, and take another step in the direction of your own highest good.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 9:57 AM
Thursday, January 12, 2006
I have a huge backlog of specifically writing-centered things to talk about, but that in and of itself is a trap. We, as artists, are the tools that create, and to neglect that aspect of our craft would be to violate one of the basic principles of Lifewriting. So we have to address physical energy. Without energy, our ambition fails. Our courage fails. We fall back into old habit patterns, and forget that we are beings of infinite potential.
Luckily, the minimum time and effort necessary to maintain energy is quite small: about an hour a week of brisk walking, divided into three twenty minute sessions, will help quite a bit if you can stay focused.
If you are ready for something more intense, but still simple, try Hindu Squats and Hindu Pushups. Free mini-movies demonstrating them can be found at: http://www.bronzebowpublishing.com/exercises.html
Here is a great way to practice them: Start the second hand of a clock. Do as many Hindu Pushups as you can for 30 seconds. Rest 30 seconds. Do as many Hindu Squats as you can for 30 seconds. Rest thirty seconds. Repeat.
Writing is absolutely dreadfully sedentary activity, and you must remember that your brain is fed on glucose and oxygen. If you don’t take care of your body, your brain CANNOT function at its highest levels. Got bad habits you can’t break? Look at this model of Behavioral Modification:
1) Observe the habit you want to change.
2) Decide on the new habit.
3) Raise your energy level
4) Practice the new habit
5) Fail successfully
6) Start over again.
Most people never decide what they want, they fail to raise their energy, and they interpret temporary setbacks as disaster. “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” It will take you YEARS to get your career going properly. Be realistic about this, and plan to have plenty of energy for those scripts and books when the contracts finally start coming in.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 9:04 AM
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
The very first line I ever heard Woody Allen speak was a joke on the Tonight show concerning theological issues, about how, during a divinity test, he cheated by “looking into the soul of the girl sitting next to me.” I believe that he used a clip from such a stand up routine in one of his films, perhaps Annie Hall. I honestly don’t remember. For decades, Woody has intertwined several basic themes: love and its yearnings. Faith. Talent and success. Human evil and the absence of God in the universe. And he does that thing that humor does: takes pain and fear, turns them inside out and makes us laugh. But behind the laughter has always been an extraordinarily keen mind and a troubled spirit.
Most of us agree that his marriage to his own step-daughter was a sign of a damaged psyche. Of course, he’d been warning us for decades that he was damaged goods, hadn’t he? It wasn’t until “Bullets Over Broadway” in which a murderous hit-man is revealed as a theatrical genius, did it finally hit me that he was obsessed with the question of why evil is not punished in the universe. Why, in fact, success seems to have no connection to the purity of the soul.
In “Crimes and Misdemeaners” he went further, encouraging us to empathize with a man capable of a terrible act…but that film sat on the fence, allowing us to argue about the right and wrong of things, rather than focusing us on the core question which has obviously chewed at his heart and mind since childhood.
No such mistake in “Match Point.” In this film, which I consider one of his very best ever, he tells the story of a social-climbing tennis pro (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who marries the boss’s daughter (Chloe Hewett Wilton) while harboring a passion for his future sister-in-law (Scarlett Johanssen). The bedroom farce takes a rather dark turn (to say the least), leading to an action which very few people could find other than utterly reprehensible on every conceivable level. And to a diabolically clever ending. The theme, announced from the very beginning is that few of us want to face the fact that so much of life is based on luck. Specifically, luck as opposed to merit.
But to skip over all further plot details to address this theme, I think it’s something of an Easter Egg. Look deeper, and the question is not merely one of luck, but one that asks: “Is there a God in the Universe? If so, what is His nature, and why is he silent?”
I can’t help but think that Woody is asking the wrong question. If, as I suspect, on one level he believes human beings are shallow and evil, and that he himself has achieved massive wealth and fame while deeply flawed and (he suspects) evil in his personal life, then where is the justice in the universe.
First of all, with this film, I found myself believing that Allen is a good man. Flawed, but good. The nature of the questions he has been asking his entire life, as opposed to what we know of his personal life, leads me to think him damaged but not damned. Just a personal opinion.
Secondly, I think that the key is not in “why are the wicked not punished” but the question “what is the nature of a good, successful life”? He has taken a perfectly reasonable approach: a beautiful spouse, wealth, health, public acclaim are a good life. That evil men and women can achieve this must be deeply troubling to him.
And troubles me not at all. It is possible of course that it is MY philosophy that is shallow, and his that cuts deep. I won’t be self-congratulatory, or dogmatic enough to pat myself on the back, but I must stake out a position.
So here it is. I think that external measurements of success are wonderful, but ultimately satisfying only if they match our internal values. And from the cradle, we crave connection to love, to warmth, to that total acceptance we felt from our mothers, in the womb if nowhere else. And that this craving is totally unconscious, and that we spend the rest of our lives attempting to regain it.
When we sense that our own values and actions could be replicated by the entire world, to its benefit, I think that there is a sense of peace that simply cannot be put into words, a state of grace, of joy that those who have not experienced simply cannot believe in—as sociopaths cannot believe that human beings genuinely experience love and caring for one another. Such poor souls circle in the outer darkness. Say “I love you” to them, and they think “if only you knew what I really was, you wouldn’t say that.” Or worse, they think “poor, deluded fool, to feel such trivial, false emotions.”
Of COURSE it is possible to achieve acclaim, and fame, and health, and hot sex and be evil. Evil is a judgment about things on a spiritual level, not on the level of business (although in general, honesty pays in business) or marriage contracts (you can lie and cheat, and your mate may never discover it) or fitness/health (I’ve known tremendously fit and long-lived people who were monsters).
Yet and still, Lifewriting asks us to embrace these three qualities as markers of inner worth. Why? Because they are the best, simplest external markers I know of. They are not infallible.
On a personal level, I believe that when our inner values and our outer actions are in alignment, and when those actions and values are transparent, so that we would stand before all mankind and say: “this is who I am. And I would want my children, and your children to be the same, and I am prepared to stand before the universe and say that I would be willing and happy to be treated as I have treated others” that there is a simple peace that comes from this that cannot be replaced by money, or sex, or even life itself.
Those who have been abused, neglected, uncherished, often do not develop the spiritual sensory equipment to find their way to this place. The armies of lethal children found in inner cities around the third world (and sometimes the first world) attest to this: they have not experienced love, and therefore have no ability to empathize, or care about much beyond survival and simple pleasures.
What IS a good life? In my mind, the correct answer to this needs no God in the universe to punish the wicked, although a life lived in this fashion often opens an awareness (or to be fair, a belief) in the existence of the divine. To be separated from this sense is to be lost in an intellectual fog, trying to reason out the nature of things far larger than our minds. The intellect cannot go there, is the wrong tool. For decades Allen has tried to reason out his relationship with God, to understand the Holocaust in the framework of his childhood beliefs. I feel terribly sorry for him, and hope that he can forgive the world, and himself, in time to find peace in his life.
But meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy his ruminations. They are brilliant, and heartfelt, and heartbreakingly honest at this point in his life. “Match Point” is another of the best films of 2005, one which, unfortunately, I didn’t see until 2006.
In retrospect, 2005 was one heck of a year for movies. I hope 2006 will be as fine.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:43 AM
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
I was recently asked: why do I think it inevitable that innocent people will be tortured if currently debated policies are continued? Here is my answer: It is inevitable for the exact same reason that innocent people are arrested and convicted, and DNA evidence has released people on death row--human fallibility. And this is assuming the very best training on the part of FBI and police academies--not military personnel in the field who are not specifically trained to sort wheat from chaff. Shall we add the problem whenever "Group A" is in a position of power over "Group B." Even if they are of the same race/nationality (say, Protestants over Catholics in Ireland) a disproportionate number of the subjugated group will make their way into the prison systems. Add a color or language difference, and the problem increases. You can replicate this result anywhere in the world you look, with any colonial group: Maoris in New Zealand, Abos in Australia, blacks in Apartheid South Africa, Native Americans in New Mexico, Oklahoma, etc. African-Americans in America. Human perception is fallible, human beings have prejudices, our senses fail us. And note: everything I've said assumes absolutely positive intentions, high ethics, and no hidden agendas. Do you want to believe that ANY group is composed solely of such saintly folks? And if not, what happens when you add in negative intentions, low ethics, situational stress and hidden agendas? How about the tendency to think that any group you're fighting is subhuman? You have the potential for a nightmare. With Miranda laws, Constitutional prohibitions against unlawful search and Seizure, and the ACLU and other advocacy groups, you STILL get bad cops, bad judges, coerced confessions, prejudiced juries, incompetent lawyers and so on...and this in what I honestly believe to be among the best legal systems in the world. ALMOST EVERY BLACK MAN I KNOW has stories of being harassed, arrested or otherwise mistreated by white police officers. Every single one. Think about that. Those who’ve read Lion’s Blood can guess I believe that the situation would be precisely reversed if the social power was in black hands rather than white. It’s just the way human beings are. And I believe that cops are, on the average, good guys committed to protecting their community. Now...what possible reason do I have to think that the people arresting "terrorists" are of a higher caliber than this? With all of America's laws and protections of our rights, people STILL get arrested, confined, convicted unjustly. The statistical chance that no innocent person has been executed in America is about as close to zero as you can get. Add it up. There is just no way, regardless of good intentions, training, safeguards, or anything else, assuming the highest moral character and most scrupulous oversights, that no innocent person will be accused and dragged screaming into the dark. In all of human history, no legal system has ever been perfect. Human beings are fallible. If you are in favor of torture, make very very certain you have made peace with the inevitability of mistakes. Otherwise, in my mind, you are simply lying to yourself.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:34 PM
In a very real sense, all that exists in any skill is structure: the component pieces of the discipline, the skills which must be internalized, or the knowledge which must be gained, and Flow, the ability to perform these skills under stress. To immerse oneself in the moment to moment intensity of performance without losing your center. To not allow stress to become strain.
This is, of course, one of the reasons that Lifewriting is structured as it is. There are tons of classes to teach you writing structure (heck, there's a whole industry out here in Hollywood), but very very few avenues to teach the second aspect, flow. So the two things I stress are: the Hero's Journey for structure, because it mirrors our lives and therefore has the very fastest learning curve. Yes, there are stories that don't conform to it (thank goodness!) but I can think of no structure--and I've seen hundreds--that communicates to a broader, deeper audience. And I use the chakras to show the NATURAL flow of energy in our lives.
There are other models of structure, of course. All I ask is that you choose one, and overlearn it so that if someone awakened you at 4 in the morning and put a gun to yur head, saying "What is a story?" you could instantly answer. (Remember--the only skills of any use at all are those which can be applied under stress!). Secondly, I would beg you to find a way to incorporate flow into your life. There are so many ways--but find one, explore and refine it separate from the specific applications you choose to address. Believe me, in career, athletics, or relationships, flow is essential. If you think you can address all of your issues consciously, you are simply kidding yourself.
Let' stake a look at the three most common arenas:
1) Physical. Tai Chi, Yoga, dance, running, walking, any kind of steady-state rhythmic endurance activity that lasts more than 20 minutes will teach this critical skill. Frankly, I think it's best to learn it on this level, because flow learned here will also help you mentally--but mental flow doesn't necessarily help your fitness.
2) Emotional. Heartbeat meditation, just concentrating on the beat of the little muscle in yoru chest for 20 minutes once a day, can be a powerful flow activity, as well as a way of centering emotionally.
3) Mental. There is an exercise called "contour drawing" found in a terrific book called Drawing On the Right Side Of Your Brain. Read it. basically, the exercise has you take a sheet of paper and crumple it into a ball. Then you place it beside a drawing pad. Without taking your eyes off the crumpled ball OR lifting your pen from the paper, draw the ball. Slowly. Smoothly. Move your eyes over the crumpled ball as you move your pen on the paper, one inch at a time. Soo this for 20 minutes. Terrific exercise.
Whatever you do, find a way to address each of these concerns, and your writing--and life--will gain in efficiency and pleasure. Promise.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 1:17 PM
Monday, January 09, 2006
Do NOT see this movie unless you are bored by lightweight fare such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Eli Roth (“Cabin Fever”) has made one of the most genuinely frightening films I have ever, ever, seen in my life, up there with “Night of the Living Dead,” “They Came From Within” and “Last House on the Left.” The set up is deceptively simple: Three backpackers traveling across Europe, (two American and one Icelandic) are in Amsterdam for the usual sex and drug fest. While there, they hear about an incredible hostel (a sort of low-priced bed-and-breakfast for students) in Slavakia where the women go crazy for handsome Americans. So they travel in search of thrills…
And that’s all I’ll say. Take my warning seriously. This is probably the most gruesome film I could ever recommend. While not merely an all-out torture marathon (and such films actually exist, believe me) it is pretty close to the line. But Hostel ultimately has more on its nasty little mind, and if you’re a fan of the genre, this gets an “A.” But brothers and sisters, if you aren’t, it is an “F” minus. Trust me on this one.
But we are forced here, to address questions such as: why would anyone want to watch something like this? Not an easy question to answer. Usually, people pontificating about horror or cinematic violence do so while pointing fingers, or speaking in vague generalities or statistics. I’m not going to cop out: I love horror, and I like a certain amount of explicit violence: IF the point of the violence is the engendering of specific emotions, and those emotions are used in the process of storytelling.
Why? I can’t tell you for certain, but can make guesses, and this is where we can dovetail a movie review with questions of creativity and specifically, writing.
I have practiced violent sports, watched violent movies, read violent books and so forth for my entire life. Personally, I doubt more than two or three people have ever even heard me raise my voice, let alone seen me raise my hand in anger to another human being. Why did I spend so much time exposing myself to such things? Because I have fear, people. Lots of it. As a small boy growing up around large ones, an intellectual growing up around non-intellectuals, a black man in a country that flooded me with images suggesting that my life and dreams were completely disposable…that told me that I would be frustrated at every turn, and if I dared to protest I would be KILLED, well, there was lotsa fear, believe me. And to face that fear in fictional form helps me deal with it in real life.
But that doesn’t explain the rest of America, or the world. Well, many of those fears are universal, not merely part of one ethnic group’s experience. Men, women, gays, straights, Whites, Asians, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and whatever—we can all claim special reasons for feeling fear.
It was inevitable that post 9/11, horror films would begin to raise their heads. First timid “PG-13” stuff, just sticking their toes in the water. Then, As the fear level was maintained for months and years, the amount of fictional trigger necessary to release the pent-up anxiety became severe.
We’re about to get a real, no-nonsense deluge of hard-core horror in 2006, from remakes of “The Hills Have Eyes” to new Zombie gore fests from George Romero and company. And torture is on the menu, children. Some critics have wondered why this would be, and I wonder if they’ve been reading the news.
What in the world has been a topic of conversation for the last eighteen months or so? From Abu Gharib to last season’s “24” to secret CIA prisons and the President’s insistence that we need greater latitude to deal with the subhuman (sic) terrorists, torture has become a subject at the dinner table in a way it never has before in our history. (And by the way…considering that torture is now being defended on right-wing talk shows and in the White House, doesn’t that cast doubts on the early denials about what was going on at Abu Gharib, and where the orders were coming from? Why haven’t we heard anything about this?)
At any rate, we say that this behavior is necessary, or we will die in a nuclear inferno. Fine. But we then must ask: what EXACTLY are we talking about? What exactly goes on in an abattoir? What is the psychology of people who can DO such things? What happens to the people to whom it is done?
I know good, decent people, people who would never allow an animal to suffer, who are now in favor of torture. Fine. They believe this is necessary to remain safe. Perhaps.
But in their secret hearts, they want to know. What is it that we are giving approval to? What are we willing to do to other human beings? What are we asking our children to do? If you can’t stare at a movie screen, and see fantasy reenactments of such behavior, hear the screams and pleas for mercy, see the dead eyes of the torturers, I doubt you’ve thought through what we are currently debating in our country…and we cannot understand what we are doing to our international reputation.
If you can look at it, and say, “yes, I am willing to accept responsibility. I would be willing to do this, to risk my soul for my children's lives. To risk the INEVITABLE fact that some of the tortured will be innocent…” then I may disagree with you, but that is at least an honorable position.
If you look at such things and say: “no, I will not engage or approve of engaging in such behaviors. We must find another way.” That is also an honorable approach.
If you look at it and simply enjoy the sensation of stress building and releasing as you watch something you would never ever want to happen to you, that’s pretty much my position. Honorable? It would be rather self-serving to say that, wouldn’t it. Then again, I’m one of the mellowest people I’ve ever met, so there must be something there.
The point is that enough of America fell into one of these categories to make Hostel #1 at the boxoffice last weekend. #1. Think about it.
And what that means is that if you will dig deep, deep into your personal—or our cultural—emotions, present them honestly (within context) and powerfully and originally, you can find your audience. Moral? Immoral? I don’t know. I only know that my obligation as an artist is to be honest to my own feelings and perceptions. Then at least, my reward is knowledge that I have done my best.
And if your name is Eli Roth, the reward is beating out “Kong” and “Narnia” to earn 20 million in the first three days.
We’re having some fun now, aren’t we?
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:18 AM
Friday, January 06, 2006
Must we kill to protect that we love?
Must we transform our enemies into monsters in order to kill them? Or if they are monsters, must we become monsters ourselves in order to survive? To me, this is a question asked in countless books and films, and is most recently addressed in Spielberg’s MUNICH. My essay yesterday set off a minor storm of e-mails and phone calls, and I realized I’d touched a nerve. First, let me set something straight before I go forward: I don’t think I’m “right,” I just know that it is vital to have an attitude, a point of view, that we can then test against reality in our attempt to find “what is.”
Writing fiction is one way of exploring that point of view. We create stories in which characters see the world in a certain way, take certain actions, and the universe responds to their actions. Greek theater existed to trigger debate between the members of society, each of whom was expected to have a vital role in the determinance of social and political policy. Were I a soldier in Iraq right now, I would be doing my duty, obeying my superiors, protecting my buddies…and PRAYING that the voters back home were debating this war like crazy, arguing ever aspect of it, and making decisions based on both logic and emotion. Should I stay and kill or die? Can I come home having honorably served my country? Only the voters can decide that. As a soldier, I do what I must. And pray that whatever sacrifice of my life or soul has been made with full consciousness on the part of my country, not in blind adherence or knee-jerk reaction to ANY political position or event.
After giving a talk about LION’S BLOOD, my novel of African Muslims colonizing America, I was asked if I thought Israel had the right to exist. The man who asked me this question might have been Jewish, he might have been Arab…I could not tell, but knew he’d been disturbed by my talk. I thought carefully, knowing that I wanted to speak MY truth, and not (necessarily) something I’d been told by others. And I told him, “Yes.” I see no way in the world to deny that any group of people have the right to one piece of land to call their own. And Jews, as Jews, have no other land. To deny them this is to say, “die.” And to say that is to violate the most basic dictate of all living things, the one dictate upon which all other growth and evolution is based: survive.
Does this mean I approve of all actions taken to ensure that survival? No. Does that mean I don’t think the Palestinians have valid complaints? No. Does that mean I think Palestinian terrorists are sub-human? No, not at all.
It does mean that I understand how each side can CONSIDER the other to be evil, sub-human, illegitimate, and cowardly. Because that is the way human beings drive each other into categories, that their young men and women have no doubt in their hearts about the right to kill, torture, maim, and steal. This is what we do to each other to survive, and to try to keep our own hearts alive.
It doesn’t make it true. Israel has, in my mind, the right to survive. What should the Palestinians do? I don’t know. I do know that the things they do are completely understandable from the framework of human history, and to deny that is, in my mind, to put on blinders that keep us from truly understanding the game board on which that history is played out. And if we can’t understand the rules—the REAL rules, not the convenient rules our politicians or moralists ask us to accept, then we have no chance of actually winning the game.
In the 17th Century, Galileo peered through his telescope and saw things that challenged the Ptolomeic cosmology. The universe, he said, did not revolve around the earth. The Catholic church was not happy with this, called him in, displayed the instruments of torture, and told him to recant. And quite reasonably, so he did. What he had suggested challenged the order of the world, said that human beings were not central to God’s creation, and apparently weakened the entire social order. He asked people to look through the lens of his telescope, and see for themselves, and they would not. Pure fear. Their lives, their hearts, their souls (they feared) would be placed at risk.
But ultimately, whatever “Is” is beyond our concepts and opinions of it. We cannot approach that truth merely by discussing it, or making thought experiments. We must engage. To point out that terrorists have motivations, families, hearts, fears, hopes, and dreams “humanizes” them, and that is a threat to some. They fear that if we suggest they have some legitimate complaints, we may not be able to take actions to stop them. I believe we are not so small, or stupid, or simple.
All our history we’ve been able to kill those who threaten us. And every culture I know of has warrior traditions that seek to guide the human heart in such circumstance. Must we kill to protect that we love? History says, sometimes.
Must we transform our enemies into monsters in order to kill them? History says no…although that is the common reaction. Or if they are monsters, must we become monsters ourselves in order to survive? Again, history says no…although too damned often, that is exactly what happens, and must be guarded against.
We exist not merely to live. We live not merely to survive. But if we do not survive, we cannot grow and change and evolve. If there has ever been a conundrum more demanding than this one, I do not know its name. As artists, we have an obligation to ask the hardest questions imaginable. If they cannot even be asked in the theater of the mind, what hope is there for humanity?
All my life, I have HATED what was done in America to my people in the name of economics and social order. The temptation was to hate those who did it. To consider them monstrous. But I saw the result of such thought in those who railed against injustice: it destroyed them, their health, and their capacity for love and light. So I sought another way to understand. But first, I had to survive. This helps explain my interest in guns and knives and thirty odd years of martial arts training. No one can tell me I have no interest in surviving. But if my enemies ARE monsters, I will not become one in order to conquer them. And if they are NOT monsters, I will not fall into the most basic human trap: the need to hate that we must kill. For if we do not hate them, if we see ourselves in their eyes as those eyes dim with death, we never cheapen the cost, we continue to search, at all costs, for a way to avoid killing them that does not place our children at risk. We never stop searching.
When we do, regardless of our intent, we become what we fear we are fighting. Israel has the right to survive. As does America. As do the Palestinians. Dear God, none of this is easy. It’s not supposed to be. Dehumanizing our enemies is the road to hell, paved as it may be with the love we feel for our children. I will not walk that road, regardless of cost. After 9/11, I heard the voice in my head saying “it is time to go and kill them.” Had I been in my 20’s or even 30’s, I would have enlisted. But I would never have let ANYONE take from me the awareness that they love their children too, that they have hopes and dreams and desperation. Not for their sake. For my own. For the world I wish to build, that I wish my children to inherit.
I would look through the telescope. I would see that we are the same biological stuff, have the same needs. I would cry as my heart is broken, and do what is necessary. I would kill, or die, but would not lose my soul to ease my mind. Never.
What is your attitude about these crucial issues? Whatever it is, pour it into your writing. Give it to the world. These issues, issues that touch so deeply, are your doorway to the greatest art you are capable of creating. Get to work.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:44 AM
Thursday, January 05, 2006
How I wish I’d seen this film in December. Then, and only then, could I say I’d experienced one great film in 2005. Lots of good ones. None great. Yesterday I saw Munich, Steven Spielberg’s newest work, and one of his greatest.
It’s his first without storyboarding, doubtless an attempt to convey some of the haphazard, chaotic energy of his subject matter: the Israeli retaliation for the 1972 Munich kidnapping and assassination of Israeli athletes. What in the world could be more natural than the desire for retaliation? And in the action-reaction world of Newtonian politics in which we live, what could be more appropriate?
Or, ultimately, futile?
I forget who said it, but the directions for how to get out of the box are written on the outside of the box. To escape a trap of endless tit-for-tat, one cannot just be better at tatting. Believe me, as long as we are IN that box, I want to have the biggest tats around (and of course, as some conservative pundits from America to Israel are bound, and correct in saying, if someone has to have them, it better be us), but that is not the way out of the box.
Eric Bana (The Hulk) plays the Israeli agent who goes underground for grueling months to seek revenge against the 11 Palestinian men said to have planned the action. And the revenge is brutal, sloppy, breathtaking, violent, and bloody. And it triggers more violent actions from the Palestinians. Which triggers more from the Israelis, and on and on. And one drop at a time, you can see the very life blood sucked out of Bana, as he descend to a moral netherworld. THIS is the price that our warriors pay, even moreso when they cannot wear uniforms and proclaim their honor to the world.
THIS is one of the major reasons I fear the policy of torture our government wants in place. Yes, I LOVE “24”, and can’t wait for it to come back on in ten days, so that the infallible Jack Bauer can break laws and screw information out of more bad guys. But it’s fun BECAUSE he is infallible. Superman’s heat vision wouldn’t be so nifty if he roasted a few innocent bystanders. And you know what? Human beings make mistakes. We are in a war now, with at least ten times more Iraqi’s dead than Americans killed in 9-11, because of faulty intelligence (and I’m being kind to blame it purely on a mistake.) In the real world, the “wrong” people will be tortured, rendered, murdered in the dark. God, I can’t believe I actually wrote that sentence.
And what if they are “right?” Have you ever talked to someone who has tortured? I have. Ever talked to someone who has killed, in uniform or out? I have. And it costs, terribly. Horribly. Even with the full sanctions of society, the blessing of priests, the applause of the crowds, gifts of sex and land and medals, it strip-mines something precious from a young man or woman.
Yes, if I thought a nuclear weapon was going to go off in Los Angeles, I’d torture someone to get the information…because I’d be willing to die to protect my family. I DON’T WANT IT LEGALIZED. The act of legalizing such acts diminishes the value of the country I’d be trying to protect. If it must be done, let it be done by patriots willing to be prosecuted, or even killed, because in that fine old phrase, “The secretary has disavowed knowledge of their actions.”
War under the very “best” of conditions is hell. Here, in Munich, it becomes something even worse, a living hell. A walking death. The death not of the body, but of the soul.
I thought for sure, was absolutely certain that when South Africa fell, there would be blood in the streets, a slaughter of the guilty and the innocent in one ear-shattering scream of vengeance. Then a man named Nelson Mandela created the Truth and Reconciliation trials, where killers and torturers could confront their accusers. I never thought it could work. But although there is terrible crime, and high rape statistics, the wholesale bloodbath I expected never happened. A miracle, by my way of thinking. An exceptionally spiritual man thought “outside the box.”
Spielberg doesn’t say this would work in today’s terrorist world. He doesn’t say he has answers, any more than Spike Lee did in “Do the Right Thing.” Munich is a plea for wise men and women to rise, to cut the Gordian Knot of violence tying east and west, Christian and Muslim, Jew and Arab together so tightly that the knife cutting one throat cuts both. What more can an artist do? Munich is a brave, brave film. Not perfect, but to see this movie flow from the mind of the man who has created such a wide and varied palate of entertainments over the last thirty years makes me want to go out on a limb and say:
We have never had a director like Spielberg. No one has EVER used popular film-making to greater more successful, more intense an effect. No one has ever exceeded his range, his power, his social conscience. I would love to see a filmmaker from the Right explore the themes that touch his heart so well, and yet also make rousing “Jurassic Park”-style popcorn movies. Please. The dialogue MUST be conducted, from the Left and Right sides of the social brain across the Corpus Collosum of cinema, of literature, of the collective creative consciousness.
There are geniuses out there, waiting to rise. Somewhere in the world, there are young men, young women, who will see this film and others like it, and say “I have a solution no one has ever thought of.” And be willing to die to bring it into existence. That young man, that young woman will help to save this troubled world. God bless the artists who take such chances, of whatever country, politics, race, creed or religion they may be. I honestly believe they are our hope.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:32 AM
Wednesday, January 04, 2006
“Life is what happens while you’re making other plans”—John Lennon
Everything you can think of will and in an odd way SHOULD get in the way of your writing. In other words, if you are doing the work…REALLY doing the work, you are constantly digging into the least comfortable corners of your psyche, constantly struggling to understand yourself, your culture, your world. Constantly engaging with questions of the origins of violence, sexuality, love, hate, war, need, hope, and hopelessness. In other words, you are going deeper and deeper into the one human being you will ever have any hope of comprehending…yourself.
There is a thought exercise that goes something like this: take a beaker and fill it with rocks. Is it full? Yes? No? Take pebbles and pour them into the beaker so that they fill the gaps between the larger stones. NOW is it full? Yes? No? Take sand and pour it in so that it fills the gap between the pebbles. NOW is it full? Yes? No? Finally, take water and pour it in so that it fills the gap between the grains of sand. NOW is it full? You get the picture.
This exercise has been used as an illustration in physics classes, and in time-management courses (do the big things first!), but here, I want to apply it to something else. As I’ve said repeatedly, I’m in the run-up to finally finishing the most punishing project of my life, Great Sky Woman. The copyedited manuscript came back to me for a final two-week read over…you guessed it…during Christmas vacation. In fact, it was delivered to me in Atlanta, where I traveled with my family so that my wife could experience the birth of her niece. Along the way our jet-lagged two year old woke us up at ungodly hours. We never quite knew where we were going to sleep (just logistical stuff—no one’s fault.) Rooms were too cold, or too noisy. Vehicles that were supposed to be available became unavailable. Nerves were on edge. Maps were inaccurate, leading to long, stressful drives. Cassette players didn’t work, making drives even worse. By the time we got home we were flu-ish, and I was running out of time to work on my book (and I hadn’t been able to do much in Atlanta, because my research material was all at home in L.A.!) The baby, now adjusted for East Coast time, was waking up too early AGAIN, as he adjusts for West Coast time. Stress, stress, stress…
And yet…you know something? This is life. A beautiful child was born. Tananarive got to spend precious time with her sister at a critical moment. My son got to play with his cousin Jaxon, a wonderful little boy. We got to have Christmas with her family.
These things are far more important than a book. Any book. They are the essence of life itself. But the temptation is to think that they are “distractions” from the work. No. they are what life is about. What any book, any story worth a damn is about. Life. Our hopes and dreams, and how reality interacts with them.
How to do it? How to navigate these perilous channels? Lifewriting suggests that the answer is in us, and in the way we address our challenges daily. The creative flow, the magical moments when we are swallowed whole by the work we love, is still there, waiting for us to slow down, center, and find it…ESPECIALLY when we are stressed out. Slow the #@$$ down, people. Listen to your heartbeat. The rocks, the pebbles, the sand are the emotional reactions we have to the “distractions.” The water, which can ALWAYS fit between these “problems,” is the emotional juice of our lives, our ability to improvise, to reinterpret, to create in the midst of chaos. This is your challenge. How will you Flow through the madness?
In everything we write, aren’t we constantly addressing the question of how a character will respond to unexpected pressures? How in the world can we learn this without developing such skills ourselves? The “water” is the zen immersion in the moment. It is our genius, our capacity for full engagement. The voices in our heads are the rocks, the pebbles, the sand.
Be clear that you are the water. Regardless of the challenges or barriers, you must be committed to returning to the ocean of your soul, your creativity. Writing, as life itself, must be a constant search for what is real, and beautiful, and absolute, even in the storm of life itself.
When all is said and done, that is all that really matters, isn’t it?
Posted by Steven Barnes at 9:32 AM