“Teach Us to Car and not to care. Teach us to be still…”
“Rest and unrest derive from illusion; with enlightenment there is no liking and disliking…”
These two sounded so alike to me today that it was striking. I’ve had a paragraph of this verse to memorize, and found that my conscious mind just doesn’t seem to want to grasp it, as if there is no place to find purchase. Odd, and interesting.
There is so much waiting for things to happen connected with this profession, and it sometimes seems tat I am struggling to find meaningful ways to busy up my time whilst waiting for this or that deal to make progress. Sigh. Hollywood really is “hurry up and wait.”
And yet, while waiting, it is necessary to stay busy, to transfer enthusiasms to new arenas—so that, if nothing else, your nerves don’t eat you alive.
Today has been a day of intensities, travel, and waiting. I suppose that makes it, overall, a very fine day indeed…
Thursday, August 31, 2006
“Teach Us to Car and not to care. Teach us to be still…”
Posted by Steven Barnes at 5:47 PM
Here's a note from one of my students from last year's Maui Writer's retreat...
A Call For Fiction Submissions: Silent Voices: a creative mosaic of fiction (Annual Anthology)
Ex Machina Press is accepting submissions for the third volume of Silent Voices: a creative mosaic of fiction, an annual literary journal whose purpose is to publish short fiction of a variety of styles and genres. By taking stories of a diverse nature and placing them in a specific order, we produce a creative mosaic that tells a larger story. We collect different "voices" and present a unifying harmony in one book. This is what Silent Voices is all about.
For submission guidelines, check out our website at www.exmachinapress.com. Our submission period is from September 1-December 10, 2006. So, send in your best work as soon as possible. Any questions, contact me at Exmachinapab@aol.com
Thank you very much.
Peter A. Balaskas
Ex Machina Press, LLC
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:23 AM
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
The following was submitted by the wise and wonderful Suzanne, concerning my recent thoughts on Faith:
"Not being facetious here, Steve
but what exactly is Faith?
Being pretty much devoid of fear and anger
that leaves me with frustration
and I think I probably rate pretty low of the scale for that too
recently when my hand was in a cast and
to some degree in pain most of the time
I experienced frustration
so I did my usual telling myself
in time it would go away
and until then I could feel it
and then set it aside
so what exactly do you have Faith in?
other than that time passes and everything changes
which is a positive thought when things aren't going according to plan
I write about speakng to the universe
but whether I think the universe has an active Intelligence
that actually listens and does something about my problems
I suspect NOT
and believe me I am MOST andmost sincerey grateful
for my life and my health and the people I love
and my Mind and my Body
and my circumstances
but my gratitude isn't directed at any one/thing/mind
I also write about "my spinning Fateful sisters"
the notion of Fate personified
but whether or not there are three old dames who have spun me out
and who place the paths of delicious other humansnear mine
giving me the oppportunity to commubnicate and love
I just do not know
so how exactly does Faith operate
is it ony for getting through Bad times
when I reach the end of my own resources
I know enough to ask people who are likely to know
more about the particular problem than I do
and whomi ght have helpful suggestions
but so far I haven't had any expereinces
that render me incapable of somehow dealing
with my own hurts or obstacles or plight
(and in those times when I feel really REALLY bad
I know it won't last permanently
which is what gives me strength
to get through them)
I guess I don't understand how Faith
(in some Divine Caring Something)
would make me a better person
or a more capable one
of dealing with the hands I draw
I do my best not to cause harm
or waves of the negatively perturbacious type
I do what I can on an individual basis
to give of what I have
believing I am OBSERVED and will be judged
wouldn't make me behave any different than I do
that I can see
so I have real difficulty
comprehending how Faith
would make a difference in my life
I have to answer this in sections, sweetheart. Remember that my primary lenses for communicating what I experience are the Hero’s Journey, and the Chakras—this is both a strength and a limitation, but with that caveat, here we go…
The study of world myth suggests that faith is central to the movement from one level of life to another. The three primary manifestations of faith would be:
1) Faith in self.
2) Faith in our companions
3) Faith in a higher power.
In your examples, Suzanne, you clearly embrace the first two, and I feel (and have always felt) a spiritual sensuality in your words and actions that implies a powerful connection to Spirit.
“Faith” would mean evidence in things unseen. When one gets to the end of logic and experience, it is this quality that keeps us going. The trick is that the ego, which is quite limited, thinks it is the totality of us. Whenever we embrace a new path, or new relationship, or new challenge, if it will ACTUALLY change us and help us grow, we must empty ourselves out. Without coming to the end of our current conception of self, there is no impetus to change, and we all like to stay comfortable (in certain ways. Some people embrace extreme sports, for instance, but are quite nervous and conservative about their relationships or careers).
Ideally, I think we should have all three. There are simply times when we lose the ability to believe in ourselves. Friends and family can be invaluable in these times. But wow, what happens if you hit one of those emotional walls and you have no support system? At such a time, belief that there is a pattern to the universe and that you are a part of it, can keep you going until you break through the wall. This need not manifest as a belief in a particular God, although it often does.
Faith, then, is a belief that beyond the edge of what we can see and understand lies a pattern, or an intelligence, or a life force that embraces and protects us. A disproportunate number of the highest-performing, happiest, sanest and healthiest people I have known or studied around the world have such a belief. That doesn’t make it true—but it does imply that it is useful.
I suspect it is even more useful for African-Americans, and for a variety of reasons. While there was massive external stress placed upon that community, there was also poisonous programming that suggested that individual blacks were, frankly, garbage. And their communities could offer only limited assistance—they were not true cultures, but rather sub-cultures dependant upon the very people who had subjugated and degraded them.
A belief in some kind of all-powerful being who might bring justice, even in the next world, helped them remain sane in this one. That’s just the spiritual side. Religion, to me, is as much a social or political organ as a spiritual one. And Christianity provided “protective coloration” for blacks. Even a bigot had a harder time dehumanizing a Christian black than a Muslim or an Anamist. The connections between Christian whites and blacks in the south were critical in the Civil Rights movement. A white who believed in Christ, faced with a Christian black, was more likely to consider violent actions a risk to his immortal soul.
Faith/Religion in that light, then, was a critical factor. If blacks had not accepted Christianity…I’m not entirely sure we’d be free today.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 1:46 PM
Monday, August 28, 2006
Worldcon and other things
Attended Worldcon in Anaheim this last weekend, and it was actually kind of stressful. Every time a couple of years pass and I go to a major convention, it seems as if people I love and care about are just…falling apart. In wheelchairs and walkers. These are all people I tried to talk to years ago about smoking, exercising, and eating right. And they laughed me off. And now they’re dying. It hurts, and some times I think I don’t want to go back to that world…but that would be a bit cowardly. I really love the SF field for all its dysfunctional elements. I was pretty damned dysfunctional myself, in some critical ways, when I came in. And if I’ve healed, they are partially to credit for that…
A couple of times I’ve talked about “The Piering Principle” which is, basically, that if you want to maximize your chances for success in life, you need to do two things:
1) Have well defined, WRITTEN goals, and plans for their accomplishment and
2) The ability to take action, despite the voices in your head.
Let’s get that just a little more precise: well defined goals in all three arenas of life would give clarity on principle #1, and understanding the nature of the voices in your head is vital.
Let’s call them “The Radio Voice.” This voice has certain characteristics:
1) It keeps on playing of its own accord.
2) It is so close to you that you don’t know it exists. It is so mauch a part of you that you do not even recognize it as being separate from you.
3) You listen to its advice which is often false.
4) You believe the radio is actually you when it is just a radio.
There are many, many reasons to meditate, but one of the very best is to find the difference between “you” and the “voice.” When you do that, you will come closer to your original, basic, powerful self…
Yesterday Tananarive, Nicki and I went to a Christening party for a lovely, talented black actress. For the sake of her privacy, I won’t mention any names. What I wanted to say is that a couple of things occurred to me as I watched and talked and interacted with her guests, who were mostly black actors, lawyers, doctors.
1) They were smart. I mean, REALLY smart. College educations as the bottom line. Most impressed me as having the kind of intellectual focus you would find in college professors of the highest water. Interesting…and not what I’ve experienced in Hollywood as a whole.
2) They were all connected in a web of spirituality. Now, the group was selected, of course—they had all been invited by the actress, so they reflect her. But it was fascinating how many times a deep sense of gratitude for life, and love, and health was expressed. A sense of the divine, a love of Christ, or a commitment to other spiritual paths, such as Zen.
And reflecting on this, it hit me how often I have seen this among highly functioning black folks—actually a more impressive level of intelligence and spirituality than among whites of similar success levels. Note that I’m not suggesting that blacks are more intelligent and spiritual, just that at a given level of success, I see more of it. My suspicion? Whites at the same level are even MORE successful. Call it the “Black Tax.”
But let’s get away from race, because the core lesson is applicable to anyone. Among these very successful people, intellectual clarity and acuity is absolutely critical. The ability to synthesize data into new pathways, and to think flexibly—these people are walking pathways trod by few before them.
And as for Faith? You need a place to put your fear and frustration, your anger. And this is separate from the lessons of LifeWriting, which state clearly that the way through the Dark Night is Faith. Without that, when things get bad you are thrown on your individual resources, which are often insufficient.
There is also the issue of spirituality reaching across racial and cultural boundaries. When you meet another person who is genuinely committed to such a path, you have found someone sho you can speak to as a brother or sister, less limited by the differences in genetic or cultural origin.
There is a lesson here, about the value of clear, careful thinking, gratitude, spirituality, a loving and gracious nature…I saw so much of that, plus humor and vast energy.
It was a great day, and just what I needed after WorldCon.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 1:20 PM
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:03 AM
Friday, August 25, 2006
It is absolutely impossible to discuss the film Idlewild without bringing social context into it, so I will break this review into two parts. The first deals with what I thought of this film by Outkast’s Andre Benjamen and Antwan Patton. Then I have to examine the environment in which it was made, released, and the critical reaction to it in the frame of reference we’ve been developing on this blog.
Idlewild is two stories of two men, friends since childhood, and the destinies that intertwine at a speakeasy tavern called “Church.” Percival (Andre “3000” Benjamen) is an undertaker by day, and a piano playing composer by night. Rooster (Antwan “Big Boi” Patton) is a womanizing family man and manager of Church who also performs brilliantly onstage. Their stories touch but never exactly dovetail, and in my mind do exactly what films are supposed to do: take you someplace you’ve never been, show you things you’ve never seen. Is it perfect? No. But it is exciting and at times filled with genius-level energy. The music is often great (especially the closing number) the romance is ravishing, and the action sizzles.
I’m giving it a B+.
Stop reading now if you don’t want to hear what I really, really think.
I warned you. I think it will bomb, and will be delighted to be wrong. Idlewild sat on the shelf at Universal for two years, because they didn’t know what to do with it. Why…?
Well, if you’ve been reading this blog, you know where I’m going. The problem with Idlewild is that the entire cast is black. That means that the romance—and sexuality—is center stage. Wow. I can hardly believe that this got made. And when I read the reviews (which are all divided right down the middle—hate it or love it) they bear what are, to me, tell-tale signs of that dreaded 10% disconnect we’ve talked about: the inability for people (especially males) of one group to fully identify with members of a visually identifiable “Other.” Most specifically, and not to beat around the bush, in this instance that means that white males aren’t going to grove to watching black males have sex. Period. And because it is absolutely forbidden for people to admit to their own innate racism (which, I maintain, all human beings have to some extent) it pops them out of the reality of the film, and they look at the pieces rather than the whole.
Note—you can criticize any film, any book. The success—or audience appreciation of a book or movie isn’t like hitting a home run. It is more accurately compared to “how loudly does the crowd roar when the ball is hit?” There is virtually no objective standard here. It’s all in our heads.
So look for the following cop-outs from reviewers, your neighbors, or…even yourself.
1) “there was no magnetism between the lovers.” Pure subjectivity. In other words, you didn’t buy into the illusion.
2) “The sex scenes were gratuitous.” In other words, they didn’t turn you on.
3) “The fantasy sequences were bizarre.” There were talking flasks, musical notes that come to life, full-on musical numbers, singing clocks. Either you buy into the internal world of a character in a fantasy, or you don’t. If you don’t buy into Gene Kelly’s love-struck actor, his “Singing in the Rain” seems insane. Let alone dancing with Jerry Mouse.
4) “The plot was incoherent” What? I followed it just fine. Somebody was having attention lapses. I wonder what might have happened onscreen that turned them off and made their minds wander?
5) Too many clichés. Interesting. And there are some truths to this. But consider: “Brokeback Mountain” was one galloping cliché from beginning to end with the exception of the fact that we had NEVER seen this before—between men. Idlewild is a miracle—I can’t believe this got made. I really can’t. I can’t remember the last time there was a cinematic world populated by black people who had lives and hopes and dreams and loves and pains and triumphs like this. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s almost unique.
6) “Two fragmented.” Oh—as compared to, say, “Moulin Rouge”? Oh, but there’s a big difference. In Moulin Rouge, people were looking forward to the young lovers finding each other, kissing, making love. Yum. I have watched white males in dozens of film audiences flinch away from the screen when a black man gets a love scene. No lie.
I could go on and on. And maybe it will make money. And maybe it won’t and doesn’t deserve to—it’s actually a bad film, and I can’t see that truth. Fair enough. But if you see it, and dislike it, I challenge you to ask yourself a couple of questions:
1) When was the last time you saw a love scene in a movie and enjoyed it?
2)when was the last time you saw a black man in a movie in a love scene, and enjoyed it?
1) When was the last time you even HEARD of a movie where a black man had a love scene, that was a critical and financial success?
If I’m right, and there are some very basic, very powerful perceptual organs in the brain that “flinch” when you see the Other, and flinch HARD when you see the “other” engaging in reproductive behavior, then remember that we have laid down a layer of socialization over that that says “Racism is bad” so often, and so loudly, that we can’t even admit to ourselves that we have a problem. That we will dislike what we are seeing, and search desperately (and unconsciously) for a reason to justify it. And there is always a reason to dislike ANYTHING.
So if you don’t like “Idlewild,” and it’s been years since you’ve seen a movie in which a black man had sex, and enjoyed it, you might just wonder if the problem isn’t on the screen. The problem might be in the mirror.
I loved Idlewild. I can’t imagine the creative and business hurdles it had to overcome to be made. The frustrations as white executives at Universal hmmed and hawed and tried to justify their discomfort and dismay. I think that if this same film, modified culturally, had been made by white artists of similar stature, and contained images as culturally unique as what we find here, the filmmakers would be called geniuses.
If a movie plays in the forest, and there is no one to see it, did it make a sound?
Posted by Steven Barnes at 1:58 PM
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
The Tenth Commandment of Writing
Thou shalt write a million words.
Starting today, count out the next million words of your writing. And you lose the right to even CONSIDER quitting until you have done it. Everyone, (it is said) has a million words of crap in them that they have to write out before they get to the core. The trouble is that people quit far too soon. They don’t get the career success, or the critical acknowledgement, or whatever, after their first or second book…and they quit. They aren’t “talented” enough, or the market is “closed” to them because of their age, race, subject matter, whatever.
NO! NO! NO! Lifewriting does not believe in talent. We believe in hard work and honesty, over time. Lifewriting understands that there are life situations, political points of view and subject matters that diminish your statistical chances of “making it”…but statistics have very little to do with what an individual can achieve, if that individual is willing to go the extra mile.
One million words is a thousand words a day for three years. Or five hundred words a day for six years. In other words, it will take you as long to become a professional-level writer as it would to become a doctor or lawyer. And why shouldn’t it? What in the world were you thinking, if you assumed that you could just walk in and be cheered for your innate genius?
I can think of few concepts that have contributed to failure more than that of “innate genius.” You know what? Every single time I’ve gotten close to one of these supposedly “gifted” men and women, all I’ve ever seen is a lifetime of grueling hard work and focus. It has led me to the conclusion that if there is a core “gift” it is the “gift” of being able to focus for long periods of time, with no apparent reward.
This is why your writing must come from your heart—each day’s work must be its own reward, or the little nasty voices in your head will stop you.
This applies to far more than writing, of course. “Walk the thousand mile road” Musashi said to the aspiring swordsman. Strengthening your body is a daily war with our animal urges to be lazy and eat everything in sight. Relationships with our spouses, children, and friends are built one day at a time. A meditation practise is built on endless days of sitting silently, while our minds chatter that there are better things to do…until one day they quiet, and release the power of our true nature.
One million words. If you commit to this, and also to finding ways to improve your work every day, every week. Learning new things about the business of writing as well as the art. Learning more about how to research, focus, drive, polish…
Learn more about how to tell the truth about your own existence—every failure, every embarrassment, every scar, as well as your triumphs and acclaim. To take humble responsibility for all of it, with the perspective that says we are all just human beings, doing the best we can…neither egotistical about our victories nor self-denigrating in our losses…
That is the Lifewriter’s Thousand Mile Road. One million words. Anyone willing to postpone satisfaction that long will simply outlast those who crave immediate success. Long after the flakes and A ”geniuses” have grown bitter and taken their toys home, you will be standing tall, with a body of work to make you proud. And if at every step you have written to the best of your ability, you have done all it is humanly possible to do.
And you, my friend, will be a writer.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:00 AM
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Boxing fans, remember the “Rumble in the Jungle”? Mohammed Ali was fighting George Foreman. Foreman was the biggest, strongest, most powerful heavyweight anyone had ever seen. Bombed Joe Frazier out pretty frighteningly fast. People thought Ali might die. Ali beat him, because he perceived that Foreman, given a clear target, would throw bombs all night long, unable to believe that he couldn’t kill anything he could hit.
Ali’s own trainers were afraid, because this brilliant boxer devised a strategy IN THE RING, UNDER FIRE, that no one had ever used before. He understood the physics of the ropes (that would be a practical, not necessarily intellectual understanding) and knew that if he leaned back against them as Foreman pounded, his body would be able to dissipate much of the shock into the ropes, rather than the shock merely traveling through his body, damaging internal organs (although he was peeing blood the next day!)
Foreman, unable to adjust his style, kept pounding until he was nearly exhausted, and Ali knocked him out.
There is something called “The Law of Requisite Variety” that suggests that within any system, the most flexible part will control the system. In other words, the part that can adapt.
An operative definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again, and expect different results.
In life, this might be termed “keep trying something different until you get the result you want.”
Think about what what a guerilla army can do to a traditional army. A traditional army is designed to destroy or occupy the infrastructure of a geopolitical entity. This works grat when fighting another traditional army. But against an enemy that can fade away into the hills or the civilian population, the actions of a traditional army actually recruit more enemies, while exhausting its resources and will.
Think about a writing career. When you first start writing, you might want to create a specific type of work. The chances are that that particular genre or sub-genre was a means, not an end. The end was self-expression and financial gain. If you aren’t careful, very careful to understand what you were actually trying to achieve, you’ll beat your head against a wall until you are bloody, rather than trying novels…and short work…and fantasy…and military fiction…and screenplays…and whatever else you can do, until you get the result you want.
In a family, if you aren’t flexible, your kids will beat the hell out of you, because THEY are infinitely flexible. Try to remain stolid, and they will simply find your “edges” and “cracks” and work around you. They are like water flowing to the sea. Oppose them without a backup plan, and you are beaten before you start. In intimate relationships, this is just as important. Remember that your GOAL is a harmonious, happy, productive, passionate relationship—not simply winning some particular argument or “getting your way” at some particular time.
In the world of exercise, this is vital. Jack La Lanne says that you have to change your workout routine every month. Your body simply gets used to ANYTHING you throw at it, and the results will start to diminish. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have consistency: I love Bikram yoga, and it is exactly the same routine every time. However, I can vastly vary its effect on my body by
1) concentrating on different visualizations.
2) Concentrating on different body parts.
3) Pre-exhausting or pre-stretching different muscle groups before I go to class, etc.
In other words, it can LOOK the same from the outside, but be different. Beware of anyone who suggests there is only one way to do something, and that anyone who suggests another way is a fool or a knave (lots of that going on politically in America right now.) they are merely revealing their own inflexibility. Don’t blame them—feel sorry for them. Fear tends to “flatten out” behaviors, forces people to see the world in black-and-white, and to be hierarchical as hell. This is a very human response, and people fall into it in business, love, and health.
Commit to flexibility. By the way—in Yoga they suggest that a flexible spine leads to flexible attitudes. I’m not sure, but I HAVE noticed that a large percentage of the most psychologically or politically inflexible people I’ve known have bad backs. Go figure.
And by the way...how's your back?
Posted by Steven Barnes at 9:46 AM
Monday, August 21, 2006
Thou shalt rewrite.
In fact, it is often said that books and screenplays are not written—they are re-written. Finished products often look little like that first draft. Those first drafts are re-written after editors and friends add input, or even after fans and audiences have a look at the initial product. Is this corrupt? I think not. Stage plays have been re-written for centuries after initial testing. In all probability, Shakespeare did it, and if it was good enough for the Bard, what’s your excuse?
Most specifically, the process can look like this:
1) Plan and research your story.
2) Write the first draft in a white-heat, not even stopping for spellchecking (of course, the longer the project, the less practical this may be.)
3) Put the draft aside for at least a week, to diminish ego-involvement and increase dispassionate perspective.
4) Re-read, making corrections. As you read, seek to discover the theme. In other words, you don’t write the first draft with the theme in mind, you let your subconscious weave this material together.
5) As you re-write, examine every scene to insure that each action, every line of dialogue furthers your theme, or specifically counters it. This converts the subtext of your work into a conversation, an argument concerning the meaning of life, or human interaction.
6) Examine every character. Now that you know how the story ends, you should have a much better idea of the nature and personalities of your characters. You can and must strengthen every line of dialogue, every action, every emotion—all in the service of strengthening the end of the story.
Remember: the meaning of your story is to be found in the last scene or scenes. Everything that we do must be in the service of our process, and our intent.
Stories are not written. They are re-written. Never forget it.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 12:21 PM
Saturday, August 19, 2006
Getting ready for the first two-day Path seminars, I want to use the blog as an opportunity to empty out everything we’re trying to do. First the goal: to implement my life dream, self-directed human evolution. The method: By integrating body, mind, and emotion into a single spiritual path. That’s the end result. How the heck do we get there?
Scott and I are going to be creating a blueprint to transform the work shop into a workbook/DVD/CD plan. I figure maybe a three-phase plan:
Phase 1: Healthy Career, Healthy relationships, Healthy body. Most people frankly don’t have any idea at all how to even begin having all three. We’ll use some basic tools from both our work: Lifewriting (the integration of the Hero’s Journey and the Chakras applied to daily life), “Mind Reading” (looking at the results of our, and others’ daily actions and beliefs and perceptual filters in the three major arenas), the “Flow State Performance Spiral” (Coach Sonnon’s breakthrough insight into the relationship between consciousness, somatic stress, and performance”, “Flowfit” (Scott’s brilliant intro to high-level integrated physical fitness. Your Grandmother could do the basic level. You couldn’t do the highest level on the best day of your life—it is, in other words, a train that starts slowly and goes all the way to world-class performance).
Phase 2: Acquiring advanced tools from multiple disciplines and integrating them into your life in a smooth and elegant fashion. Developing exquisite environmental feedback.
Phase 3: Integrating the tools, goals and processes in all three arenas into a seemless spiritual path in alignment with YOUR personal values and beliefs. It is at this point that the student MUST leave the nest and find the individual path. Hopefully, they’ll report back on what has been discovered.
At any rate, Jeeze, there is a lot of stuff I have to think through, because the heart of what I’m talking about can’t really be contained in words—but we can point a “finger to the moon” as it were.
Here’s the first of hundreds of principles that have to be integrated in the workshop—and frankly, more deeply into my own life:
YOUR WORD IS WHAT COUNTS.
Can you or can’t you trust yourself to do what you say you’re going to do? Why or why not? When and when not? With whom and with whom not? Man, oh, man, if you could just trust yourself in this one area, you could accomplish almost anything you wanted. “First Came the Word” as the Bible says. A man or woman who says what they mean and means what they say is absolutely golden. They are trustworthy, and honest, and reliable. Any employer wants such a person. They make damned near perfect friends. They will exercise, maintain dietary patterns, write their daily minimum, study appropriately, save money, make sales calls, whatever…JUST BECAUSE THEY SAID THEY WOULD.
Wow. That single thing, the ability to say you will do something and KNOW that you will keep your word to yourself, and to others, is an incredible key to success. It is one of the most important things to teach our children, and we so often forget to give it proper place in our own adult lives.
Start today. Make a promise about your own behavior: to meditate daily for a month. To call a different business contact daily for a month. To listen more than you speak for a month. To walk two miles every day for a month. And then DO IT, no matter how hard it gets. It isn’t about the activity—it is about being able to trust yourself. Without that, you have nothing at all.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 12:19 PM
For quite some time I've spoken of Tim Piering, and the martial arts class I atend on Friday mornings at 6am. Tim has finally put up a web site. I strongly suggest you look at the work and thought of this phenomenal man. He is sharing a forty-year wealth of martial knowledge absolutely free, from the sheer love of it. I feel honored to have earned my way into the company of these warriors. Tim's emphasis is on the development of certain specific mental states applicable not only to combat, but to peak performance in any arena whatsover, most specifically the "automatic computer" state of "Mushin." He is one of the best, strongest, and wisest men it has been my joy to know during this incarnation, and I share this with you all as one of the treasures of my life.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:32 AM
Friday, August 18, 2006
Let's just say that if you have any interest in seeing a movie called "Snakes on a Plane" starring Samuel L. Jackson, this is the movie you're interested in seeing. It leaves no cliche unturned--but does turn several of them on their collective heads. It is funny, sexy, scary, and ultimately the very definition of mindless summer fun. Wow. Again, if this sounds like your kind of movie, it probably is. If not, stay far away. But for me? And especially the cheesy horror movie-loving part of me? A "B+"
(I would have given it an "A", but even the B-movie film geek in my soul was bugged by the fact that only white guys got to make out. If black guys hadn't at least gotten to flirt, I would have given it a "B-")
Posted by Steven Barnes at 5:00 PM
Thursday, August 17, 2006
Here's the link to yesterday's interview, which was a ton of fun. Thanks to you guys who chimed in!
You know, I've wondered for years why lesbianism is more accepted than male homosexuality--either in society as a whole, or in the cinematic images of "Girls making out. Well, I've recently come across some excellent, serious research about this, relating to primate research on conflict resolution. Research into bonobos (often considered extremely similar to humans in many behavioral characteristics) reveals that in this Matriarchal primate society, sex is used instead of violence for much resolution of differences. More specifically, at meal time, males get erections, and females will present themselves sexually to both males and females. This gets more pertinent when you grasp that, as in most human societies, males are more likely to remain in the groups in which they are born, while females transfer from one group to another. This is analogous to a woman leaving her city to marry her husband in another town. Anthropologically, this is explained by the fact that the males need to thoroughly understand the unique characteristics of their hunting territory. If they transfer to another area, they must learn the new territory from scratch.
Now, this is where it gets interesting. Males, raised within an heirarchical structure from childhood, struggle for position from childhood--and by the time they are adolescents or mature males, they are "ranked" and more or less stay in that rank for the rest of their lives, moving up slowly as the elders age. A male who transfers to a new group must fight for position, and among older males, the fights are more damaging than fights among children. So transferring to new groups isn't as common--and as guys know, forming new friendships gets very difficult as you get older.
Females, then, who transfer to new groups, need a strategy to allow them to transfer with minimal stress. The answer among bonobos is an overall strategy of "deliciousness"--presenting themselves sexually, grooming, flirting with both males and females. They are not only no threat, they are delectable and pleasurable. Males, then, butt heads for power, females damn near compete for "who is the softest and most yielding."
Transferring these behaviors to the human world, it becomes pretty obvious why women can hug, kiss, hold hands, or even sleep together with less stigma than males. And males, bless us, love watching it. Kinda interesting....
On another sexual matter, an arrest has been made on the Jon Benet Ramsey case, thank goodness. Apparently a pederastic grade school teacher. That sort of lets the Ramsey's off the hook. Except...that I will never forget those highly sexualized photos of that little girl. Parents who sexualize pre-teen girls in beauty pageants really, really worry me. I wonder if that little girl would be alive now, enjoying High School and boy friends and all the wonder of life, if only her parents hadn't tried to rush her into adulthood. I don't know. But I know I would never, ever have done that with my daughter.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 9:35 AM
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Lady In The Water (2006)
I hesitated to see M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, largely because I’d heard so many terrible things about this tale of a milquetoast apartment manager (the wonderful Paul Giamatti) who discovers a “narf” (a sort of water nymph) living in the bottom of the swimming pool. M. Night’s blowup at Disney, the book written about the whole thing, his selection of a movie critic as the film’s know-nothing idiot…there’ve been millions of words printed about all of this, and I didn’t want that to taint the experience.
So I went yesterday, and this is what I think: I think that this is Night’s most intimate film. It is a movie that really shouldn’t have been released as a major tent-pole, which is what every studio wants. This is not a movie about characters, or even events. It is a story about story itself, about the storytelling process, about what story means to people on the deepest and most personal levels.
He was putting his heart out there, using symbols that emerge not from the filmmaker’s lexicon but from the realm of dream itself. It barely seemed an American film at all, and hardly mainstream. I had to watch it out of the corner of my eye, to listen to it with my heart instead of my ears. Wow, I have no doubt that Disney didn’t know what to do with it, and wanted major changes made. Those folks are beholden to their stockholders. After all—Night wasn’t making it with his own money, was he? If he had, he could have made anything that he wanted.
No, he went to businessmen, and then complained when they behaved as such. Which is a common thing for creative people to do—in the sense that creativity comes from that child-like place within us that wants to dance in the living room and have our parents and siblings applaud.
This is the work of a genius, even if it is not, itself, a work of genius. And I’m not trying to confuse you, but I not saying it ISN’T. I’m saying that it is a shared dream of understanding, compassion, courage. There is hardly a single human action in the movie that makes “sense” in any logical context. The “fairy tale” that guides their actions and understandings feels as if it is being made up as Night goes along.
And somehow, that is just fine. Approached on its own level, “Lady In the Water” is simply an extraordinary film, a haunting film. I think Night is working at a level where he could crank out half-billion dollar blockbusters in his sleep. I think that this time he tried something else, and it is up to the individual viewer to decide if it is to their taste. I felt the magic. You may not. With that caveat, I give it an “A.”
Posted by Steven Barnes at 11:46 AM
On AOL today was a story about Sgt. Jason Thomas, the mystery Marine who donned his uniform on 9/11 and went to the world trade center to help people. A simple, inspiring story: he simply responded to his training and felt “My city is in danger” and went to help. Period. Wonderful.
And my stomach went cold, because he is black. “I wonder,” I thought, if I went into the “post comments” section, how much racist ranting I will see.
It was horrific, even worse than I expected. I won't repeat what I saw--go to AOL.com and look for yourself.
Now, the standard wisdom is that this is some tiny, tiny percentage of people who have no where else to vent. Possibly. Actually, probably. My thought is that there is about a 10% disconnect, and that that same percentage can probably be considered racist. But active, venomous bigots? I think you’d have to multiply that number by the percentage of the population who are real assholes. What is that? 5%? So…one half of one percent of the population are active, venomous bigoted assholes? Maybe. I don’t know how to measure it.
But…it does make great sense of world history (not just American history) to assume that some irreducible percentage of humanity sees the world through the “us-them” lens, and that skin color is the easiest, fastest differentiation.
For most of us, we pick up bigotry from our parents or environment, and as time goes on, we make shifts. I had some negative feelings about gays until I actually made a gay friend in High School. I probably have some retro views about gender, but most of my friends and editors have been women, and I wouldn’t hesitate to vote a woman as President.
But race? I probably have a touch of REVERSE racism toward white people, something most black Americans struggle with. The famous Thurgood Marshall experiment where little black girls preferred white dolls has been replicated, and the preference for white skin and straight hair continues. Note that there are virtually NO black actresses or models without straightened hair or weaves.
This is typical behavior for a dominated group. Note that after WW2, Japanese girls began dyeing their hair blonde and having plastic surgery to round their eyes. The conquered attempt to adapt protective coloration to resemble the conquered.
How could I not have perceptual confusion on this issue, when I was raised Episcopalian, and was shown countless millions of images of the most evolved, holy creature who had ever walked the Earth—a white man? When the very structure of the language we speak is tilted toward “white” as good and “black” as bad and evil (truth be told, this isn’t, in my perspective, something specific to this culture. A huge number of cultures around the world have similar patterns, and it relates to the fact that our senses are day-adapted. The night, or “darkness,” literally was a time of danger, and therefore, evil.)
So blacks often have a strange love-hate relationship in their attitudes toward whites, and absorb white attitudes toward them like butter picks up smells in a refrigerator. It is incredibly painful and damages self-identity like nobody’s business. I remember some psychologists who tested inner-city boys, and concluded that they had HEALTHIER egos on the average than their white counterparts.
This, to me, is complete crap. These same inner-city kids are, too damned often, incapable of believing they can rise from poverty through direct and sustained effort. Who believe they have to fight—or kill-- if someone looks at them the wrong way. This is not health. It is raving fear of the nothingness within, fear that they ARE what the culture says they are.
What percentage of Americans hold the poisonous views of those who vomited up racism about Sgt. Thomas? I don’t know. I do know that if it is only 5%, if a chain of five people is required to approve your job or loan or housing or college application, you’ll run into one of those folks about 50% of the time.
And that’s enough to crush all but the hardiest spirits.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:56 AM
Monday, August 14, 2006
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Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:46 AM
“Thou shalt solicit intelligent readers for thy work.”
This is actually one of the major reasons that I recommend writing short fiction: it enables you to engage intelligent, professional editors in the process of evaluating your work. But there are other sources of such feedback: writer’s groups can be excellent, writing classes and workshops invaluable. If you can work your way into relationships with professional writers (offer them something of value in exchange for their time. Money is rarely sufficient, but specialized knowledge can be great wampum!) enlist them as well.
I remember hearing it said that once you have become a professional, your work should never drop below the professional level again, because you now know real, live, working writers who can help you brainstorm your ideas and check your manuscripts for flaws. Of course, you must be able to offer them similar value in return.
A writing partner can be useful, but in my opinion your best bet is someone who knows nothing about your project, can come to it with fresh, informed eyes.
If you can’t find another person to help, then try putting your work aside for a week or a month before you begin the re-write process—in essence, becoming a slightly new person yourself, able to read the work without the extreme emotional attachment and protectiveness that authors often have immediately after finishing a project.
But however you do it…GET FEEDBACK!
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:39 AM
IA few days ago I asked if anyone had seen “Step Up,” the new movie in the “Save the Last Dance” mold of combining dance and romance with a hip-hop flava. My theory was that “Step Up,” which had a white lead, would have more sex than “Dance.”
I was wrong. I will also say that I actually liked the movie more than I thought, and possibly more than I should. This tale of a white guy who hangs out exclusively with The Brothers is a rather obvious Tarzan riff (including a rather blatant Sacrificial Negro), but somehow they skated being offensive…probably because they added a “B” story dealing with a romance between two black students. I gritted my teeth at several scenes (notably, a scene in which the lead character Tyler Gage (a dynamic Channing Tatum), dreams of getting out of the ‘hood as he rides a bus. The camera shows us an expance of poor black people. Now, were he black, the issue would be one of class and economics. But because he is white—you gotta remember that in film, visual images trump all else. The unfortunate message is that he’s trying to get away from black people. Ugh.
But as they tell this tale of a loser who trashes the auditorium of a school for the arts, is caught, and ends up doing community service…and learns to exploit his actually quite fine dance moves, and to dream of making a better life…my heart opened.
As his delicate and tentative romance with a prospective dance partner Nora (Jenna Dewan) blossoms, I felt it. Let’s get this straight: the acting ain’t great. But the dance numbers, as in old MGM musicals, carry the emotional through-line, and I FELT IT. The director wisely cast performers who could actually dance, and filmed them so that you could really see what they were doing, thank God.
And there was one scene at a party when all the main characters get a chance to sing, or dance, or DJ, simultaneously, and the energy was wonderful. And another scene at the end where it all comes together, where I felt like I was watching the wonderful movie Fame all over again, and my eyes were getting moist.
Because I remember what it was like to want something so badly that I thought I’d die. When I was willing to do ANYTHING to have a career expressing myself, when my dreams first seemed within reach, when I first felt hope, an explosion of joy and possibility. And when I see a movie that depicts young people taking their first step along that road…it does me. It really does.
And the filmmakers managed to use clichés without making me hate them for it. The film is crude, derivative, and flirts with stereotypes…but I think it works. And I am willing to give it mad props for actually trying, actually caring. STEP UP is no classic, but it was a perfectly fine way to spend two hours on a Sunday afternoon with my daughter. I left the theater a happier person than I was when I entered. What more can I ask?
A solid “B” for those who love dance, or believe in dreams.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:27 AM
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Here's a possible way to phase out of Iraq with little risk. Note that I'm not saying it would work, only that it would allow us to test the water.
Rather than setting a deadline for withdrawal, set CONDITIONS for each stage of a withdrawal: if-then propositions. A possible sequence (and note that if ANY of these preconditions are not met, the entire thing is void. I am merely offering a possibility that would allow us to proceed in good faith IF we are dealt with in a similar way. None of these steps make us more vulnerable, or amount to "cutting and running" if our position is that violations of the agreement nullify the entire thing):
1) IF insurgents claim that they are acting against an occupying enemy, THEN it is reasonable that they would be willing to decrease aggressive activity if Americans pulled out.
2) IF representatives of the insurgents can be communicated with, THEN we could state our willingness to pull back X percentage of our troops so long as violence does not escalate beyond Y point.
3) IF that first stage is successful, THEN Iraqi troops would have an opportunity to solidify their positions, and more American troops could be withdrawn--ALL predicated on the violence not increasing.
4) Continue this cycle, American troops re-positioned for rapid deployment in case of increase of insurgent violence, until Iraq is stabilized under their own armed forces.
Note, please. This idea is designed as an experiment, giving those Iraqis who legitimately feel America is an occupying force (hell, I would, were I in their situation) a chance to get their country back. IF the insurgents are actually interested in pure chaos, then obviously such a plan would not work. But we would have demonstrated to the world our WILLINGNESS to leave, and the insurgents would have proven that they are NOT patriots, but rather are terrorists.
The only reason I can think of NOT to even consider such a plan is that there are vast interests who want their hands on Iraqi resources, and really, really don't want to leave.
It doesn't matter that you "think" such a plan might succeed or fail. What would matter is that it have a CHANCE to succeed or fail. Its failure or success would say quite a bit about the situation, without undue risk to our national interests or security. Again, when criticizing this idea (which I know you will) please concentrate on ways that it could go wrong--not whether you think it would succeed or not.
I personally believe that it would be possible to set up a series of pre-conditions for withdrawal which, if violated, would prove the contentions of the Right concerning what Iraq is and is not in the war on terror. But if it went well, it would prove the contentions of the Left that Iraq is NOT central, and that our efforts should be concentrated elsewhere.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 9:18 AM
Saturday, August 12, 2006
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Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:55 AM
Friday, August 11, 2006
1) My 2 1/2 year old son Jason has fallen in love with Brad Bird’s fantastic CGI adventure “The Incredibles,” so we’ve been watching it every day for the last week. Wow! What a fine, fine piece of work. I noticed some things recently that made me chuckle, however. Now, the following observation is NOT a criticism.
By my way of looking at things, “Incredibles”, the story of a family of superheroes, is, well, Incredibly “Right-wing.” That is, that one of (to me) the distinctions between the Right and the Left is that the Right tends to believe in the individual creating the environment, and the Left tends to believe in the environment creating the individual.
The entire subtext of “The Incredibles” deals with the tyranny of mediocrity, that the most talent among us are hobbled by the need not to intimidate or oppress the least talented. “Trickle-Down economics” for instance, is predicated on the idea that if you allow the top 5% more access to their profits, untrammeled by “excessive” taxes, they will create more, and everyone in the society benefits. I make no comment here about this particular theory, just that it is more often held by those to the Right.
Well, Mr. Incredible on several occasions specifically complains about his “Extraordinary” children (and indeed they are. Wow!) not being able to use their powers. In fact, the entire repression of the class of “supers” is placed on the backs of small, stupid, weak people—who outnumber the supers, even though they need the Supers to protect them. Note Mr. Incredible’s boss: a small, petty, cruel tyrant voiced by Wallace Shawn (the little guy who kept screaming “inconceivable!” in The Princess Bride.)
And Dash, Incredible’s son, is oppressed by a short, frantic, somewhat stupid teacher.
And the main villain is a short, obsessive, cruel man-boy. Hmmm.
But that’s not the main thing I noticed. Here it is: all of the heros are genetically superior, with natural gifts that place them above ordinary humanity. ALL of the villains (Syndrome, Bomb Voyage, The Underminer, and various thugs and thieves) are creatures not of genetic gift, but technology. Without that technology, they are nothing.
This attitude that power is bestowed by God and accompanied by equivalent virtue is fascinatingly WAY to the Right. Man, I bet Rush Limbaugh LOVED the Incredibles. On the other hand, so do I. Hmmm....
2) Meditating this morning, I found myself wondering about the impact of conscious breath control. Could it be that if we take a few minutes a day to consciously inhale and exhale, that we “free up” the eternally vigilant “breathing” portion of our subconscious mind, and that it is then available to do psychic house-cleaning? I wonder. I noticed that I had one heck of an internal log-jam (emotionally), but that every minute I consciously breathed, a few more logs disappeared. Hmmm
3) There’s a new movie called “Step Up,” a dance film written by the same people who created “Save the last Dance.” Now, “Save” was, to this date, the ONLY movie that has surprised me, and succeeded despite not just a black man being sexual, but an interracial relationship. Truth be told, the relationship was almost totally off-screen, but I was willing to cut it some slack. Exit polling revealed that about 85% of the audience was female, leading me to my first theory that the "black men having sex in movies" problem was primarily between the males of the different groups: that males don’t, on the average, enjoy watching males of opposing groups having sex.
(Well, what of porn films? I’ve been asked that many times, since interracial scenes in porn are quite popular. I don’t have an answer I’d really be prepared to defend, but I do have one uneasy observation. And that is that if we took the feminist premise that porn is about the degradation of women, the popularity of interracial sex would make sense. In other words, watching a woman have sex with a black man is just one step up from watching her have sex with a dog, or a horse. A disturbing thought, no?)
At any rate, “Step Up” is a version of “Save the Last Dance” with a white guy. Here’s my prediction: it will have more sex than “Dance” and those lovemaking scenes will be more romantic and fully visualized. Will any reader who has seen both films please write in and tell me if I’m correct?
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:46 AM
"Thou shalt create a daily ritual."
Human beings are creatures of habit, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. No, not at all. You don’t figure out a new way to tie your shoes every day, do you? No…that would be a waste of your time and energy.
You need every scrap, every bit, every jot and tiddle of your energy, creativity, and forward momentum to drive your career forward. Waste energy, and you will become creatively fatigued. And fatigue, as the man said, makes cowards of us all. Become a creative coward, and instead of digging deeper into your private reserve of hopes, dreams, and fears, you will simply try to do what the market demands…and end up “behind the curve” every time. No. The people who succeed are those who have learned to synche their private creative spark to the cultural zeitgeist. And this takes huge commitment to being YOU.
To do this, you must learn to be very very careful with yourself, to “sneak up” on your creativity. “Softly, softly, catchee monkey” as the saying goes.
One tremendous tool for this is the power of ritual. Every time you find something that works for you in terms of producing high-quality work, begin to incorporate it into a daily ritual. This could mean:
1) a particular type of music played while you work
2) A particular location in your house for work.
3) Specific time of day to work.
4) Specific length of work time.
5) Meditation or exercise before work.
6) Watch the news or read before work.
Etc., etc. My own morning ritual has been pretty consistent for the last few years:
1) wake up at about 6:45, and meditate.
2) Make a cup of tea.
3) As I drink it, check my blog and write my daily writing tip/blog entry
4) Take my morning “Golden Hour” of exercise and input. The input is generally one lesson from the Teaching Company (currently, I’m learning about the Vikings. Skol!)
5) Shower, and have a light breakfast, generally fruit and a protein drink.
6) Read one scene of Shakespeare aloud
7) Survey my day’s work, create 500-1000 words.
8) Break for lunch
9) Spend the rest of my work day re-writing or polishing previous work.
This is what works for me. You need to find what works for you, and once you do, stick with it, modifying only to amuse yourself, or increase efficiency.
Those of you with the LIFEWRITING YEAR LONG could listen to one of the eight Cds while you exercise, or take a page and do the exercises or apply the principles to your work, or a recently enjoyed book or movie. Perfect, and a way to effortlessly integrate the deep, layered principles into your subconscious.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:15 AM
Thursday, August 10, 2006
11) Steven King’s CELL (2006)
WARNING: SAMBO ALERT
My first book review here, and unfortunately I have to dive into a bit of racial commentary.
First, understand that King is one of my favorite popular authors. I’ve heard it said that you could learn everything you ever wanted to know about writing by reading the Bible, Shakespeare, and Steven King. Not a bad idea.
I’ve met him, and like him, and think he is the great storyteller of the 20th Century (note that I didn’t say “best writer” although I believe him to be exceptional). He is also very limited in his social perspective, racially. He has intimate knowledge of small-town New England society, and goes through that specific door into the universal. One unfortunate by-product of this is that he sees those of other races as being truly “Other” and can deal with them mostly as Magical Negroes ( I remember no Asian characters at all, in any of his work!)
He is a fine enough writer, seeing deeply enough into the human condition, that in a book like “The Green Mile” the metaphorical character of John Coffey, the doomed black man with a gift of healing, truly operated in a mythic sense, while remaining grounded in a very human dilemma. Filmed versions of his work miss his subtlety: I absolutely loath the filmed version of “Green Mile”, where the director had no conscious awareness of how it would feel to be black, and watch a film’s only black character demeaned and executed so that white characters could achieve enlightenment. And he lacked the unconscious artistry to raise the film above some kind of racial passion play suggesting that all the world exists so that whites might stand upon it and be closer to God. It is a loathsome document, viewed from that perspective.
Well, “Cell” has none of those ambitions. It is a simple tale of civilization falling apart after a mysterious cell phone signal drives tens of millions of people crazy. Lots of nice zombie action, and some genuine fear generated. A throwback to old-fashion King, and great fun.
But there was something that I had to ignore. King describes many, many characters as they flee from Boston. All are white. He goes out of his way at one point to SAY that everyone in the crowd of refugees is white.
And the one Black character in the entire book is the voice of insanity and evil. The voice of the destroying force.
King is arguably the most popular novelist in the world. His subconscious knows EXACTLY what it is doing. He knows that the images of a leering, deteriorating black man (wearing a “Harvard” T-shirt, by the way. I’m not sure I want to speculate on that) will tap into unconscious fear and loathing. Why? Because HE feels uncomfortable with the image, at a deep and presumably unconscious level. He is tapping into hundreds of years of guilt, pain and fear. Into a million years of Neuroanthropological fact: our senses do not function well in the night. Our distant ancestors feared the darkness. Africans are a living symbol of this ancient, very real fear. Darkness represents the unknown, the dangerous, the evil, the perverted and animalistic. Represents the end of civilization, life and hope.
These symbols lie deep, deep in the collective human consciousness, and predate “racism.” They are one of the support struts that have made racism so terribly difficult to root out. And King goes right for the throat.
The book is not offensive. It is, in fact, quite entertaining. But it is also worthy of a Sambo Alert. If you enjoy King’s early work—and I do—you’ll probably give “Cell” a strong “B.”
By the way:
"Miami Vice," predictably, is not doing well at the box office. Of course, this has nothing at all to do with Jamie Foxx's love scene. It never does.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:57 AM
The Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt read 10 X as much as you write.
The sixth law is a two-parter, and one that amateurs or published pros ignore at their peril.
Often it goes like this: a young writer reads everything she can get her hands on during her youth. She majors in literature in college. During that time, she is steeped in the very finest books, stories, and plays in the world, and surrounded by an enriched academic environment. Her writing flourishes.
After college, at some point, she breaks through into the ranks of the published. Life adjustments begin to take place as more of her career emphasis is dedicated to preparation of manuscripts and promotion of books.
Research, research, research. Rewrite, rewrite. And somewhere along the way, the simple pleasures of reading fall by the wayside. Now all reading is directed by the needs of a current project. Reading is now work, not fun. Time passes.
The writing begins to feel more onerous. The writer begins to struggle, and the content of the writing begins to repeat itself, the same themes, motifs, character relationships cycle over and over.
The writer is devouring herself. She stopped reading.
Often, young writers will express fear that if they read, they will unconsciously imitate other writers, and never develop their own “voice.” I’m here to tell you that the ONLY way to develop your own voice is to read voraciously. To flood your subconscious mind with all the raw material of the literary world, and allow what Steven King refers to as “the boys in the basement” to select from that breadth of material, making random connections between disparate styles and subjects and genres and forms. This is creativity. The most creative individuals in all fields are inexhaustible scholars of their discipline.
Not only should you not fear imitating others, you need to grasp that imitation is the natural way we learn anything at all. So rather than fear it, embrace it, trusting that if you read enough, you will see and feel your way through the individual styles to your own mode of expression.
And here is a corollary: “Thou shalt steal from the best.” Whatever you want to write, make a commitment to reading material that is even better. In other words, if you want to write bestsellers, read classics. If you want to write classics, on the other hand…well, that is a level of magic I can’t help you with. The answer to that one lies in some arcane mingling of luck, education, passion, genetics, and the cultural zeitgeist. Good luck!
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:33 AM
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
Thou shalt kill thy children.
You will create scenes, characters, story arcs, chapters &sometimes whole stories that simply don t work, don t advance the tale or deepen the thematic structure.
And regardless of how much they sparkle and prance, even if they contain some of your very best one-liners or snatches of observation, you have to cut them out.
(Remember the sculptor s secret? Chip away everything that doesn t look like an elephant. This must be your credo as well. And you must be absolutely ruthless. In the writing of my latest novel GREAT SKY WOMAN (available at Amazon.com), I experimented with tenses, with book-ending an ancient story with modern scenes, with point of view, and other things. All of this was to attempt to properly show a shift in mental capacity between ancient and modern humanity. None of the approaches worked, and I had the frustration and agony of stripping all of this material out, re-writing it, or relocating some of it to other projects.
It was grueling, and set my book back at least eight months. But lord, if I hadn t done it, WOMAN would have been a disaster, rather than my proudest work.
Don t be afraid to throw away ideas: you have an unlimited supply of them, if you only learn to listen. Don t be afraid to cut out characters if they don t work: you can always use them elsewhere.
Perhaps the most important philosophy I can offer in this regard is that NO story, screenplay, or novel is important in an of itself. They represents steps along a lifetime path. Obsessing about words on paper is a denial of your creative source. TRUST YOURSELF. Cut away everything that doesn t work to the greater good: the creation of a sustainable and emotionally rewarding career.
Unleash the elephant within.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:13 AM
Monday, August 07, 2006
#4: Thou shalt write thy first drafts in a passionate fever, then re-write at leisure.
It is not a mortal sin to violate this particular commandment, but you’ll miss a lot of fun…and quite possibly miss access to some of your deepest and richest veins of creativity.
There are two different parts of your head that fight over your writing. The “flow” mode where you create new text, and your “editing” mode where you evaluate what you have written. And unless you are an advanced writer, these two aspects should never be combined.
In allowing yourself to write from the core of your being, pure emotion, you find yourself in a bit of literary free-fall, without a conscious, intellectual safety net to catch you. The experience is both exhilarating and frightening. But guess what..?
Well, I can probably best illustrate my point with a story. Back when I was working on “The Legacy of Heorot” with Niven and Pournelle, I hit a bit of a…let’s call it a financial bind. I needed to turn in a bit chunk of that book early, and plead with my editor to cut loose with some of the advance money. So for three days I did nothing but type. Now, I’d plotted out the text first. Knew where I was going, what was going to happen, who it was going to happen to.
When I sat down to write, I pretty much threw myself into pure visual mode, and just machine-gunned on the computer, simply describing the pictures I saw in my head.
Then after three days, I went back in, jaw grimly set, and began to edit. To my delighted surprise, I found that after a day of editing, that three days of work, totally about 20,000 words…actually looked pretty good.
In fact, it looked almost exactly the same as if I’d hunted and pecked and agonized over every word. Why? Because the part of us that creates is not the conscious, intellectual part, even though that conscious part does all in its power to convince us it is the biggest, smartest aspect of our psyche.
When we write at mach speed, you bypass this hunt-and-pecker, and begin to free up the nutty, impossibly talented creative core of our being.
Now, this technique works with any length work I’ve tried, but it’s terrifying to write an entire novel this way—I don’t recommend that. But you CAN write chapters and book chunks this way, polish, and then continue onward. That works just fine.
The best way to learn this, though, is by working on short stories…oops! Are we back to short stories again? Heh heh.
They are, quite simply, the fastest way to learn your craft, and commandment #4 is just one reason. More tomorrow…
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:35 AM