Writing Empire

The Daily Beast recently wrote an article about Empire, with a heavy emphasis on Empire’s co-creator, Danny Strong.  In the interview, he said something really smart about writing:

“Maybe people are surprised,” he concedes, adding that he’s routinely asked how he’s able to write so believably about the world of hip-hop and black culture. “The real question is how can I write in any world?” he says. “Everything I write has nothing to do with me.”

Of course I think it is smart, because I agree completely.  Danny Strong, white guy, writes a convincing girl (he was the screenwriter for the last in the Hunger Games films), and apparently writes relate-able, compelling characters that happen to come from a different racial composition.  (One could also assume he’s not a criminal either.)

I might hurt some feelings here, but I think this is a big discriminator between the pros and those who are writing their way up to pro…  The ability to write a character that isn’t a thinly-disguised version of you going through something that is more-or-less autobiographical with some of the details changed to make you your main character look good.  Hell, even the desire to move beyond the stricture “write what you know” is a great starting point.  Don’t go crazy with it and try to describe the desk job of a nuclear physicist unless you’re willing to do the research to get the details right and can gut-check it with someone who knows better, but beyond that…

No, your writing doesn’t have to be bound by the color of your hair or the limits of your experience.  Here’s another truth that is going to be unpopular: unless you’re a serious exception (and if you were a serious exception, you wouldn’t need me to tell you this) your life isn’t that interesting.  Most tragedies that feel momentous to the person experiencing the tragedy are, in reality, a dime a dozen.  I’m not saying this from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know: you should have talked to me when I was going through my divorce.  It was like someone had ripped both arms out, and I was sure that I was the only person in the whole world who hurt quite as much as I was hurting at that point in time.  Grief makes us myopic and self-absorbed.  I’m as guilty of it as anyone.  How could I claim otherwise?  The evidence is all here in this blog.

That being said, I know that my divorce, fictionalized or in a straightforward re-telling doesn’t make for a good novel.  It was just two people doing the best they could and coming to terms with the fact that the best they could do wasn’t good enough.  Sad, for sure, but no different than any other divorce.  People live that shit, they don’t need to do it again in their recreational reading.

So here’s my advice to writers and aspiring writers: Take Mr. Strong’s lead.  Write what you don’t know.  Ground it in what you feel.  The stronger the feeling, the stronger the writing.  Be brave.  Take chances.  And get out of your skin.

The Small Photograph

She wouldn’t have approved, but she was asleep and I was sitting on the plastic-clad love-seat that the hospital provided for visitors.  The same sofa that gave me this perspective:


I took the last picture of her.  It’s my secret (or as secret as it can be when I’ve just blogged about it).  I didn’t tell my sisters or my grandmother.  I’m not going to post it here.  I don’t even know why I took it – this little comma of a woman with an eye-mask on to keep the sunlight out as she slept.  I most emphatically did not take a picture of her dead, or even in the days before she died but after she’d left the building.

But when there was still something on her to-do list, when she was storing up the strength to get on the radiation table the next day, curled around the knowledge that she’d been invited to her last party, her last dinner, her last graduation, her last birth, her last wedding…  Bravery in breathing.

In every literal way, that’s the last photograph of my mother.  But in a way, this is a picture of her too:


The Animal Gesture

I’ve been known to wax eloquently about language and stories and being human, with the perfectly arrogant implication that stories make us special.  That language makes us special.

I’m getting humbled.

It’s brand new that there is something in me that happens before the words.  I write.  It is all words with me.  Until I can write it down and make sense of it, it – whatever it is – doesn’t exist.

The words have a memory, they don’t need reminding.  Previously, I was blissfully unaware of anything happening before the words.  No more.  There’s this thing that gets swallowed just before it can break the surface of language.  This animal gesture that has already asked my sister if she’s talked to mom lately, even when my tongue is still finding its way to the first word.  The whole sequence of finding the phone because the reptile in me said “mom”, picking it up, dialing the number that is now disconnected (how’s that for a tangible metaphor) that happens in the span of a breath.  But the gesture has to turn into words first, and the words know better.

So it stops before it starts, a stutter in time like that cat in the first Matrix.  A glitch in the system that somehow reveals a part of the system I didn’t believe existed.

Worthy is Thy Name

Warning: I am about to pick on modern Christianity.

We recently had house guests of the earnest, emo Christian variety.  Lovely people.  Not *my* people, but lovely nonetheless.

First, let me object in principle to any form of Christianity that doesn’t pay attention to kindness in all things, including meat consumption.  I’m not a vegetarian, but I’m not a fan of meat either.  Pigs in particular freak me out.  They are very similar to people physiologically, they are super intelligent, and commercial pig farming is an abomination.  Even if you aren’t against the big farm practices on ethical grounds, consider this: stress and fear are physiological reactions.  There is chemistry that floods any living creature that is in fear.  The animal gets slaughtered after living an entire life in stress and sadness, at the height of its fear response.  You think those hormones don’t soak into the meat?  I got enough to be afraid of, thanks.  I don’t want to eat another creature’s fear too.

What I’m saying is that I stop buying your Christian Kindness the second I find out it doesn’t extend to your diet.

Second.  What does “worthy is thy name” even mean?  And how is it more meaningful when it is sung in an emo dirge at 10:00 on a Sunday morning?  Modern “praise” music is a seething hotbed of drivel littered with random capitalization in the complete absence of proper nouns.  I need my words to mean something.

Third.  This urge to “save” people.  What is it for?  It can’t be for the person you’ve deemed in need of saving.  I go back to Ashana, who talks about withness in ways far more eloquent than I am capable of.  (Read this for a start, but be forewarned.  If you get too far into her blog, you’re going to find out exactly how awful people can be.  You’ll also find out how much a spirit can endure, but it is entirely possible you’ll never be the same.)  No, saving someone is something you do for yourself.  Because it makes *you* feel good.  You save someone because you have this way you think someone else’s life should be and you think you know better than them.  You save someone because you like what it says about you.  If you were serious about doing something for someone, you’d just be *with* them as they figure out how to save themselves.  You believe that they know what needs to be done to get them where they want to go.  And you agree that you’re going to be with them, without judgment, for as long as it takes.

That is all, thanks.


Dear teenager-version of me: don’t let your fear make decisions for you.  The worst that can happen is that you’ll learn something, but guess what?  You’re learning stuff all the time anyway.  Sure there are risks and costs, but everything has risks and costs.  Staying “safe” has a price too.  Besides, you’re tougher than you know.  You’ll be just fine.  I promise.


The Athiest’s Ritual

We need stuff to do when there’s nothing that can be done.

For some reason, I’m thinking about my favorite rationalist and the candle she lit for me and my mother.  The nice thing about atheism is that everything has an explanation.  Or at least an empty space where an explanation will fit as soon as the scientists and mathematicians get smarter.  The faith that is required is reasonably minimal.

I can’t argue with atheism.  Personally, I want a world where magic is possible, but my wanting isn’t a proof that I can write up on a blackboard.  I certainly can’t ask someone else to believe that magic is an option just because I’ve seen a glimmer of it here and there.

But we need something to do when there’s nothing that can be done.  A gesture to make into empty space and the hope that a candle in London puts off a little heat that can be felt in Washington D.C.  Ration is human.  So is the inexplicable.  If not magic, then our own need for small rituals that can’t be explained.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad thing in my book.  I think there’s a lot of beauty to be found in the cracks between what makes sense and what we’re compelled to do in spite of our logic.