Writer’s Desk: Be Ready to Fail

Back in 2008, Ta-Nehisi Coates published The Beautiful Struggle, one of the great American memoirs of the past few decades. In 2015 came Between the World and Me, a tender but hard-edged book-length essay on everything his son needed to know about growing up black in America.

As one of nation’s top public intellectuals, and one whose prose style is so frequently lauded, it’s difficult to think of Coates now in the same way that most writers think of themselves: frustrated, frightened, failing. From Coates’ latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power:

[Writers] must learn to abandon appeal and expectation. Failure is the norm for writers—firings and layoffs, rejected pitches, manuscripts tossed into the wastebins, bad reviews, uninterested editors, your own woeful first drafts, they all form a chorus telling you to quit with whatever dignity you still have intact.

It’s a bracing reminder of the everyday struggle. But then Coates reminds us how to muscle past it:

If you are going to write, you must learn to work in defiance of this chorus, in defiance of the unanswered pitches, of the books that find no audience, and most of all, in defiance of the terror radiating from the blank white page.

Remember that failure is not just an option, but a likelihood. If you can’t acknowledge that fact, then maybe writing is not for you. If, however, you are the person who can put their shoulder to that always-closed door and keep pushing, then maybe you have what it takes.

Screening Room: ‘Human Flow’

Ai Weiwei’s new documentary expands from his earlier efforts—provocative artmaking in China under political persecution—to take in the massive subject of refugees, more of whom are now coursing over borders than at any time since the end of World War II.

Human Flow opens in limited release tomorrow. My review is at Film Journal International:

Human Flow is possibly the most visually resplendent piece of nonfiction cinema you will see this year. With this movie, multidisciplinary artist and occasional political enfant terrible Ai Weiwei has made a crucially important visual and philosophical document of the modern refugee crisis…

Here’s the trailer:


Start at

Screening Room: ‘Columbus’

The small city of Columbus, Indiana features one of the greatest collections of modernist architecture to be found anywhere in the world.

It’s a surprisingly powerful setting for Kogonada’s winsome and romantic new movie, Columbus, which is playing in limited release and worth seeking out.

My review is at Eyes Wide Open.

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Voyeur’

Back in 1981, Gay Talese made a splash with Thy Neighbor’s Wife, a controversial study of America’s sexual proclivities. He received an interesting letter not long after publication from a guy in Colorado with all sorts of stories about spying on people at his motel.

The new documentary Voyeur follows what happened next, as Talese spent years trying to turn that man’s story into yet another splashy book. Voyeur premiered at the New York Film Festival and will be released in theaters and on Netflix later in the year. Here’s my review.

Writer’s Desk: Work in Groups

The writer’s life is a solitary one. That’s true, until it’s not.

Take the example of Aleksandar Hemon. The Bosnian writer had always followed the expected path:

[My writing] had taken place in the self-imposed isolation of my head. I don’t take part in workshops or writing groups; I don’t share ideas or drafts with my fellow-writers for feedback; I make all the decisions and am responsible for every word in the book that I am writing, acknowledgments included.

But then, like many writers out there in a world of hundreds of television shows needing scripts, he joined the collaborative workforce of televisual scriveners. Working out scripts for the sci-fi series Sense8, he discovered a new process:

… my role was to make proposals that would be taken up by the other people in the room and spun around a few times. The version of the proposal that emerged would have little to do with the original, yet belonged to me as much as to everyone else … I’d never experienced the pleasure of temporarily losing my intellectual sovereignty—of watching my bright idea be destroyed, only to be transformed into something entirely different.

Sometimes a writer has to hew closely to their original vision, come hell or high water, for it to be worth a damn in the end. More frequently, another pair of eyes, or five or ten, can make all the difference in the world.

Screening Room: ‘Una’

An adaptation of David Harrower’s play, BlackbirdUna is about what happens when a young woman tracks down the older man she had a relationship with when she was far too young and wants … well, it’s not sure precisely what she wants. But he thinks she’s about to burn his whole world down. and she just might.

Una opens this week in limited release. My review is at PopMatters.

Here’s the trailer.

Screening Room: New York Film Festival, Part One

The 55th New York Film Festival started up last week and runs through October 15. It remains to be seen just how much of a bellwether it will be for showcasing the year’s most likely award contenders. But so far, it’s off to a strong start. Here’s some reviews of what’s been showing so far:

  • The Florida Project (pictured above; opens in theaters October 6) — Kids run rampant in a down-at-the-heel Florida motel in the shadow of Disneyworld in this Oscar-likely bittersweet comedy with Willem Dafoe from the director of Tangerine. Review here.
  • No Stone Unturned — Suspenseful true-crime documentary from the director of Going Clear and Zero Day about a long-unsolved politically motivated multiple murder in Northern Ireland. Review here.
  • The Rape of Recy Taylor — This bluesy, ghostly documentary uses a harrowing decades-old crime for a powerful look at racial and sexual exploitation in the Old South. Review here.