Quote of the Day: What Jim Mattis Didn’t Say

Call Sign ChaosFormer Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, one of those adults we keep being told are keeping things in the White House from being even worse than they are, has a new book out: Call Sign Chaos.

If this essay in the Wall Street Journal, which Mattis and his co-author Bing West adapted from the book, is any sign, there is much he is not saying in the book. To wit, this section on how he dealt with an unnamed admiral who harshly and indiscriminately mocked his subordinates:

I called in the admiral and carefully explained why I disapproved of his leadership. “Your staff resents you,” I said. “You’re disappointed in their input. OK. But your criticism makes that input worse, not better. You’re going the wrong way. You cannot allow your passion for excellence to destroy your compassion for them as human beings.” This was a point I had always driven home to my subordinates.

“Change your leadership style,” I continued. “Coach and encourage; don’t berate, least of all in public.”

But he soon reverted to demeaning his subordinates. I shouldn’t have been surprised. When for decades you have been rewarded and promoted, it’s difficult to break the habits you’ve acquired, regardless of how they may have worked in another setting. Finally, I told him to go home.

There is no indication in this exercise in avoiding the elephant in the room that Mattis ever suggested that the commander in chief should consider not berating or demeaning people, much less just going home.

Screening Room: ‘Official Secrets’

(IFC Films)

In the new thriller from Gavin Hood (Rendition), Keira Knightley plays the real-life whistle-blower who tried to stop the UK from bending to US pressure to cook up intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Based on Marcia and Thomas Mitchell’s book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War, Official Secrets opens this week. My review is at PopMatters:

This is usually a time of drudgery, when sloppy comedies and stupid worn out action franchises waste everyone’s time. So it comes as a nice surprise to watch a corker like Gavin Hood’s unexpectedly jarring and immediate espionage thriller Official Secrets unspool in a close, carefully calibrated way that actually grabs one by the conscience…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Persevere

writing1
“Woman at desk, gazing at outside view” (c. 1768)

Some days it comes. The words flow, you forget to look up, and before you know it, the whole morning has passed and you have five good new pages.

Some days it does not. Nothing comes. Everything sounds terrible. You write and delete and rewrite the same two lines before getting up and going for a walk.

Still, the desk remains. The page needs to be filled. How? No easy way around it, per screenwriter Akiva Goldsman:

Successful writers don’t wait for the muse to fill themselves unless they’re geniuses. I’m not a genius. I’m smart, I have some talent, and I have a lot of stubbornness. I persevere. I was by no means the best writer in my class in college. I’m just the one still writing…

Chances are, you are not a genius (no offense).

So, failing that, just keep at it. Be the tortoise.

And stop looking out the window.

Reader’s Corner: ‘The City in the Middle of the Night’

My review of Charlie Jane Anders’ novel The City in the Middle of the Night was published at Rain Taxi Review of Books:

The City in the Middle of the Night, is precisely the kind of novel that benefits from being called speculative fiction rather than science fiction, which can still seem pejorative to some readers. So far, “speculative fiction” seems not to scare off genre-unfriendly readers, meaning Anders may attract the kind of broad readership she deserves with this bristling and vivid book…

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Be a Menace

File:Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of creation.jpg

According to novelist Maria Semple, when her first novel, This One is Mine, came out, the notices were good but the sales were not. So she retreated into herself, stopped writing, and blamed everything and everybody but herself.

Then one day, a friend told her something:

Maria, you’re a writer. Writers must write. If you don’t write, you’ll be a menace to society.

That line later showed up in her novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

It’s good advice. In fact, one could use the reverse of it as something of a test. If you don’t write for an extended period of time, and feel just fine about that, then maybe writing is just something you do, and not a vocation.

Not to mention a generally healthier way to live.

Screening Room: ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette?’

Cate Blanchett stars in Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Maria Semple’s beloved novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, which opens this week.

My review is at The Playlist:

Once upon a time, Bernadette was a rising ingenue in the architecture world, with a knack for quirky science-fiction designs and looking dazzling in old photographs (the bangs and artfully dangled cigarettes help). Her career was then sidetracked by a catastrophe that the movie withholds until far too late in the process. By the time we catch up with her, she has become a fierce recluse. Living in a damp and vine-riddled hilltop Seattle manse that she keeps up like some horticulturally-minded relative of the Addams Family…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Stop Complaining


In honor of the great Toni Morrison, who passed this week at 88, here’s some well-needed advice from a woman who was not just a great novelist and inspiration to millions, but a sharp-eyed editor and teacher who did not care for complaints.

Per a Salon interview from 1998, in which Morrison talked about whether she could teach confidence in addition to writing:

Well, that I can’t do much about. I’m very brutal about that. I just tell them: You have to do this, I don’t want to hear whining about how it’s so difficult. Oh, I don’t tolerate any of that because most of the people who’ve ever written are under enormous duress, myself being one them. So whining about how they can’t get it is ridiculous…

Writing can be miserable, when the words just refuse to flow and you hate everything you do write. But writers also by temperament veer toward the solipsistic. So we always need to remember that no matter how tough it feels, writing is still just putting words on paper. Get it done, stop complaining, open your ears, and if you’re lucky a great writer like Morrison will give you some good edits and advice.

(h/t: Emily Temple)

Screening Room: ‘Is Gone with the Wind a Classic?’

My article ‘Is Gone with the Wind a Classic? Or How Things Change’ went up yesterday over at Eyes Wide Open:

A couple years back, a Memphis theater decided that, because of complaints, they were not going to show Gone with the Wind again. One would imagine conservatives would appreciate a small business not wanting to anger its customers. But by definition, conservatives tend not to like change. It’s in the name…

Screening Room: ‘One Child Nation’

onechildnation (Amazon Studios)

In the new documentary from Nanfu Wang (Hooligan Sparrow), she returns to her native China to find out what 35 years of the one-child policy meant to people. What she finds is horror, guilt, resignation, and corruption, with a deeply personal angle.

One Child Nation opens in limited release and on Amazon this week. My review is at PopMatters:

In the 1970s, China faced a population crisis with potentially devastating consequences. Still years away from economic transformation, the government feared exponential population growth would result in Malthusian collapse and chaos. In possibly the most far-reaching social engineering project in human history, the Chinese government decreed each family would be allowed just one baby…

Writer’s Desk: Try a New Format

Sometimes the same-old, same-old just does not work for what you are trying to accomplish. If you feel that you (or your work, or both) are in a rut, try changing things up.

Consider Jennifer Egan. She has written a number of novels the usual way. On some kind of computer, using a word-processing program, the results of which are ultimately designed and laid out on printed pages, bound together, and shipped around the world.

But in 2010, she tried something different. Her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, featured an entire chapter written in PowerPoint slides. It’s a brilliant way of showing how the 12-year-old autistic character can best express herself. (The Guardian has the whole chapter here.)

Then, in 2012, Egan serialized an entire story on Twitter. She didn’t compose “Black Box” on her phone, though, rather writing everything in longhand and spending about a year polishing it down to the chiseled nub required to produce fiction 140 characters at a time. Check out the full result at the New Yorker.

Think about the different avenues you want to take with your writing, what the obstacles are that keep you from getting there, and what tools might help you out.