Writer’s Desk: No Poor or Unimportant Place


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rilke1Time to hear from Rainer Maria Rilke on the what and the how of writing:

Depict your sorrows and desires, your passing thoughts and beliefs in some kind of beauty—depict all that with heartfelt, quiet, humble sincerity; and use to express yourself the things that surround you, the images of your dreams and the objects of your memory. If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor or unimportant place…

Consider that last part in particular. Anything and anywhere can be worthy of your attention as a writer.

Quote of the Day: Trump and “the Women”


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As reported in the July 12, 1999 New York Post, Donald Trump on Hardball:

People want me to [run for president] all the time … I don’t like it … Can you imagine how controversial I’d be? You think about him [Clinton] and the women. How about me with the women? Can you imagine?

(h/t: Political Wire)

Weekend Reading: October 7, 2016


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Writer’s Desk: Don’t Be a Jerk


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The topic of cultural appropriation is never an easy one, particularly when it comes to writing. When Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, launched her jeremiad at the Brisbane Writers Festival, she steadfastly stood on the side of writers being free to write about whatever and whomever they damn well pleased, regardless of their race or background.

It was the speech that launched a thousand op-eds. Many leaped to Shriver’s defense, seeing a long-overdue pushback against the forces of political correctness, trigger warnings, and so on. Others saw it as just another example of white cultural dominance and arrogance.

sympathizer1There was more than a little of the provocateur in what Shriver did, of course—wearing a sombrero to make some point, and blasting any critique of her work from cultural grounds as censorship.

Into this white-hot mess waded Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the excellent novel The Sympathizers. In an essay for the Los Angeles Times, he valiantly carves a demilitarized zone out of the culture-war battlefield:

…engage in careful and curious conversation with people different from ourselves, both in terms of demographics and ideas. When I say careful, I mean that it is possible to use one’s free speech and yet also be respectful and ethical. It is advisable not to insult people, as in the case of a white author wearing a sombrero to make her point about cultural oversensitivity. When I say curious, I mean that too many of us are not interested in the lives of others, if my experience with my airplane seatmates is any indication.

Solid advice for any writer, under any circumstances.

southerncrossAlso, note novelist Kaitlyn Greenridge’s response to the Shriver dustup, in which she considers whether Asian writer Bill Cheng had the right to write a lynching scene:

…I felt so strongly that Bill had a right to write that scene because he wrote it well. Because he was a good writer, a thoughtful writer, and that scene had a reason to exist besides morbid curiosity or a petulant delight in shrugging on and off another’s pain — the fact that a reader couldn’t see that shook my core about what fiction could and couldn’t do.

So, a few things to consider when writing about events, places, or people outside your immediate experience; or even well within it:

  • Be careful
  • Do the work
  • Do it well
  • Don’t be a jerk

Weekend Reading: September 30, 2016


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Screening Room: ‘Deepwater Horizon’


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On April 20, 2010, an explosion on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 crewmembers and sent 210 million gallons of oil flooding into the Gulf, devastating the coastal ecosystem and economy. Peter Berg’s action-oriented take on the disaster only deals with half the story.

Deepwater Horizon opens wide Friday. My review is at PopMatters:

Movies about titanic events have a built-in problem. They have to pluck out the individual stories while still keeping a deep focus on the larger issue. That’s true whether you’re talking about a squad of GIs amidst the carnage of the Second World War or The Rock trying to save his family while CGI earthquakes shred the California scenery. Somehow, this basic premise was forgotten in the making of Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: It’s Going to Take Some Time


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Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explains Things to Me, has a few tips at LitHub for the aspiring, or just plain struggling, writer. Her advice is less aspirational and more hard-working than most. In short, don’t pretend it’s going to be easy:

It takes time. This means that you need to find that time. Don’t be too social. Live below your means and keep the means modest (people with trust funds and other cushions: I’m not talking to you, though money makes many, many things easy, and often, vocation and passion harder). You probably have to do something else for a living at the outset or all along, but don’t develop expensive habits or consuming hobbies. I knew a waitress once who thought fate was keeping her from her painting but taste was: if she’d given up always being the person who turned going out for a burrito into ordering the expensive wine at the bistro she would’ve had one more free day a week for art.

Remember the rule that Malcolm Gladwell popularized about needing 10,000 hours to master something? That’s what you’ll need to do for writing, at the very least.

Weekend Reading: September 23, 2016


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Writer’s Desk: Cleese Says Steal It


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And now for something completely different…

John Cleese was one of the hardest working members of Monty Python. Outside the troupe, he had a brisk sideline in other writing gigs, not to mention advertisements, and his side business in business training films (weird, but true). Eric Idle said that Cleese used to say that he’d do anything for money, so Idle offered him a pound to stop talking. Cleese took it.

Given Cleese’s work ethic, it’s fair to assume he’s a good fellow to listen to about writing. Even when his advice is counter-intuitive:

I tell [young comedy writers] to steal, because comedy is extraordinarily difficult. It’s much, much harder than drama. You only have to think of the number of great dramatic films and then compare that with the number of great comic films … and realize that there’s very, very few great comedies and there are lots and lots of very great tragedies, or dramas. That tells you, really, which is the hard one to do. So at the very beginning, to try to master the whole thing is too difficult, so pinch other people’s ideas and then try to write them yourself, and that’ll get you started…

In other words, comedy is hard. Learn from those who went before you.

Reader’s Corner: Eric Idle’s Rules


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If you’re ever stuck for something to read, somebody else’s reading lists can be a help. Eric Idle posts a continually updated one that’s pretty smashing on his website here.

An inveterate bookworm of the highest caliber, Idle has also compiled a few rules for reading:

  • Rule 1:     Never be without a book.
  • Rule 2:     Skip all Prefaces, Forewords and Introductions.
  • Rule 3:     If you’re bored with a book, chuck it. There are millions of books you will never get to read, so if one doesn’t grab you, put it down.
  • Rule 4:     You don’t have to finish a book. You can always come back to it.
  • Rule 6:     You may read several books at once.
  • Rule 7:     You may skip and skim. This is not a class, this is life.
  • Rule 8:     Try and buy from your local bookshop while you still have one.
  • Rule 9:     There is no rule 9.
  • Rule 10:   Enjoy!