Writer’s Desk: Listen to Obama’s Guy

Jon Favreau—the other one, not the actor/director/occasional Tony Stark wingman—spent years as President Obama’s director of speechwriting. He distilled much of what he learned in that highly precise and pressurized job into “Five Rules of Storytelling.” They are:

  1. The story is more important than the words
  2. Keep it simple
  3. Always address the arguments against your position during your presentation, not after
  4. Empathy is key
  5. There is no persuasion without inspiration

Not all of these may be applicable to those of us not writing for the world stage, but Favreau’s rules are solid reminders to keep thinking about what you’re writing, how you’re going to get to your point, and what is the best way there. That applies whether you’re writing a murder mystery or white paper on fiscal policy.

Remember your reader, always.

Reader’s Corner: ‘We Were Eight Years in Power’

When Ta-Nehisi Coates published his third book, We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of essays on black American history and current affairs late last year, the country was still just getting used to its new presidential reality. Or not.

My review is at RainTaxi Review of Books:

Until recently, when the true desolation of the early Trump era has started metastasizing in even the most ardent optimist’s heart, America had a script to use after a catastrophe. Whether a mass shooting, natural disaster, or police atrocity, each event was termed an opportunity for a “national dialogue” on guns, race, class, climate change, or what have you. Those conversations never happened because there was always another catastrophe, and in any case, the culture had mostly lost interest in the public intellectuals needed to push forward such a conversation. That changed, however, in 2014, when The Atlantic published one of the most talked-about pieces of writing in recent memory, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations.” Suddenly, the country was having a conversation. And it wasn’t an easy one…

Nota Bene: On Being a Black Nerd

From Lawrence Ware’s “Black Panther and the Revenge of the Black Nerds,” where he talks about what the release of a blockbuster adaptation of the Black Panther comic series means:

Now I know that to be a black nerd is by no means anomalous; there are millions of people who look like me and grew up loving comic books. Yet despite our numbers, we were underground for a long time. But now, there appears to be a widening cultural appreciation for what black people have always known: There are many ways to be black in America. The 44th president helped.

Barack Obama meant a lot to black nerds. Jordan Peele, the director of “Get Out,” told NPR back in 2012, “Up until Obama, it was basically Urkel and the black guy from ‘Revenge of the Nerds.’” President Obama showed us that to be black and nerdy could actually be an expression of black cool, what the author Rebecca Walker who compiled a series of essays on that topic, defines as audacity, resistance and authenticity in the face of white supremacy.

Screening Room: ‘The Final Year’

The Final Year, which tracks Barack Obama’s foreign policy team in his presidency’s pell-mell final year as the shadow of the Trump victory looms darkly, is opening in wider release this week.

My review is at Film Journal International:

…[Director Greg Barker] highlights three key players: chief speechwriter Ben Rhodes, United Nations ambassador Samantha Powers and Secretary of State John Kerry. Although Obama offers a few to-the-camera remarks, for the most part he remains in the background as the leader whose policies these three power players need to mesh with their own beliefs and wrestle into some coherent and actionable policy. Powers and Kerry perform their jobs with such a sense of can-do urgency that even when the frequently hubristic Rhodes says that they “felt like a pickup team…to change the world,” one’s eyes don’t even necessarily roll…

Here’s the trailer:

 

Screening Room: ‘The Final Year’

The documentary The Final Year, which tracks Barack Obama’s foreign policy team in the pell-mell last year of his presidency, opens this week in limited release for Oscar consideration.

My review is at Film Journal International:

…[Director Greg Barker] highlights three key players: chief speechwriter Ben Rhodes, United Nations ambassador Samantha Powers and Secretary of State John Kerry. Although Obama offers a few to-the-camera remarks, for the most part he remains in the background as the leader whose policies these three power players need to mesh with their own beliefs and wrestle into some coherent and actionable policy. Powers and Kerry perform their jobs with such a sense of can-do urgency that even when the frequently hubristic Rhodes says that they “felt like a pickup team…to change the world,” one’s eyes don’t even necessarily roll…

Here’s the trailer:

 

Reader’s Corner: Obama’s Books

Something unlikely to be seen in the next four years: the President out buying books (Pete Souza)
Something unlikely to be seen in the next four years: the President out buying books (Pete Souza)

No matter what was going on in the world, President Obama always found time to read, preferably for at least an hour a night, according to Michiko Kakutani. This wasn’t just a habit that relaxed him, it also provided grist for the mill:

In today’s polarized environment, where the internet has let people increasingly retreat to their own silos (talking only to like-minded folks, who amplify their certainties and biases), the president sees novels and other art (like the musical Hamilton) as providing a kind of bridge that might span usual divides and ‘a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day.’

He points out, for instance, that the fiction of Junot Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri speak ‘to a very particular contemporary immigration experience,’ but at the same time tell stories about ‘longing for this better place but also feeling displaced’ — a theme central to much of American literature, and not unlike books by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow that are ‘steeped with this sense of being an outsider, longing to get in, not sure what you’re giving up.’

You can get a sense of the breadth of his recent reading in his last couple of summer reading lists compiled by the White House:

  • “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” by William Finnegan
  • “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead
  • “H Is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald
  • “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins
  • “Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson
  • “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr
  • “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert
  • “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow

It’s a superb mix of literary and popular fiction, along with of-the-comment commentary and even science fiction (who’d have thought the president, any president, would be reading Neal Stephenson?), the kind of list that a particularly good bookseller would have put in your hands if you told them: “What’s good now?”

So, if Obama’s looking for something to do, maybe there’s a bookstore hiring.

Weekend Reading: December 23, 2016

christmas_card2_bylouisprang

Readers’ Corner: The President’s Book List

obamabooks1

Peter Baker, one of the Times‘ more prolific and thoughtful chroniclers of goings-on in the nation’s capital, published an interesting piece earlier this week on Obama’s reading list. He keeps the psychology to a minimum, fortunately, but does find a few things to parse out here about the president’s personality and how it’s reflected in his choice of reading material:

Unlike many of his predecessors, who devoured American history and biographies, Mr. Obama’s tastes lean toward the literary, in keeping with a man whose first memoir deeply explored issues of race and self. While Mr. Obama has read his share of Abraham Lincoln, he seems more intent on breaking out, mentally at least, from what Harry S. Truman once called the crown jewel of the American penal system.

Dubya, for instance, was particularly fond of the biography, reading some 14 books on Lincoln while he was in office. But the current president has more of a literary taste, not surprising in a man who first came to national attention for his facility with the written and spoken word.

Here’s some of what Obama’s been reading of late:

At the Movies: Cold Reality in 2012

killingthemsoftly1Although the biggest earner at the box office in 2012 was the tidy teamwork adventure of The Avengers, the year’s films were by and large afflicted with a grimmer worldview. This was as true of blockbusters like The Hunger Games to star vehicles like Killing Them Softly and micro-indies like Compliance.

My end-of-year wrap-up is at PopMatters:

The year’s most brutal indictment of this system comes in Killing Them Softly. Andrew Dominick’s chilly, vaguely over-satisfied crime film is based on George V. Higgins’ profane novel of life and talk (and talk, and talk) amongst the underworld demimonde. Some hack crooks knock off a card game for what they think is easy money. Word gets back to the organization in charge of the game and Jackie (Brad Pitt), a hitman with a soft touch, is dispatched to relieve a few people of their lives….

The film’s steady march towards execution plays out against the sturm and drang of the 2008 US presidential election. A skittery title sequence jumbles up shots of a trash-strewn tunnel with audio of Obama’s soaring rhetoric—a road to nowhere. Asked whether he has room for friendships or loyalties, Jackie can only scoff, “Don’t make me laugh.” He nearly snarls the film’s last line, briefly agitated rather than utterly smoothly professional, as he’s been to this point. Now, he lays it out: “I’m living in America, and in America, you’re on your own.”

 

Department of Cinematic Complaints: Perceived Biases Edition

dinesh1It was bad enough that the semi-scholar Dinesh D’Souza put his efforts behind a particularly seamy piece of Andrew Breitbart-ish video propaganda disguised as a documentary about Barack Obama. (This still from 2016: Obama’s America shows Dinesh intrepidly scouring the globe for clues to the president’s ignominy.)

Then came this:

…the makers of the documentary 2016: Obama’s America were peeved that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ shortlist of Oscar-contending documentaries didn’t include their film. The articles notes that 2016 was a surprise hit that pulled in over $33 million, a staggering amount for a nonfiction film and more than the 15 documentaries have made combined.

My post about this “controversy” is at Short Ends & Leader.

Weekday Reading: Pre-Election Edition

Reader’s Corner: David Maraniss and the Untwisted Fact

They say no good deed goes unpunished. It’s just as proper to say that no reported fact goes untwisted. Thusly Obama biographer David Maraniss’ op-ed in the Washington Post:

In the introduction to my book, I took note of a sick political culture where “facts are so easily twisted for political purposes and where strange armies of ideological pseudo-historians roam the biographical fields in search of stray ammunition.” That sentence is now cited on right-wing Web sites as evidence that I hold them in contempt. True enough, one of the few accurate things that I’ve read from them. I do hold some of them in contempt, not because of their politics, nor because of their dislike of Obama. Political debate and disagreement are the lifeblood of American democracy. No, I hold them in contempt for the way they disregard facts and common sense and undermine the role of serious history as they concoct conspiracy theories that portray the president as dangerous, alien and less than American.