If you aren’t familiar with the movie, Billy Crystal plays Larry, a writer who has been in a slump for some years because of an acrimonious divorce which included his ex-wife stealing a manuscript and becoming a bestselling author with it. Larry pays his bills by teaching creative writing at a community college, where one of his students Owen (played by Danny DeVito) might be the worst writer. Owen misinterprets some writing advice from Larry as a proposal for Owen to murder Larry’s ex-wife, in exchange for which Larry will murder Owen’s domineering mother. Trouble ensues, as they say.
Among the many fun bits in the movie are some of the scenes with Larry’s class. Several of the ridiculously bad writing ideas, personality idiosyncrasies, and other shortcomings embodied in his students and their work aren’t just hilarious, they’re all too real. Anyone who has ever interacted with aspiring writers has encountered some of those folks. Regardless of how unsuited some of them seem to be to writing, at the end of every class session Larry exhorts them all, “Remember, a writer writes, always!”
On one level that advice is a caution against falling into various procrastination traps. As tempting as it might be to spend a little more time researching for a particular piece, you need to actually sit down and write eventually. Or it may be fun to shop for pens or the perfect notebook (or if you’re me, a new word processing app), but that shopping doesn’t increase your word count. And as nice as finding just the perfect spot in your favorite coffee shop to set up with your laptop or other writing implement, you need to actually crank out some dialogue.
All of those non-writing activities may indeed help you, but at some point you need to stop prepping and get to the job of writing your story down.
One of the things that absolutely does not help you write a story is telling other people your ideas. I cannot count the number of aspiring writers I have met who spend all of their time telling anyone that will sit still long enough, their idea for their epic novel (or series of novels), or the fabulous character they have imagined and all the wonderful adventures she will have—in exquisite detail.
Sometimes I’ve met them again and again and again at sci fi conventions. They show up at writing panels or workshops or room parties, telling me the same fabulous idea that they told me at the last 20 times I ran into them. And not once in all those years have they yet sat down at a keyboard or with a notebook and actually written a single scene.
They might have notebooks full of notes and doodles and plot diagrams. They may have computer files filled with notes. But they haven’t written any of the actual story. The sad truth is, they never will. I’m not saying that to besmirch their character. I’m saying it because they have spent so much time verbally telling other people about their story, that they don’t realize they have already used up all of their motivation to tell that story. They have effectively told it, already.
I have occasionally attempted to explain this phenomenon bluntly to one of these folks. In at least one case I know it didn’t work. But I keep hoping.
So the first lesson to take from that exhortation, “A writer writes!” is to stop doing whatever it is that you keep doing which prevents you from actually writing.
There’s another lesson to be learned from it. “A writer writes, always” also means that often even when we aren’t actually writing, we are working on our story. I realize that superficially this sounds like a contradiction of the first lesson, but often the opposite of a profound truth is also a profound truth.
Sometimes you do need to recharge the batteries. Sometimes you need to take a break from writing and revising to go soak in a tub, or dig in the garden, or read a good book, or walk in the rain, or sing a song, or paint a house. The raw material of stories comes from life and from the thinking and feeling and wondering we do while we’re doing other things.
So the second lesson of “A writer writes, always” is not to beat yourself up—or let other people beat you up—for living your life, taking care of yourself, taking care of loved ones, and so on.
The difficulty comes in trying to balance those two opposing truths. Ultimately, you have to figure it out. Only you can make yourself sit down and write. Only you can know when you’re banging your head against a metaphorical wall and need a break.
It’s your story. Only you can tell it.
It’s George H.W. Bush’s fault. During the 1988 Presidential Debates, then-Vice President Bush sneered at his opponent, Gov. Mike Dukakis, for being a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Mr. Bush claimed that the ACLU was out to make child pornography legal as well as make it legal for children to see X-rated movies. Both of those claims were, at best, distortions of actual ACLU goals (the ACLU has long opposed a rating system used in the U.S. because the system is secretive, favors large studios over independent ones, and sometimes serves as a form of de facto censorship, for example), but it almost certainly shored up support from Republican-leaning voters. But the other thing that happened was that, in the days after the debate, tens of thousands of people called the ACLU and asked what it took to become a card-carrying member.
And then they donated and joined.
I wish I could say I was one of them. I didn’t become a member for a few more months. I was in the process of transitioning from college to working full time, and my wife was still a full-time university student (yes, I used to be married to a member of the opposite sex; it’s a long story). And in 1988 you couldn’t just google the ACLU and in a few clicks sign up. It was after the election, and after I got a better job, so it was sometime in the spring of 1989 that we signed up as members.
I’ve been a proud member ever since.
When school districts try to discriminate against queer students, it’s the ACLU that sends lawyers to sue the school and get kids their rights. When peaceful protesters are arrested, it’s the ACLU that sends in lawyers to get the protestors out of jail, to defend against the bogus charges, and sue the appropriate government officials to try to prevent future violations. When high school students are unconstitutionally strip searched by school officials, it’s the ACLU that sues the school district. When states enact unconstitutional voter suppression laws, it’s the ACLU that sues and often gets the measures overturned. When federal authorities tried to hide documents about torture progams, it was the ACLU that sued to get the documents brought to light so that citizens and legislators could demand changes. When states fail to provide required medical and mental health treatments to people in state custody, it’s the ACLI that sues to get people the basic care they are guaranteed under the law. And as everyone saw this weekend, when a narcissistic megalomaniac issues an unconstitutional executive order resulting in people being illegally detained or deported, it’s the ACLU that goes to court for stays to try to halt the illegal actions, and send lawyers to try to meet with detainees to help them.
I could go on and on.
If you believe in liberty; if you believe the Constitution guarantees that everyone is equal before the law; if you believe that everyone deserves legal representation and the full protection of the law; then the ACLU deserves your support.
Oh, and if you’d like one of those spiffy blue pocket Constitutions to keep on your person in case you need to assert your rights (or just correct a douche bro who doesn’t understand what the Constitution actually says), the ACLU sells them in very affordable 10-packs. Because you want to pass out extras to your friends and loved ones. And if, like me, you have a lot of freedom-loving friends who are also bibliophiles, you might want to pick up some Bill of Rights bookmarks. Not to mention stickers and other things.
If you can, support the ACLU!
I don’t remember the first time I found a copy of an anthology that proclaimed itself to contain the best science fiction of a particular year. I am also not sure how many of them I had seen and read before I realized that there were multiple publishing houses putting out those annual collections. It was difficult to tell because they had such similar names: “[YEAR]: the World’s Best SF,” or “[YEAR]: the Annual World’s Best Science Fiction,” or “The World’s Best Science Fiction the Year: [YEAR]” or “The Annual [NUMBER] Edition Year’s Best S-F” and so on. And let’s not even get into the fact that 90-some percent of the stories included were written by authors in the U.S., with only a small number of authors from the UK, Canada, Australia, or another English-speaking country getting in.
I was 18 when I went on a buying binge picking up as many editions of the series edited by Donald Wolheim as I could, as I had read a few of his previous collections and found they more often contained several stories I liked than some of the others. Wolheim’s taste was close enough to mine that I could count on several good ones in each collection. And it was good to know an editor I could count on to find good ones. I’d been a little shocked at just how many stories I had disliked in some of the other similarly named collections. When I was younger, I assumed that if the name of the book included “The Best…” that it ought to be true, and thus had a few unpleasant surprises.
Of course now it seems obvious that any list of The Best of anything is going to be subjective. When you also understand that in order for a story to be included in one of these collections, the editors have to contact the author or representative and get permission to include their story. For a few decades, every publisher that had a science fiction/fantasy imprint seemed to be publishing one of these annual collections, so they were competing against each other. So if, say 12 stories wound up in one editor’s collection, that doesn’t necessarily mean they were the top (in the editor’s opinion) 12 stories published that year, but rather were the 12 out of a longer list which the editor was able to negotiate a deal.
One upside was that the various annual Best of anthologies usually didn’t have any overlap.
I love them, even though there were always at least a few stories that I didn’t like. There was always a story that I did like written by an author whose name I didn’t recognize, giving me someone knew to look for. Another nice thing was the variety of type of story. Even though they were all picked by the same editor, the stories seldom had anything in common. Themed anthologies can be cool, but sometimes they’re a bit hard to get through because when the stories all fall into a single theme and are all picked by the same editor, some can feel a bit repititious.
Another thing I love about all of those competing Best Of book series is that there are thousands and thousands of copies of the books in hardcover and paperback out there in used book stores. So if, like me, you love to browse all the bookseller booths or tables at sci fi cons, or can easily spend hours wondering in a used book store, you are likely to run across some of these little treasure troves at a reasonable price.
The last few years I’ve read lots of blog posts—and listened to some spirited discussions—about the idea of a science fiction/fantasy canon. Books that every fan or every aspiring right should have read. Unfortunately a lot of books from days gone by that were important to the development of the genre, and/or were beloved by many fans over a span many years, don’t hold up so well for younger readers. Heck, sometimes they don’t old up for us old fogies! I still remember the utter horror I felt when I found a copy of a fantasy book that I had absolutely loved when I was 10 or so, only to find some really blatant anti-semitism and problematic treatment of native peoples when I found a copy again as an adult. As a kid, that stuff had sailed right over my head, but I can’t in good conscience recommend that book now without at least a warning.
So I don’t think it’s right to insist that someone isn’t a true fan or doesn’t understand the genre if they haven’t read specific books. But I do think that we benefit from being familiar with the roots of our favorite genres. And I think that all writers benefit from reading broadly and occasionally reading things outside their comfort zones. Which brings us to another thing I like about these old Best Of collections. Select any one at random and you will get a number of short stories written by a bunch of different people. It’s a lot easier to get through a short story that challenges you in one way or another, than to get all the way through a novel. It’s one way to get samples of some of the roots of the genre without amassing a pile of old books many of which not only will you never be interested in reading again, but that you can’t force yourself to get all the way through.
And odds are, you will find at least one story you like a lot. Which may send you looking for more stories by an author you’d never heard of before. That’s always fun.
Not to mention the possibility that a bad story can serve a good purpose, even if it is only an example of the kind of writing you never want to do yourself.
And that is precisely why I’m writing about hay fever and why I hate it: I suffer from moderate to severe hay fever, specifically exhibiting an allergic reaction to every pollen, spore, and mold in existence. Seriously, when an allergist once tested me to see which pollens I was reacting to, it was all of them they tested for. Because I live in Seattle, which is far enough north to experience winter, but moderated by the proximity of the Pacific Ocean, under the best circumstances my hay fever season lasts for 10 months out of the year. Usually some early flowering plants start pollinating in mid-February, and then it’s flowers and trees and grasses taking turns until October, when all of that starts to die down–just in time for the ferns to start sporing. And in the Pacific Northwest we have a lot of native ferns around. Then, sometime in November, mushrooms and toadstools start popping up all over, and the air fills with fungal spores.
If I’m lucky, we’ll have a good solid freeze before December is over. I’ll stop taking my prescription allergy medication when we get some freezing temps and see if the symptoms flare up. If not, I’m usually good until the next February.
The last few years, we never got a solid enough freezing period. I would try skipping my meds for a day or two, but then I’d have a horrific attack of hay fever (red swollen itchy eyes, sinus congestion, headaches, et cetera) and go back on the meds until the next freeze. But it never let up.
This year we got several extremely cold spells, and earlier than usual. Overnight lows not just below freezing, but well more than 10 degrees below freezing, and daytime highs that didn’t exceed freezing. I stopped taking my allergy meds in early December, and no hay fever symptoms came. So I thanked my lucky stars and hoped I wouldn’t have to start again until February.
Then our most recent string of colder-than-normal temps ended rather dramatically. In less than 48 hours we went from overnight lows in the teens (farenheit) and daytime highs right at freezing at best, to a daytime high in the 50s, and overnight lows also above freezing. And during that 40-some hours? Almost non-stop rain. A veritable deluge.
Winter is normally very rainy here, of course, and I was happy the rain had returned. But a few days later, I woke up with itchy eyes, congestion, and a nasty sinus headache. When I stumbled to the bathroom and looked in the mirror, my eyes were red and swollen. I started taking my hay fever medicine again, and as usual, the worst of the symptoms were alleviated. But I’ve been at the low level, semi-congested and so forth stage that I feel during high pollen season when I’m on the meds.
A few days later, my husband mentioned that he had red swollen eyes and such a burning in his sinuses, that he thought there might have been a chemical spill at work. But no one else had the symptoms, no one could smell anything, and they couldn’t find anything. He doesn’t get hay fever nearly as badly as I do, but he keeps some over-the-counter hay fever meds around because on high pollen days in the spring and summer he does get it. So he took a pill, and a couple hours later his symptoms were also helped.
I’m assuming that the sudden jump of temperatures up to a bit warmer than usual for winter, after a lot of colder than usual days, plus all that rain after a long dry spell has tricked a bunch of plants into thinking its spring.
So, I’m back to being stuffed up, sniffly, and very occasionally sneezing. In January. Could you pass the Kleenex, please?
And someone punched him right in the mouth: Right-wing extremist Richard Spencer got punched, but it was memes that bruised his ego.
People have been up in arms about how punching a person even for saying awful things isn’t just stooping to their level, it’s somehow worse. And one of these nazi-apologists is Nick Spencer, a man currently in charge of writing the Captain America comic book (and as far as we know, no relation to Richard). I should point out that he’s the same hack writer who thought last year having a cliffhanger where Captain America appeared to have been a secret Hydra/Nazi double agent all along was a clever plot twist. Despite many people trying to explain why it was actually lazy, and something that only a person in a place of privilege would think was a shock.
Anyway, fortunately, another comic writer, Warren Ellis, has weighed in with a great reply to Nick’s apologetics.
I understand there’s been some confusion online as to whether it’s ever right to punch a Nazi in the face. There is a compelling argument that all speech is equal and we should trust to the discourse to reveal these ideas for what they are and confidently expect them to be denounced and crushed out by the mechanisms of democracy and freedom.
All I can tell you is, from my perspective as an old English socialist and cultural liberal who is probably way to the woolly left from most of you and actually has a medal for services to free speech — yes, it is always correct to punch Nazis. They lost the right to not be punched in the face when they started spouting genocidal ideologies that in living memory killed millions upon millions of people. And anyone who stands up and respectfully applauds their perfect right to say these things should probably also be punched, because they are clearly surplus to human requirements. Nazis do not need a hug. Nazis do not need to be indulged. Their world doesn’t get better until you’ve been removed from it. Your false equivalences mean nothing. Their agenda is always, always, extermination. Nazis need a punch in the face.
There is a serious topic here, even though I’ve thus far focused on writers of comic books (but I’m a big nerd, so of course this is where I start). When is violence justified?
Most people are okay with situations of clear self-defense, but blanch at the thought of punching someone for words. But under U.S. law, at least since the 1942 Supreme Court decision of Chaplinsky v New Hampshire, we have the principle of fighting words: “words that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” It’s related to the crime of incitement. Over the years the court has narrowed the grounds under which the fighting words doctrine can be invoked, but the notion remains that some declarations are the equivalent of throwing the first punch. And that principal isn’t limited to the law.
Miss Manners, who usually justifies the idea of rules of etiquette and manners as necessary to prevent people from strangling each other over lunch, talks about statements that go beyond the pale. The person making such declarations, she argues, has “ceded their right to participate in polite society.” Which means others are under no obligation to be nice to the person. Depending on the level of the breach, she advocates expressing your belief that such conversation isn’t fit for polite conversation and walking away or asking the person to leave and so forth. She also points out that while many people believe that manners dictate that one never confront other people, the truth is that having good manners sometimes means standing up to someone, particularly if they are abusing (verbally or otherwise) other people. She has also pointed out that swallowing an insult is tantamount to admitting it’s true.
And it’s hard to classify the statement that everyone of a certain skin color deserve to be literally exterminated as less than an insult.
The very first comic book depicting Captain America shows him punching Hitler. Punching Nazis who are waging war on the world and orchestrating the genocide of entire ethnic groups ought to be a no-brainer. It particularly should be a no-brainer to someone writing Captain America comic books! And when modern day neo-Nazis advocate genocide, a punch to the jaw doesn’t seem out of line. Having the person who writes Captain America defend an actual neo-Nazi seems particularly insulting. And as the grandson of two men who fought in World War II—both of whom at different times told me that they didn’t fight so that the KKK and their ilk could pretend they are American patriots—it feels like an insult. Standing up for Nazis isn’t just an insult to my grandfathers, it is an insult to all the brave men and women who in fought for the allies in World War II.We shouldn’t be defending Nazis, whether they call themselves the Alt-Right, Alternative Right, America Firsters, South Park Republicans, New Right, or more honestly White Nationalists, et al. The essence of their ideology is that entire groups of people must be, to use Richard Spencer’s own words, “disposed of” simple because of the color of their skin, or their religion, or their national origin, or their sexual orientation. I disagree with those who argue that Nazis themselves are less than human—and not simply because that’s sinking to their level, though it is—because when we do that, we forget an important thing: that humans are capable of terrible things. Calling for genocide is a terrible thing. People who do that need to face consequences in society. They need to be shunned, yes. They need to be shamed, absolutely.
And sometimes they need to be punched in the face.
Well… comparatively, we were.
The editor-in-chief my first year there had a photo above his desk of himself presenting to President Reagan a model of Mount Rushmore he had made with Reagan’s face added. He once told me the story of a Christian conservative college prep camp he had attended in high school, where he had signed up for classes in journalism. The people running the camp pitched the journalism classes as a way to encourage Christians to take back the news industry from the evils of secularism. Anyway, at his first class he had gotten in trouble because the first assignment was a faux press conference where someone the teacher had brought in would pretend to be the spokesperson for a company that had just rolled out a new product, and the members of the class would be reporters who had been assigned to write stories promoting the new product. “I got in trouble,” he said, “because I objected right away. Reporters aren’t assigned to write stories promoting something. That’s marketing, not journalism.”
Over the course of the next several classes, he said, it became clear the teacher had no idea what news reporting was. And he eventually got the teacher to admit that he had a degree in Business Administration with a minor in Pastoral Studies, and had never taken a journalism course in his life.
I had to tell him that it didn’t surprise me. A lot of people think that journalism’s job is to promote things—never critique, never present unflattering facts, et cetera.
Unfortunately, for the last many years, a lot of those people have been journalists.
I used to subscribe to a daily newspaper as well as several news magazines. One reason I cut back was because the piles of partially read publications would accumulate around the house faster than I would read them. But another reason was that it became harder and harder for me to ignore the conservative bias of most publications. They still got accused of being the “lib-ruhl media” by a lot of people, but after I came out of the closet, learned to check my own white male privilege, and became in general more aware of how things worked in the world, I came to realize that society at large had a lot more in common with that conservative Christian campus that I had realized. The Democrats only looked liberal in comparison the the arch conservatives who held a deathgrip on the Republican party. The news media only looked liberal if you accepted that the middle ground, politically, law somewhere between those archconservatives and the Democrats.
So I haven’t subscribed to a magazine other than science fiction and fantasy ‘zines for some years.
Until now. After watching the incredibly poor job most professional news sites and publications did covering this election, I now subscribe to two publications that consistently did real journalism, asked the hard questions, and ran hard-hitting questions: Teen Vogue and Mother Jones. I’m particularly proud to now be a paid supporter of Teen Vogue, because I’m convinced, now, that if anyone can save us from this authoritarian nightmare, it will be the Millenials and Generation Z.
To be fair, since the troompa loompa had his so-called press conference where he shouted about fake news and filled the room with his own staff to applaud his ridiculing of some reporters, much of the rest of journalism has begun to remember that their job is to inform the public, not cater to the whims of people in power in hopes of retaining access. Let’s hope it isn’t too late.
I have other hopes, particularly after seeing the incredible turn-out all around the country on Saturday:
Welcome to the Resistance!