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Where Ideas Come From

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me where I get my story ideas. I was thrilled because it seems like this question is some sort of rite of passage. In Stephen King’s On Writing, he talks about how fans ask him (and every other author he knows) all the time. His answer is basically that good ideas just come to you sometimes and you have to remain open to and aware of those sudden flashes of insight. Comic artist Warren Ellis said something to the effect that he fills his mind with a lot of junk and stories sometimes emerge, sort of in a primordial soup kind of way.

My favorite, and the one that resonates most with me, is the observation, I think it was Neil Gaiman, that, “The difference between a writer and other people is that when a normal person brakes their arm they shout, ‘Take me to the hospital,’ but when a writer breaks her arm, she shouts, ‘Get me a pen!'”

Everyone has great story ideas all the time, whether real of fiction, it’s just a matter of writing them down. I’m not saying every time you have a flash of insight you immediately sit down and write out a story, but most of the time you just have to give your intuition the benefit of the doubt.

My story, “Where You End and the World Begins,” has a frankly bizarre genesis, and it didn’t come to me all at once.  It started with a friend of mine mentioning that his mother used to belong to some cult-like church that kept trying to compel the family to come back. One day, when the acquaintance was a little kid, some of these church members apparently came to the house while his mother was in the shower and tried to lure him into a car. His mother’s parent-sense tingled and she ran out of the house naked, grabbed him, and yelled at the parishioners to leave her family alone.

Somehow, that’s where the zealot in the story came from.

The second component, the main character who has a preternatural talent for finding things, was a little more personal and ongoing. I lose things a lot. I’m forgetful and I have a bad habit of setting things down in places the don’t belong. I’ve long wanted to be able to hire a contractor whose job it is to find all the things I’ve misplaced.

That’s it. Two weird bits of information that became a story.

So, if you’ve ever wondered where ideas come from, you already know. It’s just a matter of paying attention and writing them down when you can.

And if you’re doing Nano, get back to it.

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Innovation, like Greed, Is Not Good

When you work with words all day, you start to develop strong opinions and Feelings about them. For instance, I love the words “intransigent,” “autumnal,” “evanesce,” “obtain,” and “logic.”

Likewise, there are words I loathe, and most of them are the kind you run into all the time if your a grant writer, like me, in RFPs, advertisements, and “About” pages. Words like “utilize”, “synergy,” “actionable,” “scalable,” “impactful,” “resourceful” (actually, pretty much any time you turn a pithy noun into a active-sounding adjective), and the list goes on.

For one thing, most of these words are substitutes for perfectly good and more simple words, like writing “utilize” instead of “use.” And those that don’t indicate that the writer is frantically shuffling through a thesaurus for a term that sounds more sexy, these words are typically meaningless. What does “actionable” Mean? Okay, yes, it’s obvious what it’s implying, but that’s the problem: it’s implying, not explaining. These words are deliberately vague. They allow the writer the dodge the messy business of actually giving you a detailed account of what’s going on.

The word I hate most, and I think is used far too often, is “innovate” (or any variation thereof… though that’s just ahead of “unique” in the list of words I think no one uses correctly).

This word is used so often by businesses, nonprofits, foundations, and everyone else that it is meaningless. What’s worse is that the concept itself (“new,” “different,” “pioneering,” etc.) has developed a devoted following and cult of personality.

I have noticed in the past few years that more and more philanthropists, businesses, and activists have made “innovation” their central goal. In other words, people have taken up a Gordon Gekko-esque mantra of “Innovation is Good.”

What bothers me about this is that, particularly in the area of philanthropy, more grant programs and prizes seem to be exclusively focused on “innovation.” Certainly, trying something new is a good idea. But in the growing enthusiasm for originality and uniqueness, it seems like people are sacrificing the ends for the means.

Innovation is neither good nor bad. It’s just different. Because of our insistence that everything be innovative, perfectly good and productive projects and organizations are overlooked in the pursuit of the New.

Take Catholic Charities, for example. Sure, they change their programming every so often and check to make sure what they’re doing is working, but generally they are pretty good at delivering social services to people in need because they have been doing it since forever. Or Good Will. Or Habitat for Humanity. All of these organizations have been operating for decades and are very good at what they do,  but there is a growing pressure from foundations and corporate giving programs that being effective isn’t enough. You have to be innovative. You have to be Different and Cutting Edge.

Is Innovation Good? If it leads to better results, sure. On its own, it’s just a buzzword.

This buzzword, however, is becoming a problem. When the obsession with Innovation overshadows the actual work that needs to be done to help people and solve systemic problems, we have left the realm of reality and entered a weird space of entrepreneurial ideology where the definition of Good is being Different-from-the-other-Guy.

Nonprofit service is about addressing a need and creating benefits for society. Anything that advances those causes is good, but praising the means over the ends is like building a house to make a better hammer.

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Publications! Laziness! Excuses!

I’ve been lazy. And thoughtful. Often, those things go hand-in-hand with me.

The trouble is that last sentence. I spent five minutes trying to figure out another way of saying this without using a cliche, but only came up with more.

Instead of writing, I’ve been reading a lot lately. Books and articles, from Moby Dick to Salon. The more I read, the less desire, or the more hesitant I am, to write. I like the stuff I read too much, and what I put down feels hopelessly inadequate.

This isn’t griping. It’s an excuse. And I’m not ashamed of providing excuses. It’s just honesty.

But, I have good news to share! First, I narrated a story for PseudoPod (my favorite horror podcast). It’s “Train Tracks” by WP Johnson and you can find it by clicking here.

Second, I sold a story to my favorite science fiction podcast, Escape Pod! I can’t begin to say how honored and thrilled I am. I’ve been listening to Escape Pod (like PseudoPod) for years. Sometime in the next couple of months, they will post “The Law of Gravity,” originally published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. More details to come.

In other news, I will now be supporting Mimi Nguyen and Jaime Amy Ann is producing Story Club Minneapolis. Since moving to the Twin Cities, I’ve gotten superficially involved in the performance story telling scene and now I will have the chance to do more. If you’re Twin Cities-based, I strongly encourage you to come to the Bryant Lake Bowl on the third Saturday in November to listen to some stories or share one of your own.

That’s enough for now. It’s been a long weekend. I’m going to try to be more dedicated to this blog-thing I’ve got going.

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“Stop Calling Me ‘Honey'” now available on Page & Spine

Meant to post this days ago, but I’m always running behind…

My short story, “Stop Calling Me ‘Honey’” is now available on Page & Spine magazine. Go check it out and balance out the Happy Friday mania with a depressing tale about lost childhood dreams and bad visits to the doctor.

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Living the Good (Writer’s) Life

Like most people living in the Twin Cities, an unusual number of my friends and acquaintances work for nonprofits. Not long ago, I was talking with one of said friends who is the policy lead (aka “lobbyist”) with a social justice organization that recently scored a huge victory for their cause, despite ferocious opposition. I asked him how he approached and tried to persuade those opposed to his organization’s cause and he said, “Actually, the people who are really against what we do just don’t meet with me at all. Sometimes they just won’t make the time. Sometimes they’ll let me schedule a meeting, but they always bail out at the last minute, or keep rescheduling until it’s past the point that it matters.”

There are many opinions and causes that I find reprehensible, but I always try to go out of my way to understand where the people who hold those perspectives are coming from. For the past couple of years, I’ve worked with organizations involved with policy-making and so the idea that an elected official would refuse to even discuss matters with the other side was, until my friend told me about his experience, unthinkable to me. Yeah, sure, blustering and heated, intransigent debate I can understand, but flat out refusing to talk to someone about an issue that affects both of you appalls me.

And it offends me for another reason: as a writer, if you’re serious about writing good, believable characters and stories, you have to make the effort to understand things you don’t like. I’m not very good at this, admittedly, but I try.

A few years ago, I was an intern at the Playwright’s Center. During one of the artist talk-back sessions, one of the audience members asked a panel of writers, “Who’s your audience?” The woman was an artistic director at a DC-based theatre and the question sounded innocent enough to me, so I was surprised by the flak she got from the panelists. “I hate that question,” they all agreed. Later, I asked one of the other interns, who had been working in theatre for while, why everyone was so angry. She said, “Do you think anyone ever asks a straight, white, male playwright who his audience is?” Then I realized that maybe, at best, one or two of the people on the panel fell into all three of those categories.

One of the playwrights, Taylor Mac (a magnificent artist), responded to the question, “People should go see things they don’t understand.” The things that make them uncomfortable.

And I do genuinely try to seek out the things that I don’t understand and make me uncomfortable… ish.  It’s the MN Fringe Festival right now and, despite my best efforts, I can’t convince myself to go to musicals (call me prejudiced, because I am).  That’s a terrible example, I know, but I am mildly ashamed of my intolerance of the genre.

The problem is that I’m not very good at writing characters and stories with whom/which I have no personal experience.  In other words, a lot of my characters are white, American, young, irreligious, liberal men.  That’s not just a problem in my maturity as a writer, but as a service to the people who read my stories.  My plots and themes, invariably, come back to privileged existentialism or, worse, solipsism.  Who the hell wants to read about white, American, young, irreligious, liberal men struggling with angsty existentialism all the time?  Even I get sick of it and I like it because it resonates with me.  But, any time I try to stray from that character, I end up writing caricatures, which reinforces my aversion to straying outside what I know.

That’s a problem.  Art isn’t just about entertainment (though I am committed to that goal first and foremost), but about offering new perspectives and encouraging progress.  Really great art is about Change.

The great Bertold Brecht theorized the lehrstueck, the play that teaches.  When I studied abroad in Germany I gave a presentation about how Brecht believed that art could transform people and encourage them to do heroic, necessary things.  Being a natural cynic, I asked my class if they thought Brecht was right and was shocked when everyone raised their hands.  If people believe that a book, movie, play, or song can encourage a person to change their lives for the better, that is magnificent.

That also puts a great burden or responsibility on the artist.  If you’re going to make a point, you’d better do it right and make sure that the comment you’re making isn’t frivolous or destructive.

Now, I’m reading Stephen King’s It.  No matter what you may think of the man (King-hating is awfully popular), he does not shy away from incorporating social justice into his stories.  That’s admirable.  The guy is one of the whitest writers ever, and still a bit of a misogynist, but at least he tries and often succeeds at pointing out that Horror comes from banal, immoral hate and misunderstanding.  The characters who are the most terrifying and awful in It are just some people who have spent way too long in their own worlds refusing to acknowledge that what they’re doing to other people might be wrong.

This is something I’ve become increasingly concerned with in the past few years. How do you write an entertaining story or play that offers something meaningful to the audience? Looking back on my own work, I think the closest I got was either my short story, “The Law of Gravity,” or a play that no one has ever seen called “The News Is Next.”

In the former, I really wanted to tease out the serious moral and emotional dilemmas we’re faced with today in mourning the dead on the internet.  What do you do with someone’s Facebook, Twitter, or Deviant Art accounts after they pass?  It may not sound like a social justice issue, but I think it is.  Grief rituals aren’t about the person who died, but about the living who miss them, and their right to honor their memories.  Funeral practices are a cultural universal, and the inability to reckon with your feelings about losing a loved one can seriously interfere with your working and personal life.  A friend of mine died not long ago, and I remember vividly the anger my friends and I felt when this friend’s parents changed the person’s social media accounts to better fit their idealized version of their child.  Of course, there is no moral high ground you can take against a grieving parent, but for people who have grown up with social media as a part of our identities, changing someone’s Facebook account is like cutting a smile into someone’s face.

“The News Is Next” was supposed to be a comedy, but it isn’t.  It’s about the perverse transformation of news into entertainment and how identifying yourself with your career can corrupt the rest of your life.  Most of my stories and plays are pretty cowardly.  They explore ideas and identities I know too well and express beliefs I assume without question. Art can do better than that and should, if only just one time out of ten.

Okay, getting back to the point, I need to answer the “… So what?” question.  Well, to get there, I need to take a detour.  There’s a story that I listened to on the Moth recently that I adore and only recently began to understand why.  It’s “The Story of Boris” by Dan Barber, and

Exploring the things I don’t understand.

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Exceptionalism in SF/F

The reason I like speculative fiction is because it allows writers and readers to entertain that great question of “what if?” and explore some of those weird things we all wonder about every so often. What are we going to do when we create a computer whose behavior perfectly mimics a human? How about when we figure out how to colonize another planet? Or what would happen if everyone in the world went blind? What does it mean to be human?

One of my writing teachers said that any concept that can be explored using speculative elements could just as easily be accomplished without (by which he meant using realism), but I disagree. Speculative fiction offers a way to explore extraordinary concepts that nevertheless are pretty damn important to all of us. That’s probably the reason why I have a growing interest in philosophy and, in particular, thought experiments.

Basically, thought experiments allow you to distill an actual intellectual/moral problem into a simple, but completely unrealistic story (there’s a great Philosophy Bites interview with Julian Baggini about thought experiments).  That’s basically what sf/f is all about.

A while ago, I read Turtledove’s World War series, which helped me articulate a theme I’ve noticed in a lot of science fiction. World War is about the attempted conquest of earth by a imperialistic species who live much longer and are obsessed with tradition and distrustful of anything new. They consider millennia pretty short intervals. Anyway, they survey earth in 1500, but their invasion fleet doesn’t arrive until 1943. You can probably see where this is going. Throughout the series, they are appalled and incapable of adjusting to how quickly humans learn to fight back and appropriate their technology. I’m actually not a big fan of the series, but it’s a pretty good example of spec fic’s obsession with plasticity being humanity’s defining and saving characteristic.

Think of the new Dr. Who series where humans are the weird and persistent species that basically reappear throughout all time. In The Lord of the Rings humans are the industrious upstarts, driving everyone else out of Middle Earth. And basically every alien character in Star Trek at some point expresses admiration or disgust with humans’ adaptability.

But where does the idea come from? Hubris and simple observation. As a species, we’ve always noticed that other animals exhibit behavior similar to us, like using tools, communicating, and creating social groups, but we’re the only ones on this planet who have deliberately changed our environment to fit our needs on such a massive scale. So, what’s the difference between us and the wolves? We can destroy their habitats and put up our own. They die and we thrive.

It’s not a noble characteristic. It’s not even intelligence. In Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings, and all the rest, we are defined by our wile.

And it’s a theme I find vaguely troubling, because I don’t know of many examples where humans are put in the opposite position – where we’re the ones being perpetually out-maneuvered. Rarely, even, is our adaptability portrayed in a sinister way, like in Clarke’s “Rescue Party.” That’s not to say there aren’t stories out there, but they’re in the minority (and if you have reading recommendations, please comment. Maybe I have just been reading the wrong stuff.).

Politically, I’d like to see more writing that inverts this trope because our exceptionalist convictions – that we’ve won the game of evolution – is a big part of why the planet’s temperature is going to rise several degrees over the next century. I won’t go so far to say that this theme is making the problem worse (that would be a horrible hyperbole and really round-about), but I don’t think it’s helping. Sf/f’s strength is its ability to attack and dissect tough issues and concepts like multiculturalism (Mieville’s The City and the City), gender and sexuality (Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness), addiction (Dick’s A Scanner Darkly), complacency at atrocity (Ishiguru’s Never Let Me Go), and faith (Gaiman and Pratchett’s Good Omens. And if you don’t agree with me on that, you didn’t read the book right.)

Artistically, I just want to run into the trope less often. There’s an interesting insecurity at the heart of it, which means it probably needs to be examined.

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Against Bad Reading Recommendations: If You’re Shaming Adults for Reading YA, You’re a Bad Critic

For the record, I haven’t read The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent, Twilight, Looking for Alaska, or If I Stay and many other popular YA novels out there, but that didn’t stop me from being appalled by Ruth Graham’s “Against YA.” Because I have read Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Charlotte’s Web, A Christmas Carol, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and, guess what, those are all classics (a few are even considered to be that weird thing called the Great American Novel) and they’re young adult novels. Some are even (gasp) children’s literature.

I could go on, but so could everyone else reading this. You see, I love spec fic and I’ve had enough arguments with people who automatically assume it’s garbage to know better than to make lists. For every example of a lousy book you can go tit for tat with a masterpiece and vice versa. But, I admit that I just gave examples of the canon, just like Graham – but I think my argument is strong enough not to have to be propped up by Dickens and the Bronte sisters.

By now, I imagine Graham has gotten a lot of flack from the mob who shares my opinion, so let me be clear that my first reaction when I read the essay was admiration. She’s right – it’s now acceptable for adults to read YA, so her opinion is probably unpopular. I’m pretty sure what Graham was really getting at is that people should challenge themselves with what they read, and that’s good advice. But her argument is so patently bad that I can’t even begin to take it seriously.

If you want to encourage people to seek out good art, try recommending good art instead of attacking what you see as inferior. Fans of the latter will hate and ignore you, and advocates of the former will just agree with you more.

So, here are some things that are wrong with Graham’s essay – and, indeed, telling people they should be ashamed of their reading preferences in general.

For starters: assuming that any genre (or arbitrarily selected group like YA fiction, which includes a multitude of genres) has objectively better or worse aesthetic qualities than any other. That’s not just ridiculous, but lazy – and I’m tempted to dismiss it outright, but that would just be committing the same crime.

Basically, if you assume that any genre or class of art has intrinsic value by virtue of what defines it, either, 1.) you’ve got an agenda and are straw-manning whatever you’re criticizing by choosing the worst examples possible, or 2.) you’re being willfully ignorant. I can’t tell the difference between one death metal band or the other, but I have friends who are connoisseurs.  As I said before, in any craft imaginable, there will always be examples of crap and excellence. So I find all-encompassing statements like “… YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way,” as suspect, at best, and stupid, at worst.

(And, as a small and irrelevant gripe, I’m baffled by the statement, “YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.” Have you read Shakespeare? As a rule, comedies end in a bunch marriages and tragedies end in a pile of bodies. Is it any more unexpected that a lot of YA books have happy endings than a lot of literary novels have deliberately ambiguous and obtuse endings? Moreover, just because the conclusions may seem satisfying, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something there to think about. If I can find critical – though tongue-in-cheek – interpretations on The Cat and the Hat, certainly you can be bothered to accept a piece of writing on its own terms.)

But, let me step back a moment and entertain Graham’s actual argument that mature readers ought to have higher standards and read challenging literature. Okay, good, I’m with you. Yes, you should read books that challenge you. But just because you indulge in something light and entertaining every so often doesn’t mean that’s all you consume. What’s wrong with pleasure reading? I love playing Go, but I’m not ashamed of playing Cards Against Humanity (okay, maybe a little, but everyone does. Especially when playing with family).

But, apparently, mature readers must “… find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit, and in reading about people with whom they can’t empathize at all.” I don’t know about you, but I find it increasingly difficult to empathize with teenagers, and I’m just 27 (damn kids).

The crux of what bothers me is this: Graham isn’t just saying that YA books are inferior, but that adults finding emotional resonance in them are wrong to do so, that the sentiment itself is mistaken. I have a strong feeling that there is just something wrong with that analysis.

But, in the end, I have to admit that I agree with Graham. People should read what challenges them. If that means revisiting and reckoning with some of the most emotionally confusing years of our lives, what’s wrong with that?

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“The Man Who Killed James Dean” now available with Tincture

So, I meant to make this post weeks ago, but, well… no excuses.

Tincture #6 is now available in Kindle and ePub editions. In it, you will find many fine short stories, poems, and essays (and my short story, “The Man Who Killed James Dean”). Check it out. It’s good (Tincture as a whole).

Special Shout Out: I have published a few short stories now and all of my experiences have been pretty good, but I think the editors at Tincture are exceptional. They are courteous, communicative, and passionate editors. So send them your best stuff. And buy Tincture.

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Thoughts on Godzilla and Myopia

(Spoiler alert for Godzilla 2014)

First, I want to say that I probably would have enjoyed this movie more if my well-intentioned friends hadn’t told me that it wasn’t that bad. I have high expectations for monster movies and wasn’t planning on seeing Godzilla, but when I heard from reliable sources that it was worth seeing I should have tried to pretend I knew nothing. For the same reason, I loathed The Usual Suspects the first time I saw it because someone told me it was a comedy.

So, giant monster films. It’s pretty obvious and heavy handed that this, and so many others of Godzilla’s kin, are about our insignificance and squish-ability before the awesome forces of nature and stuff. They’re all essentially about human arrogance getting the smack down from Big Bad that could easily be replaced by a natural disaster like a tsunami, earthquake, or hurricane. This, Godzilla did very well.

Unlike the 1998 take on the King of Monsters in America, this one went old school with multiple monsters and Godzilla being the accidental anti-hero, eventually saving San Francisco from the Other Terrible Behemoths. What’s more fun is that the not-terribly-cliche obligatory Obsessed Scientist explains that this epic battle in fact has nothing to do with humanity. Godzilla wasn’t there to destroy or save us. And the two MUTO were just out to eat uranium and get laid. That leaves everyone else (us) just as an inconvenience, a really unlucky bystander. We are beneath them – completely unworthy of their attention as they have it out in the middle of San Francisco.

That much is common in the Giant Monster genre. What Godzilla did that was interesting is that the myopia works both ways. Throughout the whole movie the characters are always oblivious to Godzilla and the MUTOs until it’s too late. You’d think that watching a creature the size of a skyscraper sneak up on people would be amusing, but it’s deeply unsettling. Characters are constantly turning around to realize that the ridge behind them is actually a MUTO or that island out there is actually Godzilla. Even the military can’t keep track of them with all their sophisticated equipment and methods.

In many ways, this inability to detect something so ridiculously humongous just reinforces the monsters’ power over us. But it also says something dark about us: that we aren’t just impotent against the dangerous forces around us — we’re lucky if we notice them at all before they kill us.

It’s a pretty good metaphor for climate change. In the past few months, the White House, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and independent researches reported dire and immediate consequences of climate change across the globe. After the winter we just had, it seems incredible. But that’s what this is: a barely perceptible and unfolding catastrophe.

I didn’t really want on a political note, but that tends to happen when your job is to talk about this all day.

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Why not?

I know it’s a cliche interview question, but I do enjoy hearing authors respond to, “Why do you write?” Most try to dodge the question, but a few answers are pretty good, and I try to collect them.

“I write plays for the same reason I do everything: to impress women.” Eric Sumangil.

“To exorcise my demons.” An Owomoyela. I’m pretty sure xe was joking, but I’ve heard that before.

“If I see a play I think is incredible, I think, ‘I need to try to do better than that.’ If I see a terrible play, I think, ‘I can do better than that.’ I usually write out of hate.” Sean Christopher Lewis.

Woody Allen makes films because it’s the next best thing to personal oblivion. A few writers have said they write because they aren’t good at anything else. Many others said they read a story and thought, “I can do that.”

Me, I try not to think about it. It just amuses me when other people are honest.

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