This is America

I’m going to go a little off the writing topic here. Last week a really interesting piece of art entered my consciousness, and I feel compelled to comment.

Last weekend, I watched Donald Glover host Saturday Night Live. As usual, I fell asleep long before the second song performance by Childish Gambino. The next day, everybody was talking about the video of This is America – the song from that second performance.

 

In case you haven’t seen it… (warning – some graphic violence)

 

If you feel a bit overwhelmed, you will probably want to watch it again at some point. There’s a lot to see.

I’ve read several interpretations, and you will likely have your own, which is only right when it comes to art. Some say that Childish Gambino is portraying America. He is showing how entertainment can distract from the chaos going on behind him. His jerky dancing is a reference to the contorted images from Jim Crow and black face.

I have a slightly different interpretation. i acknowledge that the above interpretation may come straight from the artist, but everyone has a right to see it through their own lens. I see Childish Gambino as representing the black experience in America, not as America itself. His contorted movements and facial expressions show the contortions black American go through in trying to live safely in America. Smile. Fight back. Look tough. Look weak. Comply. Resist. Subvert. Submit. Most of all, don’t get caught slippin’ now. And his struggle, the drama it creates, entertainment in general, becomes a huge distraction from the chaos all around – chaos created by a culture focused on greed, where profits matter more than people. The culture of celebrity that tells us money, power, and fame are what matter. All around is chaos. Crime. Guns. Drugs. Violence. Hopelessness. But, don’t look at that. No! Look over here!

Black man, black man, get your money!

Because in today’s America, money is what matters. You want respect? Get your money. You want privilege? Get your money. You want access to government? Get your money. You want equality? (at least on the surface) Get your money.

You take it by any means necessary…

When I first aspired to work in Hollywood, I dreamed of telling stories. I longed to make people feel the emotions I felt when I watched a movie. It was so idealistic. While pursuing that goal, I was as happy as I’ve ever been. But once I moved into chasing the security of a steady job and paycheck, the idealism fell apart.

No longer was I engaged in the idea of bringing people together with shared stories and experiences. Instead, I was simply paying the bills and attempting to save up for retirement. Our show wasn’t making a difference. Or saving lives. Or doing anything remotely noble. Some people tried to make me feel better by telling me that giving someone a laugh after a long day, or some entertainment to lift their spirits was a noble profession. But we were telling tired jokes in recycled sketches, and trotting out a never ending cycle of the latest ‘it’ actor. We were telling America, “This is what is cool. This is what matters. This is what you should aspire too. If you aren’t this, you’re nothing.” I could see it was working when I looked at the ecstatic fans lining up to see the show, or the questions I got peppered with if I admitted what I did for a living. Nothing was funnier than being ignored during a flight by my seat mate because I was a fat, middle-aged white woman, only to suddenly become the most fascinating person on the earth when they made chit chat before deplaning and discovered what I did for a living.

My disillusionment became complete when I realized that more than anything, what I was doing with my job, was making rich people richer. Rich people, who didn’t necessarily deserve to be richer. Then telling America, those rich people are the only ones who really matter… the ones they should emulate. Talk about a soul in crisis.

Don’t get me wrong, I think entertainment is important. I still think stories can bring us together. I think art can bring us together. I just think today’s entertainment industry has been subverted by corporate Hollywood into a money-making machine that doesn’t care about the damage it is causing to the fabric of society. After all…

Get your money. Get your money.

(I truly hope that because a 53-year-old white woman admits to being a fan of this video, it doesn’t mean that all the cool kids will now flee Childish Gambino. It doesn’t mean he’s over. This is art so powerful that it breaks age and racial lines. This is an artist to pay attention to.)

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Out of the Nest

It’s time. Time to push my chick out of the nest. For more than a year I have been putting words together to tell a story, and now it’s time to see what other people think about it.

One of the things I love about writing is that I get to hear the story first. There is no one else on the planet who knows this story but me. How cool is that? Then again, maybe it’s a story nobody wants to know. That is what I’m about to find out. It’s time to share. It’s time to see if anybody else thinks this is a good story.

I’m relieved to have a large part of the work done. In fact, until I start getting feedback, there is nothing more for me to do. But, behind the relief is terror. What if nobody likes it? What if I’ve done all this work for nothing? What if the characters I have loved so much, die a quick death right along with all the much loved screenplay characters I’ve created over the years. What if I have to face the fact that I will never have a writing career?

What if, what if, what if? Why are my thoughts never filled with things like – What if they love it? What if it’s a best seller? What if I have a contract to write the rest of the series? No, my brain never goes there.

Now that the major writing is done, one thing I’m looking forward to is rebuilding a bit of a social life. In the past few months, as I worked hard to finish up the book, I have let myself become reclusive on the weekends. This writing/social balance thing is one I’m still fine tuning. There have been times I have gotten out of balance the other way. I’m beginning to learn to recognize the emotional cues telling me I am out of balance, I’m just not always so good at finding it again.

I’m also looking forward to long afternoons, reading in my hammock.

But today, after a long day of editing and finally printing, and no hammock time whatsoever, there are 4 printed copies of my book on the floor behind me. It’s a weird feeling, both good and bad at the same time. It’s time to see if my chick flies, or tumbles out of the tree.

Oh boy…

 

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The Joy of Writing

It seems my posts have been a little heavy lately, so I will change things up a bit and talk about the joy of writing. Quite often I’ll read an interview with a successful writer, and am amazed when they talk about how much they hate writing. They complain about what a painful process it is, and describe their misery. James Joyce said, “Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.” I always want to ask writers who hate writing why they do it if it’s so painful. Seriously, isn’t there something out there they enjoy doing more? Why don’t they do that? Just because you’re good at something, doesn’t mean you have to do it. Thank goodness, or I’d still be a teleprompter operator.

Now, I’ll admit that writing isn’t always easy. It requires a great deal of discipline, and that’s something I struggle with. There are times that inspiration seems as rare as tolerance at a Tea Party gathering, and that’s when the mental struggles begin. Am I a fraud? Am I fooling myself? Should I find a new passion? A new dream? Is there any point to this? Yes, that is painful, but that has to do with doubts, not writing.

And honestly, that’s about as unpleasant as writing gets for me. Thankfully the joys are much more numerous. First, there’s the initial jolt of a great story dropping into your brain. For me it has come while watching a TV commercial, an interview about politics, a news article, or from an offhand comment I overhear at a table next to me. When it hits, it’s overwhelming. Conversations, reading, TV, and all thoughts of anything else are brought to a grinding halt. The brain wants to do nothing more than roll that story idea around. It’s play time!

That kernel of an idea leads to the glorious question, “What if…” What ifs are fantastic! They’re exhilirating. For someone who loves stories it’s like a kid walking into a toy store and being told they can have anything and everything they want. The mind starts running down aisles and grabbing things off the shelf. Sometimes when you get something into the cart, you realize it isn’t what you want, and it goes back on the shelf, but all the possibilities are what fill those moments with utter joy.

Eventually the cart is full of all the right things and I sit down in front of the computer. This is where the work comes in. Translating that glorious idea into words that others will enjoy is hard. There are so many things to keep in mind. What voice? Whose story? Building conflict. Changing values. Character arcs. Layers of meaning. Story structure. A satisfying conclusion. You have to juggle all the elements of a story while not losing that initial spark and inspiration of the original idea.

Hard work? Yes. As painful as enhanced interrogations? Not even close, I would imagine.

The other day I’d reached a point in the story where I really wasn’t sure what came next. I hadn’t had adequate daydreaming time to figure out exactly how the villain was going to proceed with his plans. There have been times that means I just don’t write. After all, if I don’t know what to write, what is there to write? But this day I forced myself to sit and write anyway. Granted, I did my best to procrastinate a bit, but eventually I just sat and stared at the page on the screen. I put myself into the character’s place, and imagined what I might do if I were them. Suddenly, as if dropped like a gift from the sky, it was all so obvious. Not only did it make sense to move the story forward, but I discovered an entire layer of deeper meaning to add to the theme of the book. I happily spent the next few hours putting those ideas on the page and watching them come to life. Utter joy!

Yes, it was a struggle to get there, but the joy that followed from breaking through made it seem like a minor anoyance. Perhaps that’s how women who give birth feel. Perhaps there wouldn’t be that joy if there weren’t that struggle. The joy is so much greater than the pain, and I don’t understand talented writers who say otherwise. Maybe that means I’m not as talented as they are. All I know is that I’m grateful that I have a talent and passion for something that makes me happy.

Hearing the story first is a priceless gift, transcribing it for others is a fantastic adventure. Being allowed to pursue this career – all joy.

Write on!

 

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