Category: opinion (Page 2 of 13)

Building on our Political Foundations

“Capitol Hill fox, National Mall” by Lorie Shaull is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I’m no political junkie or pundit, but I have had a more-than-passing interest in politics for a long time. My earliest political memory is going to vote for Bill Clinton with my mother when I was 9 years old. My awareness of politics grew with each new crisis: the 2000 election recount, where even 13 year old me understood that Al Gore got fucked in Florida; 9/11 shortly thereafter and all its fallout; the start of the 2003 Iraq War, Haliburton, and nonexistent weapons of mass destruction; Howard Dean’s “yee-haw!” that unfairly (and, perhaps, quaintly in today’s climate) tanked his campaign; the excitement and anxiety of watching the rise of the nation’s first Black president and the racist backlash (when President Obama won I was convinced that we were going to see him assassinated not long afterward and it made watching everything he did in public nerve-wracking); watching the Democrats lose the House and Senate in the 2010 mid-terms and the unprecedented blockages of President Obama’s agenda; every government shutdown thereafter; the slog that was the 2012 election cycle and Mitt Romney; and consoling my wife in 2016 after Trump won.

Obviously, that’s barely scratching the surface of the dysfunction that’s personified our political processes over the past 20 years or so, and really only covers things happening at the federal level, which generally has the slowest and least wide-affecting change, but those are the high-level events that jump to mind.

There are times when I think I might want to go into politics. It was that thinking that led to my political science minor in college, where I began to learn how ignorant we are about our own country. One of the first things I learned in my political science classes was that the main goal of the Founding Fathers was to prevent the populace from having too much of a say in government (and not only because the Founding Fathers were racist, sexist, and classist, either). They didn’t trust that most people in the country are anything but reactionary and ignorant, driven by selfishness with little concept of the greater good. So they created a complicated system to slow change. What they couldn’t know then, and what we’ve only just begun to realize despite its consistent happening over the past century or more, is that the safeguards they put in place to prevent reactive change would be weaponized to prevent any change. As of right now, those “safeguards” may actually cause our country to regress in values and freedoms.

But I digress, as that’s not the topic I want to discuss. As a professional facilitator in my day-job, I’m a firm believer that debate is pointless without agreeing to a the context in which that debate is being held. In short, what agreed-upon truths are we building our conversation on? I want to lay out what I find to be the unalienable truths about the purpose of government and what I think that means for how the government should treat its people.

The Purpose of Government

Government serves one main purpose: To protect the people between its borders. The core argument of the Federalist Papers is that a single, unified government can do more to protect the people than some combination of independent states or loose collections of confederacies.

This is accepted fact and informs the entirety of our approach to government.

Where disagreements begin is in what “protection” means. Is it a standing military? Does protection include freedom from persecution, whether for religious beliefs, or sexuality, or speaking out against the State? Is universal health care a form of protection? What about housing?

In short, as far as I can tell, disagreements center on the question, “How much responsibility do we as Americans have to protect ourselves?” Republicans, being the party of small government and personal responsibility, believe the answer to that question is that we have all of the responsibility to protect ourselves. It’s why they are against universal healthcare, but for guns. Against providing housing to the homeless, but for tax cuts for the upper classes.

Except, the government is already large. And a lot about our society has changed in the last 250 years. So these beliefs aren’t aligned with the context of our current situation.

Protection is our Inalienable Rights

Before I dive into what I think “protection” should entail, let’s outline the context I’m talking about. Just so we’re all on the same page:

  • More people live in cities than in rural areas
  • We are the richest country in the history of the world
  • Our country is geographically disparate, and very large
  • We live in the most interconnected time in history
  • Because of this interconnectedness, the world has gotten smaller and we are increasingly reliant on foreign nations for trade and labor

With this context, all of which are truths that can be ignored but not denied, I believe all Americans have the right to the following protections from our government:

  1. Health: A healthy society is a strong society. We can spend hours going over the facts and figures around health care in America, how much money we would save in health care costs if we had universal health care, how unfair it is to laborers that they are tied to a job because of how health care is managed in our country, and how other nations have succeeded in providing their people health care. Regardless of all of that, if a government’s sole purpose is to protect its people, that should include from disease.
  2. Education: An intelligent society is a strong society. Set aside the fact that America prides itself on innovation and without education (or immigration, for that matter), innovation becomes more difficult. Instead, let’s focus on the inequities of education. How minorities and poor families (often one in the same) are not provided the same level of education as white and middle-class or above children due to how schools are funded. Let’s focus on the disparities in what is taught and how topics are taught between States. Every child deserves an honest, high-quality education regardless of where they’re born or what family they happen to be born into.
  3. Housing: A secure society is a strong society. Without access to the safety and security of a home, people can find themselves in a downward spiral that is nearly impossible to free yourself from. For example, to apply for certain benefits of our social safety net, you often need an address. To apply for a job, you need an address. Without those, homeless becomes impossible to escape from. And that’s not even taking into account the economic cost of homelessness on our country.
  4. Religion: Yes, freedom of religion is in the Constitution, but in our current society freedom from religion is also necessary. If church and state were really properly separated, there would be no challenges to Roe v Wade or Obergefell v. Hodges. Woman would have the right to do as they feel is necessary with their bodies. Everyone should be able to practice what they believe, but they should not be permitted to use those beliefs as a weapon against others’ rights.

If we accept these as forms of protection that the government is designed to provide us, then prioritizing how we spend taxpayer money and how we legislate becomes much easier. I firmly believe that most people agree on these foundational values, stemming from the government’s single purpose. The problem, then, is taking the necessary step back to reframe our arguments as arguments for these inalienable rights. The talking points have gotten too complex, the media too filled with noise, and if we can just take it back to our core, foundational values as a country, we can make everyone’s lives better.

The Simple Complexity of a Writing Career

On its face, to build a career as an author is easy as 1-2-3:

  1. Write something good.
  2. Get an agent.
  3. Be published.

Fame and fortune comes shortly thereafter, obviously.

Seems straightforward, right? It’s some sort of natural law that anything seemingly simple is nothing of the sort. Any process, put under rigorous enough examination, can evolve into a complicated labyrinth of best practices and advice. Let’s explore.

Write something good

This is like starting off a career as a carpenter by building an entire house. Sure, most of us hone our skills by laying flooring, doing some drywall, maybe taking on a single room. But even those tasks, as complicated as they are, pale in comparison to the entire house.

That’s just covering the “write something” part. Writing something good is a carpenter building a house on the edge of a mountain.

It’s hard to know what’s good because art is subjective. I know what I think is good. But it’s not the same as what my sister thinks is good. I can’t know if it’s what the public at large thinks is good.

So we focus on the elements that, in the alchemy of storytelling, sometimes add up to a good story:

  • Develop deep, complex characters.
  • Drop them into an interesting situation.
  • Layer in conflict.
  • ???
  • Profit.

Assuming we nail those parts of it, what if we’re just not good writers? What if our grammar is a little weird, or we don’t vary our sentence length enough, or, gods forbid, our voice isn’t apparent? Then what?

Writing something good isn’t an easy ask. Say we succeed, though, and write something we’re damn proud of? Surely the hard part is over?

Get an agent

Now that we’ve written something good, the path is clear. Just gotta get an agent to help shepherd the work into the world, where it will be loved and appreciated. With a story as good as the one we have, shouldn’t take more than a few tries to find someone as passionate about the story as we are. First, though, the query.

How do we write a query? There are numerous ways, depending on the medium you’re writing in (prose, screenwriting, etc.) and sometimes down to genre or agent preference?

That’s fine. No problem. We just wrote something good, so a query letter can’t be hard.

Oh but it is.

And so this becomes a new struggle. Eventually, through much forum-diving, advice-seeking, and rage-crying, we write one we’re happy with.

Next, then, is researching agents. We’ll start by identifying agents that represent our genre. Do we know what specific genre our story is in? Gotta figure out which is best, science fiction or literary fiction with speculative elements? Did we write a psychological thriller or a mystery? Shit, there’s a lot of gore, maybe it’s horror?

Ok, we’ve got that all figured out and created a list of agents that will soon be fighting over our story.

Except for this first rejection. And the second. The first ten are flukes, surely. We’ll make some adjustments to the query letter. Send another ten queries…

… and that’s another ten rejections.

But it only takes one, right? Just one person to see what you see. We’ll keep going. The rejections hurt less after a while, anyway.

Be published

Here’s where I must say goodbye, for I have yet to reach this stage, and therefore cannot offer anything of substance. Hopefully one day soon I’ll be able to update this post with my experience being published.

Until then, best of luck.

DEAD POETS SOCIETY: The System Always Wins

Great film. One of my favorites. But…

DEAD POETS SOCIETY is famous for several things: Robin Williams’ Oscar nominated performance, the beautiful cinematography, and its uplifting message of nonconformity in the face of an overwhelming system designed to trample the individuality out of every single person within it.

The thing is, the system absolutely wins in the film. After all the speeches and the rebellions throughout the film, Neil is still dead, pushed to suicide under his father’s oppression, Mr. Keating is still fired, and the status quo is successfully protected. Through that lens the film doesn’t cry out “Carpe diem!”, but meekly whimpers “There is no true victory against the system.”

Yes, the students at the end of the film engage in one last act of protest, demonstrating the lasting effect Mr. Keating has had on them, but it’s largely performative. The students are still stuck at Wharton, having sold him out to keep their spots at their parent’s behest, and have actively made their situation worse in their brazenness. Now, instead of having Mr. Keating to engage their hearts, they are stuck with Mr. Nolan.

The system would allow for some rebellion, as it knows that’s how to keep people in line. Allow for small acts of individualism in controlled situations to give everyone a sense of freedom, without ever allowing true deviance from the norm. If the students had the maturity to realize that playing within the bounds of the status quo, slowly pushing against it until it expands without breaking, they would have gotten nearly everything they wanted.

Mr. Keating knows this, having 15 years of life experience over his students. That’s why, after Charlie Dalton gets in trouble for writing an editorial arguing that girls should be allowed at Wharton, only to follow it up with a disruptive “phone call from God,” Mr. Keating tells him, “Sucking all the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.” In short, in order to live as freely as possible within the system you have to work with it, not against it. Otherwise bad things happen.

In that sense, if we accept that as the film’s true message, it hews much more closely to how we each experience life. In school we’re given standardized tests that don’t care what our individual experiences or inner lives are like. As an adult we work within organizations that need everyone to move toward a common goal as efficiently as possible, which necessarily limits the quirkiness with which we can approach our jobs. It is limiting by design, because conforming to a larger purpose than we can achieve on our own is the only way a company can pump out 10,000,000 plastic widgets per year.

The fabled system, the one that keeps society as it is, for better or worse, is more powerful than any of us. DEAD POETS SOCIETY, despite all of its inspirational lectures, sneaking around at night, and proclamations of love in the middle of classrooms, understands that. What’s amazing is that despite this clear understanding, the film still feels inspirational. We’re still left with the feeling that individualism matters.

But it’s a trick.

Just like the system designed.

Lessons From HELL OR HIGH WATER

2016’s HELL OR HIGH WATER, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie, is damn near a perfect film. Beautifully directed, wonderfully acted, and expertly written, the movie exemplifies many of the aspects of storytelling that I think elevates the artform.

Begin in Media Res

If you seek out enough writing advice you’ll start to notice the same things being said over and over, but interpreted differently every time. The most egregious of these, in my opinion, is to start with action. Lots of writers interpret this advice as meaning to start with a fight scene, or someone being chased, and sometimes that works. But what the advice is really saying, and what HELL OR HIGH WATER does, is starts in media res. Meaning, we start with the story already in motion.

In this case, that means we’re starting with a bank robbery. Not the planning for the robbery. Not Toby picking Tanner up from his latest stint in jail and asking him for help. We learn the why and how of the robbery over the course of the film, but to begin we’re thrust into the most important moment of these characters’ lives, and the exact moment that puts the story in motion.

Begin in media res.

Building Empathy Through Relationships and Balancing Tone

Between the desperation of the characters, the actions they take out of that desperation, and the overall message of the film, it could have been bleak. We could have watched as one desperate father and his borderline sociopathic, irreparably damaged brother hurt people while robbing banks and being chased by a sad, nearly retired Texas Ranger with no hope for his future.

Instead, we get something else. Something that balances that heaviness with moments of levity that connects the audience to the characters by relating the characters to one another. One of the things that surprised me most on my re-watch (I initially saw it when it was first released four years ago) is how funny the film can be. Ben Foster’s character, Tanner, is especially charismatic. The way he ribs his younger brother and leans into the worst aspects of his personality to defect from the awfulness of his actions becomes endearing. This scene, for example:

The scene gets intense and violent, all because Tanner only knows how to escalate a situation. If you look closely at the scene, Tanner is prepared to shoot the kid before Toby intervenes. When Toby opens the door, you can see the gun at Tanner’s side. Despite the seriousness of the situation, he immediately diffuses his brother’s anger by making fun of him for forgetting to keep someone’s gun away from them earlier in the movie (“You remembered the gun! You’re getting old hat at this.”) and then busts his balls for buying Mr. Pibb instead of Dr. Pepper.

By seeing that aspect of their relationship, by understanding how Toby could so easily be swayed by Tanner’s humor, we’re won over, too.

Simplicity of Story in Service of Theme

The film’s story isn’t complex. There are essentially three main characters, and on major supporting character. There are no twists or turns. Everything happens as it does, in the order it does, and the consequences play out as they will. Motivations and rationalizations are clearly explained. The story is what it is, no unnecessary bells or whistles.

This simplicity streamlines the story, keeping the focus tight on the characters and the themes, and allowing the audience to be swept up into the journey. The themes of family, land, racism, and economic disparity are all complex, needing engagement from the audience to think on these things after the film. Keeping the story simple, straightforward, challenging the audience in a different way than a Chris Nolan film might (for example), allows for the focus to be on what’s most important. If the film had double-crosses, or was told in non-chronological order, that would be lost.

Social Commentary Done Right

HELL OR HIGH WATER has a very clear point of view. Banks and the already-wealthy are the real thieves in our society. Multiple characters point this out when discussing the morality of the robberies, but it’s really summed up with a short monologue by Toby near the end of the film:

Monologue starts around the 2:15 mark.

After spending the entire movie in poor, dying towns with boarded up buildings and billboards for debt relief dotting the land, Toby simply and eloquently sums it up: being poor is a disease. One he didn’t want to pass on to his children.

As I said, the film has a clear point of view. But it allows the audience to come around to that point of view on their own, only hammering the point home with this final scene. By spending time in those dying towns, watching the characters act out of desperation, we’ve already come to understand their plight. Toby’s vocalizing it doesn’t change that, he only reinforces it.

I think that’s how it should be done. Social commentary can easily be a turn-off for audiences if they’re beat over the head with it. Doing it subtly, with characters we understand and like, might make it stick.

Wattpad: A Detective Story

By Unknown author, extracted by Maxxl2i – Cover, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32592724

I’ve known for a long time that the best way to build an audience is to be part of a community. Community, after all, is where we get the support we need to improve our craft, build word of mouth, and get picked up when we fall down. Since college I’ve done quite a few in-person writer’s groups, from large organized groups to a small cadre of like-minded friends from work (oh how I miss you, Scribe n’ Imbibe). What I haven’t done much of is find an online community.

Many writer’s forums are intimidating to dive into, or seem to be infrequently used. While listening to The Bestseller Experiment podcast, an author mentioned using Wattpad to build her reader-base into a career. Well, that’s exactly what I want to do. So I put on my detective cap and dove into Wattpad for an investigation. Here’s what I’ve noticed so far:

The straight dirt.

Let’s get this out of the way: Wattpad is a legitimate service. They don’t retain any rights, there are no fees (unless you’re paying for Premium or something), and you have complete control over what goes in your story, what happens with it, etc. We can argue the wisdom of putting your work up for free if you’re trying to get traditionally published, but that likely doesn’t matter for most of us. Wattpad also offers plenty of opportunity for writers. There are contests, an annual award called the Wattys, and top authors have been given publishing deals and even sold movie / TV rights.

As far as I can tell, there is very little risk to publishing on Wattpad. So, the question then becomes: without much risk, is there much gain?

It’s a lot.

Wattpad is huge. There are literally millions of books, tons of features across different payment levels, and millions of users who, collectively, spend 23 billion minutes on the site per month (according to Wattpad). This doesn’t include the forums, which is impossible to manage without carefully curating the settings to your interests. Luckily, Wattpad has lots of explainers and features to help newbies do just that. Still, it can end up being a lot of time and effort to find yourself drowning in content. And if you’re a writer, it’s akin to throwing a drop of water into the ocean hoping that a fish will find it.

Wattpad skews young.

Within a few days of bopping around the forums, searching for an online writer’s group for critiques, I ended up in a Discord chat with another aspiring author. She is a moderator for the chat and was orienting me with the group, and I made an offhand comment about my day job. After a lot of back and forth, I came to find that she was finishing her first semester of college, which meant she was maybe 18 or 19 years old.

Friends, I’m nearly old enough to be her father. (That’s only a slight exaggeration.)

In another interaction on a forum, I found myself giving writing advice to a 15 year old. I had to dig to find older writers on the site, and it’s unclear how many are active in the community itself. The vast majority of Wattpad’s users seem to be teenagers or young adults (according to this article from a successful Wattpad author, eighty-five percent are between 13 and 30 years old), so if you want to publish there keep that in mind. Your James Joyce-ian tome with alternating chapters from a woman on her deathbed and the ghost of her ancestor probably won’t appeal. Which brings me to…

Readers prefer very specific genres.

Wattpad added separate subgenres for “Vampire” and “Werewolf” fiction. That might be a hint as to the types of stories that are most popular on the platform. The most popular stories on the site seem to be absolutely dominated by romance. Specifically, billionaire romance, which is a subgenre of romance stories where one of the main characters is a billionaire. There is also a large fan fiction audience.

In short, unless you’re writing in one of those genres your story will have a tough time gaining readers. Not impossible, and there are some more literary writers that have wracked up tens of thousand of hundreds of thousand of views, but difficult.

Expectations.

I’m only at the beginning of my Wattpad experiment. I’ve found the forums to be friendly and, in the case of my deciding on a cover to use for my posted story, helpful. My (admittedly limited) presence on the forums doesn’t seem to be translating to reads, but I’ve only posted two chapters within the past few days. I’m going to give it a bit of time, continue posting chapters and browsing the forums, and see if that translates to readers.

This investigation is ongoing.

Cheap plug.

Read my novella, A NIGHT OF CHAOS on Wattpad. I’ll be publishing it chapter-by-chapter for the next month or so. A brief description:

On the night of his bachelor party, disaffected Anh Nguyen is ensnared by wild child Amy Hess with the promise of a capital-A “Adventure.” Anh ditches his groomsmen to wander Buffalo, NY, with Amy and quickly finds that the adventure she promised is really a city-wide attempt at disrupting aspects of society, from the city’s community centers to the highest echelons of its power–all driven by a mysterious religion.

The nature of Amy’s mission forces Anh to question everything he knows about society, religion, and the trajectory of his life. As Amy introduces chaos everywhere she goes, Anh struggles to reconcile who he is with who he wants to be.

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