I Believe in America (also, The Truth about America)

First, one universal truth and one national truth.

The universal truth is that every human being is an unwavering, perfect band of light. That light is truth.

More specifically, that light is an encoded message. Each band of it, each individual human being, contains the sum of everything the universe knows about itself: every experience, every chemical structure, every physical law, everything.

The universe sends out these bands of light (which exist also in animals and stones and everything else) so that it can learn of itself. What we often call “God” or “the Divine” or “the Mystery” is simply everything, the total sum, finding ever more sophisticated ways to share itself with itself.

This leads us into the national truth.

The national truth is that the United States of America is a country put together by human beings which has the potential to carry out something perfectly aligned with the universe’s mission.

Specifically, it has the potential to become a project where the black human beings, the brown human beings, the pale human beings, the many nations of human beings who were here before the pale human beings came, the albino human beings, the deaf human beings, the blind human beings, the human beings with disabilities, the human beings who are not neurotypical, the human beings who are chronically ill, the human beings who are lesbian, the human beings who are gay, the human beings who are asexual, the human beings who are queer, the human beings who are trans, the human beings who are secular, and the human beings who practice any religious faith whatsoever, and every other kind of human being all participate in the same crucial task.

That task: for each of them to share their unwavering band of light with the world. To look into each other, through the eyes, ears, touch, or any other means, and say this:

“Yes, I am the infinite too. It’s good to see you again.”

America, through its splendid variety, has the chance to say so in a thunderously loud voice. Yet, there are some who hope it won’t.

The “hope it won’t” camp includes Nazis, White Supremacists, Fundamentalists, Fascists, the Alt Right, and all their supporters, loud or quiet.

They do not want the universe to share itself with itself. They want to shutter out those bands of light because it is too painful to look into them. When the infinite looks into them, they fear the honesty it asks for in return, so they cower and turn away.

Instead they obsess over the body, which is a vessel for that perfect band of light (and part of what it means to teach) but not the light itself.

They claim that the shape of the body’s skull leaves it more or less predisposed to violence, as does the color of its skin, the dialect with which it speaks, the sexual partners it chooses, and so many other disconnected details.

They point to the mistakes of America’s past and say, “Those weren’t mistakes. We should keep those brutalities going.”

All the while they deny that they themselves are perfect bands of light too, and that they commit an act of real suicide by shuttering out the other bands of light.

In the most secret depths of their hearts, they recognize their own actions as suicide. That is what they want. They want to die in such a profound way that everything dies.

They think the universe is a hateful, stupid child that must be disciplined into better behavior or, failing that, beaten until it dies.

Still, that America that can and should be, the America of Light, is growing. It will cover the whole land mass one day. It is the America I believe in.

It is not necessarily the America the Founding Fathers planned for, because it’s something even better: it is an America that generations and generations of Americans decided upon, that generations of Americans will continue to build.

And for the America of Light to keep growing, it might become necessary for the human beings who believe in it to destroy the human beings that don’t. A civil war, in the worst case scenario, and at the very least, violent resistance on the streets.

Do not look at the universe’s infinite love for itself and mistake it for pacifism. It is not. The universe has fought ferociously to stop itself from destroying itself, and it will do so again.

Nonetheless, the warriors of the America of Light should calm their hearts with the knowledge that they can destroy certain vessels of the perfect light without harming the light itself.

They need not burden themselves with hatred or even anger for those human beings that oppose them. They need only do what is right and necessary to keep the light shining, to keep open the possibility of an America that loves itself and shares with itself the same way the universe does.

In the America of Light, there won’t be much left of the old kind of patriotism, the kind that says, “America has an image, and you will reflect that image or die. This image, this country, is the only one that matters.”

No, the America of Light will have a new kind of patriotism, one that says, “We are proud of this place because there are many human beings here who care enough to make it better, who share their perfect bands of light with each other and with the world beyond. There are other countries who do this too. We admit to the mistakes we made before and work to do better.”

I know that this America will come, because in shimmering little corners, in the clear eyes and open palms of awakened human beings, it’s already here.

This the America I believe in. This is the America I serve.

One nation, out of many, playing its part in the dance.

How I Killed my First Novel (and How Structure Could’ve Saved it)

Club Classic was the tentative title, after the main character, and the story could’ve worked. It was a story of self-discovery set in a near-future “dystopia lite” where mega corporations have officially replaced the United States government and split the country into newer, smaller states.

The titular Club Classic was a professional dancer trying to find a sense of self in a world where everything from the walls of people’s homes to the surface of the ocean was covered in advertisements, and where the aforementioned mega corporations seemed to know everything about everybody.

I stuffed a lot of strange, risky ideas into the story, but the core of it could’ve worked. The only problem was, I had no idea what the core was. The story had too many darlings, and I had no framework at all for what I should cut and what I should keep when it came time to revise.

Indeed, I spent quite a lot of my own money hiring a respectable New York editor to look over the manuscript. He did exactly what he was meant to do: he gave me an honest assessment. He never said, but rather, implied that the manuscript was a complete mess.

With hindsight, I can tell he was being enormously patient and generous with me, but at the time it stung. He even wrote me a detailed synopsis of how he envisioned the final version of the story. It had a lot of the same elements of my story but it didn’t feel like mine.

I thanked him and payed him. I told him I would keep him in mind for any next steps, and he said he would be happy to work with me again whenever I was ready.

Then I went through, to date, my most painful and embarrassing writing experience.

I was sitting in a Starbucks with my laptop open, switching between my manuscript and the editor’s notes. I can’t tell you how long I sat there, although it felt like days.

I’ve had writing moments before when my hands felt paralyzed, because I was so confused about what to write next. This time, my entire body felt paralyzed.

No, not even paralyzed: chained. I remember squirming on that couch, trying to escape. I wanted to escape writing. I wanted to escape my first and truest love. I wanted to escape the very thing that makes me who I am.

The only thing that pulled me back to myself was remembering the time I had quit writing, which had lead to darker and scarier moments than even this.

So I did the only thing I could to keep myself together and keep writing: I killed my first novel. I closed the manuscript, closed the notes, and I haven’t looked at either of them since.

To prevent a similar disaster with my next book, I spent the next few weeks absorbing books on story structure (funny how they never taught me that while I was getting my Creative Writing degree—a story for another time).

I found two different story structure systems that I liked, so I smashed them together to create my own multi-layered, purposefully redundant story outlining system.

The result: a complete first draft of a full-length manuscript in about six months, while still working a full-time day job. I’ve made plenty of tweaks to the manuscript since then, but the magical thing is that every time I go back to tweak it I know exactly what I need to change and where.

Often, I find I can make the fix I need just by replacing a single conversation, or by moving a plot detail forwards or backwards in the story. No matter what tweaks I make, the structure still holds.

I used to fear structure because I thought it would make my stories feel formulaic. Not true. If anything, my novel manuscript by now feels a lot more natural than some of my short stories, which I mostly pants my way through.

This is the same manuscript, by the way, which got at least one agent interested in seeing more, and which has gotten rave reviews from my brilliant and merciless test reader, Gabby.

I’m extremely happy with where my writing is now, but the one thing that pains me is when I think back to Club Classic and realize how it could’ve survived if I’d only planned ahead, and how much pain and anguish I could’ve skipped on a personal level if I’d only embraced story structure.

This is all to say that, if you are a writer, you should make a point to study story structure and outline in advance at least one of your projects. Yes, even if you, like the old me, think you are a pantser.

Structure: it won’t kill you, but the lack of it might.  

You Only Get One Darling

Credit to Kool With A K on YouTube for inspiring this post!

“Kill your darlings” is bad writing advice because it’s sloppy. Since nobody ever specifies which darlings to kill, the heuristic becomes, “If I care about something in my writing, I have to delete it.”

No wonder so many of the writers who take this advice to heart end up burning out before they can create their best work. That, or they end up bitter and resentful later in their careers.

Writers usually start as readers, and readers seek out things they can fall in love with and keep and cherish. Why should we expect the mature writer to have the exact opposite instincts as the reader?

“Kill your darlings” is a bad rule but, nonetheless, it tries to correct a real problem. Namely, a story needs to earn the agreement of many different people to survive out in the wild. This includes editors, agents, publishers, other creators, and most importantly, readers. In most cases, this means compromising.

Our “darlings” make for the most difficult compromises, since they are the parts of the story that feel precious to us but are too weird, too specific, too flowery, or too anything else for most people’s taste.

When faced with these compromises, the amateur folds their arms and says, “No.” There are a million potential excuses they can offer, everything from, “I’m not good enough to fix this,” to “You’re an idiot, I’m a genius, and one day the world will see I was right.”

Whatever their excuse is, the underlying logic is the same each time: “This is too precious for me to change.”

The professional does make these compromises, one way or another. “Kill your darlings” is one way, but there are many other, healthier ways (and, for that matter, some even more destructive ways).

“Kill your darlings” is a way of trying to avoid the difficult compromises altogether by cutting out the controversial bits ahead of time. Come to think of it, it’s a rather paranoid and selfish rule in addition to being sloppy.

Let me offer you a more mature and useful rule, one that will allow you to sharpen your craft while still chasing the things you love:

“You only get one darling.”

That darling could be a plotline, a character, an image, a metaphor, a theme, or any other element of your story. Whatever it is, it’s the one thing you’re going to guard with unwavering devotion.

And then you’re going to compromise on everything else.

This a many-splendored rule. First, it gives you a sense of deep confidence, because no matter what changes may come, you always know that this is your story. Second, it doesn’t turn you into a bitter old jackass like Norman Mailer. Third, it forces you to dig deep and really understand what your story is ABOUT.

Because your story is not ABOUT its premise, or the things that happen in the plot, or your cool hero. It’s ABOUT something deeper. Any project that’s worth sweating through to the end is ABOUT something, and figuring that something out is the most important thing you can do to grow as a writer.

Now, let’s look at two recent movie examples, starting with one that fails to follow this principle: The Mummy, 2017.

The Mummy is a stunningly bad movie for far too many reasons for me to list here (for one, Set is the Egyptian god of storms and chaos, not death). Still, there are many elements of its story that could have worked wonders in the context of a different story.

***Spoiler Warning for The Mummy, 2017***

For example, having Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as the head of the secret monster hunting society Prodigium is a great idea, but since none of the other characters are as developed (or as campy) as those two it feels like a waste.

And for that matter, “Prodigium” probably could work as the name for that monster hunting society, but it feels like it belongs in a more serious, academic universe than the (intentionally or no) campy, B-horror fun of the Dark Universe.

Even the concept of a forgotten Egyptian princess making a Faustian pact with Set could’ve worked if the writers had actually understood Egyptian mythology and found a smoother way to integrate their invented character.

***End of The Mummy, 2017 Spoilers***

Seeing the pattern yet? These good ideas don’t get a chance to thrive because none of them are the central focus, and the writers somehow missed the fact that none of them harmonize with each other.

The funny thing here is that many critics are chalking this up to laziness. That’s entirely possible, but it’s equally likely that the filmmakers were passionate about the project but just couldn’t bring themselves to find the one darling of the story and kill the other, unnecessary ones.

Now let’s look another recent movie that does follow this principle: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

First off, if you haven’t seen this movie, go watch it immediately. It’s wonderful.

Now, this is a perfect example to use here because Guardians 2 sounds like, on the surface, a chaotic kitchen sink of a movie. The main cast includes an Earthling dude raised by space pirates, a talking racoon, a sentient tree baby, along with a host of other aliens, and the genre is somewhere between a space opera and a crime caper.

Yet, the movie is ABOUT one very clear, specific thing. It has only one darling.

Of course, I do want to take a moment to credit all the crew members, CG artists, actors, editors, managers, and so on who worked hard to make the film look and sound so delightful…

…but still, none of that would’ve added up to a memorable film if the script didn’t provide the one darling.

So what’s the one darling?

I can illustrate it with a single, pivotal scene.

***Spoiler Warning for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2***

Over the course of the film, our hero Peter Quill discovers that the evil quasi-god-figure Ego is his father, and that he himself could attain god-like power by joining his side. Instead, Peter decides to destroy Ego to stop his plan of killing all life in the universe by replacing it with himself.

During their final battle, Ego restrains Peter and warns him that if he dies, Peter will never again have access to his god-like power.

Ego’s exact words are “You’ll be just like everybody else.”

Peter then has a flashback to all the people he’s felt close to throughout his life, including some of the very people who have sometimes harmed or disappointed him. Yondu, for example, has alternated between hunting down Peter and acting as his father figure. In this sequence, Peter remembers the latter—the very moments when he and Yondu felt most connected.

Then Peter says the most important line in the film (and I start openly weeping with joy):

“What’s so bad about that?”

THAT is the one darling of the film. It’s the core theme: no matter how imperfect people are, the connections they form between each other are the real meaning of life. With that question, Peter shows that he’s rejecting godhood because it would mean abandoning the flawed, real people who matter to him.

With that one darling in place, all the other subplots of the film make sense. Gamora’s arc involves learning that her conflict with her sister Nebula was never really about jealousy; it was about a lack of genuine sisterhood. Yondu was willing to risk banishment from the Ravagers because of his fatherly connection to young Peter, and the Ravagers posthumously accept him back into the fold once they recognize the heroism of his sacrifice.

By the end of the film, even Rocket is starting to learn that he doesn’t need to wander through life nurturing his feelings of isolation. As weird as his story is, there are still others who relate to it.

***End of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Spoilers***

I can almost guarantee you the filmmakers had to make a lot of compromises along the way to get Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 finished and out to the public. At each of those moments, I’m sure they thought back to their one darling and asked themselves which decision would best serve it.

So remember: You Only Get One Darling.

YOGOD?

Seek the Enthusiastic Yes

At my freshman orientation at UCSB, they told us the best way to approach sexual consent is to seek “the enthusiastic yes.”

The most important word there is “enthusiastic” because it’s possible to get a yes from coercion or persistence, but that can harm the other person and cause trouble for you later.

And sex, like lawn games, is only as fun as the energy each person brings to it.  

The enthusiastic yes is an idea is so good we should start applying it to our art as well.

You can beg and scrape and plead to get people to look at your work. You can maybe even get them to pay for it. However, you’ll almost never create any true fans this way.

The common comparison here is the used car salesman, but you have to realize that he’s playing a very different game than you are. The used car salesman doesn’t have to worry about building relationships, because people only come to him to bargain hunt, and he doesn’t have to worry about integrity, because nobody expects much from a used car.

In the arts, relationships are everything, and integrity matters.

By the time potential fans come to you, they already have dozens of entertainment options that feel like home to them. They can already name movies, books, TV, games, or music that have changed their lives. If you want them to take a gamble on you, you need to show them that you can make them feel as good or better than those things make them feel.

Plus, the artist is always part of the art. The more someone absorbs your work, the more curious they become about the person behind it. Theorists be damned—art comes from people and people know it!

To be clear: the integrity I’m talking about here comes in many different forms. Hunter S. Thompson had this kind of integrity. Carrie Fisher had this kind of integrity. Prince had this kind of integrity.

I’m talking about the integrity of showing up as who you actually are—of letting your audience see the where the art really comes from. This is also the integrity of telling the truth (which is not necessarily the same as telling what happened, because we are storytellers after all).

All this leads back to that most important goal: the enthusiastic yes.

The enthusiastic yes starts out as something like this:

“Wow, that sounds fascinating! I’ll give it a try.”

…which is only possible when you yourself are fascinated, and when you leave enough room in your pitch for the other person to insert themselves.

Later, the enthusiastic yes sounds like this:

“Thank you so much for everything you’ve made. The second you publish something, I always make sure to get a copy. When will your next thing be out?”

You can build a career out of the enthusiastic yes, if you want to.

If you do, you should apply the principle at every level. Seek the enthusiastic yes not just from your audience, but also from editors, agents, wholesalers, librarians, influencers, publishers, and anyone else in the business of spreading art.

This takes discipline. When there’s money involved, it’s tempting and easy to settle for “sure, okay” or “yes, but…” You might even find the half-interested party is offering you a larger sum than the enthusiastic party. The first option might give you cash. The second option might give you a career.

So seek the enthusiastic yes—in sex, art, and everything else.

Daily or Not, it Takes a Long Time

“How do you write like that?”

I get this question a lot. It’s flattering, but more than anything it makes me feel awkward and a little disappointed—disappointed in myself, of course, for offering such rambling, useless answers.

Over the years, I’ve honed my answer down to one word. It’s the most honest, straightforward answer I can offer: “time.”

Though I’ve come to accept it, I still don’t like this answer. It demands so much from us writers. It robs me of the chance to say that I’m some unique, special creature, or that I discovered some secret of the craft through arcane means.

The truth is, I don’t know anything more about writing than you do. At least, I don’t know the things I know the way a quantum physicist knows Planck’s constant. I look at words, then I feel things about them, then I look at their context, then I make guesses, then my readers decide if I’m right.

The source of my powers is certainly not my word choice, or my imagery, or my command of grammar, or my ideas, or any other component part of my craft. I used to think those things were the answer, or at least close to the answer, but they’re not. I know they’re not because I see other, less experienced writers do things which, technically speaking, are the same things I do—except they don’t work.

This is as frustrating for me as it is for them.

At this point, I could offer any number of mystical explanations for this phenomenon. The problem with the muses and all their millions of equivalents, however, is that they answer “why” and then try to reverse engineer “how” from there.

Every writer gets to invent their own answer to “why” so you don’t need my help or anyone else’s to figure that out. For the writer who has already answered “why” for themselves, “how” is far more relevant.

And “how” has to be “time,” because all the other possible answers have too many exceptions.

Today, I consider myself an “above average” writer, in the strictest sense of the phrase. I’m somewhere within the 51th percentile. I’m working on becoming a master writer, but that’s going to take another five years at least.

That’s why, about a year ago now, I decided to write every day. I figured I could cover the spacetime more easily if I treated it like a marathon rather than a series of sprints.

My goal with my daily writing is not to become a legitimate writer, because I already am a legitimate writer and so are you. My goal isn’t to impress everyone, either, because it’s mostly unseen work.

My goal is to get where I’m trying to go sooner and with my spirit still intact.

Do you need to write every day? I don’t know.

I don’t know where you’re going or when you plan on getting there. All I know is that you’ll probably need to cover a lot of spacetime. How you do it (the “how of how,” if you will) is up to you.