Bo Burnham’s Answer to “Am I a Real Writer?”

Bo Burnham is doing an AMA over at Reddit, and one of his answers struck a chord with me. Often, I find myself wondering ‘Am I a real writer?’ Burnham answers that question beautifully, and I want to pass it on to all of you:

Some one asked him the question, “Was there ever a single point in your career that you thought “I’ve made it” as an actor/comedian?” Here’s his response:

“You know, that was a problem for me for a long time. Believing that I hadn’t MADE it yet or I wasn’t a REAL COMEDIAN. I think its especially prevalent for people that makes things online. That making youtube videos isn’t REAL. It took me a long time to realize that I’d been real the whole time, and the thing that I am pursuing was the thing I was pursuing doing theater in sixth grade. Do you write? You’re a writer. Do you act? You’re an actor. I’d say don’t wait to get some arbitrary version of success or attention for you to believe that you are doing the thing. You really can start enjoying it right away. You don’t have to wait to be good. The process of doing it is the process of becoming better not being good.”

I felt better as soon as I read that. I AM a real writer. So are you. So is everyone else who dares to jot their thoughts down to share with others. Stop asking whether you’re doing it for real, and just do it. That’s how you know it’s real.

Gene Roddenberry’s Sci-fi Solution to Racism

Let’s talk for a moment about Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi solution to racism. I know I’ve talked about Roddenberry before, but the guy is a personal hero and current events make it necessary to speak out again.

The NYT is talking about the worrisome trend of ‘racist science fiction.’ Being a person who loves sci-fi, it bothers me to think that my beloved genre could be co-opted to divide people. At the same time, one can see how powerful an idea can be when persons perceive that it’s time has come.

But what if that idea is horrible? What if that mindset can lead to hate, murder, and genocide? That’s what frightens me, and I think it disturbed yesteryear sci-fi creators like Gene Roddenberry and Rod Serling as well. ‘Superman,’ ‘Star Trek,’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’ dealt with anti-facist, anti-racial themes in their time. Rather than taking the issue head on, which would have resulted in failure, they spoke directly to people they knew would listen: The kids.

That strategy has power. Star Trek imagined a future where the Cold War was over, and American racism had died out. Rod Serling mercilessly mocked authoritarian logic in ‘The Obsolete Man’: “This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one […] But like every one of the super-states that preceded it, it has one iron rule: logic is an enemy and truth is a menace.”

Superman himself was responsible for a significant victory. In addition to defeating Lex Luthor, Superman defeated the Klan where normal, law-abiding citizens could not. He didn’t just leap tall buildings in a single bound, he jumped over impossible hurdles in human perspective.

The point that science fiction taught us is simple, and powerful: We can live without racism. We can treat each other with respect and dignity. We can eliminate imaginary boundaries to fellowship and kindness. We can use the power of the mind, and spirit, to create a decent world.

I’m not sure what this means for me, personally. What I do know is that my sci-fi is about a future that just *is*. Even if I’ve said it before, I’m going to say it again. And as long as it needs to be said, I’ll keep saying it. Maybe one day, we can move onto topics of greater interest.

World Leaders Go Full Dystopia

Just read a creepy article – about a recent conversation with the nervous 1%. How will they survive the coming collapse of society? For people who project a bright vision of the future in public, it’s alarming to see world leaders go full dystopia in private. What do you do when money goes away? How do you maintain your family’s safety, or its quality of life?

These don’t seem to be idle questions. As you read through the discussion, you can see that wealthy people have no illusions about how the rest of us feel about them. They also have no illusions on the stability of society as a whole.

The sad part is, where you’d think this would lead some to introspection, and self-realization, they continue to rationalize sociopathic behavor:

They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

It’s a sad, depressing piece of news to contemplate, but not surprising. Plutocrats have been saying for a while that this massive imbalance of societal power will eventually result in disaster. However, where is the natural “hey, we have to stop the Titanic from sinking!” mentality? If you know society is going to explode, and you wield massive amounts of influence, why aren’t you doing something about it?

I already know the answer to that question, and maybe you do, too. It doesn’t change the fact that the rich and wealthy could do something, even if they chose not to because of the realities of wealth creation and social power dynamics. It’s also why I have no interest in writing dystopian fiction. We’re already living there.

The message is: Start preparing for the future, because they are.

Five Ways to Manage Author Stress

“Ugh,” you’re saying. “This is supposed to be fun. But now, after a few months, writing is starting to feel like … like work!” Creative endeavors, whether they be painting, sculpting, movies or yes, writing have a level of stress about them. I’m experiencing them, and maybe you are, too. That’s why I wanted to pass along some ideas on five ways to manage author stress. After all, we’re going to be doing this for a long time. Here’s the low-down on how to avoid burn out:

1. Plan your work, and work your plan – the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So does your writing project. Break down the work into discrete chunks, and celebrate milestones, big and small!

2. Clean Your Room – there’s something intrinsically healing about self-care (see #4). Organize your desk, organize your online story files, or return that email. Clear the clutter of your room to clear the clutter of your mind.

3. Talk it out – Nothing beats a sounding board. Find an online group, find a person in a library, find a therapist. Talk about your feelings. A recent study shows that, more than information or solutions, people want emotional support when they have a problem.

4. Take Care of You – Over and over again, experts from Stephen R. Covey to Susan Rinkunas say ‘Sharpen the Saw‘ or ‘Take care of you.’ You aren’t a machine, and even if you are, even machines need to shut down for patch updates. Take a break, get some exercise, eat right, and sleep. Take care of you.

5. Remember: This is supposed to be fun. You got into this because you wanted to do what you love for a living. Don’t forget to love it! Not loving it is your body’s way of saying “I’m not into this – I should try something else.” Take a break from that novel. Take a step back from that social media campaign. Refresh, renew, and recharge. Find the joy by doing something else for a while. Come back when you feel like you’re ready.

To wrap up, you write to live, you don’t live to write. Don’t expect more of yourself than is reasonable of any other human being. You aren’t perfect, you deserve to rest and enjoy life, too. If George R R Martin can let his public wait for a new GoT novel, then quit stressing about your deadlines. None of us are getting out of this alive, so let’s enjoy the ride as long as we can.

 

Special thanks to the following resources on stress, especially author-specific stress:

Who are you to be giving this advice?

I know I’m a weird little person living inside a carefully-constructed universe that revolves around my illness. I’ve accepted that already. Despite my disabilities, I’m still trying to push my life forward and this article is one example of that effort. Thanks for being awesome.

Mesh – Writing Young is Tougher Than You Think

Mesh – Writing Young is Tougher Than You Think

One of the most unique challenges of ‘Mesh’ for me is to go back and re-capture what it feels like to be a kid. No joke, when you’re in your forties, writing young is tougher than you think.

Early beta reader drafts included a lot of feedback on how ‘old’ the kids sounded. It didn’t take long for me to understand the truth: I’m not a kid anymore. My perspective has changed, my viewpoints have changed. I approach problems with a different outlook than I did when I was fourteen, and if you aren’t careful, this comes through in your writing.

I was reading this article about modern kids in the California Sun, and the pictures reminded me of me when I was in my teens. It also reminded me that no matter what, kids are still kids. Sure, they have new gadgets, new fashion, new problems and new opportunities compared to me. But, the bottom line is that they’re still smart people, strong people, demonstrating their potential while learning about the world around them.

Roman and Zeke – the main characters of Mesh – do too. When they come to life in Mesh, they will be somewhere in the future. Like these young people, they’ll find themselves deep into adult problems they never dreamed existed, they will also wrestle with challenges no kid should have to deal with. However, like these kids, Roman and Zeke are going to find their way through. They’re going to succeed, they will overcome, and we will be proud of them when that happens.

Capturing that voice, that unique moment in a young person’s life, is hard work for me. Yet, it’s fun work, and with the help of the Mesh community, I know that I will get it right.

Stupid Protagonist Problems

Ever watch a movie where you’re actively rooting for the bad guys to win ten minutes into the film? If you’re into that kind of thing, look no further than Netflix’s new apocalyptic thriller ‘How It Ends,’ released a couple of days ago. Although ambitious and well-shot, ‘How It Ends’ suffers from a fatal disease that I like to call ‘Stupid Protagonist Problems.’ Since we’re in the business of storycraft and storytelling, it makes sense for us to talk about stupid protagonist problems, and how we can avoid them in our own work.

I’m always disappointed when Netflix releases a clunker. I love Netflix. I love sci-fi. Whenever they’re producing indie sci-fi like Tau, Spectre, or Altered Carbon, I’m invested in their success. I want them to work, because their success is subtle black eye for mainstream studios that refuse to take a chance on original stories.

You can imagine, then, how disappointed I was to see ‘How It Ends,’ featuring one of my favorite actors (Theo James from Divergent) stumble so badly. It’s not hard to spot the problems. James’ character makes a number of cringeworthy choices in the first twenty-five minutes that leave you going: “This guy passed the bar exam?” He awshucks his way through disasterous encounters featuring parking-lot hookers, fake cops, and … American Indians? God this guy is dumb. After thirty minutes, the only question I had was: Why hasn’t Forest Whitaker killed this guy already?

Anyway.

The point is that How It Ends suffers from stupid protagonist problems (SPP), which happen when writers don’t ask themselves a very simple, basic question: Would my character really do that? What do we know about our character? Is he smart? Naive? Educated? Ignorant? What kind of choices would they make under these circumstances? Would they be smart choices, or dumb ones?

In ‘How It Ends,’ the protag is a young, successful attorney. Would he be dumb enough to walk straight up to a prostitute, with his disapproving future father-in-law hovering nearby while the world is ending? Probably not. Would he be too dumb to know how to load a gun, but smart enough to follow Forest Whitaker’s instructions during a car chase? The entire movie is rife with the kind of structure problems you learn to avoid in seventh-grade creative writing.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes chracters are going to be dumb (Looking at you, Lennie from Of Mice and Men), sometimes they’re going to make bad choices (any protag in a Shane Black movie), and sometimes they are going to make mistakes (Anakin Skywalker not taking the high ground). That’s basic storytelling. But when characters consistenly make lame choices that leave you scratching your head, that’s just bad storytelling.

Stupid protagonist problems are something you fix after your first writing session. The fact that they survived all through production, post-production, editing, release … that’s just sad. Netflix needs to spend less getting A-list stars and more on copies of ‘The Elements of Style’ by William Strunk, because as ‘How It Ends’ proves, no movie star looks good when the writing is bad.

 

 

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream – RIP, Harlan Ellison

Sad news in sci-fi land. Harlan Ellison has left us. After 84 years of manic, mad whimsy … our Harlequin is no more. John Scalzi has written a touching essay that’s available over at the LA Times and I link it here because I can’t do the man justice, myself. Tim Minear has a hysterical Harlan story over on Facebook.

For all the crazy stories about Ellison, one fact remained crazier – they weren’t stories. He really was a madcap bohemian rebel, determined to annoy, destroy, and disrupt any conventional piece of wisdom he came across. I never met him personally, perhaps this was a good thing. In memoriam, here is Harlan doing an audiobook reading of his famous short story.

Goodnight, you strange beast.