Caucasion Nation

I just read and very much enjoyed an article from the upcoming issue of n+1 called “Caucasion Nation.” It exposes the current crypto-racism in the Tea Party by examining the similarity between their ideas and the ones used by Confederates, Reconstruction white supremicists and the opponents of Civil Rights — specifically casting white people as the victims of a vast conspiracy by black and other minorities to… um… exist.

We all know that racism has been sufficiently anathematized in America that it can no longer present itself directly, perhaps no longer even to the minds of those who engage in it. A paradoxical consequence of this apparent progress is that only in extreme cases can racism be referred to publicly by people in a position to condemn it. One begins to think of race in Obama’s America like sex in some caricature of Freud’s Vienna: simultaneously the main theme of all conversation, and the one that can’t be mentioned. Instead of being “overcome,” historic American racism against nonwhite people has gone into deep cover and, with the irrefutable illogic of the unconscious, emerged as a newfangled American antiracism for the protection of white people.

Read the whole thing here. I highly recommend it if you want to read a very eloquent explanation of exactly why all of the Tea Party imagery that you vaguely sense is racist but can’t exactly explain why, is really, really racist.

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And in related but much less serious news, right before I read “Caucasion Nation” I also happened across this funny video called “Black Men Ski.” Enjoy!

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The Grad School Files, Part 1: Interlochen Reunion


Me (top) along with my friends (L to R) Carsen, April, Ruthie, Alana and Edwin in a tree at Interlochen Arts Academy at our ten year reunion in September 2010.

I’m one of those few people out there who, like jocks and cheerleaders, had a wonderful high school experience. I spent my junior and senior year at Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school in northern Michigan where every student has an arts major. Mine, no shock, was creative writing. Interlochen was — probably still is — the most difficult experience of my life. I was thrust into a situation where I was expected to perform, artistically and academically, far beyond my competence. It was a struggle. I wrote and read and struggled constantly. I did homework late into the night. I had to deal with living away from home at age 16, having my first real girlfriends with all of the attendant mistakes, and being snowbound five months a year in the middle of a forest where no one I knew had a car.

Even during that extremely difficult first semester I felt amazing. I was ecstatic to be free of my public high school (a very decent school that I was proud to go to but so very midwestern and ordinary) and into a place where everyone was as creative as I was, everyone participated in class, everyone wanted to be there. I was so happy that I, previously a shy kid, started to act out in strange ways, like playing pranks with a squirt gun and wearing awful Hawaiian shirts that just technically qualified as the school uniform. Before that I had only written sci-fi stories, fanfic really, for my friends’ amusement and now real, published writers were teaching me and expecting me to turn out serious, literary fiction and dramatic writing — and somehow, at the end of two years I went from being the Star Trek kid to a real writer good enough to make those teachers proud. Most importantly, I made a group of friends that forms the core of my social circle to this day.

Interlochen is just an inspiring place. First of all, it’s beautiful. It’s in the forest, by a lake. In the autumn the changing leaves are breathtaking, the stark landscape when it’s buried under three feet of snow in the winter feels satisfyingly empty, and the spring, when the snow melts, when the lake thaws, when life returns… it’s the best and the most beautiful time of all. To fill a place like that with talented, young musicians, dancers, visual artists, actors and writers who are all filled with the excitement of really being challenged for the first time in their lives, and dedicated to pure creativity without any thought of commercialism, marketability or where to get a paycheck from, is a recipe for something very near heaven. True, those kids are being set up for a disappointment when they find out that life isn’t quite that pure. Some that I know didn’t care to continue in the arts once they saw what the professional world was like, and that’s okay. The experience of Interlochen is reason enough to go to Interlochen. And for those who did continue — like, I was suprised to discover, me — it’s better to have started with that sweet, romantic naïveté because we continue to try like mad to somehow keep it alive in what we do.

Last September was my ten year reunion. My friends and fellow alumni got together and rented a house near campus and spent three days catching up with old classmates and visiting the current students in their classes. It was quite an experience. Things have changed and yet the feeling is still there. The writing class I visited talked about Michael Chabon and James Frey rather than Ray Carver and Joyce Carol Oates (although Hemingway’s perrenial favorite “Hills Like White Elephants,” which only a writing teacher could love, still came up, so I guess things haven’t changed that much), but the students still had that same intense, almost comically serious dedication to coaxing Art from their pens and keyboards.

Being there, I could feel the creative energy of Interlochen flowing back into me and my friends. Two friends who have lapsed in their artistic pursuits suddenly started talking about reapplying themselves. The effect wasn’t temporary either — even now, a month and a half later, they’re both still committed.

For my part, I felt good about everything I’ve accomplished. In the ten years since leaving college I’ve written a half a dozen short stories that I stand by, three unproduced feature screenplays, three stage plays that were produced and started a novel. I’ve also won two major fiction awards, the Hopwood and the Iowa Review Award, and other miscellanea. And I also managed to have a great social life and do a lot of exciting things, and worked enough to finance 99 percent of my post-college life. It was hard work, it was slow work, but I had kept the faith with the Interlochen artistic ideals and I felt really good about it.

But for all I had accomplished, I still felt a little bit amateur. I want writing to be my career, but it’s just a hobby that I’m very dedicated to. I’ve grown so much, and yet the result is that I’m becoming more and more aware of certain limitations. More than that, I sensed in myself the problem that anyone who is largely self-taught has: I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And that was the moment I decided for certain that I wanted to go to grad school.

STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO IN THIS SERIES: Why I Want to Go to Grad School.

Leave a comment! What was (were) the hardest and greatest experience(s) of your life?

Research

One night in December 2003 I had the idea for a historical epic about a group of jazz musicians who went away to war. And since I was in the last five months of a BFA program in Film & Television, focusing almost exclusively on screenwriting, and I had to write a feature screenplay for one of my classes, I decided that the epic would be the screenplay. I wrote it and I showed it to a few people. They never failed to tell me how much they liked it and how it was “very literary,” but “not very commercial.” I understood immediately that “not very commercial” means “it’ll never be made.” It took me somewhat longer to realize that “very literary” means “write a novel, you fucking idiot!”

So, beginning last September, that is what I did. And today I have a draft of the first three chapters (about forty pages) that I’m happy with, and another forty pages that could use a lot of work.

Eighty pages isn’t too shabby but what people don’t understand is that the amount of time I have put into this project is twice what you would expect for this page count. Why? You guessed it. Research!

Now I knew when I decided to do this project that I was in for some research. But I had already done a lot of research for the screenplay so I didn’t think it would be too bad. I knew that researching a novel like this would be at least twice as hard as researching a screenplay with the same basic story — screenplays can play fast and loose with history, and anyway you can just write “gun” and the art department has to go figure out that it’s a Springfield Rifle, 1905 model.

Well it turns out I vastly under-estimated how hard it was going to be! I’ve done at least five times as much research as I did the first time around and I’m still going. And I’m jumping of Wikipedia to look up little things like a 1920 map of the Chicago El, or to find out which year the first new edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica in the 20th century was published, or which states had segregated trains in 1917.

Here is a list of the sources that I’ve used so far to help me research this project.

BOOKS
– Jamieson, Sgt. J. A. A Complete History of Colored Soldiers in the World War. New York: Bennett & Churchill, 1919.
– Astor, Gerald. The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in the Military. San Francisco: Da Capo Press, 1998.
– Barbeau, Arthur E and Florette Henri. The Unknown Soldiers. New York: DaCapo Press, 1974.
– Braddan, William S. Under Fire with the 370th Infantry. Self-published by author, c. 1920.
– Bertin, François. 14-18 : La Grande Guerre. Rennes: Editions Ouest-France, 2006.
– Farwell, Byron. Over There: The United States in the Great War. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.
– Harris, Bill. The Hellfighters of Harlem. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2002.
– Harris, Stephen L. Harlem’s Hell Fighters. Washington: Potomac Books, 2003.
– Grandhomme, Jean-Noël. La Première Guerre Mondiale en France. Rennes: Editions Ouest-France, 2002.
– Icher, François. La Première Guerre Mondiale au jour le jour. Paris: Editions de La Martinière, 2007.
– Little, Arthur W. From Harlem to the Rhine. New York: Haskell House, 1974.
– Moss, Maj. James A. Privates’ Manual. Menasha, WI: George Banta Publishing Co., 1917.
– Moss, Maj. James A. Manual of Military Training. Menasha, WI: George Banta Publishing Co., 1917.
– Moss, Maj. James A. Officers’ Manual. Menasha, WI: George Banta Publishing Co., 1917.
– University of Chicago. The Negro in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1922.
– Yanow, Scott. Classic Jazz. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2001.

MUSIC
Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Bix Biederbecke
Duke Ellington
Lt. Jim Europe and the 396th Infantry “Hellfighters” Band
Fletcher Henderson
James P. Johnson
Scott Joplin
Freddie Keppard
Jelly Roll Morton
Red Nichols
Jimmie Noone
King Oliver
The Original Dixieland Jass Band
Bessie Smith
Frankie Trumbauer
Ethel Waters
Clarence Williams

OTHER
– Read every edition of Le Petit Parisien (Paris daily newspaper) from February 18, 1918, to April 15, 1918. And still going…
– Made contact with a French expert on the jazz of this period.
– Traveled to the site of the first jazz concert in Europe.
– Research trip to the South Side of Chicago.
– Reserach trip to the François Mitterand National Library in Paris.
– Research trip to World War I battlefields in Verdun, France.

Leave a comment! What are your experiences with research?

You Must Submit!

Recently, I moved into a new apartment. After six years living in a house with four other people, I now find myself foot loose and fancy free, living in a studio apartment all by myself in East Harlem. I miss all of those great people I used to live with. I don’t get to see them as much these days. But I love having my own space and what feels like having control of my time again. Because there was always something distracting going on around the house and I have difficulty writing with distractions. I had to get up at 5:00 AM to get anything done at all. Now, if I decide I want to get up early and write, I do it. If I decide I want to go home from work and write, I do it. It’s really helped me get my work schedule organized.

So to celebrate I’ve taken up something that I apparently forgot to do for two years: submit my stories to publications.

Now the first two stories that I ever submitted to anything followed a very unusual path. The first was a story called “Joy Ride” which I submitted to the Hopwood Awards in 2001. The second was a story called “The Royal Flush Saga” which I submitted to the Iowa Review Awards in 2006. In both cases, the story won second prize in the contest in question, got published and I was paid money.

This was a very nice way to start off, but of course it was too good to last. My third attempt at short fiction, a story called “Trio” which I hold in higher esteem than the first two (perhaps, unreasonably) was roundly rejected everywhere it went. After that, I got so caught up writing theater and then taking some time off, and then trying to fashion a series of short stories with interconnected plots and characters, and then trying to start my first novel, that I sort of forgot I was supposed to be submitting my short fiction to publications.

So this September, when the literary journals opened their doors to unsolicited manuscripts again, I did some final edits, printed my manuscripts and started mailing my three unpublished short stories that I consider finished: “Trio,” “Norwegian Blues” and “Finistère.” “Trio” went out to The Missouri Review and Ecotone. “Norwegian Blues” went out to The Iowa Review, Fiction and TriQuarterly. With “Finistère,” which is everybody’s favorite but mine (I like “Norwegian Blues” the best but suspect I’m not objective), I decided to shoot the moon, so I sent it to The Atlantic. I’ve given it a couple of weeks head start there, by it’s such a long shot that if I don’t hear back by late October I’m goig to send it to One Story, Ploughshares and The New England Review. And, of course, as the rejections come in, I’ll send a different story.

And sure enough, they’ve started coming. Missouri just sent back a rejection notice for my beloved little ugly duckling, “Trio.” And, with that, we’re off to the races!

Leave a comment! Have you ever submitted your work to a publication? If not, you’d better have a good excuse!

The Writing Blogs I Love

Milan Kundera said in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting that the sure sign that a society was on the verge of ruin is that everybody wants to be a writer. Well, we’re all fucked then. Because today everybody is publishing something on the Internet and thinking of themselves as a writer.

A lot of the people that I know who think of themselves as writers don’t actually do a lot of writing. Could be you’re one of those people and that’s okay! Absolutely no accusation or judgment intended! I have thought of myself as a writer since 1998 and there have been times during that stretch when I haven’t done much writing. (Ironically, in terms of sheer word count I probably did more writing in 1997 than I do now, yet I didn’t think of myself as a writer then.)

However, there are some people online who REALLY ARE WRITERS. Working, published writers who write fascinating blogs about books and writing and being a writer. And today I’m going to share some of my favorites with you:

The Teresa Jusino Experience: Teresa is a freelance writer who is in the Studio Square Writing Workshop with me. As a writer, she has tremendous range — she’s tried her hand at fiction, pop culture criticism, personal essays, spec teleplays and her own web series. She has an ability to network that I constantly envy. Her blog is so interesting because it’s a wonderful chance to read about what life is like for a talented, ambitious young woman who dedicates herself one hundred and ten percent to freelance writing. It’s not an easy life but Teresa lives it to the hilt.

Susie Bright’s Blog: Susie is an amazing person and a writer to look up to. She didn’t just find a niche to fill, she created practically created it. She’s the original “sexpert” (she popularized the term, which she nonetheless claims to hate) — a pansexual, ex-hippie who always has fascinating things to say about sex, politics and the places where they intersect. She writes long blog posts — essays, really — and she’s a prolific book writer, columnist and podcaster. The content on her blog is available to free but I subscribed to it anyway for five bucks a month after reading a magnificently moving post Susie wrote about how the economy is affecting writers and how they’re too proud to admit it. You should to.

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent: Rachelle is a literary agent (it’s in the title). Her blog is about how to have a professional relationship with an agent without making an ass of yourself with amateur mistakes or prima donna bullshit. Rachelle will show you that agents are more than mercenary parasites whose only joy in life is commodifying your beautiful, beautiful art.

Nathan Bransford – Literary Agent: Another blog by an agent. Nathan is a young adult writer, and he seems to most represent genre fiction. This would make his blog less interesting to me than Rachelle’s except for the fact that he has made it his mission to keep his readers abreast of shifting world of publishing (the ascendancy of e-books are covered in a lot of these entries). And he copy edits his readers’ first pages.

Whatever, by John Scalzi: Scalzi is a successful sci-fi novelist and a freelance writer of magazine articles on such a wide array of topics that it makes me dizzy. Two things that I have little interest in being. But he writes amazing posts on the art and the craft of writing and gives great advice to all kinds of writers. The secret to his success? He tells it straight, but doesn’t let the naked truth of the writing world detract from how wonderful it is to write.

Paul Cornell: This is a nerdy blog and all the more fun for its nerdiness. Paul is a dorky British guy who got his start writing Doctor Who novels in the early ’90s, dark years for fans of that show. Since then he has moved slightly up market: he wrote the unforgettable “Human Nature” for the DW revival series, writes a core Superman series for DC Comics and is producing his own pilots for the BBC. And he still somehow finds time to write long blog posts about it.

The Book Deal: This is a blog by Alan Rinzler, a book editor, who covers how to write books, how to sell them and the major changes in the book business. What Rachelle does for agents, Alan does for editors. And he makes being a writer sound distinctly unglamorous.

Leave a comment! What writing blogs do you recommend?

Texting

I’m not the most technology friendly person. I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m a terrified old man who sees technology as a sign of the coming apocalypse. But I’m not that big on some technological advantages. Smart phones? Don’t like ’em. Kindles? Don’t like ’em. Print publications moving online? Against it.

I think the convenience these things bring to our lives is coming at too great a cost, like our ability to have a conversation without fact-checking on the Internet, our ability to set a meeting place and time instead of going to an approximate location and playing phone tag for fifteen minutes to figure out where everybody is, our ability to navigate from point A to point B using our own wits and sense of direction rather that have some gadget drive us around in a way that makes it impossible to find our way back. Hell, anyone who knows me will tell you I don’t even like voicemail. If it’s that important, call me back when I’m not busy, know what I mean? Thirty years ago everybody was doing it.

But here’s one thing I do like: texting. Texting allows me to have short conversations without picking up the phone — which can be inconvenient and rude in places like restaurants or buses. It saves time. It lets me wait until I’m ready to read somebody’s message — not drop everything I’m doing the moment they call. And while I don’t like it when someone gets a text in the middle of a conversation and stops talking to me, reads the text, texts back and then picks up the conversation as if they hadn’t just made me stand there for forty-five seconds without saying so much as “excuse me a second,” that’s not texting’s fault. That’s just a stupid person using texting wrong. Texting is great. It’s even kind of old fashioned, when you think about it, like the return of the telegram. I like that. What could possibly be wrong with texting?

CNN:

The number of texts being sent is on the rise, especially among teenagers age 13 to 17. According to Nielsen, the average teenager now sends 3,339 texts per month.

Nevermind, I take it all back. Texting is evil. And I really am a terrified old man who sees technology as a sign of the coming apocalypse. I’m gonna go buy more canned goods now.

Leave a comment! How crazy do I sound to you?