Why I Write Stories

Recently a friend asked: “What draws you to writing books instead of say screenplays? Why literature? Why that over any other type of writing?”

Aside from his generosity in referring to my scribbles as “literature”, I was struck by this simple question, which — so far as I can recall — I’ve never gotten from a student in 20 years of classroom teaching. It sent me thinking, and I’m not sure I have a satisfying answer to give. But that’s never stopped me before, and (like Sarah Kay) I find that sometimes the writing itself can lead to answers.

I think the easiest answer is the most obvious: I was surrounded by books from birth, and I fell in love with the worlds they led me to. The Belgariad by David Eddings and the Amber novels by Roger Zelazny whisked me to realms of fantasy and wonder. I wanted to create universes of my own.

I’ve written elsewhere about the iconography of writing, and to this day that remains a potent influence. Above my desk — as I write these words — is a photo of the writing table of Florida novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. So when I fell in love with books and images of writers, the next step was to produce writing of my own.

I didn’t know any other kind of writing as a child. There were essays for school (ick) and stories. Make a story long enough and you got a novel. I watched movies and played role-playing games, but I didn’t make the connection between those media and the writing that created them until later. Meanwhile, I wrote lots of silly stories, and began work on my first novel at the age of 13.

Those things did provide inspiration for story ideas, though. And by “inspiration” I mean “I copied them”. One of my earliest writing memories is of seeing the VHS box art for Robocop (my mom wouldn’t let us kids watch such violent films, nor did I want to at the time) and writing a story that was identical to what I imagined that movie was like.

As I grew older and my writing became more sophisticated, I did branch out into other forms. I wrote longer nonfiction pieces to inform the world about global economics (so I could share my very limited understanding) and tried my hand at hip-hop lyrics starting in 1999. I continued writing stories (longer, more serious fare, like the works in This Ain’t What You Rung For), and finished my fourth novel in 2010. (All four are, as yet, unpublished.)

But I never considered screenplays or radio dramas. Those formats hold allure for me, but they require other ways of telling the story. They need to be formatted differently, too, which leads me to suspect that I keep writing short stories and novels simply because I’m too lazy to explore other approaches.

Then there’s the even-more-formidable obstacles to distribution. When I write a story, I can submit it to a magazine. (I’m currently working on a story I plan to submit to Asimov’s Science Fiction.) Or I can print up copies to give to friends. Someday maybe I’ll get a novel published by a traditional publishing company. On the other hand, that’s probably not a sensible dream. The point is that I have lots of control over what happens to my words. When I self-publish, I get to take all the action as quickly as I like — I’m pretty impatient sometimes — and I get to choose how the cover looks, which fonts to use in the layout, etc.

As for “literature”, that’s more about subject matter, and the truth is that I’ve always written lots of different types of stories. I started out with fantasy and science fiction, because that’s what I loved reading. After college I stepped toward realist fiction, because I wanted to explore some themes in everyday modern human life. But my fourth novel is magical realism, my current project is post-apocalyptic zombie SF, and I even wrote a romance story in This Ain’t.

Sarah Kay said, in her awesome TED Talk (linked above): “I’m always trying to find the best way to tell each story.” I suppose I do this too, but usually the format precedes the topic for me. Sometimes I get an idea for a song and I’m all “Okay time to rap in the voice of Martin Shkreli.” Sometimes I’ll have a tiny idea for a story, and pound out a one-page dealie like “The Envelope”. And of course I write plenty of nonfiction too. I’ve got a book about teaching I’m trying to finish up, and my book about politics will hopefully be out in the summer of this year.

I hope that answers your question, my friend. I’m always humbled and flattered when anyone takes time to read my words, and even more so when people inquire about the thought process that underlies it all. So thank you (and anyone reading these words) for your interest.

Boots Riley on BlackkKlansman

Boots Riley is a filmmaker (Sorry to Bother You), rapper (The Coup), and lifelong activist against oppression and injustice — economic, racial, and otherwise.

He recently posted a critique of Spike Lee’s latest film, BlackkKlansman, on Twitter. He posted images, but some folks would like text. I think it’s a really important critique, so I’m copying out the text here.

The following are not my words. Everything after this line was written by Boots Riley.  I made a few edits based on follow-up posts he made to the original thread (and italicized movie titles), but the rest is verbatim. (And if you’ve never listened to The Coup, check out their second album Genocide and Juice. It’s one of the five best hip-hop albums of all time.)


Here are some thoughts on Blackkklansman.

This contains spoilers, so read no further if you don’t want the film spoiled.

This is not as much an aesthetic critique of the masterful craftwork of this film as it is a political critique of the content of and timing of the film.

I also want to say, as I tweeted last week, that Spike Lee has been a huge influence on me. He’s the reason I went to film school so many years ago. He’s the first person I sent a demo tape of my music to when he had 40 Acres and A Mule Musicworks, and he has inspired me as a cultural critic as well. He never held his tongue about what he thought of Tyler Perry films or any other films that he happened to see and be displeased with. Spike doesn’t hold his tongue. Although I’m gonna lay out my disagreement, I hold him in highest respect as a filmmaker. I should also add that many people who helped make this film are folks who I know personally, and who I think are amazing folks with great intentions, and since they know me, they know I’m not gonna hold my tongue.

First, Blackkklansman is not a true story. A story not being “true” is not necessarily a problem for me — I have no interest in telling them myself at this time — but this is being pushed as a true story and it is precisely its untrue elements that make a cop a hero against racism. When I voiced some criticism before, a few people said “but it’s a true story!” It’s not.

It’s a made up story in which the false parts of it to try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racial oppression. It’s being put while Black Lives Matter is a discussion, and this is not coincidental. There is a viewpoint behind it.

Here is what we know:

The real Ron Stallworth infiltrated a Black radical organization for 3 years (not for one event like the movie portrays) where he did what all papers from the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (Cointelpro) that were found through the freedom of information act point to him doing — sabotage a Black radical organization whose intent had to do with at the very least fighting racist oppression. Cointelpro papers show us that these police infiltrators of radical organizations worked to try to disrupt the organizations through things like instigating infighting, acting crazy to make the organizations look bad, getting physical altercations happening, and setting them up to be murdered by the police or others. Ron Stallworth was part of the cointelpro. Cointelpro’s objectives were to destroy radical organizations, especially Black radical organizations.

Cointelpro papers also show us that when White Supremacist organizations were infiltrated by the FBI and the cops, it was not to disrupt them. They weren’t disrupted. It was to use them to threaten and/or physically attack radical organizations. There was no directive to stop the rise of White Supremacist organizations. the directive was to stop radical organizations. The White Supremacists were infiltrated to be more effective tools of repression by the state. In some cases, it was the undercover cops who came up with plans and literally pulled the trigger on assassinations. This happened in church bombings of Civil Rights movement associated Black churches in Birmingham, the assassination of Civil Rights organizer from Detroit in Selma, the Greensboro Massacre of Communist Workers Party members in 1979, and more. This is what Ron Stallworth was helping to do, and he was doing it in that era. The events of the film all take place in 1979 and after.

Stallworth wrote a memoir to put himself in a different light, but let’s look at what else we know.

There was no bombing that Stallworth or the police thwarted. This was not in Stallworth’s memoir. That was made up for the movie to make the police seem like heroes.

There was no copy that got recorded and/or arrested due to saying things at a bar while drunk about how he’s ok with shooting Black folks. This also was not in Stallworth’s memoir. This was put in the movie to make Ron and the rest of the police look like they were interested in fighting racism, like they don’t all protect whatever racist and abusive cops are in there. This is a scene where the whole police force — chief and all — work together with the fictional Black radical love interest to set the one racist cop up. Never happened. Never would, and someone saying that something vague while drunk wouldn’t be able to be arrested for that. But makes the cops look like they care. His partner that did the physical infiltration of the Klan was not Jewish and did not look Jewish to people. This was a made up thing to raise the stakes and make it seem like the cops were sacrificing more than they were. Add that to the false notion that they were doing it to fight racism and it endears you to the cops more. This means there was no scene where Stallworth had to go throw a rock through the window or whatever.

I’ve met Kwame Ture two or three times, and heard him speak more than that. By the time he was calling himself Kwame Ture, he had formed the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party (AAPRP) and was living in Africa most of the time. The program of the AAPRP for Black folks in the US at the time was to help create a revolutionary Black intelligentsia. They did this through an immensely long reading list and rigorous study groups. He came back to the US and toured colleges to talk to Black folks for this reason. At SF State in 1989/90, I took part in a few of these study groups. If you really went up to Kwame Ture and asked him what we should do right now — as Ron Stallworth does in the film — he would have said what he usually said: “Study!!!” But, it made the Black radical group look more dangerous to have Ture say something that sounded like he was calling for armed insurrection — which they were not calling for in the US at the time. I mean, this movie is trying to make a Cointelpro operative into a hero. It needs every little piece of help it can get.

With these fabricated story notes that Blackkklansman hits upon Ron Stallworth looks like a hero, and so does his partner and the police force. Without the made up stuff and with what we know of the actual history of police infiltration into radical groups, and how they infiltrated and directed White Supremacist organizations to attack those groups, Ron Stallworth is the villain.

Everything else is simply unverifiable stuff that ex-cop Ron Stallworth wrote in his memoir. We don’t know what happened because the “files were destroyed”. We have to trust the word of a cop who infiltrated a Black radical organization for 3 years. This is probably why it was only able to be published by a publisher that specializes in books written by cops.

At the end, the radical girlfriend says that she’s not down with him being a cop, then Stallworth — the guy who we’ve been following and made to care about and who is falsely shown to have risked his life to fight racism — says that he’s for the liberation of his people at the same time as being a cop. All the fake stuff we just showed him go through argues his point for him. And then they hear something and go, guns drawn, to investigate. They go down the hall together with the signature Spike Lee dolly — the one that tells us it’s him, the one that took Malcolm down the street, the one that took Dap across campus telling “Wake Up!”. They go forward into the future, side by side, in symmetrical composition, to fight the burning cross of racist terror. Cops and the movement against racist oppression united. This is the penultimate shot before the film goes to news footage of current White Supremacist attacks. Awww hayull no.

Look — we deal with racism not just from physical terror or attitudes of racist people, but in pay scale, housing, health care, and other material quality of life issues. But to the extent that people of color deal with actual physical attacks and terrorizing due to racism and racist doctrines — we deal with it mostly from the police on a day to day basis. And not just from White cops. From Black cops too. So for Spike to come out with a movie where a story points are fabricated in order to make Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism is really disappointing, to put it very mildly.

Much of the call to challenge police brutality and murder brought to light by the Black Lives Matter movement has been met by right wing cries of “But what about Black-On-Black violence?” Some of us, like Spike Lee have bought into that. Two years ago, I wrote an article in The Guardian about the myth of the ride of Black-On-Black violence and prove through statistics exactly how that idea is false, mentions how Spike Lee’s Chiraq plays into that myth, and how that myth is used against movements for social justice. It’s titled “Black culture isn’t the problem — systemic inequality is“. In the context of the political debate happening around the police’s role in racist attacks — this new film is a political brother of Chiraq. The two films say together: “Black folks need to stop worrying about police violence and worry about what they’re doing to each other — plus the police are against racism anyway.”

By now, many folks now know that Spike Lee was paid over $200k by the NYPD to help in an ad campaign that was “aimed at improving relations with minority communities”. Whether it actually is or not, Blackkklansman feels like an extension of that ad campaign.

Follow-up with references in screenshot format

The Didactic Interview: Sarah Schulman

Good news, everybody! The Didactic SynCast is back! After months of silence, my podcast is online once again. And what a time to return — I scored an interview with the amazing writer and activist Sarah Schulman, author of the new novel The Cosmopolitans, based on Honoré de Balzac’s La Cousine Bette. Have a listen and subscribe to the new iTunes feed.

Here are links to things we discuss:

Rock is Cool but the Struggle is Better

In 1999 the Indigo Girls released a song called “Go”, on their album Come On Now Social. It’s got awesome lyrics about fighting for a better world and what we owe to those women and men who fought for us to have so much. Once upon a time I made a video for it, but I never put it on YouTube. If there’s any noise here, maybe I’ll upload it.

Anyway, there’s a line in the song that has always given me pause:

Feed the fire and fan the flame
I know you kids can stand the rain
I know the kids are still upsetters
‘Cause rock is cool but the struggle is better

It’s a good point (and it suits my point made in Creative Writing about building to the fourth line in a quatrain), but I want to pick up on the final concept there. I think one reason why so many kids find their way into rock (and not the struggle) is because it’s easy to find one’s place in rock. Especially today, when the varieties of music — and easy access to them — are at our fingertips, there’s a seductiveness that’s built into our social lives that protest and political activity doesn’t cater to. (This doesn’t even account for the massive industries organized around music, which we’ll take as a given.)

The truth is that taking action for a better world isn’t usually fun, and the vast majority of the population doesn’t take part. As a result, being in the struggle is often a lonely activity, and it can be exhausting. This is unfortunate, because (as Abbie Hoffman once pointed out) we need young people in the front, since they’re impatient and they haven’t grown jaded like so many adults.

As I’ve said elsewhere, however, being part of the struggle can provide a sense of history and purpose like nothing else in our fractured, chaotic world. (And it’s how I met my wife, heh.) More to the point, however: The struggle needs to happen, and there are plenty of people making rock a reality. Who among us is willing to step up and move the struggle forward?

Burning Away

/u/Crinkles_Montgomery posted this on Reddit. Superb work, made from UNKLE’s “Burn My Shadow” and stock video footage.

Reminds me of this quote from David Foster Wallace:

 If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.