So?: Writing about gay characters like you just don't care

by Michael  



It's National Coming Out Day, and I'm wading slowly through the editing process on Dark Days, so like any good author trying to finish a book, I'm procrastinating with what's in front of me. I also haven't posted in a while, and I know that's a cardinal sin, even if I only have something like ten readers. The truth is, it feels good to unleash my typing fingers, flex the word babble a bit, and do ANYTHING besides read through passages trying to figure out exactly what words to tweek.

So, Coming Out Day... It was about 20 years ago that my first friend "came out", though it was only to me and a few others at the time. I sat in my mother's kitchen on the land-line phone in a three-way call with this friend and another. I remember that there was this build up about revealing a secret, and then WHAM! I was told. I guess I was supposed to be blown away, but the truth was, I kind of suspected it was the "secret". After all, I have two uncles who have been together for a very very long time, and though no one ever talked about it openly in the family, it was pretty evident to anyone who paid attention. My reaction to my friend coming out to me was a resounding, "So?"

"So"? Okay, maybe I should have been more sensitive. After all, over the coming years I would see him power through some amazing bullshit. There was the show choir camp we went to where no one but me would room with him. The most vehement homophobe of that group would later come out himself in a college editorial. I should have been better prepared to defend the ever loving hell out of my friend, but my response to anyone who trashed him on the grounds of him being gay was also usually, "So?". I didn't care what his sexuality was. I liked girls, but I didn't like ALL girls, so why should anyone assume that my friend liked ALL boys. In fact, he didn't. He did find a few mentors, one of which killed himself after struggling to survive the ravages of HIV/AIDS, and he was lucky enough that we had a very young, open-minded new choir director who befriended him. His family loved him, and his mom was supportive. His family even took me in when I needed a place to live at the age of 16. My friend didn't have it easy, but he was certainly lucky to have these people in his life.

FLASHFORWARD to last year. This part isn't going to make sense at first, but stick with me through the divergence, and I promise it will. Last year I was in a novel writing class and started working on a project I've been toying with for ages. The basic gist is that it's a horror satire of the TV biz and horror hosts like Elvira and Son of Svengoolie. I got a lot of bad advice on it from the meddling professor and a few of the other students, all of which were decidedly not fans of the genre I was trying to lampoon. They didn't get why I had to be so specific about someone driving a 1958 Plymouth Fury, or why it was funny that the local pizza joint was named Dellamorte's. Most of all, they didn't get why the successful female TV producer didn't have a sexual history with the preening jerk-face TV host/bad boy character.

Facepalm. I was dealing with a group of women who thought it would be more interesting if I turned my horror satire into a cut-rate romance novel. They didn't care if I insisted that she would never have fallen for his "charms", that she was career minded and had "taste". They didn't care that all my heroine cared about was running a successful television show. They wanted to know more about how he had broken her heart and how she was going to save him from his drunken, womanizing ways. Never mind the fact that they'd sen the plot outline and that there was none of that in there, that's what they wanted. I got an A- in the class after refusing to whore her out. In fact, I went so far as to make her a lesbian.

J.K. Rowling famously outed Dumbeldore as gay after her series was finished. I'd planned on making my character gay in the same way. It was happenstance. It was "So?". But in the year since that class I haven't touched the novel. Not once. I've been focused on finishing my YA Horror novel Dark Days, but I've thought about what I'd done a lot. Her sexuality didn't define her, and whenever I get back to her, I doubt I'll even make it an issue on the page anymore. Authors of fiction, in print or video, are the only ones with the power to magically make someone gay. Should we make their sexuality a matter of happenstance? I don't see why not. I think we take for granted heterosexuality, so why not homosexuality as well? I said before that my response to my friend, my "So?", was somewhat insensitive, but I want to look forward to a world where teenagers who come out don't have to torture themselves over it and their friends are as unperturbed at the revelation as they would be if that friend came by one day and said, "I like cake.", because who cares if someone likes cake or not?

I worry sometimes that we writers focus too much on things like "the character is gay" or "the character is a woman". Yes, those are defining characteristics, but they can't be the ONLY thing that makes the character who they are. Fantasy writers who are good at their craft just happen to have characters who are half-man/half-beast. Sci-Fi writers who have any lick of talent just happen to tell stories about robo-aliens who fight future crime. The plots, saving the kingdom, or catching the cyber-killer, are more important than dwelling on the social ramifications of difference. Yes, sometimes those things can be used as well-spun allegory, but more often than not, if a writer spends too much time on gender, sexuality, race, creed, color, or any other difference, it comes off as preachy and that's no good for anyone. Get your readers to acknowledge it, accept it, and move on. After all, isn't that what anyone who musters the courage to join in on National Coming Out Day wants? To have their difference acknowledged and accepted so we can all move on to more important things like catching cyber-killers? Love your friends, your family, and your fictional characters for who they are, because there's only one of those three you can change, and that one should matter least of all.

Creative Cannibalism

by Michael  



The curse of the creative mind is that it will always question the validity of what it dreams up. At its heart, that’s actually okay. We are creative because we question. We are constantly seeking out new possibilities, and that’s where our ideas come from. We are constantly asking, “What if?”, and the answers to that question are often most interesting and varied. Those answers are also influenced by our moods. If we are wallowing in our latest defeat, maybe a rejection, or worse, silence from a critical body, our answers to that question can suddenly turn inward, and that’s when our creativity becomes dangerous and cannibalistic.

 Rejection is part of life as a creative. We constantly seek validation in the form of gallery showings, publication, fandom, and a myriad of other outlets. We create in order to be heard, even if only to be heard by those around us. For some, the praise of friends and family is enough, and that’s where vanity publishing, or in the digital age, self-publishing an e-book, comes in to play. Most of us, however, also dream of touching strangers in ways that won’t get us arrested. We want to share our work with the masses and we want to know that we have created something that resonates with others. Here is where we have to, as Chuck Wendig so succinctly put it, “Harden the fuck up, Care Bear”. Part of the path we travel as creatives, be it as actors, painters, or writers, is that we have to accept that we will be torn apart. We will be told “no” a million times. Worse yet, we’ll be ignored. And when this happens, we seek to explain it. After all, what we do is ask “What if?”, and this is as valid a point to ask that question of as any.

 What if I suck? What if I’m listening to the wrong people? What if I’m not really cut out to be creative? All are questions we ask ourselves. Those are healthy questions for anyone to ask, and maybe they’re true, but if you find yourself coming up with answers, you need to fucking stop it. If you find yourself developing a narrative about how you’ve wasted your life and everyone’s time, and some alien race later in history will discover your shit and decide we were the most cultureless society ever, fucking stop. If you look at your art and start coming up with ways it should be better, tell your inner critic to shut the fuck up and let you think. If you start thinking in terms of anything other than “Huh, I guess I’ll find something else to do” you’ve just proven to yourself that you’re a creative. You’re an artist, and you can’t help it. Sorry, kid, but you’re never going to shake this curse. Deal with it.

 At the time it might see, counter-intuitive. You’ve just had a mental breakthrough where you’ve determined that the reason you flop every audition is that you suck. You suck because you read every line handed to you as though you’re channeling Humphrey Bogart and you have to leave Ingrid Bergman at airport. Which makes sense, because you have been auditioning for a ton of noir pieces, and who is more noir than Bogie? It just makes sense to your depressed, Bogie-adled brain to give up and embrace your future as a dish washer to the stars. Except, it doesn’t, don’t you see?

Or maybe you’re a painter who hasn’t painted in a while. You’ve been making ends meet posing nude for your old art school, living off of ramen and sriracha sauce and the only ideas you come up with are ones where you take that damn smiley face off the Maruchan packages and use it to replace the heads of everyone in your favorite paintings. Of course, you’re mostly copying, and you’re not even sure that it counts as collage if you do it the easy way, but in that moment it is a sure sign, to your thinking, that you need to question your entire future as a painter because you clearly are not creative enough. Maybe you actually give it a go, and it doesn’t turn out anything like what you had planned, and so you take that as final proof that you just don’t have the creative spark within you.


FUCKING STOP IT! Don’t you get it yet? The non-creative never would have come up with that idea? The non-creative, the asshole who does your taxes and snickers about how little you make each year, he couldn’t have put Bogart in a situation to be shilling laundry detergent. He couldn’t replace the faces of Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte with smiley faces in his head. Hell, he probably doesn’t even own a pair of scissors.

This act of self-destruction you engage in is, itself, creative. Maybe what you’ve been working on right now sucks, or maybe you haven’t found the right audience, but do not, for a second, think that you aren’t creative. This act, call it creative cannibalism, hits all of us. Even if you’re a published author, a world renowned actor, or a famous multi-media artist, you get saddled with doubt from time to time. If you don’t think Banksy looks at his shit and says, “I’m losing my touch,” from time to time, you’re nuts. The trick is that you need to get back up and keep plugging away. Keep making art. Cut all the faces off your damn ramen packets and get yourself busy with some glue stick. Even if it turns out shitty, you’re at least making art, and the only way we get better at our art is by making more art and continuing to put it out there in the world. Even if no one likes your work now, if you are creative, create and keep getting better. Jot down a short story when you get stuck in your novel. Keep sketching a million different doodles when you don’t have time to pick up the paint brush. Memorize your favorite scenes and perform them for your cat. Just don’t stop creating, because that’s a form of suicide for your soul, and deep down you already know that. So, stop reading this, stop doubting yourself, and go create something. You know you already have a billion ideas, so go do that. In the meantime, I’ve got some ramen I need to eat.

Truth to Power - 10 Things I Really Want to Say to Ultra Conservatives

by Michael  




Yes, this is political, and has nothing to do with writing or entertainment, unless you've been watching the improv comedy extravaganza we call "The Republican Debates".  So, without further adieu, and accompanied by some works by one of my favorite painters (Francisco Goya), I bring you my list. Remember, I'm not ranting, I'm being educational!

1. Corporations are NOT people, and no logic game you play will convince a sane person that ANY non-sentient entity is a person.

2. Call it pro-life if you want, but it's anti-women's rights. It'd be one thing if you guys wanted to just chase after abortion, but going after stem cell research, contraceptives, and rape victims shows that what you really want is to micromanage the lives of everyone else around you.


3. Marriage is a function of the state, not the church. I'm glad that your church has a ritual to go along with the state's recognition of two adults who have chosen to share their lives, but it does NOT mean that you are the only one's entitled to enjoy the privileges of marriage. It's a legal status, regardless of religious covenant, proven by hundreds of years of atheists, agnostics, and other non-christians doing it.


4. Back off the hate against homosexuals. This goes back to number three, in part, in that no one gives a shit about what you do in your bedroom or if you prefer blondes to brunettes. Stop trying to regulate morality between consenting adults.

5. Speaking of morality, quit trying to convince us all that we can all be better off if we just would get rid of all the pornography. Ever heard of the Venus of Willendorf? It's a statue, thousands of years old, of a naked woman with gigantic breasts and good breeding hips, and you can't make out her face. Some cave man probably jerked on off to it. Guess what? We still invented the light bulb, French New Wave Cinema, and the iPad.



6. Gridlock isn't the answer. I get it: politics is like football to you. You think there needs to be a clear winner and loser, and you hate when ANYTHING ends in a tie. Political compromise, thus, is your bitter enemy, but guess what? America was BUILT on political compromise. I won't get everything I want and you won't get everything you want, but in the middle there will be sanity. If you refuse to compromise, you aren't just part of what's wrong with our country, you ARE what's wrong with our country.


7. Science is NOT your enemy. Maybe you don't understand it, but science doesn't care. Stop trotting out the same bullshit after it's been proven wrong. Leave the conspiracy theories to the Elvis hunters and JFK spotters, okay? Climate change is real. Evolution is real. Magnets, believe it or not, are real. If science is so scary that you really can't deal with it. We have plenty of forest and farm land you can go live on and stop fucking it up for the rest of us. Of course, that means you'll have to give up your internet porn. Sorry.

8. Back off teachers, unions, welfare recipients, and any other scapegoats you've come up with. This includes immigrants, homosexuals, atheists, and muslims as well. Until you can start taking responsibility for your own fuck ups, don't try pointing fingers at everyone else. By trying to blame one of the above-mentioned groups for failing marriages, economies, or morals, you do us all a disservice because we first need to debunk your crazy bullshit before we can address the real problems like drug abuse and tax evasion.



9. Speaking of taxes, quit brainwashing people into thinking that taxes are the enemy. NOT paying taxes means giving up things like paved roads, fire departments, and basic health standards. Do you really want that? If not, then shut up and pay your taxes. When you wind up on Social Security and need to be rushed to the hospital for your heart attack, you'll be glad for all that "socialist spending".


10. Take the blinders off. No one who is that extreme can truly maintain those stances without being either crazy or a hypocrite. Ted Haggard is a hypocrite, so was Gaddafi. I'm pretty sure no one wants to be in their company, so, again, take the damn blinders off and I'll gladly meet you in the middle.

Steal This Blog Post!

by Michael  





Ask yourself this: Who is your favorite author and how did you first come to read their work?

Did you receive the book as a gift?
Did you check it out of the library?
Have you EVER checked a book out of the library?

Part of the problem with anti-piracy groups and laws is that they ignore the above example. I loved the original The Crow comic. I was loaned a copy in high school. We passed that book around until it was ragged. But then, when the film came out, we all went in droves. I saw the film four times in theaters, bought the soundtrack twice, and have owned several copies of the book. But that first taste? I didn't pay a dime. Someone SHARED it with me. Here's a few more things I tasted for free before spending a boatload of cash on them.




Neil Gaiman

I first read Mr. Gaiman while in high school. My friend Paul had just finished his JD and he and I worked at the same record store. He and I talked a bit about comics, and then he introduced me to Sandman: Seasons of Mist. Holy hell, I was hooked. I loved that comics could be more than capes and spandex. I stopped reading X-Men, boycotted Gen-13, and started reading Grant Morrison's Invisibles, Garth Ennis' Preacher, and eventually found great writers like Mike Carey, Brian Wood, and Brian K. Vaughn. I have paid tons of money to read most of Gaiman's body of work since then, and the work of many, many other similar writers, but that wouldn't have happened in a world where it was a crime to share what we've already paid for. How many readers would new authors lose in a SOPA/PIPA world?





Nine Inch Nails

I first heard of Nine Inch Nails thanks to MTV. They actually played videos back when I was a kid, and I immediately loved the thundering beat and crunchy guitars of Trent Reznor. That said, I had no clue who this band was or where to find their music. They didn't seem to sell it at K-Mart, and I was still too young to drive. Then a friend found out I liked the band, and he made me a copy of Broken. From there, I went to concerts, found record shops where I could buy the music myself, and most importantly, I copied that music on to tapes for anyone who asked or showed interest. Hell, I did the same with Dead Can Dance, Portishead, and a number of other bands. If I loved it, I wanted my friends to love it. Going to concerts is more fun with friends, right? These days, audio cassettes are dead, but the act of sharing isn't! Trent Reznor, for all the copying I did back before the internet, is filthy rich these days. He even won an Oscar last year, and you know what? He gives away a lot of his music. He's played with the record labels, anonymously issuing greatest hits albums and the DVD version of Closure on The Pirate Bay, and when he was free from the record labels entirely, he released The Slip absolutely for free. And you know what I did? I went out and still bought a physical copy. Piracy isn't killing the recording industry, but SOPA/PIPA certainly aims to kill the internet in the name of killing piracy. If the bill actually managed to work, it would likely do more harm than good when it came to the spread of new artists.






If you want to introduce people to animation as legitimate art for adults, look no further than Akira. Before I got old, we had these strange black rectangles called video tapes. My neighbor, a kid my age named Chris, copied Akira onto a tape and bugged the crap out of me to watch it. When I finally did, it opened a flood gate. I found Vampire Hunter D at a record store, and another friend became a huge Macross Plus fan. The thing is, these films weren't widely available here in the states. Much of Asian cinema still isn't. Hell, it's 2012 and Battle Royale is only now getting an official DVD release. I bought a copy from a bootlegger at a comic con somewhere. The fact is, marketing execs and movie studios control what we get to buy far too stringently. When the BBC finally started airing Doctor Who episodes the same day in the USA as they did in the UK, it was a sign that someone who worked there understood that fans who wanted to see the new episodes wouldn't patiently wait. The other day, Neil Gaiman himself tweeted about getting a bootleg copy of the latest episode of Sherlock. The BBC should know better by now, but until they do, even the people who stand to benefit from anti-piracy measures like SOPA/PIPA are circumventing the artificial system in place in order to acquire what they want.

Is this all starting to make sense? SOPA/PIPA, or really any other hard-line anti-piracy legislation is likely to do more harm than good. We all fall in love with various arts for various reasons, but more often than not, we do so without paying anyone a dime up front. Want my own work for free? Hit up and look for it there. I hope you dig it and share it with friends. That isn't going to stop me from trying to make money on what I do though. If anything, I'm encouraged by it. The fact is, no stupid law will be able to shut down piracy, any more than politicians could hope to kill libraries, art galleries, or outdoor concerts. They're in panic mode, these companies that support SOPA/PIPA, but for them, the sky has been falling since the days of the player piano. As it turns out, we all still buy music at least once in a while, so maybe that wasn't a threat either.

Confessions of A Word Junkie

by Michael  



Look, for a lot of us, writing is like a drug. We got a little taste, probably as kids, and we just couldn't stop. Fiction, poetry, and even academic writing consumes us. It doesn't matter, really, as long as we get to sling some ink and manipulate words. You know I'm right, because you feel it in your bones. You sit down from time to time and you either write furiously, like W.S. Burroughs chasing a fix, or you sit and stare for a long, long time into the void because you're overwhelmed with ideas, and you want to make the time count. I get it. I'm a word junkie too. Thing is, we’re junkies that need direction. We can masturbate until our hands are covering in gooey, sticky ink all day long, but we might not ever produce something substantive from our passion. No, being a junkie isn’t enough to be successful: we need to learn to focus. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that people can be auto-didactic about damn near anything. I have a wealth of knowledge just waiting to be unleashed at Alex Trebek, because he’s probably the only motherfucker who cares that I can name the first film Clint Eastwood was in, or the reason Kenner convinced parents to give their kids an empty box for Christmas in 1977. We need to learn structure though, and it isn’t easy, not by a long shot.



Make sure the Academy doesn't show this "Black Lagoon" shit when I die, okay?

Wait, where was I? Damned insufferable distractions! I needed a break, I told myself, so I took one. I smoked a Camel, got something to drink, brushed my hair, and then my teeth, and then I read some blogs that I like. All the while, somewhere in the back of my brain, I wanted to finish my fix, but I procrastinated. See, the problem of writing is that the addiction is psychological. We get so deep into our heads that sometimes we drown in it. That’s why we need structure. Here’s some examples.



The closest I could get to Hogwarts.


1. School

One of my favorites. I’m currently closing in on my Master’s Degree. I’ve gotten to study at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee with Ann Angel, 2011 winner of the YASLA “Excellence in Nonfiction” award. It’s more than just learning to get better at the craft though, it’s the grueling deadlines. Normally, as writers we can write and write and write. The program demands we write pages upon pages in a short amount of time, and then edit those pages, and then write some more, and then edit some more. By the end of one semester, I’m sitting on the first 20,000 words of a novel, and they aren’t crap. Without those school-imposed deadlines, I might have 2000 good words, or 50,000 shitty ones, but probably neither. School takes the ink-needle out of your hands and teaches you how to make it last.


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