After hitting the blog only half as much as I normally do in July, and touching on political and social issues of the day, I’ve decided I’m jumping back into something I’m good at, something that makes me happy (not angry, sad, and/or confused).
I’m giving you guys a writing lesson.
We all know what a story’s plot it, right? If not, check out this and this. They’ll help. It’s simple, really. A protagonist has a desire and there are all sorts of things preventing them from achieving said desire.
But premise is a little bit different and that’s what I’m writing about today. The premise is what lies beneath the plot, what directs it. The premise tells readers what the story is really about. In The Art of Dramatic Writing , (which I highly recommend) Lajos Egri explains that a premise can almost always be summed up in a simple statement such as:
An unquenchable desire for more leads to a desire for less (The Great Gatsby)
An unhappy marriage leads to mental, physical, and emotional pain (Gone Girl)
War leads to madness (Catch-22)
Arrogance leads to sadness (Great Expectations)
Etc, etc, etc, etc . . . .
While Egri’s explanation about premise is a great one, one that I subscribe to, and one that I firmly believe, he leaves out something deeper. All of these premises may be true. But there is more. All premises fall under three distinct themes:
Mankind desires love, mankind fears death, and mankind struggles with time. In many stories one of these themes is prevalent, but in most they work together to offer readers one of any number of premises like the ones I mentioned earlier. So something a writer might want to do is search for these three themes in their work. Is there a desire for love, a fear of death, and/or a struggle with time somewhere in the words? If not, then chances are the writer has no theme, which means the writer has no premise . . . .
The guy in it, Akala, makes some good points. I am particularly taken with the phrase “normalized insanity.”
Also saw this guy:
When I watched it, I was like, “Whoa, Tim Wise is pretty smart too.” He quotes W.E.B Dubois, by referencing ‘the psychological wage of whiteness,’ that rich whites gave to poor whites years ago so they could better control them. Having spent the first 10 years of my life in various trailer parks on the bank of the Mississippi River (as a poor white), I can tell you the truth of this ‘wage of whiteness.’ I’ve seen it in action.
Neither of these men speak in hyperbole or romantic prose. They speak in facts. Put what they say together and it’s hard to deny.
Our society is racist and afraid of difference. It is. There’s no two ways around it. I could cite example after example that starts with European immigrants and explorers’ treatment of indigenous people and goes right on up through to today and the way many people view transgendered individuals. True, it’s not as bad as it has been. However, we’ve reached a point when many of us are waking up to the systemic issues that have plagued society since before any of us were here. Look, Ma, social media isn’t all bad! Racism, of course, is one of those issues. Many of us are seeing that those with power have not only let racism grow in strange, eerie, monstrous ways, but have, to some degree–intentional or otherwise–enforced its growth.
Does all of this mean those of us who point it out are anti-police? Or that I, or anyone who recognizes this racism, place black lives on a higher level than any other lives? No. There are several analogies out there explaining why #blacklivesmatter does not mean all other lives are worthless (I’ll link you to a few if you still need the explanation). I will also offer you this meme:
It is basically a simplification of points made in Wise‘s speech. In order for things to change we must, as an entire people, work together and recognize that things need changing. We must see through the curtain of controlled racism that has divided and conquered us for ages, and we must, ourselves, change.
When the people change, society does.
It’s kind of how it works . . . .
These are hard truths for some. I know. But when I can regularly walk down the street in the middle of the night, in an area of town some consider ‘bad’ (they’re wrong but whatever), and have little to no fear of police harassment, while a black man my age can’t, there’s a problem. When a man running for president can get cheers from thousands of people when he blames his country’s problems on Mexicans or Muslims, there is a problem. When prisons, schools, and medicine, are corporatized, there is a problem.
When the few control the many (as has been the way since the beginning of our great oligarchy), there is a problem.
The problem is there. The best way to solve it is to first recognize it exists.
These are great complements and I take them humbly. But recently I’ve come to realize that my dystopian novel and all the others that serve as warnings for a possible horrible future are more than allegorical. Former speaks of racism and a society beholden to businesses. It speaks of weak, money hungry politicians and a powerless public. It speaks of disease and death. It speaks of NOW: racism, society beholden to businesses, weak/money hungry politicians, powerless public.
Yes. Most great sci-fi novels do this in one way or another and have for some time. They address certain aspects of current society that frighten and unnerve authors. They think, “What is the worse possible outcome of this current political, social, religious, environmental, etc, etc, etc. problem?” Then they write and we get books like 1984, Brave New World, The Walking Dead, World War Z, Planet of the Apes, Ready Player One, Phillip K. Dick’s entire library of work, and yes, Former. We get to be afraid for the future, we get to be warned about what could come. We get to maybe, just maybe, see the horrible possibility of what’s at the finish line of the race we’re on. Hopefully, we can do something to prevent it.
But look around, kids. You can’t prevent what’s already happening. We’re living it. Sure, all things considered, the United States is doing okay . . . I mean other than this, this, this, this, this . . . ah . . . . You get the idea, right? It isn’t perfect.
Truth be told though, from a strictly quality of life, pragmatic sort of view, for most Americans, it isn’t as bad as it is for people in a good chunk of the world. I mean, Africa, for instance and its far-too-powerful warlords, AIDS epidemic, and general unrest seems worse. And don’t even get me started on the human rights violations in certain parts of Asia. Or how about those poor refugees who die trying to get to safety? Also, for those of you who find The Handmaid’s Taleparticularly disturbing, theocratic governments (the kind of government that exists in the fictional Republic of Gilead) exist today to various degrees of comfort for their people. And just to remind you that the First World is pretty damn culpable in all this, I’ll lead you here and here.
And that’s the point . . . .
Two things are clear to me now.
We’re living in a dystopia and, despite our problems, the United States and a good chunk of the First World are the ones at the top of the ladder. We are the ones with the power to change things or keep our entire planet marching toward self-destruction. Right now, we are the hero’s enemy. I mean, if real life was Star Warsyou can bet the First World wouldn’t be the rebellion. And we are, by and large, blind to it.
I need to stop reading, listening to, and watching the news altogether. Just cut the cord. Go cold turkey.
Seriously though, do our sci-fi books, films, and television shows help people see the fact that we are living in a dystopia? To some degree, I think, yes, they do. On the other hand, They do not do so quite enough because there is always a subtle safety net. Most of the dystopian stories I know of take place in the First World’s future. It’s ironic then that many of the situations characters live through (The Hunger Games, much? Much too much.) in these dystopian stories are, to some degree, actually taking place on this planet right now to real people.
These real people work in sweat shops. These real people fear for their lives from military, religious, or political overlords. These people work to die. These people suffer illnesses that are easily treated here. These people are living sci-fi authors’ fears. And now that we have the internet, we have no excuse to ignore it.
This modern-day dystopia is here, like a disease, slowly eating at all the world’s parts.
I picked up on the repetition in the way he talks, using so many words without saying anything at all. I noted his hyperbolic utterances and broad generalizations and felt fear as the crowds cheered. It was all so . . . depressing. I also went down racist/homophobic rabbit holes on Twitter. There’s more but I don’t care to share.
Somehow, thinking about these awful people and who I perceive to be the living embodiment of the worst Id that ever existed (Trump), got me to thinking about Mark Twain. I know, a strange jump. But not really. I mean, it makes sense to wonder how a man like Twain would have reacted to a man like Trump. What sardonic, witty series of one-liners would Twain have gifted us with, had he lived another 100-odd years to see this blowhard tip-toe toward the presidency?
Oh man, whatever they would have been, they would have been sweet.
Oddly, this got me feeling hopeful again. I admit it is genuinely strange how thinking of this led me back to hope. Maybe it’s just that the thought of Twain laying into Trump was so amusing it made me happy. I needed that. After all, I was genuinely sad. I mean, while mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, children, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends mourn 49 different murders; pundits, politicians, preachers, and social media mavens argue gun control, terrorism, immigration rights, nationalism, racism, and homophobia. I think what disturbed me the most was that we have done this before.
Look, America has a long and storied history of violence and hate. Say what you will about how great a country it is, this cannot be denied. And I don’t know the solution to the mess we’re currently in. I think stricter gun control laws would help. I think less xenophobia and racism would help. I think a better public education system that isn’t hindered by state testing and federal mandates would help. I think more funding for veteran aid, mental illness research/assistance, and social services would help. I think fewer loopholes in tax laws for corporations would help. I think less money in politics would help. I think vocal opposition to ignorance, nationalism, and racism would help . . . .
It’s a long list of what I think would help, mostly though, I think hope would help. When a guy like me, a guy who strives to find the bright side in everything, is having a difficult time of it, you know hope is in short supply.
But it isn’t gone. All I had to do was think of Mark Twain lambasting Donald Trump and I was back on top.
Couple it with action and the monsters can be stopped. What action though?
That’s easy. All you have to do is base all of what you do on one driving idea:
In the face of this violence and increased anti-gay, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant backlash I have a hard time keeping my thoughts in any kind of coherent order . . . .
You know, yesterday it was 100 degrees in Omaha. We celebrated my daughter’s 11th birthday. At my house there were 14 kids of various countries of descent, ethnicities, skin colors, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds. I don’t know about their sexualities and or gender identification. I didn’t ask (because, unlike some, I don’t care). Anyhow, they ran through the sprinkler, swung on a tire swing, ate brownies, potato chips, and hot dogs, played video and board games, climbed all over a wooden swing set in a sandbox, took photos, and generally were children in June in the Midwest. It was fun. Here’s a pic:
Statistically, some of the children at my daughter’s party will grow up to be part of the hate, where as some will grow up to be victims of it–particularly the girls because, I mean seriously. Go back and follow the link to the New Mexico killer story if it will hep you understand. Or perhaps you’d like to read over this article about rape? Thought you’d get out without seeing anything about that one more time, did you? Sorry.
On a national level our politicians offer prayer. Our stars offer outrage. I understand the prayer and the outrage. What I don’t understand is our lack of action. Hell, what I don’t understand is my lack of action. But then I think, what do I do? Do I suck it up and hope that when my kids and I go to school we aren’t killed by a bullied lunatic in need of massive therapy? Do I hope for the best when my wife and I go out for a night on the town? What other action can I take? I teach my children about the duplicitous nature of hate. I teach my students that bullying is wrong. I try to be nice, donate blood, smile at strangers. I’ve protest marched, donated money to good causes. I’ve written letters to the editor. I’ve volunteered. I’ve voted for people I think would make great representatives. Furthermore, I’m mortified by this. What else can I do? What else can any of us do?
The conspiracy theorists will tell you that our attention is being diverted by these and other such horrible events. If this is true, I wonder, how horrible must the events we’re not supposed to pay attention to be . . . .
The worst part is I don’t even feel the brunt of how messed up everything is. I’m a middle-aged white male in Omaha, NE for God’s sake. I don’t have to deal with the clear and present monsters of racism, xenophobia, and sexism the way many of my friends and family do . . . .
So, can we vote out the people who keep promoting greed, racism, xenophobia, lax gun control, perpetual war, and general ignorance? I’m beginning to think that’s impossible. Someone will simply replace the ones we defeat. The battle, it seems, is constant. Let’s be real for a second though, these politicians are not the illness. Rather, they are, collectively, a symptom of a much greater disease . . . us.
A few years ago my brother-in-law and I were discussing the state of the world. It wasn’t a pleasant conversation because, even prior to 9-11, the writing was on the wall. Violence and hate were everywhere then just like they are now, just like they have always been. He eased some of my worry with this morbid philosophy: The groups that promote things like racism and xenophobia are dying.
His theory is that racism and its brethren are obsolete ways of thinking and have been since mankind wandered out of the cold caves of pre-history. And, when looking at the big picture, we haven’t been here that long. So, slowly but surely, the hate, the violence, and those who breed them, will end. To survive as a species, you see, we need love and acceptance, and if mankind is good at anything, it’s surviving.
But I don’t know if he’s right anymore. I don’t know.
Great writers point out mankind’s foibles and offer up solutions, paths toward change and progress.
Today I’m not feeling like a great writer. Today I’m feeling exhausted and confused.
We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all failed. We’ve all had regrets. We’ve all said things we wish we could take back . . . or typed them on social media . . . . and wished [continue to wish–sorry by the way (yes, I’m talking to you)] we could go back in time and stop ourselves from hitting the ‘POST’ button. Case in point, some of my mistakes have been public. I’ve written dumb things on social media without thinking, things that probably made me come off as an ignorant idiot to people I wish wouldn’t think of me that way. Some of my mistakes have been on this blog. I know that because I’ve gone so far as to go through old posts and delete the ones where I think I’m coming off as an ass. I know it’s the Internet and nothing is ever truly gone, but a guy can hope.
At least I can rest easy knowing that my mistakes, my failures, and my regrets have helped me grow and learn.
I bring this up because my 10th year at Bellevue West High–my 14th as an educator–has been over for a couple weeks now and that has me thinking about learning. Shocking, right? And now, no matter how hard I try to suppress it, I am pondering what I can improve for next year because (spoiler alert) I made a few mistakes this year . . . and the year before that . . . and the year before that . . . .
It’s okay because the act of learning is all about making mistakes and gaining knowledge from those mistakes. Failing is embedded in the process. In other words, failure is intrinsic to learning. Let me repeat that for parents in bold, red, all capitalized text:
FAILURE IS INTRINSIC TO LEARING.
I should know. I’m a straight up baller at failing. Which means I’m basically the smartest man in the room.
And it’s frightening. Students who don’t know how to fail do not know how to deal with trial and error–the first building block of learning. The word “fundamental” I think can be used to describe it.
Students who don’t know how to make mistakes don’t think they can. Students who don’t know how to fail have trouble dealing with the reality that they do, in fact, fail . . . often because they know so little. They also are quick to point out when others fail but have trouble seeing their own reflection in the mistake mirror. I guess the same could be said of many adults too . . . and most of us graduated way before No Child Left Behind passed . . . and was repealed . . . and had its name changed to Race to the Top . . . . But at least those of us who know how to fail, know how to learn from said failures, right? In theory anyway . . . .
I veered off this week. I’m sure I had something else in mind when I began typing. What it was, at this point, is anybody’s guess.
It’s been a pretty solid couple of weeks for me. My yearbook staff at Bellevue West High released another successful annual. Want to know something I haven’t mentioned? The book pictured below marks the first time since I took over yearbook production five years ago that the journalism department is financially in the black. Since I inherited a five-figure debt along with the yearbook, this is kind of a big deal.
Also, about a week ago, Picaroon Poetry published my poem “Strange Baby Days” in their second issue. You can check out the digital magazine here. It comes highly recommended . . . by me.
To top off this month of publications, MidAmerican Fiction & Photography was kind enough to see something worth publishing in my short story, “Jack in the Box.” With an editorial intro that reads: “This is one of those stories every editor wants to see. One that grabs us and interests us from start to finish. You are going to like this one,” I can’t help but be proud of this little guy. I hope you read it and like it too. It has meth and dinosaurs, what more could you want from a story set in the Midwest?
Finally, today is Memorial Day, which is a big deal. It’s a significant holiday for the United States and I’m glad we have it. I’m not as well versed in its history or importance. The great writer, Julie Rowse, is. You can check out some of her thoughts on it here.
So yeah, I have had some good times recently and I like to share them. I hope you enjoy the poem, story, and video too. I’m sorry, Internet, we only published 750 yearbooks. There aren’t enough for you guys. Maybe next year!