Alex Simmons and I do a podcast for creatives, especially writers, called TELL THE DAMN STORY. Since COVID-19 took away summer writing conferences this year, we decided to create one for you.
We invited pop culture author and journalist Caseen Gaines, spoken word poet, children’s author, and songwriter Toney Jackson, and, for panels three and four, newly published slam poet legend and co-founder of Black Nerd Problems Omar Holman to help us.
With a ton of humor and anecdotes and do’s and don’ts, we offer insight and advice on major areas of the creative process.
Panel 1 (episode 146) focuses on inspiration and where it comes from.
Panel 2 (episode 147) is all about the discipline of getting your butt in a seat and writing.
Panel 3 (episode 148) focuses on editing your work, from first draft to final polish.
And in Panel 4 (episode 149) we discuss promotion, social media, and getting your work out there.
There are no strings attached here. The whole series is offered free for nothing as our way of helping to take up the slack because COVID-19 came to the party and spat in the punch bowl.
Enjoy the panels, recommend them to aspiring writers who may benefit from them, toss a link to here on social media if you want. It is all about helping each other cope, grow, and improve individually and as part of the greater writing community.
He ran a hand through thick gray hair as he peeked out the window at the holiday barbecue his sons were throwing. “They’re not kids anymore, ya know?”
“Honey, they are in their mid-twenties,” his wife said at the television room’s door before beckoning him toward their bedroom.
He crossed after her. “I know, right? When did that happen? Just the other day they were…”
“‘Time is fleeting,’” she teased, entering the solace of their room.
He closed the door, shutting out anything and anyone but them.”’Madness takes control,’” he responded, falling onto the bed, laughing with her. “We thought we had all the time in the world back then, Connie.”
“And suddenly here we are with responsible grownups where our kids used to be,” she shook her head. “All of them out there; we knew them when they so little. Now they have careers and lives.”
“And we’re sleepy,” he laughed.
She turned out the light. “That’s okay. It’s their time now and they are making the most of it.”
They found each other in the dark, and hand-in-hand, fell asleep.
He was up early the next morning, running his miles as was his custom, amused that so many cars were still parked in front of their house. By the time he finished, two were already gone, and two were left.
When he entered the house, one of his sons was lurching toward the coffee pot. “How many slept over,” Dad asked.
“Responsible thing for all of them to do.”
“Walked? He lives in the next town now!”
“That’s what I said, but he wouldn’t listen and we were busy cleaning up. The walk was probably good for him.”
Sunday passed bright and hot, with an even hotter encore on Monday. One car remained, amusing the dad. “Hey,” he told his son, “if it’s still there tomorrow, we put a ‘For Sale’ sign on it.“
“I’ll text Steve about it.”
“Tell him the walk back is equally good exercise.”
Tuesday morning, the dad got up even earlier, trying to beat the rising temperature. He decided to just do laps around the block, making it easier to bail if the heat got to be too much.
He used Steve’s car as his marker. At least it would be of some use to somebody, he chuckled, seeing as Steve apparently didn’t need it.
He noticed a whiff of backed-up sewer on the third lap. As he came around for the fourth, he took a good look; the sewers were clear.
He glanced around for another source of the stench. There was nothing. No overflowing garbage, no road kill, no…
He dismissed the idea instantly, but slowed to a walk. Couldn’t be. Maybe some local wildlife got hit by a car and crawled under there to die. Maybe it had been lying in the heat for a few days, ripening.
Or maybe the horrible smell is coming from the car itself.
The dad shook off the ridiculous thought. Or tried to.
He forced himself closer, each step landing on a weaker leg, his knees shaking by the time he inched to the rear driver’s side window. His eyes studied the roof of the vehicle, fighting against moving lower. But he had to know. Had to. I’ll just check under the car, he lied to himself, eyes finally lowering…
Steve hadn’t walked home.
The dad stumbled back, clutching his chest at the shock of what three days roasting in the summer heat had done.
He crashed to his knees, grabbing at his phone with suddenly clawed and quaking hands, managing to dial 911 before collapsing on the street. “Help him,” he gasped into the phone.
Everything became a jumble. Feet running. His wife screaming. His son pulling at a car door. A howl rising either from the approaching police cruiser or his own throat….
The story expresses a belief in the economic power of the non-elites (“under class, middle class, working class, poor, minorities”- none of these terms feel right anymore as we are the majority in all things but economics merely by being humans with common desires: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) and is offered again to support the cause.
But faith in the power of collective economics has been a theme for this author before. Compare this poster and the cover of the latest novel:
That book, a social horror novel set in our potential near future, follows the accidental eruption of an economic protest in the two phases: a sick out and a spending blackout to protest a government that has so lost touch with humanity it is “detaining” entire communities of color in confirmation camps and hunting LBGTQ people on live television. It was published in 2017.
But belief and support of using economics of the masses as a weapon against those who would see people as others, inferior, or unworthy is not enough. The word must be spread. So here it goes:
With every dollar left unspent today, the collective voice grows. And yes, everyone can contribute today by staying home and off Amazon, etc., and not ordering from DoorDash, etc., and not hitting “purchase” on demand for a movie, etc. The less that gets spent, the bigger the impact will be. All can contribute by literally not doing something. Clearly, today can truly be a quiet coup and a simple rebellion.
So some geniuses celebrated American freedom on Saturday by attacking a statue of Frederick Douglass. Nope, this was not in the Rebel South and it wasn’t a bunch of Confederate wannabes chanting, “The South will rise again!” This was in Rochester, New York (yeah, way up the left-leaning north), on the sight of a famous speech given by the abolitionist on July 4th.
The chronology is pretty easy to assume. Some freedom-loving whiteboys enraged by the recent destruction of American heroes of the slave era decided to get some payback by turning this …
… into this.
Probably seemed only fair after all the white guy statues that have been pulled down and desecrated and otherwise “removed from our proud history!” But the problem with that logic is the assumption that all history is proud. Nah. Never the case. Go over Germany and count the number of official Nazi statues. Or go to Africa and take the “Great Kidnappers and Slave Traders of Our Past” tour. You can’t because other countries keep the darker parts of their history in their history books.
We don’t. We keep honest accounts of our history out of our textbooks and instead erect statues to slavers and Confederate Civil War “heroes” and take revenge when those racists are torn down. And we seek justice by attacking monuments to those who dared to move this nation forward.
What’s next? How long until every statue in America is torn down or desecrated? When are we going after tributes to those evil bastards Lincoln and Jefferson? Let’s tear them suckers down! And then, when all the stone and metal historical monuments are ruined, let’s turn on each other. Yeah! Let’s get those Republican bums and Democratic mongrels, those Conservative clowns, and Liberal leper’s! Then let’s kill journalists and hunt down gays and cage Muslims and turn our whole country into this book…
I wrote it as a parody, a dark comedy exploring the near future as a warning of where we could wind up if we continue along the nightmarish path we are on. And then elements of this fiction started coming true to varying degrees. A Simple Rebellion is becoming less a dark comedic parody and more a desperate plea for all of us to take a breath and consider what we are doing to each other, who we are allowing to form our thoughts, and, most importantly, where we go from here.
Today I would like to share a podcast I do. @How to TELL THE DAMN STORY Summer Series” launches today with @BlackjackAD (Alex Simmons), @caseengaines, @herhymeswithme (Toney Jackson), and I discussing inspiration, focusing on how we get it and use it to create. Totally free. All are welcome.
Neil Young has been contributing to pop culture with great songs full of catchy hooks and deep meaning for sixty years. Sixty years! Respect, right? To continually contribute positively to society for six decades is a truly memorable feat that others might crave, but Neil did it. You might even say Neil Young deserves to be on the #mountrushmore of rock songwriters…
Nope, that’s not Neil…
Still missing Neil…
Oh forget it!
Let’s try this another way. Neil Young should be celebrated for his great songs. The first thing we notice is that they have great hooks. Two examples that may come to mind are “Like a Hurricane” (who doesn’t want to be powerful like a hurricane?) and “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” (c’mon, that’s an anthem for success and power and greatness, am I right or what?).
But those of us who listen to Neil know it’s his lyrics that really make the song memorable. One reason is that they often offer a message significantly different than one would glean if they only skimmed, like, the hook. For example, “Like A Hurricane” might seem to be about power and supremacy, but if we consider the lyrics, the truth is very different:
Here we see that the speaker wants to love the person being addressed but instead needs to be somewhere safer, apparently due to the damage that person brings to the relationship. How devastating!
And then there’s “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” a title so winning people might put it on a list of songs to play before major events to get the crowd psyched.
But you would never use this song that way if you understood that the hooky chorus is ironic and actually serves as a blistering critique of failed leadership. Worse, the lyrics spell out those failures:
Wow, devastating lyrics that depict the many horrendous government failures at the time of its release. So we see the irony that the chorus sets up in contrast to the lyrics. Blistering and intelligent and easy to catch, if you bother to listen, of course. So blistering, in fact, that if the song was used to set the tone for a major event, it would be humiliating for the star attraction. I mean, she or he would know the meaning of songs used to represent them, right? The star would know at least that much, yes? Surely, they would because otherwise the reaction of the informed public would be laughter at such a buffoon. Who would willingly set themselves up for that? And imagine if such a clown stepped on a rake in this way while standing, say, a national monument? Can you imagine the national reaction?
Well, I am glad that didn’t happen. Happy birthday, America!
Here we are on the cusp of an Independence Day celebration during a surge of Coronavirus cases, widespread unemployment and economic horrors, ongoing wars (remember them?), advancing climate change catastrophe, and the Black Lives Matter movement fighting for actual substantive change, wanting real freedoms for people of color.
Disney’s timing couldn’t be better. Ladies and gentlemen, during this weekend that celebrates the myths we’ve been sold to strengthen the noble and worthy Idea of America, the Mouse Empire gives us …Hamilton.
I won’t engage with naysayers who might argue minutia of historical “fact” because my heart and soul are too busy dancing. Hamilton offers America the answers we need to the key question of all our current plights.
Right now, what does America need most?
Belief in the Idea of America. Hamilton has this so thoroughly it swells the heart.
Knowledge of who we are. Hamilton reminds us by blending the best elements of our troubling history with American diversity, showing us the path we all need to take out of the darkness and into the light.
Joy in our shared roots.Hamilton makes those roots our own. All. Of. Ours.
History. We need to truly know our past to finally confront who we were/are if we want any hope of becoming who we are meant to be.
Education. Schooling is a central theme in Hamilton, this celebration of the American Possibility. And it needs to be a priority for all of us, with significant increases in funding to improve every area of how we cultivate intelligence in our country. An educated populace may scare the hell out of politicians but it is this country’s best hope for both our survival and advancement.
Creative Intelligence. Hamilton mixes highly developed skills in writing, rapping, singing, dancing, staging, costumes, lighting, production, casting, and so much more, all in the service of showing us an America we can have: diverse, equal, unified, and shining brighter for all of it.
Hamilton is the Idea of America applied with intelligence, style, energy, pride, and belief, offered to all of us (okay, maybe not all of us yet, we need to subscribe to Disney, but that may be easier than getting Hamilton tickets was). And in this transcendent musical, the Idea of America is celebrated to send us forth with a positive message that echoes through our land today in the best aspects of BLM and gay pride, and programs to feed the poor, and among the best of our police, and in the best efforts of teachers. That message reminds us all that the Idea of America is meant for…
We The People.
Each and every one of us.
We are so much stronger together than we are apart. Hamilton is the spectacular result of what the Idea of America has afforded us so far. Imagine what we can accomplish creatively, intellectually, scientifically, economically, spiritually, and yes, even politically, if we cast off our self-created limitations and move forward together, truly together, for the first time in our history.
Enjoy Hamilton this weekend, brothers and sisters, and then dream of what the Idea of America means for each of us as we weave our life’s thread into the grand tapestry of America.
God Bless America. Please. We really need it right now.
We really didn’t notice until we were quarantined, and by then it was too late. They had won.
In Before Times, we were busy going to work, getting kids to school, commuting to college, the gym, the mall, the movies, the restaurant, NetFlixing and Chilling, going to bed. All the while, they were moving in, burrowing under our world, breeding, infesting.
And then COVID-19 hit. Suddenly we were mostly home, mostly together, mostly … bored. After a while, we began to look out the windows like lonely puppies trapped behind pet store glass. And that is when we saw the monsters roaming free, claiming our land, our lawns, our trees, our world. They were everywhere, outnumbering us easily.
We had seen them before, of course. Rushing to or from our cars, we’d notice one and think, “How cute.” Such fools. By the time we were desperate enough to look outside our own quarantine, we were forced to admit, “We have been overrun.”
In our own back yards we found the proof. So. Many. Holes. That is when we realized these adorable antagonists already had labyrinths below ground. They had assumed control. They had assumed control.
There we stood, each of us a version of Captain America at the end of Avengers: End Game, limping amid the devastated battlefield, facing hordes of horrors we could hardly see.
And then it happened.
“On your left.”
One by one, the hawks arrived, circling high above, and then swooping down. They began to stay low, sit on a fence, or a branch, calling to fellow hawks, gathering their forces … to feast.
The horror movie shifted. We were no longer the scared stars, we were the audience. And those precious little invaders were the hapless protagonists, on the run, fleeing for their lives as a silent, swift-moving shadow bore down on them, closing in, stealing them away never to be seen again.
There was almost a twist ending. I was sipping an early morning cup of tea, on my bench, outside my house, once again enjoying my lawn (okay, my son has taken ownership of the lawn, but still, very nice), and a chipmunk scooted by.
“Oh no, they are still in contr-”
From around the corner, majestically spread wings soared down in a wide arc, plunged to the ground, rose, then were gone. And so was the lovable little beast.
Carl Reiner has died, and I offer my condolences. Not because I know the family or even ever met any of their talented tribe. I offer my sympathies because, without ever meeting him, Carl’s son Rob Reiner (he of directing and producing fame), saved my life.
Years ago, I was close to breaking through in Hollywood.
Or so I thought.
At the end of a screenwriting course, I was selected from among the thirty or so students to continue with five others. From that group, my screenplay was selected for “development with the course creator” a Hollywood producer who “had a project in the development with Schwarzenegger.” I can admit now that I was swept in by that with no further proof necessary. Turned out to be true, but, ultimately that was beside the point.
The real lesson was to come and it taught me that in some cases I was a slow learner.
This producer would meet with me every time he “flew in from Cali” so we could work on developing the script together. After each meeting, I would do a significant rewrite. On spec, having already paid him for the courses.
We met 15 times.
And it slowly dawned on me that his contributions were vague and progressively less useful, starting with his suggestion that we want to trim all the fat so the pacing really moves (loosely paraphrased – it has been years), to ramping up the lead, increasing the peril, and so on. And like any hungry writer, I would dive back in, trimming fat one rewrite, ramping up the next, increasing peril after that, until I had done twelve rewrites. At that point, even I was glimpsing the truth through the dream.
At meeting 13 I requested specific editorial comments to finish this project up, and he told me I had to make sure every line leapt off the page. I pushed him for specifics and he told me, “Well, I don’t want to write your script for you.” Concerned that I had insulted the only producer ever interested in working with me, I nodded, went home, and made sure those lines were a leaping.
Meeting 14 was more of the same, except he was quicker to cut off my questions with his “Well, I don’t want to write your script for you,” followed by news that Schwarzenegger was about to choose between the script he was producing and a possible Terminator sequel. The message was I was either onboard with this guy, working my ass off on spec rewrites, or I would miss being part of his glory.
Before meeting 15, I read an article about a screenwriter who was working with Rob Reiner and thought he had handed in a masterpiece until Reiner started asking detailed questions about every aspect of the script, from thematic ideas, to why a character would use specific phrasing on a certain page. The point of the article was Reiner forced a better script out of the writer by demanding a logic, a reason, and a reality for every word of that script. After reading that article, I knew the truth: Rob Reiner had just saved my life.
We met in this guy’s ridiculously modern hotel and he brought me up to the restaurant for breakfast. I only ordered an English muffin and tea. His order was elaborately detailed, and every additional demand just made me think “bullshit” a bit louder in my head. And then he heard the soft rock playing in the background, and told the waiter to turn it off.
“But, sir, our patrons enjoy the music in the morning,” the waiter explained.
“I am having an important meeting, and I want it off, so turn off the music.”
“Sir, I do not have the authority to do such a thing.”
“Either turn it off or bring over the manager and I will have him turn it off!”
I excused myself, left the tea, English muffin, and charlatan at the table, and walked out. Lesson learned.
These days, I am lucky enough to work with real editors who ask real questions and make me reconsider specific choices I have made, expose habits I need to address, and help improve the work. These talented people are blessings.
Nobody should want to write your tale for you, but professional editors make you craft your story better than you thought possible.
There are only two cars on the street. One is running. A driver sits behind the wheel and another man is standing outside.
They are talking. All around them the streets are deserted. All the stores are closed up in this very well-maintained ghost town.
“You have to stay, Charles,“ the man on the street insisted. “We both know this town needs the bank to survive.“
“There is no town,“ Charles argued. “It died when they all snuck off.”
“We’ll bring new folk, start again,” the other said. “We can’t let them win. But we need your bank.”
“I don’t own the bank, I just run it for the money men. And now they want me running some other bank in some other town. You should get out too, there’s no one left to sell real estate to. You need to get to some other town, this one’s dead.”
With that the banker drove off.
The realtor was left in the empty town waiting on a car coming down from a distance. When it arrived he saw that the luxury vehicle was long and sleek, a limousine. It stopped near him and one of the back doors opened. A proper lady stepped out, shocking the realtor when he realized she was black.
“You never told me you were a Negro,“ the realtor said.
“From my research you are in no position for it to matter,“ she replied.
She took a check from her pocketbook, held it up. “The full amount, as we negotiated, as per the contract signed by both of us. For all the properties and businesses, as we discussed. Now either you want to take this check and salvage something of your career, or you can stay here alone and enjoy poverty.“
“I don’t like it, no, I don’t like it at all. Give that check to me,“ The realtor demanded.
“I’ll be reviewing the portfolio of deeds, and a rather large ring of keys before this check leaves my hands.“
“Not if I just knock you to the ground and take it myself,“ the realtor threatened, moving towards her.
The limo’s other rear door opened and a giant of a man emerged, huge Colt revolvers strapped on each hip.
“I would think carefully before breaking state and federal law if I was you,” Arron “Blackjack” Day growled. “You entered into a signed contract. While it may be comfortable behavior for you, reverting to crime now, well, that will prove to be a problem.”
The realtor’s quivering eyes traveled up and down the black man’s muscular physique. He outweighed the white business leader by at least 100 pounds of pure power and clearly carried at least four weapons; the Colts, what appeared to be a shotgun slung over his shoulder, and a very large knife sheathed in his boot. Defeated, the business man handed over his attaché case for inspection. “You’ll find it’s all in there,“ he said. “Review until you’re satisfied.”
The woman was thorough. She kept the realtor waiting until she was absolutely sure every document was included, signed, and in proper order, and then she checked the large key ring to ensure she now has access to every store and house, as well as the bank and the realtor’s own office. She even had a key to a small police station. When she was satisfied, she handed him the check.
“Pleasure doing business with you.”
The grumbling realtor climbed into the only other vehicle in town and sped off with one final glare.
The two impressive human beings stood in the center of town and took it all in. Finally Arron Day turned the woman and asked, “Are you sure this is going to work, sis?“
“Not everything is solved with bullets, brother,” Mary Day said. “When cousin Jenna called about what was going on around here between the crooked business deals and the Klan, I knew calling you in guns blazing would just make things worse.“
“Thank you so much for your faith in me,“ Arron joked, “But I agree with your assessment. Guns would have only brought more guns. Your plan, however, seemed pretty extreme.”
“All the black people in town were being victimized constantly. It was second nature to most of their white neighbors. That isn’t freedom, that’s elaborately disguised torture, and ultimately, just another form of slavery. And they were financing it because white people controlled everything.”
“Not a unique situation.”
“True, but Jenna and her neighbors had a solution I believed we should support. They just wanted control of their own lives rather than start a war.”
“Not easy to achieve.”
“It only took a few months of them moving out to live with relatives for this town to fold. Without black folks spending money in those white businesses where they were abused and overcharged, each and every one of them went broke.“
The siblings looked to the south. In the distance a line of cars and trucks were approaching in a kind of caravan.
“This is my favorite part of the plan,” Mary said. “Now they come back, buy back their homes at a fair price from Jen, who’s going to act as the realtor. We have Mr. Wilson, who is a whiz with numbers and money. He is going to run the bank. Mr. John’s going to run the hardware store and Abe’s going to operate the grocery. Black owned businesses supported by black townsfolk, who work and help run the town. This is an opportunity.”
Arron scanned the horizon, searching for signs of trouble. “And when the Klan arrive?”
“They will discover that this town is protected by a big and strong black fully deputized fb police force made up of all those veterans who came back from the war and couldn’t get a job and now will have a career, a piece of the dream they will fight for.”
“And why are you and I, of all people, doing this?“
“Because we can help them while all this gets established.”
“You mean I can shoot a bunch of racists when they ride into town with guns and torches.”
“Little brother, please let this be a lesson for you,“ she said. “When the social contract isn’t being upheld by one side, the other side has to find a way to become the leaders they are looking for.“
“I’ll believe it when I see it,“ the infamous Blackjack said.
“You’ll believe it when these people prove that no matter what others say about them or us, we all have a right to a piece of the American Dream. How we use it can make all the difference.“
Aaron Day hugged his sister and then straightened his shoulders and walked toward the realtor’s office. “Let’s get to work.”