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Don’t Beat Yourself Up

Boxing glovesPreviously, I discussed how comparing yourself to other writers can be valuable. This week, I wanted to say something about how you shouldn’t make such comparisons. This is the point where any robots reading will have a paradox-inspired meltdown, but as Emerson once said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Or, as I once said, “I’m contradicting myself? Huh. That’s very interest… LOOK OVER THERE.” [Footsteps. Car peeling away. Car crashing. Sirens.]

Self-doubt hampers the trancelike flow that generates great writing (or even the painful stop-start that generates pretty good writing). Why do we doubt ourselves? One reason: because—and here comes a controversial statement—writing is easy.

Calm down. Don’t revoke my guild card. I’ve come to rely on it for my steady diet of films about Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife issues. Writing is also incredibly hard (Contradiction two! I’m doubling down on that foolish consistency thing.) A brilliant script requires a rock-solid understanding of structure, a keen ear for dialogue, and a superhuman ability to stare at a glowing screen through twelve revisions. A great joke requires a lateral mind and a theasauran’s ability to pick exactly the right word. Or to make the right word up—a word like, say, “theasauran.”

And most folks can’t write at all. Believe me, my dad was a professor. I saw him suffer through enough papers to know. (Actually, for proof just read any YouTube comments section. We’re all professors’ sons now.) But for writers, writing is just a little bit easy. If it wasn’t, we’d get into something more stable, like dictator of Egypt. We started writing. We had a knack for it. We enjoyed it. So we wrote more and more, and got better and better.

Hard? Hard is talking to strangers on the phone about anything that requires a confirmation number. When it comes down to basic life skills like knowing how to fill out an insurance form, I thank God I have a wife who’s willing to take lead. I’d rather imagine a hundred imaginary worlds and write a script about each than to deal with the daily nonsense of the real world.

Add to this the pervasive myth that writing skill comes from talent and not practice, I think it’s easy to internalize the feeling that you’re getting away with something—that writing is some sort of racket. Writers find all sorts of ways to beat themselves up (yes, there are arrogant writers, but arrogance usually masks poor self-esteem). If you devalue writing in general, you begin to devalue your own writer’s instincts. You begin to look at other people, convinced they have it figured out. Instead of tapping into the flow within yourself, you worry that you need to be doing what your peers are doing. They know something you don’t. They’re really working.

Maybe they are. If comparing allows you to diagnose deficiencies in your own work, then by all means draw on that and improve. You’re not going to find all the answers magically waiting within. But don’t indulge a counterproductive wallow, either. Don’t allow an obsession with exterior things to drown out your own voice, and don’t let other people devalue your worth. There’s a lot of noise buzzing at us, all the time, and one of the ways to get to a place where writing is fun and—yes—easy, is to give yourself permission to zone out those distractions. To not worry, for once.

After all, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to compare yourself unfavorably to your friends without actively going and looking for them. I’m sure they’ll helpfully post all their successes to Facebook.

Thou Shalt Covet Thy Neighbor’s Skill

"thou shalt not covet" line on broken 10 Commandments sculpture

photo by mojoey

I once wrote a comedy script where the premise turned on an observation about Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. We may think of it as a heartwarming redemption story, but what ultimately triggers Scrooge’s change of heart? High spirits and wassail with the Ghost of Christmas Past? Regret over the way he’s treated his employee, with Christmas Present? No, he’s only truly moved to change when he’s reminded that he’s eventually going to die, and—hey—it might be nice if someone dropped by his funeral. MERRY CHRISTMAS.

The fact that Scrooge kind of ignored the carrot until he got the stick doesn’t discount his change of heart. A lot of healthy change can come from less-than-healthy motivations. You just need some self-awareness about the flaws that drive you.

Jealousy is a big driving force in my life, as I’m pretty sure it is for most of my fellow comedy writers—and probably the populace at large, though I’ll try and keep my negative generalizations local. Despite its reputation as both a deadly sin and a green-eyed monster (which, as injurious descriptions go, sounds kind of sexy), I don’t think there’s anything wrong with jealousy per se. Coveting others’ success can be a hell of a motivator to achieve. It only becomes problematic when you don’t direct that energy toward your own work, but let it feed the bitter conviction that others are undeserving.

I’ve never gotten that far. Oh, I’m shamefully jealous of my successful friends, but before I get close to resenting them, I remember they’re (1.) the most dedicated people I know, and (2.) mind-bendingly funny. This does little for my writing or my career, but it does keep me from becoming a jerk. (And it gibes with the best piece of career advice I’ve gotten—from an SNL writer whom I met when I first moved to New York—“Don’t be a dick.” The guild should embroider that on a sampler, to give out with membership cards.)

Where jealousy can improve your writing, is when you move past simple envy to examine what got someone where they are. Other people aren’t successful simply because they’re not you. They’re successful because they’re doing something you aren’t. What is it? How can you apply that knowledge to your own work? How can you change a shallow focus on outward trappings into a deeper understanding of your writing?

For instance: I put in a packet for a late night show. I didn’t get the job, but a close friend did, which gave me a unique opportunity to see what a “winning” packet looked like. I was struck by how far beyond a typical segment his material went. While we were roughly equivalent on the basic gag level, the creativity put into goosing the stock format and finding new ways to visualize the jokes put his over the top. I had been too hung up on capturing the existing voice of the show to think about the ways the host and writers might be looking to push the material further. Now when I submit a packet I (1.) try to capture the show’s voice, but also (2.) find ways to showcase my own voice within that model, and (3.) never stop at something that could merely air on the show as it is, but strive to write something that represents the show at its ideal.

Another example: a friend recommended me for a job writing online content. When I didn’t get it, she privately disclosed that part of her producers’ decision was due to my lack of experience producing web video. So, I decided I should start producing web video—and it was immediately the most successful thing I’ve done. Instead of grousing about the position, I took the note and did something about it. (Well… I don’t want to make myself out to be more well-adjusted than I am. I groused a bit. Or at length. To everyone on Gmail chat.)

Too often, jealousy stops at someone thinking, “I’m just as good as he/she/it.” (In the rare occasions you’re competing with a screenwriting toaster oven.) Even if it’s true, there’s usually a lesson to be learned by the comparison—not that you should emulate success blindly; there’s plenty of terrible material that’s wildly successful—but the exercise is a much more healthy way of dealing with that envy than to enter yourself in a race you’ll never win.

Comedy = Showing Up + Timing

“Showing up is 80 percent of life”– Woody Allen, cited in The New York Times, Aug. 21, 1977

It’s hard to discuss writing without sounding fatuous (for proof, read on). That may be one reason I don’t have a lot of pet theories or guidelines. It’s not that I don’t find certain writing rules useful, or won’t spout the occasional truism when a friend pesters me for notes. It’s more that my approach to learning about the craft is to hang out on Fairuza Balk fan-sites. Wait—that’s my approach for learning about The Craft. My approach for the other thing is to read a bunch of writing books, listen to a bunch of writing podcasts, and then take a bunch of naps, hoping that everything I’ve absorbed will synthesize itself into a grand unified system. It’s an approach that suits my lifestyle, combining, as it does, magical thinking and laziness. I turn to rules mostly when I need to solve a problem—when they’re prescriptive they hem you in. When diagnostic, they suggest solutions.

What I do enjoy is the occasional grand pronouncement. And my pick for grandest is the Woody Allen quote above (the most definitive version I was able to find, though you may have heard it as “90% of everything is just showing up”—the additional 10% is, I assume, due to inflation). It’s become my guiding principle, in ways that both comfort and taunt me.

Comfort because it reminds me that, if you make a genuine effort to pursue every avenue, year after year, someone will take note. (Not always, but surprisingly often.) Yes, it usually takes longer than you’d like, and the prize is never what you expected, but there’s real value in simply being the one hanging out, in the back of the room, long after the others have gone. If you can’t have luck, you can have longevity.

Sticking it out can be a lonely act of faith. For most of my career, it seemed every word I wrote might as profitably been tossed down a well (which is saying something—your average well pays peanuts). Then, over the past few years, things began to happen. I got my first TV staff writer interview. My webseries got noticed by the Writer’s Guild. This summer, in the space of one month, I was contacted by a cable channel to do interstitials, had a piece in Slate, was selected for a screenplay reading, and got into the New York TV Festival. Why then? Such things are often feast or famine, but I think it has to do with showing up. If you keep doing it, you become difficult to ignore.

That’s half of the good stuff—call it the “you’ve got to be in it to win it” part (although that phrase’s lottery associations are uncomfortably apt re: the odds of making it in television). The other half is the “when the student is ready the master will appear” part. I’ve talked about being a “success,” but what about being a good writer? I wasn’t tossing brilliant scripts for The Office down that well. I wasn’t even tossing scripts for Small Wonder. But, while no one was paying attention, I became more worthy of attention. Part of showing up is writing long enough to have something worth saying.

As for the taunt, it has many sides: Am I really showing up, or am I just waiting around? I know people whose page count dwarfs my own. I’m showing up, but once I’m there, am I easily forgotten? I write in part because I have no head for business, yet it requires savvy and hustle beyond imagining. Am I showing up to the right places? Comedy writing is a different beast than most other kinds. So much depends on becoming seen and known within a community of performers. Rather than writing that spec, would I be better served spending my nights at—say— stand-up shows, even if I don’t have the specific passion that stand-up demands?

And yet, mostly I find it comforting. Showing up is a more encouraging phrase than paying dues, even though it encompasses that idea and makes it easier to swallow, like putting hunks of bacon in your Brussels sprouts (actually, I like Brussels sprouts… let’s say like taking your vitamins with some whiskey, unless that reveals too much). Showing up reminds you to write that script, pay that entry fee, make those revisions, reach out to that agent. More importantly, it helps me look at the (small) success I’ve had so far and have faith that there’s more to come. Eventually that well has to fill up.

But that’s beside the point. What I really wanted to ask was: wanna drink whiskey and watch The Craft?
Dan McCoy is the creator, co-writer, and co-star of the web series 9 AM Meeting, which won the MTV Animation Award at the 2010 New York Television Festival, and a development deal with the network. He’s spent nearly a decade skulking in the margins of the NYC comedy scene–writing for stage shows starring Emmy-winning comedians Sara Schaefer and Elliott Kalan, and performing sketch and (much more infrequently) stand-up. His freelance work has appeared on/in Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,, Gawker, Cinemax, Whim Quarterly, and NPR’s Morning Edition. He lives in Brooklyn with his cat and his wife, not in that order.

Story and Structure

“Euripides in Museos Vaticanos” by serguei_2k

Is plot dead?

I had a recent argument with a playwriting student who thought it was. It wasn’t just plot that was dead. She told me that the whole concept of character-driven narrative structure in dramatic writing, the so-called “well-made story”, was out-of-date, bourgeois and boring.

Actually, to say we were “arguing” is putting it strongly; I teach in a low-residency MFA program, and so our discussion was not only quite civil, it was quaintly epistolary, conducted via letters over several weeks. What’s more, this student is no kid. She’s also smart as a whip and has worked as a theater professional around the world. She’s mulled about this kind of thing for years. And so I gave serious thought to what she had to say. In the end, I still disagreed.

By the end of the semester, we may not have seen things eye-to-eye. But she taught me a lot about postmodern theatre and I read a bunch of plays I hadn’t read before, many of which I thought were terrific. I also like to hope I convinced her, even a little, of the continuing power of that ancient (I would actually say hardwired) form, the well-told story. Most important, because I had to defend my position, the exchange made me think hard about something I’ve spent years taking for granted: the importance of that strange thing we call narrative structure.

Every writer in the guild – screenwriters, TV writers, news writers – depends on structure. It’s our go-to weapon, our primary tool of choice: kind of like our t-square/hammer/calculator/Singer sewing machine, all rolled into one. Without a solid structure, a story, any story, slowly collapses in on itself like an improvised Lego suspension bridge. I’d go so far as to paraphrase Thomas Edison and say that good writing is 1% inspiration and 99% structure. Sure, dialogue is important; but like everything, it serves the story. And story is basically all about structure.

Structure, of course, isn’t some kind of rigid code, a one-size-fits-all Iron Maiden into which one must cram one’s genius. Good writers are constantly tinkering with structure, which arises from specific characters, their situation, their wants, and their problems. Good story structure, after all, can be anything: it can be loopy and deconstructed; it can turn chronology inside out, shatter the fourth wall, break reality, and be as full of surprises, misdirections, and dead ends as a moonlit neighborhood in Venice, the kind you chase a murderous dwarf through because you’re convinced it’s a kid in a red raincoat. So what makes structure good? As has been said of music, if it sounds good, it is good. If the structure makes organic sense with the story that’s being told, if it drives the action… then it’s good. If you’re riveted to your chair, if you keep your hand off the clicker, if the ending resonates so much that you’re still talking about it weeks later… then whoever the writer is, she or he has earned that paycheck.

Non-Fiction Writers Producers UnitedRecently, some WGAE colleagues and I were talking with a room full of producers/writers who work in non-fiction TV—(this means shows like The First 48, Steven Seagal: Lawman or Four Weddings) mostly for cable. One producer/writer was talking about a show she works on, which features a medical pathologist who performs autopsies. A colleague of mine said she was a fan of the show and that she was always delighted there was a surprise ending, a twist at the end she hadn’t expected. The producer/writer gave a wry smile and said, “Yeah… because we put it there.” Of course, it’s something we all knew intellectually… and yet there it was a visceral reminder in a specific example. The producer/writers of nonfiction TV are masters of story structure, the same as the rest of us; and they deserve to join our ranks and get a union contract.

Court and Chevron’s “Crude” Attacks Continue

CRUDE: The Real Price of OilJoe Berlinger’s back is against the wall. Last week the independent filmmaker, already facing crushing debt from legal bills, was dealt a major blow in his continuing fight against the third-largest company in America: Chevron.

It’s a battle that epitomizes the hardship individuals face trying to challenge corporate giants that punch back with a knockout force of high-powered lawyers and unlimited cash.

What’s more, Berlinger’s struggle continues to raise serious First Amendment issues and – as we approach the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision – throws yet another spotlight on the increasingly pro-business stance of the nation’s legal system.

It was this past May when my friend and colleague Bill Moyers and I first wrote about Berlinger’s documentary “Crude” and its legal troubles. The film tells the story of how Ecuadorians challenged the pollution of rivers and wells from Texaco’s drilling in the Lago Agrio oil field, a rainforest disaster savagely damaging the environment and the local population’s health that’s been described as the Amazon’s Chernobyl. When the petrochemical behemoth Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001 and attempted to dismiss claims that it was now responsible, the indigenous people and their lawyers fought back in court.

In May, federal judge Lewis A. Kaplan ordered Berlinger to turn over to Chevron more than 600 hours of raw footage used to create the film. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit limited the amount of footage to be turned over (although it still amounts to more than 500 hours) but ordered Berlinger to submit to depositions.

Now, on January 13, that same court ruled, as reported in The New York Times, that Berlinger “could not invoke a journalist’s privilege in refusing to turn over that footage because his work on the film did not constitute an act of independent reporting,” and that the argument “that he was protected as a journalist from being compelled to share his reporting materials was not persuasive.” As evidence, the court said that the film “was solicited by the plaintiffs in the Lago Agrio litigation for the purpose of telling their story, and changes to the film were made at their instance.”

Berlinger responded, “While the idea for ‘Crude’ was pitched to me by Steven Donziger, one of the Lago Agrio plaintiffs’ lawyers, this was not a commissioned film. I had complete editorial independence, as did 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair, who also produced stories on this case that were solicited by Mr. Donziger. The decision to modify one scene in the film based on comments from the plaintiffs’ lawyers after viewing the film at the Sundance Film Festival was exclusively my own and in no way diminishes the independence of this production from its subjects. I rejected many other suggested changes and my documentary ‘Crude’ has been widely praised for its balance in the presentation of Chevron’s point of view as well as the plaintiffs’.”

Were mistakes made, errors in judgment? Perhaps. But the court’s ruling fails to fully understand the nature of news and documentary reporting and will have a chilling effect on journalists who constantly receive information and suggestions from sources representing a variety of interests and points of view. It’s the professional journalist’s job to sort through them on the way to determining the truth. As Moyers and I wrote in May, “This is a serious matter for reporters, filmmakers and frankly, everyone else. Tough, investigative reporting without fear or favor – already under siege by severe cutbacks and the shutdown of newspapers and other media outlets – is vital to the public awareness and understanding essential to a democracy.”

Just as dismaying about this latest ruling is the endless sinking feeling that the courts more than ever are stacked against the individual seeking redress against big business. In the 39 states where judges are elected, corporate cash has poured into judicial races – contributions have more than doubled in recent years, prompting Sandra Day O’Connor to say, “No state can possibly benefit from having that much money injected into a political campaign.” And in the federal courts, well, suppose Berlinger’s case were to make it all the way to the Supreme Court. A recent Fortune magazine cover proclaimed it “the most pro-business court we have ever seen,” and, as the Times more understatedly noted last month, “It is clear … that the Supreme Court these days is increasingly focused on business issues.”

In case you missed the Times story over the holidays, it was headlined “Justices Offer Receptive Ear to Business Interests.” Scholars at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago prepared a report analyzing nearly 1,500 Supreme Court decisions across almost six decades. It found that, “The Roberts court, which has completed five terms, ruled for business interests 61 percent of the time, compared with 46 percent in the last five years of the court led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died in 2005, and 42 percent by all courts since 1953.”

According to the Times’ Adam Liptak:

The Roberts court’s engagement with business issues has risen along with the emergence of a breed of lawyers specializing in Supreme Court advocacy, many of them veterans of the United States solicitor general’s office, which represents the federal government in the court. These specialists have been extraordinarily successful, both in persuading the court to hear business cases and to rule in favor of their clients.

Many of these lawyers work for or with the US Chamber of Commerce and its National Chamber Litigation Center, which calls itself “the voice of business in the courts on issues of national concern to the business community.”

The Times reported:

The chamber now files briefs in most major business cases. The side it supported in the last term won 13 of 16 cases. Six of those were decided with a majority vote of five justices, and five of those decisions favored the chamber’s side. One of them was Citizens United, in which the chamber successfully urged the court to guarantee what it called “free corporate speech” by lifting restrictions on campaign spending.

The court’s independence – and historic skepticism about the needs of corporate America – are relics of the past. Here’s what was in a 2007 edition of BusinessWeek magazine:

Robin S. Conrad, head of the Chamber of Commerce’s litigation arm, notes that the judicial branch offers an alternative forum where business can seek changes it has failed to win from other branches of government. In the 1990s, the chamber and other business groups made this a vital part of their tort reform strategy on a state level, pouring money into local judicial campaigns to reshape state supreme courts and, ultimately, state laws. Now with a US Supreme Court that’s not allergic to business cases, the approach is playing out on a national level….

It was President Calvin Coolidge who in 1925 famously declared, “The chief business of the American people is business,” a sentiment this Supreme Court and much of the American judicial system would stoutly embrace. But ironically – especially for journalists and filmmakers like Berlinger – he made the remark in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Its title: “The Press Under a Free Government.”

Truth and freedom, Coolidge said, “are inseparable.” There is “no justification for interfering with the freedom of the press, because all freedom, though it may sometime tend toward excesses, bears within it those remedies which will finally effect a cure for its own disorders.”

Remembering Himan Brown

A radio and TV producer named Himan Brown, an important figure in media broadcasting, passed away in 2010. On December 10th, a dramatized history of his life which I wrote was performed at the Martin E. Segal Theatre, CUNY Studios, in New York.

Mr. Brown’s accomplishments in radio drama included “The Inner Sanctum” with its signature of a creaking door and the ghostly voice of Raymond welcoming you to that place. “The Inner Sanctum,” The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre,” and many of his other shows utilized thousands of scripts by our writers.

In the 1970’s, he produced a Madison Square Garden spectacle saluting Israel for defending itself successfully against an attack by her enemies. And he produced a short film starring Edward G. Robinson. In a courtroom setting (borrowed from “Perry Mason”) Robinson condemned the Soviet Union for its anti-Semitism. I was the author of that film.

The memorial event on December 10th was performed by a troupe of wonderful actors all of whom worked with Brown in the past. They included Marian Seldes, Tony Roberts, Bob Kaliban, Russell Horton, Roberta Maxwell, Jada Rowland, and Paul Hecht who directed the show. Vintage radio clips were provided by David Saviet. The tribute was produced by Melina Brown, Hi’s granddaughter.

The principal hope of Hi Brown in his later years was that the golden age of radio might be some day revived, a move that would be welcomed by us all. Especially by those of us who remember the unique rewards of radio, the locations created by sound and dialogue that become more vivid than million dollar sets; the unequaled adventures and pleasures arising from our own imaginations, aptly described by Hi Brown as “the joy of listening.”
Jerome Coopersmith is an award-winning dramatist whose work ranges from multiple episodes of Hawaii 5-0 to Broadway’s Baker Street (a musical adventure of Sherlock Holmes). His awards include a Tony Nomination (for Baker Street), a Robert E. Sherwood Award for television writing, and Best New Play of 1998 (Reflections of a Murder) awarded by the Charlotte Repertory Theatre Festival.

Why Audiences Need Net Neutrality

The WGAE represents content creators – people who write programs for the internet and other digital distribution systems (e.g., to mobile devices). We have argued in favor of Net Neutrality because our members want the opportunity to reach audiences directly, without major studios and other large corporations deciding what to distribute. But what about the audience? The public? Why should they care about Net Neutrality ?

For the same reason: the internet provides an unprecedented opportunity for people to experience the widest possible range of programming.

Not just shows that make money for networks and studios. Programming made by independent creators – indie films, off-beat comedies, short-form mysteries, programs that address important niche audiences who aren’t well-served by the current media conglomerates. Programming that presents unique viewpoints on important public issues such as race, sexuality, immigration, the economy.

If Net Neutrality fails, if a handful of large corporations effectively decide what people watch on the internet, these independent voices will not be heard. The culture and the nation will be the poorer for it.

There is an important aspect to the Net Neutrality debate that people should keep in mind: “paid prioritization”. This would permit Internet Service Providers to set up channels where content flows faster and with better quality. People are far more likely to watch programs on those fast lanes, rather than waiting for pokey downloads and suffering through images and sounds that stutter or freeze. Net Neutrality must apply to the entire internet. And that includes wireless digital distribution as well as wired.

With an FCC vote scheduled for December 21st , the future of Net Neutrality is uncertain. If the FCC chooses to abandon the principles of Net Neutrality an even stronger social movement will be needed to find other ways of protecting the open internet, be they legislative or otherwise.

It’s time for Net Neutrality advocates to redouble our efforts to court web video watchers, indie film fans and people who love web comedy sites to take action. These are the people who rely on the unbridled content of the open internet.

And it’s not just fanboys/girls who are tuning in. In fact, over 70% of internet users world-wide watch online video (A Global Nielsen Consumer Report). If even a fraction of those viewers understood what was at stake in terms of entertainment value alone, we’d be in a better position to win this fight.

The WGAE is not the first group to take the Net Neutrality campaign to YouTube, but please watch our new PSA by member Axel Giminez. He is one of the independent creators who depend on an open internet. I don’t want to imagine a world without stop-motion-animated absurdist videos and I hope you don’t either (watch the video)! Please join us in sending a message to the President by visiting Let him know that viewers want him to act to preserve REAL Net Neutrality .

The Villain of the Piece

I’ve seen ‘The Social Network’, written by Aaron Sorkin a couple of times, deeply impressed by the script’s vibrant construction and razor sharp dialogue. The film’s prologue, a break up ceremony between a fictional Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend, is one brilliant bit of writing, one that stands on its own as a scene, while establishing the themes of class envy, blinding intelligence and casual misogyny that weave through the narrative like threads in a finely tailored suit.

There was an outcry by some very smart women that ‘The Social Network’ not only depicts sexism but is sexist itself, falling victim to the evil it attempts to illustrate. Any acute depiction of a condescending attitude toward women is likely to make folks uncomfortable, especially the people being depicted as objects of scorn. “The fact that the real Zuckerberg has had a real life long term relationship made some feel the salty nerd Sorkin created in ‘The Social Network’ was a violation of the truth and a ruse played upon a gullible audience.

But ‘The Social Network’ is not journalism and I didn’t expect fidelity to the facts when I entered the multiplex. (All screenwriters know “based on a true story” is as reliable a barometer of accuracy as the dealer in a three card monte game.) My feeling was that Sorkin was using the fictional Zuckerberg as a metaphor for the insecure boy’s club that is Silicon Valley and the world of net nerds worldwide.

If this fact doesn’t satisfy the film’s female critics, believe me I understand. The most talked about African-American feature film of 2010 is ‘For Colored Girls,’ Tyler Perry’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s 1970s play/poem that features black male characters who are cruel, alcoholic, rapists, wife beaters and child killers.The play is a touchstone of black feminism and I don’t believe there’s a working black actress in Hollywood who hasn’t been in at least one production. In Perry’s film there is one good dude (a policeman and husband) just as in Sorkin’s script there is a smart, perceptive attorney played by Rashida Jones amid a world of Facebook groupies.

But ‘For Colored Girls’ is never gonna be a black man’s favorite viewing experience. And why should it be? Like Sorkin in ‘The Social Network’, Perry has a point of view on sexual relations that defines the work they created and they follow it through with gusto. I have no problem with ‘For Colored Girls’ existing (though I didn’t love the filmmaking.) It wasn’t made for me and I’m not the audience for it. Art with no viewpoint is just product and we have more than enough of that. But it does sting when you find yourself the villain of the piece.

Pitching With Shades

Nelson George

In the fall of 1990 I, along with three friends/collaborators, participated in my first true Hollywood pitch meeting. It was at the office of a then active, now defunct, boutique production company with snazzy offices over on Sunset in West Hollywood, back when many a hip film and music enterprise called that area home. My partners and I had all just flown in from New York. I was jet lagged, nervous and self-conscious. I was wearing shades (eg: sunglasses). It wasn’t to act cool (since this clearly made me seem like a jerk), but as a form of protection against both Hollywood and my desire for acceptance.

I both very much wanted to be a movie screenwriter and was fearful of what being one would do to me. Twenty years ago I was deeply invested in being a cutting edge New York journalist who knew everyone and everything going on in black pop culture. Hip hop music and Spike Lee’s movies were expanding the culture’s commercial reach and I was one of the folks chronicling this historic wave. But I was in my early 30s and acutely aware that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life writing about other peoples’ success. I wanted to be on the other side of the story. I wanted to create cultural product others would talk about.

Eventually I took the sun glasses off and signed a deal to co-write a low budget comedy that would be released in fall 1991. I remember at one point during the negotiations I got a ridiculously low ball offer for my contract and a producer told my attorney saying, “Tell Nelson everyone gets raped in their first Hollywood contract. Just tell Nelson to bend over and enjoy it.”

Well, I didn’t enjoy the deal, but I very much profited from the film getting made. The difference between being a produced screenwriter and an un-produced screenwriter is huge. I got in the Writers Guild. I got invited to more screenings and premieres. I was suddenly treated as a professional and not one of the countless wannabe’s hawking a dream.

Looking back I realize how fortunate I was to be part of a pop culture moment when black film was embraced by studios and independents. As a result of meetings in 1990, the next year saw the release of BOYZ IN THE HOOD, NEW JACK CITY, FIVE HEARTBEATS, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST, JUNGLE FEVER, STRAIGHT OUT OF BROOKLYN, STRICTLY BUSINESS (the film I co-wrote) and several other features. All in all 1991 may have been the greatest year in African-American film history with Oscar nominated films, big box office success, art films and a slew of dynamic young talents introduced.

Aside from Tyler Perry’s prodigious output few African-American themed films get released theatrically in the 21st century. Of course niche films, be they black, art house or foreign, are not really part of the mix at multiplexes across America. Sure we have the internet, cable, VOD, etc as new pipelines, but none of these means of distribution has yet to launch a culture defining feature along the lines of BOYZ. Hopefully it’ll happen soon.

So until then I, a grateful product of a more hopeful time, can’t help but mourn the absence of African-American life on screen (and TV too) in an epoch when a black family resides in the White House.

Nelson George is an award winning author and filmmaker who specializes in documenting about African-American culture. His screenplays include “Strictly Business,’ ‘CB4,’ and ‘Life Support,’ an HBO film that he also directed. He has executive produced a number of television shows, such as VH1’s Hip Hop Honors and BET’s ‘American Gangster,’ and George produced the feature documentary Good Hair. Among his award winning non-fiction books are The Death of Rhythm & Blues and Hip Hop America. His memoir, City Kid, is now available in paperback and his next novel, The Plot Against Hip Hop, is being published next fall. His web site is

Words and Pictures

Faith Erin Hick, Laurence Klavan, Susan Kim (L to R)

Faith Erin Hick, Laurence Klavan, Susan Kim (L to R) signing graphic novels at Comic Con

Hey, were you at Comic Con this weekend?

If you were, I definitely didn’t see you; it was such a giant, heaving mosh pit, I literally feared for my life at times. Over the past five years, NY Comic Con has mushroomed from a clutch of comic book collectors with card tables held together with gaffer’s tape into a sold-out, Javits Center media event that’s starting to rival the uber-Con in San Diego. My boyfriend and occasional writing partner, Laurence Klavan, and I are longtime playwrights, TV writers, and novelists (well, okay; he’s the novelist and I’m the TV writer) and are relatively new to the comic world. But we do have two graphic novels out and so were kindly invited to sign books at the First Second booth with the respective artists, Pascal Dizin and Faith Erin Hicks, as well as appear on a panel Friday night.

Considering that the Con officially closed each night at 8PM, we were initially suspicious when we noticed that our panel was scheduled for 9PM. “What gives?” we thought with writerly paranoia. Would anyone be in the audience? Would our fellow panelists even show? What if it was all a terrible scheduling snafu? We grimly fought our way past a vast horde of purple be-wigged Hit Girls, bikinied Slave Leias, and other characters who were waiting for a bigger, more popular event across the hall and were surprised/stunned to see we actually had an audience, and a pretty sizeable one at that, for our panel, “Building a World in Comics”.

I can’t speak for Laurence, but I went in feeling, well, kind of intimidated. It wasn’t just that I still thought there was a scheduling mistake and the audience was actually waiting to meet Stan Lee. “World-building” is an expression you hear a lot of in the comics world, since so much of the form deals with superheroes, aliens, historical figures, and anthropomorphized critters living on different planets or levels of reality. Don’t get me wrong; Laurence and I have both written quite a few surreal and/or supernatural plays, stories, and animated scripts. But our graphic novels in question (City of Spies and Brain Camp) take place, respectively; in New York City and upstate New York (what can I say? We like New York). Granted, one has a sci-fi element and the other takes place in a NYC that might as well be another planet, i.e. the one from World War Two. But what could we say about world-building that might inform or interest anyone, much less the core audience for Neil Gaiman, Bone, and The Dark Knight?

Our moderator was comics journalist and manager of Bergen Street Comics, Tucker Stone, and our co-panelists were cartoonists George O’Connor and Mike Cavallaro. George began talking about his work re-inventing the myths of the Ancient Romans, and Mike described how he depicted the alternate reality that takes over in the latter part of his latest graphic novel, Foiled. Both artists are supremely talented at creating heightened and mythic worlds; given our books, I was starting to feel if not like a bull in a china shop, then like a square peg in a distinctly round-hole kind of panel. Yet it was in response to a question from an intense guy in the front row about “getting all the details right” that I suddenly realized all four of us were all speaking the same language: and that’s the language of character, emotion, and story.

Of course, world-building needs research; details and specificity are crucial to good storytelling. And it’s tempting to research your envisioned universe so enthusiastically, you risk drowning in it. But no matter if you’re an artist or a writer, a good story isn’t primarily about the details of your world, whether it’s Ancient Rome, a far-off planet, 14th century Venice, or a summer camp in Dutchess County. As mighty as it sounds, world-building only exists to serve story; and story is always about character.