On Writing and Being a Cliche

Most cliches are cliches for a reason: Carrying the germ of truth, they allow a person who is creeping into cliche to assess the originality and motivations behind whatever they’re doing. We all think we are unique and individual, but as we creep into cliche we can ask, “Is this what people like me do? If so, why?” Or if you’re writing a character and they say or do something utterly trite, identifying this allows the creator to reassess that character and her emotions. How do we make this more original?

All of that, of course, requires a certain amount of critical introspection. Still, finding yourself slipping into cliche allows you to place your individual decisions into a broader social framework.

I have this on the mind because I am — like everyone is, in one way or another — a massive cliche. As a 30 year old white guy, of course I’ve written a screenplay. I don’t expect to ever be a professional screenwriter. In fact, that seems like a pretty disappointing job, hustling to get hired to do a rewrite on Iron Man 8 or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Now With Even More Turtle Power. Yet I do it, writing almost every day.

Why, though? If I’m just doing the same thing that so many people exactly like me do, why keep going? Why not find something that makes me unique?

The short answer is that it makes me happy. That’s why I maintain this blog, even though I only have time to post a couple times a month — and nobody reads anyway.  In my late teens and early twenties, I thought I was going to write the Great American Novel and wrote constantly. (That’s another cliche, of course, though the difference for me is that I actually dropped out of college to pursue it.) Sometimes I still fantasize about one of my screenplays getting optioned and turned into a Major Motion Picture and earning me an Oscar. Even if that never happens — and it won’t — I will continue to write.

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What Not to Do When Cooking for a Date

Earlier this week, my old Eater colleague and friend-of-the-blog, Paula Forbes, wrote an article for GQ.com called “Six Tips for Cooking Your Date a Better Dinner.” My first reaction to this was: GQ! Paula is among the best writers I’ve worked with, and it’s cool seeing Eater alumni with stuff in places like GQ. After that vicarious pride, though, it got me thinking about times I cooked for a date, and all of the different ways it went wrong. I could have used her advice seven or eight years ago.

The worst experience I had cooking for a date was when I lived in New Orleans. At some point or another, I bragged to a girl about my pizza. I make good pizza, and at 23 that was a rare thing. She was impressed. She wanted to experience this pizza. I imagine I said something like, “Totally! Let’s make pizza.” Though this was before Jason Segal introduced “totally” into my everyday speech.

The problem with making pizza on a date is that pizza dough takes forever, and it’s mostly passive. Not having Paula’s post to guide me, I was neither smart about the menu, nor did I prep like a fiend. I walked over to her apartment on St. Charles Avenue with flour, yeast, cheese, tomato sauce, and an endless supply of nerves.

I showed her how to make pizza dough: We measured, we mixed, we kneaded. Then it was time to let it rise. What, oh Lord, do we do now?

Because I was nervous and pizza takes forever and also pizza is a terrible thing to make from scratch on a date, I rushed it, not letting the dough rise nearly long enough. I gave this dough like an hour to rise, when normally I give my pizza dough at least two hour-and-a-half rises.

(This is where I’m glad that I’m surrounded by fewer food snobs than I used to be, so I’m less likely to have know-it-alls tell me my regular pizza method is wrong. This is what I’ve developed after 10 years or so of cooking pizza at home, so shove it.)

The dough was impossible to work with and the pizzas were ugly as hell. When we ate them, the crust was chewy and awful and everything was the worst. This was a bad meal, and this woman really knew good food. It was one of many embarrassing things I did in front of her over the course of our dating.

Paula’s fifth suggestion for cooking for your date is, “Let them bring something.” This date was at her house, so I guess she brought the oven. But her real contribution was that if I was going to make my favorite food, we would watch her favorite movie. So earlier that day, I went to the Blockbuster in Uptown New Orleans (remember those?) and rented Life Is Beautiful.

Remember Life Is Beautiful? It’s the 1997 comedy-drama that takes place largely in a Naza concentration camp, directed by and starring the wonderful Roberto Benigni. Benigni won the Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film Oscars for it. It’s a really good movie. But it’s a terrible date movie.

Here’s this date in a nutshell: I sat around with a girl I didn’t know that well waiting for pizza dough to rise. I rushed the dough and made the absolute worst pizza I’ve ever had. When it was time to watch the movie, I sat down on her couch. She came over to the living room and sat as far away from me as possible and crossed her arms. Then we watched a Holocaust movie.

It was a very, very bad date.

Five years later, though, she and I got married. We never talk about that date.

The Writing Process

The creative process is a funny thing. Everyone has their own. I’ve always loved hearing or reading about other people’s, so I want to take a moment to record mine for posterity.

I have three different writing routines, broadly speaking. Which one I choose depends on the day of the week, how much free time I have, and how intensely I want to work. The actual writing process — the way my brain works and the little things I have to do to get it to work in the right, creative way — remains the same across the three routines, though the particular routine determines most of the outward markers we would usually call “the process.”

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A Running Report

On December 3, 2013, I began running seriously. And ran, mostly seriously, through March 20, 2016. For nearly two and a half years, I ran more than half of my days. It was glorious.

I know the exact day I stopped running seriously, because that was the day of the Oakland Marathon. I shouldn’t have run that race at all, knowing I was overtraining and had a very high risk of injury. After spending most of the race on pace to come in the top 10 (it’s a small race), I walked much of the last 6 miles and came in 26th.

A doctor charged me (or charged my insurance company, who in turn charged me) too much for an X-ray I didn’t really need, to determine my ankle wasn’t broken. Instead, it was Achilles tendinitis and acute plantar fasciitis, the second injury I’ve had that can be blamed on tight calves and my repeated failure to stretch adequately.

I did physical therapy. I stopped running while spending the summer mountain biking in preparation for a bike/camping trip in the North Dakota badlands. I got a night brace that helps my Achilles stretch out overnight.

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Book Report: NOTES OF A NATIVE SON by James Baldwin

baldwinThe best writers, storytellers, artists, and thinkers are able to draw a connection between the specific and the general. An essay, a film, or a painting might deal with a specific thing on a surface level, but in the hands of the right person, that

That’s the power of the movie Moonlight, as Soraya Nadia MacDonald discussed recently in The Undefeated, to take the coming-of-age story of a gay black man in the Miami projects and make it feel beautifully, poetically universal.

James Baldwin’s collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son (c1955, Beacon Press, reprinted in 2012 with a new introduction), has that same power. The book is a collection of essays originally published between 1948 and 1955, broken into three parts. The first deals contains three pieces of explicit criticism, assessing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, and Carmen Jones, the 1954 all-black film adaptation of the opera Carmen. The second part is composed of three more autobiographical essays, including the titular Notes of a Native Son that discusses Baldwin’s rocky relationship with his father and growing up in pre-war Harlem. Part Three addresses Baldwin’s time in Europe, where he started living in 1948, at the age is 24.

The essays in all three parts perform at least two functions. The first is the surface-level one. The essays in Part One, for example, perform the essential role of criticism, providing insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the relevant works. The personal essays in Part Two discuss the black experience in New York and, briefly, New Jersey and Atlanta. And the essays in the final section discuss the American (and, specifically, black American) experience in post-war Europe.

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Book Report: THE BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE by Ta-Nehisi Coates

coatesThere is a statistic that explains much of white folks’ politics: that most white people do not have any non-white friends. This can be an uncomfortable thing to hear, and that discomfort is a major factor in the cliché of the white person’s one black friend, or the racist’s favorite phrase: “Some of my best friends are black!”

These clichés exist because, of course, most white folks won’t admit to not having any non-white friends. Maybe we’ll point to a co-worker, though it’s likely a co-worker we’ve never invited over for dinner or been out to drinks with except, maybe, at a company happy hour. Or we’ll note a person of color at our church — though seeing somebody every Sunday morning and being very kind and Christian does not make them your friend.

To my recollection, I didn’t have a non-white friend until high school. I mean a real friend. I was friendly with the two black girls in my middle school but that’s it, just friendly. Once I got to high school, I had a Korean-American friend, two Indian-American friends, and one black friend. Again, meaning true friends, the kind you hang out with after school or on weekends — or, in one of those cases, you go on a cruise with as your joint graduation present.

I bring this up because, while I certainly grew up in a white flight neighborhood, I come from (and claim great pride in being from) a very black city. It’s the same city Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about in his coming-of-age memoir, The Beautiful Struggle (c2015 Spiegel & Grau). But while I recognize many of the places he writes about, Coates’ Baltimore has absolutely nothing in common with the one I grew up in. And not just because he’s 13 years older than me and from the West Side.

Baltimore is a beautiful city. It is mine as much as it is Coates’s, but the two Baltimores might as well be different cities.

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