Around the Web: MFA offers bragging rights, but will never replace my ‘MBS’

By G. Robert Frazier

Every once in a while I like to share some links to interesting articles about reading and writing I’ve stumbled across on the “interwebs.” I haven’t posted any in a while, so let’s catch up a bit with this offering:

The Atlantic recently weighed in on the debate over the value of obtaining an MFA in Creative Writing. It seems the biggest advantage to having an MFA is simple bragging rights on your resume. People see that MFA and think, well, that person must know how to write… or, he has an MFA, so he can teach others. I don’t have one and I don’t believe at this point in my life I’ll be spending the time or money to get one. I’ll just stick with my MBS: Master of Bull-Shittery, thank you very much.

Do you keep a reading journal? Writer’s Relief extolls the benefits of analyzing what you’ve read and how it can help improve your own writing. I publish book reviews on several sites, including this one, and keeping a journal is part of my routine. Sometimes it just helps to keep track of all the characters and storylines, since I know I will be referring to them in my book reviews.

If you struggle with writing authentic dialogue, you’re in luck. BookBaby recently offered a series of free instructional videos on how to strengthen speech in your stories and books. It’s a bit elementary, but also good reinforcement for anyone in the writing biz.

The old journalist in me found these articles interesting: What Happens to Older Journalists and  How Facebook Swallowed Journalism. The Charlotte Observor held a wake of sorts recently as it bid farewell to its old digs in favor of smaller space because of downsizing. The Dallas Morning News says it’s reinventing itself by starting over, but what it’s really doing is the same thing Gannett has already done with all of its newspapers: Buying out or outright firing its long-term, experienced journalists and hiring a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears Millennials who supposedly have more digital-savvy skills but in reality will work a whole lot cheaper than the veterans. Ten or twenty years from now those employees will be out the door for another younger generation of suckers, if the “paper/website/app/whatever you want to call it these days” is still around.

If you’re a writer, I’m pretty sure you don’t need any added stress. You’ve got enough to worry about already. This article by Susannah Felts sort of sums it up, doesn’t it? I try not to worry about everything she worries about, but I do worry about her lack of paragraphs in the article.

If you need inspiration after that worrisome post from Susannah, you should read this column from writer Skyla Dawn Cameron.

And here’s some bad advice from writers you may want to ignore.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the recent loss of author Pat Conroy. I hate to admit that I have never read any of his works, so I welcome your recommendations. Conroy recounts his lessons and passions for writing in this article for The Writer magazine.

Seen any good reads lately? Post them in the comments section!

Around the Web: Dirty dancing, kinky robots, fear of family spark changes

Every day I scour the Internet and my news feeds for story writing tips and advice. But every once in a while I come across some stranger than fiction articles that compel me to read further. You never know, some of the articles or ideas may just become fodder for a story later on.

Just when you thought you’d heard of everything…

A Gorham, Maine high school announced this week it will no longer hold student dances because of today’s tendency by students to participate in risqué dance moves, also known as grinding. The sexually suggestive dirty dance moves are making parents and dance chaperones uncomfortable. The ban follows on the heels of a similar ban by Hopkinton High School in Massachusetts last year.

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Theater of the Absurd: LA creatives may be penalized for tax they don’t owe

Just when you think you’ve heard everything, there’s this: In Los Angeles, if you are freelance writer or creative trying to eke out a meager living, you could be penalized for a tax you don’t owe. The penalty applies if you fail to register for an exemption from the tax by a certain date each year.

This has got to be one of the most ridiculous excuses for a city government to stick it to the masses I’ve ever read.

The full article is here.

What do you think? Should freelancers and creatives have to acquire a license to work and be penalized if they don’t? 

Trigger warnings on textbooks, novels border on ridiculous

by G. Robert Frazier

I don’t mean to sound insensitive or cold, but this whole push for trigger warnings on virtually everything is ridiculous.

According to the Washington Post article, four students, who are members of Columbia’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board, say trigger warnings are needed on certain texts dealing with Greek mythology, of all things. “These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background,” the students write.

When I worked as a newspaper reporter and editor, we would often include a note to readers — a trigger warning, if you will — at the beginning of stories about sexual violence. It was just good public policy to let parents know the article’s content might not be suitable for children to read. It was the same idea as ratings for motion pictures and comic books.

Trigger warnings take the idea a step further, by seeking such warnings on topics ranging from racism to classism to sexism and every -ism in between. And not just for the benefit of parents trying to monitor their childrens’ reading, but for the reader who may take personal offense to any of the issues or content within said article.

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Writers: Roll the dice to see where your writing life takes you

The Los Angeles Times recently surveyed writers participating in the L.A. Times Festival of Books about their path to literary success. The result can be seen the creation of a unique board game that lets you play along.

The board game cites interesting results along the way, including:

  • the age respondents decided to be a writer
  • 51 percent kept a diary
  • 25 percent who got an MFA in creative writing
  • most influential books in youth (Grapes of Wrath and Portrait of a Lady)
  • 58 percent of writers make a living from writing
  • how respondents published, whether with a major, traditional publisher; independent publisher; or self-publisher
  • 64 percent had books rejected
  • age in percent that they had their first best-seller
  • percent who teach creative writing

The game itself awards points for writing or winning a contract or agent, but deducts points for falling into a social media hole that keeps you from writing to losing points in a computer crash. I played the game and scored 33 points, which translated equates to: “You’re Ernest Hemingway. You’re celebrated, but not by everyone.”

Hmm, I’ll take it.

Give the game a try. (But subtract 10 points for allowing it to keep you from writing.)

 

Reading and Writing Around the Web: The Nonfiction Edition

Every day I scour the web for interesting articles, tips, and just great reads. Most of what I’ll share concern reading or writing, books, movies and TV, because that’s what I’m into. If you see something worth reading or care to discuss a topic, just leave a comment.

I may not be a paid journalist any longer, but I still appreciate interesting news stories that are timely, well-told, or that inspire debate or critical thinking. Here’s a roundup of some articles that caught my eye in the past week:

The New York Times had an interesting report about Amazon’s bruising workplace culture. But even the Times was at odds with the story, as its Public Editor Margaret Sullivan pointed out what she felt were flaws in providing complete fairness in the article. There are numerous links in her opinion piece to additional takes on the article, both in favor and against. The article and its fallout-over 5,000 comments on the Times article alone—has the attention of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. And Fortune offers three lessons from the Amazon takedown. Apparently the idea of peer reviews that Amazon uses have been popular for years, according to NPR. Doesn’t make them right, though, if the idea is just to tear down someone else or stab them in the back so that you can get ahead.

Elsewhere, Conor Friederdorf of The Atlantic recently posted his annual list and links to 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism. Says Friederdoft: “This is my annual attempt to bring some of those stories to a wider audience. I could not read or note every worthy article that was published last calendar year and I haven’t included any paywalled articles or anything published at The Atlantic. But everything that follows is worthy of wider attention and engagement.” Truth is often stranger than fiction, as they say.

NPR posted this story about a library in Sri Lanka after it was gutted in a mysterious fire decades ago and how it has been reborn.

NPR also has a neat story about the first two women set to graduate from the Army’s elite Ranger School.

And this article sounds like that movie The Monuments Men: Nazi treasure train found in Poland.

For those of you who still can’t stop talking about Harper Lee, there’s a forthcoming book that explores the childhood relationship between the author and Truman Capote, “Tru & Nelle,” by Greg Neri, and how their friendship pushed them to write.

There was an interesting discussion between Liesl Schillinger and Benjamin Moser in the New York Times earlier this month about the so-called death of the novel. Of course, the novel is anything but dead. If anything, it is continuing to evolve with the advent of both self-publishing and ebook publishing, but the article is definitely worth a read.

For young adult authors out there, here’s an interesting article from NPR about cultural touchstones that today’s youth have never had the pleasure of knowing.

And, sadly, here’s an interesting story about the late actress Yvonne Craig, and her heroic battles onscreen as Batgirl and offscreen as an advocate for workers unions, free mammograms and equal pay for women.

Read anything good lately? Articles, books, or otherwise. Post your list (and links if you’ve got ‘em) in the comments below.

Reading and Writing Around the Web for 7/20

I tried to keep the distractions to a minimum today and limit my time online so that I could do a little bit of writing. Couple of things did catch my eye and they are listed below for those interested in a bit of writerly advice or an interesting read:

First up is a thoughtful article about the psychology of flow in storytelling. There’s a fine line between keeping a reader’s attention and losing it altogether, and this article explores how writers can strive to keep that reader turning the pages.

One of Geoff Dyer’s top 10 tips for writers is to keep a private diary or journal. I started a daily journal back in December and kept forgetting about it. I’d add a few thoughts every couple weeks or so and try to recall all that had transpired in between. I haven’t touched it since April. On the other hand, I have at least been posting from time to time in this blog, so there’s that.

If you’re struggling with what to write next, actor Brett Wean recently shared how improvisation can provide your story the spark it needs.  The article addresses screenplays, but obviously can be put to work for your novel in progress as well.

In case you missed it, July 17 marked the 60th anniversary of Disneyland, “the eighth wonder of the world!” The Hollywood Reporter celebrated the occasion by reprinting an article published the day after the Southern California park opened on July 18, 1955. Admission, by the way, just $1 for adults and 50 cents for children.

Sticking with the theme of anniversaries, today marks the anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing.

And finally, author and NASA engineer Homer Hickam (of October Sky fame), shares his writing advice on his website at Homer Hickam online.

If you see something worth sharing, please do in the comments section!

High school basketball teams take sportsmanship to a new low

This is somewhat amusing, unbelievable, and shameful at the same time.

Two high school basketball teams – Smyrna and Riverdale, who happen to be located in the Middle Tennessee county in which I live (though, thankfully, I did not attend either as a student) — purposefully tried to lose to each other on the court this past week. The teams intentionally stalled play, made unforced turnovers, deliberately missed free throws, played with backups instead of the usual starters, committed blatant on-court violations, and, at one point, even made as if they were going to shoot at the wrong net.

The referee policing the action finally had enough of the shenanigans and called out the coaches.

Turns out neither team wanted to win because that would pit them against a powerhouse team and possible elimination in the next round of the playoffs, according to published reports. Instead, they wanted the loss so that it would put them on the other side of the bracket where they would stand a better chance against the opponent over there. A win in that case would propel the team into the state playoffs.

Sounds like a Las Vegas sports fix. But these are high school teams!

To appreciate the irony of this further, you need to know that winning is par for the course in Rutherford County high school athletics. Coverage of high school sports has always been an emphasis at the local newspaper, where I used to work as an editor. The county has produced numerous state champions over the years. State playoff berths are as expected from them as much as Super Bowl appearances are expected of the New England Patriots. Anything less is almost taboo.

Hard play, execution and determination are the norm from these two teams.

Famed sports writer Grantland Rice — who was born in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and whose portrait once hung on the wall of my office in Murfreesboro — said: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

In this case, how the teams played the game was unbelievable, embarrassing and disrespectful.

The game was an insult to fans who paid money to see a legitimate contest between the two schools. Fans were clearly not in on the game plan of trying to lose in order to advance, and the fans took to voicing their disgust on Twitter as the game unfolded.

Nor was the plan to intentionally lose disguised very well. One player reportedly even signaled to the ref that she had made a three-second violation and the ref should blow the whistle on her.

Now that’s comedy.

What isn’t funny is what this says about sports and what it says about fair play. Whether this was an idea or a directive foisted upon the players by the individual coaches or whether it was something the players themselves decided to do, the result is the same. Their actions were dishonest and deplorable, and, quite frankly, akin to cheating.

Both teams have already been punished by being banned from the postseason altogether, put on probation for the following season, and each school fined. One coach has been suspended for two games and discipline may be forthcoming for the other.

Hopefully, the players will learn from their mistake as they go through college and beyond. Because, being duplicitous is not a highly sought after skill on job applications.

And you all thought deflating footballs was a new low.

Sports media has lost its cool over ‘deflategate’

New England Patriots players Friday said they have faith in quarterback Tom Brady and support him completely, despite the sports media who would just as soon as string him up by a noose without a trial. Thursday’s Bellichick and Brady press conferences were media circuses, and no matter what either man said about the so-called Deflategate fiasco, the media was determined to tear them down.

I’m not sure where all the hatred comes from or why the media — which is supposed to be impartial and supposed to report facts, not innuendo, rumors and personal vendettas — is so intent on bringing down the Patriots franchise. The only real conclusion is that everyone hates a winner. When the Cowboys won under Tom Landry, they were the team you loved to hate. When the Raiders were winning, they were the hated team. When the Yankees win, they are the hated team. When the Red Sox win, they are the evil empire.

People love sports heroes, and hate winners. That’s all there is to it. The world is full of petty jealousy and losers who can only dream of being as good and successful as others. How else do you explain all the piss-ant former football players turned commentator experts? Where are their rings? Where are their bestselling autobiographies?

Patriots players commended Tom Brady for being calm and collected at his press conference. Some of the media tried to picture him as squirming under the pressure. Well, that is they wished he was squirming. They were too busy trying to rationalize how they could use his words against him.

I wish Brady had actually lost his cool. I wish he would have stood up and taken the media down a peg or two. I hate the media. (Used to be one of them, by the way. Never again. Lousy pay. Lousy job.) Bunch of armchair quarterbacks who live just to tear down someone else’s achievements. Why? For their own five minutes of glory and one-up-manship.

Fact is, this whole deflategate nonsense is just nonsense. A flatter ball doesn’t travel as far or as fast as one fully pumped up. Advantage defense. Hey, Colts defense, be careful what you wish for!

What did the media really want Brady to say, anyway? “Sorry, I did have the balls deflated so I could get a better grip. But, turns out, I was wrong. I throw much better with fully inflated balls after all. Won’t do it again.”

I’m not trying to condone cheating. OK, if someone altered the balls, that was wrong. But, hey, let’s wait until all the evidence is in, huh? Quit convicting people just because you don’t like something. In my opinion, it’s the sports broadcasters (Troy Aikman!) who have lost their cool. Just look at their emotional outburst following Brady’s press conference.

Fact is, in sports, you look for a competitive edge. If that means pushing the envelope or a rule a little bit, so be it. Don’t tell me every sports player doesn’t look for an edge. Don’t tell me the other teams aren’t doing the same things. Doesn’t make it right, I know, but that’s the game. That’s the culture of winning this whole sports world is built around. Win or else. Why do you think so many coaches and players get fired or traded every off season? Because in today’s sports world, you win or you’re out.

No wonder one of my brothers ignores sports. Who can blame him after this? It’s a dirty business and things like Deflategate just make me want to walk away as a fan too. (I know I won’t, though.)

If anyone is looking for blame, then blame the refs. It’s their job to make sure the rules are upheld. If they don’t see a penalty on the field, the flag isn’t tossed. If they see it, they toss a flag and the consequences follow. Well, usually. Except in the case of the Detroit Lions-Dallas Cowboys game. Was it cheating when they picked up the flag and made their non-call? Where’s the outrage over that?

Integrity of the game? Come on, man! Just shut up and play ball.

UPDATE:

The Wells Report on Deflategate

Journalism do-over? I don’t think so.

There’s an interesting discussion going on over on Linked In among journalists about whether, if they knew what they know now about the industry, would they do it all over again? Would they still become journalists if given the chance to do something else?

As a journalist who has been out of work for a year now, the profession has left a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth and my  initial response to the question is a resounding HELL NO! But a more rational response would be: No, but let me explain why.

Here’s why:

First, let’s start with why I got into the business in the first place and its many upsides. As I’ve said elsewhere on this site, I’ve always loved to read and I dreamed of one day writing my own novels that would fly off bookstore shelves into the arms of loving readers. I imagined my name, G. Robert Frazier, on the spine of books between the likes of authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Grisham. Many times I would put my finger in the space between books in the store and say, “That’s where my book is going to go.” (I still do that from time to time, even noting whether the space is on a shelf that’s eye-level or on the bottom row.)

With that goal in mind, I wrote my first three novels while in high school. I used reams of notebook paper, bought for the purpose of doing homework, to scribe my novels instead. My study periods and lunch periods became my writing periods. I wrote all the time. (I don’t know if this is a blessing or curse, but I didn’t have many friends in high school to speak of since we moved around a lot as a family. I went to three different high schools. So, instead of friends, I had my books.)

And, yes, I wrote with a pen. Not a typewriter. Not a word processor.

As graduation neared and thoughts turned to what I wanted to study when I entered college, writing was clearly the answer. I worked on the newspaper while in high school and enjoyed writing stories about people and events. I enjoyed seeing my byline. So, it became clear that one way to write and make a living writing was to study journalism. That way, I would be doing something I like while getting paid and I could write my novels on the side.

I didn’t know then what I know now.

Journalism is a grueling task master. It is work. Hard work. Long hours. Low pay. And it is largely a thankless business.

Yes, there were numerous times that the work excited me. Where else could you interview U.S. senators, governors, and celebrities? What other job gave you access to major sporting events and concerts, simply in exchange for a short article about the event? Over the years, I covered everything from government budget meetings to elections, from business openings to closings, from murders to burglaries, from Bonnaroo to Mule Days, from NASCAR to college sports. My byline in the early days ran the gamut, to be sure.

I sometimes lamented about the long hours and the piss-poor pay, but I was good at what I was doing. I built a solid reputation of fairness and accuracy in my reporting. I was a respected and award-winning journalist among my peers. What’s more, I was writing important stories that mattered to people.

The profession eventually took me into the editor’s office where I eventually became a managing editor of the newsroom. Now, instead of chasing stories and writing them on deadline every day, I was working with reporters on their stories. I assigned stories, I edited stories, I coordinated story layouts with designers, etc. And the pay was substantially better than when I was a reporter.

Throughout this, I continued to grow with each new role.  I picked up new skills along the way. Editing. Layout and design. Management and personal skills.

Incredibly, I worked even longer hours. And when I got home, my mind was still working. I watched and devoured the news. I constantly looked for new stories, new angles, new things to do and how to bring those things down to a local level. Even when I was on vacation, my mind was at work. I was obsessed with emails and press releases and news, news, news. It was my life. I hated it, and I loved it at the same time.

And then, of course, the bottom fell out.

The industry took a turn, thanks in large part to the great recession of 2008 and big corporations’ love affair with the digital future. I somehow survived round after round of personnel cuts for several years.

Until last year.

It was my time. Middle managers like myself were being eliminated left and right in the name of restructuring. The newspaper industry had become enamored with the idea that it could make more money by posting more videos to its websites than it could with good, old-fashioned investigative stories. Reporters were being asked to not only write stories for the newspaper, but for the website. They were expected to shoot their own pictures with their smart phones. They were told to shoot and edit videos. They were even told to edit their own stories. (All for the same lousy pay, mind you.) And with reporters doing all that, there simply was no room for so many editors at the paper, especially the ones making good money.

I should make mention here that during this entire career, aside from a short stint in the early 2000s, I was not writing any fiction. My dream of becoming a published novelist had been shoved aside by my career. I was making a living, yes, but I was also drowning in my work.

Now that I’ve been out of the profession for a year (the layoff happened one year ago this month), I’m happy to be free of it. I’m happy to finally have a chance to do what I’ve always wanted to do: write fiction. I’m working on a mystery-thriller novel. I’m writing short stories again. And I’m actively learning the craft of screenwriting. I have several ideas in the works.

So, now back to the big question. Given what I know now about the profession of journalism, would I do it all over again?

While there are numerous reasons to say yes as I’ve described above, there are also ample reasons to say no. I sincerely wish instead that I hadn’t let journalism become my life. I wish I had devoted more time to my own writing dreams. The long hours, low pay and heartache that is the world of journalism is something that I would not wish upon anyone. Some people may have the notion that they are doing good, valuable things as a journalist. That’s true, to an extent. But the question is, is it what you really, really want to do?

In my case, the answer is no. I don’t lament the real-world experiences I’ve gained. I’ve met fascinating people and written incredible stories. Some of that is likely to inspire my fiction. So in that sense, it was time well-spent. But, if I had to do it over again? Nope. I’d stick to my original guns. I’d write.

The layoff from my job has given me a chance to do just that. I’m writing. I’m not turning back.

What about you? Given what you know about your profession and your dreams, what would you do different if you had a chance to do it over again? I’d love to hear your comments.