Erika Alexander Stirs Controversy With New Blog Post “Why I Wrote A Mad Men Episode With Negroes”

Concrete Park co-creator Erika Alexander has a rocking new blog and a rocking new post to kick it off. The blog is called Showbiz Is Glamorous and the post is called Why I Wrote A Mad Men Episode With Negroes by Erika Alexander”, and it’s already generated a ton of discussion. As a black actress, she was tired of the lily-white landscape of cable TV drama, and really tired of the reasons show creators gave for why it had to be so.

So she did something about it. She wrote a Mad Men script with negroes, just in time for the season 6 premiere this past Sunday. You can read the script (called “Uptown Saturday Night“) in its entirety on her blog. It captures the Mad Men tone and time period, and commenters have praised her both for how skillfully she wrote it and what it represents.

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One commenter wrote: “1. simply put, you pulled together a great story. I enjoyed reading, you captured Mad Men perfectly, you get the characters, and it just WORKS. Could EASILY be a story line on the show. 2. You are showing Matthew Weiner that he (and others like him) can’t keep making these excuses.”

Erika writes “I needed to find a different way to contribute to the conversation, to answer the constant refrain from show creators that they don’t want to just “shoehorn” black characters into their shows. Respectfully, I believe a storyteller has permission to imagine and create unusual situations in his or her fictional world to tell a larger truth. But I get it, race is complicated.”

Judging by the comments and the record number of views, it seems she has done just what she meant to do, contribute to the conversation. Check out Erika’s post and her Mad Men script and let us know what you think!

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This Writing Life, Part 2

Q: If writers who don’t read are a plague, what are writers who don’t practice the craft of writing? A: The zombie apocalypse, ese.

Lots of people claim to be writers who are not, and we read them every day, watch their unwatchable movies. As I’ve said in this space, the world is way too full of “writers” who don’t read and their clumsy books and awkward scripts. Slouching next to them in the Creative Hall Of Shame, overlapping them in the great Venn diagram of awful are the “writers” who don’t write, who don’t practice this craft. These are the zombies of the written word, not dead, but not truly alive.

These zombies don’t have the self respect to do the work, the 90% of the iceberg that doesn’t show above the surface. And lord do they stink up the joint.

And thanks to the cultural democracy of the internet (I’m a writer! Everyone’s a writer!) they are everywhere with us, these zombies with laptops. You see them staggering through the business, going though the motions, making that horrible clack-clacking zombie racket, cranking out blogs and “novels” and “YA” and “scripts” by the millions, threatening us all with their jive insights, garbled syntax and slack prose. Arr-arrr-clack-clack, arr-arr.r.

Writing is a creative pursuit, of course, and many who take it up mystify it, talk about it in terms of “inspiration”. Amateurs. After writing for a living for more than 25 years, I see it as a job of work, a job that must be respected and practiced daily.

The single great truth about this writing life: Real writers write every day. Punto. And real writing? Kills zombies, swear to god.

I wrote a picture once for Oliver Stone, and it was a fascinating lesson to a younger writer. He’s directed a slew of hard-hitting pictures and won three Oscars, but that’s not the thing he’s proudest of. Picture an average script sitting on a shelf. It’s about half an inch thick, right? The thing Oliver Stone is proudest of, I know, is in his office. It’s the wall of screenplays, let me repeat that, the WALL OF SCREENPLAYS and drafts of screenplays he has personally written. Say what you want about “Conan The Barbarian”, there are twenty drafts of that script on Oliver’s shelf to attest to the fact that what’s in the final draft is the best version he could do.

Oliver Stone is a journeyman writer of the highest order, and the only advice he ever gave me was “keep your ass in the chair”. If you visit him today, I guarantee you’ll find him in his chair, at his computer, killin’ zombies, man.

Real writers write as a habit, as a practice, as a job (paid or not), because they know that when and if that elusive “inspiration” ever strikes, without practice you won’t have the first clue what to do with it. With practice? You’ll feel like a golden god.

Two examples from sport: Michael Jordan, an artist on the court, inspired and preternaturally gifted as he was, put in more practice time at the foul line, ran more defensive drills than anyone in the game. Lance Armstrong, a cyclist of genius, simply spent more hours in the saddle than any of his competitors. These guys respected their natural gifts and “inspiration” by putting in the hours at their jobs.

No doubt you’ve lately heard this meme dressed up as Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule” as expressed in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Citing early 90s research by K. Anders Ericsson, Gladwell reports, “The closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.”

“The thing that distinguishes one performer from another” Gladwell continues, “is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

There’s no mystifying hard work; there’s no secret to it. Almost anyone can do it. That’s pretty democratic, no?

A caveat: This gospel of hard work I’m preaching is not a guarantee. You may work hard and die in obscurity, your words known to no one. Other, less-hard-working, zombie-ass “writers” may be celebrated to your dismay. What I’m offering here is a sort of reverse guarantee: Don’t work hard and you may be sure your writing will deserve obscurity.

To bring it downtown, let me quote a well-known 20th century zombie-killer: “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit,” Ernest Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

Hemingway’s writing life stretched from 1926, with the publication of The Sun Also Rises to 1952 with The Old Man And The Sea. In 1954 Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize In Literature. That had to be a pretty big wastebasket.

I had a drink or five with this fine statue of a man in the Floridita bar in Havana, Cuba, but it didn't necessarily make me any better as a writer.

In addition to his recent work in comics, Tony Puryear has been writing pictures for over 25 years. He has written screenplays for Mel Gibson, Oliver stone, Jerry Bruckheimer and Will Smith. His original script, Eraser, became the 1996 Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster. His latest script is an adaptation of the 1949 Joan Crawford thriller Sudden Fear for RKO Pictures.

This Writing Life, Part 1

I’m a little nuts today, a little furious. I’ve been reading screenplays again.

Now, in my travels, in airports, in bars, on the internet and in my teaching, I meet lots of people, “civilians” let’s call them, who tell me they have a story, or that they want to write a screenplay, or a novel, or y’know, “The Hunger Games”. Somehow they’ve gotten the idea that since they’ve watched a lot of TV, they have pretty much everything they need to write those cool words for the actors to say. And who has not watched a lot of TV?

That attitude makes my head explode. But hey, they’re civilians, they probably aren’t going to be writing anything any time soon anyway, they’re harmless. But that’s not what has me so nuts today. No, I want to talk about another attitude I’ve run into lately that’s even worse.

I keep meeting “writers” who don’t read. “Writers” who are two or three ugly screenplays into what they imagine will be a fun and lucrative career once they get their precious piles of paper into the hands of “the right people.” “Writers” who, somewhere along the line, have erroneously concluded that one guy who could really help deliver their efforts into said hands, who might even be able to offer a few timely tweaks, nips and tucks to their otherwise perfect opus, is me.

I mean of course they read; after all, those thousands of emails and tweets and texts won’t clear themselves. And, as I know as well as anyone, the world is full of comic books. But I mean, “reading”, you know, that thing people used to do in books. Oh, sorry. And while some have had the decency to look sheepish when admitting their utter innocence of the printed word, you’d be surprised (wait, maybe you wouldn’t) ok, I was surprised at how many wore it as some perverse badge of honor.

They haven’t read Shakespeare, they haven’t read the Bible, they haven’t read Dickens or Jane Austen or Mark Twain or William S. Burroughs (or Edgar Rice Burroughs) and fuck those guys. They don’t read nonfiction, they don’t read history, they don’t read biographies or cookbooks or tax preparation guides, they don’t read the paper, they don’t read anything. And boy, it shows.

It shows in their boatloads of unreadable, unfilmable screenplays, which litter the streets of Los Angeles like original noses. It shows in the unreadable ones that actually do get made into unwatchable movies.

Now, I was gonna put this article in a magazine, or a journal, til it hit me: don’t be an idiot, no one’s gonna read it there. Put it in the blog, (people actually read this blog, or so WordPress tells me), put pictures with it. So here it is, and non-reading “writers” who are reading this blog, I’m talkin’ to you. I just want to put this out there: you must read. You owe it to yourselves, hell, you owe it to me. I don’t think I can read any more illiterate scripts or watch the mind-numbingly bad  movies made from them. Can’t, can’t can’t.

In conclusion, I want to offer the words of my Unca Stevie, who’s probably forgotten more about writing than you or I will ever learn:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot & write a lot.” Stephen King

Next week: Part 2, “Writing A Lot”

PS, Stephen King’s book On Writing is the best book I know about the craft of writing and the life of the writer. Get it. – Tony Puryear