Writing Advice: Part I – The Backstory

Conor McGregor, giving you writing advice.

When I first switched to novels from screenplays back in 2009, I read blogs voraciously, trying to figure out this new art form. These blogs intimidated me. They seemed to come from such a place of confidence. And with good reason. These were women (almost always women, which isn’t my comfort zone to begin with) who clearly understood the English language. I slept through language arts. I cannot tell you how literally I mean that. I fell asleep so quickly and easily in that class for two reasons. One, I’d stay up reading until 3am every night. Two, those people couldn’t fool me – language arts was just the mathematics of words. I knew the truth. There was nothing literary about language arts. That class was some voodoo math crap I didn’t want any part of. To this day, I struggle with grammar. I am a good mimic, of accents and impressions and also of sentence structure and language. I really don’t have an independent intellectual understanding of my native tongue. I’m just imitating the way I know it should sound. But frankly, language arts, like math, is abstract and arbitrary and my brain doesn’t want any of it, at all.

This was one of the benefits of screenwriting. Nobody on the other side of production ever reads the screenplay. I could always write dialogue – it’s just mimicry. The description needed to be effective, but rough and ready, short and to the point, was perfectly acceptable. I was drawn to screenwriting for a myriad of reasons, but the fact I could hide behind the screen, so to speak, was definitely part of the appeal. Novels offer no such cover. Your dangling modifiers are all out there for the world to see. (If anybody doubts how rough my writing was when I arrived at USC, they should ask my ex. Evan earned a merit badge in fixing convoluted sentences. He is an incredibly clear and effective writer, and God bless him, became my de facto language arts teacher.)

These blogs were intimidating in other ways, too. They said write in the morning, fewer said write at night, but they all seemed to say that you should write at the same time every day. They advocated word count goals. Methods of plotting stories. Ways to track story changes using post it notes. Software to better organize your ideas. So many ways to be a professional in your writing. I came away with the impression that authors blog about their writing process and give writing advice on their blogs. I felt this odd anxiety that, if I ever were to become an author, at some point I’d need to make an account of myself as a writer in a public way. And yet, here I was, unable to follow even the most basic pieces of advice.

In early January of this year, I came out to Charleston to write. At least, that’s what I told everybody. It’s a quick and easy shortcut. “It’s a writing retreat!” In truth, I had several motivations for coming out here. Early on, I was be-bopping around on Facebook and a good friend sent me a message, admonishing me to get off Facebook and write. I took umbrage. I wanted to defend myself, say I’d already written a lot. I resisted the temptation and instead said, “You needn’t worry about me or my writing.” I then puzzled out why my friend had sent the message and I quickly realized – I’d asked her to. In the past, I’d often asked my writing group friends to keep me on track. But something significant had shifted within me. I no longer wanted to abdicate responsibility for myself. And I realized it’s something I’ve done repeatedly in all areas of my life. My fitness is the responsibility of my coach. My writing productivity is the responsibility of my friends.

Not long after that, another friend posted about the UFC fighter Conor McGregor on Facebook. I’d heard the name but didn’t know much about him. I delved into his story and came away mesmerized. I don’t wholly admire him. He is motivated by money in a way I never will be. (You can’t serve two masters, the good book says. It’s either God or money.) That said, there are many reasons why I love Conor McGregor, his willingness to speak his honest truth and the fact he is wholly unapologetic for who he is being chief among them.

A few years ago, I read Stephen King’s book, “On Writing.” If you haven’t read it, you should. Even if you’re not a writer, there’s a pretty fascinating autobiography that kicks off the book. “On Writing” taught me there was a name for people like me. “Pantser.” To my wonderment, Stephen King was one, too. There are people who plot out stories and those who figure them out on the fly. King had nothing to say to the plotters, and bid them a polite adieu. He had advice for the pantsers, though, and in reading about his process I saw a lot of myself. I’d always thought of myself as an archeologist uncovering artifacts. To me, the story is already whole, intact. I just need to uncover it. There is a bizarre truth to this that is hard to describe. In deep revision, I’ll discover the thing that had been hiding all along, and when it’s revealed the entire thing suddenly works. It is very like the story was simply waiting for me to find that final piece, the piece that had been there all along, but unseen by me. I don’t feel like I create the stories I write. I feel like I find them. Although I saw a lot of myself in King’s book, there was a lot missing, too. He thrives on routine. He is prodigious in his output. So while I found some solace there, by and large I still had a pretty massive inferiority complex as a writer.

Cue Conor McGregor:  “At the end of the day, you’ve got to feel some way. Why not feel unbeatable? Why not feel untouchable? Why not feel like the best to ever do it?”

Why not indeed, Mr. McGregor?

Stay tuned for Part II – The Actual Advice!

The Thing Itself

An illustration of Emeth from The Last Battle.

So, here’s a thing about me some of you might not know. My worldview is about 85% based off The Chronicles of Narnia. An additional 5 to 7% is taken from C.S. Lewis’s nonfiction works, such as Mere Christianity. The remainder of my worldview coming from Mel Brooks movies, W.C. Fields sketches, and combat sports. But most of the strands floatin’ around in the ol’ Duder’s head are pure C.S. Lewis. Here are two things the man wrote that really stuck with me, but I didn’t figure out why until today.

The first comes from the book The Last Battle. If you haven’t read the Chronicles of Narnia, you really should. Preferably, you should go back in time to when your brain was extra bendy and could absorb the stories without preconception, but even without the time machine you should still read them. In the stories, Narnia is a very English sort of country, small but fierce. Narnia is bordered by Archenland, and in turn Archenland is bordered by the vast and powerful Calormene Empire, which was C.S. Lewis’ way of saying, “The Ottoman Empire.” The Calormene religion worships a God named Tash, who is a ruthless and bloodthirsty God. In The Last Battle, there is a noble Calormene soldier named Emeth who comes face-to-face with Aslan, the Christ figure at the center of the Chronicles of Narnia. Emeth is amazed that Aslan tolerates him, but Aslan more than tolerates Emeth. He loves him, for he is a good man. Emeth honestly tells Aslan he has never worshipped him, he worshipped Tash. Aslan replies that he and Tash, “are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him.”

C.S. Lewis expresses a similar sentiment in Mere Christianity. He states that if a young man who has been experiencing doubts about his faith becomes brave enough to honestly declare these doubts and leaves the church, “he will have been no closer to Christ than at that moment.” That’s from memory and may not be exact, but it’s close.

Reading the story of Emeth as a child (and a good twenty times more over the years) and reading that passage in Mere Christianity as an adult, deeply resonated with my own understanding of what is important and true. Today, it occurred to me that both express the idea that what is of greatest consequence is the thing itself.

I am a Catholic and make no apologies for it. I am a believer. But part of what I believe is that Christ taught us to eradicate fear, be honest, to love one another. Emeth was brave, forthright, and good, and so Aslan loved him. Emeth was raised in a world that taught him Aslan was a monster. Aslan understood this and did not hold Emeth culpable. So, I believe, it is with God the Father. Here’s a massive spoiler, so skip the next sentence if you’re actually going to read The Last Battle. This conversation that C.S. Lewis created is all the more poignant because it occurs after Emeth’s death. He is in heaven when he speaks to Aslan.

I have long felt it easier to talk to agnostics and atheists about spiritual matters than Christians. There are multiple reasons for this, most of them dealing with the burden of language. When speaking with someone who stands at a 180 degrees from myself theologically, we arrive at the conversation with no terms in common. We cut straight to discussing the thing itself. Now, the thing itself might very well be the nature of the Eucharist or the divine nature of Christ, but just as likely it is a discussion of how one should live in the world. Linguistically, however, we are free to communicate as effectively as possible. These conversations are also easy because agreement comes as a happy surprise. Disagreement on some matters is a foregone conclusion. Although it has happened that I’ve been treated with disrespect by an atheist or agnostic, generally speaking I find myself in conversation with good people who I respect. (In large part because I don’t waste my time on jerks.)

When it comes to Christians, I find conversations about faith can be fraught with problems. Firstly, we don’t skip to straight to the thing itself. Our lexicons are too loaded. We have language to describe the thing itself, so we use that language. But it is as if we’re all speaking various dialects. Too frequently, our conversation becomes centered not upon the thing itself, but semantics. Our discussion becomes a discussion of discussion. There are two things at the root of this discord. Charitably speaking, there is a deep and profound belief about what is the truth. So, there’s a passion behind the viewpoint, given the importance of the subject matter. Far less charitably speaking, there is a very human desire to be right. There is no humility in this desire and it is toxic. Moreover, the conversation is charged to begin with, because there is the expectation of agreement. Instead of the happy surprise discovered with someone from a differing viewpoint, there is the unhappy surprise of disagreement where there should be accord.

These conversations bummed me out.

A lot.

So much so, I just stopped having them. But here’s the thing. There are people you can talk to and people you can’t, and then there’s my dad. My father is extraordinarily passionate about his faith. All of that passion makes theological conversations with him highly charged. It is my nature to skip out on highly charged, but he’s my dad, so I hang in there and sometimes we hash it out. I learn a lot from my father. He’s the most well educated person I know when it comes to faith. And once upon a time, I changed his mind about something important. Point being – it’s worth it to have these conversations. They’re important.

Right now, I am forcibly reminded of something Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: The Buddha says, “I must state clearly that my teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon.”

You may be thinking to yourself, did she just use Buddha to defend her beliefs when she’s been talking about being a Catholic? Answer, yes. Yes, I did. It’s too perfect not to use, because my criticism of my fellow Christians boils down to the idea that sometimes we are too caught up looking at the finger and not at the moon. But you know, at least I’m not calling them out as lazy cowards, which is essentially what I’ve labeled myself in this blog post, so they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.

At some point in the future, I’m going to write an exciting blog post about relativism, absolutism, certainty and doubt. It’s gonna be HOT. So watch out for that, kids!

Our Next Comic is a Girl!

Dignity must be maintained at all times when doing stand-up. It's very serious business.

I’ve been doing stand-up for two years. Which is nothing. It’s a blink of an eye. To be performing at a truly high level in comedy, you either need to be a comedic genius, which I am not, or you need to put in years of regular stage time. I am green, I am local, I am an amateur. My perspective is limited by all of these things, but this doesn’t stop me from having opinions. About a year ago, I almost wrote a blog post about it. For the life of me, I can’t remember who it was, but I told somebody the things I was planning on writing and he said, “Yeah, don’t do that.” It was a guy friend outside of comedy, but I remember his eyes growing wide with horror and, at the time, as a greener, even more local and more amateurish comic, I felt the fear of overstepping my bounds. I didn’t write the blog post. A year later, I still hold all the same opinions, but a new attitude. That attitude is, “Screw it.”

The reason this comes up is because a friend posted this Buzzfeed article about what female comics are sick of hearing. To me, this list contains two things. Genuine disrespect that should not be tolerated and oversensitivity. To be disrespected sucks, no doubt about it. That said, in two years of doing shows at a pretty breakneck pace, I’ve only had two negative experiences with bookers. They were disgusting experiences to be sure, but in my opinion, one event per year is fairly rare. I’ve seen African-American comic friends deal with some pretty disgusting racism at about the same rate. So, I don’t know. Sometimes human nature is terrible. Whether you’re a woman or African-American or fill-in-the-blank, sometimes you catch hell just because you’re in the wrong spot at the wrong time. It doesn’t strike me that female comics have it worse than other minority groups in comedy, and I have no doubt random white guys have awful experiences dealing with terrible people, too, for equally stupid reasons.

I can only speak to my scene and my experience, of course. Greenville, SC is my comedy hometown, but I like to think I’m an adopted daughter of Asheville, NC. I’ve spent some time in Columbia, SC, Atlanta, GA, and now Charleston, SC, too. On the road, I found Seattle, WA to be incredibly welcoming and awesome. New York City was tough but fair. Madison, WI was a delight. Louisville, KY – wonderful. Knoxville, TN – freaking amazing. I could go on, but long story short – comedy has treated me far better than any other community I’ve ever been a part of. I don’t feel like I stated that strongly enough. Comedy has treated me so much better than any other community I’ve ever been a part of.

That’s where I’m coming from. A place of gratitude. I’ve had jobs where I ran into disgusting treatment three times a week, so two times a year is a massive improvement. Reading those complaints on Buzzfeed, I briefly considered the idea that these women had really easy lives before becoming comedians. But then I remembered they were comedians, so that couldn’t be it.

I also thought to myself, “Maybe they’re in a particular skeezy scene and they’re dealing with scumbags all the time.” I have no doubt those environments exist and any woman trying to work within them has my genuine sympathy. But if their scenes are anything like mine I can’t help but think, How can you be that oversensitive and be a comic? I don’t get it. Isn’t comedy the antithesis of oversensitivity? I also think, Why are you choosing this way of being? Because make no mistake – it’s a choice. You can choose to take umbrage over being given the compliment, “You’re funny and hot!” Or you can say, “Thanks!” I promise you, any male comic who is either too skinny or too fat and is definitely too weird for the world would be totally stoked to get off stage and hear a female fan say, “You’re funny and hot!” Yeah, I get it, women get oversexualized and blah, blah, blah but isn’t that a bummer to choose to feel that way? To look for your victimhood and hold onto it with both hands like that?

Perhaps it’s a fear of genuine disrespect that pushes them into having their guard up, so they might protect themselves from a slippery slope that ends in a bad experience. But isn’t it easy enough, as human beings, to know where others are coming from? It seems to me it is. I’ve never struggled to distinguish these things. If it’s coming from a bad place, I feel it in my gut. If it’s not coming from a bad place, I’m not bothered. The thing is, when we choose oversensitivity and then take it one step farther and choose to make it the world’s problem that we’ve become oversensitive, it results in everybody feeling the need to be careful. And what fun is that? Especially in comedy. We’re here to play, after all.

This list also includes the complaint that someone dare question the idea that a woman got on a show because she’s a woman. Spoiler alert – plenty of women have gotten onto shows because they’re women. I know I’ve gotten on shows because I’m a woman. Frankly, I couldn’t care less how opportunity arrives at my door, I’m taking it and running with it. My favorite thing about this complaint is its flip side – complaining about a show that’s nothing but men. As somebody who has put together shows myself, let me tell you, being a woman doesn’t hurt. When you’re creating the line-up you don’t want five white guys who are all the same age and coming from the same perspective. That’s a boring show. I always want to see a variety of comics, both in comedic style and in perspective. Being a woman instantly provides an unusual perspective on account that less than ten percent of comics are female. The fact is, sometimes women who are talented but green, or frankly just plain bad, get on shows because it’s an easy way to add diversity to the poster. Why pretend otherwise? “We are men of action, lies do not become us.” (My favorite line from The Princess Bride.)

About that ten percent thing, by the way. I figure, 90% of men who try comedy are terrible at it. The vast majority who try it fall by the wayside, and few ever graduate into a state of being such that I would say, “that guy’s a comic.” I think the numbers are the same for women. But because women stick out at an open mic, you remember her because she wasn’t good, whereas you forget the hundreds of generic young white guys who came and went. This, I believe, is where the myth of the unfunny woman comes from within the stand-up community. I do think, though, for reasons I don’t understand, funny women don’t latch on to comedy as easily as funny men. By latch on I mean, become addicted and seek out comedy as though it were the only thing keeping them alive.

I do think for some of them oversensitivity plays a role in why they don’t become addicted. They find the environment hostile because of people saying things like, “I didn’t know women could be funny!” I’ve actually gotten that one from audience members a few times. It’s almost always an older guy. And you know what? There’s a small part of me that sort of smirks at his ignorance, but there’s a much bigger part of me that comes to life and glows after a comment like that. I changed a stranger’s mind about women. How awesome is that? And how cool that the guy was willing to change his mind? And better yet, feel so moved by this change that he feels the need to come tell me he was wrong? Because that’s what that is. It is this very human statement of, “I was wrong,” and even more importantly, “I am glad I was wrong.” Do you know how rare change is? And what a privilege it is to be a part of the process of changing people’s minds for the better? This is the glorious thing about comedy. We get to connect with people in a real and vibrant way. We give them our jokes and our stories and they take us away with them. It is a beautiful alchemy that happens.

Another complaint in the article is about hosts who introduce you as “our next comic is a girl!” This doesn’t bother me at all. For one thing, not since I was born have people been so excited about announcing my gender. “It’s a girl, you guys!” And I figure, if the host hypes me up as a freak show and it keeps one audience member from getting up to get a drink, I’ll gladly take that and consider it a win. Honestly, I don’t know if any of my opinions are “right.” Quite possibly, the women represented on the Buzzfeed list are more morally correct than I am. What I do know is that I look at all of these things like a mercenary. I seek out advantages and find them everywhere I look. I may not be right, but I am having fun. In the end, no matter what scumbags or idiots stand in your way, if your work is undeniable, you put in the hours and you’re willing to ask for success, you will overcome.

How’d You Get the Privilege to Do That?

The swamps of Caw Caw.

Yesterday, I got to spend time with my sister at the French Quarter Inn, which has come to feel like home to me, thanks to my sister’s work trips. If you ever get a chance to stay there, do so. It is lovely. It’s the kind of hotel with bathrobes and turndown service and bottomless mimosas in the morning, and a glass of champagne as you check in.

Driving away, I wound up in morning traffic. We were parked for quite awhile, waiting to get on 17. To my right, somebody was blaring country music, so I looked to see. She was blonde, pretty, lots of make-up, quintessentially Southern. About 25. She was listening to The Dixie Chicks song, “Wide Open Spaces,” and she was singing along. Angrily. Very, very angrily. There was a Tupac-ian sort of righteous anger about her rendition. It reminded me of when I used to sing along to that same song on my commute, seven years ago now. I think my version was more “desperate sadness” than “righteous anger” but I thought, “I feel you,” and, “I hope your day at work goes well, beautiful girl.”

After that, I decided on a whim to go to Caw Caw County Park. It costs a dollar to get in and the men who worked at the park seemed so happy somebody had showed up. They told me I was the only one there and to enjoy my visit. I walked for two hours without retracing my steps. I did stop for about 15 minutes waiting on an alligator to resurface, but then I read they can spend up to two hours underwater and I gave up. I walked through swamps and marshes and forest, saw innumerable birds and animal tracks. I also came across a sign explaining the history of Caw Caw Park.

It used to be Laurel Hill Plantation. A rice plantation, not a cotton plantation, and I’ve heard (although I don’t know if it’s true) that rice plantations had even worse conditions than cotton. In 1739, a slave named Jemmy led a rebellion. It didn’t end well, as you might imagine. I walked around what used to be the grounds of the plantation and considered my good fortune. I was born into a peaceful time and place, I was born into a loving family with two good parents, I was born healthy, I was born into the middle class in the United States, with ready access to education and all that education affords.

When I first arrived here in Charleston, I paid a visit downtown and met an awesome girl working the counter of a fudge shop. Her name was Shaniqua and we instantly clicked. She asked me what I was doing here and I told her I was in town for a few weeks to write. Shaniqua paused and said, “How’d you get the privilege to do that?” I said, “I have no idea. It’s better than I deserve.” Her question keeps coming back to me. A huge percentage of the answer is, through grace. Grace meaning, the unmerited favor of God. I had nothing to do with the circumstances of my birth, nor have I had anything to do with a huge number of other variables that swung things my way. And make no mistake – it isn’t comfortable for me to say this, but the truth is – I live my life my way. It isn’t comfortable because I see so many people who post on Facebook about how they hate Monday and I know that feeling so well. When I worked at the Cliffs, every day my commute was a 40 minute long anxiety attack. I’ve been there. I’m not there now, though. Now I have a hard time remembering what day it is. While I was walking around Caw Caw today, feeling grateful for my good fortune, I pondered the question of “How I got the privilege to do this,” and I came up with some answers in addition to simply being in the right place at the right time. Qualities I possess that aid and abet the life I live.

Once upon a time, I was having breakfast with my good buddy BK and he referred to me as, “risk tolerant.” I’d never really thought about it, but it’s true. I could find myself in a bad financial situation very quickly. I just don’t care. “It’ll be fine,” is the Adams Family motto. “Serenum erit,” in Latin. They are words I live by.

I don’t worry about things I can’t control. I’m actually on submission right now. I have books that may or may not sell. “Submit and forget,” is the actor’s mantra, but I’ve adopted it for the writer’s life. I’ve done the best I could with them and if they sell, Yay! and if they don’t, it’ll be a disappointment. But most days go by without me thinking about it.

I handle creative rejection well. If I bomb on stage, it’s a lesson learned. If somebody doesn’t like my writing, I’m okay with that. This ability to handle rejection has nothing to do with any innate quality I possess. Instead, its thanks to four years of USC film school and the den of vipers that were my classmates. I will be forever thankful for the daily beat downs I received. I love you guys, if you’re reading this. You vicious SOBs.

I don’t own many things and I’d like to own even less. Part of why I can afford to have as much freedom as I do is because I have a very small house with a very small mortgage. My car is old and paid off. I spend money on food and drink, but that’s really about it. My animals tie me down, but if I didn’t have them I’d sell my house and go full hobo in a second.

I am at peace with solitude. It is rare that I feel lonely, but I almost always feel alone. These are two different things, although I get that the latter sounds scary, and for many people, it is probably an undesirable state of affairs.

My parents taught me to follow my bliss, so I do that. It’s not easy to be disciplined when you’re self-employed, but if what you’re doing doesn’t feel like work and it brings you joy, it’s a heck of a lot easier.

The thing is, there are a lot of people who either want – or think they want – more freedom in their life. The truth is, you can have it if you want it. But there are prices to be paid. It isn’t complicated, but simple rarely means easy, and in this instance it definitely does not.  Ultimately, the choices I’ve made lead to a lot of freedom, but little security. In my opinion, security is an illusion anyway, so it’s a deal I’m happy to strike.

Let’s Talk About Islam!

My girlhood hero, Lady Anne Blunt. She dressed like that even when she was in England. You may want to ask, "Was she crazy?" Oh, totes. Totes crazy.

Nothing more fun than that, right? “Hey, guys, this party is pretty lame. Let’s turn it up a notch by talking about Islam!” “Aw snap! Things are about to get awesome up in here!”

Firstly, something about Charlie Hebdo. I would never say, “I am Charlie,” because I am not. I don’t think it’s funny. I don’t think it’s good work. It’s crass, disgusting, puerile, and frankly repugnant. But I believe the freedom to be repugnant is absolutely essential. Once lines start to be drawn around freedom of expression, it’s a quick slippery slope to the bottom. Thought Police of every hue are and always will be my enemy.

Secondly, stop equating Islam with the word “religion.” Often, it is stated directly. “All religions have their problems.” It partially comes from a good place of wanting to protect religion from blame. But it also comes from a place of political correctness that breeds a false understanding of religion and what that phenomenon necessarily entails. When was the last time Buddhism resulted in terrorism? Religion is the coming together of a set of beliefs concerning a higher power with practices designed to achieve understanding of and communion with that higher power.  The Sevenfold Path does not lead to terrorist attacks.

But we are men of action and lies do not become us. (To quote The Princess Bride.) When people equate Islam to religion, they’re not thinking of Buddhism. They’re thinking of Christianity, with a subtle threat implied – Christians shouldn’t criticize Muslims because both faiths have skeletons in their closets. Which is true. Much violence has been committed in the name of Jesus Christ. In the modern era, there is the sex abuse scandal. Although it hasn’t received press, Protestant Churches haven’t been immune to this issue. A 2010 study showed 58% of American ministers arrested for sex crimes involving children were Protestants. Because Catholics are a minority, it is true that Catholic priests committed this crime at a higher rate than Protestants, but the problem is widespread throughout Christianity.

Recently, Aziz Ansari, one of my favorite comics, freaked out on Twitter at Rupert Murdoch (a man with plenty of skeletons both in and out of his closet). Murdoch stated that Islam needed to “destroy the cancer” in its midst. Aziz went bananas, creating a hashtag #RupertsFault, ironically claiming that Rupert, a Catholic, was to blame for the pedophiles in the Catholic Church. Interestingly, a few days prior, I had said precisely the same thing on Facebook that Rupert Murdoch said on Twitter, and received precisely the same reaction from a handful of millenials. Like Aziz, their reaction was intense and absolute.

I love Aziz Ansari, but he lacks the ability to discern between culpability and responsibility. He’s not alone. I see this lack of discernment everywhere on the internet.

As a Catholic myself, I am not culpable for the actions of those priests, but I am responsible for the future of my faith. Every Catholic similarly holds this responsibility, just as every American is responsible for voting and participating in our Democracy. (Whether we choose to shoulder that responsibility is another question.) Although the Catholic Church is led by the Pope, change frequently begins with the laypeople – as well it should.

Peace-loving Muslims are not culpable for terrorist attacks, but they hold responsibility for the future of their faith. And let’s be honest once again – there is no major religion in the world so shot through with barbarism as Islam. I say this as someone who grew up with a hero worship of Islamic culture. That might sound strange, but I did. I was a voracious reader and rather obsessed with people like Sir Lawrence of Arabia and far more with Lady Anne Blunt, an English woman and adventurer who became so Arabianized she thought in Arabic. I wanted to be her, and travel to Arabia, and do what she did. At the time, which was the early to mid 80’s, I still conceived of the Middle East as existing just as it did in the Ottoman Empire. Which was, you guys, by and large, a very good Empire, and it was absolutely stupid the way Europeans abolished the caliphate in the wake of WWI. You reap what you sow, and the ignorance of Western Civilization has time and again done nothing but worsened the situation in the Middle East.

Although there is plenty of blame to throw around as to how we got here, where we are now is undoubtedly a place of extreme crisis within Islam. Not in Hinduism, or Buddhism, or Christianity – Islam. There are three million displaced Syrians. Three million refugees from Syria alone. The Middle East is the only place in the world where war is the number one contributing cause to the shortening of lives. Islam at its best is not this. Islam at its best is the Islam of the Dark Ages, that maintained the accumulated wisdom of civilization while Western Europe threw it all away. Islam at its best produces writers like Rumi. Islam at its best is about freedom, not fundamentalism.

Islam is at its nadir. But you know what troubles me as much as Islam at its nadir? That to state this blatantly obvious fact is to court ridicule, to invite oneself to be labeled as intolerant, an oppressor of Muslims victimized by the West. Just as evil is its opposite. To state that Islam has been – and in many places still is – a faith of great beauty is to invite ridicule of another kind, to be called an appeaser, a denier of the truth about Islam’s barbarous nature.

We live in a world uninterested in understanding, but only in agenda. It is easy enough to pick and choose our opponents’ words that best suit our purposes, and so we do. Relentlessly. We do not name things as they are. We are not an honest people. Nor are we brave. We live in a fear-based emotional economy, and scare tactics are our currency. A healthy society must be unafraid of criticism. A healthy society must embrace personal responsibility. So frequently our compassion is misplaced, as we seek to protect the weak not by empowering them to do better, but by shielding them from the truth. The truth is, no matter who is to blame for your current state of affairs, you are the only one who can get yourself to better place. Others can help you and help should be sought, but ultimately your success or failure is in your hands. Just as this is true for individuals, so it is for Islam.

Islam is at its nadir. We are working hard to follow them down into the pit.

In closing, I’d like to post a link to an article written by a French Muslim philosopher. Like the Murdoch tweet, he also used the word “cancer” to describe the problem within Islam. I have a special affection and respect for those who don’t just stand up to the outside world, which is easy enough to do, but who stand up against their own people – without abandoning them. Cheers to the brave and honest people of the world, people like Abdennour Bidar, who embrace responsibility for themselves and their people.