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Scott Lax Blog

Lillian Hellman and the Courage Writers Must Have

I'm nearly finished with Lillian Hellman's memoir, SCOUNDREL TIME. Hellman and her life-companion, Dashiell Hammet (if you don't know these authors, think about looking them up; they are part of great 20th Century literature), stood up to the destructive madness of the McCarthy Communist witch-hunts that peaked during my birth year of 1952.

Hellman was simply unable to lie or not stand up for her beliefs. While she was not a Communist, she wouldn't name names, and she, and her lover Dash, suffered terribly for it. (He was jailed, this great author, and they were both wiped out financially.)

Whatever your beliefs as a serious, literary writer - whether you admire Ayn Rand and her brand of social Darwinism, or democratic socialism - as a writer, your job is to tell the truth as you see it. Not as a rant; not in a tweet, not merely glibly or, worse, in a way that hides what you think for fear of retribution from your clients or readers. But in a measured, thoughtful, powerful way. Appeal to your readers' better angels. Not to their fears and prejudices. Avoid trivialities about daily life to which you give no context or meaning.

If you want to be a salesperson or marketing guru, don't take this advice. You owe the public nothing. But this is a blog for real writers, not those who use language purely for self-promotion or social networking contacts. If you want to be a writer, read about those who have sacrificed and been true to themselves, like Lillian Hellman. (Or Ayn Rand; while I do not admire her views, I do admire that she put her beliefs out there and wrote about them. That she caved in - and badly - to the McCarthy lunatics is a sad commentary about her, however.)

We need serious writers and serious readers. Both are an endangered species.  Read More 

How Do You Stay Afloat in an Ocean of Bad Writing?

There's so much bad writing on the Internet that I feel compelled to advise aspiring writers to ignore ninety-eight percent of it when it comes to learning to write.

If you're an aspiring author, and most of what you're reading comes from amateur blogs and badly or non-edited Web sites, I'm afraid you'll pick up a lot of bad habits. Your noble desire to learn to write well may drown in an ocean of polluted writing.

Put it this way: If you wanted to learn to play drums, you would need to watch, listen to and learn from great drummers. You wouldn't want to copy choppy paradiddles from the local rock knocker at the corner bar that's pounding away to "Moon Dance." (Sorry, but as a former professional drummer "Moon Dance" a good song, but with a cliched, deadly boring drum part, made to order for amateurs.) If you want to be a good or great drummer you should listen to Buddy Rich or John Bonham or any number (there are many) of great jazz and rock and blues drummers.

If you want to be a good or great writer, you need to read good and great writing. Go to the bookstore or library and get good books. Don't learn style from tweeters and bloggers. Learn style and usage from Strunk & Whites THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE, not from amateurs that use substitute snark for prose.

Or you can learn from good or great writing teachers. They exist. But do your homework -- read their work and/or hear what others have said about them. Just because they have a Ph.D. or M.F.A. after their names does not necessarily make them good writing teachers -- or good writers.

And if you want to learn to write well, read well. Read often. Think about what you read and why it works and why it moves you.

And then, of course, practice. Just as if you want to play drums, after you hear and study with the good and the greats, you have to practice drums. So it is with writing, too. Read More 

Regarding LeBron James

Every now and then I write here about something other than writing and reading. Since so many have made their thoughts known about LeBron James and the entire psycho-drama that's been going on in Cleveland, Miami, New York City, New Jersey and Chicago, as well as throughout the world of sports entertainment (not exactly the same things as "sport"), here are my thoughts as a life-long sports fan.

LeBron James has already told us what his priorities are: himself and his family (and by this he means financial security, which he's already reached, so this would more accurately mean financial fortune, as in becoming a billionaire, his stated goal); and winning.

The team that he's played with, the Cavaliers, like any team he eventually plays with, will be a means to his end of winning - for his legacy and his pride. That's fine. But that's not about the team, and it's not about the city of Cleveland, or Miami, or Chicago, or New York. It's about him winning, and the team he hopes to win with would be along for the ride.

Again: he's already said what his priorities are. Winning and making as much money as possible. It's not about the city, or its people. If it was, he'd have signed with the Cavaliers months ago.

What can a writer learn from this? To listen to what people say and, in general, believe them, or not believe them. Make that choice. In James's case, he has said all along what his priorities were. I chose to believe him. So he'll go where he thinks he can achieve those two ends. He's never said he was a saint, or the savior of Northeast Ohio. He's called himself "King James." That means he makes the rules.

Why try to figure him out? He's already told us what he's about, and been very clear. He's about himself and his family. If he goes, he'll still contribute in various ways to his home town of Akron. He'll try to win and make the most money wherever he plays. He'll move his brand. If he stays, it will be because he believes he can achieve his goals in Cleveland. The aspect of winning, but having to share the stage with players such as Bosh and Wade may make him think twice about playing with other superstars; but that, I think, is the only mitigating factor of playing in a "supergroup." (Which don't have great success, in general, whether in music or sports, for the obvious reason of ego -- with a few exceptions. See Crosby, Stills and Nash or the old L.A. Lakers. Then again, that was a very different time. Players weren't brands; they were athletes.)

I hope Cleveland sports fans don't get too sentimental about King James. He's not sentimental about you. Pro sports, as much as I love them, have virtually nothing to do with loyalty or team. Those are only mentioned when teams win. When they lose, they'll do whatever they have to do to make the most money they can in the next year, whether that means paying through the nose to win (like the Yankees do every year, and with a Cleveland owner, no less), or shedding players to decrease their payrolls and up their cash-flow (like the Florida Marlins did after they won the World Series in the 1990s).

Sorry, sports fans. Whatever happens with LeBron James, this isn't your father's pro sports anymore. In nearly all cases, with owners, players, advertisers -- with everyone but fans -- it's about the money.  Read More