Ghost Summer: Stories (Sept. 1) — My love affair with short stories, and why you should write them too

Ghost Summer - Final

Like many writers, I began learning my craft with short stories. By the time I finished my graduate English degree, I’d shifted my focus entirely from my unfinished novels to short stories. I needed to master beginning, middle and end.

Finally–a sale! In about 1990, I sold a short story called “Amusement” to a small magazine called Writers’ BBQ. I was ecstatic…and then I learned that the magazine went out of business. No publication for me. Although I continued to write short stories, they were repeatedly rejected. I did not publish a word of fiction until my first novel, The Between, in 1995. After that, my focus shifted back to novels. But I’d honed my craft on short stories first.

And I couldn’t walk away. When Gordon Van Gelder invited me to write for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I wrote a short story called “Patient Zero” that ended up in two best-of-the-year science fiction anthologies. And so it went on, a story here and there, only by invitation: Harlan Ellison (“Señora Suerte” in F&SF), Marita Golden and the late E. Lynn Harris (“The Knowing” in Gumbo), Nalo Hopkinson (“Trial Day” in Mojo: Conjure Stories), Brandon Massey (“Ghost Summer” in The Ancestors and “Danger Word” in Dark Dreams) and of course Sheree Renée Thomas (“Like Daughter” and “Aftermoon” in Dark Matter).  More recently, I’ve published three plague stories for John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey for their post-apocalyptic triptych that began with The End is Nigh (“Removal Order,” “Herd Immunity” and “Carriers.”)

I made it a personal goal to continue to write short fiction, not just novels. Why? Because my novels would be swayed by commercial concerns, but my short stories would exist for their own sake. They would most likely reflect my inner 10-year-old and the stories she wanted to write just because.

Sure enough, by the time I was ready to publish a collection, I was told that my longtime publishing house wasn’t interested. Short story collections weren’t considered profitable. And I sat on this collection for some time–years, I confess, because I was busy with my novels. Then I saw a collection called Kabu Kabu that Nnedi Okorafor published at Prime Books, a genre house with an editor I’d known since my very first days as a novelist, Paula Guran. The cover blew me away.

My collection found a home.

As you can see, the cover for Ghost Summer is also beautiful. But I didn’t fully appreciate how apt it is until I re-read my stories and noticed how many of them have child protagonists–from “Patient Zero” to “The Knowing” to “Ghost Summer” to “Danger Word.” They’re not stories for children, mind you (though they’re definitely YA appropriate), but many of these stories are about characters in helpless circumstances who must find their inner strength and light to survive and overcome. Children and adults alike must grapple with plague, apocalypse, possession, monstrosity and loss. Even zombies. (We crowdfunded and adapted “Danger Word” to a short film available for viewing at www.dangerword.com.)

Actors Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott in the short film "Danger Word"

Actors Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott in our short film adaptation of “Danger Word”

Publishers Weekly, in its Starred review, wrote: “In these extraordinary tales, American Book Award–winner Due (My Soul to Take) uses a clear-eyed view of history to explain (but never excuse) the present.” READ THE REST HERE.

Ghost Summer represents the past fifteen years of my short story publishing history, with a few newer ones–and one, “Vanishings,” that has never before been published. (A few erotica stories didn’t make it into the collection because they did not blend well with the other stories. Maybe next time.)

Aside from the creative exercise that has taken me away from series writing and dreams of bestsellerhood, my short stories have introduced me to readers who have never read my novels. My story “Herd Immunity” was a finalist for the 2015 Theodore Sturgeon Award. Short stories published years ago have found new life, and new readers, in reprints.

Admittedly, some of my recent love affair with short stories has been because of time factors: now that I am doing more screenwriting and teaching (I teach Afrofuturism at UCLA and in the creative writing MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles), it takes longer to write a novel. I’m currently working on a period novel set in this collection’s fictitious town of Gracetown, Florida, but I’m sure it won’t be finished until sometime in 2016, much less published.

In the meantime, though, I will continue to publish short stories. I meet an endless variety of new characters in short fiction, and short stories help me remember why I began writing in the first place.

Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott in Danger Word

Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott in Danger Word

As a writing teacher and personal coach, I’m floored by how many excellent-though-unpublished writers I encounter who are trying to learn craft in the endless creative caverns of a novel rather than concentrating on short stories first. It’s akin to screenwriters who leap into features without writing a few shorts. The reasons: writers tend to write what they read, and there’s very little money in either short fiction or short films.

But I would not be the writer I am without my love of short stories. They demand clarity of thought and theme, more careful use of language, and the ability to draw readers into a world in only a page. Or a paragraph. On the practical side, they also take much less time to write, they can be published almost immediately (compared to a long wait with a novel), and they attract readers who otherwise might never find you.

So, I take my own advice: as I continue to work on my novel-in-progress, I will keep publishing short stories. If I keep working at it, I hope to get even better. And it won’t be fifteen years before I publish my next collection.

Tananarive Due is an author and screenwriter based in Los Angeles. She has won an American Book Award and an NAACP Image Award. Learn more about her work at www.tananarivedue.com

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3 Things I Learned from Moderating the “Empire” Writers Panel

Photo credit: Kima Jones

Photo credit: Kima Jones

Saturday, I had the pleasure and honor of moderating of writers from the hit show “Empire” at L.A.’s Leimert Park Book Fair: Joshua Allen, Eric Haywood, twin sisters JaNeika and JaSheika James, Attica Locke and Carlito Rodriguez.

For an hour, the writers spoke frankly about their own careers, their experiences in Hollywood, and what it’s like to work for mega hit show “Empire”—which simply must be one of the best writing environments in television. As in…Best. Job. Ever.

They laugh all day. Yes, they argue. Yes, they get the job done. But they have “Good Times” sing-alongs. Their stomachs hurt because they laugh all day. One of the writers actually said this.

But I digress.

Leimert Park Book Fair

Leimert Park Book Fair

As a novelist who is also writing screenplays and pitching my novels for TV and film, I’m always eager to hear the secret to success from veterans—just as I listened eagerly to Anne Rice when I interviewed her in 1992 as a newspaper reporter dreaming of becoming a novelist. From Rice, I learned that I should shed my reservations about writing about the supernatural. I never confessed that I wanted to write novels, but Rice told me that she had learned to laugh off the stigma of genre because her books are taught in universities. That realization was a breakthrough, and I wrote my first novel, The Between, within nine months of our interview.

The “Empire” panel may provide its own kind of breakthrough—helping me focus my resolve to work harder, and smarter, to break into television and film.

The first thing that stood out: the collective EXPERIENCE in the room. Attica Locke had never worked in a TV writers’ room, but she’d spent years writing unproduced scripts for studios. (She only started writing novels–which are acclaimed–because she couldn’t produce her own politically charged legal thrillers like her new novel, Pleasantville.)

Even other writers with little television writing experience brought experience from other realms: Carlito Rodriguez was editor-in-chief of The Source. Joshua Allen was a playwright. Even young writers like identical twin sisters JaNeika and JaSheika James had years of experience in television. Everyone on the panel earned their seat at the writers’ table after years of striving and not despairing at setbacks—Allen worked on “Hostages” for a year, for example, and then it was canceled.

And most writers had waded through the experience of being “the only one in the room,” as discussed in a recent NPR article based on comic Wyatt Cenac’s anecdote about Jon Stewart shouting him down when Cenac was the only black writer in the room on “The Daily Show.” You’re the only person of color at the table. Or the only woman. Or the only [fill in the blank.] Carlito Rodriguez joked that he is black, but he is also Latino—“which still makes me the only one in the room.”

They, too, have learned how to choose their battles and experienced the extra stress in their bones. But now, they say, they feel like they have found family.

Eric Haywood, who previously wrote for “Soul Food” and “Private Practice,” rightfully pointed out that “Empire” benefited from the pioneering work of Shonda Rhimes. (I would compare Rhimes’s impact on television to what Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale did for black writers in publishing.)

Here are my biggest takeaways:

1. Write more. So you finally wrote that screenplay? Congratulations. Now move on to the next one. My screenwriting time competes with my prose writing time, but I want to learn to better set aside time for both. One screenplay will not build a career in Hollywood. Neither will two. Or three. Remember how much rejection you face with your prose? Expect more rejection in Hollywood.

2. The Way is in Training. I have never taken a Sundance lab or even a two-day boot camp with Robert McKee. Collaborating with my husband, Steven Barnes (who has extensive TV writing experience), I have learned to write screenplays by writing screenplays (with smart notes from producers), reading screenplays, and reading books about writing screenplays. I write good scripts, and I love teaching screenwriting, but I can always learn more. With an 11-year-old son, two part-time teaching jobs, and a life as a novelist, the focused time, energy and effort even a short a class demands would be good for me.

3. Network, network, network. Because I already have cultivated industry contacts over fifteen years as an author trying to adapt my books to film or TV, I tend to be too low-key about following through after new connections. I collect business cards I often don’t end up using. I let email chains die. I’m a bit shy, so I’m not a naturally social person—I’m a writer!—and I live too far outside of the city to take a drive to L.A. lightly, whether it’s for lunch or—dear Lord—a meeting. But everyone knows Hollywood is built on lunch and meetings, so am I serious or not? I may not be able to do everything, but I need to be more active in the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA). That’s a start. And lunch now and then with new people wouldn’t kill me. (Find a way to improve your version of networking, i.e. attending a film festival with accessible panelists.)

These principles aren’t new to me. They’re not new to you either. But sometimes it takes a panel of writers to help clarify what we already know.

Tananarive Due is an author and screenwriter. She teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA and creative writing in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her short story collection, Ghost Summer, will be published Sept. 1. 

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Charleston (a poem)

Charleston

June 18, 2015

 

–For John Due and Patricia Stephens Due

And the 9 Homegoers at Emanuel AME Church

Candles - 9

Because I was hurting and knew he was too,

I spoke to my 80-year-old father today—

The man who served beside my late mother in

America’s undeclared war on Her Own,

Whose heart sped in Florida and Mississippi,

Whose daily waking world is retold in my history books–

And he was too busy to talk,

On his way to a meeting,

Going about his business,

Because he knows Freedom is a journey,

Never a destination,

And because the Movement toward liberation

Is what keeps his heart Alive.

© 2015 by Tananarive Due

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For Writers: My Revision Breakthrough

 

Prime Books: June 2015

Prime Books: June 2015

With the upcoming summer publication of my first short story collection, Ghost Summer, I have been focusing on short fiction for the past couple of years. I always encourage newer writers to hone their craft on short stories before potentially getting lost in the maze of a novel, but with a caveat – writing short stories is not EASY. For some writers, they’re more difficult. The language is often sharper by necessity. But they’re also great for learning structural compression—beginning, middle and end.

I’m pleased with my first two Nayima survivor stories in The Apocalypse Triptych edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey (“Removal Order” and “Herd Immunity”). I wanted the third story, “Carriers,” to take place about forty years in the future, reimagining my plague concept but keeping Nayima’s core character intact.

As the deadline drew near, I had breakthroughs and wrote in a white heat, believing I’d expressed my vision.

But the editors sent it back, asking for revisions.

******

I was ready to defend the story and point out all the reasons it was being misunderstood—but when I read it again after some time away, I realized they were right. The story was flabby and wordy. One scene was so crammed with infodump that it was like a textbook example. I’d saved too much of the good stuff for toward the end—an oh-so-revealing interaction with another character.

All feedback gives me a shape to walk toward in the fog. I spent hour after hour revising the story. I moved the late interaction higher, to the second scene, and the story brightened. Then, a domino effect: with an earlier reveal, the infodumpy scene could be significantly trimmed down AND now had much deeper emotional impact on its own merits.

Then I trimmed. And trimmed.

Did the sentence teach me anything about the character? Could the second half of the sentence be snipped off? Was it necessary to include this information? Was this sentence too clever for its own good? Some of the phrases and images that had come to me first, helping to ignite the rest of the story, ended up being cut.

The story got slim. And crisp. And engaging.

At the same time, I was getting feedback from Paula Guran, the editor of my upcoming Ghost Summer short story collection, on an unpublished story called “Vanishings.” It wasn’t working for her. It was confusing.

She wasn’t the first to say it. I’d been tinkering with that story for at least two years, on and off. I’d shared passages aloud with my MFA students (which led me to ban the practice), I’d given it to my best friend from college to read. (It didn’t work for her; she didn’t get it.)

Any time I struggle with a piece of fiction, I’m haunted by the unfinished stories on my old floppy disks, written in WordPerfect, when I was a newer writer. I lost interest in two novels, once about a hundred pages in, about two-hundred into another (hand-written, no less). I had a short story with a great gimmick I’d never truly paid off.

My unfinished stories haunt me—not because I really believe any of them were The One, but because I gave up on them. And I’m always afraid that I will give up on my stories again as writing seems to grow harder and harder.

But fresh from my last revision experience, I realized I could crack “Vanishings” too.

Yes, Idris. Yes, we should.

Yes, Idris. Yes, we should.

The story faced two primary struggles: I had geared it toward literary readers who might not be familiar with fantasy or magical realism, so I had minimized fantastic imagery. And I was relying on the gimmick of a late reveal to give an entirely new sheen of meaning to the story. Like The Sixth Sense.

The delayed reveal wasn’t working. Period. And the lack of specific fantasy imagery only created confusion for the readers—I was hinting at phenomena that I wasn’t showing. (Also, in part, because I was holding back for the reveal.)

In January, lecturing at the Whidbey MFA program, I gave a talk on writing mystery and suspense that specifically addressed the pitfalls of too much concealment. And here it was, right under my nose.

Writing doesn’t get harder—it just stays hard. With practice, we expect it to get easier, but in truth we stretch ourselves and grow and grapple with new lessons. We seek new words to create order of the joys and terrors of our lives.

I don’t want to get tired of writing. Writing gives me too much.

All of my fiction in recent years, one way or another, has helped me process the long illness, suffering and death of my mother, Patricia Stephens Due, in 2012—and the growing toll of time on my friends and family, who are also aging, sometimes dying, like Octavia Butler and Leslie (L.A.) Banks and E. Lynn Harris. I still can’t believe any of them are gone.

If you don’t need to write, sometimes it’s not worth the trouble. Sometimes people are struggling to write because of an outgrown dream or outside pressure—and life is too short. (James Weldon Johnson’s poem “A Poet to His Baby Son” is about a father’s disappointment that his son seems to have a poet’s eyes. Oh, what a road for one’s child!)

With a struggling project, sometimes it’s appropriate to move on. In my case, I needed to write more short stories before I started a novel. I think this is true of most writers. The ideas were bigger than my skill level—and by the time I gained the skill level, I had bigger ideas.

But giving up is very different.

If you have to write—if you must write—don’t give up on yourself and your projects.

Carve out the time. Commit it to paper as a goal. Create an outline. Have writing quotas. And be brave enough to find beta readers to help you assess your writing. Trade manuscripts. Start a writing group, even if it’s only a group of two.

As readers, we can easily point out the flaws in the writing of others—but when it comes to our own, we often are standing too close. We need beta readers. We need editors. We need people who aren’t afraid to tell us the truth.

Revise.

And then stop revising and ask for a reader’s eyes. Because it may be ready at last.

Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes are teaching an online writing workshop March 7-28th. EARLY REGISTRATION OPEN. More information here. 

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Spring Online Writing Workshop (March 7-28, 2015): Storytelling Principles for All Writers

Are you working on a novel, short story or screenplay and want to improve your writing? Do you want to participate in a writing workshop from anywhere in the world?

Here’s what Wayne said about our January workshop: “I have been on a ‘natural high’ from the beginning of the first class. No synthetic drug can duplicate this and it’s all you and Steve’s fault. Thank you both!!!”

Dog Writing Advice -- Sit & Stay

Do you want input from a writing professional on your pages?

Are you an author or screenwriter who wants to understand more about PLOT, CHARACTERIZATION and VISUAL DETAILS in your writing? Are you struggling with writer’s block?

Our unique approach is useful for writers of all levels–whether you’re a beginner or you have already published or produced your work. 

Authors and screenwriters Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due are offering an online writing workshop March 7-28 to help you whip your project into shape. Until March 1, register at our EARLY-BIRD rate of $300. Regular registration is $350, and time is running out… so–register now.

Here’s what Rorie said about our January workshop: “I found it enlightening, inspirational, and exceedingly useful. I really do hope you have another!”

And Angelique said about our fall workshop: “I want to thank you and Steve for an incredible experience.  I have truly learned a lot…..and I went to FILM SCHOOL!”

REGISTER NOW: 

Here’s what you get:

  • One 30-minute personal phone consultation with Steven Barnes or Tananarive Due
  • Notes on 10 pages of your story, novel, screenplay and/or treatment/outline. (Choose whether to receive notes at the start of the workshop, during, or at the end of the workshop.)
  • Four weekly hour-long video Google Hangouts sessions with instructors Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due
  • College-level syllabus with outside viewing and reading
  • A guest appearance by an industry professional to answer your questions
  • Peer review from other writers in the workshop

Here’s what the workshop requires:         

  • Registration fee ($300 early bird / $350 regular)  SPACE IS LIMITED
  • An existing story, screenplay or IDEA you can outline
  • RECOMMENDED TEXTBOOK: Story by Robert McKee
  • Willingness to participate in peer review with other workshop members
  • Internet access for one-hour weekly Google Hangouts lectures / discussion

TandSteve2

Who are the instructors? 

Steven Barnes

New York Times bestseller Steven Barnes has written more than twenty-five science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. His “Stitch in Time” episode of “The Outer Limits” won an Emmy. The NAACP Image Award winner also has written for “The New Twilight Zone,” “StarGate,” Andromeda,” and “Ben 10.” He has been nominated for  written for Hugo, Nebula and Cable Ace Awards. In 2013, he and his wife, Tananarive Due, co-wrote and co-produced the short film “Danger Word,” based on their novel,Devil’s Wake. He and Due recently sold a cable TV adaptation–details soon!

Tananarive Due 

Tananarive Due, a member of the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA), has been named to the Grio100 and Ebony Power 100. The Essence bestseller and NAACP Image Award winner has also won an American Book Award for The Living Blood. She recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus. She is the former Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College. In addition to co-producing and co-writing the short film “Danger Word” with Steven Barnes, she currently has several book projects under option. She and Barnes recently sold a cable TV adaptation of one of her ovels–details soon! 

WANT TO ENROLL? CLICK HERE TO REGISTER NOW:  

You may also email us your questions at Tanacoach@gmail.com.

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Selma, mighty Selma (2014)

“People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”  –James Baldwin

la_ca_1021_selma

David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.

 

I was raised by two civil rights activists – attorney John Due and the late Patricia Stephens Due—so stories of Martin Luther King, Jr. were common in my house. My mother first met Dr. King at a CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) workshop in Miami in 1959. My aunt, Priscilla Stephens Kruize, who attended with her, is an activist. Our godparents were activists, black and white.

Even without an official holiday, my sisters and I got to skip school every January 15 for annual birthday celebrations that brought neighbors, activists and politicians to our home to reflect on Dr. King and the legacy of The Movement. We held hands, listened to Dr. King’s speeches, and sang “We Shall Overcome.” As an adult, I co-authored a civil rights memoir with my mother, Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights.

My parents always stressed two things about the Movement:

  • The Movement was not about a single man, but about the faceless marchers and activists who were willing to put their lives, safety and futures at risk.
  • King was only a single human being. Often, he was afraid for his life.

The most vivid family anecdote, to me, was how my mother’s German shepherd, Scout, lunged at Dr. King at a press conference in St. Augustine in 1964 and filled his face with fear. (I can relate. My earliest memory is that same dog glaring at me, and I am still afraid of dogs.)

Which brings me to Ava DuVernay’s masterful film Selma, starring talented powerhouse David Oyelowo as Dr. King. This film, shot in only 32 days, took fifty years to bring to the big screen—and DuVernay’s masterwork is worthy of the wait. Although my parents did not go to Selma, this stirring film captures the civil rights movement – and the Martin Luther King, Jr. – from my parents’ stories. It is the truest civil rights depiction I have seen on film.

Its timing is also remarkable, released in the midst of a growing #BlackLivesMatter national social movement underway to complete the civil rights work depicted in the film. And it offers its own potential history: Ava DuVernay, already nominated for a Golden Globe, could become the first black woman nominated for, or to win, an Oscar as Best Director.

Selma is so relevant that it’s almost uncanny—the police abuses, the tear gas, and the brave masses willing to risk their lives for change. Bradford Young’s beautiful cinematography unfolds at times like a dream, at times like a nightmare, eerily reminiscent of so many images we see from protests here and now.

Selma is a film about Dr. King and the quest for voting rights—but it is also about politics, activist strategy, intergenerational divides, inter-organizational bickering, marriage strain and the heroism of young and old, black and white, to create that historic march. Selma depicts Dr. King and the civil rights era of my parents’ stories—a terrible and wonderful moment in history when, as my mother so often said, ordinary people did extraordinary things.

Some of my favorite moments are the most mundane, human ones: a husband and wife emptying the trash together, a man finding late-night solace in the voice of a gospel singer, comrades laughing around the table while they enjoy a meal prepared with love. But the film also doesn’t shy away from the Movement’s violence, pain and frailties. Part portrait, part love letter, part primer, part call to action, Selma is a singular film of its time.

David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo as Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King

David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo as Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King

Too often, black artists have seemed invisible to the Academy—or, when they weren’t, voters’ choices did not reflect our own sensibilities as viewers. Too often, we have been stereotyped and typecast or left out altogether, our stories relegated to the wings.

I have seen many fine films this Oscar season, but none as big as Selma.

When Brad Pitt’s Plan B Productions hired Ava DuVernay to direct Selma, he got it right.

Ava DuVernay got Selma right.

With Selma, Oscar has a chance to get it right too.

*****

On Ava DuVernay

Selma ava-duvernay

The only people surprised by director Ava DuVernay’s storming of Hollywood are those who haven’t been following her on Twitter. DuVernay, a former publicist, is a leader who has built her own national grass roots network of supporters as a woman filmmaker writing, shooting and distributing her own films through AFFRM (the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement)—and leaving a social media blueprint for others to follow. She is an eloquent champion of independent artists. (See her on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” here.)

Before Selma, she wrote and directed two independent films, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere (the latter also co-starring Oyelowo, winning her Best Director at Sundance). The quiet scenes from Selma are reminiscent of DuVernay’s mature grasp of characters and relationships in her earlier films. Selma’s social justice message is subtly hinted in Middle of Nowhere, a love story set against our era of mass incarceration. (That film was presented before the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of prisoners fighting predatory phone rates.)

Ava DuVernay was the first guest I invited to Spelman College in 2012, at the start of my two-year appointment as Chair in the Humanities. I literally laid out a red carpet for her, introducing her as a future Oscar winner. (She brought a brief clip from Middle of Nowhere, but that film had not yet been released. She appeared with lead actress Emayatzy Corinealdi.)

Even then, I recognized DuVernay as someone who could change the face of Hollywood, just as I recognized Barack Obama as a man who could be president when he appeared before my Los Angeles church as a U.S. Senator in 2007.

DuVernay is both evidence of change and its agent. Her film is an homage to past activists and a visual mission statement to today’s, who themselves are learning the burn of tear-gas and the horror of facing down police officers’ guns.

Ordinary People

Selma, after all, is about We the People.

Then, as now, the activists are the true stars of Selma: stalwarts in Selma and Birmingham and Tallahassee, Florida, and elsewhere who faced beatings, jail or death day by day, paying the price of our Constitution’s promise with their blood. It is impossible to include every face, every name, but surviving activists, their children and their grandchildren can see themselves reflected on the screen.

Many activists did not recover from the emotional traumas they suffered in the 1960s. My mother wore dark glasses her entire adult life because of teargas thrown in her face in 1960, when she was 20. She died at the age of 72, and I have no doubt that the Movement stole years from her life. My aunt agrees with me.

The Stephens sisters, as they were known as students at Florida A&M University, organized a campus CORE chapter and began staging sit-ins after the 1959 Miami workshop. Together, they were arrested and jailed after a 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter. Once, Tallahassee police officer kicked my aunt in the stomach at a protest.

Priscilla Stephens arrested in Tallahassee in 1961. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/267341

Priscilla Stephens arrested in Tallahassee in 1961. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/267341

Aunt Priscilla fled the United States to live in Ghana in 1964 after a series of ailments she later recognized as stress: Hives. Ulcers. Temporary paralysis she suffered in a jail.

“We couldn’t allow ourselves to feel fear,” she says now. But her body felt it.

Activists’ PTSD went unnamed, and often untreated. Some were ashamed to tell family members they had been to jail. Some committed suicide. Some simply never came home.

Names you do not know. Movies that will never be made.

Selma captures the face of their sacrifice. My mother would have loved Selma, had she lived to see it. Like me, at times, she would have wept.

Today, on opening day, Aunt Priscilla, now 76, will see Selma with a group of friends in the city where she was first jailed. (After their Woolworth arrest, she and my mother were among a handful of Florida A&M students who spent 49 days in jail rather than pay their fine. During their time in jail, the students received a telegram of support from Dr. King.)

Aunt Priscilla knows the film will be painful, but she is eager to see it.

My late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, arrested in Tallahassee in 1963

My late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, arrested in Tallahassee in 1963

“People forget, and they don’t know what happened,” says the retired educator. “If someone can tell the story, it’s good for our children. We are losing our children left and right. They don’t know the importance of anything—Why is it important to vote? Why is it important to do your best? Why is it important not to go to jail? Our children are lost, and they think it’s always been the way it is now. They can’t compare, but we can. I know the struggle continues—it’s not over. But they don’t know what the Struggle was all about. They’re being prepped for jail instead of for life. It’s more dangerous for our children now.”

She recalls the first time she met Dr. King, at the same 1959 CORE workshop with my mother. The workshop ended with Dr. King leading the singing of “We Shall Overcome.” “He sang ‘We shall overcome someday,’ and I told him, ‘No, Dr. King, we shall overcome today.’”

Like the younger activists portrayed in Selma, she says she and other local activists groused about Dr. King’s tactics of swooping in and out of town. “That’s how they talked about Dr. King: He was getting all the publicity and we were doing all the work.”

Once, over lunch, she asked Dr. King how he kept his ego under control when he was lauded by so many. “He said, ‘I don’t know the answer to that, but you have to keep focused.’”

That, at least, is the way she remembers his words.

Selma and History

The true-life Selma to Montgomery march, 1965

The true-life Selma to Montgomery march, 1965

Selma has overcome so much and soars so high that the well-publicized complaints from some historians about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s portrayal are particularly painful. In the flurry of Oscar politics, the drumbeat will be: This film shouldn’t win because it isn’t the truth.

It also means that potential viewers might skip it. And some Academy voters might steer away, as they did when Denzel Washington was nominated for Hurricane.

I have both seen Selma and read the history, and this is my view: Historical films, like historical novels, are a form of fiction. Freedom in the Family, which was nonfiction, taught me that memory itself is faulty—so the notion of “truth” is always a bit slippery. Filmmakers could not get the rights to Dr. King’s speeches, for example, so those are fiction–reportedly penned by DuVernay, though the sole screenplay credit goes to Paul Webb.

In historical fiction, the “truth” lies in the essence of the story being told—the spirit of an event. Any historical film is the starting point for understanding history, not the destination. Selma is not a documentary, and even documentaries are subject to filmmakers’ interpretations. Historians can debate the actions and attitudes of President Johnson compared to his character in his film, and I would suggest, as I always do, that we all research the history ourselves for a fuller picture. The roles of some activists, too, are minimized while others are highlighted. All historical films have omissions, interpretations and scripted dialogue.

Selma King and Johnson

I believe Selma’s depiction of Johnson represents the Movement’s struggles with the White House through the 1960s civil rights era—the fight for change versus political expediency. A film called LBJ surely would have its own sensibility. Other civil rights icons are also worthy of their own films.

As DuVernay said in her interview with Jon Stewart, “We don’t paint anyone as a saint in this–we don’t paint anyone as a sinner.”

Selma sets out to mold a human character from an icon, but also to capture “The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Like No Film Before.” It’s a lot to ask.

Selma does that and more. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the marchers at Edmund Pettus Bridge come to vivid life.

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The march across Pettus Bridge: Selma film (2014)

 

Next month, when I participate in a speculative fiction conference on the Florida A&M University campus where my parents met and I was born, I will see Selma with my 80-year-old father, John Due.  Like John Lewis, Andrew Young, Diane Nash and a shrinking number of other activists, my father is a survivor of the civil rights movement. Like all people of advancing years, those activists wonder if their legacies will be remembered.

With my father, "Freedom Lawyer" John Due

With my father, “Freedom Lawyer” John Due

My mother is no longer here, but my father is still a community organizer and lawyer with freedom on his mind and in his heart. In Florida, he inspired young activists who went on to help create the Dream Defenders.

Selma took far too long to get made. A decade ago or longer, so many more activists could have enjoyed the validation of seeing their contributions represented symbolically on the big screen. So many more young people would have gained a deeper understanding of how steep the price is for change.

But I’m so glad Selma is here today.

Tananarive Due is an American Book Award-winning author, screenwriter and filmmaker. She is the former Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College. She lives and works in Southern California. Her website is at www.tananarivedue.com. See her 2003  book appearance with her mother, the late Patricia Stephens Due. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Virtual screenwriting workshop with Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes January 10-31, 2015

 

Are you working on a screenplay, or do you have a screenplay idea you’re not sure how to start?

Morpheus ScreenwritingDo you want input from industry professionals on your screenplay idea?

Are you an author who would like to learn to adapt your books to film?

Whether you’re a screenwriter, a novelist or a producer, there has never been a more exciting time to try to get your foot in the door in television and film. But it all begins on the page – with a terrific screenplay or teleplay.

After a successful fall workshop, authors and screenwriters Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due (WGA) are offering an online screenwriting workshop Jan. 10-31 to help you whip your project into shape. Until Dec. 31st, register at our Christmas rate for $300. Regular registration if $350–so save $50 by registering now. Space is limited.

Here’s what one of our writers said midway through our fall workshop: “I want to thank you and Steve for an incredible experience thus far.  I have truly learned a lot…..and I went to FILM SCHOOL!”

REGISTER NOW: 

Here’s what you get:

  • One 30-minute personal phone consultation with Steven Barnes or Tananarive Due
  • Notes on 10 pages of your screenplay and treatment/outline. (Choose whether to receive notes at the start of the workshop, during, or at the end of the workshop.)
  • Four weekly hour-long video Google Hangouts sessions with instructors Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due
  • College-level syllabus with outside viewing and reading
  • A guest appearance by an industry professional to answer your questions
  • Peer review from other screenwriters in the workshop

Here’s what the workshop requires:         

  • Registration fee ($250 early-bird / $300 regular / $350 late)  SPACE IS LIMITED)
  • An existing screenplay or a screenplay idea you can outline
  • RECOMMENDED TEXTBOOK: Story by Robert McKee
  • Willingness to participate in peer review with other workshop members
  • Internet access for one-hour weekly Google Hangouts lectures / discussion

TandSteve2

Who are the instructors? 

Steven Barnes

New York Times bestseller Steven Barnes has written more than twenty-five science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. His “Stitch in Time” episode of “The Outer Limits” won an Emmy. The NAACP Image Award winner also has written for “The New Twilight Zone,” “StarGate,” Andromeda,” and “Ben 10.” He has been nominated for  written for Hugo, Nebula and Cable Ace Awards. In 2013, he and his wife, Tananarive Due, co-wrote and co-produced the short film “Danger Word,” based on their novel, Devil’s Wake. He and Due recently sold a cable TV adaptation–details soon!

Tananarive Due 

Tananarive Due, a member of the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA), has been named to the Grio100 and Ebony Power 100. The Essence bestseller and NAACP Image Award winner has also won an American Book Award for The Living Blood. She recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus. She is the former Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College. In addition to co-producing and co-writing the short film “Danger Word” with Steven Barnes, she currently has several book projects under option. She and Barnes recently sold a cable TV adaptation of one of her ovels–details soon! 

WANT TO ENROLL? CLICK HERE TO REGISTER NOW:  

You may also email us your questions at Tanacoach@gmail.com.

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