Writing Exercise : How To Get Away With Murder – The Flashforward

“How To Get Away With Murder” is a hit television show that is legal procedural, soap opera, and mystery—and it’s narrative-candy:  it’s like a long-lasting gum…a good chew, bursting with tons of flavor.  I’ve been binge-watching it through its two season run and the question on my mind is how it keeps holding my interest…how I can chew and chew and not spit that wad of rubber-nothing out my mouth.


The show follows a sassy black law professor, named Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) and her multicultural team of first year students—the black guy, the gay guy, the latina princess, the hard-around-the-edges-pretending-not-to-be-poor-mixed-race-country-girl-from-the-bayou.  There’s even a token white boy, who is of course a stereotype of privilege—the son of a judge who is from Kennebunkport.  Each of her students vie for a trophy—a figure of blind Justice holding her symbol, the scales–a prize that gets them out of taking an exam and into her good favor.

Each episode involves the team solving a murder of some sort and saving a client, usually in a dramatic court room presentation of evidence in which the charismatic Annalise Keating—barely restraining her emotion—exonerates her clients before a grand jury.  Needless to say, there is all sorts of un-reality to this show.

Tthe show  has its faults:  it is actually quite conventional and very quickly moves from legal procedural into steamy soap opera—the very thing I despise the most.  Still, I was riveted.  I kept binge-watching.  And I kept binge-watching.  And I wanted to know why.  And I think I know why.  And the reason why is this:  the show has the novel element of the flash forward:  We get snippets of an unfolding crime that is the master plot that the season is building toward—the sun—which is the solar system around which all the planet of lesser crimes revolves.

We get to see a murder unfolding but we only see parts of it, up-close.  The trophy banging upon a head.  Blood.  A hand.  Bits and pieces of confusion:  a shovel digging a shallow grave.  A panicked voice, whispering ohmygodohmygodohmygod.

Each episode opens with this flashforward.  Each flashforward follows the same design but is different.  So there is more information revealed—a dance of the seven veils.  Tantalizing.  Teasing.  Inviting.

This kind of device holds your interest well after the novelty of melodrama and soap opera and Perry Mason showboating begins to wear on your interest…and make you want to spit out that gum, which long ago should have lost its flavor.

Novelists have long exploited this type of device.  We see it as the italic openings to books—flash forwards that seem to make a promise of how the novel will reach its moment of climax.  And in this moment, the writer is using something like a pick up line:  accosting us, like a stranger on the street, with the promise of dinner and a date and an adventure on a vibrating motorcycle along a bumpy road that will end in the woods with a postprandial smooch.


Some of the great postmodern writers—writers like the African American genius Toni Morrison—use it at the beginning of every chapter.  The short italic opening—the repetitive opening that initiates each chapter of The Bluest Eye–involves a repetition of a series of lines–a Dick and Jane narrative that all little kids learn in elementary school.

Such a narrative gets progressively jumbly…then jumblier…then jumblier…the words mashed together to display the disorder in the life of a girl whose world is falling apart.  And so we begin to get a sense of how the world of the protagonist will fall apart…and we wait to see exactly how this will happen.

So here’s a suggestion for your next writing project:  Write a flashforward for your book.  Write it as an italics opener—that moment when Babe Ruth points his finger out the park and spits out the cud he’s been chewing in his mouth before preparing to hit that home run into the grand stands.  This opening just might hold your reader’s interest longer.

But ultimately, it can be a tool that only serves to sharpen your focus:   You can always take it out later if you don’t like it.  Putting those italics in might be exactly what you need to show you where you need to go:  your focal point, your climax, your sacred promise to the reader who is your solar system—your one and only—the sweet focus of pleasure that lives at the center of your mouth.

Postmodernism in the Mini Mall: Tuesday Bassen and Zara and Originality

I’ve been thinking about one of my age-old obsessions in art and literature and music: In this age of autotune and sampling and vintage—an age of accelerating remakes, revivals, knock-offs—is there really such a thing as theft or plagiarism or copying?  If there is now nothing new under the sun, can we stake claim to the fool’s gold of originality?  This is something that has come stuck in my mind, an old vinyl record skipping and returning—skipping and returning—to the same refrain in a song that I am sure I have heard so many times before:  a siren song that I carry in the pocket of my heart like a letter a soldier does, a missive from a great and unforgotten love.

These are in, again.

These are in, again.

What prompted this?   I heard about a new shop that opened in hipster Chinatown.  Friend’s Mart, it’s called.  The shop is the brainchild of Tuesday Bassen, a graphic designer who found herself in the eye of a storm when she caught the clothing manufacturer, Zara, ripping off her designs.  For those not familiar with her work, Bassen makes snarky little pins and patches that she is selling on Etsy.  It turns out that this piracy is a common practice for the megaconglomerate-clothing-manufacturer, which routinely trolls through sites like Etsy to take, steal, plunder.

Examples of Appropriation by Zara

Examples of Appropriation by Zara

Tuesday Bassen is not the only independent designer whose works have been stole—ummmm…appropriated—by corporations like Zara.  But she is the most notable one with the most documented cases of theft.  And now, Tuesday Bassen is embroiled in a law suit and, in the process, has emerged as something of a graphic arts celebrity.  What has threatened to destroy her, ironically, has translated into the fan base (and the capital) necessary to open up a store front for artwork–a storefront that represents the work of those small, independent designers whose labor has been ripped off by corporations with deep pockets.

friend mart's

Friend’s Mart occupies an old Chinese Bakery. They didn’t remove the sign, which is both an expression of an ethos and, also, cheap.

Of course, the thing that complicates this is that so much of the graphic arts nowadays relies upon unoriginality as its starting point.  And part of the joy of looking at Tuesday Bassen’s work comes not so much from the feeling that she is an artist with piercing vision that invents out of whole cloth but, rather, that she is an artist that does the exact opposite.  Our enjoyment of her work comes solely from what postmodern scholars call the wit of the “belated”—that feeling of having arrived well after everything meaningful has been executed.  In other words, she is no James Joyce, that great modernist novelist who famously declared he would, “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”


Artists like Tuesday Bassen aren’t “makers” in the traditional sense.  They are not visionaries who seek to produce true acts of invention. Ezra Pound could command his fellow modernists to follow that great catch-phrase, “Make It New!”  But Tuesday is not about newness.  She is about the reworn and retread.  We can see this in so many of the cute little Etsy-esque creations in the catalog of rip-offs that has made the rounds, going viral and bringing Tuesday her fame and fortune.


Here is a diary that says “Keep Out” with a lock in the shape of a heart; the only significant contribution of the artist is not so much in the creation of an actual object.  That diary was already an object which already existed in time.  Rather, any newness came in perhaps the choice to depict this repository of secret thoughts within a certain flattened childlike perspective view.


Or there is a crystal ball–the kind that is often used in signage to advertise the services of clairvoyants.  Underneath it is the words “psychic” and the replication of the reflection recast as little squares.  The thing to realize is that such signage is not really the creation of the artist.  But the creation of a collective of anonymous artists involved in the folk craft of sign-making.   Put another way:  the crystal ball exists as a found object in the built environment of the urban landscape—immediately recognizable at freeway exits and the windows of old ladies in crumbling neighborhoods.

The sign is a part of our visual lexicon.  It exists on the level of stereotype:  infinitely reproducible and reproduced in reproductions…and now reproduced in another reproduction.  What is the contribution of the artist except to now think something like that is worth reproducing again?  Is that an original thought?


Zara had this to say to the official complaint made by Tuesday’s lawyers:  “We reject your claims here for reasons similar to those already stated above: the lack of distinctiveness of your client’s purported designs makes it very hard to see how a significant part of the population anywhere in the world would associate the signs with Tuesday Bassen.”

This slap-down was crude and effective…but perhaps not the best PR move.  Tuesday Bassen responded by doing what all young millenials do in this age of internet activism: she photoshopped Zara’s words and juxtaposed it with her originals and their copies…and then she tweeted and instagrammed and the rest is viral history.


Most people think that we live in a Postmodern moment.  And that if there is one truth to the realities of the Postmodern, it is this:  that there is nothing new under the sun.  This may be true, but I would add a little more to that hypothesis:  we may all know that there is nothing new but we are nagged by the desire to claim that there is something that can be seen as original.

In this nanosecond of the timeline that is the Postmodern Moment, then, we find ourselves at the crossroads of art, looking back nostalgically at ideas of originality that are altogether impossible in this cut-and-paste world.  Yes, there is nothing new under the sun.  This is something smart people have been saying for well over the last fifty years–first among brainiac philosophers, later among theorists.  But this is only half of the artistic lie that we tell ourselves.

A Bestselling How-To Manual About Being Unoriginal

A Bestselling How-To Manual About Being Unoriginal

As the years have passed, this idea that we must embrace unoriginality has gained greater traction, moving out of heady academic circles and into our popular culture.  We see it in Ted Talks like the one that the record producer Mark Ronson gave, which disabused us of the idea that there was anything left in the world of musical ideas–anything except samples.  We also see it in little manuals like Steal Like an Artist, which became so popular that it could be bought at Museum Gift Shops and Urban Outfitters.

mark-ronson-ted-talks-history-of-sampling-video-main (1)

Mark Ronson delivering a Ted Talk about Sampling in Popular Music–arguing that nothing is new–appropriately wearing the clothes of an extra from the movie Grease.

And so that leaves us with that question—a stuttering needle stuck repeating over a hairline fracture that divides two eras—that question that is burning to be asked as if it were the elegant curve of a squirrel’s tail (bushy and erect and upward) in the canopy of a tree that frames the horizon of an infinite skyline:  Is it okay if my next novel is somebody else’s novel—word for word?  Or should I recognize that I am living in a moment of transition–one that looks backward and forward–and stick in a few words of my own, here and there, for good measure in this great book that I have been shopping around to a few select agents, which I have come to tentatively title Crime And Punishment?


The Mystery of Meatpacking

This week, NPR ran a story about meat packing—a story that explores the hidden costs of this industry in one of the most carnivorous countries in the world. It was essentially an update of Upton Sinclair’s classic work, The Jungle–a piece of muckraking journalism that changed the safety practices (and hygiene) of Chicago’s meatpacking industry.

Some things have changed in meatpacking. Some thing have not. The industry still uses the labor of recent labor, desparate to get a toe-hold on the sheer cliff that is the American rise.  NPR’s story emphasized the strain of injury in a mechanized, assembly-line world where repetitive actions destroy bodies attached to immigrant lives:  a broken world where health care, sick leave and worker’s compensation are all minimal.


It got me to thinking about mystery novels are all about exploring small microsystems in a vast network. And how the detective novel became such an American form, precisely because, in such a wide wide world, there exist pockets that are themselves as big as this country—pockets that remain enigmatic, intriguing, fascinating.  The mystery novel is a piece of reporting by a liar who makes everything up and attributes none of his sources.

I once lived in Central Iowa when I was a professor of Creative Writing at a small liberal arts college. So, I’m familiar with aspects of the NPR story: since Upton Sinclair’s time, it might surprise you to learn that a lot of meat processing is no longer located in the hub that is Chicago, that place where railroad lines could ship in livestock and ship out carcasses. Almost all is now perforrmed in small towns–pockets in the Midwest–that are wholly devoted to this kind of industry.

Most of those towns are dying–subject to the forces of brain drain and rust belt decay.  I used to joke that my town in Iowa suffered what I called the “Ashton Kutscher effect”:  anybody who was good looking or could do math left.  Or they at least try to make it in one of the bigger cities, like Des Moines.  This is another way of saying that little towns are good fits for new populations.  They are open to new immigrants who need them.

The great state of Iowa was the first state to host Vietnamese refugees after the Fall of Saigon.  And that had much to do with their charity and Christianity.  But it was also very much self-interested:  Iowa has one of the fast aging populations as young folks create that vacuum to the coasts where they try to see if they can be the next Superman or Vampire or Werewolf.

Recent immigrants will revive the small towns that created the genetic admixture that fuels the billion dollar industry that is Hollywood.  The new immigrant labor is a pivot point:  it allows the geriatric population an extended lease on life in their small slice of Mayberry.  Very often, the workers are refugees or recent immigrants. It is not uncommon to come across a whole town full of Mexicans or Vietnamese or Somalians.

Marshalltown, the town next to mine, was filled with Mexicans who were all reputed to have come from the same town in central Mexico.  They all worked for Swift and Co., doing pig slaughter.  “Swifts,” as the locals call it, is one of the major purveyors of pork product to America’s breakfast table.  And Marshalltown was but one of six towns, scattered throughout the Midwest, that were company towns under the thumb of this mega-conglomerate.  All six were raided by ICE in 2006 and the pig processing residents, deported or scattered or cowed.

Main Street Marshalltown

Main Street Marshalltown

I actually took my students on a field trip to Marshalltown for a senior seminar on immigrant labor.  But beyond this academic familiarity, I actually had relatives in Nebraska–a family of ten–whose entire town was organized this way, around cheap Vietnamese refugee labor.  They slaughtered cows, though, because Nebraska is filled with corn and livestock.  And it is easier to keep the slaughterhouses close to the forms of production where cost of land is cheap and regulation is low.

Most of my life, I did not know I even had these relatives.  I met them for the first time in Vietnam in 1993, right after college. We had been separated by two decades of economic embargo.  This was my Roots journey—one that was technically illegal, one that would finally give me the opportunity to see my alien birthplace. I was sure I would find out if my name was Toby or Kunta Kinte.

The relatives were waiting to immigrate to the USA through the “orderly departure program”–a program for soldiers who worked with the USA, soldiers that then suffered years of punishment after the new regime came into power. When Communists punish you, they punish your family and they crush you financially. I’ve heard some of the stories and they can be vicious.

These stranger-relatives were only days away from leaving when I arrived. They didn’t know where Nebraska was (I said it was very far away from Cali and it was famous for corn). They asked me if 7 dollars an hour was much money (I said you could live on it but not save). But their plan was for all ten to show up, pool their money and work until they could pay off their parents’ house. Then, they could do what they wanted with their lives.

It didn’t sound like a great plan and I told them so. But they said it was better than living under Communism. And my parents helped them by giving them the down payment on the house.

When I first met these cousins, they were just counting the days before they were to be gone. But the upshot after a few years on the slaughterhouse floor: several passed out on the bloody concrete after a few years of repetitive work and the incentive of overtime. Many felt trapped by this rotten bargain made at a moment of total ignorance–a bargain which would mean that they would never get educated and would be stuck in this life of measuring out their days by the count of cutting carcasses.

I saw them again, shortly after the father of the clan–my father’s half brother–passed out on the cutting room floor. They flew to Los Angeles and we hosted them. It was a sad reunion and there was something hollow in the hollow of their eyess.  We took them to Disneyland, which is something they had always wanted to see.

What to Do If a Friend is in the Psyche Ward

Here’s a riddle for you:  My nephew is in the psyche ward and it doesn’t upset me one bit.  The key to unlocking the mindset behind this cold-hearted, shameless declaration is simple:  At this point in my life, I’m an old hand at psyche wards.  I kind of know them inside out.

Don’t get me wrong:  I am not now, nor have I ever been, a patient of a psyche ward.  But this blog actually started as a result of a good friend’s confinement to a psyche ward in Southern California.  He was experiencing suicidal ideation and walked into the ocean with a box cutter and called 911 before he bled out.  The fact that he had a weapon of his own destruction in his cargo pants meant that he was put away for observation.

I visited him in the psyche ward where he was held for mandatory observation.  And it turned out that I was kind of a psyche ward ninja:  The staff loved me.  I said all the right things.  I felt totally kind of at home.  I knew just what to do.  And I brought an air of joy to everything.  It was like I was a prodigy who found his musical instrument and started banging out some crazy glissandos on a shiny lacquered baby grand.

My mystery novel was just a fun exercise I would do to while away the time with my friend as he went through recovery, and it would eventually become a project about my friend—the spider at the center of a glistening, dewy web–the Ivy-league drop-out alcoholic deliveryman, who finds himself in the seamy underbelly of LA’s fashion scene.  And my Ivy-league friend would become something of a writer himself—he’s written two mysteries at this point, one of which is in talks to be bought by a major Hollywood player.  He’s happy and healthy and not dead.  So, this is a long way of saying that the psyche ward is not a bad beginning at all.  It is actually the best place to begin your life narrative—in medias res—that place that the great Greek philosophers say is the traditional starting point of the pinnacle of all artistic achievements:  the epic.

In the interim, I’ve helped a lot of other people out in their suicides.  So, I kind of know the ropes.  And funny thing: I never really seek out the suicides nor do I relish the psyche wards…not like the way those Gothic people seek out black skinny pants and lip liner at the mall.  But like the prodigy, the instrument of my exceptionalism always seems to find itself in my hands.

So here is a list of some things to do when visiting a friend in the psyche ward:

  • Take the Serenity Prayer: You know that Alcoholic’s Anonymous Prayer about God granting you the ability to change what you can and the knowledge to know what you can’t…Take it seriously.  Recognize that you probably can’t change much.  And that the burden for your friend’s transformation falls upon your friend.
  • Don’t be a Bummer: Most people show up at psyche wards looking like they saw a ghost.  They have RESTING FUNERAL FACE.  And they act sad and this is totally self-defeating.  Flip the script.  Act joyous…joyous the way that New Orleans funerals move from dirge to dance.  This is the best possible place for your friend to find herself—a place designed to give her help.
  • Bring Food: I brought my friend his favorite, an In N Out Combo meal.  I had just gotten off the plane from Mexico and brought back a sampler of Mexican sugar candies.  The sugar candy made him an instant hit, both among the mostly Latino staff and the patients who all craved sugar.  One woman took the tiny little sombrero that came with the basket and wore it on her head.
  • Bring some kind of Care Package: Nice coffee or teas are the bomb.  People also like socks or underwear or house slippers.  They also like some kind of beauty product.  Don’t try to overwhelm them with crap.  Just ask yourself what you know they like.  If they are a coffee-head, find their brand.  Remember that a gift is a signature of care, so it must be edited like a designer’s Fall Collection.  Pick an idea and go for it.  As long as it shows some care, they will appreciate the hell out of it.
  • Bring Reading Material: They’re going to have a lot of time under observation.  I like to give graphic novels—they’re trendy and they’re great for people who may have low attention spans.  Once I bought a set of vintage comic books from the reject pile of a comic book store—probably no more than 5 bucks for 20 issues of The Avengers.  It got passed around by everybody in the ward and my friend assumed a position of power and significance—the lord librarian, the keeper of the book.  This is my signature gift.  If you find yourself in the psyche ward and you are a friend of mine, expect a graphic novel.  And go ahead:  I give you permission to steal this idea and make it yours.
  • Bring Stuff to While Away the Time: Crossword puzzles, Sudoko, Coloring books—these are all great.  Just remember that Coloring books can be tricky, because of restrictions about the pencils.  Card games are great:  Uno is ever popular and will allow people to sublimate aggressions and come together as a group of friends, not crazies.
  • Stop with the Blame Game: Don’t blame yourself.  Don’t blame your friend’s friends.  Don’t blame her parents.  Blame is debilitating.  It’s just another way to avoid dealing with the reality of the situation:  the psyche ward is where your friend has found herself and only herself and her therapist will benefit from figuring out whom to blame.
  • Figure out what you CAN do: You may succumb to savior complex.  Don’t go there.  Re-read my first and most important note—the one about the Serenity Prayer.  Get your ass SERENE-AS-FUCK.  But figure out what small measure you can take.  It can be something so simple as making casserole meals for a caregiver, offering a ride, coordinating a joint visit, stopping by an apartment to pick up clothes, checking to see what bills need to get paid.  Think churchy.
  • Silence = Death: Don’t let people suck you into their shame.  This may be your friend’s narrative.  But it’s also YOUR NARRATIVE.  So tell everybody.  It’s actually healthy for you.  It’s also productive…because there may be one person out there who knows how to do some shit that’s really un-churchy and technical…like getting on disability.  Somebody might be dating a bankruptcy lawyer and might be able to help with credit issues.  Somebody might have a cabin in the woods that might be perfect for a brief vacation in life.  If you keep your pie hole shut, you will never be able to tap these people.
  • Write a Card: They’ve got a shit load of time to spend doing nothing.  So, they will reread that card and reread it and reread it.  So your visit is nice but it will have greater impact if you actually write them a card.  And don’t just buy some Hallmark card and sign your name.  Write some actual stuff down.  Most people really don’t do this.  And a card not only is good for reinforcing your message.  It is still one of the primary metaphors of sentiment, of feeling, of care.