How watching movies has helped my writing

So a friend turned me on to Moviepass, which allows you to watch one movie a day for a flat fee of $9.99 a month. Yeah, it’s an unsustainable business model, and it’s probably not going to last. But it’s proven TERRIBLE for me, because I’ve gotten absolutely addicted to watching movies, and when the company goes bankrupt I’ll probably end up spending way more on movies than I do now.

Anyways, I’ve watched six movies in the last ten days. At this point I’ve seen most of the Oscar contenders aside from The Darkest Hour and The Post. I have to say, I think this is a good year for movies. None of the Oscar nominees is an embarrassment (the way Hacksaw Ridge was last year) and none are nearly as dull as last year’s Arrival or Manchester by the Sea. The one that comes closest to not being worth your time is, in my opinion, Dunkirk, simply because there’s not a lot in the movie to hold onto. But even in that film there’s a very good strand of the story (about two soldiers doing their best to escape from the beach and get onto the rescue ships) that serves to undercut and fill out the traditional war story.

Of this year’s Best Picture movies, I’d say The Shape of WaterCall Me By Your Name, and Phantom Thread are superlative, and Lady Bird, Get Out, and Three Billboards are extremely good. If any of those films won Best Picture I’d say, “That makes sense to me” (well, maybe not Three Billboards…)

I just saw Call Me By Your Name about five hours ago, which might shape this opinion, but I loved it. I’ve definitely seen friends call it beautiful, but empty, which is a fair criticism. But to me the movie seemed to have one purpose, which was to capture the heart of longing, and it did that better than almost any film I’ve ever seen. In fact, if there’s any movie that comes close to what I want to do with my own work, it’s Call Me By Your Name. I just loved how the camera lingered on the actor’s bodies. Love how it accentuated their long eyebrows. Loved the contrast between Timothee Chalamet’s underdeveloped pale body and Armie Hammer’s very developed golden physique. Loved the hints of intellect that were never taken too far. I don’t think the movie was empty. I think it examined the nature and shape of desire: the ways that you’re attracted not just to a person’s personality or to their character, but also to their body, and that the physical often comes before the personal.

Admittedly it was a very microscopic story. Yes, it was set in 1983, and yes there was no homophobia and no awareness of AIDS or HIV. But whatevs! You know, somewhere in America there are two undocumented people falling in love, and they’re not worrying about getting deported right now, because they’re FALLING IN LOVE. In some ways these character’s self-absorption feels, to me, very real.

But I recognize that this movie is hitting me right in the place where I, right now, am sitting. I do think it’s about thirty minutes too long, and it didn’t seem nearly as in command of its material as The Shape of Water did (say what you want about it, but TSoW is structurally perfect. I mean basically every element of it is perfect.)

Watching all of these movies has been good for my writing. I’ve started to ‘see’ a little bit more with my mind’s eye as I write. Now when I’m writing I’m able to zoom out and think, “Okay, what would this look like? What would the audience actually see?” I think there’s a tendency, when writing prose, to write from a place that’s too deep inside the character and not well enough connected to the events they’re actually experiencing. Ever since I’ve watching all these films I’ve been able to focus on the action itself, and I think that’s resulted in stronger scenes and better set-pieces.

Oh, and also in more variety of scenes! Because in a movie every scene can’t just be people sitting around and talking. You need movement. Variety. Changes in pacing.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about lately (this isn’t entirely related to the movie stuff) is that when I’m writing a book, I try to understand, “What is sustaining the audience’s interest” and “What is sustaining my own interest.”

The interesting thing, to me, is that the thing which sustains the audience’s interest is usually really simple. It’s just suspense. Will they or won’t they? Who did it? Will they defeat the bad guy?

It’s easy, I think, for the writer to forget about suspense, because to the writer, that stuff really doesn’t matter. After all, we mostly know everything that’s going to happen. And for us the thing that’s holding our attention is usually, well, it can be anything, actually. I try to write characters that are larger-than-life–ones which do or say things that the ordinary person wouldn’t–and there’s a certain amusement in letting those people play. I also like to create friends: people I’d like to know; people composed of the best and most interesting parts of people I know in real life. And I like to create startling juxtapositions–putting together people who in real life maybe would never know each other.

I think I’ve gotten very good at telling when my own attention is engaged and when I’m just doing what I feel like I’m supposed to. The interesting thing about following your own attention is noting the places where you get bored. Sometimes I know, even before writing a scene, that it’s going to bore me. Which makes me wonder if it’s even necessary. For instance, right now I’m writing a character who, although still in his thirties, lives with his parents. The story seems to demand a scene where he interacts with them, but the idea sort of bores me. And it’s making me think, well, maybe they’re not necessary. He lives with them, but he’s come to a sort of detenté with them, and they’re not actually that important to the story I’m telling.

This is the thing, I think, that often causes writer’s block. There’s a story you know how to tell, but it’s not the story you need to tell. And that means that writing is, necessarily, going to be torture until you re-learn the trick of listening to yourself.

Okay, I got reaaaaaally into Cameron Hawley, then I got into Michael Connelly and Scott Turow too!

Haven’t posted much about my reading lately. I spent a lot of January reading Cameron Hawley’s remaining books. I know I posted about Executive Suite earlier, but I liked his other stuff too! I’d say the weakest was Cash McCall, his second book, which relies too much on the mystery surrounding its eponymous figure (a Howard Roark-type personage who is, essentially, a corporate raider). But The Lincoln Lords, which is about a businessman who, after years of jetting from company to company without accomplishing much, finds himself unemployable, and The Hurricane Years, about a playwright-turned-advertising-executive who has a heart attack at age 44 and starts to wonder WHAT WAS IT ALL FORRRRRR?????

Okay, the books do venture occasionally into the realm of the hokey, especially in The Hurricane Years, where this doctor becomes very, very, very personally invested in his amateur psychoanalytic reading of the protagonist’s personality. But the books are essentially very nuanced comedies of manners that center on relations within the business sphere. This is basically my bag. I love it. I mean where is there more interpersonal drama, in our adult lives, than at work? It’s there and it’s in our families. That’s it. That’s why all sitcoms are either workplace sitcoms or family sitcoms (okay and Girls and Master of None and Friends and…alright, whatever, so it was a generalization).

Afterwards for some reason I got into legal thrillers. I think it was because I bought The Lincoln Lawyer on sale at audible…oh my god, I just realized, just now, that I only read The Lincoln Lawyer because its name was reminiscent of Cameron Hawley’s The Lincoln Lords. Well anyway it was a good one. I read Connelly’s other four Mickey Haller books, which are all about a defense attorney who’s just north of shady and who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get his murderous clients (except what if they’re really innocent!) off the hook. They’re all fantastic, except for the the third, The Reversal, where he becomes a special prosecutor. That one didn’t satisfy in the same way.

It’s hard to say what made them so compulsively listenable. Haller is an appealing hero. He’s hardboiled, but he still believes in things. He wants his clients to be innocent. He wants to do well. He genuinely thinks most of them deserve better than they get. And I also like the focus on finances and on the daily practice of running a business. I mean it’s a bit romantic, isn’t it, to be running a business out of your car, right? And the courtroom antics are great. I do find all trial books and TV shows to be a bit far-fetched nowadays, since actual trials are SOOOOO rare. I talked to a criminal defense lawyer recently who said that in all his years of practice, he’s only gone to trial twice! But at least Haller recognizes, in each case, that the trial is a rare occurrence.

Once I had the bug, I wanted to read others, so I sought out a few other legal thrillers. I read Defending Jacob by William Landay, which is, basically, a bad seed story. A prosecutor investigates a murder at a school, only to find that the main suspect is his son (the second two thirds of the book is the trial of his son). But it’s an exceptionally well-written one. The voice is so pitch-perfect: it sounds like a fusty fifty year old small-town prosecutor who’s frustrated with modern life (whenever the narrator talked about Facebook and Twitter or interviews teenagers it really made me giggle).

Finally I ended up with Scott Turow. I really have very mixed feelings about him, because on the one hand he’s much better than most bestselling novelists. His books are as much about character development and interpersonal relationships as they are about legal drama. They all seem to be about middle-aged men who have to come to terms with their own smallness and limitations, but you know what? That’s okay! Write what you know! Of the ones I read, I’d say the best was Personal Injuries, which is about a shady personal injury lawyer who gets popped for tax evasion by the IRS and then gets bullied into participating into an investigation of a ring of crooked judges. Although there’s plenty of drama surrounding their attempts to get these judges, a good part of the book’s suspense comes from our unfolding understanding of the nature of the man, Robert Feaver, whose dishonesty started all this.

Feaver, our snitch and (sort of) protagonist, starts off seemed really weak and cowardly, but as the novel goes on, our opinion of him flips and flops, turning one way and then the rest. And you know that in the end you’re going to end up feeling terminally ambiguous (who is he? what is this man worth?), but when the ending finally comes, there’s still a moment of quietness that’s very affecting.

In the negative column, I feel like Turow’s books come off sort of racist. There’s a particular sort of 80s and 90s liberalism that’s worn extremely poorly. I think before now I’d noticed it most often in the work of Tom Wolfe (particularly The Bonfire of the Vanities and Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers). It’s the liberalism in which of course you acknowledge that black people have it hard, but where you also argue that black people are too militant and that they’re damaging their own cause. It’s the liberalism in which every black person is alway playing the race card and calling you out for racism. It’s the liberalism in which you pretend that white prosecutors and cops are actually anxious for the chance to prosecute a white man–the liberalism where you pretend that, because everybody is so liberal, white men don’t really get a fair shake in the justice system.

Since this is clearly the opposite of true, it just ends up feeling racist. The gender politics of his books can feel similarly out of date. But if you can look past that, they’re pretty good. Definitely much better than most bestsellers.

Sober for eight yearsssssssssssssssssssssssssssss

Just passed the eight year anniversary of my quitting alcohol (and most, but not all, other drugs [I’ve subsequently quit the rest of them too, but this isn’t the anniversary of that]). Feeling pretty good about it! Didn’t even have those ‘drinking dreams’ that sober people often get around their anniversary. The alcoholics know the ones I’m talking about: the ones where you relapse and are like oh nooooooooooooooooo.

I think sobriety is…really good. If I wasn’t sober today, I doubt I’d be married. I might’ve published a few short stories, but I wouldn’t have published a book. Probably wouldn’t have an MFA or any money in the bank. Wouldn’t have my mental equilibrium. And most importantly I probably wouldn’t have the fuzzy widdle kitty we just got! His face is so fuzzy! I like to kiss it.

Yes, two weeks ago Rachel and I got a cat, suckas! Little known fact: I LOVE cats. But since leaving my parent’s home, I’ve never had one. It’s shockingly easy to adopt and care for a cat. I mean I was shocked. We just went to the SPCA and this cute little 6 mo black cat jumped off his perch and meowed at Rachel. We played with him a little bit, and then he was oursssssssssss. We call him Schubert. Partially because of the composer Franz Schubert, who is one of Rachel’s favorites, but mostly because Schubert is a really silly name. Personally I call him Schubie, Schoobs, or Schubie Doo.

Schubie is good cat. He sleeps on our bed, and he likes cuddlesszzes. That’s pretty much all you need in order to be a good cat I think.

In other news, I am writing. WRITING. The other day I was having a trouble with a scene that just wouldn’t quite come out right. The characters wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do, and then I realized something: I just need to relax. The characters need room to breath. To wander. To be lost. I need to dare to be less dramatic.

This is a lesson I’m continually learning in my writing: dare to be less dramatic. Dare to pull back. Dare to miss the big moment. Dare to scale things down. Now that I’ve adopted this mantra, I’m constantly noticing areas where it can be applied out in the wild. For instance, have you ever noticed how many movies and TV shows (particularly for teens) feature kids who are big movie stars? It’s totally a thing. Now that I’ve mentioned it, you’ll see it all the time.

And each time I’m like, that’s cool and all, but why are they always the star of some big blockbuster? Why not a side-character on a TV show? Why not the understudy in a Broadway musical? Why not the pitch-person in a nationally-broadcast commercial (think the “Can you hear me now?” guy)? Why do they always have to be at the apex of fame? There’s nothing wrong with that choice, per se, but it’s still lacking in subtlety, and its very grossness forecloses so many story options. For instance, if you’ve got the equivalent of Miley Cyrus walking around in your story, everything is gonna be about that. There’s gonna be bodyguards, fans, stalkers, fanfare every second. But if instead you’ve got a minor star, then the story breathes a little bit more. They’re able to be normal sometimes. There’s less distance between the characters.

Of course, I’d probably downscale even more and take out the ‘fame’ thing entirely, since unless a book is specifically about pop culture in a broader sense, it’s generally hurting more than helping.


Cash McCall, by Cameron Hawley

I first came to this author through his perhaps better-known book Executive Suite, but this book, his second, is the superior one. Hawley’s schtick was that he was, like Wallace Stevens, both a working businessman and a writer. His books, too, were comedies of manners and morals that centered around mid-sized American corporations like the one in which he worked (the Armstrong Cork Company). Basically, McCall is what’d happen if a smart person picked up The Fountainhead one day and really, really wanted Rand’s vision of the world to be true, but eventually realized that it just sort of wasn’t. There’s a sort of dialectical evolution here. Hawley obviously starts from a similar place as Rand: he believes in free markets and in the worthiness of building and constructing things. But at some point, his deeper knowledge of human nature intrudes and complicates the scenario.

Cash McCall seem to be about a businessman-hero in the Ayn Rand style: Cash McCall is a man who coldly assesses other people at a glance. He has plans within plans, and he sees the world at a much higher and more strategic level than do most. He also talks in these semi-philosophical speeches. But he’s not an architect, and he’s not a builder. He’s basically a corporate raider. McCall conducts what we would, in modern times, call a Leveraged Buy-out. He targets companies which are, for some reason, undervalued, and he borrows money to buy them. Unlike someone like Warren Buffett, he doesn’t even hold onto the companies: he revamps or disassembles them and unloads them after 6-12 months–usually for a profit.

The book centers around his acquisition of a small plastics company (and his romancing of the company founder’s daughter). Throughout, McCall is held up in opposition to Grant Austen, the founder, who stayed put and operated this company, Suffolk Molding, for thirty years. The book plays with you so expertly, never letting you come to easy conclusions about who’s the hero and who’s the villain.

I found myself admiring the book immensely. It is clunky at times, in that very 1950s and 1960s way that many popular novels, particularly by male authors, tended to be. It reminded me, for instance, of The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit or of the polemics of the era, books like The Organization Man or The Lonely Crowd. It’s just very…matter-of-fact. I don’t how to describe it. The book is very focused on its own tale, and not very focused on description or scene or dialogue.

And yet it has a subtle brilliance. This book, more than most I read, seems very fully-realized to me. It’s exactly the book that the author wanted to write, and I hope someday someone can say as much about a book of mine.

Wrapping up 2017!!!

Every year, my wrap-up blog posts get shorter, which I suppose is just a part of life. This year is one where I’ve stopped doing many of the little habits and rituals that were once an inextricable part of my life. I don’t track my progress in various spreadsheets with nearly the assiduity I once did. In fact I barely do it at all. Nor do I keep track of my word count or the hours I spend writing.

I still turn off my internet each day and block out the world and work on my writing. I just don’t keep records about it. Don’t feel the need to.

The best thing that’s happened over this year is that I got married. It was a really great wedding, but an even better bride. Rachel and I did it right, and the wedding didn’t completely dominate our lives and take up every spare moment of our time. It sort of happened on its own, actually, with relatively little work on our part (lots of money, but relatively little work–I still can’t believe how much a wedding can cost).

In my non-wedding news though, the best thing has been my slow and steady work on my second YA novel (now titled It’s Probably Just A Phase). My first book, Enter Title Here, was written in thirty-one days of white-hot fury. From the very beginning, the main character’s voice was so clear and distinct, and the story she told me is, to a large degree, the one that is on the paper.

This is a great experience to have. I recommend it to everyone. However it sort of doesn’t set you up very well for writing subsequent books, because you’re always waiting for the magic to happen.

With this second book I also wrote the first draft in a pretty truncated period of time, but…since then it’s undergone at least two major rewrites and three more significant revision passes. It’s been a process.

In the beginning I was excited about the book, but…cautiously so. I didn’t feel like it was gonna win any awards. Nor did I feel like it was my best work. I was writing it because I had to write something, and I didn’t know how to write better.

But in the process of working on it, the book has gotten deeper and deeper. Characters have taken shape. Events have gained weight and shading. For instance for most of the drafting protagonist I didn’t really love the deuteragonist (yeah I can use fancy words!) I saw him as weak and pathetic, and the other characters shared my view. But this summer something cracked open for me, and I for the first time really felt his quiet bravery.

Now I’m much more sold on this book! I like it way more, and I daresay it even rivals my first. Moreover, it’s been really good for me to experience a different writing process. I’ve learned that good things can come from careful, plodding work. And as a result I feel much better equipped to face the, you know, lifetime of writing that I have coming up.

The charismatic and visionary far right leader who we’ve yet to see…

Someone shared this FB post on my feed, so I spent the morning reading pro-trump Facebook groups, and it was definitely a little frightening. Trump still has a huge amount of support, because for these people it’s not about taxes or healthcare, it’s about taking America back. From the liberals, from the muslims, from the illegals, from the gays and transgenders.

I don’t really see the appeal of these ideas myself, but that’s probably because I don’t really have a country to take back. However, these people were constantly writing stuff like, “Kill the illegals” or “kill the muslims” and I don’t think they were 100% serious, but I do think that if their President came to them and was like, “Hey, the only solution is for you to pick up a gun and actually go out and kill the Muslims” then maybe they’d do it!

Reading these groups, I was actually afraid. Like, I was afraid that I’d do something to tip them off to my presence, and that they’d target me personally. These people are no joke. And the above-linked FB post is right: they’re here to stay. They weren’t created by Trump, and they’re not going to go away when or if he loses. There is going to be a large, authoritarian, far-right bloc of the American population, and there is a frighteningly large chance that they will usher in a totalitarian dictatorship within our lifetimes.

Democracy is really fragile, particularly within the confines of our specific system of strong executive power. And given that the military and the police are likely to be in the far right than against it, you can easily see the circumstances under which a charismatic and visionary President might tweet, “Hey, the Senate is trying to depose me, why don’t you stop them.” Maybe the military will act to stop him and maybe they want. What’s clear is that once a person like that gains the levers of power, he’s not going to give them up easily.

I’m not certain that Trump is that leader (though I’m also not certain he isn’t), but that leader will arise within our lifetime. And if he wins a Presidential election, then we’re all doomed.

Have been reading a lot of biographies of painters!

Watching this Doctor Who clip about Vincent Van Gogh got me interested in the painter, so I read an extremely long biography of him. It was tedious at times (the thing where he obsesses about some woman and barrages her with romantic overtures wasn’t even cute the first time he did it, much less the third or fourth) but overall I found it fascinating.

The best thing about Van Gogh is that he painted for ten years, and it’s not clear that there was even a single person in the world, including his brother, who thought he had any talent. And when he finally did get his big break (in the same year he died), it was because some young art critic was searching for an example of naive art that he could elevate. He, and the French public, was captivated by the idea of this artist, a known madman, who’d been hanging around the Parisian art scene for years and years without getting anywhere. The critic needed his art to be great, so he said it was.

There’s so much subjectivity in visual art. It’s incredible how people looked at Van Gogh’s work, and they really saw nothing worthwhile in it. This was during the heyday of impressionism, and his terrible life-drawing skills shouldn’t have mattered, but somehow they confirmed to his audience that this person didn’t really know what he was doing, that he was just some tyro and poser. He didn’t have that effortless control that artists are supposed to have. Oftentimes he aspired to realism, but failed.

And I’m not better than the rest. I think his work’s beautiful when hung up in a museum, but if I passed one of his paintings on the street, I probably wouldn’t stop to pick it up. What I’ve noticed in several of the artist biographies I’ve read in the past few weeks is that these artists, even more than public adulation, wanted just one good and sympathetic viewer: someone who could stand in front of them and gain some sort of honest, unmediated emotion.

But the person who can do that, and who’s able to have trust in the strength of their own feelings, is extremely rare, and, so far as I can tell, Van Gogh lived and died without ever finding that person.

Feel free to just summarize the parts that bore you

You know what’s awesome about novels? You can just write, “They had sex, and it was awesome” Or “then they fought with swords, and the bad guy died.” Or “Three weeks later, he’d climbed down from the mountain.”

In fact, you can even skip MUCH longer or more uncertain processes. You can write, “He was rescued by a kindly shepherdess, and by next fall they were married.” Just that line. There’s absolutely no problem with that. People will often talk about things in a story being “earned” or “unearned.” But what that refers to is emotional effects. You shouldn’t be trying to make your audience feel shit unless you’ve set it up appropriately. Like if in your next sentence, the shepherdess gets killed by the bad guy and sends your dude on a killing spree, then that’s sort of dumb. But you can absolutely skip or summarize things if you want! It’s soooo easy.

It took me a long time to realize I could do this within a scene. I didn’t need to write “Hello!” / “Hello!” I could write “they exchanged greetings.” Later on, you can expand and contract the amount of detail in the narration even without shifting focus from the interaction of these two characters. It’s pretty cool, and there’s no real analogue in film or TV, because in fiction it happens so deftly and subtly, whereas in visual media it needs to be accomplished with slow fades and quick cuts and other intrusive crap that nowadays is anyway not really in fashion.

After I took this to heart, all kinds of scenes became much easier to write, because I didn’t need to write the entire thing: I could focus entirely on the thing about the scene that actually interested me.



Until the voice is solid, the plot doesn’t matter

Still doing my thing where I work on a number of projects simultaneously (it’s possible I’ll one day refer to this as my ‘really stupid way of working’ period). Anyway on one of the projects I was spinning my wheels, trying to figure out the main character’s backstory, but ultimately I realized that the problem was that the character’s longing wasn’t really coming through in the voice.

Longtime readers ought to remember that I’ve always been very concerned with the problem of how to capture longing. The first step is to figure out the longing you want to write about / with, but the second, and equally difficult, step is to put it somehow on the page. In this case it wasn’t happening.

I’d say that this is where the art lies. Because there is something in the texture of the words that conveys longing. It’s in the diction, the punctuation, the rhythm, and the cadences. It’s in the way the camera’s eye notices detail and conveys information. The progression of sentences in a novel is also the leading edge of a consciousness, and unless that consciousness is animated by powerful concerns, the novel falls flat.

Now how do you, as the author, work on creating that effect? Welllllllll…I don’t know. But it usually involves a lot of trying and a lot of failing.

I still don’t really understand the Revolutionary War

51XWuULSWdL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Okay, so after finishing the Grant biography, I started two books about the Revolutionary War. One’s a biography of Washington (also by Ron Chernow) and one’s a history of early America by Robert Middlekauf. I’m halfway through them, so I’m getting a little more insight, but I have to say I’m still a little confused about why the Revolutionary War started.

Like, I totally understand the Civil War. The abolition of slavery was a direct attack on the source of the wealth of the Southern elite. If there was a political party today that made, say, owning stock illegal, then there’d probably be another Civil War! (Obviously I’m against slavery, just saying that the South had a strong economic incentive to secede.)

But the Revolutionary War makes much less sense to me. The war was led by upper-class farmers and merchants, people like Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Hancock, who were rich! The British weren’t trying to take away their wealth! In fact, the Revolutionary War, in many cases, hit them much harder in the pocketbook than any taxes would’ve done.

Furthermore, the British taxes weren’t really an existential threat to Washington and Jefferson in the same way that, say, a bullet is an existential threat. I don’t understand fighting and dying for the cause of, what, a bunch of tea merchants who were worried about being undercut by the East India Company?

I mean many of the things that Americans cite when talking about the Revolutionary War: the Stamp Act (a tax on all legal documents) and most of the Townshend Acts (a number of other tariffs) were repealed in response to American pressure! So really what was left was a tax on tea. It was the confiscation and destruction of this imported tea that led the British government to close the port of Boston and suspend Massachusetts’s self-government (which is what directly led to the Revolutionary War).

What’s more, the Revolutionary War was obviously one that had a large base of popular support. It wasn’t just the elite who were coercing everybody else into going along. Washington’s army was an all-volunteer force. So far as I know (I haven’t finished either book), there was no conscription during the war. So not only was Washington willing to die, but so were tens of thousands of other people!

I’m reading the Declaration of Independence right at this moment, and when you read that document, Great Britain certainly does seem tyrannical, but in practice, many of these things were based on isolated and rare instances. Yes, the King did dissolve legislatures, revoke charters, make arbitrary laws, etc. But, overall, the hundred and fifty year history of the American colonies was, up to that point, one of being left more or less alone and being allowed, more or less, to rule themselves.

And that fact is probably the key to the rebellion. The American colonies were founded, oftentimes, by people fleeing from Britain. They found in America the freedom to order things in the manner that they pleased. And they came to think of themselves as more or less in charge. But when Britain started to constrain them a little more and remind them a little more of its power, they felt this as an erosion of their liberties. People are much more likely to respond to the loss of something than they are to the prospect of gaining it.

This also, perhaps, explains why the white people of Canada and Australia never (successfully) rebelled. Canada contained a large subjugated population, the French-Canadians, who didn’t necessarily expect better treatment from the British than they got. And, similarly, Australia started as a penal colony. Again there was no expectation of freedom.

Furthermore, Washington didn’t know how history would turn out. He didn’t know, first of all, that the British would rule their (white) colonists with a relatively light hand (well except for South Africa…okay maybe I shouldn’t generalize). In retrospect, it’s surprising that Britain didn’t oppress America much more than it actually did, given America’s lack of representation in Parliament. Washington and the other Founding Fathers had good reason to fear that someday Britain might try to enrich the homeland at the expense of the colonies.

And, finally, the French and Russian revolutions hadn’t happened yet. I think that those two events (as well as the subsequent history of the 20th century) have given elites a deep, deep fear of popular revolution. If they’d possessed the example of the French revolution, I’m not sure if Washington and the rest would’ve dared to rebel. Even in their own time, they feared the power of the mob, but they hadn’t yet seen the havoc it could truly wreak (of course they did have the example of the English Civil War, but in that case the lessons were of a different sort).