Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Art of Shutting Your Pie Hole

When I saw Brian Doyle speak at the NonfictioNOW! Conference a few weeks ago, his big message was to ask questions and then shut your pie hole. Luckily, I was given the opportunity to practice this when I was offered a job working on a community photo project with Corine Vermeulen, a Dutch photographer based in Detroit. Her walk-in portrait studio concept started in Detroit and she was commissioned by USF's Contemporary Art Museum to set one up here in Tampa.

She was asked to focus on a neighborhood adjacent to the university known colloquially as “Suitcase City” and officially as the USF Area.

For weeks, she walked and biked the streets to scope out potential sites for the walk-in studio. Once she decided on a spot, that's where I came in. For four days, we set up the studio next to a convenience store, in an empty lot, in a community center, and at a church.


The photographer at work
Her smiling subjects
While she shot the portraits, I interviewed the locals, asking them questions about life in the neighborhood – their favorite parts about living in “Suitcase City,” any changes they have seen over the years, and what name they would call it if they could call it anything else. We got all kinds of answers from “Hell” to “Malfunction Junction,” from “Little Mexico” to “Progress City.”

In order to get to the good stuff, I had to listen – really listen – to what they were telling me so that I could steer the conversation into interesting territory. I learned when to back off a topic, and when to press further. Afterwards, I had hours of interviews to transcribe and then find the gold nuggets amidst everything.

Projects like this one remind me that words carry great power. Even though the people in this community live there day in and day out, they most likely are not asked very often to reflect on their experiences. Also, this project promotes visibility of an population that lives very near to this university campus, and yet, is virtually invisible to us. 

Hopefully, Corine’s photographs and the quotes that I have captured from interviews paint a fuller picture of a community that often gets overlooked or oversimplified as “ghetto” or dangerous. Language is my craft and I am grateful to use it in a way that benefits a community and brings light to a subject that otherwise hovers in darkness. 

I am extremely grateful to the Contemporary Art Museum and to Corine Vermeulen for inviting me to take part in this project. It's been an amazing opportunity to learn more about my neighbors and this city that continues to reveal itself to me in all sorts of interesting ways. 

Here are a few photographs that I took at the artist talk last week where Corine discussed previous projects and explained some of the conclusions and questions that she was left with after working in Suitcase City over the last few months.

The artist and her exhibit, Elsewhere




Corine and museum curator, Megan Voeller
Corine Vermeulen
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Friday, November 13, 2015

The Economics of Writing

In my writing classes, we talk a lot about PROCESS being the most important thing. And yet, most writers I know are hoping to get a PRODUCT out of that process. Get an MFA, publish a book, get rich and famous, meet Beyoncé. Right?

One of my friends who graduated from my MFA program a few years ago released a beautiful anthology of essays about yoga. Cheryl Strayed wrote the foreword. Dinty Moore, Brenda Miller, Dani Shapiro and Amy Monticello all wrote essays for the collection. It's on display at Barnes and Nobles and other fine book-selling institutions. And yet, she has not seen a dime for her efforts.

“If I sell 500 e-books,” she announced to a wide-eyed group of MFA students the other night, “I'll see one dollar.”

A few days later, I came across these two articles by seemingly successful women writers, Emily Gould and Roxane Gay, who give an honest breakdown of their economic experiences in publishing. (Interestingly, Gould and Gay have teamed up for the first episode of Bindercast!) 
Emily Gould was on cloud nine when she sold her work-in-progress for $200,000 in 2008. Unfortunately, your writing career weighs heavily on the sales of your last book, and unfortunately, the sales of her book were nowhere near the projected expectations. Living in New York, the advance did not take her very far, and the failure of her last book “guaranteed that no one will ever pay me [Gould] that kind of money to write a book again.” Since then, she has sold a novel for $30,000 and has started working a “a full-time job that, while it leaves me no time to write, is helping me slowly repay the debts I incurred by imagining that writing was my livelihood.”


Roxane Gay tells a different story. She has three published books: one with a micropress, another with a small press, and a collection of essays with HarperCollins. Her experiences have run the gamut, and yet, she writes that “the first and only dream dashed was the one where I could quit my job to write full time.” She writes about her first book: "Ayiti has remained in print for three years. I have earned $205.60 in royalties. That is a success story." Roxane admits to obsessively refreshing the Amazon sales rank for her book only to find that, on any given day, “there are literally 300,000 or 10,000 books selling better than mine.” And this is a woman who writes for Salon, the New York Times Book Review, BuzzFeed, Jezebel. She runs multiple lit mags and she's been a keynote speaker at all the conferences I've been to (or wished I'd gone to) in the past year. Shit, I've even seen her on television discussing the feminist merits of Magic Mike. This woman is everywhere, and yet, she makes her livelihood teaching at Purdue University, not selling books.

So this brings me to my question: Why write? The notion that writing is going to make someone rich and famous is a grave misconception, one that should be dispelled sooner rather than later. As a beginning writer, it's not hard to imagine not making any money from my writing. No one has ever paid me for my writing, unless they were my client with the Family Roots Project, in which case it's not really my writing that they're paying for, but their own story told by me.

Speaking to my friend who edited the anthology, though, it's easy to understand how this misconception melts away once you're in the thick of publication. You see your book on the shelf at Barnes & Nobles. It's normal to assume that this venture will bring you money. Plus, writing takes A LOT of time, like any craft; is it wrong to think that writers should be paid for their work?

Sadly, very few writers make their livelihood selling books, and that's a fact that we MFAers must befriend. Here are a few things I am learning about making a "living" as a writer.
  • “If you want to write, keep a low overhead.” —Grace Paley
  • Diversify. Think of writing as a trade like any other, and find other venues that will pay you for your craft. You won't make a lot of money doing it, but you'll be doing what you're good at, and getting paid for it!
  • Have a different career that makes you money. The myth is that you won't have time for writing if you've got a full-time job, but the truth is that finding the time to write is hard no matter what you do for a living. Perhaps having LESS time to dedicate to your creative ventures will make you use the time you do have more judiciously.
  • Being independently wealthy helps!
P.S. Check out this great article by Amanda Hirsch at Having it Alt about "The Artist Tax"! 

Friday, November 6, 2015

Restless in Recovery

            “I never go out anymore,” I say to my best friend Selena. “There’s nothing to do in Tampa.”
            “I remember you complaining two years ago – I gotta get out of Miami! I’m having too much fun and not getting any work done.”
            “Really?” I ask. “I said that?” How quickly we forget the past.
      
            Two years ago, I was applying to MFA programs and living it up, Miami style. I was between house-sitting gigs and a tent pitched in my mom’s backyard. I spent most of my day working in my food forest and hanging out at the botanical garden where I volunteered as an environmental educator. My afternoons were spent hustling around town from one tutoring job to another, maneuvering Miami’s crazy quitting time traffic and teaching everything from French grammar to SAT essay writing. In the evenings, you might find me practicing my salsa moves with the Salsa Craze dance club, getting down at Vixen, or owning the streets of Miami with my bike posse. Every now and then, I took on an extra shift as a waitress with a fancy catering company, mainly to hang out with my friends who also worked with the company, but also for the gourmet freebies. In between volunteering and dancing and tutoring, I stopped by the beach in the middle of the week for long swims along Virginia Key’s shallow shore.


            These days, my life looks nothing like it did two years ago. Each day is eerily similar to the last. I wake up early and go to sleep late. In the mornings, I meditate, make my lunch, water the garden, eat breakfast. I bike to school and am sitting at my computer by 9:30. (My friend Sam says – “Carmella’s got a cubicle? The world must surely be ending!”) Weekdays are some amalgamation of consulting at the Writing Studio, teaching classes, attending classes, and doing homework. I eat lunch at my desk or by the pond across the street from my office building, although the benches are usually too full of duck crap to find a safe seat. At the end of the day, I try to make it to a dance class or the swimming pool before biking back home, where I’ll stay put until the next morning (writing, presumably).
My muse, hard at work
            A few days ago, I got an email from Graduate Assistants United (our union) inviting me to their monthly social at a local bar.
            “Ugh,” I told my co-workers. “Is it terrible that I really don’t want to go?”
            “You should go!” one of them said.
            “Going out is risky,” I said to my roommate later that night. “If I go to my dance class, I know for sure that I’ll have a good time. But going out – you just never know.”
            “You should go!” she said.
           
            I did end up going, and I had a nice time. But still, the whole situation made me laugh. The girl who used to triple and quadruple book herself in one evening can’t summon up the energy to go to a bar for an hour?

My professor says that people are way more productive as they age because they just don’t want to do all the things they once did. Their knees hurt and they’d rather stay close to the hearth. Plus, there are cats at home, and what’s better than kitty cuddles?
Kristyn + kitty cuddles = happiness
Perhaps this all part of the natural aging process. I’m nearing thirty, after all! Or maybe grad school is getting the best of me. It’s also possible that this strange phenomenon is simply temporary… Who knows? You might find me in a year and a half, a fresh-faced bushy-tailed MFA graduate, back to my old restless ways.



Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Dispatches from NonfictioNOW!

Last week, I returned to my restless ways and went westward - to Arizona for NonfictioNOW!

Rule #1 of traveling : Have friends everywhere!
Lucky for me, my artist friends, Chris and Shelby, recently moved to Sedona for a glass-blowing gig. My visit coincided with their day off so we were able to have an adventure in the Red Rocks Secret Wilderness!


Rule # 2 of traveling: Learn something! 
There was lots of learning happening at the High Country Conference Center. I attended over 10 different panels, on topics ranging from "Mixed Media Memoir" to "The Complementary Worlds of Narrative Journalism and The Essay." Brenda Miller, the queen of form-bending nonfiction essays, showed a short BBC film of the life of hermit crabs! The keynote speakers were thought-provoking and hilarious. Brian Doyle had us start off "stupid" with a "Yankees suck" chant! And then went on to deliver a truly inspiring speech. I learned about tons of awesome books, new authors, and literary magazines, and to top it off, there were nightly readings at a nearby coffee shop. I left the conference re-energized, with a notebook full of scribbles and some new friends.
Brenda Miller discusses Hermit Crab essays!
Rule # 3 of traveling : Say yes!
Friday morning, I woke up early and played hooky from the conference to drive the 1.5 hours northbound to THE GRANDEST CANYON OF THEM ALL! In the company of a new friend from Couchsurfing, we explored the South rim. I even caught sight of an elk! 



I am still trying to process the beauty of this place. I hope to return someday and spend more time getting to know this wise land. 

Rule # 4 of traveling: Live like the locals 
Flagstaff is a really cute town. It's all trains and coffee shops, book stores and adventure outfitters. The people we were staying with living within walking distance of all of these things, and had a gaggle of chickens. My heart! 

a shipping container house!
very bike-friendly town!
When I saw a poster for a New Orleans brass band show on Halloween night, I decided there was no place I'd rather be on Hallow's Eve than surrounded by dancing goblins and spooky saxes!
The Haymarket Squares opening at Orpheum Theater
The Dirty Dozen
NOLA Brass!
Here are a few choice quotes heard around the conference:
  • “A place is a story happening many times” Kim Stafford
  • “A guest for a moment sees every flaw” Yiddish
  • “You have to take notes in the bathroom” Pico Iyer
  • “Normal is hard on curiosity”
  • “A human being is an animal who knows she’s going to die, and that’s hard.” Maggie Nelson
  • All times are good ones if we all but know what to do with them – Emerson
  • "Academia is in the biz of sorting and norming." Michael Martone
  • Skewer yourself first (in CNF)
  • “I can only write nonfiction about things I don’t understand. Writing as an investigation” Tim Flannery
  • "We investigate the passage of time, not for nostalgia but for friction” Jessica Handler 
  • "Change is inevitable – positive change is directive" Amy Wright on the future of women writers
  • "I will not be in any anthology of women writers" Elizabeth bishop
  • “We don’t live in a gender-less, color-less world. Why not embrace it, make it visible?” Marcia Aldrich


Brian Doyle is amazing:
Its not about writing, its about the attentiveness
“I’ve commited novels”
We all live in a small town, even in a big city
Pretend you’re stoned without being stoned
Witnessing is the greatest thing you can do with your work
Writing is a benign neurosis; you have the virus. 
We are the guild of scribblers and scrawlers.
You have a moral charge, a strange gift, in a world w/ sales pitches and lies, where politics is performance art
“take a line out for a walk”
Some stories are bigger than the writers
We are story catchers, agents of stories
It’s about learning to ask a question and then shut your pie hole
Use your tool to LISTEN – ask people for their stories
Families are our foundation for stories
“No one talks about what happens to the ppl nothing happens to, but something happens to them and no one talks about it”
Don’t let your work be stuff on your resume
You should be startled/shocked/surprised by what’s coming out. If not, you’re not working hard enough
Mill your gift to the nth degree