Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Key(s) to Writer's Block

My writing routine includes a Mac book and an empty Word document. Slowly, but surely, the screen intermittently fills with letters, creating a peppered portrait. At least that's what used to happen before you came along, Writer's Block. Ever since my release from college a month ago I've undergone a painful case of writer's block. It's time for confrontation.

Dear Writer's Block,

I've tried everything: changing my atmosphere, hosting writing workshops on my porch, reading, doodling, listening to the radio, book clubs, events, and writing (gasp). The change in atmosphere only creates a drifting mind and, when applicable, intense sessions of people-watching and inner dialogue. Writing workshop turns into a wine manifesto, events are fun but mindless, and writing turns into illegible babble.

What else can I do, Writer's Block?

Buy a typewriter, you say? Why yes, a quaint typing machine that clicks and clacks should do the trick. A vintage toy that makes the sweetest of sounds, is irresistible to touch and impossible to ignore. Typewriters don't have Facebook or Google. Typewriters don't have iTunes or colorful, distracting screens. Typewriters help you get right to the point ...
Write. To. The. Point.

Thank you, Writer's Block, for understanding. I'm currently waiting, rather impatiently, to pick up a vintage Underwood - the kind that Kerouac once used. My fingers eagerly await their unborn masterpiece.

Yours truly,

P.S For more information on typewriters and which authors used what, click here. Joan Didion used a Royal KMM, William Faulker used an Underwood, and Joyce Carol Oates used an SCM Smith Corona Electra. The site also directs you to your nearest typewriter store. Fingers, rejoice!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Seattle's Pilot Books

Seattle has a new independent book store, tucked away in a second floor story of a shopping plaza off Broadway and specializing in poetry and small press releases. Pilot Books doesn't sell all the latest bestsellers, and it probably won't change that anytime soon. If you're looking for chapbooks, local zines or small press novels you'll be well suited to stop by. The store is open 12-8 every day except Wednesday.

The owner, Summer, is a friendly and knowledgeable book lover with a rockin tattoo of mastadons on her arms. "I’m always saying Pilot Books is for the now, the new, authors writing and publishing in times such as these," writes Summer on the bookstore's blog.

Don't fear that you'll have a hard time browsing just because you don't see the latest Dave Eggers or Jhumpa Lahiri. Handmade signs bearing slogans like "new" and "local artist" stick out of books. I'm sure Summer would be happy to discuss any of the titles in detail with you.

The tiny upstairs features a lending library and armchairs. According to the Pilot Books blog, Summer's planning on hosting weekly themed writing workshops and possibly reading groups in the future, too. During my visit the store was crowded with curious shopper and well-wishers, and was getting ready to welcome its first reading later that week. Not bad for a shop that had been open three weeks.

Pilot claims to be Seattle's Most Secretive bookstore. If you're in the area give it a shout-out and maybe we can change that reputation.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Virtual eclipse

This spring, a project I'd been eagerly awaiting went live. EcoArtTech, who is Cary Peppermint and Christine Nadir, released its Eclipse project on the net-art site. This lil program grabs photos of U.S. national parks from Flickr, then uses real-time air quality data from to mess with the images.

I tried it out for the first time on the Great Smokies National Park, and despite a current air quality rating of G (that's "good" to you), the images were corrupted with pleasingly colored but alarming horizontal lines. A couple of them had a feel similar to to one of my favorite recent shirt.woot entries—in particular, a photograph of huge grey-black rocks in a slow-moving stream, the water reflecting an odd bright yellow in the original photograph, became a disorienting/abstract thing with bands of magenta and cyan interrupting the flow of water around the rocks, the flow of the shapes the rocks made.

I tried the Sumter, SC, national forest, another site dear to my heart, but got a message saying that AQI values aren't available for it right now. Wonder why.

If we could see the effects of factors like air pollution all the time, we'd become inured to them. In fact, that's probably how we manage to stand seeing the ones that are visible without hyperventilating. There's the kind of filters that keep the world manageable—and the kind that make important parts of the world visible to us. That's what this project feels like. For our emotional survival, we have to keep the first kind intact; for our long-term survival, we have to keep making more of the second kind of filter, keep finding ways to see what's subtle or painful or too big to conceptualize. Keep it up, EcoArtTech!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Unspeakable, Unthinkable Fiction

Apparently, some fiction does not enjoy first amendment protection.

Consider the case of Dwight Whorley. This Virginia man authored an icky pornographic story that included pedophilia, then emailed his fantasy to likeminded internet friends, Wired reports. Whorley was convicted for possessing obscene Japanese manga and for possession of a filthy piece of print -- his pedophiliac fantasy.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has declined to hear his case, setting the stage for a Supreme Court Appeal.

On the one hand, the production of written kiddie porn probably does hurt children by helping to create an atmosphere that suggests that it's ok, or by helping condition a person's orgasm to an illegal act that threatens the safety children. On the other hand, Whorley's being prosecuted for writing down a private fantasy and sharing it with others, an act that any writer will be familiar with.

The whole situation makes me uncomfortable. I generally think of writing as a safe space to experiment with concepts, situations, and characters that might make me uncomfortable in real life. This case pushes that conception to its limit.

I find Whorley's fantasies reprehensible, but the idea that the law could punish someone for expressing their feelings, no matter how deviant and disgusting, disturbs me as a writer.

I'll be interested to read what happens next.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Review: Where Did You Sleep Last Night? by Danzy Senna

Danzy Senna subtitles her latest book, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, as a "personal history" rather than a memoir. The difference between the two terms is subtle but important--the book is as much a chronicle of her ancestors and a racially-divided world as it is a story of her own life.

Outwardly, the book hinges on the relationship between Senna's parents: Fannie Howe, a writer from the prominent white Boston upper-crust, and Carl Senna, a black intellectual from fuzzy Southern origins. The unlikely couple married in 1968, full of hope and revolutionary zeal, only to divorce in 1975, their union a victim of alcoholism, domestic abuse, and the social pressures of an inter-racial marriage on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement. More significant, however, is the relationship between Senna and her father. At the book's core is the author's dogged search for information regarding her father's roots--an often exhausting and heart-wrenching search that propels her on a journey through the South.

I found myself completely wrapped in the tangled threads of Senna's family history, eager for her to solve the mystery of her heritage. However, there was something keeping me from becoming completely involved in the story--something in her tone that's always bothered me. Senna was a visiting writer where I attended college and I took a creative writing seminar with her my last semester of senior year. I don't remember much about her--only about the writing prompts she gave us, the circles we would form for peer review. I think it's because she never seemed fully present or fully invested in our development as writers. Something about her kept us at a distance, even when we were surrounding her at a long table.

Given that I had taken a writing course with her, I read the book on multiple levels. On one of those levels, I wondered if her multi-racial identity grants her writing an authenticity and depth that would be somehow lacking in my own. All of her books (two novels and this memoir) focus on this idea of racial duality--of the constant struggle for identity when there isn't just one constant. But what does it mean when you're just...white?

While reading the book, I couldn't help feeling like without some element of another ethnicity to add dimension and significance to our experience, we racially plain people are one-dimensional, flat, without substance. There is an underlying tone of scorn for her mother's side of the family, described at one point as "a crowd of screaming red Irish faces, or a room of tight-lipped dismissive Wasps who assume their own significance and wit and intelligence as if they were still central, despite the evidence to the contrary." It was frustrating to feel like our ethnicity alone defines us and how we feel, see, and think about the world around us. Perhaps this is because my experiences have never hinged on my race--a luxury I certainly don't take for granted; however, I would like to believe that it is the totality of our life experiences that define us--not just our DNA.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Coming VERY Soon...

It's almost here! Thanks to your generous support and contributions, the new Fringe site will be ready to launch on June 29. Designing and building a brand-new site is a pretty complicated task, and we appreciate your patience and understanding as we work out the last few tweaks.

As part of the redesign, the blog will be fully integrated with the main site. Stay tuned for specifics and our new address. We can't wait to show off the new face of Fringe!

Shout Out to Zahra Rahnavard

A big Fringe shout out to bad-a** mother-feminist Zahra Rahnavard, wife to Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's main competition in Friday's Iranian election.

After Ahmadinejad questioned Dr. Rahnavard's credentials during a televised debate with her husband, the spunky academe called a 90-minute press conference where she proceeded to excoriate Ahmadinejad for lying, humiliating women, and debasing the revolution.

"Those who made up this case against me wanted to say it is a crime for women to study, to get two graduate degrees, to become an intellectual or an artist," she said.

In addition, she threatened to sue Ahmadinejad for slandering her academic qualifications if he did not publicly apologize to her within 24 hours.

Dr. Rahnavard put on her feminist hat to woo young and female voters promising that, if elected, her husband will do away with the morality police, end discrimination, ensure that women are treated like humans, not second class citizens, and appoint women to cabinet posts.

For a woman in Iran (or anyone in Iran), this is ballsy busty styff, but because she's a woman, Rahnavard's been able to indict Ahmadinejad more strongly than any of his male competitors.

You can read more about her at the London Times, the AP, The New York Times, The New Internationalist Blog, and Wikipedia.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Open Book: Jorie Graham on Balancing Parenthood and Poetry

I'm a fan of Slate V's Open Book: Writer's on Writing—a collaboration between Slate and the NYU Creative Writing Program. Check out their most recent video interview of Jorie Graham in “Balancing Parenthood and Poetry.” I love the image of Graham rubbing her pregnant belly on Emily Dickinson's grave!

True Currency

"The only true currency in this bankrupt world... is what you share with someone else when you're uncool."

In a recent essay for Rumpus, Rick Moody confesses his dark past as a high school outcast. Ostensibly, this is surprising--though not necessarily a household name, Moody is very well-known in the literary set, and gained fame with his novel, The Ice Storm, which later became a feature film starring Kevin Kline, Tobey Maguire, and Sigourney Weaver. However, those who know writers and other creative types pretty well will tell you that most of us share a bond stronger than art--we were all tragically uncool in high school.

The main focus of Moody's essay is about Bill, a band composed of Bill Gage, a man with Down's Syndrome, and his brother John, whom Moody was friends with in high school. Moody sets the stage for his discovery of this band by describing his group of high school friends: a motley and eccentric group of outcasts that others called a "cult." They were fused together in their loneliness and creativity--talent that gets automatically labeled "weird" by teenagers everywhere.

I was, of course, uncool in high school, as were many of the most awesome people I know. The only thing that kept me going was my band of friends--like Moody's "cult," we didn't have much in common except for that subliminal quality that set us apart from the popular kids. We converted the small yearbook room at the back of the library into our headquarters--we monopolized the school newspaper, yearbook, and drama club. Nearly all of us were in band or orchestra, and on Friday nights, instead of partying, we made movies.

It all makes me wonder if being labeled "different," being jeered at, laughed at, and torn down is what makes great artists great (I am by no means implying I am a great artist. But at least I have some imagination.) This isn't to say that those popular kids won't go far--they will. But without that special brand of angst only found in lonely teenagers, we wouldn't foster the kind of introspection and pain needed to create great art--or some of the best friendships of our lives.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Best. Gift. Ever.

A move from one apartment to another made me realize how extensive my book collection got. As I moved my books from a box to the windowsill I looked at each one individually - scanning my eyes over the covers, flipping through the pages of folds, highlights and notes. Each book sparked a memory whether I bought it, found it, or received it.

The best gift to get (and give) is a book with a personal message written inside. There’s something so telling about books as gifts. Just this weekend I was reminded of that delightful feeling when my friend and I went to the Printer’s Row Lit Fest in Chicago. As we fingered through piles of used books he grabbed “Everything is Illuminated.”

“I’m buying you this,” he said, not even asking if I read or owned it. Later as we sat over a pre-5 o’clock pitcher of sangria he opened the book to its front-page and began to write.

“Don’t read it until later,” he said closing the cover and slipping it into my purse. I was all kinds of excited. I played fair and waited until I got home.

“It’s a rainy day in June. We bought this book a few hours ago and when I think about it I can’t help but feel excited about what you’re going to read. I hope you enjoy it; there’s more feeling and innocence and love in these words than you’ll have time to appreciate. Enjoy.”

Yes, I teared up. Why? Because I’m a girl and sometimes girls cry about weird things. But come on … words are the indeed the best gift. Anybody have a similar experience?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Submarine, Joe Dunthorne

“One of the things I have discovered is that, although my father’s beard looks ginger from a distance, when you get close up it is in fact a subtle blend of black, blond and strawberry.
I have also learnt that my parents have not had sex in two months. I monitor their intimacy via the dimmer switch in their bedroom. I know when they have been at it because the next morning the dial will still be set to half way.”

Oliver Tate is 15. He is abnormally preoccupied with his parents’ marital relations, determined to lose his virginity before he turns 16, and has a girlfriend who can do some very clever things with matches. Oliver is fond of new words, translucent skin, and will happily feed rat poison to your dog if he thinks it will 'safeguard' your long-term emotional stability.

Joe Dunthorne has a real flair for language, splattering the pages with one-liners and odd observations, as gleaned from the delightfully skewed mind of a protagonist whose mixture of intelligence and immaturity is best served in the guise of a teenage boy. Oliver can pen witty diary entries to appease his girlfriend (crafting delicious parodies of Adrian Mole), yet remain stubbornly oblivious to notions of tact, subtlety, and common sense. Misadventures and grievous errors are sure to ensure.

Consistently funny without ever feeling too forced, the narration far outshines the plot, which is a little random and not as compelling as Oliver’s observational nuggets. This is a novel perhaps best enjoyed in small segments, for as witty as Oliver’s precisely phrased narration is, the resulting detachment can feel a bit chilly at times. Indeed, Dunthorne’s protagonist is curiously reminiscent of Mark Haddon’s infamous autistic narrator (also a fifteen year old boy). It is the sort of deadpan delivery that is initially striking but can feel a bit oppressive if you don’t take a break after a chapter or two.

Despite its teeny tiny shortcomings, Submarine remains an impressively assured debut from a very promising new(ish)* talent.

*(It was published last year, so shame on me for taking so long to find it.)