For Visual Interviews we send a writer a disposable camera and a list of ideas to photograph along with a few short questions. Once the camera is mailed back, we develop the photos and arrange them collage style to give you a unique glimpse into the life of the writer we’ve selected. Check out past Visual Interviews and stay tuned because we have Janice Lee, Alissa Nutting, Dolan Morgan, and Matthew Simmons and Kevin Sampsell of Future Tense Publishing coming up over the next couple of months!
Photographs and text by Adam Robinson: a) Adam Robinson reading John Dermot Woods’s book “The Baltimore Atrocities” in his backyard; b) an out of business shoe store in Tennessee; c) arrows pointing to different parts of “The Lost Sea,” which is an amazing underground lake; d) a fire pit, cold ashes, and cigarette smoke; e) Annette, the official dog of Amy McDaniel; f) basically, this watering can collects rain water, then Adam Robinson pours it out; g) a foreboding street sign; h) Florida, believe it or not; i) a dead bouquet; j) Adam Robinson’s desk, “where the action happens”; k) carousel? More like scare-ousel!; l) a half eaten meal; m) the void.
The thing about advice you get from writers is just how much it doesn’t focus on the middle part of the writing life. The middle part being, of course, the struggle.
Sure, it’s not hard to pick up a book or find an article about the habits of successful writers or about how to start a novel or develop to a point where you’re submitting stories—but what about that in-between? What about what happens when you’re no longer a “beginning writer” and certainly not an established one.
After I earned my MFA the director of the program asked me to come back and speak to the next cohort of students about life after graduation. I realized that the majority of what I had to say dealt directly with this middle bit—this moment after your formal education (if you had one, which is a whole other topic) and before your first big break. I spoke about the daily grind of being a writer and not earning a single dime from it. I talked about submitting and writer’s groups and the whole kit-and-kaboodle that comes with choosing this activity over others.
What I’d like to do in this article is condense some of what I shared with those folks (I was tempted to say bright-eyed but in all honesty they were looking at their laptops for most of my talk. Later one student explained they were writing down what I was saying, but let’s be real honest with each other). Some of this you might already know, but consider that I’m writing it from the perspective of someone who is living that magical writing life that takes place after, before, and sometimes during the 9 to 5.
1. Find a strong writing group and keep it strong. There’s this idea that writers are solitary things—and for the most part we are. Honestly it’s one of the reasons I enjoy saying I’m a writer. People tend to think of you as elusive and moody, which helps with getting out of parties and social frivolity. But even if you’re burned out on writing groups due to an MFA or local everything-is-great-you-write writing group, make sure you find some people to do workshop with.
A strong writing group is one that doesn’t let you get away with shoddy writing. They don’t start with “this is good”. They end with “this is good” after tearing your story apart for every lazy shortcut you thought you could sneak in. They hold you accountable for getting better even when you don’t think getting better is possible. They’re people who you can say exactly what you’re thinking and they don’t consider you a jerk for saying it.
In my case, the writing group I’m a part of doesn’t meet in person—it’s all online. Occasionally Chris DiCicco will stop by Lancaster and we’ll have a few beers or write together the whole day, but we aren’t doing the writing group thing. The other fella (Daniel DiFranco) I don’t see except for when we meet up at writing events our MFA puts on. Our writing group is vibrant and helpful, and we do it all through Google docs.
The benefit of a good writing group is that you’re putting some outside pressure on yourself to commit, and that pressure is what most folks need to actually produce. It also satisfies the inherent need I think we all have for instant gratification. You produce work and then you submit that work to people who are going to read it closely. For a writer in the wild, a good writing group is just as important as actually producing work.
2. Next, build up your writing skin. I talk about this a bit more in detail over on my site, but generally, you need to become impervious to rejections, failures, and critiques to make it anywhere in this business. Your “skin” needs to become as thick as a rhino’s, so thick that you pretty much feel the same about a rejection as you do about an acceptance (okay, not really, but a rejection should stop feeling like a failure, which it certainly isn’t).
Lots of books on becoming a writer explain how rejection is a part of the writing life, but they don’t necessarily explain it effectively enough: rejection is the writing life. It’s huge, and if you aren’t getting rejected you aren’t doing it right.
Your writing skin is what gives you the power to read in front of audiences and be brave enough to say you’re a writer. It’s what pushes you to keep submitting your work because you know it’s good enough to be seen. It’s what gets you into those great writing groups and lets you take in all that criticism without getting frustrated with the critic or yourself. I’m still working on mine (a rejection doesn’t hurt, two in one day does a little, and three in one day hasn’t happened yet but it’s going to be bad).
3. The final point I want to make is about the little big world of writers. For this I turn to Twitter, of all things, as my example of diving into the writing community at large. A big part of writing is reading—and supporting other writers who are reading your work in turn. The term, for better or worse, is literary citizenship, and it’s something that all of us need to be aware of. It means not only pushing out and shouting about your own work, but finding other writers and doing the same for them. I try to do this through Twitter as much as possible: retweeting publication messages, interacting with writers, and just generally participating in the conversations that happen between people.
This is a really easy, fun way to build up a team of people who will act as your megaphone whenever your next story comes out—and even more importantly, will be the first wave of people who are itching to buy your work when it’s up for sale. I cannot stress how important it is to support this community in your own hometown (if you’re lucky enough to have a hometown writing community), but it’s just as important to make that community online and support it there, too. It doesn’t take much, and the payoff is tremendous.
There are so many other points to make about being an up-and-coming writer, but l figure that this is enough for you to start with. Like I said, I still have a day job and I’m still just only starting my writing life, but I hope some of the advice above strikes home for where I suspect many writers find themselves.
Matthew Kabik’s work has appeared in Structo Magazine, Pithead Chapel, WhiskeyPaper, and Sundog Lit, among others. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Arcadia University. Follow him on Twitter @mlkabik or visit his website for a complete list of publications: www.matchstickcircus.com
Two Lancastrians walk into a bar, copies of Kafka on the Shore cradled beneath their arms…
No, this is not the beginning of an uncomfortable joke. This could be you, on your way to Books On Tap, the latest program geared towards twenty-to-thirty-somethings from the Lancaster Public Library.
The free series started in November, with a discussion of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere at The Federal Taphouse on the corner of Queen St. and Chestnut St. “At our first meetup we talked about the book… and covered some typical book discussion questions,” said Adult Services Librarian Hannah Miller, “…but we also talked about books in general, Lancaster, and cool PA breweries.”
Simply put, Books On Tap is a book club at a bar. “We wanted to take a more traditional library book club and bring it out to people who may not be drawn to sitting quietly around a table at the library,” said Miller, “I had heard about the idea and thought it would fit in perfectly in Lancaster, where there is such a lively and unique bar scene.” Couple that with the fact that Lancaster has multiple independent bookstores, writing organizations, and reading series, and you’ve got the perfect pairing.
Library programs and events for the twenty-to-thirty-something crowd is becoming increasingly popular. In order to reach out to this age group, the Lancaster Public Library offers monthly film screenings (Date Night at the Library and foreign films), a SyFan (science fiction) club, and is working on some craft programs. In the past year, the library has presented science and technology programs for adults, including a session on building rockets and another about electricity. The library recently purchased a telescope using grant money, and hopes to offer stargazing programs in 2015.
“Specifically, as a 20/30 something, it can be harder to continue your personal education,” said Miller, “…the library can help foster that.” It’s also a great place to meet people and become involved with your community, particularly when librarians like Miller are willing to engage in conversations around books, literacy, and reading beyond the walls of the library building itself.
Books On Tap is free to attend and open to anyone 21 years or older. The group meets at 8pm the second Wednesday of every month. The next event is at The Federal Taphouse on Wednesday, December 10th and will feature a discussion of When You are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris. Other upcoming titles include The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1/14), Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (2/11), Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (3/11), and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (4/8). For the complete schedule, call the Lancaster Public Library at 717.239.2105, stop by the library, or check out www.lpl-booksontap.eventbrite.com.
How will you know you’re in the right place? “We’ll be the ones sitting around with books out at a bar,” said Miller.
Cheers to that.
When I was bored last month and picked up the chapbook Shift from a basket on our living room table, I didn’t know a lot about Alyse Bensel. There are plenty of chapbooks, zines, and small collections of poetry stuffed into this basket that I have never read and (sadly) might never find time to.
Alyse Bensel was touring through her old stomping grounds two Octobers ago, and I missed it; luckily, Erin didn’t. She saw Bensel read when she made a stop at Barnes and Nobel for The Lancaster Poetry Exchange. This is how the cardboard-cut-out-covered Shift ended up in our living room. I read it, loved it, and was enamored by the fact that my home-county of York, PA produced not only the poet, but all of her poems—each of the specific, industrial images.
In Shift, Bensel encounters the stuff poets claim poetry can be about, but often isn’t. It’s about work. It’s about manual labor, and odd-hours, and motorcycles, and 5am alarms, and bulldozers, and FedEx Ground. It’s about how relationships run through all of that, how love and loss take no sick days.
After snooping around online I saw that Bensel has a new book coming out. It’s called Not of Their Own Making, and it’s out now from Dancing Girl Press. I emailed her to see if she’d answer a few questions about where we come from, what inspired the work in Shift, and what her new book is all about.
Tyler: Your favorite thing about growing up in Southcentral PA:
All right, enough about the food. Growing up I felt like I had such free reign on the landscape in the suburban limits of Shiloh. I spent many summer afternoons along the trails of the Little Conewago Conservation Area, which I’m happy to see has been maintained and semi-landscaped through the efforts of local scout troops. I was also always at camp, always outside (until the internet came into our house in late elementary school, and then slightly less time was spent outdoors). I’ve always loved the Susquehanna Valley landscape, being near its river, plenty of moving water, and the hills. I long for some rolling hills.
Your favorite thing about Southcentral PA now:
Probably still the soft pretzels.
But, really, the rise of the art, literary, music and sustainability collectives, not to mention the triumph of the local businesses in the region, particularly in York and Lancaster. I am beyond thrilled that when I visit there is always an open mic, a show, a reading, something going on that I can go to myself if I want and have a good time, and a good drink. I love downtown York. I always have, but I love that some of my favorite places I frequented in high school (Sunrise Soap, Sweet Melissa’s Dream, Central Market, Esaan) are still there and thriving. Even more amazing places have popped up since high school—I haven’t even been able to visit them all yet. I hope I can, soon.
Your favorite thing about places that aren’t Southcentral PA:
While I’m still heavily drawn to the landscape I grew up in, I’m also becoming more receptive to differing landscapes, especially the radically different landscapes within different regions in Kansas. I live in Northeast Kansas now, an area that is surprisingly similar and yet drastically different from York. Lawrence has hills (well, one really large hill called Mt. Oread, where the University resides, and some smaller ones), but then it becomes flat, and then it becomes the Flinthills. Until you reach Manhattan, KS, the land continues to change due to even the slightest elevation. Pennsylvania does not have prairie, and I have to say that I’ve become a fan of the prairie landscape.
Did you experience any writing community while you lived here? What fostered your writing?
I only had marginal experience with writing in high school in any creative capacity. While I started the first 100 pages of a fantasy novel during middle school, I had only passing interest in poetry, and nothing academically really fostered writing poems. Certain teachers would read and help me revise my writing, but I remember distinctly feeling a lack of support or outlet for my creative writing, except online. And yes, you can still find fanfiction I wrote on fanfiction.net if you look hard enough. But I will never reveal my old username.
Consequently, I felt starved for an art scene. I was involved in every music group imaginable (school choir, church choir, county/district/regional choir, musical), but I had a strong interest in visual art and writing that wasn’t really sustained during school hours. After my freshmen year of high school, my aunt found me a volunteering opportunity at YorkArts Art in the Parks Program (which just celebrated its 20th anniversary!), where I could work with youth in the city to help them express themselves through art. Over the course of several summers, I worked my way up from volunteer to co-coordinator for the program and assisted with morning programs at the gallery. The last summer I worked there I practically lived there. Being at YorkArts was the first time I felt I was in a community of artists (who practiced all different kinds of artforms) and wasn’t being graded or assessed by anyone. I’ve made some lifelong friends, some of whom have moved on from YorkArts and others who are still keeping the organization strong.
I don’t think I would have gone in the direction of a fine arts degree in graduate study if not for that first exposure to community art and outreach. I still have yet to find anything like YorkArts anywhere else I’ve lived, included Lawrence, which is the most art-friendly liberal town I’ve lived in.
Can you talk a little bit about other writing communities you’ve been a part of? At Penn State? At Kansas University? Do you have a personal writing group? Friends you share and edit with regardless of where you are?
I think once you get to higher education, there are almost always more opportunities to find writing communities, since they’re built into the institution’s academic and extracurricular structure, especially if there’s a focus on creative writing.
I explicitly went to my undergraduate institution (Washington College), a small private liberal arts school, because they had a creative writing minor (which I never actually fulfilled all of the coursework for) and a large endowment to bring in notable writers, as well as an active literary house with letterpress along with an active publications unit for undergrads. There was always an opportunity to get involved. I hung out at the Literary House on campus, read my first copy of an actual literary journal (Zone 3), got to meet some amazing writers like Neil Gaiman, Ted Kooser, and Daniel Handler, and actively took workshops. It was in my freshman year of undergrad when I realized fiction writing was not for me, but poetry was.
At Penn State, my (now defunct) MFA program had a wide array of visiting writers, community groups who needed volunteer writers on staff, and I always had a few close friends who I could exchange work with to receive feedback outside of a traditional workshop setting. I also have a good friend back in State College, and we try to be productive poetry buddies, even if sometimes we get sidetracked.
Now, in Lawrence, I’m still in coursework and have been in workshop, but I’m also at that stage in my work where I know who my best readers of my work are. On Sunday evenings a few of us have Poetry Time at a local bar, where we drink craft brews and exchange poems for an hour or so. I think having that close group, where people care about your work and want to give you the best feedback positive, is a really positive and motivating experience. It makes me want to get a full-length manuscript completed, stat.
Can you talk about the process of writing your first chapbook, Shift (Plan B Press).
This is actually the first time I’ve been asked a question about any direct experience working the jobs mentioned in the chapbook, so I’m glad you’ve brought this up.
While I hope this doesn’t alter your reading of the poems too drastically, Shift is rooted in persona of those I was close to who were working those jobs at FedEx, Kinard, Frito Lay, Harley (although I don’t mention that one in the chapbook), and other factories in the area. Southcentral Pennsylvania, particularly York County, is a very factory heavy town, and I wanted that to come through in the chapbook.
During high school, I had boyfriends through the years who worked factories throughout and beyond high school just to make ends meet. Sometimes these jobs became careers, but oftentimes they didn’t. My first high school boyfriend is now a professional trucker for Kinard and absolutely loves his job.
My sophomore year boyfriend worked second shift at FedEx—4PM to 11PM. After school let out, he’d race to his car, grab a snack along the way, and work in the sorting room for seven hours, three to four nights a week. He was living in a studio apartment in the West York borough at the time, so he’d have to scrape in rent from his part-time FedEx job. I’d try to help him with his homework when he had time. There was never enough time.
After high school, another previous boyfriend [the one I mentioned previously who works at Kinard] landed a job as a truck driver and has been doing that ever since. He drives all over the East Coast, at different intervals and times. And my brother-in-law worked at Frito Lay briefly on various shifts, but he didn’t stay long. My sister complained about the smell and the fact that so many incidents occurred on a weekly basis.
When did you start publishing?
My first poem appeared in The Meadowland Review in their Spring 2011 Issue, but I had essays and poems appear here and there in my undergraduate publications. After that first publication, I’ve had poems and book reviews appearing steadily in journals ever sense. It’s an incredible and humbling feeling to have editors I don’t even know select my work and then, after the fact, I get to know them as writers and people.
As an aside, I’d like to add that now that I’m on the editorial end of the whole publication process, I’ve felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to the writer. I want to be communicative, supportive, and honest with any writer that I come into contact with. I only think it’s fair and respectful. Sometimes I think we need more reciprocal respect and exchange when in comes to submitting, evaluating, and communicating with one another. I try to do the best I can, and I just hope everyone else out there is, too.
Who are you reading lately?
As much as I can. Whomever I can. But currently the stack of collections beside me includes Dandarians by Lee Ann Roripaugh, Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson, Nestuary by Molly Sutton Kiefer, Almost Any Shit Will Do by Emji Spero, Ultramegaprairieland by Elisabeth Workman, and Pie School, a pie-baking cookbook by Kate Lebo. If you love pie, go buy this book. It is also a work of art in itself, but I know what makes good pie, and she delivers.
And I’ve also just gone through nearly the entirety of the Collected Work of John Keats (that one’s for a seminar, but I forgot how much I do love Keats’s work. But still, William Blake forever!). I’ve also recently finished Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay and will be asking my 101 students to read from it as well. Just incredible.
I also have a stack a couple feet high of review copies that I always hope I can get to. I keep it close by so perhaps I can somehow absorb their contents through osmosis.
How is your new book (Not of Their Own Making) different than Shift? What is its focus? How pumped are you?
In elementary school, during the fourth grade Scholastic bookfair, I picked up a copy of Mermaid Tales From Around the World by Mary Pope Osborne (you can still get copies on the cheap from Amazon), a “kid-friendly” retelling of classic fairy tales from different countries, cultures, and eras, with illustrations in the “style” of that culture and time period to match. I cannot tell you how many times I read that book. I was obsessed. Currently that book is displayed on one of the bookshelves in my house. I wrote Not of Their Own Making over a two week (!!) period in May, after teaching, as a way to entertain my friends over gmail. Every day I tackled one or sometimes even two of the stories from the book, either retelling or responding to them. I also re-watched Splash, one of my favorite movies, and wrote a response to that. After the two weeks, I looked at the poems, shocked at how they turned out, and decided to send them out to chapbook presses. Kristy Bowen, who runs Dancing Girl Press, emailed me at the end of the press’s open reading period to let me know it was accepted. I was trying to make eggs under the influence of a fever but managed to do a happy dance in my kitchen anyway.
There is a somewhat bizarre connection between Shift and Not of Their Own Making, in that Shift ends with my experience with the York Fish & Oyster Co. mermaid, the kind of beautiful and terrifying figure that takes up the entirety of this second chapbook. I certainly didn’t plan it that way, but that’s how it happened!
This is weird question, maybe, but I’ve been asking writers this a lot lately: What do you like the most about your own work?
I’m usually far more concerned with how a poem sounds than the syntax making complete sense. I come from a predominantly music and theater oriented background and had little to no experience with poetry, but I always had an ear for the lyric and for how words sound when sung or spoken. While I love grammar, maybe a little too much, I also will obsess if a poem doesn’t sound right. I hope that sense of sound and rhythm comes across to readers and listeners, because I always intend a poem to work statically on the page and sonically on the lips. I love it most when I achieve that effect.
BUT IS IT LIT? is the Triangle’s way of reviewing non-standard texts. We find—or one of our friends, neighbors, or literary comrades finds—something interesting that can be read as literature. Someone reviews it, sends it, we post it, and the age-old conversation continues: what is lit? Today’s review comes from our friend and craigslist connoisseur, Michelle.
Source text: (see bottom of post)
How the hell I ended up reading and reviewing this ad, I’ll never truly know. I probably meant to click on something else, or my space-pad thing was jammed (I spilled a little sugar in there once). Either way, my first reaction was TL;DR (too-long-didn’t-read). But then, I started reading and couldn’t stop. I’m still processing which part made me want to move in less:
1) the gross dog yard with no grass left
2) the toilet-sink combo (this combo once yielded your humble reviewer a black eye—true story)
3) or the lack of Oxford comma in the “I fixed all the things” rant
Never mind that the writer skips immediately from “Non-Stabby” in the title to “relatively stabby-free” in the first sentence (gramma-lert: stabby-free is not a thing). How stabby are we talking here?
Upon googling “n marshall st stabbing lancaster, pa,” I’m here to tell you: not too stabby.
Side note, I think the guy here likes dobermans. It did take me until half way through the ad to realize what Casa Dobermino meant. I thought it sounded like a weird last name. Also: Dobermonsters. Who simultaneously capitalizes and badly-nicknames their dog’s breed? Spoiler alert: two of the dogs are dead and he talks about it at the end. Ugh.
The amenities on this property are highly lacking.
Proximity to crappy bars: check.
Proximity to annoying sirens at the hospital: check.
TV wall mount you have to dismantle yourself: check.
W/D hookup: just another way to tell me I’ll still be hoofing it to FestivaLaundry.
Oh, there’s a bonus! The downstairs toilet-I-mean-laundry-sink is already broken in!
Another bonus: I’m actually impressed by the lack of spelling errors, unless you count the elitist “theatre”. Maybe this guy should be invited to The Triangle’s Adult Spelling Bee.
The rooms—the ones that aren’t a hot fucking mess—look OK in the photos. It looks almost exactly like my friends’ house on Third Street, except theirs isn’t jammed between two other houses like it’s in the middle seat of the Scrambler at the carnival. “Row home” at least implies some kind of tiny alley doesn’t it? Speaking of tiny, as a tiny room dweller myself (9’x6′), I took offense when reading “2 are normal bedrooms and the 3rd one is tiny”. IS MY TINY ROOM ABNORMAL, GUY? AM I ABNORMAL?
With its sore lack of commas throughout, and the can’t-put-my-finger-on-it, odd feeling I’m left with, I conclude that this ad is lit-lite. The regular ads on craigslist are so boring and the horrible apartments are always so hyped up, that this was definitely a nice laugh—I wish more ads were as interesting, honestly. Maybe I’ll start checking in on the apartment section more often, since I’ll already be there to collect the gold from craigslist Missed Connections.
(update 11/18: The post was removed from CL, so here’s the full text…)
$105999 / 3br – 1100ft² – Rowhome in Non-Stabby part of Lancaster (739 N Marshall St)
Do you want a low-maintenance home in a relatively stabby-free neighborhood? Do you want to live within walking distance of 5 bars? In the event of a cardiac emergency wouldn’t it be nice to be only 3 blocks away from Lancaster General Hospital? Well, I have the home for you.
Casa Dobermino is on the market. Built in the 1940s by skilled artisans and stone masons, this property at 739 N Marshall St. could be the work of angels. Probably Hell’s Angels, but no matter. I bought this house in 2004 because I wanted to adopt a dog from the Humane League and my roommates at the time didn’t want a dog. So naturally I walked out of my apartment and bought the house for sale by owner directly across the street.
In the short 10 years that I’ve owned this property I had to replace the roof (2012), Central Air (2012), Gas Furnace (2006), Gas Stove (2013), Hot Water Heater (2010 & 2013 fml) and Dishwasher (2006). Last month I had the interior and exterior painted and the floors refinished. Basically you’ve got a house that someone has already taken a beating on so you can move in and live worry free.
There are 3 bedrooms, of which 2 are normal bedrooms and the 3rd one is tiny. That one would be good for a nursery, office, dark room, massage parlor, really tiny home theatre, or panic room. In the Master bedroom I left a wall mount for your flat-screen TV so you too can enjoy the pleasure of playing Grand Theft Auto from bed.
There is only one bathroom but in a pinch there is a nice laundry sink in the basement. Speaking of basement, half of it is finished so you have somewhere to hide when your spouse is an asshole.
There is one off-street parking spot out back so even if all of the neighbors have guests hogging the street spots, you can still easily pull into your spot laughing at the neighbors without such amenities. There is a tiny fenced-in yard out back that over the years helped confine 4 different Dobermonsters.
Are you lazy like I am? Well don’t worry, there is no grass in back and the front yard you can mow in less than 5 minutes. Or you can hire Stephen, he’s a neighborhood kid (I think he’s 20) that stutters and rides a BMX bike, he charged $10 to mow the lawn or shovel snow.
If you are hungry or wanna get a load on you can walk to Turkey Hill, Stubby’s, Lancaster Brewing, Quips, Cork and Cap, Bakers Table, Rumplebrewskins, ABAG or the Friendly Greek. If you have a medical emergency you can take a quick jog to the ER – Good Times!
But wait, there’s more! My last 3 ex girlfriends all have keys to the place and they rarely do pop-ins. The bathroom sink is located directly in front of the toilet so ina Flu-Emergency you can expel in both directions. The neighbors will pretty much leave you alone as I set the bar pretty high as being the “crazy fat guy with a gun and dobermans”, so if you move in discretely they might think I’m still there and stay out of your business.
**** UPDATED PICS . One pic is of my old big red couch with two of my former dogs. The couch and dogs are all buried now but I miss them so they made it into the photos. There are no pics of the back yard or basement yet because as the photographer said “It is a hot mess”. So I painted the basement mostly today and sooner or later I’ll get around to pulling the dead Morning Glories off my fence.
Big Triangle News: We’ve added another team member. Matthew Kabik is a Lancaster-based fiction writer who holds an MFA from Arcadia University. We’ve been meeting with him covertly in local coffee shops of all shapes and sizes. Our upcoming publishing workshop (Submit Smarter: How to Find the Right Home For Your Stories and Poems) is hosted by Matt. He’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Twice. He likes to compare rejections on Submittable. We may or may not be working with him to start a literary magazine right here in Lancaster. He runs Lancaster’s first and only Bike Polo blog. He’s bright. He’s motivated. His writing is the real deal.
National Novel Writing Month (or as it was previously known: November) is a time when new and experienced writers alike try desperately to mute every single #NaNoWriMo tweet possible in their feed.
Okay, I showed my hand a bit there, sorry.
It’s a time when people from all levels of the writing life join together in an attempt to write 50,000 words by the end of the month. It’s fun, it gives a sense of community, and it gives some impetus to folks who otherwise wouldn’t have a drive to really push themselves.
And those are all great things. They are terrific, even—but I don’t know that they are really all that swell for the sake of really helping you as a writer.
Let me make the case before you find me on Twitter and unleash your wrath (@mlkabik, btw, if you want to do that anyway). NaNoWriMo is really quite difficult to do, and I applaud anyone who manages to actually complete the 50k goal. But it’s also…well…difficult to do. It’s a great way of shocking your writer’s brain. I for one can’t imagine anyone wanting to write anything for at least a month after the event, and I can see how that month could stretch into two, then four, then a whole year up to the next NaNoWriMo. It’s not a healthy cycle.
The argument is, of course, that you could potentially have a 50,000 word novel by the end of it—but if you wrote 300 words every day for a year you’d come up with a 108,000 word novel. What I mean is: consistency over the year is better than one month of burning yourself out.
Furthermore, consider what you’re now associating writing with: instead of something you squirrel away to do every day (hopefully your writing schedule is that good), it’s something that you are legit pushing people out of your life to do for a full month. It’s something you pain yourself over in regards to word count. It’s something that keeps you up at night and makes you have a constant anxiety around. At best, it’s gamification of something that really shouldn’t be made into a game. Much like those fun experiments we learned about in high school psychology, NaNoWriMo is providing negative reinforcement around writing. How can that really help you in the long run?
My suggestion is this: If you like the community and the goals, get yourself a good writing group and set weekly goals for yourself throughout the year. Set aside one or two hours each day (or, more realistically, two or three times a week) to sit down and just write. Count the words if you want—give yourself a word count, even—but stick to that schedule and see what you’ve got by the end of the year. If all went according to plan, you’ll have more than enough material and you’ll also not see writing as a sprint (which it isn’t) but as a marathon or, really, as the long walk that it actually is.
I resisted putting in a picture of Bilbo Baggins walking out of the Shire, so at the very least you should appreciate that.
Playwrights, to get their work presented to the world, are uniquely dependent on the decisions and commitment of others. The collaboration and effort it takes to move an idea from the page, into the hands of performers, and onto the stage can make it difficult to make live, home-grown theater happen.
This is where Lydia Brubaker comes in.
Lydia and I hung out at Mean Cup, near the campus of Franklin and Marshall College, where she works during the day in her “real” life job. Though, as a genuine advocate of liberal arts education, she thinks it’s not such a bad gig. She spent the early part of her childhood here, on the west side of Lancaster, and later moved to the family homestead, just south of the city in Willow Street.
Her interest in the dramatic arts was never really a question. As she puts it, “I was always putting on shows at home for my family and friends, and my parents really helped to support that and encourage creativity and let me dress up as all kinds of weird stuff. But they also took me to a lot of theater, and so I went to a lot of shows downtown in Lancaster when I was little. At the Fulton, and there was Commotion Theater at that point, Independent Eye was still around, and the Theater of the Seventh Sister. I came to the TSS first when I was in fourth grade. My mom was in a show there. She plays fiddle. She was in a production of Spoon River Anthology. I just could not get enough! I went to every rehearsal that I could possibly go to. And I loved it. I loved the whole process. That was probably one of the earliest experiences of understanding how the whole process works, but there were so many influences.” These formative interests propelled Lydia through many diverse theater experiences in middle school, high school, and college. She was reading and seeing as many plays as she could, while also working on her own projects.
Lydia found her niche in the theater world as a director, although she’s sometimes more of a producer and facilitator (she also acts and writes collaboratively with the local sketch comedy troupe, Happy Time Explosion Show). As early as her senior year of high school she found herself being pushed and drawn toward this role of integrating all the various parts of theater, making the collaborative efforts cohesive. Thoughtfully trying to find the right words to describe her passion for directing, she told me, “I think that it’s about being able to incorporate so many different areas into a production, being able to draw on knowledge from so many different places. I always learn something when I’m working on a play. I love the collaborative nature of it. Everyone involved in the process comes with a different mindset and background, with different skills and knowledge, so being in a room where everyone is able to share that experience can be really stimulating.”
It became clear to me throughout our conversation that Lydia Brubaker makes things happen. She has a passion, seeks out others with a similar passion, and goes with it. One such way she does this is through her involvement with the Lancaster Dramatists’ Platform.
This Platform has been meeting in various forms since around 2005, and is essentially a workshop for playwrights. Lydia currently facilitates the workshop with about ten writers, sometimes more, and originally began her involvement as a co-facilitator with Oscar Lee Brownstein, a former Chair of the Yale Playwriting Department who was living in Lancaster at the time. The group critiques short plays and scenes from full length dramas every two weeks. In addition, on every other first Friday, they present free, staged readings of plays that the group feels are ready to come into contact with an audience. Lydia tells me this is an essential part of the process, that it is this type of dedication, vulnerability, and collaboration that polishes the writing into performance ready theater. She says, “I think any feedback they get from an audience has so much more impact. Just to see how people experience the plays…When you start taking your work from the dining room table to a group of actors who are trying to find the characters in the story, that’s where you can tell what’s working and what’s not working.”
It’s working with writers in this formative stage that Lydia enjoys most. She thrives when she is able to aid in the creative process of another, making art happen. She says that “trying to follow the vision of the playwright” is paramount. Talk to any serious artist or writer, and they can tell you how rare Lydia’s gift is, of being able to “figure out how to help them tell the story they want to tell.” She makes this gift seem as natural as breathing or blinking.
Another way Lydia is making things happen is through her role as Executive Director of The Creative Works of Lancaster. Creative Works is a nonprofit organization that aims to “recognize the creative spirit in each of us, to hold on to our humanity in the postmodern world” and “to fuel and sustain the city’s cultural renaissance.” What’s not to love about this vision?
It all came together in 2008, with several board members all working to perfect a vision for an arts center with creative co-working space and multiple venues for events. However, when the financial crisis happened, potential funding streams dried up; they were forced to get creative. Lydia told me, “We’re a more established organization now. But, you know, there’s a ramp to get there. We started out very, very small.” They did some early, low budget, grassroots events to build a foundation for the work they do now, while refocusing their vision on the performing arts.
Their first event was a mobile art gallery, where volunteers walked around wearing sandwich boards laden with local art. Another early event was a sock puppet parody of the horror film Psycho, which was put on at Lancaster Dispensing Company, naturally, as “beer and nachos and sock puppets go really well together.” Because it was so popular the sock puppets have become something of a tradition. Just this October they put on a reprise of The Silence of the Socks, their parody of The Silence of the Lambs, which originally debuted over the summer. They put on a holiday-ish show, Yule Laugh, which Lydia called “the epitome of what Creative Works is all about. It brought together some established work, so we did a couple plays by published playwrights, but we also featured three new plays by local playwrights, and a bunch of parodied Christmas carols. It was all kind of woven together. We were in the 4th floor studio of the Keppel building, which was an interesting found space for us, and a space that not too many people in the general public had seen before.”
Over time, Lydia and the other members of Creative Works have done increasingly bigger productions. They began to do fully staged readings and full productions of new and established work. Just this May they produced a weekend run of Chet Williamson’s new play called He Comes For His Books at Tellus360. This is a world premier of a locally written, locally produced show we’re talking about here. Lydia told me, “We really hope to do that again moving forward. It was incredibly meaningful, to see that come to fruition.” Chet Williamson is also part of the Lancaster Dramatists’, and his play was selected out of a pool of plays submitted to Creative Works that developed out of the Platform’s workshop. During July of this year, in Crystal Park, they presented 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, part of their summer park series. This series has happened three years running, formerly at Musser Park.
All these efforts come from a genuine love for theater and all the ways it can positively impact a community. For Lydia and Creative Works, that seems to be the payoff, to serve and engage the community at large: “If I was going to describe in a nutshell what Creative Works does—because we dabble in so many projects—we try to keep everything connected to performing arts. When we do an event, we want it to be new to Lancaster, something that hasn’t been done here before. Or, we want it to be brand new work, so that’s where we try to partner with playwrights locally or to create something on our own. Or, we want to bring something to a new audience, for people who might not normally go to theater events. We try to make things as accessible as possible for as many different people as possible.”
Here are some things you’re going to want to check out. On November 15, the Creative Works presents 24 Hour Plays at Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster on West Orange Street. The Lancaster Dramatists’ first Friday readings—the next one should be in December. Also, head on over to the Lancaster Creative Works website for more events and information.