Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Joy of Bite-Size Fiction


I arrived at a good stopping place on my new novel and took a minute to scroll social media. A friend posted a photo of Western North Carolina. The landscape jogged an old memory, and I wrote this little bit of first-person fiction. 

"Johnny" Johnson

I ever tell you I lived in NC? 

    There was this one time my mother drove me out on the Blue Ridge Parkway to a McDonald’s near Little Switzerland to meet her biological father. A man who abandoned her when she was ten. About the same age I was then. 

    It was the first time they’d seen one another in thirty years. He was retired. Looked like any sixty-five year old to me. Bald head with liver spots. A little pale crust at the corners of his mouth. A tuft of white whiskers he'd failed to shave on the left side of his chin. I stared at that tuft when he spoke.

    He gave me a ten dollar bill because I’d gotten a 4.0 on my report card. He patted my hand where it rested on the tabletop. 

    He told my mom he was writing spy novels after retiring from the Military. He’d been in intelligence, the OSS, which became the CIA. She once told me she remembered walking through the halls of the Pentagon, holding her father's hand. He was in his dress uniform. Lots of colorful pins on his chest. Every few steps someone would greet him, shake his hand, and he'd introduce her. She was in kindergarten, thought he was the most important man in the world. He was to her. 

    I ate an egg McMuffin while they whispered. 

    My mom cried. 

    I watched the snow. 

    We were there a while. My Mom got increasingly upset, used the weather as a reason to leave. As far as I know they never spoke again. 

    The thing that most impressed me was that the McDonalds was tucked in a lonely flat piece of ground around a switchback curve on a narrow stretch of mountain highway where you'd think nothing could be built. 

The End.

I keep tinkering with this story. It keeps evolving. This version is how it sits for now. It may be a little different next week. But I find this kind of short fiction so so satisfying. 

After spending more than a year on my current manuscript to get about 2/3 of the way through a first draft, writing a narrative I can see all on one page, hold the rhythms in my head from start to finish, is a breath of fresh air. 

First-person feels right for this kind of short fiction. It reads diaristtcally, conversation, and casual. There's little need for character-building when the protagonist seems like it's me. I developed my love for these kinds of short, first-person stories at the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College, Chicago. I was playing with small zine-format books as a home for original narratives. How a story unfolds with the page-turns of a book, as the reader moves from one spread to the next, has continued to influence the way I construct stories. Because the zine-format is so short, I needed to find a quick way to establish a story and set up the turn and climax in as few words as possible. I stumbled upon first-person and immediately saw the potential in the tone to easily project emotional subtext in few words. 

A note about the percentage of the story above that is fiction vs biographical: Some is true but intentionally composed for effect. Some is knowingly confabulated and warped by perspective and time. Some is just plain invention. For instance, I did not have a 4.0. 

Novels are long projects. I can only focus on one scene at a time. But I have to hold the rest of the story in my awareness, somewhat out of focus, as context for each new section. It's only writing. I don't want to overstate it. But, it does make me exhausted. 

In book news: My first quarter sales report for Half Dead arrived. I want to thank everyone who bought it and read it and took a moment to send a note. Most everyone who reads these posts are people I know and don't see enough of. Many of the people who take the time to give direct feedback are also among those who read this blog. It’s almost like spending time with you. Emotionally speaking, I love that.

People keep asking me (indication of a straw man argument) what they can do to support my efforts as a novelist. First, thanks for asking. It has been a strange book launch. The delta variant has made bookshops worried about planning readings and readers reticent to gather for events. 

Even with those challenges, I truly find your good will wonderful. You could take it upon yourself to spread the word far and wide. Consider who you know who might enjoy the book and give them a nudge. Give it as gift over the holidays. If you purchase it in time, arrangements could be made for an inscription. Post it to social media. It is very helpful to write a short review at, Amazon, Good Reads, or anywhere you may have purchased Half Dead. I have a standing offer to book clubs to Zoom in and answer questions at book gatherings. So far only one such group has taken me up on it. It was fun. 

Here is a link to a webpage that will one day be a finished website:


Friday, April 9, 2021

On Authenticity (old and new)


In grad school at the Center for Book and Paper Art at Columbia College, Chicago  I was assigned the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) by influential thinker and cultural critic Walter Benjamin. The reading was part of our history of the artist’s book class; taught by Clifton Meador, it combined significant readings and discussions about making books as objects along with guidance about hand setting wood and/or metal type (or developing polymer plates) for printing on various Vandercook presses. As part of our deep dive into asking what printing editions of artwork does to the “value” of the individual piece, Benjamin’s theory of art that is “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art” in a mass-culture society was a perfect reading. And it made a knot in my brain. 

type kitchen in the letterpress studio

Here is why: (stick with me) Basically Benjamin argues that art made pre-industrial revolution was valued for the physical act of the artist manipulating materials to create an original work of art. These works were valued for their beauty and “Aura of Authenticity.” But in the modern era of mechanized production, cultural thinking about what is valuable in art must also evolve. The original art object's aura of authenticity is diminished with each reproduction made and distributed. (Here comes the twist) A lack of authenticity is now desirable to a mechanized society. 

Walter Benjamin

As someone with a great deal of handcraft skills and a lover of process-heavy production methods, I had trouble making that turn. I read most of the essay still believing the use of term authentic was a positive and not a negative. When I realized my mistake, I had to read the whole thing again and try to unlearn what I first thought Benjamin meant. This kind of thinking was popular at the time among growing fascists movements across Europe and in the US. The idea of the cold, mechanical, unrelenting power of industry holding a kind of moral cultural advantage over old ideas about human-scale individuality became powerfully popular. This gave us Mussolini. It influenced American industrialists' and politicians' arguments about the inherent morality of the free market. It helped in the rise of the Nazis. In art it gave us the Futurists.

"War is the highest form of modern art."

-Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

Boccioni, Unique forms of Continuity in Space
Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase

Why bring this up? 


I was reminded of Benjamin’s essay recently when a friend suggested I read an article about the ways social media has shifted our definition of authenticity. To paraphrase badly, there are two types of authenticity, internally directed and externally directed. Genuine interest in pursuing unique areas of knowledge that nurtures our emotions and minds is what we (culturally) used to loosely agree were authentic activities. But largely because of social media, now, framing a series of eclectic, outwardly directed, and unique-looking interests and activities is how authenticity is largely defined. In the US, but generally as part of normal human psychology, this kind of thinking is easy to fall into — because we all want to feel special. Amplifying this is increasing glorification of celebrity over talent, fame over humility, success over the value a given activity imparts to the larger society, and the glorification of the individual over all else. The result is a nation where the people who teach our children are paid poorly, while others who make fortunes producing little other than more money are celebrated as the success stories of our system.



My point isn't to make a broad indictment of the way social media plies its evil influence on our society. Like the industrial revolution, it’s a mixed bag of good and bad, objectives aspired to and missed, aspirations professed but not delivered, and consequences unforeseen both good and bad. It seems worthwhile to note, when you hear the word authentic used, the semantic intent may be other than you first thought. What one thinks of as a warm and nurturing activity, may be a psychologically corrosive and increasingly desperate attempt to seem like a small scale, unique celebrity at the cost of the individual's emotional stability and understanding of their core-self. Or another way to say it, rather than revealing something true, the oversharing of things that were once considered private in order to give the impression of being honest, is in fact a mask of ones own creation, slipped on and projected as your digital doppelganger.  


The reason for this discussion?


Basically, it’s a painfully complex explanation that my fear of outward facing authenticity has led me to a fairly long absence from this blog. The way I have come to frame my creative activities for public consumption on this blog is to only say things when I really have something worth saying, to not give in to the urge to seek support during long stretches of disappointment by posting gripes and needy complaints. Essentially, if I can’t think of anything good to say, I don’t add to the swirl of negative information that dominates social media. That goes double for 2020. 


But I have good news after a long stretch and I'd like to share it.


My novel Half Dead is being published in August 2021 by Crooked Lane Books. Revisions and edits are finished, the cover design is complete, the typesetting is being finalized, I’ve turned in my dedication and acknowledgments, and the first of the cover blurbs has come in:

"Brilliantly written, skillfully plotted, packed with clever dialogue and unique characters, Half Dead brings a rare syndrome to life, splashing its victim and the people in his orbit colorfully across the page. A riveting blend of loss, suspense, humor, love, and reinvention!"

--Susan Crawford, international bestselling author of The Pocket Wife and The Other Widow

That’s a lot. But additionally, in part because a good number of you kindly preordered Half Dead, I learned yesterday that Dreamscape purchased the audio rights and will produce an audio book to be available simultaneous with the hardbound release, August 10, 2021. 


Thank you for keeping me company in 2020. Thank you also for your support of Half Dead. The process has taken over four years. No wonder I feel beat up. I’ll try to be better about this blog. 

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Publishing (or not publishing) in a time of Covid

Hello. It's late August 2020. That means general weirdness; it's hard to plan because there is no normalcy, no predictability, no light at the end of the tunnel. People are sick, people are in financial trouble, and the world has tipped too far on its axis. Still, it's important to move forward as best as one is able - if not for oneself then for people that need you. So I've been moving.

cover art by Joseph Lappie/typography by MaryNeal Meador

A history of my book publishing: In 2014 my first novel (Good For Nothing) was published in theUK by a now defunct press called Skyscraper. I started writing GFN in 2008, set it aside, picked it up again in '10, finished in '11, and then spent two plus years going through the traditional process of finding an agent who then found a couple publishers. Here is a link to an earlier post during the ups and downs of finding my first agent. It was a long and stressful process.


At the end of 2013 I had an editor at Simon and Schuster who wanted to publish me, and an offer for UK rights (only) from Skyscraper. I signed the contract with Skyscraper. The Simon and Schuster deal fell through. That is generally how my first novel was a physical object on a shelf across an ocean that I could only witness virtually. 

My book is better traveled than I

I continued writing. I finished a second novel (Missing People) while my agents continued to shop GFN. I received an offer for MP from a good literary press called Tyrus. I let the publisher know my first novel was available. He read it, loved it, offered to publish both books. I went through edits for both manuscripts, they went to press. Tyrus was acquired by Simon and Schuster. Both titles were printed by Tyrus (now no more) and distributed in the US by Simon and Schuster in 2017. It was so satisfying to bop into my local independent bookshop and find my titles, hold them in my hand, watch people purchase them. Here's a link to a detailed explanation of the Tyrus to S&S transition. 

Since 2017 I've written a third novel (Half Dead), switched agents, moved, and in the past couple weeks received an offer from a publisher. I've also, inexplicably, received requests from three movie studios to read the the unpublished manuscript; a mystery but a good thing to puzzle out. There has been a hint of some interest from a second publisher. So now we wait for people to return from summer vacation, for kids to start school of one kind or another, and for the negotiations for Half Dead to be resolved. I'm going to start where I finished: moving as best I can through general weirdness. Wish me luck. I certainly am happy to return the favor. Be well. 

Sunday, April 5, 2020

This is not about Raymond Carver

Please don't read this post with any expectation that the various elements will somehow weave themselves into a pleasing whole. That is unlikely.  

Raymond Carver was an American short story writer and poet. He is often considered one of the country's greatest writers. Here is a Carver poem.


The people who were better than us were comfortable.
They lived in painted houses with flush toilets;
Drove cars whose year and make were recognizable. 
The ones worse off were sorry and didn't work. 
Their strange cars sat on blocks in dusty yards. 
The years go by and everything and everyone 
gets replaced. But this much is still true -
I never liked work. My goal was always 
to be shiftless. I saw the merit in that. 
I liked the idea of sitting in a chair
in front of your house for hours, doing nothing
but wearing a hat and drinking cola. 
What's wrong with that?
Drawing on a cigarette from time to time. 
Spitting. Making things out of wood with a knife.
Where's the harm there? Now and then calling 
the dogs to hunt rabbits. Try it sometime. 
Once in a while hailing a fat, blond kid like me 
and saying, "Don't I know you?"
Not, "What are you going to be when you grow up?"

I chose this poem not because it is my favorite, but because it is short and as good an example as any of Carver's characteristic style. Carver died in 1988.

For context, that is one hundred years after Paul Guaguin arrived in the sleepy French city of Arles to visit Vincient Van Gogh. Guaguin, married with five children, had grown successful enough as a painter to quit his job as a stockbroker. He took to carousing, drinking, and eventually contracted syphilis from not his wife. Under these circumstances he spent several weeks with Van Gogh. The trip ended over a heated argument about the color yellow (as can happen), Van Gogh pulled a straight razor (perfectly appropriate) and Guaguin traveled briskly back to Paris to plot his escape from familial responsibilities  He would eventually move to Tahiti and sleep with teenage girls while also sometimes painting them. 

After Guaguin's departure, Van Gogh used that straight razor to cut off his own ear. This led to him being institutionalized (or as contemporary artists' might say, he was invited to a forced residency) at which point he painted his masterpiece Starry Night. And guess what, he used the yellow he preferred right out of the tube so fuck that asshole Guaguin anyway. 

For more context, (just play along like this is making sense) the year Carver died I was a high school student. But unlike most juniors, I was already living on my own. My mother, bless her heart, had packed and moved while I was in class. When I turned knob and walked in I found a mostly empty apartment and a note. As messed up as that sounds, it was much more messed up than I'd care to write here. But also, it was very liberating. After spending a good chunk of my life in a fairly caustic situation, I was suddenly shed of the largest source of my stress. Of course, it was immediately replaced by a new source of different stress: how and where to live, how to graduate, apply and pay for college, and how to keep my nose clean long enough to age out of a possible stay in the foster care system. Long story short, I managed. I got into college where I was a double major in art and literature. That is where and when I stumbled across Raymond Carver, where I read everything he'd ever published, as well as the collections that were published posthumously. About that time I also had my first short story and first poem published. 

Let's jump ahead. I finished my Bachelor of Fine Arts, my Master of Arts, and after some living and some teaching and some arting I was accepted into a Master of Fine Arts program at the prestigious Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago. In grad school it's good to pick a lane. I chose to write original fiction to incorporate into every project I worked on. That is when I wrote the first version of Versus. It appeared as black vinyl letters on a gallery wall as part of an installation about US policy in Iraq under the George W Bush administration. Without spelling out every detail, the point of the inclusion of the narrative was to draw a comparison between reactionary, knee-jerk foreign policy and the violent tendencies of two little boys playing at war. 

by Brandon Graham

I yank my hand away in shock. My fingers clench around the pain. I stare at the blunt end of my fist, the place where the knuckles press like teeth buds, the map work of criss-cross lines and pinhole pores, and the shaft of wood. The spot where it pierces my flesh is hidden in the ball of my hand, distorted by welling blood. A line of red runs the length of my forearm and drips off the point of my elbow, forming a puddle in the waiting palm of my other hand. 
In second grade my best friend was Bobby Henion. We were neighbors. We had the same teacher, Mrs. Raymore. We rode the same bus. On the way to school and on the way home we played a game called versus.
We’d face one another with a notebook laid flat between us. I’d scrawl out a group of symbols on a piece of blue-lined paper, arranged in a pattern like bowling pins. Sometimes I’d use an X or an O. Maybe a swastika or a star. Bobby would pick an emblem to arrange in opposition. One of us would start by placing a sharp pencil point on the page. Then with the other hand, flick the point right at the opposing army, watch it rip across the field of white and slash through one or more of the assembled troops. If a symbol was marked out, it meant a soldier had been killed. We would take turns at killing one another’s army of marks. Eventually an army was decimated and we’d start over. 
One ride home I won three games in a row. We doodled armies for a fourth battle. I was feeling pretty cocky so I told Bobby to go first, even though it was my turn. He took out a green knob of plastic, inserted his pencil in the sharpener, and turned it over and over while staring me down. He shaved off thin curls of wood until his pencil was ready for battle. He meant business. I smiled at him, unconcerned. He returned the sharpener to his pack and zipped it safely away. 
Ready?” he asked.
“Go for it.”
He drew the pencil back, reached over and stabbed me in the web of flesh between my thumb and index finger. I saw what he intended, watched it happen, stayed put like a bystander. The point pierced straight through, a spike driven through a railroad tie. There was a popping sensation. A long while after the damage was done I pulled my hand away quick. The pencil came with it, lodged in my flesh. I sucked in enough air to scream. I shook my hand. Blood rained in heavy droplets that pounded the field of battle. 
My fingers curled around the wound like a dying spider. I stopped shrieking and stared for a long moment; stunned, uncertain. The bus pulled over and stopped. I gripped the eraser end of the pencil and pulled it out, cast it away, and listened as it rolled down the center aisle. I cradled the painful place in my lap, bent over it and rocked it like an inconsolable infant.
“It was an accident,” Bobby said when the bus driver came. 
I didn’t say any different. 

Later that narrative was re-written as the text for a collaborative artists' book distributed in JAB 46

As happens in an MFA program, after the exhibition in which Versus was initially displayed, all the participants gathered for critique. The instructor asked, "Are you still in touch with Bobby Henion?" I was confused by the question. Didn't quite hear it, or wasn't processing it quickly because I hadn't expected it. So the instructor clarified, "You were best friends and he stabbed you. So I wondered if you were still in touch? What he says about the incident? Have you talked to him about it?"
     "No. There is no Bobby Henion. I mean there is a Bobby Henion. I knew him when I was in sixth grade. But he never stabbed me. It's fiction. You know. I made it up, to make a point." The other artists from the exhibition snickered or commented that they wondered if the story was true or not. The instructor was taken off guard, took a second to regroup, started again with a different tone.
     "So why is it important to lie to your audience?"
      I don't remember exactly what happened. I was fairly capable in a critique and was able to answer the question without letting on that I felt a bit unfairly attacked. But it did get me thinking about the use of the first person voice, about the way it feels confessional or biographical, the way that a few personal facts peppered in can really confuse the lines between fiction and non-fiction. I leaned in to that hard.

Recently I read an unpublished manuscript by a published novelist. It was written in first person POV. He's an incredibly accomplished writer, the manuscript was clean, nearly flawless. The plot was tight and smart. the dialog was good, it moved, it ended strong. At one point it felt like it might take a predictable course, but it didn't. Honestly I wish I'd written. I told him so in the written critique. But here's the thing, I found myself thinking the protagonist and the author were one and the same. Or at least, I noted the ways the lines seemed to blur due to the POV. It made me wonder about my writer friend, about his background.
     I remember once in a writers' circle someone passed around a story in second person point of view. It read a little like this: You reach into the shower and let the water run while you take off your makeup. It went on, the female protagonist touching her body, sometimes pragmatically, sometimes while thinking of her lover. And then: You feel a lump in the side of your breast. I felt very uncomfortable. Not with the content, but with my lack of choice. I was on this ride. It wasn't happening to someone else. It was my female body and my lump in my breast. And wasn't ready to have that experience from that angle. Honestly, I know now, I knew then, that putting me in that position was part of the point.

What does all this mean? Well, because I'm locked down like 90 percent of the country, I had a little time to kill in my home. I grabbed an old collection of Carver poems and started reading. I saw the way he used first person, the way he used his real history, or moments that felt like actual reminiscence to fill his poems with an easy honesty, a lived authenticity, and a convincing artifice. Because ultimately all art is a framing exercise: You choose where to point the view finder, where to direct the gaze of the viewer, or the attention of the reader. Really what I realized is how deeply those poems and stories I devoured one after the other over the course of a couple weeks my Freshman year of college had latched themselves to my endoskeleton to seep back out fifteen years later when I started writing under pressure and an in earnest. I learned I lie to my readers about as much as it takes to make my point, about the same amount as Raymond Carver. Or as I like to think of it, just enough and no more.

Monday, February 24, 2020

From JAB 46

Hello hello. What follows is an article from JAB 46. It is the last article I will ever contribute to the journal as the double issue of JAB 47/48 will be the last published, at least in its current iteration. Next month I'll head to Chicago to say goodbye to a very successful run of a significant field specific publication. Follow the link below to order your own copy of JAB. 46 has many artists' books included within the issue. But honestly, every issue has a lot to offer. The last two will be remarkable. 
I've been proud to be an advisory board member for a decade or so. Enjoy. 

In 2004 I was putting my MA to use as acting director for a ceramics department at a small college in suburban Kansas City. My family’s move there had been fast. Our priority was for a home that needed no work; we had a toddler in tow and a baby on the way. We lived there two years. During the national election cycle we felt isolated by the abundant pro-Bush yard signs in our neighborhood. Election night, as the results became clear, we agreed to get the hell out of Missouri. 
One of our considerations for a move was to land in a blue state with an MFA program that I was excited about. As an undergrad I’d majored in both art and literature. I always had my eyes out for work that mixed writing with art. In particular publishing projects that combined the two. During a stint as a gallery director in Nebraska I’d attended my first artist book (AB) exhibition. The ideas in the show were compelling but I was underwhelmed by the execution. Forming an opinion put me on a slow path to attempting my own AB. Later, as I was starting my MA, a friend (Jamie Lou Thome, MFA ‘00) told me she intended to study book arts at a newly minted MFA program in Chicago. So by the time George W started his second term, I had applied to the Center for Book and Paper Arts (CBPA) at Columbia College Chicago. 
From JAB46

Early in the summer of 2005 and as part of my application process Andrea Peterson, primary instructor of the papermaking program at the time, interviewed me by phone. We discussed my portfolio and experience. She explained a bit about the initial intentions at the founding of CBPA; the establishment of an exhibition space for book arts, educators who were working artists teaching those who might one day teach, and an AB publishing component. Two things have stuck with me from that conversation 1) the assertion there was an active artist book publishing venture called Epicenter and that my experience as a production printer might make me an asset therein. 2) Andrea explained CBPA was part of the Interdisciplinary Arts Department which included a Media program. She put a lot of weight behind this question: “How would you define interdisciplinary?” I gave some middle-of-the-road response, certain not to offend. Andrea shared how important the concept was and gave examples of recent thesis work that demonstrated an interdisciplinary approach. I was left uncertain exactly how the term was being applied, but also excited by the grab bag of approaches she described. We said our good byes. A couple weeks later I received a call from Suzanne Cohan-Lange the retiring Chair of InterArts and a founder of CBPA. She congratulated me and welcomed me to grad school. Later I was told the call was her last act related to the incoming MFA class. 
In hindsight I understand that interdisciplinarity was a key academic argument CBPA hung its hat on in order to offer an MA initially and later an MFA. But it was more than that. It was a philosophy of creative cooperation in a supportive community. Making a book by hand is a long process with many stages and several craft areas that require understanding and proficiency if not mastery. To conceive, design, and produce a book - a working knowledge of these processes helps an artist maintain authorial control throughout; and to better understand the range of expressive possibilities at every stage of production. I suppose that a concentration in each stage of book production is a kind of interdisciplinary endeavor. Or maybe it is simply an expression of the normal way the academy tends to divide and subdivide every activity down to the most granular distinction possible. If that’s the case, CBPA’s act of interdisciplinary evangelism was mostly the recombining of things that need not have been separated in the first place. But, in my experience, it was not a cynical semantic sleight of hand meant to place academic credence where it wasn’t deserved. Instead, it was a well-intentioned attempt to define something ephemeral but wholesome. Perhaps creative openheartedness is the most generous phrase I can wrap around it like a hug or warm scarf against the Chicago wind. 
After spending time in the program and attending several MFA exhibitions I began to understand that interdisciplinary was primarily defined as a book displayed as a projection or video. It was a natural outgrowth of InterArts’ interest in the stepsiblings of Media and Book Arts learning to play nice together. Conveniently, it was a good working strategy for addressing how one displays a small object, packed with content both visual and textural, within a modern gallery space.  That plus a general interest in/panic about what the future of the haptic book might be in an increasingly digital world. No question, the use of digital technology in books is a rich area of academic research and a potentially powerful expressive tool. 
In practice though, there was such encouragement to utilize technology that a book doing what books do best in an intimate and human-scale way often felt like an inadequate solution. Not the intention I’m sure, but a side effect of the evolving attempt to define the program as something more than a collection of Chicago-centric Book Arts craft studios; instead as a nationally significant AB program with an emphasis on conceptualization of the book as a powerful voice within the fine arts.  
I also quickly discovered Epicenter was an aspirational concept more than an active publishing venture. After producing one beautiful object it seemed to be on pause while considering what should come next. Without it’s publishing leg, CBPA was a lopsided stool. Perhaps Epicenter was taking the same breath the entire program was holding the year my class arrived. Institutions are always fluid, and as I started my MFA, CBPA was defining itself anew in the absence of it’s longtime, much-loved, fierce champion and innovative den mother Suzanne Cohan-Lang and in the presence of its new director of the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts in Book and Paper Clifton Meador.  
from JAB46

Instructors and facilities are important in an MFA program. But the single most important and largely unknowable variable is the dynamics of the students you share the experience with. In that regard I was unusually fortunate. A graduate degree in book arts is unique. The students usually have a wide range of undergraduate experiences. Often there is a mix of print makers, graphic designers, photographers, and people from various craft areas like ceramics and fibers. One might also find a poet, maybe a sculptor, an art historian with a creative bent, and rarely even a scientist or a librarian. This leads to a certain amount of re-invention of the book arts wheel in the first year of the program. As they say, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and certainly there is a great deal of recapitulation required to push into richer creative soil. This circumstance requires students with humor and humility, ambition and skill, and most of all curiosity and an interest in the success of others. 
At CBPA the studios were overwhelmingly wonderful. The papermaking studio was vast. The bindery had everything one needed to produce an edition of sewn flat back blank books or an elaborately embellished leather-bound tome, and the letterpress studio was the most amazing gathering of presses and type I had ever seen. Stepping into these studios was liberating and intoxicating for someone who was anxious to redefine their creative practice. 
The instructors were knowledgeable and passionate. By the end of my first year I realized my past visual work and my past publishing efforts were not only related but part of the same body of work. With Audrey Niffenegger I explored the relationship between written and visual narrative in the context of book structure. Clifton Meador helped me dig into work and concepts from the canon of ABs. Doro Boehme at the Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was an amazing resource and provided the most remarkable art historical classroom experience I’ve ever had. Melissa Jay Craig’s total commitment to an interdisciplinary and subversive art practice defined what the CBPA spirit was and demonstrated the term teaching artist in a powerful way. Jenny Magnus taught me to keep breathing, to write for the voice, and the healing power of foul language. Brad Freeman was hired as the Studio Coordinator and his presence was an immediate asset, in part because he jumpstarted Epicenter by continuing his production of JAB (the Journal of Artists' Books) at CBPA. As a longtime practitioner in the field of artists’ books Brad carried the history in his bones. Mostly his total commitment to the breadth of iterations of the art form was evident to any student who made the effort to engage him. In discussions with Brad I came to understand my love of esoteric and experimental literature had a close relationship to the history of the artist book. In short, during my time at CBPA I was ready to hear and put to good use exactly what the instructors and the situation offered. 
I would have been incapable of finding my way to thesis without the synergy and community, the critiques, perspectives, and innovative examples of the remarkable group of students I entered the program with. There was an indefinable alchemy in the swirl of influences brought together in that time, in that place, and among those people for which I will be forever grateful. 
ABs included in JAB46

I’ve heard it argued that one can observe an artist’s mature work by taking stock of the production ten years after graduate school. The working theory being that one can milk, stretch, and ride the basic thrust of one’s thesis for many years. But when that has run its course, one must make artwork independent of the demands of a degree program. Of course, this assumes most artists have an academic history and even suggests a graduate degree is required to become a mature artist. If you can set that aside, it is as good a touchstone as any. 
My MFA class graduated (primarily) in 2008. During my MFA studies I chose to focus on producing books driven by original narratives, sequential text was the engine intended to drive the viewer from one page spread to the next. I noticed something: original writing is present in many ABs but a life as a writer is rarely discussed as an outcome of an MFA in book arts. That seemed wrong to me. It was a missed opportunity. I idealistically set out, as I so often do, to forge a new path as a novelist after leaving CBPA; partially as a way to prove it could be done. 
Those who choose to participate define a professional field. Taking that as a self-imposed mandate, I waded into the field of artist books in any way I could. Making my own work and having it placed in collections through my book dealers (bless them) was my initial effort. I also wrote articles, reviews, and interviews for JAB. With my classmate Stephen DeSantis I planned and organized the first comprehensive alumni exhibition for CBPA, and organized an artist book reading at the Joan Flasch in conjunction with the Southern Graphics Council annual conference. I presented papers at both the College Book Arts Association and the College Art Association national conferences. I was a visiting artist at Columbia College Chicago and at SAIC. But most ambitiously, I wrote a novel, found a literary agent, and a publisher. I wrote a second and third novel. Recently, I have begun my fourth novel, a studio is actively seeking funding to produce an independent movie from the adaptation of my first book, a TV series is being considered from a pilot I co-wrote based on my second novel, and a senior editor at major publisher is waiting for my newest manuscript.  
More than ten years out from the Center for Book and Paper Arts and I’m comfortable thinking of myself as a novelist. Or more specifically as an artist who writes. In the first semester of my MFA, after a good class critique, Audrey Niffenegger said, “You know your own creative process.” A simple statement that in context gave me permission to make what I want to make. It was not a prescription to adhere to a plan. It was an endorsement that lack of a plan was a fine way to live in the arts because it is through the process of doing that work manifests, and it is through the living that life is defined. 
In the end, my MFA experience at CBPA was flawed, stressful, painful, and messy. It was exactly what I needed. It was not perfect. But what is?

Saturday, February 8, 2020


Why stop writing my blog? 
I was depressed a year ago. I may be depressed now. But I was also depressed a years ago. I’m not one who believes all sad feelings are evidence of a chemical imbalance. In fact I’d argue soaking in dark feelings, living with them, facing them, acknowledging them, and validating the legitimate reasons for sadness can be a healthier response than ignoring them, setting them aside, and using well-worn elaborate defense mechanisms and medical remedies (or self-prescribed antidotes) to brush such feelings aside in order to continue being an industrious worker. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not advocating people not seek help when they need it. I’m simply saying not all depression is equal, my baseline involves mild melancholy and there are times when the sobering acceptance of reality yields a deservedly bleak perspective. 
Grief over the death of a loved one is an understandable reason for sadness that is universally acceptable (for a brief time; over-do it and people resent you for bringing them down). So I will remind you that this happened: On Loss and Weightlessness.

It’s clear sometimes life gives us good reasons for circumstantial depression. If we catch a glance of our planet’s environmental trajectory out of the corner of our eye, that’s a fair reason to feel depressed. A peripheral awareness of the creeping breakdown of governmental institutions, the rise of bombastic neo-fascist authoritarian leaders, the on-going disparity between the haves and the have-nots, the plight of bees, micro plastics, and general incivility are all good rationales for feeling a little blue. Perhaps the slippery slope of grievance politics as an excuse for open racism, sexism, and institutionalized injustice has got you feeling down? If so, it should. These are all fine reasons for misery. 
Theoretically there must be an evolutionary advantage in such sadness. After all, the job of the brain is to help the body survive (though our ego likes to tell us it’s the other way around). So perhaps hopelessness and despair is meant to motivate us, as social animals, to reach out, seek comfort in others, and to mutually plan solutions for shared problems? I’m really not sure.
For me, misery eventually stokes a fire to change things. The scale and scope of the change needed is daunting. But tilting at windmills is better than letting the giants stomp across the countryside unperturbed. In reaction to a complex set of valid reasons for sadness I set out to publish another book. There is an alchemical trick I’ve stumbled across: I take my crippling concerns, stuff them into an intuitive process, and grind away over long spans of time until a more hopeful creation manifests. Through that creation I’m able to engage with an audience, explore the current moment, the human condition, my place in the world, and the swirl of love and cruelty and constant frenetic work-a-day stress that occupies much of our collective time. In sharing it, the isolation lifts and a path that leads a few feet forward becomes evident. So I stumble ahead and feel I have some agency to, at the very least, be a little more loving to the people around me. 
Logistically, to put a new novel in the world (for many boring reasons) I needed to find a new literary agency. Finding an agent is absolutely the worst part of the publishing process. But to turn my emotional slump around I would have to put myself through an agent search. Having made that decision, I realized I’d also have to take a break from social media to gain the mental bandwidth to face the challenge. Generally digital life had become an unhealthy distraction from actual life. Included in that was the need to set my blog aside. 
Why blog again? 
1) I left my old agency. Being with an agent is a relationship. As such, I felt I had to be brave enough to end that relationship prior to attempting to begin a new one. I went through the necessary steps to legally end our contract and was immediately struck by how alone I was in the literary world. I was drifting, back at square one. I had nothing but ideas strung together on paper. It was disturbing. 
2) I began working on my manuscript in an attempt to entice new representation to my cause.
3) I wrote a new query letter. 
4) I researched agents; which is largely a futile effort. Why? I’m glad you asked. It’s easy enough to make a list of top literary agents. You can start at the top of such a list and visit the related website where you will read an inspiring declaration of purpose and intention, a promised commitment to fiction, and an expression of an honest desire to build lasting relationships with writers, a long list of awards, credentials, and a scrolling string of dust jacket covers of best selling novels by famous clients. You will find personal preferences of genre or subject for each agent. You can diligently take notes and study the micro-expressions of each headshot to decipher the primitive, unintentional biological semaphore of the arc of each eyebrow provided within the digital biography. Then, you go the next website for the next agency on your list and discover the same content rearranged, printed in a different typeface with a different color palette, and with a slightly different interface. It’s very much like a literary dating app in which everyone writes the things they want to believe about themselves, their intentions, skills, interests and aspirations. Some are charming. Some are funny. Some are philosophical. Around 15% read as if they are written specifically to you. You feel for a moment this digital avatar really understands you and wants what is best for you. But mostly it’s a homogenous marketing job full of field-specific jargon that barely differentiates one agent from the next. 
5) Despite my whining (in)articulation of the challenges of finding an agent, I managed to find an agent. It took longer than I would have liked (a few months) and was seasoned with a steady sprinkling of rejections. Part of the fresh problem of the second agent search was the need to devote part of my query letter to my publishing history and a brief explanation of why I needed a new agent. This made for a more convoluted document than I would have liked. Still, not only did I persuade an agent from my list to take me on as a client; in researching her I saw she had worked with the publisher who purchased my first two novels for the US market. I had a frank exchange with a person whose opinion I have reason to trust and was rewarded with a very strong personal recommendation for my new agent - which is the most security I could expect. Because no matter how diligent you are, it’s always a crapshoot. You never know how it will be to work with an agent until you work with the agent. 
6) I signed a new contract and addressed the notes my new agent provided (code for completing an eighth draft of my manuscript) and now, finally, the ball is in her court. 
Bonus enumeration: 
7) A senior editor for a major publisher unexpectedly contacted me. She was familiar with my publishing history, the positive reviews from critics’ for my two published novels, and she wondered where I was in my writing process. Correspondence led to a trip to NYC and a meeting with the editor. It felt like an ascendant accomplishment as we walked together to her offices half a block from Rockefeller center. We had an authentic, human-scale conversation over coffee. I really like coffee. It was a high point in a hard couple of years and one I couldn’t have predicted or planned. More than that, the basic social interaction of speaking and being listened to, listening closely out of genuine interest as she shared her story, spending time, finding connections, and developing the beginnings of a rapport was a hopeful counterpoint interjected into a process I was growing increasingly disillusioned with. 

Now that I climbed that much of that mountain, I wanted to revive this avenue for discussion. I started this blog to honestly share the ups and downs of my publishing process long before I had a publishing process to share. I’ve used it as a way to document some of my other creative output, and perhaps as a reprieve from the stress of the long, slow, plodding nature of trying to write long form narratives. I intend to keep in touch more frequently. 

Tomorrow I hop a plane to Chicago. I’m making a mad dash to Evanston to support Artists Book House, a great arts organization founded by some of my favorite people. Check it out. Follow the action. Make a donation. 

On a more personal note, I’m torn between at least two places that feel like home. One is Chicago where a network of bawdy, passionate, subversive, generous, disruptive, funny, irreverent, and unstoppable friends gave me a place to belong. The other is Kansas City where my roots run deep and where people know the me I was at sixteen, know the person I am now, and somehow help me to knit those two people together into a comfortable, layered existence. For all my adult life [chronologically speaking (not developmentally speaking)] my best friend has been with me. In a few short days we celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. I honestly don’t know how we’ve managed it; don’t feel I deserve the luck I’ve had. 

Finally, amid my wallowing in publishing angst and general existential over-thinking I’ve also accomplished a few things other than life, family, and novel drama. Here is Versus, a Little Jab Book created in colaboration with Brad Freeman for JAB (The Journal of Artists' Books) 46. 

Thanks for your time. Let's talk again soon.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Incunabulum Deconstructo!

An incunable, or sometimes incunabulum, is a book, pamphlet, or broadside printed in Europe before the year 1501. As of 2014, there are about 30,000 distinct known incunable editions extant. 

Extantadjective (especially of a document) still in existence; surviving.

Deconstruction is a method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary language that emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems, the relational quality of meaning, and the assumptions implicit in forms of expression.

Consider the above a bracket to bend around the following notion: What is the stingiest structure that can be called a book? What is the most basic element that defines bookness? If you picked up a physical object, where is the line between, "I am holding printed pages," and "I am holding a book."? 

It is the kind of question that could only come up in graduate school for artists' books. But it is exactly the kind of purely theoretical question that I find compelling. 

One page

So here is what I learned: In book design, the basic unit is not the page. The basic unit is the spread. Spread refers to the pages of a book laid open with both the left and right page showing across a gutter. So a book must have a spread and a gutter. 

Page spread with unfolded gutter

What else? Well books must have a page turn. The primary action that defines book reading is opening the book and revealing a spread. That means a book must have a cover where the book begins, a page turn, a spread reveal, a second page turn to close the book, and a back cover. That is the minimum structure that can be called a book.  

The examples you find here are worth a read. They are the result of a collaboration with Joseph Lappie. The premise: I would put words in his mouth, making him seem like the worst kind of egotistical young artist who believes the things he makes are hugely important and that his career is meteoric. In return, Joseph would put words in my mouth as if I were an older, established artist trying to give unwanted advice about how to make it long term in the arts. We would each make three deconstructed books poking fun at one another, but more broadly at cliche attitudes abundant in the academic graduate school experience. 

The problem of display: If you make books intended to be read in an intimate, one to one reader/book experience, then there is always a challenge when asked to display your work in a gallery setting. Do you set books out under glass, make them available only to be handled with white gloves, as a video projection of all the spreads, converted into an installation of some kind? At what point are you no longer displaying the original book but instead displaying something inspired by the book? One of the things that drew me to this project was that the beauty of the deconstructed book is that the open spread can be display like a horizontal broadside, and it behaves similarly to a one to one reading. 

back cover

Incanabulum Deconstructo!

The Joy of Bite-Size Fiction

Hello! I arrived at a good stopping place on my new novel and took a minute to scroll social media. A friend posted a photo of Western North...