Posts Tagged ‘katie schmid’

It’s been a while, blog of mine. I haven’t had much to say. Maybe later—maybe years later. For now I offer the doll scene from Louie:



This is pretty much how it’s been.

My story collection is off leading a life of its own, I hope, at [publishers], and I’ve been working on a very strange novel half the time and spending the other half at my job at a center for homeless and runaway youth. Lately it’s been hard. I keep sitting in front of my computer trying to make something happen, and finally all those words coming out of me start to mean something. But it’s never just sitting there. Sitting there and trying’s important—but it’s only a part of what makes writing possible.

That other part is what I’ve spent much of this blog, many walks, and hours and hours of conversation trying to define. It takes obsession and faith, and, for me, the knowledge that writing, like every job that’s really mattered to me, is a service position. It’s not therapy. It’s not about self-expression. It’s something that’s undertaken in service to oneself and others, because it’s really about describing what it means to be human and to live, exploring all the ways it is possible, how we harm and sustain one another, how what is indescribable might be, one day, described, and even how we artists fall short of these grand and noble goals. “What we respond to in any work is the artist’s struggle with her own limitations.” This is true. Because the limitations and the struggle are about all of us. At the same time, we artists mustn’t take ourselves too seriously. We must, however, take the work seriously.

“If I can get your email, I’ll shoot this estimate over to—oh, okay—” The man sitting a table away at the coffee shop is talking into his cell phone. “I’m just trying to squeeze it in—squeeze it into—” I have no idea what it’s like to be this man. He wears a white cap and a white collared shirt and khakis. He smiles a lot for no reason, while typing. Sometimes I cry while typing, but never in public.

Once, while sitting in the full sun by my window on North Hodgeman, I began crying while writing part of my story, “Chiefs.” I’d diverged from the story to get a little closer to the heart of the collection, which was about loss and how people fail one another. For whatever reason, the part I was writing moved me to tears, though that part wasn’t good enough, in the end, to keep in the story—it was raw, irrelevant. Emotional writing often isn’t very good. It tells the reader how to feel, and it doesn’t give him a chance to have his own feelings. Ultimately, something written in a surge of emotion fails to move a reader as much as a piece that sneaks up on you, that builds and builds and finally leaves you devastated–or crackling with feelings too complicated to name.

That day, I’d looked out my window and noticed a crowd of strangers standing a few yards away, facing me in my window. I lived in what might have been the ugliest house in one of the worst parts of town, and the group appeared to be students from the university who were led by a professor, and they were standing in the dirt lot that was my yard, looking at the power lines sagging overhead, at the railroad tracks, the overpass, and me weeping in my house. I’m not sure why they had come. Maybe they were part of an art class, maybe they were studying History. When they left I wrote the ending of “Chiefs”:

He remembered the day Anna left. He sat at his table and started writing her a letter. Halfway through, he was sobbing so badly he had to push the paper away. Then he looked out the window. There were two white girls standing in his yard. They were looking at him, at his house. They had notebooks it their hands. As he watched them, they turned and walked to a group of young people who stood around a man in his yard, all with notebooks in their hands. There was a van parked along the highway with the name of the community college on the door. The students looked around at the power lines and at things the man pointed at—Conky’s truck, his boots on the steps, a dead squirrel someone had hung from his tree, its body flat and dry like a banana husk, turning in the breeze. They wrote furiously in their notepads. Conky moved out of their view and stood against the wall until they left.

The part of the story I’d written while crying is gone, and the parts that remain–including the ending–are those shaped in the relative clarity that takes place beyond my own limited feelings, when I’m trying to describe how it feels to be someone else—how it feels to be a character I’ve invented out of pieces of everyone I know. I am not Conky. But because I can imagine how Conky feels—and because I trust that you can, too—I don’t need to tell you. Hopefully, if I’ve done the minimal requirements of my job, you will, after reading the piece, understand how Conky feels when he moves out of view and stands against the wall.

Emotions can help you get where you need to go. But the real gift of writing is getting outside of yourself. It’s not escapism—it’s connecting to a greater whole, to the lives of other human beings whose existences are normally sealed off from us.

The man in the white cap is gone. It’s dark outside and I’m one of the last people here. “Night Moves” is playing from invisible speakers high above me. Impersonal paintings on the walls and an emotional, overwritten piece about Billings’ homeless in one of the free copies of the city’s “women’s magazine” with pictures of female leaders on the front, airbrushed. I’m here, too, trying to write this thing. Taking it very seriously, indeed.

In a few minutes I’ll pack up and go home. Tomorrow I’ll be working with a group of incredibly vulnerable people who are just trying to survive, most of whom don’t have time to make art, much less think about why they’re making it. My book will seem like a tiny green island. I’m far from shore. I drift in the current. The youth I see at my job will be in the water, too, but their islands will look different from mine. “So what are you doing with your life?” a boy asked me last week. We were playing pool and he was in a bad mood. I said something like, I’m working here, with you, and the other part of the time I’m a writer. He stopped listening halfway through, lining up his next shot. Really, I’m doing what everyone’s doing. Trying to make it, trying to do something that matters.

Tomorrow morning, before work, I’ll be sitting here again.

I hope you’re still reading, or you’ve skipped down to this part, where I direct you to my friend Katie’s post about writing and the gift of “accidental devotion” :

It is a practice that explains one to oneself, but it can be the sustaining ritual that makes a space for your humanness. I have only been alive for a little while, but I already know that there are not many places in the world that allow you to be human, that nurture humanity. To attend to humanity is to be attuned to suffering of any kind (you can suffer joy, I think, and you can suffer grief). It is in this way, I think, I hope, that if you let it, writing, or art, can be the thing that makes you more human than anything else allows you to be.


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I have a vision of myself sitting on the window sill of the room I use as an office. I lean against the window and it gives way; it’s a glass capsule shooting over the parking lot, the tops of apartment buildings, and I’m lying inside it. There is no sense of motion but I could see everything pass below me if I wanted to. I’m looking up, at the clouds, and my back is cold, and I like it here. I can’t imagine going back but I can’t imagine what will happen if I stay in this capsule. It’s the middle of the winter in Montana, the sun’s going down, and soon, I’ll be freezing; maybe I’ll die. You think about those things, but you make yourself stop, or you forget.

I’m suspended in a tube that keeps me alive, but there’s no guarantee it isn’t running me into a cliff-face or shooting me into outer space.

I love writing because there’s no way to know how something will turn out. There’s no one way to do it. The possibilities are terrifyingly endless, spanning out so far you can’t recognize them, and then they become anything.

titanotheres, various forms of

Shelley Jackson‘s work, “Skin,” is “[a] story published on the skin of 2095 volunteers.” One word per volunteer—just some 200 tattoos to go. The work will never be published in the traditional sense, and only participants will ever know the full text. For the rest of us, Jackson’s work exists as the knowledge that her words are roaming the world,  walking among us, and will eventually die.

From this time on, participants will be known as “words” … As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words.

It’s not a work that’s meant to be available to most people. It’s meant to be absorbed, altered, ravaged, obliterated—quietly and largely in secret, in much the way most of us go about our private lives. But even though her complete work will never be disseminated to the larger public, Jackson has rearranged words from the original story into a new story that is read aloud by the volunteers in a YouTube video. The video stitches together flashes of ink on skin—feet, bellies, necks, butt cheeks—and the voices of the “words” as they read themselves. The voices spliced together sound like robot-talk (which is actually perfect—the words composing a story are like a machine unaware of its purpose, performing functions it cannot understand), but the unassuming words build upon each other, creating meaning.

Writing, like all art, begins with intention, and ends anywhere—eventually, nowhere. The idea that seems to be behind “Skin” appeals to me. The story is perpetually writing itself as the tattooed volunteers—its words—move through the world. And, since this is a “mortal” work, it has the somewhat unique property of being capable of total extinction from the world of humans without any more or less dignity than is afforded any one of us.

The traditional route of selling one’s book to a publishing house or submitting stories to journals represents one way to be a writer. People like Jackson are trying other ways. And the integrity of writing as art is by no means diminished when it manifests in alternate forms. It doesn’t have to go beyond words on paper. And maybe it shouldn’t, always, but it can.

Let’s talk digital writing (collectively, in robot voices).

Boop boop.

Digital writing explores every possible way for audiences to experience words. For instance, “The Breathing Wall — a collaborative project by Kate Pullinger, Stefan Schemat, and babel — uses text, image and sound to tell a story that responds to the listener’s breathing rate.

But for a wonderful example of writing digitized, I need look no further than a project by a couple I know from the frozen-whiskered streets of Laramie.

Katie Schmid/Henson’s poem, “Swimming in the Reservoir,” set to music by Shadows on a River and animated in a stop motion film by Katie and her husband, David Henson (of Shadows), is an example of a gracefully composed transmedia adventure, big- time. Katie’s poem in written form is already powerful; she’s a great reader, too. The video doesn’t make the original work better or worse; it offers an excellent expanded version of its previously dormant parts — its shifting fault lines. Art is always awake. Under its surface, tectonic plates growl, promising something — continental drift, volcanic eruption; change, disaster, renewal. If you want to, you can try to coax out what’s underground.

Here’s Katie and David’s video:

(link to the video on Shadows on a River’s Vimeo profile: http://vimeo.com/22861915)

I used to think people were hungry for realism in response to the surreal nature of ordinary life, but I think what we’re really after — or what I’m really after — is closer to a sense of authenticity. If realism means communicating even the extraordinary and supernatural in a realistic way (as long as events are “plausible” in the “world of the story”), authenticity seems like communicating anything in any way, providing that it creates this deeply rooted, yet expansive feeling — I recognize this  instead of this is real; stillness; the sense of windows spanning out in straight lines; emotional truth. It’s my religion, man. Anyway, I think I’m belaboring this whole thing. But I do think the internet’s the last place we expect to find authenticity, and the very last for stillness, so maybe that’s exactly where we should create those things. “Using more tools to build stillness” sounds at odds with itself, but Katie and David’s piece shows that it doesn’t have to be.

Unfortunately, projects like “Swimming in the Reservoir” – which layer multiple elements without burying the core of the piece – were rare in my voyages through the often concept-heavy world of digital writing. By digital writing, I mean the unison of words (text or audio) with video and/or music, which is featured primarily online, and where words are the prominent element — but a truly accurate definition probably requires acknowledging how difficult digital writing is to define. Anyway, with all the possibilities digital media offers writers, it’s super hard to get all the languages right, and it’s possible to get so entranced with all the potential for coolness and interactivity that the product becomes closer to a somewhat dull role-playing game than like an emotionally complex piece of art. And maybe that’s fine. I don’t know. This seems so simplistic.

Digital writer Andy Campbell, author of Dreaming Methods, says these smart things about the implications of expanding the written word beyond its traditional spaces:

[W]riting can now move/change over time. Writing not only carries meaning and evokes story and character, it also becomes enhanced both visually and interactively; gains new attributes that can be explored by writers and experienced by readers/users. It becomes liquid. Changeable. Like the way our memories, personal histories and perceptions of the world around us adjust and mutate over time. And it can do it with a sense of immediacy.

“Interview with Andy Campbell

Some online novels are written with fan participation every step of the way; it’s possible for a single work to have hundreds of authors. I don’t know if these collectively-produced works are particularly good, or whether anyone’s making money, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. Making art for no reason is the best thing, and opportunities to do so are rare, I’m certainly not going to criticize them.

Even smaller-scale digital writing ventures often rely on collaboration —

artists who understand each other’s visions

and unite them

in one project

that is not diffused by the clutter of too many ideas or

compromised by imperfect connections between one element of storytelling to another.

The previous sentence is a stunning example of how quickly ideas clutter – with just one writer. This entire blog reminds me of Hoarders; it’s just stuffed with half-articulated thoughts arranged without any care, but it’s okay, because I might need them someday. If all these ideas fall on a cat it could be injured! These orphaned hedgehogs adopted a cleaning brush as their mother!

Boop boop.

Around the time I started blogging, I came across Take the Handle’s “Mysteries” issue and fell in love. I’ve never been drawn to zines or literary journals, but I felt the writing in that issue was very good, and I appreciated the order/disorder dichotomy implied in its digital messiness. I applied for an unpaid blogger position. I never heard back, so I tried submitting some fiction. Again, nothing. Take the Handle remains one of two or three journals that I’ve ever submitted anything to (not to AHEM, but my friends at the other room published “We Are Thistles, We Are Wind” last fall!). Point is, my reluctance to submit to journals unless I fundamentally connect with them has something to do with my belief that sharing one’s work, even making a living off it, could BE art, or close to it — and I think most digital writing shares that sentiment.

Writers might look to musicians for inspiration, as the average indie band is light-years ahead of most of us in term of using the internet to share their work in ways that don’t compromise their art.

This isn’t the first time I’ve found a way to incorporate Amanda Palmer into my blog.

Palmer makes music (in her words, she’s “the ‘punk cabaret’ lana del rey of our day”) and does what she wants, and she has a great blog. A few years ago, she split with her record company because she felt she could do better on her own. She did a lot better. At least, Palmer said she was happier, and she was able to sell or not sell her music in a way that reflected her own values and aesthetics. A  killer article in PopMatters puts her success into perspective.

[T]here are few other artists working at her level that have actively rejected the contemporary corporate consensus of how a music career is built, sustained and paid for… and lived to tell the tale. Not for nothing did David Geffen once say that when the music business turns against you, “they don’t want you to fail—they want you to die.”

— “Art Endures, Capitalism Degenerates: The Evolving Career of Amanda Palmer,” by Sean Bell

Damn. How did she emerge victorious over the death-forces of the music industry? —

“i stopping doing logical bullshit career things and i started picking the projects that meant less money, but more time around more gentle friends, the kind of people i liked sharing wine and stories with.”

— Amanda Palmer blog post

– the obvious way one prevails over death-forces anywhere: having a good time, connecting with people, making art for no reason. And putting it on the internet. Palmer raised $11,000 in 2 hours on Twitter, for godsakes.


Guy: “I feel like I’m having an off day today.”
Other guy: “Yeah.”

Guy: “Hair-wise.”

Other guy: “Yeah. I don’t know, I think you look Greek.”

As an artist, I have nothing to sell. Art begins and ends in invisible places. And we all know, you can’t sell shit you can’t see. But I will take money and choice offerings. But I do wish all that wasn’t necessary.

I’m mostly riding this glass capsule wherever it takes me and I’m not feeling too brave, so this could get rough. But it could be great. I’m just here, waiting to be swallowed up. We’re mortal art, and we better start acting like it. There isn’t a word in our bodies that isn’t awake.

I’m slow to adapt, or to differentiate the future from the present or from something that’s already happened. I can’t believe the woman who just left the coffee shop is already walking across the street – no hesitation – from inside with me to outside in front of three lanes of rumbling traffic. Part of me doesn’t believe she’s the same woman. She could be one of Shelley Jackson’s words, flickering between text and humanity. Her word, on her inner thigh: “dropped.” Or, “ankles.” Or, “floating.”

A living text is capable of anything.



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