Sunday, March 28, 2010

On Blogging and Technology for Writers

Mark Weaver

John Ladd, over at Paradise Tossed, has asked me to talk about how blogging and technology has affected my development as a writer.

Every writer will approach blogging differently. For some writers, a blog is mainly a marketing apparatus to promote their published (or unpublished) books. Others treat a blog more like a daily journal, in which they record their development as a writer. And still others will transform their blog into a creative vehicle, often based on a theme or an idea, with lots of experimentation along the way. None of these are better or worse than the other, and there are quite a few I've left out, such as the collaborative blog, which is a kind of publishing outlet for a group of writers.

If I'd been born ten years earlier, I imagine I'd be submitting work to literary journals, and attempting to wedge myself into the cut-throat publishing industry. But the precise timing of my development as a writer coincided with the technology boom for online publishing. It was at this moment that I decided to eschew sending my work to journals and agents (as the publishing world was on its way down anyways), and throw myself into this new territory and see what would come of it.

With the rise of social media in the last five years, writers like myself are inundated with an abundance of micro-technologies that could in some way advance their careers/vocations as writers. To name just a few examples, Scribd introduced a technology that allows writers to turn any file into a web document and share it; and now you can sell e-copies of your work on the same platform. Amazon Kindle Publishing for Blogs will include your blog in the Kindle directory, and pay you for the subscriptions you receive. Lulu prints books for independent authors, with a host of design and editorial services.

In my first year of blogging, I felt that I had to register on every social bookmarking site and have every newfangled feature on my blog. I also spread myself thin by putting content on over ten different blogs. You could say that I was so excited with these tools that I lost sight of my original purpose, which is to write. While I look back at this period and see a lot of foolishness in my frenzied embrace of new technology, I also understand that, for me, this was a period of experimentation. The technologies that web startups were providing me with as a writer gave me an education in a different field, that of social media.

At the heart of social media is the word "social." Too often, I forgot that early on. I was obsessed with setting up blogs here and there, and registering on new sites, but forgetting that I needed to cultivate a community around my blogs. Later I learned that community thrives on mutual interest, reading and commenting on the work of others. It is easy to use these technologies to create a solipsistic bubble, and even easier to allow the technologies to distract you.

Today I focus on this blog and the web journal I founded, Escape into Life. When online technologies are harnessed in the proper way, they can serve us rather than distract us. We are very clever as writers, and social media can make us even more clever at avoiding writing. However, it can also do just the opposite. Blogging can in fact promote discipline by giving a writer a simple outlet for writing on a regular basis. As your audience grows, and your contacts become greater, you will find a real inspiration to continue writing.

My voice has developed through blogging versus writing drafts of essays and chapters of novels that only I will read. When you are blogging, you are speaking to someone, there is a tangible audience that appears in the comments or your number of page views. The blogging platform is fertile ground for the development of a writer's voice. It is the conversational quality of blogging that improves voice. Laurence Stern once said, "Writing, when properly managed . . . is but a different name for conversation," and blogging is an ideal exercise for that kind of writing.

The blogosphere is also a conversation among many blogs, and web technology with hyper-linking at the center of it, informs a structure of communication that is essentially a forum. Blogs quickly develop into networks of blogs, with writers referencing each other in their posts and suggesting new blogs to their audiences. This social aspect of contemporary writing reflects a departure from older forms in that community is built into the writing itself.

Micro-blogging, such as Twitter, eventually became the social media technology I embraced the most. I struggled with traditional blogging for a long time; I lamented my lack of readers, I disliked the delay involved in communicating through blogs, I also had trouble finding blogs that interested me and developing connections to writers. Ultimately, Twitter enabled me to make the connections with writers that I was failing to do through blogging.

For the first time, I wanted to visit people's blogs and learn about them. Perhaps this was because Twitter opened up the channel for real-time conversation. Just as I was visiting more blogs through Twitter, I was also finding that more people were visiting my blog. My traffic increased dramatically, and this gave me encouragement as a writer. Twitter allowed me to announce new posts immediately after they were written, or direct message my close circle of friends whenever I was excited about a new essay and wanted feedback.

Some readers would leave essay-long responses, adding new perspectives and arguments to the questions I was raising. My essay, "How many of us are self-medicating?" elicited so many interesting responses that I now looked upon my essays on the Blog of Innocence as having a dimension which included the comments. The comments were a significant part of the essays themselves, and this gave me insight into the form of the writing.

But perhaps, most importantly, blogging has helped me to peel away the layers of self-deception. Every artist must look within in order to create. Otherwise what we create are our own shadows, the preoccupations and anxieties surrounding the ego, rather than something closer to the mystery of the human condition.
It seemed the very garments that I wore/ Preyed on my strength, and stopped the quiet stream/ Of self-forgetfulness. --Wordsworth
Writing essays for two years and sharing them on the web with thousands of people has changed the way I write. I feel that I've had to probe deeper into my soul as a writer, and figure out exactly what it is that prompts me to write in the first place. For a long time, I believed that fiction was my calling, but recently I've made the realization that fiction does not give me pleasure. Quite simply, I'm not enthusiastic about it. What gives me life and what gives me energy is writing essays and meditations on the Blog of Innocence. A much more humble project than I anticipated for myself, but also one better suited to my interests and talents.


Friday, March 26, 2010

Here Come the Culture Critics

Wang Guangyi

Michiko Kakutani's New York Times article, "Texts Without Context," attempts to pull together a number of loose strands about contemporary culture and technology. Her basic premise is that culture is feeding on its own tail; without creating anything new, we are depending heavily on the materials of the past, using new technologies to copy, paste, and mash together anything and everything for our creative or intellectual purposes.

She also emphasizes that a culture based on "immediacy and real-time responses" means that people are less interested in reading entire books or articles, and more interested in "cutting to the chase." We want the summary, the anecdote, the biased review that appeals to our emotions but pays little attention to context and nuance. Personalized media feeds you the content that matters to you, but this emphasis on the subjective also contributes to the polarization of political views on the web. Everyone is reading what they want to hear.

Kakutani quotes the scholar Susan Jacoby:
Reading in the traditional open-ended sense is not what most of us, whatever our age and level of computer literacy, do on the Internet. What we are engaged in--like birds of prey looking for their next meal--is a process of swooping around with an eye out for certain kinds of information.
If readers have become birds of prey, media outlets have become even worse by pandering to the whims of impulse-driven audiences. In an effort to get more clicks, websites dole out mindless cat videos to their millions of viewers, or "gossip, rumors and the sort of amusing-entertaining-weird anecdotes." Editors, writers, and artists have the benefit of mass feedback provided by interactive media, polls, and fan bulletin boards, and are therefore more likely to give their audiences what they "want or expect."

Cyberculture has a decidedly adolescent character in Kakutani's view, perpetuating "a Peter Pan fantasy of being an entitled child forever, without the responsibilities of adulthood."

Her main attack, however, deals with what she sees as vapid cultural production in the form of "parodies, homages, variations, pastiches, collages and others forms of appropriation art." The vast majority of this user-created media, according to Kakutani, is lazy, mediocre, and suffering from what Jaron Lanier, author of the book, You Are Not a Gadget, calls "nostalgic malaise."

Lanier writes:
Online culture is dominated by trivial mash-ups of the culture that existed before the onset of mash-ups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action . . . Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases and video games must be responsible for almost as much bit traffic as porn. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but since the Web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.
In essence, the mash-ups, remixes, parodies, and re-appropriations are more valued than the original sources, and so we face a culture of texts without contexts, a sort of floating, pseudo-world, where beliefs are privileged over facts, subjective reactions over objective research, and online collectivisim over measured criticism.

I'm summarizing these viewpoints because I believe they are valid and persuasive. The metrics of the web are the second and the minute, and not the hour and the half hour, as it once was for television. The majority of content on the web, unfortunately, reflects this new metric. The superabundance of content, along with the many non-linear pathways to accessing content, removes the notion of the passive subject in relation to culture. Now we must actively forage for our reading material, design the ways in which we want to receive our content, and even respond to the news that is served. We are all filters to the hundreds of webpages that are put in front of our faces every day.

On the one hand, it may be argued (as Kakutani argues), that the democratization of cultural production leads to a diminishment in quality. The mass section of the web that Kakutani criticizes is much like the majority of television programming: it appeals to the lowest common denominator. This is only to be expected when websites and media outlets are trying to raise advertising dollars by higher and higher numbers.

Similarly, it may be argued, that where more people are creating content, as on the web, a vast amount of that content will naively reflect trends in popular culture, appear superficial or juvenile, and lack critical or artistic merit.

I believe that Lanier and Kakutani are focused on a certain part of the vast topography of the web. If they were immersed in the content production side of the web, they would see it from a different angle entirely. As Clay Shirky notes in his book, Here Comes Everybody, users play different roles in online culture. Some users read blog posts and don't comment on them, some users comment on blogs but don't have blogs themselves, and yet others actively maintain blogs and produce content.

There is not only re-action on the web. In truth, the web is driven by the very opposite. Internet startups, online publishing hubs, and countless websites are all actively architecting the virtual world. Every person who creates a blog and publishes their own content is actively creating something on the web.

In my view, the proliferation of mashups and re-appropriated art is culture's response to superabundance. While it's true that many pop-culture mashups re-use materials from only a decade ago, the bigger picture is that our culture is swimming in the materials of over 2000 years of history.

This is not merely a case of "nostalgic malaise." Digital culture inundates us with what is essentially our past, and not only the past, but many versions of the past, stretching from yesterday's news, to the beginning of time.

Technology also puts us in the paradoxical position of looking forward, anticipating what's next, while we are faced with a flood of what came before. The cultural production that arises from this unique combination is forever at the helm of re-interpretation. All you will find now are "translations," without the original source, or perhaps a slim, watered-down version of the original source.

Self-publishing heralds a culture of active culture-producers. Everyone can produce culture, and that implies that each of us must interpret, and actively understand the world around us. The world is no longer a fixed place, held up by the artificial supports of newspapers and magazines. We are actively cobbling together the world now, from endless fragments, webpages, points of view, and utterances.

In one month, I am exposed to more aspects of culture on the web than I was exposed to in four years of college. The confluence of social networking and exchange, active content production, and research using search engines, makes what I learned in college look parochial.

I'm the editor of an online journal. I'm constantly reading articles that discuss wide-ranging aspects of art and culture, and then I make editorial judgments about the material, and prepare it for a large readership. In short, I'm doing something with the information on the web, and so is nearly everyone else, for the first time in history. We are not just "readers" anymore. We must act, interpret, judge, and discriminate.

Art has always relied on inter-textuality, but in our era we see something else, something more extreme. The individual is primarily relating to texts by showing ownership of them. User-generated media facilitates this process of ownership. By taking images that seem beautiful or funny, passages from books that stimulate the mind, or holding discussions about the issues that matter to a person, each individual is actively working to produce his or her own cultural landscape.

If the result of this kind of cultural production seems to only involve the self as it relates to the world, rather than the other way around, then I see this new culture as a boon, even with all of the drawbacks associated.

More Essays . . .


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

When Will We Live Online?

Katsumi Hayakawa

When I first saw the trailer to We Live in Public several months ago, I was anxious to see the film. It had all the ingredients, a documentary, about the Internet, about a pioneer of the Internet, a madman, perhaps a genius, or just someone exceptionally bright with a leaning toward experimentation, psychology and human behavior.

The documentary is fairly straightforward. It is about the life of Josh Harris, dubbed the "Warhol of the Web," who in the early nineties founded a company called Jupiter. Jupiter turned out to be a cash cow precisely because it was an early adopter of using Internet technology to collect personal data. Harris was also involved in selling online chat software to Prodigy, the early competitor of AOL. With his millions of dot com dollars, Harris founded another company called, which marketed itself as an Internet television network.

I don't remember, but according to the documentary it was a promising startup. Think MTV for the web. With dozens of web channels, catering to young audiences, Pseudo attempted to leverage itself against major television networks. Harris believed that this type of technology, TV on the web, would overtake ABC, NBC, CBS. He was an ardent believer, almost to the point of delusion, in any project he started.

Pseudo did fairly well for a time, and its stock market value increased. But Harris's public persona was giving the company a bad name. Harris was what you call an eccentric (he dressed up in a clown suit as his alter ego Luuvy).

After Harris split with Pseudo, he went on to conduct two big experiments with surveillance technology and the Internet, funded by his millions of dollars. He was estimated at having over 80 million dollars during the dot com era.

Harris's business acumen is questionable, and an interesting subject in relation to this documentary. He had visionary insight into the future of the web. He was obsessed with video technology, and perhaps the only snag was that the development of video technology for the web had not matured to point where it's at today. But he staged his projects after, not as businesses, but as social experiments. He was fascinated with the effects of technology on people, and that's why this documentary offers a provocative reflection of our times.

In his first experiment, he funded and architected the "Quiet" project, a social experiment of Orwellian proportions that involved over a hundred people living together in an underground bunker in New York City. Harris fed them, entertained them, gave them free drinks and created a 24 hour party atmosphere. The only tradeoff was their privacy--Harris recorded his subjects with hundreds of video cameras. Each person had a pod where they slept, with a television attached to their bunk bed that allowed them to watch each other, eating, sleeping, shitting, having sex, etc.

At one point in the movie, Harris says that Andy Warhol was wrong about his statement, "In the future, everyone will have 15 minutes of fame." Harris says, "Everyone will have 15 minutes of fame every day."

Harris's second experiment was on himself and his new girlfriend. His obsession with surveillance is taken to the obvious extreme when he decides to record every minute of his life by rigging his apartment with 70 surveillance cameras. The video was streamed to the web where users could comment in a chat box beside the video in real-time. Often Harris and his girlfriend communicated with the chat room, and they developed bonds to the anonymous users who watched their most intimate activities.

I couldn't help but think of how Harris's experiments with web technology have actually become very similar to how we live now. While it's obvious we're not being filmed in our bedrooms, with our every action streamed to the web, the immense growth of social media in the last five years has ushered in a way of life that carries the same implications as Harris's experiments.

Twitter is basically a technology that effects Harris's experiments on a realistic, practical level. Real-time communication through Twitter implicates us in a public virtual life. We may be anonymous on Twitter, but on Facebook people know our names, and often much more than that. Increasingly, our lives are being uploaded on the web in one form or another. We begin to feel attached to the manufacturing and sustaining of our web identities and personas. This often comes at the cost of creating a life for ourselves offline, taking walks, having conversations, riding the bike, or just being away from a laptop or smartphone.

Suffice it to say that the results of Harris's two experiments were not happy endings. The "Quiet" project eventually got raided by the police, not to mention the tensions that were building inside previous to the raid. And his relationship with his girlfriend ended in bitterness and loathing, on the web for all to see. Shortly after he stopped the project entirely.

I am the poster child for the Internet's obsession with social media. My life has changed dramatically since I began using social media . . .

I can tell you, it hasn't always been this way. I remember when I didn't even have Internet at home. I did everything from a computer at my job. But since then I've quit my job and invested in the website Escape into Life. I'm constantly promoting the site on Twitter and the production behind the site, and the development planning and coordination, requires me to be on the Internet all the time. Or does it?

I can't imagine waking up in the morning and not immediately checking my email. The web has so absorbed my daily life that I must break routinely during the day to leave the house. But when I come back, I return to the online world, tweeting, emailing, blogging. It's scary how narrow my life has become as a result of my regular use of the web.

The Blog of Innocence will tell you many private things about myself. My last post is especially revealing. I am living in public through my blog. Certain things about this worries me, such as future sponsors for Escape into Life. If they see my life laid out here, then maybe they won't want to sponsor me. My past is ugly, and I don't shy away from talking about it.

I exult in the freedom to publish my thoughts. Technology has given me one of the greatest gifts as a writer, a platform to stage my writings. Audiences on the web are fickle, which means we become obsessed with our standing, how many views we receive per day, how much traffic, how many fans or followers. As we upload, post, and publish more of our lives on the web, we become more attached to the medium we're using to advertise ourselves.

In a short article in the latest issue of Wired that talks about the relationship between humans and technology, Clive Thompson writes:
These days, though, there's a big debate between folks who love our modern, digitally enhanced lifestyle and those who are unsettled by it . . . People who are thrilled by personal technology are the ones who have optimized their process--they know how and when to rely on machine intelligence. They've tweaked their Facebook settings, micro-configured their RSS feeds, trained up the AI recommendations they get from Apple's Genius or TiVo.

And crucially, they also know when to step away from the screen and ignore the clamor of online distractions. The upshot is that they feel smarter, more focused, and more capable. In contrast, those who feel intimidated by online life haven't hit that sweet spot. They feel the Internet is making them harried and--as Nicholas Carr suggested in The Atlantic--"stupid."
Thompson reduces our relationship to technology to an "optimization" process, but I feel it's fairly more complicated than that. There are staggering numbers that show how much our online lives have increased in the last five years.

Just to give you an idea of how many people are on the web, here are a some statistics I picked up from "The State of the Internet":
1.73 billion Internet users worldwide (Sept. 2009)

234 million websites (Dec. 2009)

126 million blogs

27.3 million tweets per day (Nov. 2009)

400 million people on Facebook

4 billion photos hosted on Flickr

1 billion videos served by YouTube in one day

182 videos per month that the average Internet user watches in a month (USA)
Optimization is not going to change the fact that we are living larger chunks of our lives on the web. After awhile, virtual life begins to replace lived life, and at the younger ages, you can already see this happening. My younger sister, for example, keeps her iPhone at her side at all times and she's constantly checking it.

I truly enjoy the networks I participate in and the networks I support. I believe Escape into Life is doing a good thing for artists and writers. But my online life and my offline life are virtually indistinguishable at this point.

We may lament over these losses of freedom, but what is the alternative? On a basic level, I can restructure my life so that it incorporates more aspects of living beside online communication and work. But here is what I'm afraid has happened. When I turn away from the online world, and look to what is left for me, I see a person who is isolated, with few ties to his family, no girlfriend, and little social interaction. This is the plight of the modern individual.

There is a gulf of emptiness waiting for us on the other side. Perhaps that's why we cling to technology and unconsciously allow ourselves to become so wrapped up in it. We're alone. Living online has temporarily made us forget that we're alone, and therein lies its elusive promise, to be connected, to be influential, to be heard.


Monday, March 22, 2010

How I Escaped from Rehab

Lucas Biazon

I called my mother from the Backpacker's Inn, a gritty sort of place outside the Vegas Strip. I'd been living there for approximately two weeks.

"Let me come home," I said. But she was too worried about what I might do in Chicago.

"Go back to rehab," she said in her brittle voice. My father had recently divorced her and she was living with a caretaker, who I could hear in the background.

I knew I couldn't stay in Vegas anymore. I was making too many enemies and I didn't have any money. They allowed me to stay at the Backpacker's Inn each night because I cleaned the rooms during the day.

My mother paid for my plane ticket and I flew out to Tucson, Arizona, where I had already been to rehab but was kicked out the 28th day when I refused to do an after-care program. I was going back there because I had nowhere else to go.

The thing about Cottonwood de Tucson is that it's filled with lots of rich people and celebrities. It's in the middle of the desert and has a gigantic swimming pool, palm trees, and ten or fifteen resort-style bungalows. The food is gourmet and healthy, and the chef greets you as you enter the dining hall.

My roommate was the drummer of a famous musician, who was there for a pot addiction. He was fifteen years old. To me, however, it appeared like he had an addiction to drawing penises. He would draw them everywhere with a black sharpie, benches, sheets of paper, his arm.

There were others too. This one lanky man, about six feet tall, wore a cowboy hat and yodeled at night. He strummed on his guitar and made up songs on the smoking bench. He said he was a television writer in LA and wrote the first season for NYPD Blue. He left the center a couple times in a cab, but was brought back by his wife.

But when I returned to Cottonwood after Vegas, it wasn't the same. I didn't recognize anyone, other than some of the staff members. The first day I guess you could say I got off to a bad start. We were only allowed to smoke at the smoking bench, and I was lighting up wherever I wanted. They yelled at me, told me to put out my cigarette.

I was already getting sick of the daily mantras and routines. I pretended to be involved but my mind kept wandering back to the places I'd been on my own, without any adults telling me what to do.

On the second night, the leaders called us to the rotunda for a medallion ceremony. You always have new people coming in and out of these places. We were expected to say goodbye to the ones who completed the program, and there was a circle where you passed around the medallion and made a wish for them.

On my way to the rotunda, the thought crossed my mind, "What if I just ran away?" It was an impulsive thought, but when an impulse takes hold of me, it's like I've been abducted by an alien race. The voice of reason never comes through in these moments. It's only the urge that speaks to me. A whole new reality can be made in that moment, and I feel alive.

Everyone was far ahead of me, most of them had already entered the rotunda for the medallion ceremony. I turned around and walked back to my room. I gathered my things and threw what I could fit into my backpack. Then I started to creep along the outskirts of the compound toward the highway.

There were no security guards, no high walls to scale. The rehab center proudly called itself an "open" treatment facility, where you were "free to leave at any time."

And so I left.

I'm not going to lie here. It really thrilled me to do outrageous things when I was younger. I'm not the type to go speeding in cars or jumping off cliffs, but a singular rebellious act filled me with extreme self-gratification. And it still does sometimes, although I've learned to choose my rebellious acts carefully.

But that doesn't mean that I wasn't nervous when this happened. I didn't want to get caught, and my heart was beating violently in my chest. I really wanted to make it out of there without anyone seeing me.

I followed a long driveway which begins at the admission office and extends about a quarter of a mile to the highway. The driveway was pitch black and strewn with rocks. To the side, there was a thick barrier of trees and some houses with their lights on.

The highway curved around the head of the Cottonwood entrance, and a car passed me at breakneck speed. I realized I had to clear from this area as soon as possible or risk being dragged back into the Garden of Eden. So I ran along the shoulder under a canopy of trees for a hundred paces and then sprinted across the highway.

The highway was an elevated pavement running between two large ditches on either side. The shoulder was thin and I had to balance myself on the edge of it while watching for oncoming cars. I figured I was better off in the ditch than making this tight-rope walk in the dark. So I slid my body down into the trench, where some debris and empty beer bottles were scattered at the base.

Unfortunately, I couldn't just walk straight through the ditch. In some places, the ditch stopped completely at a wall of dirt and sand. I waited in the ditch for a couple minutes and then tried to see what the desert looked like on the other side. If I could pull myself up somehow, I would be at the foot of the desert.

I was born in Illinois and I'd never trekked across a desert before. What you don't think about the desert at night is how different the landscape is, really severe, stark territory. When I climbed onto the other side of the ditch, I felt watched by the vegetation. There were vast open tracts of land and then clumps of knee-high prickly bushes. You couldn't walk in a straight line. You had to zigzag around the plants and cacti. I kept shielding my legs from the snags of bushes. Thorns everywhere. My shins were bleeding.

In the distance, I heard a car coming and so I dropped down on my stomach next to a prickly brush. Through the brush, I could see a white van, the same white van they had at Cottonwood to haul the patients from one place to another, and I knew it was Cowboy Bill driving that night because he was the only one on transportation duty. In fact, before the medallion ceremony, he had just taken us to an AA meeting in Tucson. He told jokes on the way and everyone laughed.

I waited in the desert for a long time, keeping myself hidden. The moon shed a little light over the area where I was sitting, and I took out my journal to scrawl a couple sentences. Throughout my drug addiction, I carried a journal everywhere I went, and I felt compelled to report on my state of mind during these climactic moments.

As some of you may know, I began writing these stories as a novel. One of the reasons for this is it felt like a novel as I was going through it. The divorce between my parents, my mother's illness, and the numerous psych wards, rehabilitation centers, and halfway houses I encountered, made up a chain of surreal events. But the strangest thing of all was my delusion, my magical thinking, that I could alter the course of events by actions such as this one. I imagined myself as a heroic figure, rebelling against the dictates of my father, and all authority by extension, in order to reclaim a sense of my own free will, however twisted, and not give in to a ready-made script handed to me by someone else.

After about forty-five minutes, I was becoming more aware of the sounds and movements around me. A pack of coyotes howled somewhere in the distance. An owl appeared in the crook of a cactus and turned its head 180 degrees. I imagined snakes slithering across the desert floor when I heard the bushes shaking. So I threw my backpack over my shoulder and in a hurry to get out of there, I climbed over several dozen thorn bushes, which ripped the skin under my thighs.

Once I got to the edge of the desert, I gladly jumped into the ditch, which to me was a far better place than the eerie desert. It was probably two or three in the morning when I stepped onto the shoulder of the highway, with not a soul in sight.

A car passed along the highway every twenty minutes or so. I stuck out my thumb each time, but nobody stopped. It was hard to believe that I was actually hitchhiking like this. At first I exulted in the sheer fact that I was out there, on my own, giving myself up to perfect chance. But as each car passed, I started to feel less and less hopeful that someone would pick me up. The stretch of highway ran on to infinity, it seemed, with only the ridge of the desert and some occasional towering cacti to provide me a sense of direction.

Every time a car passed me, I thought it would be the last. Then I saw a pickup truck slow down ahead. The red, rust-bitten pickup went in reverse until it was right where I was standing. A man in his late thirties leaned over and pushed open the door. He had on a nice pair of jeans, which I noticed for some reason. I think I was looking for clues as to whether I should get in his truck. I got in the vehicle anyways.


Escape into Life: Issue no. 14

Faith Georgia

I am happy to present to you an Escape into Life double-issue filled with all sorts of goodies. This month Simon Karter joined the team as a fiction writer. In this issue, you'll read one of his short stories and there are more to come in future issues. We also have two outstanding art essays, one by Tony Thomas on the history of the art museum, and the other by David Maclagan, on the history of the doodle.

I also met with a new development team in Chicago. Our goal is to integrate the thriving publication with a marketplace for original drawings and prints. The store and auction on Escape into Life will be curated, and there will be a place for reviews and ratings of the work.

The Art Museum and its Origins . . . Tony Thomas shares a wealth of information about the beginnings of the art museum and its evolution into what we know today.

Everything is Changing. . . Simon Karter is an excellent fiction writer. This story demonstrates his enormous talents.

Poetry by Nicelle Davis . . . Nicelle Davis's work is very powerful. She also runs a free online poetry workshop.

Knud Merrild: An Introduction . . . Stephen Pain discusses the life and work of Danish artist Knud Merrild who is known for his "flux" technique.

Beyond the Doodle . . . David Maclagan tells us that the "doodle is in fact an invention." A thought-provoking study of the doodle and its origins.

Celebrating the Art of the Doodle: 20 Awesome Doodles . . . This is a companion piece to David's essay. I've collected some of the most interesting doodles I could find.

25 Spellbinding Collages . . . Part of the "showcase" series that displays remarkable art from around the internet.

What is Escape into Life?

EIL is a publication based on the concept of citizen journalism. The goal is to create a journal of poetry, essays, and art from writers who are already publishing on the Web and who would like to gain more exposure to their blogs. The artists we feature are the very best we can find, and the writers have a background in writing and a passion for the arts.

More information here

Saturday, March 20, 2010

On Books and Bookstores

Ezequiel E. Ruiz

"She's brilliant I think."

"She's a lunatic."

I'm sitting in Borders, overhearing a conversation between a mother and a daughter. Country-pop music is playing over the speakers. I've heard the song a thousand times.

"Have you read this one?"

"I didn't read the other one, I couldn't get through it . . ."

"Oh, I loved it."

"I read it. I read it. When you went off to college."

Recording these conversations is giving me a slight buzz. The women who disappear around the bookshelves, leave their voices trailing behind them, and I write down their broken fragments without knowing why.

What I love about a person's voice is its distinction. The distinction in personality comes through the volume of the voice, the boldness or timidity of it, and the colors in a voice seem to combine all the person's experiences and attitudes about the world. You don't even really need to take into account what they're saying. You can just hear how they're saying it, and (almost) all is revealed about that person.

But I shouldn't be sitting here, eavesdropping.

I am perpetually standing outside of Borders bookstore. This is my little isle of concrete where I light up my cigarette and watch the cars coming into the parking lot. The people approach the stores with their husbands, boyfriends, children, friends. I never recognize anyone. The various strangers may look at me only briefly, and each person gives me about as much notice as a black crow on a telephone wire.

I remember when I was in college I used to smoke outside the English building before class. The head of the department would always see me by the giant Corinthian columns, puffing away. He usually had a deprecating smile, like rubber bands pulling at the corners of his mouth. He would say my name in a formal way, and then, "Whenever I see you, you're smoking."

I go back into Borders, stopping to get my cup of water. The cafe girls, or baristas, know that after I drink my coffee and smoke my cigarette, I'm going to ask for a cup of water. They are usually pretty upbeat and friendly, and seem to enjoy doing me this little favor.

As I sit down into my faux leather chair, I note that a certain liveliness has overtaken the store. I'm happy as long as I can read my newspaper, but just in case I've brought earplugs. Later tonight, Borders will be hosting an event for educator's week and a dozen rows of chairs are set up on the opposite side of the store. Five authors and poets will be reading from their books. I plan to leave before the speakers arrive.

On a Saturday, around five or six o' clock, you can expect the store to be a little busier. I'm not misanthropic, I like people, I come here because of the energy. Otherwise I would be home all day, in my office cell, staring at the computer screen.

"I'll be talking about the Borders Experience tonight," I say to Jeff, who has walked past my chair and turned around. "Yeah, I'm doing a promo tonight before the speakers begin."

Jeff is a thin noodle of a man with concave shoulders and glasses. He looks at me quizzically. "No, you're not--"

"Yes, they asked me to talk about what it was like to come here every single day for two years. I'm a good representative, you know."

"I don't believe you." His glasses are perched on the end of his nose. He turns away from me with disbelief and uncertainty.

What I like about bookstores, and this one in particular, is how a person will stop in front of a display or bookshelf and fix their attention on something. They pause there for a moment, and it's kind of interesting to watch them. You wonder what's going through their heads at this moment. Why this book? Maybe it relates to their life somehow, their interests. They're captivated by that object they hold in their hands. It's intriguing.

And then, they move on, walking in a sort of deathless trance toward the next object of attraction. They take a few steps in one direction, maybe turn around, go another direction, it's as if they're sensing the forcefield, waiting to see what will pull them in.

Books have always been a part of my life. They offer the promise of some information about myself. I see books as containing personal symbols we're either drawn to or repelled by. We're repelled by what we can't identify with and drawn to the thoughts that seem to echo our own.

So it's no wonder that people walk slowly through bookstores with an air of mystery and quest. These objects are powerful, they speak to our deepest selves if we find the right one. It seems we're looking to extend the conversation we're already having with ourselves. Like our own monologues written by others. That's what I'm seeking in a book.

I tell a couple other Borders staff members that I'm speaking tonight. "I'll be right there behind that podium. Seven o'clock." And they say in unison "really? no," and then I walk back to my faux leather chair to finish whatever it is I'm writing.


Friday, March 19, 2010

Fathers and Sons

Mark Steinmetz

In three words I can sum up everything I know about life: it goes on. --Robert Frost

I planned a vacation for myself, but that vacation was cut short.

I was only going to Chicago, where my father lives. I had two meetings in Chicago on Thursday, and so it wasn't a real vacation, only a chance for me to get away for a couple days.

On the first night (Wednesday), my younger sister met me at my father's apartment a couple hours before he arrived home from work. We sat on my father's couch . . . at first she was distracted, playing with her i-Phone, she'd look up at me while we were talking and then look back down at her phone to text message or check her email.

When my father arrived, he came into his study where Mandy and I were sitting in front of the computer. He quietly left the room.

They made dinner for me as I sat on the couch reading the newspaper. Secretly, I marveled at how well they got along together, cooperating on making the dinner with the fun of a happily married couple.

There was a time when I could have been a part of the Chicago picture; I could have lived there, and maybe developed a closer relationship to the family.

People often tell me that my problem is I don't live closer to people I care about. I don't have a robust social network in real life (online I do), mainly because I choose to live in Central Illinois. But I've tried to tether myself to people before, and it doesn't work for me. I prefer the simple rituals I have which don't rely on an abundance of friends.

That night my father and sister watched home movies while I sat on the couch, continuing to read the newspaper. My father's latest project has been to transfer all of the home movies he made between 1979 and 1998 onto DVD. It's an enormous archive, and when I come to visit now, I'm tacitly expected to watch a video from the archive. But Thursday night, I had no interest. He filmed nearly every major event, and a great number of non-events, everything from Christmases to birthdays, recitals, vacations, parties, sporting events.

Last time I was at his apartment I watched an hour or so of the videos, and the repetitive version of my family history bored me, even though I got to see my mother, who passed away. The family, through my father's eyes, and perhaps my sister's, reflects something of the "good old days," but I see a different picture in the slew of tapes . . .

It seems my father has changed dramatically in his attitude toward me. My impression is that all of my issues over the years has led him to think of me as a burden. He saw me through many bad times, and he used to be committed to me, despite what happened.

Today he shows little commitment toward me as a son. He's swung to the opposite extreme, presenting a cool exterior, which I interpret as unloving. If my actions in adolescence, and some continuing into adulthood, caused my father to detach himself from me, then I can only respond with a detachment of my own.

On Friday morning, we broke into an argument. Certain things I say irritate him. He doesn't like me talking about my job, or my financial situation. I understand why he wouldn't want me to complain, but it's hard to hide my resentment.

I returned home that day. I stayed in his apartment for only one night. This is the usual duration before either one of us becomes so angry we can't be around each other.

I never thought that my relationship to my father would go through so many reversals.


"The Lyric Essay" by D'Agata and Deborah Tall

The lyric essay doesn't expound, is suggestive rather than exhaustive, depends on gaps, may merely mention. It might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or sidewinding poetic logic. It often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically, its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole.

It partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language, and partakes of the essay in its weight, its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.

It gives primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information, forsaking narrative line, discursiveness, and the art of persuasion in favor of an idiosyncratic meditation. Generally, it's short, concise, and punchy, like a prose poem.

It may, though, meander, making use of other genres when they serve its purpose, sampling the techniques of fiction, drama, journalism, song, and film. The stories it tells may be no more than metaphors. Or, storyless, it may spiral in on itself, circling the core of a single image or idea, without climax, without a paraphrasable theme.

It stalks its subject but isn't content to merely explain or confess. Loyal to that original sense of "essay" as a test or a quest, an attempt at making sense, the lyric essay sets off on an uncharted course through interlocking webs of idea, circumstance, and language--a pursuit with no foreknown conclusion, an arrival that might still leave the writer questioning.

While it's ruminative, it leaves pieces of experience undigested and tacit, inviting the reader's participatory interpretation. Its voice, spoken from a privacy that we overhear and enter, has the intimacy we've come to expect in the personal essay, yet in the lyric essay the voice is often more reticent, almost coy, aware of the compliment it pays the reader by dint of understatement.

Perhaps we're drawn to the lyric now because it seems less possible and rewarding to approach the world through the front door, through the myth of objectivity. Similitude often seems more revealing than verisimilitude.

We turn to the writer to reconcoct meaning from the bombardments of experience: to shock, thrill, still the racket, and tether our attention.

from "The Lyric Essay," Seneca Review (qtd. David Sheilds in Reality Hunger), paragraph breaks mine


Monday, March 15, 2010

Changing My Mind

Nick Lepard

Life isn't about saying the right thing; life is about failing. It's about letting the tape play. --Jonathan Goldstein

Fiction is a burden. When I think about it, I feel a heaviness. Like I have to keep something going, a facade of characters, and a story where something must happen.

Too many things happened to me. If I just recall certain events and told you about them as I was writing, that would be easier.

What surprises me is how often I change my mind in a week or even a day. And then, I try to imagine what my life will look like five years from now . . . and how many times I will have changed my mind by then.

The mind changes itself ad infinitum and the individual gets caught somewhere between what was said and what was done, each time. Identity is fluid, which makes it OK for me to say one thing and then contradict myself the very next day.

This is all done in good faith. I wouldn't be lying to you, because I really did believe what I was saying at the time.

I detest lying; although I'm a compulsive exaggerator. For example, with numbers, I like to increase them.

How closely have I come to understanding my passions? Maybe I've fooled myself into believing that fiction is something I ought to do in my life or I won't be a valued individual.

I've written compulsively for the last ten years, but a large amount of it hasn't been fiction. This is how I write fiction. I write a page, and then I painstakingly try to improve it. The time I spend trying to improve my fiction vastly exceeds the time I spend writing new fiction. Which leads to a sort of editorial paralysis, you cannot write until you make what you wrote perfect, but that never happens, and your perception changes nearly every time you look at what you've written, so you get sucked in to trying to improve it again.

Life isn't about saying the right thing.

There are two kinds of attention: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary attention is when you're sitting in class and your teacher says, "Pay attention." You have to work for this kind of attention.

Involuntary attention is open-focused. Involuntary attention occurs when children are playing.

Children easily become engrossed in playing with their toys. They are absorbed in their imaginary worlds. Their attention is at its peak. But if you ask a child to sit down at the kitchen table and figure out a math problem, this requires voluntary attention, fixing the mind on an object that is not inherently interesting to them.

However, some children may be able to lose themselves in math problems. For others, reading is a gateway to involuntary attention.

It would be wonderful to always be in tune with the natural promptings of one's involuntary attention. Rather than pushing against the grain, allowing oneself to magically slip into a state of interested awareness. I think what it comes down to is forgetting, another great difficulty I have, to just forget myself and do whatever it is I happen to be doing.

Beyond that, I would like to structure my life so that it reflects more closely my instincts, my natural pathways to intelligence. What if the only person who obstructs me from a life that I really want is me? I'm usually the last person I think of when it comes to my dilemmas. There has to be somebody or something that is holding me back. It can't be me, after all, I'm doing everything I can.

I'm going to dismantle some fictions I have about myself.

One: That I'm a novelist. I'm not a novelist. I'm not even a fiction writer. I don't write enough, I don't practice enough to call myself a fiction writer.

Two: That I'm an artist. I can't really say that either. While I write some poetry from time to time and doodle in my art books, it would be self-aggrandizement to call myself an artist.

Three: That I desperately need your praise. I don't really need anyone to praise me. I think I do, because it is gratifying. But praise is not necessary.

Four: That I will achieve greatness in my lifetime. This is the fiction of my own greatness, re: potential greatness, not yet realized. But it feels real!

Five: I can do whatever I want. In three years, I could be broke. That would be the first time I'd have to face the consequences of having no income.

Blogging is the perfect channel for my writing and experimentation. I'm not looking to gain success by writing some epic of my life. I'm just letting the tape play and seeing what happens.

More Essays . . .


Sunday, March 14, 2010

My Reality Hunger

Steven Tabbutt

I am submerged.

I told myself I wasn't going to buy another book, I did. My library can no longer hold all the books on its shelves, I must pile books in odd places, on the floor, on chairs . . .

I go for long periods of time without listening to any music in my car. Whenever I decide I want more music, I end up spending hours on bit torrent sites. I can have whatever I want. I'm inundated--to the point of silence.

I've quit online movie subscriptions and then started them up six times. I have digital cable and a DVR. Now I go to the store to rent movies, but it's expensive. I'm thinking about Netflix again . . .

I've been working on a novel less than sixty pages long for over two years. The impulse to write fiction has been with me since I was in my early teens. But as I grow older, I lament over my perceived difficulties with writing fiction. My sporadic loss of this desire to create something new, something entirely different, eludes me.

What came naturally to me was writing these essays on the Blog of Innocence. You could call them "lyrical essays," they are suggestive, not pedantic. They are autobiographical, and so I'm never at a loss for material. But most importantly, I feel daring when I write these essays. I don't know where most of them are headed, and I follow my instinct to invent with them.

In art--before it has fully entered the mainstream and become a commodity--there is a fascination with the in-between, the liminal spaces. Right now I'm thinking about the popularity of street art, vintage illustrations, typography, and aspects of design. Art grows up inside these crevices until we find something new, something interesting. The patterns that have been used before lose their novelty, and the omnivorous artist is again on the hunt for new materials, new ideas.

The widespread tendency to take what was made by others, and use it for your own purposes in visual art, music, writing--reflects an abundance, a super-abundance, of culture. This is my library overflowing with books I haven't read. These are the movies that collect on my coffee table, that I send back unwatched. This is the paralyzing sense I sometimes get when I'm trying to write fiction, and have lost my instinct to invent.

We are practically drowning in the abundance of culture, information, and commodities. And so we turn to appropriation. There is too much piling up around us to ignore it. It must be absorbed somehow.

Take blogging, for example. The personal views of the blogger are combined with a compulsive appropriation of cultural materials, videos, linking, quoting, using images, commenting about other blogs, or news in the media, along with a hundred other variations.

Or Twitter. What is a re-tweet but an appropriation of another's materials? We retweet what is agreeable to us, and perpetuate a cultural fragment that in some small way, reflects us.

All of a sudden, I'm more excited about writing fiction. I've felt constrained by my novel. This need to create a verisimilitude of characters and a continuous story harks back to the realist novels of the 19th century. But that pattern is stale, no wonder I lack the passion for using it without an interruption of my own devices. What gives me energy is the lyrical essay, for its endless directions and possibilities, for its candid personality.

And then, it becomes apparent to me. Culture does not need a convincing fiction anymore. What culture needs is a convincing reality. We are so immersed in fictions that the idea of presenting a fiction to the public seems quaint, even antiquated.

In a review of David Sheilds's manifesto, Reality Hunger, Luc Sante writes:
But we continue to crave reality, because we live in a time dominated by innumerable forms of extraliterary fiction: politics, advertising, the lives of celebrities, the apparatus surrounding professional sports--you could say without exaggeration that everything on TV is fiction whether it is packaged as such or not.
I first read an excerpt of David Sheilds's manifesto, Reality Hunger, on the Outlet Blog. The passages echoed some of my notions about appropriation and art, which I discuss in my essay, "What is Contemporary Art?" I read the review in the New York Times, and bought the book today (presumably, the last book I will ever buy--I have no space left!).

Sheilds makes the connection between the widespread practice of appropriation and the ascendancy of memoir and autobiographical writing. Here it may be argued that a culture of memoirists, bloggers, and customized media, is not simply a feast for the narcissism of our age, but in fact something deeper about our craving for reality. There are too many pre-existing meanings, falsehoods, fictions, delivered to us daily. The autobiographical impulse comes from the need to make one's own meaning out of life, to create a reality for oneself.

Luc Sante continues:
So what constitutes reality, then, as it affects culture? It can be as simple as a glitch, an interruption, a dropped beat, a foreign object that suddenly intrudes. Hence the potency of sampling in popular music, which forces open the space between vocal and instrumental components. It is also a form of collage, which edits, alters and reapportions cultural commodities according to need or desire. Reality is a landscape that includes unreal features; being true to reality involves a certain amount of wavering between real and unreal. Likewise originality, if there can ever be any such thing, will inevitably entail a quantity of borrowing, conscious or otherwise. The paradoxes pile up as the debris of history--unsurprisingly, since that debris is our reality.
If we reach for the work of others to represent us, or if we consciously or unconsciously use the work of others as in appropriation, it is because the reality we are making is partly woven from endless cultural fragments. Artwork then stands on the precarious ledge between self-invention and replication, and it is interesting because it is neither the one nor the other but a sparkling fusion of the two.

Ultimately it is the freedom to play with forms, to mix forms, and to blur the lines between your art and mine. If autobiography creeps into fiction then it's only because we've decided to change the rules. In chapter X, I'm just going to start telling it how it is. I may do away entirely with the fictional armature, but then come back to it later, when I decide it's useful.

This collusion of reality and un-reality, and autobiography interpenetrated by outside sources, mesmerizes me, as a collage of disparate images is combined to create a pleasing unity. This is the art of the in-between that captures the imagination in our particular cultural moment. And, as an artist myself, I am dying to break the shackles of my own fictions.

More Essays . . .


Thursday, March 11, 2010

The City

Tim Barber

This photograph has been on my mind for several days now. I look at hundreds of images a day for the art website, and often it's like living in a dreamworld, the images flow past my eyes, some hold my attention for a moment, some longer; but then, there's that picture like the one above which speaks to my reality.

Who is this man, holding his hat, dashing up the concrete stairs? He's a tiny figure to the backdrop of an immense city structure. And a four-lane highway rolls underneath like some giant asphalt river.

The lines of the photograph are also interesting to me. They signify movement, with the bars angling up, and the thick flank of the concrete making a wide zigzag. The fact that the (mostly straight) lines are crossing, the highway lines with the stairway lines, lends the photograph to a sort of confusion.

The man is obviously in a hurry, rushing up the stairs. But to where? To what?

Great art is a false mirror that reflects the truth. When I look at this picture I see myself, I see myself in that little man. I am racing up a monolithic structure, which I can hardly see, because don't have the view I have right now, looking at the picture. I have the view of the little man.

I'm not really looking around, I'm running. Like the Mad Hatter, I'm late. Always one thing and then the next. But I catch glimpses of this immensity I'm climbing, and it's cold, it's stark, but bigger than me, much bigger than me. It's not me. It's a city compared to me.


Sunday, March 7, 2010

Escape into Life: Issue no. 13

eX de Medici, Blue (Bower/Bauer) 1998-2000

In addition to the six new artists we feature daily, one of my goals has been to incorporate multimedia onto Escape into Life. Now you'll find art videos, movie trailers (relating to the arts), and short films. We try to keep it interesting. One such "find" is the brilliant interview with Francis Bacon.

This issue is exceptional, if only for the marvelous contributions by Lara Cory who has been dedicating time and effort to this arts journal. Thank you Lara. We have two new poets in this issue, as well as another outstanding art history essay by Stephen Pain.

Russian and Soviet Art: Levitan and Pimenov . . . Seasoned arts writer Stephen Pain introduces us to two Russian masters and describes the dramatic changes in Russian painting from the 1890’s to the 1960’s.

eX de Medici: Emblems of Death Transformed . . . Arts writer Lara Cory, who hails from Australia, reviews the meticulous work of Australian artist eX de Medici.

The Poetry of William Taylor Jr. . . . Poetry that rises out of the San Francisco soul.

Gig Poster Artists: Travis Bone, Rob Jones, Justin Hampton . . . This interview with three prominent rock poster artists is a follow-up to Lara Cory's recent article on the genre.

Poetry by Robert Lee Brewer . . . Robert Lee Brewer is the editor of Writer's Market, and an accomplished poet.

What is Escape into Life?

EIL is a publication based on the concept of citizen journalism. The goal is to create a journal of poetry, essays, and art from writers who are already publishing on the Web and who would like to gain more exposure to their blogs. The artists we feature are the very best we can find, and the writers have a background in writing and a passion for the arts.

More information here

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