Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Poets & Writers: Beyond Words

The Jan/Feb isssue of Poets & Writers is out. It's theme is inspiration and it's the best issue of Poets & Writers I've ever read. There's a nice article by Cecilia Ward Jones about continuing to write, for years and years, even though she had never published a single piece (until the article). There's a good piece Dennis Cass on what gets called writer's block, a smart take that gets to research on divergent thinking and convergent thinking. And there's a great article by Suzanne Pettypiece called "Beyond Words"--about 5 writers who practice other arts. There's a two-page+ interview where I talk about painting--then Michelle Wildgen talks about cooking, Jesse Ball about drawing, Abha Dawesar about photography, and Jen Bervin about visual arts. It feels like a good way to end the year.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Meg Pokrass Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard): #236 Ethel Rohan

Ethel Rohan was born in Dublin, Ireland, while the nurse and her mother argued: her mother demanded to be allowed push; the nurse insisted the baby wasn’t coming any time soon. Ethel believes she shot into the world because she wanted her mother to be right. Ethel was her parents’ third child and first girl. Two sisters (twins) and another brother would follow. She remembers a home where there was more fighting than anything. She was a lonely, frightened, desperate-for-attention child, the kind of child that gets into deeper trouble. Amidst trouble and anger, she loved to read, act, and recite poetry. In third grade, she received a prize, a glass ashtray, for one of her poems. She has no idea what the poem was about. Her parents enjoyed the ashtray. She danced daily alone in her living room, pirouetting under the melancholy gaze of the gold-framed Sacred Heart of Jesus. Bless this home … Bless this home … She was wire-skinny and yet felt fat to bursting with so much that she couldn’t say. She excelled at debating and public speaking: all that she could say. Ethel is grateful that she also knew in childhood laughing, playing, sharing, caring, rewards, adventures, friendship, beaches, vacations, Sunday drives, and things as simple and precious as toasting bread in the open flames of her living room fire, dripping-with-butter toast that tasted of ashes and made her feel alive, crackling flames wherein she pictured bright things. She broke away for bright things at age twenty-two and settled in San Francisco. San Francisco is home, a place and people that have been very good to her. Shortly after her arrival to the city, her husband ended her winning run at a pool table in an Irish bar on Geary Boulevard and they’ve been together ever since. They have two daughters. Ethel’s daughters are her joy. Her greatest accomplishment is enjoying a happy home with them. “Circling the Drain” (Keyhole Issue 9) and “Air” (PANK, December 2009) are two stories Ethel wrote that hold deep personal meaning and that she believes are, in many ways, two of her strongest. Ethel’s story, “Circling the Drain,” centers on themes that recur in her work: yearning, fear, isolation, madness, abandonment, and loss. At the story’s end, the protagonist makes a crucial shift out of fear, yes, but also love: to give himself over to his wife’s psychosis. Writing “Air” was a moving and powerful experience for Ethel. In the original version of “Air,” the version Ethel believed was “finished,” the protagonist endured a harrowing rape. Ethel’s instincts told her not to submit the work for publication just yet. She set the work aside, but the story’s protagonist stayed with her and demanded a different fate. Ethel rewrote the story, and got it to where it felt “right-right.” For the first time she truly realized her power as a writer and the power of the characters and stories we create: there was now one less girl in the world raped, one more girl who escaped and survived. Ethel Rohan writes because she still feels fat to bursting with all that she needs to say.

[Note: You can read Meg Pokrass' expressive life story here.]

Monday, December 28, 2009

Peter Schwartz Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard): #235 Shamal Da'Kimm Davis

Shamal Da’Kimm Davis AKA Shimy HotRod was born in Corona Queens. Soon after his mother and him moved to Buffalo to care for his grandfather who was sick at the time. And there they stayed for years. His mother was a singer so music was always playing in the house, everything from Talking Heads to Betty Davis to Barry White and most importantly, gospel music. She was with a group called Business Before Pleasure in NYC and after relocating she did some backup singing work with the late Rick James. So growing up, the house was filled with incredible sound. In 1984, the next influence came into young Shamal's life in the form of a Radio Shack computer. It was given to him by his father who he has only laid eyes on once in his life. He studied computers in high school and then computer science in college. He developed a love of sports like football and basketball, but was too short and scrawny to be any good at them. So, he took it to the streets, turned to skateboarding, which he is grateful for because it kept him out of the hood. Skateboarding exposed him to traveling and introduced him to new friends and experiences. He gained notoriety throughout Buffalo as an amazing skateboarder for which he is proud, especially since black skateboarders were a rare thing to see at the time. In March of 1999, he made a hard decision. Although he had/has nothing but love for Buffalo, he realized that he would have a lot more opportunity in Brooklyn. It was there he met Jaime while waiting for his friend Emile at a spot on Park Avenue. She had a big booty and, well, Shamal being an ass man, he gave chase. And it worked. They now have a 2-year-old son and a tan Chihuahua named Brooklyn. And Brooklyn (the borough) loves Shimy. One day he decided to sport a faded Mohawk, which he had done by Daz AKA Triple X on Washington Avenue, and he took to wearing a Stingy brim hat. Sure enough, his old barber reported a dramatic increase in Mohawks and he himself noticed a lot of Stingy hats around his new neighborhood. It is this natural talent for leadership and innovation that led him to start HotRod Group, a production development company, in 2009. This was after a real low point in his life, so this project has a special place in his heart. As with everything he does, Shamal will come full force with this project so watch out for the vroom vroom. Currently, he works with the rap acts: M. Island, Legiyon, and Oscar Grammy; with soul singer Bradd Marquis; with pop singer Tess; with artists: Shah Wonders, Concep, Rizz 22, Aniekan Udofia, and with a black female drag racer named Rikkia Mills. As you can see from the variety of artists he produces and works with, he doesn't feel the need to limit himself to any one area. HotRod is not so much a company as a grassroots movement, a community, a platform that he's created for his friends and associates to use to shine, to succeed without all the stress and demands that often come when dealing with larger, more formal production companies. So, if you express yourself in an honest, unique way and have passion and real perseverance for what you do, you probably want to give him a call.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


I have a tiny fiction called "Tom's Mother Died Today in New Jersey" in the new Redivider, along with some great writing from Blake Butler, Robert Travieso, Dan Chaon, Kate Russell, Jeff Porter, Krista Benjamin, and a ton of others. Thanks to the good Matt Salesses and Cat Ennis Sears.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Pamela Witter Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard): #233 Russell Rowland

Through his parents’ rough times, financial problems, and his father’s alcoholism, Russell Rowland, born 1957 in Bozeman, MT, was a shy child. He was often insecure and angry, and without a clue as to how to get along in the world. That frustration was a constant source of confusion and fear. People scared the hell out of him. They moved a lot. At 10, he attended a one-room school, then joined 125 sixth graders in Billings, MT. He got a music scholarship and received a BA in Music Education, which was not his calling. For a time, Russell did lounge lizard gigs. He played and sang mostly Billy Joel/Elton John covers. Like his dad, Russell drank. He stopped in 1985. That changed his life. After that, Russell fell in love with books. He started with Vonnegut and Salinger. Reading led him to Western literature. Authors Ken Kesey, Wallace Stegner, and Raymond Carver inspired him to try his hand at writing. Russell married and had a son. Despite parental concern, Russell got an MA in Creative Writing. That was his calling. He got divorced, struggled financially, joined support groups and got therapy. Russell lost his grandmother. He thought about her life; during homestead days, people had little support, or even telephones. He realized those people turned out to be incredibly optimistic. Russell decided to write a novel about that. During an Atlantic Monthly internship, fiction editor C. Michael Curtis read the first chapters of Russell’s novel, In Open Spaces. Though he did not get it published, the fact that Curtis thought it was good enough kept Russell encouraged. Around 1999, Russell wrote fortune cookies for a few weeks. That led to appearances on two of his all-time favorite game shows: “To Tell the Truth” and “I’ve Got a Secret.” His first novel was finally published, reviewed in the New York Times, and made the San Francisco Chronicle's Bestseller list. He turned down an offer for the sequel, The Watershed Years. Though that decision haunted him, it too was eventually published. After nearly 20 years as a single man, he married. Two months later, he was devastated. His bride’s only child, a 19-year-old daughter, was killed in a motorcycle accident. Not long ago, Russell met the woman now in his life at a book club. They share a huge love of books and read widely. She’s a social worker, cares deeply about others, and continually pushes herself to be a better person. That makes Russell want to do the same thing. Russell had prostate cancer. Last year, he went in for a 2-hour surgery that took 10 hours. Through this and other experiences, Russell learned to notice how his behavior affects other people. He works on improving himself every day. While completing the first novel’s prequel, Arbuckle, Russell is working on a western writers’ anthology. He also teaches writing, consults fellow writers, and is co-editor of an online literary magazine called Stone's Throw. Since he began writing, Russell has never suffered from writers’ block. Russell wants to marry his girlfriend. He knows he’s very fortunate to have people in his life that he loves, and who support and love him. He expects to focus on that.

Stone’s Throw Magazine

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

Shanti Perez Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard): #233 Michael Baker

Michael George Baker, the youngest of three brothers, was born to Michael and Zinda, in Spokane, in Washington, in July 1989, on a day when the high temperature was 89 °F, and had to undergo surgery as an infant because he could not swallow food. His mother didn’t really care what he did or didn’t do, so he kept pets, and he has always had the impulse to wander. His father, who is reputed to have been a good cook at the Davenport Hotel long ago, beat Michael’s mother when she was pregnant with him and has been in and out of prison all of Michael’s life, so he hasn’t spent much time with him. Michael knows his father is famous in Spokane for his association with methamphetamines. Since he and his father have the same name, Michael has to sometimes inform people that he’s not ‘that’ Michael Baker. Michael does strange things, such as in third grade when he ate a green caterpillar, which reminded him of jelly candy. He uses dermestid beetles to clean the flesh off of animals that have died natural deaths and then he reconstructs their skeletons. In school, he was fascinated with the Russian language and studied horticulture and livestock. His love of animals led him to a fascination with poultry genetics, which he thinks is the best decision he’s ever made—though he describes it as an addiction. Michael does not like to have regrets. When he was seven years old he was attacked and bitten by a dog, which left a scar, but he persevered—he now works in a pet store and it’s the most fun job he’s ever had. During his days off, he enjoys reading and thinking about poultry genetics. Right now, he doesn’t have a spouse or kids, and he doesn’t feel he needs them like most people do. Instead, his companions are a trio of Saxony ducks and saltwater fish, which he keeps in a tank in his bedroom. Michael has a rare condition known as triorchidism that some of his friends and family do not know about. He is most proud of the way he turned out, because left to his own devices most of the time, he could have gotten into drugs. The biggest plan he has, in keeping with his childhood impulse to wander, is to see the world and also save money and move to a state like Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee, or Kentucky, though he doesn’t know why he’s chosen these places. In his spare time, he plans to develop new color varieties of chickens, perhaps a landrace and a blue egg layer that yields high egg production. He doesn’t want to be a doctor, lawyer, or fireman. He enjoys the simple things in life.

Michael Baker on Facebook

[Note: You can read Shanti Perez's amazing life story here.]

Friday, December 18, 2009

Dear Michael Kimball

The good John Madera has an incredibly thoughtful review of DEAR EVERYBODY, disguised as a letter to Michael Kimball, up at the always wonderful Word Riot. The review asks many smart questions, among them: "How do I get rid of your voice in my head?"

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Adam Robinson Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard): #219 Cubicle Wall

At about three o'clock Central time, the cubicle wall was born at average height. The cubicle wall was happy about this, but before long he was laid flat and wrapped in cardboard. He was stacked somewhere. (He didn't know where because he couldn't see on account of the box he was in and also because he didn't have eyes or a brain.) He stayed there for several long days. He started to cry through his fabric. Then, earless, he heard a truck and felt himself lifted onto it. There was a rumbling. In the truck he traveled until the truck stopped, whereupon the cubicle wall was unloaded. He was elated when the box was peeled away and he was fastened to some other beige cubicle walls in the form of a box. Together with a computer and some pens they became a community. A phone came along and joined the group. The computer was friendly, but the pens were often short. The phone had a whiney ring. One day, and then repeatedly every weekday for three years, a good looking young man came and sat in front of the beige cubicle wall. He touched the computer, the phone and the pens. He rarely touched the cubicle wall except, occasionally, to stick some sheet of paper to it with a pin. The puncture didn't hurt nearly as bad as the feeling of being ignored. The young man seemed not to care about the cubicle wall. It was even as if the cubicle wall represented something hateful to the young man, or if not hateful, at least unbearably mundane. But the cubicle wall was resolute. He would be there for the young man tomorrow, too, and the next day, and the day after that. Oh yes, the cubicle wall would remain a presence in that young man’s life for many long years.

[Note: Adam Robinson's postcard life story is here.]

A Kind of Planned Awkwardness

I have an interview with Joseph Young up at The Faster Times. We talk about his new book, Easter Rabbit, by way of his microfiction, "Eleven"--of which I ask questions that address each of the 30 words in the piece.

More interviews @ The Faster Times:
I Am Not a Camera: Gary Lutz
A Ribbon of Language: Blake Butler
What People Do When No One is Watching: Rachel Sherman
Justify Every Sentence: Laura van den Berg
Most Violence Is Intimate: Ben Tanzer
I'm Not Trying to Trick the Reader: Brian Evenson
Where Commas Ordinarily Go: Robert Lopez
My Narrative Mind: Joanna Howard
Details Are My Weakness: Dylan Landis

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

60 Writers/60 Places, Some Thank Yous

That photo is Luca and me introducing 60 Writers/60 Places at the PPOW Gallery. Thank you to Nelly Reifler for setting up Pratt. Thank you to Jamie Sterns for setting up the PPOW Gallery. Thank you to the nice people who said nice things about the film.

"innovative ... striking ... poignant ... humorous"
--Chris Schonberger, Time Out New York

"brilliant premise"
--Lincoln Michel, The Faster Times

The films of Michael Kimball and Luca Dipierro have at the forefront a concern with the way space is altered and engaged with when people enter the picture. When people enter the picture and sometimes say and do startling things.
--Rozalia Jovanovic, The Rumpus

#35 Joseph Young: A Tiny Story

Joseph Young has traveled back and forth between Kalamazoo and San Francisco and San Francisco and Baltimore for most of his life. This wanderlust has always been a part of Joe’s life. He is most at home not being at home—that is, he is most at home being somewhere else. This sense of home has driven Joe to hitchhike across the country and to drive drive-away cars to anywhere. Once, he died on the railroad tracks in Mexico, though the significance of this event is obscure. Now he is alive again and becoming more comfortable with being at home, as well as becoming more comfortable with himself. While at home, he writes about art and writes what he describes as tiny stories that pop out of his head with no preconceived notion attached to them. He likes the sustained, intense concentration that the tiny stories require and the white space that contains the tiny stories. He likes the miles that he has traveled and the way that that distance surrounds his life.

[Update: Joseph Young's first book, Easter Rabbit, a book of microfictions, is now out with Publishing Genius. ]

Monday, December 14, 2009

Jessica Anya Blau Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard): #232 Andy Riverbed

Andy Riverbed describes himself as “a fish with a big wide mouth.” He hates shit-talkers and sticks to his word with all his heart. Andy was born in Newark, New Jersey where he attended a privileged private black school. It was the best school experience of his life and the fact that he’s not black never seemed to be a problem for anyone there. He played baseball and futbol in high school, and got along with his younger sister, Rebecca, whom he loves very much. Andy went to college in Puerto Rico, where his parents are from, and studied English lit because he loved to read books and loved to write. He dropped out of college twice, the first time because he went insane and the second time because he got strung out on drugs. He moved to Florida, went to school there, straightened out, and started studying linguistics because he was sick of literature. He’s still studying linguistics and he’s also translating fiction and poetry from English to Spanish. His pen name is Andy y la Rivera, which means Andy Riverbed. Andy also works in a bed-and-breakfast and sings in a punk rock band. The punk rock lifestyle wasn’t productive when it drove him to run away from home to go to shows, do drugs, and fuck up in school. Now that he’s pulled his life together, he loves singing punk rock and he loves hanging out with his bandmates. Andy was in love once. He bought his girlfriend a ferret named FatBoy McPopcorn after she had an abortion, but the relationship ended badly when she left with the ferret. Andy got McPopcorn back and loves him because he’s Irish and he makes out with Andy when he has beer on his breath. Andy is happiest with the right person’s warmth against his skin. He’s happy singing in his band, too. Andy is proud that he’s still alive and hasn’t given up. He’s applying to graduate school now, trying to get a real job, and trying not to bore himself to death.

Andy Riverbed’s website // St. Dad’s website

[Note: You can read Jessica Anya Blau's postcard life story here.]

Thursday, December 10, 2009

DEAR EVERYBODY: 25 Important Books of the 00s

DEAR EVERYBODY was named one of the "25 Important Books of the 00s" at the wonderful HTMLGIANT.

Thank you, Blake Butler.

Thank you, HTMLGIANT.

60 Writers/60 Places in NYC

There is a nice little write-up of 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES, a film I made with Luca Dipierro, in the Notable New York section of The Rumpus. Among other things, the good Rozalia Jovanovic writes: "The films of Michael Kimball and Luca Dipierro have at the forefront a concern with the way space is altered and engaged with when people enter the picture. When people enter the picture and sometimes say and do startling things."

60 WRITERS/60 PLACES will premiere this week in New York City. There are two screenings: Friday, December 11 at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and Saturday, December 12 at PPOW Gallery in Chelsea. There is more info, plus stills and trailers, at Little Burn Films.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

#231 The Arrival of Peter Wolfgang

Peter Wolfgang was born and raised in the small town of Coshocton, Ohio, which is good for learning how to play football, taking piano lessons, and exploring the woods. When Peter was a kid, things were confusing and he didn’t know what to rely on. His parents split up when he was 2 and then got back together when he was 5—and then his little brother Daniel was born right after that. It was difficult to understand his parents liking each other again after all the yelling and fighting. Mostly though, Peter remembers the woods behind his house where he often played alone. When Peter was 9, his brother Andrew was born and the family moved into a house with no woods behind it, so he started playing sports with the neighborhood kids, which was sort of embarrassing because he never had the cool tennis shoes. Peter loves his two brothers so much, especially how comfortable they are with themselves; the way they look up to him makes him want to be a better person. In high school, Peter discovered pot when he smoked it with Tommy, and that was sort of a revelation in self-awareness. Peter also achieved a lot in high school–won awards for good grades and playing the piano, lettered in soccer, won a scholarship to college. Unfortunately, Peter took no pride in these things. It was easy to be the smart guy in a small town where many people ended up working for a local factory that made rubber floor mats for cars. Eventually, Peter got bored with Coshocton and tired of feeling un-cool, like he didn't fit in. Peter wanted to move to a big city and left for NYC when NYU offered him a scholarship. This change opened up lots of possibilities, both good and bad, but the bad possibilities were more prominent and Peter made a serious effort to do himself in. He never thought more than a few days ahead, and he decided to study philosophy, mostly because thinking that way was easy for him and he could get by with cramming. Then Peter met Heather, who is beautiful and super-smart; she is really put together and confident and she helped Peter realize that a person can be interesting and creative and not self-destructive. After Peter met Heather, he actually started trying for the first time. He got serious about his career. He went to Columbia for his MBA and that opened up so many new possibilities for him. And he only ever thought to try for it because he wanted to make a future for Heather and with Heather. They have been married for over a year now and now Peter feels like he is finally able to take advantage of all the possibilities in New York City. It’s as if Peter is just now arriving for the first time.

Details Are My Weakness

I have an interview with Dylan Landis up at my interview column for The Faster Times, Writers on Writing. We talk about her new book, Normal People Don't Live Like This, first lines, and some really great stuff on details.

More interviews @ Writers on Writing:
I Am Not a Camera: Gary Lutz
A Ribbon of Language: Blake Butler
What People Do When No One is Watching: Rachel Sherman
Justify Every Sentence: Laura van den Berg
Most Violence Is Intimate: Ben Tanzer
I'm Not Trying to Trick the Reader: Brian Evenson
Where Commas Ordinarily Go: Robert Lopez
My Narrative Mind: Joanna Howard

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

60 Writers/60 Places in NYC

There is a nice little write-up of 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES, a film I made with Luca Dipierro, in the Notable New York section of The Rumpus. Among other things, the good Rozalia Jovanovic writes: "The films of Michael Kimball and Luca Dipierro have at the forefront a concern with the way space is altered and engaged with when people enter the picture. When people enter the picture and sometimes say and do startling things."

60 WRITERS/60 PLACES will premiere later this week in New York City. There are two screenings: Friday, December 11 at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and Saturday, December 12 at PPOW Gallery in Chelsea. There is more info, plus stills and trailers, at Little Burn Films.

Monday, December 7, 2009

60 Writers/60 Places in NYC

There are two screenings of 60 Writers/60 Places in NYC later this week--December 11 at Pratt and December 12 at PPOW Gallery. There's more information, plus stills and more trailers, here.

#224 Leigh Newman Isn’t Afraid of Anything Anymore

Leigh Newman was born in LA in the 70s. She lived with her family in a yellow bungalow and there was a lemon tree out back. They had a monster black lab named Roger who Leigh used to ride around like a horse. Leigh’s childhood was kind of dreamy. As a family, they had massive tickle fights, danced the can-can, camped in a VW van with a pop-top tent, and ate a lot of rainbow sherbet. But she thinks that she has probably suppressed all the miserable crap. After they moved to Alaska, they cross-country skied over glaciers. The moose used to clomp through their backyard and Leigh remembers watching them to snack on the leaves at night, under the moon, in the snow. When she was 7, her mother left French fries cooking on the stove, which caught on fire all the way up to the ceiling. Leigh tried to tell her parents that the house was on fire, but they were either laughing or arguing. Leigh tried again and again, but eventually gave up and went back to the family room to watch The Love Boat. The kitchen burned down and a fireman carried Leigh out of the house. When Leigh was 10, she was flying in a single-prop plane with her dad when an updraft hit them as they were going over a mountain. They climbed up and up to 20,000 feet, which people say is impossible in small plane, but Leigh saw where the needle was. Over the radio, her dad said they wouldn't be in trouble until they started turning blue and that’s when Leigh looked down at her fingers, which were blue. They laughed like lunatics at the lack of oxygen. It wasn't real somehow, up in the sky. Luckily, they drifted down and lived. After that, Leigh studied English at Stanford because she loved reading. She had always wanted to be a writer, but was afraid. In 1995, Leigh met Lawrence at a champagne party. Leigh was wearing a vintage tennis dress with red shoes and a yellow silk parasol and they were standing out on a balcony overlooking Central Park. Lawrence leaned over and kissed her and then they got married. Leigh’s favorite thing about Lawrence is his odd and beautiful imagination (he pretended his dad was private detective for most of his childhood; he wasn’t) and the way he is exactly himself in all occasions. Having a child, especially an unexpected one, made Leigh rethink and redo who she is. Leigh’s favorite thing about her son Will (3 years old) is that he is a forest sprite. Her favorite thing about Wilder (8 weeks old) is the doofus love in his smile. Right now, Leigh is writing a memoir about growing up in Alaska. One day, she wants to have a house with a swimming pool. And she wants to keep writing until she’s old and can't anymore. She isn’t afraid to write or do anything else anymore.

Leigh Newman in the New York Times.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Healing Biography: The Therapeutic Benefits of Writing Your Life Story -- Part I of an Essay By Bridget Holding

First, I was a writer, and then I became a psychotherapist. In that fertile ground where psychotherapy and writing meet, is ‘life writing,’ which covers biography and autobiography. In my role as biographer, my work has ranged from supporting celebrities to write seven hundred page books, to helping people with serious mental health issues to take part in the wonderful project ‘Your Life On A Postcard.’

The critic James Atlas recently wrote about life writing in the New York Times Magazine. He said that ‘the triumph of memoir is now an established fact.’ Instead of reading fiction about ordinary people (the technical definition of a novel, as opposed to myth or legend), we now read nonfiction about ordinary people. It seems that we've come almost full circle: the memoir has displaced the novel as the literary genre of our age. We've returned to first- and third-person narratives of ordinary people in everyday life. This provides a kind of omniscience in which biographers and their subjects view earlier experiences in the light of later ones.

But what of the subjects of my biographies? They play a very active role in the process. When a person provides me with material from their life, they are, in a sense, writing their autobiography. French academic Philippe Lejeune provides probably the most helpful working definition of autobiography. To paraphrase him, he says that, in a true autobiography, the author, narrator and protagonist must have the same proper name. I would add that for me, a mark of autobiography is that there is no hiding. The subject stands up and says ‘this is me’ rather than creating characters behind which he or she can hide. To write an autobiography is to take responsibility, publicly, for your life and actions. It is therefore a noble, (and often terrifying!) act. I feel grateful to anyone who confides in me in this way, who collaborates with me to record the story of an individual life.

And I would like to suggest that it’s not just a process of recording information, it is an act of invention; there are many creative aspects to writing so called non-fiction. To begin with, our memories are selective. Then we have to decide what to reveal to our biographer and the editing of the material involves many choices. I would go further even than this. It is a tenet of mainstream literary theory that ‘language creates the world’ that we don’t truly see something until we have a word for it. This is true of our life stories. To some extent, our life comes into being in the act of writing it down. This can be terrifying idea, but it can also be liberating.

In fact, life writing gives us all the freedom in the world to create ourselves. In his books Path of Least Resistance and Your Life As Art, Robert Fritz says that you, the subject of the book or the postcard, can create your life as an artist develops an artwork. You can conceive of the life you want as an artist conceives of a painting, and take strategic actions to create more of what you truly want. You can inhabit the life, as an artist looks at a picture on the wall. Your life can be your work and you can be its author. How exciting! The truth is that people are endlessly remaking or discovering themselves. There are always new horizons, new problems, and new opportunities. Keeping this in mind can give us perspective on our lives, and help us to feel creative and in control. What better place to start from as we begin to record our life stories.

In times of crisis, pain, or struggle, or just because life is busy, we rarely get the opportunity to step back and see the wider picture, to get perspective on our lives. This is what being the subject of a biography enables us to do. It’s particularly helpful to be witnessed by another, with their perspective, their fresh pair of eyes. In much of our lives, we hide the parts of ourselves that we do not like, that we are ashamed of. Often we aren’t even aware that we do this, and of how harsh we are towards ourselves. The process of healing is about being okay with however we are. We are always doing our best. We are always good enough. Sometimes we do things we regret, but deciding to do something differently next time can be helpful. Dissolving into shame is not. Can we put into our life stories some of those events in our lives that we are ashamed of? Can we show to the world the parts of ourselves we usually hide? Being okay with ourselves is a state of contentment. Of course, we must undertake this process cautiously, as it can make us feel vulnerable. If we are fragile, working with a trained professional is advisable.

To give you a sense of how I use biography in my psychotherapy work, I’ve recently been working with a client who had an extremely physically abusive childhood and who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When we wrote the postcard of her life, there were great gaps in her memory. She remembered almost nothing between the ages of six and twelve, when the worst abuse occurred. We’ve worked gradually to write the postcard. Where many people find it easy to sit with me for forty minutes and reel off their life story, this woman found it a slow and excruciating process. But gradually, over months, taking time to acknowledge the emotions that came up with every memory, we have completed her life story on a postcard—a supreme achievement. Over this period, her symptoms of PTSD have eased. I’ve also had a client who suffered from multiple personality disorder. In his psychic world, there were twenty-four people. Each one had distinctive mannerisms, clothes, and voice. It was extraordinary and unnerving, to watch him change hour to hour between these personas, who were of varying ages, genders, and dispositions. This client’s life was very difficult, as the voices of these personas bickered for the high ground in his head. Even getting dressed in the morning was a nightmare. They all wanted to wear something different. Imagine doing the postcard for this client! But we did, not one postcard, but one for every sub-personality. Through the process they became more distinct, the first small step on the path to encouraging them to step aside in favour of one single personality. I feel very privileged when I witness the struggle and bravery of clients such as these. People, particularly those with serious mental health issues, often experience themselves as fragmented, as being ‘in pieces.’ The therapeutic process is about taking all the parts of us that are disowned, and bringing them into a whole, into cohesion. The postcard is a lovely metaphor for this: it’s such a contained, neat, precise form. The haiku of life writing. My client with multiple personality disorder started off with twenty-four postcards and now only has five. Maybe one day, he will only have one and will be able to say ’this is who I am.’ This is what he yearns for.

When we tell our stories, details unfold, clues become moments of epiphany, feelings are processed, and stuck energy is discharged. We begin to notice the patterns that repeat through our lives, called repetition compulsion by Sigmund Freud. We see which of those serve us and which don’t. Through being the subject of biographical writing, we can bring closure to the unfinished aspects of our lives. We can grieve and move on. And these changes can happen in six hundred, as well as in twenty thousand words. So let’s find our self in the writing. Who do you want to be in your life?

[This is part 1 of an article, from a series on ‘The Psychology of Writing.’ Please contact Bridget Holding if you are interested in knowing more (bridgetholding [at] madasafish [dot] com).]

Thursday, December 3, 2009

New York Tyrant #7

I have a new piece in New York Tyrant #7, which can be ordered here. There's also great work by Alex Balk, Blake Butler, Erich Hintze, Brian Kubarycz, Christopher Kennedy, Joseph Cardinale, Jason Schwartz, Greg Mulcahy, Luca Dipierro, Rachel B. Glaser, Ken Baumann, Peter Gajdics, Peter Markus, Shane Jones, Conor Madigan, Scott Indrisek, Harry Cheadle, Joshua Furst, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

B.L. Pawelek Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard): #230 James Beach

[Click on the postcard to enlarge.]

[Below is the text from the interview that B.L. Pawelek used to write/draw James Beach's life story.]

My favorite thing is a dictionary. My major project is a metafictional novel, begun during a flirtation with Denver and then dropped (temporarily) when my laptop was stolen this month. I’ve got about half of it on my thumb-drive. What’s exciting about writing it is the freedom that trying out a new form (genre) affords. Then I wrote a self-deprecating piece called “I Should Be on Hollywood Squares” due to my crazy side that’s convinced I’m being watched and joked about. I suppose my reasons for writing fiction stemmed from a psychological gob of reasons. My reasons include a) admiration for entertainment; b) a starving ego; c) the autonomous hard-wiring of a Capricorn; d) wanting to “be heard”; e) deep-seated unhappiness with the world forming itself round me; and f) the silly notion that my voice matters as much as that of Baum or Carroll or Cleary or Tolkien or Lewis. I’m so very thankful to all the great writers for sharing their gifts. I don’t know where my home is, anymore. I know my birthplace is St. Paul and yet I think I “grew up” in Santa Fe, in my early thirties. My family is comprised of whichever artists or art-supporters happen to be near me at any given moment. I really want kids. My proudest moment happened in fifth grade, when I won the school’s annual logo design contest and I saw everybody wearing my design on their tee-shirts. Who is your best friend? Why? God. Because. Just be-cause. I’m also suffering from the delusion that the Ego is personal space, and the Id is shared space, and so herein lies the human condition. Describe your writing in 10 words, no more no less. A VITAL INRUSIVE INTENSE BORINGLY ALLEGORICAL ROMP ON THE MOON. Describe who you are in three words. Clairvoyant Sick Id. My inspiration: counterculture, free thought, illicit substances, a high I.Q., excessive teasing from stupider people, the state of our pre-fab nation, voices beyond the grave, a knowledge of what could be/could’ve been, the spin of revolution, a love of literature, an awe for poetry, respect for my elders, my ego/your id. possibly gospel appears in Wood Coin.

[Wood Coin: an Online Magazine]

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

60 Writers/60 Places in NYC

There are two screenings of 60 Writers/60 Places in NYC next week--December 11 at Pratt and December 12 at PPOW Gallery. There's more information, plus stills and more trailers, here.