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“Discovering Your Hidden Voice” – A Popular Hidden River Writers’ Workshop Returns for Summer 2015!

Six weeks of intimate, intensive exploration of craft and creativity will be conducted by award-winning writer and playwright,  Debra Leigh Scott, Founding Director of Hidden River Arts and Editor-in-Chief of Hidden River Publishing.  Hidden River continues its partnership with Cavanaugh’s in Headhouse Square in Society Hill to offer our workshops in the wonderful Pickwick Room — so named when this pub was The Dickens Inn – owned by a descendant of Charles Dickens himself.

What could be more perfect that a writers’ workshop in a private space that resonates with the spirit of Dickens?   The workshop will meet on Mondays from June 15 through July 20, from 6:45 to 9:00 p.m. in The Pickwick Room, at Cavanaugh’s Headhouse, 421 S. 2nd Street, Phila, PA 19147.

To maintain intimacy and personal attention, the workshop is limited to 12 people.  We welcome writers at all levels of proficiency, from beginners to advanced, in this workshop.

Cost is still only $235. We accept PayPal, credit card and check payments.   Please email hiddenriverwriters@gmail.com or call 610-764-0813 to register and save your seat!*

Hidden River also brings a variety of workshops to private groups, schools, homeschool organizations, professional organizations — we can adapt all of our programs to suit your schedule and budget.  Private individual tutoring and writing consultation, developmental assistance and editing help are also offered to writers at all levels of development. (We also can create online individual or group instruction!) Please see our Workshops page for further information about all that is offered.  Also, click here for a great article written about us when we first launched this workshop.

*Discounts are offered for students, for senior citizens, for adjunct educators and others.  Please email us at hiddenriverwriters@gmail.com to inquire.

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Arts and Activism – A Talk at The DaVinci Art Alliance

What is the role of the artist during times of social upheaval and tumult?  Elie Wiesel said “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” This is even more true, when it comes to the role of the artist in society.  The problems of our society are extensive, and the voices of artists – playwrights, poets, musicians, performers – are essential to raising public awareness and giving voice to the issues, raising the call of dissent.

Founding Director of Hidden River Arts, Debra Leigh Scott,  has been invited to give a presentation at The Davinci Art Alliance at 704 Catherine Street, Philadelphia, PA, on Thursday, May 21, from 7 to 9 p.m. where she will discuss the importance of activism in the arts.

Since its founding way back in  1931, the Da Vinci Art Alliance has been a dynamic organization presenting artists and their work, focus on community-based arts, cultural and educational dialogue for artists, individuals and families.

Da Vinci currently has over 140 members and holds exhibitions of members’ and non-members’ artwork as well as special events, workshops, performances, poetry readings, and lectures, and keeps its members informed on community events, news and opportunities. The mission of the non-profit artists-run organization is to support its members and to further community-based arts, cultural, and educational exchanges.  I am proud to be offering my presentation there, since I’ve been fortunate to work with the many artists of Da Vinci, and admire the work that they do in supporting artists, the life of art, and the community.

Please join us at the Alliance.  For those who are not in Philadelphia, Debra will be developing the program and offering the presentation in an online format – so stay tuned!

 

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“Discovering Your Hidden Voice” – A Popular Hidden River Writers’ Workshop Returns for Summer 2015!

Six weeks of intimate, intensive exploration of craft and creativity will be conducted by award-winning writer and playwright,  Debra Leigh Scott, Founding Director of Hidden River Arts and Editor-in-Chief of Hidden River Publishing.  Hidden River continues its partnership with Cavanaugh’s in Headhouse Square in Society Hill to offer our workshops in the wonderful Pickwick Room — so named when this pub was The Dickens Inn – owned by a descendant of Charles Dickens himself.  What could be more perfect that a writers’ workshop in a private space that resonates with the spirit of Dickens?

 

The workshop will meet on Mondays from June 15 through July 20, from 6:45 to 9:00 p.m. in The Pickwick Room, at Cavanaugh’s Headhouse, 421 S. 2nd Street, Phila, PA 19147.
To maintain intimacy and personal attention, the workshop is limited to 12 people.  We welcome writers at all levels of proficiency, from beginners to advanced, in this workshop.

 

Cost is still only $235. We accept PayPal, credit card and check payments.   Please email hiddenriverwriters@gmail.com or call 610-764-0813 to register.

 

Hidden River also brings a variety of workshops to private groups, schools, homeschool organizations, professional organizations — we can adapt all of our programs to suit your schedule and budget.  Private individual tutoring and writing consultation, developmental assistance and editing help are also offered to writers at all levels of development. (We also can create online individual or group instruction!) Please see our Workshops page for further information about all that is offered.

 

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Interview with Mark Wagstaff, Winner of William Van Wert Award in Fiction

 

Mark Wagstaff

Mark Wagstaff

 

“Don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re a writer, not the messiah. You stand on the shoulders of thousands gone by, right back to those campfire story tellers who didn’t just say how they speared the mammoth but talked about the edge to the wind, the taste of the grass, the particular sound of the spear breaking the mammoth’s hide, that brief jubilation in a terrifying life driven by survival. Don’t aim to be famous in some distant future you can’t even envisage. Just do good work and get along with the people who try to help you.” (MW)

 

Mark Wagstaff, of London, was the winner of our last William Van Wert Award in Fiction.  He graciously sat down with us to talk about life as a writer, his process, latest projects, and perspective on writing – the craft, the business and the joy of it.  Mark is the author of several books, and is busily at work on a few new projects.  He was interviewed by our Founding Director, Debra Leigh Scott.

DLS: First, congratulations again for being named the winner of the William Van Wert fiction competition at Hidden River. Can you talk a bit about the winning story….”Some Secret Space”….it’s inspiration, and how it finally came together for you?

MW: The origin is less than heroic – it comes squarely from the geekiness of my life. I spend a lot of time alone trying to write, but actually spend an amount of that time staring at the page, at the wall, and out the window. I’ve lived in the same apartment a while – I know the view, the neighborhood, its routines front and back.

This was around the time of the last bank crash. There was a lot on the news about the States where many houses that – to us Brits – would seem pretty large and plush got foreclosed. So two strands started to move together. What about a guy shut-in, who for whatever reason doesn’t leave home, doesn’t take the news, doesn’t know about these larger events except through what he sees from the window. London has a lot of small, scrubby patches of ground – the guerilla gardening movement is part of the scene. So then I’m thinking, someone moves in on a foreclosed house and starts gardening, starts growing food. It all began working from there.

How it came together is thanks to the editors at Cobalt Press in Baltimore, MD who took the story on. If you check a map of foreclosures in Baltimore it’s pretty horrible – that had resonance and Cobalt’s notes helped me bring out the strengths of the story.

 

DLS: How about the overall collection of short stories?….it’s title, and the scope of the collection? I know it’s hard, as a writer, to talk about “themes” and motifs – but perhaps you could talk about the subjects and explorations of human life that fascinate you the most?

 

MW: My latest short story collection is called Burn Lines. For a geek, burn lines are an annoying pattern of lines across a display screen, sometimes caused by a dud graphics card. If you like to tan, burn lines are those unfortunate stripes left behind by clothes that are never the same shape as the clothes you’re wearing now. I got the thought that it could also be more permanent damage – tracks worn into a person by a the predations of life. It’s worth noting that Burn Lines was one of several possible titles for the collection. InkTears (the publisher of the collection) did a poll of readers on its mailing list, asking which title they’d prefer. So it’s the people’s choice – and a good one.

In an interview I did with The Sonder Review last year, we discussed that a lot of the stories in the collection are about the past. Some are directly about archaeology – an activity that seeks literally to unearth the past, to bring it into the present. There are also stories about people haunted by the past, or reappearing from the past. Some of the stories in Burn Lines were written around the same time as my novel The Canal, which is focused on how the past intrudes and will not give way until it is placated.

I’m fascinated by the choices people make – many of which I find hard to understand – and the processes which lead to those choices. I’m always fascinated by the things that people find beautiful or useful or interesting, and how we choose to invest the life we have. I’m pretty sure no one joins the police, or fronts a TV show, or becomes an accountant or a gravedigger by chance. There are choices and processes working through, there are past events pushing all that which I want to understand.

 

DLS: Can you speak about the characters in your stories? What kinds of characters drawn you the most? What do you learn from them?

 

MW: I was asked at a reading why so many stories in Burn Lines feature criminals or soldiers or detectives. It’s a good question. There are plenty of fine stories about office life or farming, but office workers and farmers tend to be tied to working in the same locality each day. Different things happen, but those things are often location-specific. The attraction of writing about, say, crooks or cops is mobility – these are characters that you can move around, they can go anywhere and meet anyone. It opens a range of situational possibilities. That’s why I guess there are so many movies about drifters or travelling salesmen – you can bust out of location-specifics. A story tied to one particular place brings other challenges. Some of the stories in Burn lines, the archeological stories, are very location-specific – they’re very much about how a particular place works on people.

You need to guide the characters but you can’t control them completely. If you’re doing your job well enough, they can become themselves and start knocking the furniture in ways that might surprise you. I like the idea of a writer learning from their characters. It’s too reductive to look at it only in terms of a writer working out their own – often very uninteresting – traumas or problems. Sometimes in a character I’ve written, I’ll see a better person that I want to be, with a way to be more patient, more accepting. The very best ones will spin away from you – that’s when you’re doing your job.

 

DLS: What are your current projects? What sorts of things are you currently working on?

 

MW: I’m in the very early stages of talking with a well-regarded US small press about doing a YA novel. That’s a real departure for me. I never think of my work as having any particular age demographic – although I guess some of my stories have references or allusions which may have more resonance if you remember things a while ago. We have an idea for the book, a broad outline and some text – but there’s a lot to work through.

I also have a novel nearly completed. I say nearly: I’ve been tinkering with it for about five years. At present I’m trying to wrestle it down to 90k words – it had got very bloated with not enough happening at the start and too much later on. I’m very keen to start showing it round, I think it’s okay (but then I would). And short stories of course. The next collection is filling up nicely.

Through the years I’ve made occasional attempts at screenwriting. It’s a fearsome discipline and I haven’t even nearly got the knack of it. But it’s a great challenge and I keep trying. Not expecting to see my name on any movie credits anytime soon though…

 

DLS: Can you speak about life as an artist, as a writer, in England?

 

MW: This may sound odd or grossly parochial, but I consider far more that I come from London rather than England. In so many ways, London is a different country. I was born on the southern England coast and whenever I visit it’s always like hitting a different timezone. I’m old enough now to have lived more years in London than outside of it – it’s not one of those places where you can be seventh generation or whatever and still not be treated as local. If you belong in London you know it, regardless of where you were born.

I’m not that good at thinking of myself as an artist. I tell stories, that’s about it. Writing is also one of several jobs I do – it’s the one that takes most effort and love for least material reward. I have a day job I enjoy hugely and I think many writers feel the same. There’s this persistent cliché about wanting to break free of paid work and embrace a life of authenticity and starvation. Well good luck with that. David Foster Wallace nailed that myth (in my opinion) in The Pale King – I’m thinking of that section (§22?) where the college accountancy tutor explains the stature and mastery of the accountant. Whether meant or not, it’s a great antidote to romantic nonsense.

There’s a old complaint about the English not having a culture of public intellectuals – not like France, say, where you might be revered for being a thinker on the public stage. I don’t think writers in England would expect to be revered much, nor treated with kid gloves. From those I’ve met we’re a robust bunch, ducking and diving, as we say, to make a living. The basic fact is the same anywhere: if you do it for the money, or for the adulation, you’re likely to be disappointed.

 

DLS: What advice might you offer to writers thinking of moving to the UK? What sort of community is there for writers?…..what sort of support? …what is the nature of publishing in the UK these days?

 

MW: The UK is of course the home of rain, and on a dark and soggy day I’d wonder why anyone would risk clinging to the undercarriage of an aircraft to get here.

I would say that the most noticeable difference is that there isn’t an MFA culture in the UK. By which I mean that my impression gleaned from some US writers of my acquaintance is that it’s possible to go to college for an MFA, start teaching as a grad student, maybe help out on the college literary journal, and move relatively seamlessly into being a ‘college writer’ someone whose field of reference is the Eng Lit department, whose reputation is built through academic-driven outlets.

There’s a bit of that in the UK, but I’d hazard a guess that most Brit writers have come up through journalism or advertising, or (increasingly) have put stuff out on blogs or started-up online zines. There’s a huge ecosystem of bedroom-based online journals which in some ways takes the place of the MFA program journals that many US colleges host. And of course there’s also people like me out writing in the cold.

There are of course very many locally-based, self-organized creative writing groups – often spilling out from adult education classes, one of the great gifts the old-school labor movement left us Brits.

You’ll see from my website that I’m more published through US-based outlets than in the UK. That’s because of the contests and sheer diversity of journals many of which – with college funding I think, as well as low-cost student staff – don’t have to fret so much about attracting advertisers. That ecosystem of journals and contests is not as developed in the UK. It’s also notable – at least in my experience – that relatively few UK publishers take un-agented writers. More jaundiced types than me would probably say that the business here is driven by ‘event’ books: celebrity memoirs, hyped-up sequels, showpiece prizes, collections by big-name journalists, or TV/movie tie-ins. All of which is understandable. Alongside publishing, I think only running a restaurant or an airline comes closest in potential to burn serious money.

I also don’t get the impression that the pay’s that good. At the editorial assistant end of the industry you could be looking at salaries of $25,000. Which means in London you’ll be sharing a flat with six other people. Folks higher up tend to have portfolio careers, or marry someone working in a better paid sector. People who work in publishing tend to love publishing, and love books by and large. But when margins are thin as a communion wafer and publishing houses are the poor relations in multi-media corporate groups, then naturally you’re going to green light stuff that makes money.

Incidentally, I’m not being on-trend anti-capitalist here. My view of money is pretty much summed up by that great Jim Young quote in Boiler Room (profanity enthusiasts will know the one I mean).

 

DLS: Any other advice you would like to give writers, in general? What have you learned as a writer – about your craft, your experience with the writing world – that you might be able to share?

 

MW: I’m so not the person to ask about this, because I feel I’m still pretty near the beginning of my life as a writer. I think ‘To a young poet’ by RS Thomas sums up that sense that you never really reach the adulthood of a writer, however old you get physically. A lot of writers – a lot of young writers – are very good. But there’s always more to say, stronger and better ways to say it. There’s always a great book that you’ll write next year and next year. The novel I’m writing now is okay. But the next one, or the one after, that might be the good one. (Note that publishers tend not to like this kind of talk in interviews, in case readers question whether something is worth buying…)

I have – if you’ll pardon the vulgarity – written so much crap in my life. But I never knew that until long after. It’s only time that gives the critical distancing, when you can look at your own work and see, well, I did this wrong and that wrong. That’s a positive experience, because that’s learning your craft. We shouldn’t be surprised at this. If you’re a carpenter, the first table you build might be pretty shoddy. At the time it’s an achievement just to finish, but ten years on you feel a bit embarrassed at your rawness and – maybe – a little proud of how far away from that you’ve moved. But you wouldn’t be crafting flawless tongue and groove joints now if you hadn’t persisted at the start. There’s no difference with writing fiction.

Listen to people who want to help you. When an editor says your draft needs work it’s not because they hate it, they wouldn’t bother talking to you if they hated it. They like it, and they like how it could be better. Be courteous to those people, aim to deliver what they suggest. Don’t defend the ‘purity of your creative vision’ like an idiot – you’re too close to the work to see it, never mind have vision. That old rogue William Burroughs crafted his work far more diligently and deliberately than he ever let on. Kerouac did six drafts or something of ‘On the Road’ and it’s still terrible. Hone your work till it’s sharp as broken glass and then listen gratefully when someone much calmer and saner points out how much polishing is still to do. Honestly, work with people.

I used to hate getting rejections and sent out voodoo curses (metaphorically I should add, on the advice of my lawyers…) on those who deemed my work ‘not a good fit’ whatever the hell that means. What it means is just no, not here, not today. I keep sending stuff out and might get two hundred rejections in a year. It bothers me less now. If a story really is good enough then sometime you’ll send it to the right place and the editor or publisher or contest judge at the other end will stop reading, then start again more slowly, then go back to the beginning – then you’ve hooked them. Ask a hundred random people in the street to go on a date with you and see what happens. Yet we expect editors just to snap up our work because we flicked them an email. And on the point of beginnings – have a killer opening or else no one will read the rest. Check out a master like Raymond Carver or Aimee Bender or Ring Lardner. Lardner could knock you cold with his opening paragraphs.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re a writer, not the messiah. You stand on the shoulders of thousands gone by, right back to those campfire story tellers who didn’t just say how they speared the mammoth but talked about the edge to the wind, the taste of the grass, the particular sound of the spear breaking the mammoth’s hide, that brief jubilation in a terrifying life driven by survival. Don’t aim to be famous in some distant future you can’t even envisage. Just do good work and get along with the people who try to help you.

Don’t write stories about being a writer. Seriously, don’t.

Final word is something everybody says, which is don’t give up. Do you really want to tell people you used to be a writer? That you tried but it was a bit hard? If you’re an astronaut or a footballer there’s a wholly reasonable expectation that you’ll move on some day – there’s no issue to setting aside your helmet. But writing isn’t like that. True, some people run dry and have to withdraw. Some have a moment of greatness, then fade – even though they might continue to do good work. The point is not being famous, or being prolific – though it does help to have a stock of material. The point is that writing isn’t just a job. It’s part of what you are. To give up means cutting off part of yourself – and it takes a good reason to do that.

I won’t list all the writers we now think are great who got canned in their day. No one really understands how these things work. Just keep on and bring out what’s inside you. Stories are the essence. The rest is advertising.

 

Hidden River Arts is an interdisciplinary arts organization, dedicated to supporting and celebrating artists of all genres – especially the “unserved artist” among us.  We love and laud the outsider artists, those laboring on the edges, making art as an act of defiance.  The William Van Wert Award in fiction is offered yearly, and our next cycle of submissions deadlines June 30, 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

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Interview: Stephanie Yuhas

Stephanie Yuhas_Photo by Rebekka LaFemme3

I had a chance to “virtually” sit down with a truly amazing human being, Stephanie Yuhas, whose book American Goulash I’ve just reviewed for The New York Journal of Books. I call Stephanie “amazing” for many reasons – and the word doesn’t do her enough justice, really. She is an animator (with a BFA in animation for the University of the Arts, Philadelphia), filmmaker, writer, producer, director, actor, public speaker, arts activist – a true force to be reckoned with. With her husband, filmmaker Matt Conant, she runs Cinevore Studios and is co-founder of Project Twenty1, a non-profit organization through which they run a yearly 21-Day Filmmaking Competition and Philadelphia Film & Animation Festival. She mentions many of her other projects in the interview, and I invite you to explore each and every one, and to take a look at the incredible number of links provided at the end of the interview, for even more information.

Interview Questions for Stephanie Yuhas, from Debra Leigh Scott, Founding Director of Hidden River Arts, Founding Editor-in-Chief of Hidden River Publishing:

DLS: American Goulash is called a ‘coming of age’ memoir, and in some places it is called creative non-fiction. It’s often said the lines between these two genres are blurred. How do you make the distinction?

SY: Memoirs are usually written by people who are older than I am, are celebrities/public figures, or have experienced some sort of life-changing event. When people say, “A memoir by award-winning author, Stephanie Yuhas,” I actually cringe. I’m not important. I’ m not famous. I’m just a goofball who happened to have an unusual childhood. But “comedic poignant ethnic creative non-fiction” is not a category on Amazon, so we had to classify the book as memoir. When I write fiction screenplays, I prefer writing the day-in-the-life stories of regular people who happen to be a little eccentric, so this time, I used my real life experiences as source material. I consider it creative non-fiction because I often focus more on what’s going on in my head as a creative person than try to portray a given day in history. What was the weather like outside on the day Nagymama pulled the door off of the bathroom? I have no idea, I was busy trying to cover my private parts. DLS: Memoir requires that the writer sift through years of memories and experiences in order to choose those which paint a particular picture, which act as a microcosm for the larger experience of the life. Can you talk about the way you went about exploring your memories in order to make those choices? SY: The original “American Goulash” was series of short stories, spanning from childhood to adulthood, written in no particular order and distributed for free online via a blog, almost as a free sample of a book I hope to write someday, if given the opportunity. It was intended to amuse people, make them nostalgic for their own old-world relatives, or to urge them to write down their own cultural family stories. It wasn’t until I signed with Booktrope that my editor, Kathy Harding, suggested I select a few essays and develop them into a focused coming-of-age story. Together, we sat down and charted what events happened that were integral to my decision to leave my family and made it into a brand new outline. A lot of material was cut in an effort to paint a picture of a girl caught between two worlds, forced to escape the only home she knew. It’s not even until now, in this interview, Debra, that I realize how much it mirrors in a much smaller way, my own family’s escape from oppression. You guys should pretend I meant to do that, ok? DLS: What was your goal in painting the larger picture? With what message did you want to leave your reader? SY: My goal was to give an example of how to beat the odds and make your personal dreams come true through hard work and learning from your mistakes. It’s easy to assign blame to people who have hurt you– whether they hurt you intentionally or not – and lose all hope. Many people have had far worse lives than I have; I want to speak to those people. If you can see a light at the end of the tunnel, keep digging until you burst through. The freedom to live your own life – even if it is very different from what your peers or family expects of you – is worth fighting for. I also want to subtly imply the important of arts education. Not everyone is an artist, but many people use some form of the arts as a means to communicate, a way to find their voice, or as an opportunity to work as a part of a team. For me, creativity, comedy, and imagination have been integral to coping with difficult life situations and crippling anxiety. Art has been my medicine. To cut arts and extracurricular funding from our school programs is dangerous to the mental health of our children and our culture as a whole.  

DLS: American Goulash began as a blog, is that right? Did you find the process of keeping a blog helpful in creating the larger work? Can you offer some guidance on the process for those who might be interested in using this method?

SY: American Goulash began as a short student animation, Nagymama. The short got its 15 minutes of fame when it was featured on Nicktoons, as well as the front page of YouTube and MySpace, so there was this whole fan-base of people saying, “More! More!” Unfortunately, the animation took me about a year to draw by hand! I received a grant through the Leeway Foundation to get the resources to build a multimedia cultural storytelling blog, write a series of essays, and even do a handful of live performances. I always wanted to write a book, but I did not see the point of spending time on writing one and getting endless rejection letters, especially since I had no connections or experience in the publishing industry. I had just wasted a year of my life working with a company that promised to get one of my television series projects on the air, so I didn’t want to start the process of going into development on something as large as a book only to have it die by the hands of “the powers that be”. What is the purpose of writing if no one sees it? Blogs might not sound glamorous, but they have more reach than people think when marketed and timed correctly. It’s a win-win: if a blog speaks to people, they share it. If it doesn’t speak to people, then at least it was a cathartic writing experience and I can rework it later and try again. Stories have no expiration date, and the message is always more important than the media. If you have a story that isn’t reaching people, try to submit it to a different online media outlet, turn it into a performance, or try it out on guests at a party. Through the grace of Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, a blog about starting my business in elementary school went viral, which lead to some e-mails and phone calls from some downright sketchy publishing companies. I researched every one of them and got nothing but red flags. One of them was so rude that I transcribed the phone call I had with her and published it to the website. I assumed that writing a piece against a pandering publishing industry would blacklist me for sure, but instead, a good friend of mine shared the piece on social media, and one of his friends worked for BookTrope. They made me an offer, helped me build a team, and published me in December.

DLS: Much of your work is in film, video and animation. Can you talk a bit about how the methodologies of these more visual genres are different from the creative methods required of a writer?

SY: There was a huge learning curve for me, going from screenwriter to author. One of the notes I got from my editor was, “Stephanie! What does everyone look like?” When I write for screen, I often write strong voices with no physical description so the director can choose who (s)he would like to play for the part without my influence. When casting, I often use genderless character names in the initial scripts so the actors can audition for the part they are dying to play, not for some pre-conceived age, race, or gender. Beyond screenwriting, it took a little time to get used to writing in prose again. I was bumped into the honors program at my middle school, everything from that point on focused on analytical reports, debates, and technical writing. Like any language, if you don’t use it, you lose it. It was not until attending arts school that I was allowed to write anything creative (of course, I did it on the side, but it was never graded and I never had any “notes,” which are incredibly valuable.) Even my blogs were more transcriptions that prose, because in my case, the Internet responded better to it.

DLS: People sometimes shy away from writing non-fiction, afraid to hurt people who are still alive, or besmirch those who have passed away. Did you have any such concerns with American Goulash? How did you handle them?

SY: For one thing, I put the book off for several years! I had many, many conversations with several Booktrope editors, fellow authors, friends, and family before I would wrap my head around the idea of writing about real people. No memoir writer can capture a person to their core. All they can do is capture what they meant to THEM. The world wants to label people like comic books – heroes and villains. That’s not how life works. We are all heroes sometimes, villains other times, because we are imperfect. Our actions and words affect each person each day. The unhelpful secretary that was always mean to me is someone’s child who someone loved dearly and who was someone else’s angel. The kids on the bus that burned me with cigarettes might have been children who were abused at home. It all comes from somewhere; and all I can do as a writer is document how that butterfly effect becomes a part of my world. The difference between writing fiction and memoir is that the characters in fiction have backstories that you invent. I have to count on my imperfect perception and interpret that data and how it affected me, and who I am today. I can promise no more than that; and all I can do is hope that people understand and respect my viewpoint. The hardest part, honestly, was talking to family, because they sort of wrote me off. Even when trying to collect family histories, Nagymama and Anyu focused more on what we were going to eat that day than talking about the past. When I finally asked my mother, “Is this painful for you to relive? If it is, I will stop asking,” to which she replied, “No. I just don’t think anybody vould care!” When Nagymama got fan mail from the YouTube feature, she didn’t quite understand where it was coming from, but she seemed happy to have the attention. If I had waited for her to pass before writing the story, like some people advised me to do, she could have missed her own 15 minutes of fame. Once the book came along, I think my mom and the rest of the family either didn’t believe me or weren’t interested. We’re all very different people and I don’t think the old-world part of my family is ever going to really understand what I do because it’s so different from their worlds. They are salt-of-the-earth people, whose major concerns are survival and feeding themselves. As an artist in the USA, I understand that I have a lot of privilege and freedom to express myself. It dawned on me that the best thing I could do for them was paint a portrait, from my perspective, of a transitional life – if for anything, to encourage young people like myself who live in a world of iPhones and Facebook, to sit down and talk to their parents and grandparents, before it’s too late. Every moment, every damned sandwich, is archived today. But what about the stories that happened before Instagram? I wanted to capture them before my memories fade. Nagymama is gone now – she lived 102 years. What is left of her? If she never wrote down her story and no one else will, then I will paint a portrait of my life, with her in it – the poignant moments I remember that lead me here today, for better, for worse. I did the best I could to disguise places and names of people who are still alive, and focus more on my own stories, feelings, etc. I thought, if I’m going to talk about other people, I should tell some of my own most personal, embarrassing stories out of fairness. I would hope people know that in order to tell my own truths and experiences, I need to show how other peoples’ words and actions affected me. This is not a story about “you should’t have done that!” – it’s a story of, “This is what I did because [so-and-so] did that.” In the end, I have no regrets and I place no blame on anyone. I am who I am based on the experiences and lessons I have learned from those around me. I am stronger for the hardships, but I am also happy because of the love and support I’ve found in unusual places along the journey. Ironically, after all of this, I have become very good friends with Mohan, my childhood bully. We’ve had some great conversations about the psychology of our childhood behavior – it’s all kind of funny to the both of us now. He even came to my wedding!

DLS: Do you have any plans to write another book-length work?

SY: Yes. I see American Goulash as a trilogy at least, with transmedia elements such as live performances. I’ve developed a fictionalized version for television as well and I am seeking partners with distribution contacts. Again, the message is more important than the medium, so I am happy to work in whatever way touches the largest number of people. After working for over a decade as a producer, I’ve developed a flexible, shotgun approach to projects because opportunities always tend to arise in the places where I least expect them.

DLS: You worked with Booktrope, which calls itself “team publishing”, to bring out your book. Can you talk to our readers about this process? Why did you decide to work with Booktrope instead of self-publishing, or instead of looking for an agent and going the older, more traditional route with its publication?

SY: Booktrope initially did not take unsolicited requests – you needed to have a recommendation of a published author within the system or Booktrope staff. After Booktrope contacted me, I submitted my manuscript like any author would, and then I got the greenlight, which meant that this whole back-door area of the website opened to me. Team publishing meant that I got to go through all of their staff, or as they like to call “team” members – editors, book managers, proofreaders, illustrators, etc. – and filter them by who was looking to partner with authors within my genre. My team members and I spoke to each other on the phone or Skype (they are a Seattle company and I’m based in Philadelphia). I signed on with BookTrope, then my selected team members within the group, and a “Team Stephanie Yuhas” group was generated. There, we made our own schedules, deadlines, and deliverables and used resources within the community to complete the work. What I really liked about the experience is that BookTrope helped me meet a ton of other creative authors to learn from. What is good for one author on the platform is good for the others. We share tips and tricks, cross-promote our work, submit short stories to each other’s analogies and websites, and dissect the ever-changing book-delivery technologies. Everyone is kind and fun-loving, far from the “ever-man-for-himself” mentality I’ve heard of in other industries. But as a small press, it doesn’t come with billboards and sexy Manhattan rooftop launch parties. This type of publishing is not for the faint of heart – my team has to work around the clock to climb the charts in the same playing field as celebrity authors with multimillion dollar marketing budgets. We can’t sit on our laurels and wait for NPR or the New York Times to call us. We must constantly reach, push, and promote (and not just by tweeting “Buy my book! Buy my book!”” ala Jay Sherman). I’ve self-published DVDs in the past – Nerd vs. Geek through Cinevore Studios and several short film anthologies through my non-profit, Project Twenty1. It’s almost impossible to get any sales or credibility if you aren’t on a label of any kind, and I for one have no desire to become a distribution company. For future titles, yes, I would be interested in getting agented and going through a traditional publishing route – but only if that means I can focus more time on writing instead of having to do so much heavy lifting in the field of marketing. Man, I hate it – I’m actually surprised that I have any friends left! But I also enjoyed the experience of team publishing so much that I’d be open to doing it again. We have so many balls in the air with our new segment Moot on WHYY, original series pitches, and commercial productions that it’s difficult to choose which projects to spend time on. At the end of the day, it all boils down to opportunities, good partners, and demand from my humble, but extremely loyal readers and viewers. I prioritize the project that picks up steam and resources first. Ideas are never an issue!

~     ~     ~     ~    ~    ~     ~

So now, I am sure, you see why I say that Stephanie is a truly amazing person.  Here are some links if you would like to explore more of the many things Stephanie does

Author Site: StephanieYuhas.com

Blogs: AmericanGoulash.org

CisforCrazy.com

Narrative Fiction Projects: Cinevore.com

Commercial Work: CrystallineStudios.com

Non-Profit: ProjectTwenty1.org

NorristownArtsHill.org

IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2102919

Facebook Book Page: Facebook.com/AmericanGoulash

Author Page: Facebook.com/StephanieYuhas

Twitter Book Page: Twitter.com/AmericanGoulash

Author Page: Twitter.com/StephanieYuhas

Google+:  Gplus.to/StephanieYuhas

YouTube: American Goulash: Youtube.com/Lotusdove

Other Films by Stephanie Yuhas: YouTube.com/CinevoreFilm

LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/stephanieyuhas

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Pimps and Snakeoil Salesmen and Art in the Age of Neoliberalism

Ben Zackheim has written a piece recently comparing the plight of the musician in 2015 to the struggle of writers, and contemplates ways that we might have to change – for want of a better term – our “delivery model” in order to replace the kinds of income streams that used to be generated by our writing.  Our very survival might require it.

 

Zackheim asks, Do writers need to become producers? He suggests turning our fiction into comic books, or podcasts.

 

My first response had me thinking back to a program for which I once taught, in an art school. For three years, the students in the graphic design department studied all the things you would expect, in order for them to graduate with training in GD. But in the final year, the program threw them a huge curveball with a capstone class that required them to master narrative…..storytelling. Writing. It always seemed insane to me – and more than a little sadistic. No matter how well they did in the program up to that point, these students couldn’t graduate without passing this class. It always seemed to me like training a person for the ballet for several years and then before graduating them, requiring that they learn to play the violin.

 

I was there, co-teaching that capstone course with a graphic designer; I was the writer advising them, trying to help them survive this giant, flaming curveball.

 

That’s what I felt like, reading Ben’s question. Writers spend years, decades, developing our craft. It takes a lifetime of work. Isn’t that enough? The time required to make comic books, record podcasts, design lines of clothing inspired by our short stories, or create a cookbook based on the foods in our novel – isn’t this time we could be spending actually….you know….writing?

 

Can you imagine someone suggesting Victor Hugo turn Les Miserables into a comic book? I try to imagine this. I know Dickens serialized his novels. I know there have always been gimmicks and crafty ways of getting the public’s attention.

 

Ben’s suggestions smack of desperation. When artists explore other venues or modalities in a natural way, there is something organic about it. Something healthy. But when these sorts of things are done from a basis of fear – when your bills aren’t paid and your refrigerator is bare and you haven’t been paid for any of your writing in the last year, or last five years….well, you get the picture.

 

I know the world changes. I know sometimes those changes are cataclysmic. But what’s happening now with all professions is a kind of unbundling, a sort of deprofessionalization. Young lawyers, for instance, rarely have secretaries or support staff to help them keep their work running smoothly. Often, they answer their own phones, type their own briefs, make their own travel arrangements, do their own preliminary research. In only one generation, several jobs have been eliminated, with those duties now being piled on top of the job that attorneys were already doing – practicing law. Now they do the paralegal work, the secretarial work – I’ve even heard stories about young attorneys running to the office supply store and replacing the ink cartridge in the copy machine.

 

It feels as though there’s a point beyond which you are no longer practicing your profession.

 

Don’t misunderstand. I believe that artists often express their creativity in many ways – that we are often artistically diverse. For instance, I write short stories and novels, non-fiction, scripts (for theatre and film); I’m a singer. I occasionally direct or serve as a dramaturg. Artists often wear many hats.

 

But each discipline requires a certain amount of focus and energy as we are working. How much can we fracture that concentration without negatively impacting the art itself?

 

I’m not saying that Ben Zackheim is wrong, necessarily. I just saying that I’m finding it very difficult to envision a way to be all things at once – and that even if I managed to, I fear I would hate myself and what my life had become. It would no longer feel as though I’m living the life of an artist, but that of an arts-marketer. Worse….I’d feel like a pimp. Or some tarted-up madame.

 

I’m feeling resistant to the idea that what has happened to the lives of artists is simply a result of natural changes. Many of my artist friends – those who might consider themselves purists – become infuriated with the suggestion that they have to be marketers, salespeople – neoliberal capitalists – pimping their work to a marketplace that has no real appreciation for their skills or creative talent. A marketplace that responds to short and shallow appetites, clickbait, 15-word stories…..Doesn’t it make you feel like one of those mothers, dressing up your five year old with makeup and teased up hair, putting her in skimpy clothes and throwing her out there on the stage of a Little Miss Sunshine sort of beauty pageant?

 

I welcome conversation on this issue. I know that most of us are struggling with the shifting realities impacting art-making…..at least art-making with a life that allows us to earn a living wage. In future blog posts, I’ll be exploring some other options – ways that other societies might offer ideas and solutions which don’t require writers, musicians, artists, to become snake oil salesmen or madams in something that feels like a Bourbon Street whorehouse.

 

 

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The Bechdel Test Across All Genres

There has been an on-going discussion about the Bechdel Test as it is applied to films. This test is named after Alison Bechdel, and it is a metric that originated with her comic “Dykes to Watch Out For”. So, what is the Bechdel test? It is a very simple 3-prong test spoken about in the comic strip. A film must meet all three points:

 

  1. It has to have at least two women in it (who have names),
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

 

You might imagine that most films would pass this test. But according to the site Film School Rejects, “…out of 2,500 films, only about half pass the test.” Ashe Cantrell, in “10 Famous Films that Surprisingly Fail the Bechdel Test”, lists films that might be a surprise. “Social Network”, for instance. I was surprised, since I’ve long admired Aaron Sorkin’s writing, and the female characters he’s created, especially on “The West Wing”. (I am aware that he’s come under some heated criticism for his portrayal of females more recently.) Of course the original “Star Wars” trilogy fails, since there was only ONE female consistently in the films. The others, Aunt Beru and Mon Mothma….well do we even remember them saying anything at all? Whether or not they talked, the point is that they never spoke to each other. The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy fails as well; although there are strong female characters, they never once speak to each other.   Even “Run Lola Run” fails the test. The character, who is admittedly kick-ass, never once speaks to another woman.

So what, you might ask. Why should scripts and filmmakers be held to such a simplistic metric? Aren’t you just creating another reason for films to get more formulaic? Isn’t there enough of the recipe-style screenwriting out there? Charlie Jane Anders addresses this in “Why The Bechdel Test is More Important Than You Realize” in io9.   Anders says, “Perhaps the greatest complaint about the Bechdel Test …is the notion that it ends conversations instead of starting them. You just check the boxes and mark a movie “pass” or “fail.” But that one is definitely not true — the Bechdel Test is often a part, or the beginning, of a larger and more complicated conversation about female representation in movies.”

It is precisely the importance of the Bechdel Test as a generator of a conversation so long needed, she says, that makes it valuable. We should be astonished by, and then motivated to repair, the fact that women continue to be marginalized in film. Anders tells us, “What the Bechdel Test does really well is provide a bellwether, a general indicator of how the wind is blowing. It’s the start of a process. And once the number of films that pass goes up, on the whole, then the real work can begin.”

Bottom line, the Bechdel might offer a simple formula for what is either present or missing in a film; but it doesn’t tell a screenwriter how to meet the simple formula. In other words, it doesn’t demand that a certain story be followed, or some predictable reveal be used. The ways in which this simple formula can be met are myriad, really.

The capitalists, of course, will begin their rant, reminding us that film – especially in the U.S. – is a for-profit industry. The goal is to have a hit, bottom line. The more money earned at the box office and extended sales, the better.

The newsite, Vocativ, took that on.

About the half the films of 2013 passed the Bechdel test. And guess what? Versha Sharma and Hanna Sender in their Vocativ article reported that those films which passed the test earned a total of $4.22 billion in the U.S., while those which failed earned $2.66 billion. Take that, old white male hetero-capitalists.

Oh, and by the way? Sweden, with money from its state-funded Swedish Film Institute, is launching a Bechdel rating system. (Why don’t we all just move to Sweden? Seriously.)

So, the point of this blog is not only to discuss the Bechdel metric in regard to film, but to point out that the problem is not exclusive to film and TV. What about theatre, for instance? How many plays pass the Bechdel test? Julia Harman Cain claims that theatre does pretty well, especially in comparison to film, when you explore theatrical offerings using the metric. She suggests that you pick a theatre and test its season. Some theatres, admittedly, will do better than others. But the D.C. area, by her estimation, is doing itself proud.

Keith Gow has a less jolly conclusion. He writes, regarding Australian theatre, “Putting aside comparisons between the two mediums, using those three rules, 50% of the shows I’ve seen in the last twelve months pass the Bechdel Test. At last week’s Sunday Sessions at Belvoir St theatre in Sydney, playwright Tom Wright discussed analysing the plays of all the mainstage theatre companies in Australia every year – and his overall impression is that most years only 20% of shows pass the Bechdel test.”

So does that mean that the U.S. is doing a better job on its stages in presenting women in a variety of story-lines? Probably not. It probably depends on the individual theatre, and on the individual season. With the economy remaining in the toilet for the arts, and with theatres trying desperately to fill their seats, we might see a return to tried-and-true plays that fail, when what we might truly need (but fear to risk presenting) are brand new plays that pass.

We also need more productions of plays written by women. The Kilroys have made quite a splash recently with the presentation of their list of the work of 46 female playwrights – barely nicking the surface of the mountain of female work out there – which goes unproduced. Their desire is to make easy-access for the producing artistic directors of theatre companies of the work of the under-represented female playwright. I’d venture to say that many of the plays written by women would pass the Bechdel test. All of my plays pass. That’s because, as a woman, I am writing about situations, challenges, stories that include complicated female characters. I write for all races and all ages of women; I write for all socio-economic strata of women. I’m sure that I’m not alone in doing so.

What about fiction?

Well, classic Western literature apparently fails big time. According to a piece in Jezebel, Frank Kovarik asks, after applying the metric to works like War and Peace, or The Odyssey, why should it matter? His conclusion is that, perhaps, it shouldn’t. That these works are snapshots of their time and place, of the realities experienced by the writers.

But, to the extent that the writers were predominantly of the male gender, and rarely of lower socio-economic status, aren’t we simply reinforcing the biases of the time in which those books were written by continuing to read them with unquestioning adoration? As Edward Taylor, much-revered scholar of literature at Columbia University has said, criticism of these works through a contemporary lens – whether that lens is feminist or socio-economic, or whatever – is largely beside the point. The question is whether or not the art suffers from its patriarchal perspective, nothing more.

But, I ask in return, what of the process of bringing our own sensibilities to the older sensibilities, as a way to more fully explore the realities both of our time and previous moments in history? That certainly doesn’t seem beside the point. How do we not look at The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and explore the racism of the text? Yes, many have argued that it is the intent of the author to be “anti-racist” through the racism he explores in his characters. But is that exploration, in a discussion of the book beside the point? I think not. Kovarik takes a different stance:

“When I realized that even War and Peace, a novel so vast, all-encompassing, profound, and moving, presents a seriously diminished portrait of the lives of women, I began to see that the deeper point of Bechdel’s test is not to accuse Homer, or Tolstoy, or me of being sexist.

Instead, the test reminds us that biases like sexism, racism, heterosexism, and classism are the water in which we swim. They pervade our culture. They are our culture, and to such an extent that we sometimes forget about them until someone like Bechdel reminds us.

Instead of seeing sexism — or racism, etc. — as “unspeakable sins” whose taint one must avoid at all costs, maybe it would be healthier to accept that it would be virtually impossible for an individual not to be thus tainted — in other words, to see these sins as not unspeakable but rather common as dirt.

Then, aware of our common dirtiness, we can get down to the business of studying how things get dirty, how dirtiness causes problems, and how, struggle though we may, we can never get ourselves or anything else permanently clean.”

I agree that we should not ban books of older time periods because of what is now perceived of as offensive; I think that using these books, as Kovarik suggests, to raise awareness of just how common such biases are should be part of how we explore these texts.

But what of contemporary fiction? We know that male books are reviewed more often in the major reviews. Lots of conversations have taken place about the lack of gender equality in the publishing industry itself. Claire Fallon writes, in The Huffington Post, that books, while they’ve largely escaped the Bechdel metric, are not immune to the same issues uncovered in the wider Bechdel discussion.

Since 2014 has been declared as “The Year of Reading Women”, perhaps it is time to have this discussion.

Fallon’s article offers twelve works of fiction (some contemporary, some classic) that meet the Bechdel test. I would venture to say that there are many more, many of which don’t hit the radar screen because they are being published by smaller presses, where it is much harder to get the promotion and find the reading audience than it might be if you are backed by a major publisher willing to spend money on PR and a national book launch. I would invite my readers to offer their own suggestions for works of fiction which pass the Bechdel test.

Other lists, like this one, refuse to apply the metric at all, exploring each female character individually, for her strengths, her complexities, and her overall kick-assed-ness.

So, to wrap up. Do we need the Bechdel test in all genres? I would say yes, sure, why not, since what it offers is a way to enter a conversation that is necessary across all genres. Are there more ways to measure the balance of male and female characters in art? Sure. How about the ways to measure the percentage of male and female writers being produced, presented, published? Yes. Metrics abound. But what is the harm of having yet another tool in the knapsack, helpful in not only offering a way of measuring but in reminding us that we need to continue taking measure?

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