Leave a comment

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

Leave a comment

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.

 

 

1 Comment

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?

Leave a comment

“Discovering Your Hidden Voice”: Hidden River Winter Writers’ Workshop in Society Hill, Philadelphia!

“Discovering Your Hidden Voice” is Hidden River Writers’  Workshop for Winter 2014!  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 has formed an exciting new 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 fiction workshop in a private space that resonates with the spirit of Dickens?

The workshop will meet on Wednesdays from January 15 through February 19, 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 $235. We accept PayPal, credit 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.  Please see our Workshops page for further information about all that is offered.

1 Comment

The Next Big Thing – A Writer Interview Series

I would like to thank Tree Riesener, who is the winner of our inaugural Eludia Award for her wonderful collection of short stories, SLEEPERS AWAKE, for inviting me to take part in this interesting writers’ interview program.  The Next Big Thing is a sort of interview chain which provides readers with an ever-growing series of discussions about writers and their most recent projects.  It offers an inside view of our process, our passions, our efforts to create our best work.  Below you will find my own answers to the interview questions.  You’ll also find my own recommendations – three truly wonderful writers who will be answering the questions about their own projects.

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

1– What is your working title of your book?

My book is called Piety Street.  It’s the first novel in a trilogy, a family saga, about an extended Delta family and an immigrant family, settled in New Orleans from Sicily.

2–Where did the idea come from for the book?

This book, and the trilogy, were born from stories I was told as a child about my own maternal grandmother’s childhood.  Tales of leaving Italy for America, of being raised in an orphanage in a strange country by extremely cruel nuns when her parents both died.  Lots of family stories lived in my imagination for many years, and then, as I writer, I found myself building on those stories, fictionalizing them, searching for the archetypal truths in the experience of the sojourner, the orphan, etc.  So, although the seeds of the trilogy came from true family stories, what has resulted is a work based on an attempt to paint a bigger picture of human experience.  I set the story in New Orleans, one of my favorite areas of the country, for its mystery, mysticism, multi-cultural, multi-racial lifestyle.

3–What genre does your book fall under?

It’s literary fiction, but could also be considered historical fiction, since it moves through several separate time periods – 1919, 1927 and 1955.  I guess you could also include it in the sub-category of “family saga”.

4–Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

This is really hard to answer, since the book moves through three major time periods, and the characters age from childhood, to their 20s, and then into their 50s.  It’s not a typical book-to-film kind of project; rather it is more like a Dickens piece – the sort that would adapt better to an episodic PBS or BBC project — a mini-series, maybe.  We’d need some really unusual actors, too — because the characters are not only Sicilian in nationality, but there are others who are Creole, including a Vodou priestess. It would be a great vehicle for casting diversity, that’s for sure.  It’s not so much a “star vehicle” project as it would be a great ensemble project.

5–What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Piety Street is a family saga, the first novel in a trilogy, about the Favaloro family from Sicily and the Duvalle family, a Creole Delta family, whose paths and lives cross and converge throughout the first half of the 1900s in New Orleans.

6–Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Piety Street will be published in 2013 by New Door Books.

7–How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The book took years.  Probably close to 7 years, altogether.  I wrote, rewrote, restructured, set it aside while writing other things, including an inter-related collection of short stories, Other Likely Stories and several plays.  I’m also working on a documentary film.  But I’ve recently returned to the book, rewrote some sections yet again, edited and re-shaped it a bit….and will be letting it go.  It’s been a hard book to wrestle with, largely because the structure and layering of the stories requires that we move through these time periods in an unusual way.  The book opens in 1955, flashes back to 1919, back to 1955, then flashes back to 1927, finally returning one last time to 1955.

8–What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Some possible contemporary comparisons would be to The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton, or The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom.  Like my book, both tell their stories through a young girl, who is the starting point for unraveling family mysteries and secrets.  My book begins in 1955, with 5-year-old Rachael Meade, third generation of the Favaloro family, whose abuse at the hands of an extremely troubled great-aunt, begins to unravel long-held family secrets and evils.

But I’d like to compare the book also to the kinds of stories that Charles Dickens told (although his stories began often with a little boy and mine a little girl).  His novels always included a large caste of characters, themes of lost innocence, cruelty, family honor, and ultimately redemption.  That’s the journey Piety Street takes the reader on.

9–Who or what inspired you to write this book?

As I said before, my grandmother’s stories of her own childhood were the inspiration.  More than anyone else in my family, she raised me to be the person I am.  Her name was Eludia Marie Orgoglioso, and I’ve recently launched a fiction contest in her name at my own arts organization and small press, Hidden River.  It’s called the Eludia Award, and provides $1000 and publication for a first booklength work of fiction (novel or short story collection) to a woman writer, age 40 or older, She lived during an era when women had little chance of following their dreams.  I want to honor her by helping other women follow their dreams with an award in my grandmother’s name.

10–What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Readers who like entering into an entire world and staying there, discovering a variety of powerful characters, experiencing mystery, struggle, injustice, crime, and ultimate resolution and redemption, will love Piety Street. It’s filled with everything found in my beloved New Orleans: mysticism, magic, spirituality, passion.  And all of that is blended with historical events: the great immigrations of Sicilians to New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, the sweep of death caused by the 1919 influenza pandemic, the great flood of 1927 that destroyed large areas of New Orleans – much like the more recent Katrina.

Coming up in THE NEXT BIG THING are three of my favorite writers!

ERIC D. GOODMAN

Eric is author of a wonderful collection of inter-related stories, Tracks.  The book won the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the U.S. Mid-Atlantic Region. This novel-in-stories follows a diverse group of passengers on a train from Baltimore to Chicago, revealing the secrets of their past, their hopes for the future and just how intertwined their lives really are.Journey by train from Baltimore to Chicago via the perspectives of a diverse array of passengers. Eric also curates the popular Lit and Art reading series at The Watermark Gallery in Baltimore, MD.  Eric will be discussing Tracks on February 8 at

http://www.Writeful.blogspot.com

KAREN RILE

Karen Rile is the author of Winter Music, a novel set in Philadelphia, the city we share. Other truly wonderful works of fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in The Southern Review, American Writing, Creative Nonfiction, The Land Grant College Review, Other Voices, and Apiary, and has been listed among The Best American Short Stories.  Karen will be discussing Winter Music on February 8 at http://www.rilesmith.com/

CHARLES DODD WHITE

Charles identifies himself as an Appalachian writer, a writer whose knowledge and understanding of this truly mysterious and unique region of the U.S. results in powerful, moving stories, unforgettable characters, and one of the best reading experiences I’ve had in a long time.  I first became aware of Charles in an anthology, Degrees of Elevation, and then read his own collection, Sinners of Sanction County with awe.  He’ll be discussing his latest book, the novel, Lambs of Men on February 8 at http://ltmarlborough.wordpress.com/

 

I really hope you enjoyed reading this blog entry, and learning a bit about my forthcoming novel.  Please feel free to comment here, or to get in touch if you would like to arrange a reading, or if you have a bookclub interested in either Other Likely Stories or Piety Street.  I am always happy to make either a personal appearance, or a skype or Google HangOut interview with a group of readers.  

Be sure to check in with Tree’s blog, which is still up, discussing her wonderful short story collection, and to calendar February 8 for the posting of the three wonderful writers I’ve invited to take part.

Leave a comment

Announcing new workshops in “Visual Spatial Storytelling”

As a writer and arts educator, I’ve run creative writing workshops for years and years.  Recently I’ve been thinking about alternative ways to approach the practice of creative writing.  About a year ago, I developed a program called “Visual-Spatial Storytelling” for an arts center where I was working with young children.  This was a great success with the children as well as with the art center administrators; and I began to wonder:  why not provide these workshops for all ages?   While writing prompts are nothing new in creative writing workshops, the focus on training a writer to develop more powerful observational skills here is a bit different.

This year, in discussions with visual artist, Brooke Lanier, I suggested that we try to expand on that and present a workshop which combines visual arts training with creative writing. We’re going to be launching our first 8-week sessions on February 11 in Philadelphia. I’m excited about this because I believe that inter-disciplinary explorations are so wonderful in increasing the potentiality of creative expression. Brooke will be presenting a variety of explorations in both style and technique in 2-D and 3-D art. I’ll be leading our workshop participants through writing poetry, fiction and drama, using close observation tactics and visual art prompts. The result will be a rich experience that combines a variety of narrative techniques with visual art-making in a unique and entirely new interdisciplinary way.

My hope is that, as we work with our students and share discoveries of this process, Brooke and I will be able to put together a book, and perhaps teacher-training materials in order to help educators use our program.  I plan to blog a bit more about this as we move through the sessions.

If there is anyone reading this who would be interested in taking part here in Philadelphia, or if you would like us to travel the program TO you, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.  This is absolutely a workshop that can be taken “on the road”.   If you would like to know more about me, my own writing and other activities, visit my website.

For more details, or to invite us to put a workshop together for you, please email hiddenriverwriters@gmail.com with the subject line: Visual Spatial Storytelling.

 

 

4 Comments

On Writing Memoir

Memoir is a subset of autobiography. Where an autobiography usually discusses the broader scope of an entire life, a memoir examines one portion of a life, often in a fairly specific context (i.e. the years spent as a young Marine in the Korean War, or life as a young upper-middle class mother in Reagan’s America).

William Zissner calls memoir, “A careful act of literary reconstruction.” What does this mean? It means that you are not simply recounting an experience. You are shaping the story you tell, crafting it, deciding what to tell and how.

Memoir is reductive.

The writer has to be discerning about the most potent things to include and ruthless about the many things to exclude. One of the hardest things to do is remove the details you recall, to which you are emotionally attached, but which don’t serve the arc of your memoir.

William Zinsser says to think small. “Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it’s because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life.”

In other words, look for those telling moments which somehow, almost magically, crystallize the meaning of the larger life.

In order to write memoir, you have to set aside the assumption or belief that you understand your own life. The process of writing memoir is about your own discovery of new ways to see old experiences. It’s about slowly recognizing a thread or pattern in events or behaviors that you didn’t see before. It’s about understanding the symbolism of your own life.

Know in advance that this is going to hurt. If you are opening up your own heart and mind and searching for the most authentic experiences, you have to remain honest. You have to examine your own areas of avoidance, your own areas of denial. Otherwise, the writing will reek of what Tennessee Williams called “mendacity” – a dishonesty that will render your effort worth very little.

Memoir is not journalism. The tone cannot be objective or removed. There can be no distance between the voice and the experience, but here is where things can get confusing. Neither can there be a telling of an experience too immediate, too raw, too fresh. Why? Because it doesn’t allow time for reflection, for introspection, for the kind of synthesis of experience and understanding that only comes with time. So the melding of voice and experience has to come through the wisdom gained in the passage of time.

What about “privacy,” either your own or that of others you include in your memoir? Worries about offending others can cloud your ability to write truthfully. The best thing to do is to put that concern aside and write as honestly as you possibly can. Write as if no one but you will ever see the manuscript. Then, when it is in finished form, if you intend to publish the manuscript and offer the memoir to a wider public, you might want to consider showing those mentioned the pages in which they appear, as a courtesy. But be prepared. They might ask you to remove or change certain passages; it is your decision alone whether to do so or not. It’s your story, after all. The thing about memoir is that it’s based on your best possible memory; but there are many possible versions of “truth” in a shared past. Be true to your own most honest memories. This is especially important if you are writing about those who are no longer alive.  People sometimes feel guilty, struggle with a sense of betrayal about the story they tell.  Sometimes there is a kind of tribal prohibition against revealing certain dysfunctional parts of family’s history.  Be honest with yourself about these obstacles. If you aren’t strong enough to do write memoir honestly, don’t write memoir.

Another challenge is for you to write with your senses. Drawing from your memories, it is sometimes a bit difficult to remember fully through what Sanford Meisner would call “sense memory”. For instance, you might remember a particular moment in your childhood – let’s say a terrible family argument when you were only eight years old. You might remember the people involved, where they were in the room, the words they screamed at each other. But you may not remember the color of the blouse your mother wore, or the smells of dinner burning in the kitchen. You might not remember that there was a television playing in the next room, or that the sound of rain on the roof thundered as loudly as your grandfather’s voice.

It’s your job, when writing memoir, to keep digging and searching your sense memory until some of those more deeply buried recollections are unearthed. Why do they matter? Because the more fully recreate the scene you are describing. The reader will be able to smell the burning meatloaf, or hear the static of an old radio, feel the crack of lightning outside as the family thunders at each other indoors. Sensory detail enriches the story being told, and serves to create a more memorable experience for the reader.

Memoir is all about retrieval and discernment. It is about revisiting a specific time and seeing it again, through new eyes, seeing yourself through new eyes. It’s a journey of discovery, and often one of healing. It takes willingness, bravery and the desire to mine for your deepest truths.

Writerland

Reading, Writing, and Publishing

Writer Unboxed

about the craft and business of fiction

Marie Lamba, author

Some thoughts from author and agent Marie Lamba

www.philadelphiaweekly.com Philadelphia Weekly

Conversations about the Craft of Writing

GWENDA BOND

Conversations about the Craft of Writing

Dan Abnett

Conversations about the Craft of Writing

Nathan Ballingrud

Blog in a Jar

Marie Lamba, author

Conversations about the Craft of Writing

Rights of Writers

Conversations about the Craft of Writing

Tree Riesener

Conversations about the Craft of Writing

Jules Just Write

Writing to Annoy You.

Conversations about the Craft of Writing

RileSmith Arts

the intersection of art & life

Writeful

Conversations about the Craft of Writing

Charles Dodd White

Author of A SHELTER OF OTHERS, LAMBS OF MEN, and SINNERS OF SANCTION COUNTY

Small Press Reviews

Sporadically reviewing small press books since 2007 (or thereabouts)...

The News from Gridleyville

Random Musings of a Fiction Writer

Silver RavenWolf

Author Blog -- The Crow at the Crossroads

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.