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Saturday, October 9, 2010

Wordstock: Writing in Communities

Posted by Alison Hallett on Sat, Oct 9, 2010 at 6:11 PM

This morning's panel on Writing in Communities was moderated by Jeffrey Selin of the Writer's Dojo, and featured Periscope Studio's Steve Lieber and author/Rumpus founder Stephen Elliott. It was an interesting panel, by virtue of the fact that the panelists are interesting guys, but it often felt as though Lieber and Elliott were talking at cross-purposes, or as though the subject of the panel reflected so differently on their respective experiences that they probably should have been on different panels entirely. Lieber spoke at length about the community of cartoonists that makes up Periscope Studios, and the way that community has grown to become "more than the sum of its parts." Elliott was more interested in the notion of online communities—of whether online experience is any substitute for "real world" experience; of how communities can form online around books, as they have with the Rumpus' book club. (It's not officially out yet, but the McSweeney's booth at Wordstock has copies of the Rumpus book club's next, Adam Levin's 1000+ plus page The Instructions. I snagged a copy; it's charmingly designed like an old school children's hardback, and not as heavy as it looks.)

For a more detailed recap of the conversation between Lieber and Elliot, including juicy quotes, Spider-man poses, and your author forcibly inserting herself into the story, hit the jump.

[Disclaimer: These quotes are as accurate as I can make 'em, but parts of the conversation have been omitted—it's in no way a complete transcript, just the highlights I thought were interesting.]

The panel began with Lieber giving some history on Periscope, which was founded in 2002 as an effort to "get cartoonists out of the terrible lives of solitude they were living." It's grown from 9 full-time members to 25, making it the largest collective of its kind in the western world (there's a bigger group in Tokyo).

Stephen Elliott then gave some background on himself, describing how he hosted a long-running reading series in San Francisco, which operated as a political fundraiser, and helped to organize trips for authors to do voter registration in Ohio in the 2004 election. He also organized LitPAC, a literary political action committee: “We didn’t do so much, but it was an interesting idea.” He's been a member of SF writers' community the Writers’ Grotto for several years; he also founded the Rumpus, the internet's "Most popular online literary website.” (Is it really? Serious question. I read it, but I don't know many other people who actually read online literary websites; I have no idea.) The Rumpus, as mentioned before, has a book club, basically an online discussion group that culminates in a moderated online discussion w/the author at end of the club—several months in, the club currently has 550 subscribers (450 in the fiction group, 100 poetry. "I didn’t know that 100 people still read poetry," quips Elliot).

Already, it's clear that Elliot's interested in talking about online reading communities rather than physical writers' communities; he makes a point of noting that he's aware of the limitations of online engagement, that “liking someone’s Facebook status is not the same as sitting in on a civil rights movement—it’s not the same as chaining yourself to the courthouse.” Online interaction is not the same as interaction in person, but sites like the Rumpus are basically the best the internet can do. “It’s like snacking on carrots instead of cake. It’s not as bad for you as other things.” [You could be reading the Huffington Post. Elliot hates the Huffington post. "It's trash."]

Moderator Jeffrey Selin tries to connect this thread of conversation back to Lieber by asking if Periscope has much of an online presence; Lieber notes that while many Periscope members use Twitter, it's "more broadcast than community." He continues: “What we have is a room full of people working on the same problems. We’re visual artists, so there’s an opportunity to talk while we work. And what this means is that information and ideas spread through the group very quickly. if one member of the group discovers a very interesting Turkish artist, next thing you know we’re all interested in this artist. Similarly, information about our industry—comics is in tremendous flux right now, and when one person hears about a round of editorial layoffs at a company, everyone in the room knows about it instantly.... There’s also a wide range of ages in the room”—early 20s-50s—"and the older folks are able to talk a lot about how to solve creative problems, and the younger folks are much more familiar with how to use technology as a creative tool.” Another benefit is that potential clients know they can reach a whole pool of artists with just one phone call. (So... it's like the Baby-Sitters' Club for comic book artists? [ducks])

Elliott picks up on the theme of what writers' communities can offer. "Loneliness is one of the primary themes of my life, as I think it is for many people in creative professions. At the Grotto, if someobody’s office door is open, it means you can stop by and talk. It keeps you sane, and that’s the most productive thing about it."

Selin mentions that one thing people always say about the Writers' Dojo in comparison w/Periscope is that it's too clean—and asks Lieber if it's the space or the people that really define the community at Periscope.

It's both, Lieber says; it's having that many people working in the same space together. "We pose for each other—if a guy in the room is drawing Spider-Man, it’s very likely he’s going to make me cart my 300 pound self onto the lunch table to do superhero poses.. We’ve all worked with professional models, but frankly an out of shape cartoonist is usually much better than a professional model" at knowing what poses are really useful. He then demonstrates the appropriate pose to take if you're modeling "a meteor is headed toward me."

Elliott talks about starting the Rumpus: "I wasn’t thinking 'oh, I’m gonna start a community.' It’s just what happened.” He'd been talking to the Huffington Post about starting a books feature on that site, and then thought, "Why am I giving all my ideas to Ariana Huffintgon?” He started the Rumpus for around $2000.

Lieber, on Periscope: "I knew pretty early on we waned to start a community. There were a few folks who just wanted to get out of the house a few days a week, and there were a few who really saw what could be done with us all working together.” "It took a long time for people to grasp the idea that what’s good for the group is good for them. Now we’re [at a point where] different people in the group are competing for the same job, each trying to help the other one with their submissions. I never thought I would see something like that. Everyone is really invested in seeing the rest of the group [succeed].”

Selin says something about how there are all kinds of different writers at the Writers Dojo—it's diverse community of “sci fi writers and poets,” which prompts Elliott joke (I think? I'm actually not sure) that "sci-fi writers aren’t allowed at the Rumpus."

Elliot then says something that makes my knee jerk hard: “If someone is an artist, it’s very different from someone who is getting up and going to work. There’s artists and workers, the artists are making a living, maybe, but the money is secondary. It’s a whole different way of living. The writing at the Rumpus is literary fiction, it’s not genre fiction, it’s not journalism.”

So then I raise my hand ask Lieber what he thinks of that distinction between writers and workers. He responds, "Cartoonists take a very blue collar approach to their work, by necessity. The writers we have the most in common with are journalists. It's a profession that requires a high volume, you really have to turn out a lot of material to survive. That is a significant difference between the two. But both professions really do require—at some point you just have to turn the rest of the world off, and crawl into the piece of paper that’s in front of you.”

And Elliott offers the mea culpa that he's "just talking about writers when [he says] the next series of offensive things [he’s] going to say,” which makes me like him again.

A writer in the crowd asks Lieber for advice on finding an artist to collaborate with to make comics. Lieber responds that as a writer, finding a collaborator—especially for your first project—can be very difficult.
"You really have to spend a lot of time and go through a lot of partners. It’s like looking for true love." He suggests asking at comic book stores, talking to owners of comic shops, going to Stumptown. Also suggests that if people want to get noticed as writers that they “write smart criticism and put it online.”

Another audience member asks about starting a writers' community. Lieber says, " Start with a group of 2-3 people. Show each other your work and give each other direct, honest, and thorough feedback. If the structure becomes more formal, the first rule you need to make is 'how do you make more rules?'"

And Elliot smartly notes that if you're trying to make it as a writer, give your writing to people who want to read it, not people who don’t, because those people will be enthusiastic enough to pass it along.

/summary

It was an interesting enough panel, but limited from the get-go—both by how very different the work the two men do is (they work in different mediums, after all), and by what they actually wanted to talk about. I'm certainly interested in learning more about Periscope and how that community functions; I also would love to hear Elliott talk further about developing online really communities, but there's really not much natural overlap between the two topics, though Selin certainly did his best to find points of intersection.

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