Writers of Burning Man, Unite!

This could be you!
This could be you!

Does Burning Man have a literary culture, at all?  The answer is no.  But by this time next year – thanks to a new community effort – the answer might be “Yes.”

A pair of Burners named “What” (Courtney Sherwood) and “Wonton”  (Wendi Anderson) have,  in the best tradition of a do-ocracy, taken this aspect of our culture into  their own hands:  and want you to join them.

Literature is a big gaping hole in Burner culture.  In a January post entitled “Why does Burning Man have no literary culture?”  I wrote:

Burning Man has no signature writing style, derivative or otherwise.  For all the hundreds of books and articles that have been written about Burning Man over 26 years, for all the scholarly papers, the blog posts … no particular verbal style has emerged.  Saying “that’s like something you’d read at Burning Man” is nonsensical.  Could be anything.

Burning Man has no particular style of poetry, no particular authorial “voice.”  The Great Burning Man Novel has yet to be written – let alone to inspire others to write under its influence.

Why is that?  Why does Burning Man have such an advanced visual aesthetic … one that truly is influencing the whole world … and absolutely no literary culture at all?

I’m honestly asking here.  I don’t know.  I’m hoping someone can tell me.

What and Wonton don’t have answers, but have decided to find solutions.  The result is a new organization – and possibly a movement:  “Get Lit(erary) At Burning Man.”

Okay granted I’m not too fond of titles with puns in them, but the idea is tremendous:  it’s dedicated to  connecting Burner writers with one another, promoting already-planned writing workshops and events, and instigating new events along the way.   They’ll be leading Flash Fiction writing workshops on playa, providing reading opportunities, and offering other events – just for starters.

“We are hoping that this project will help answer the question of what Burning Man’s literary style is,” they told me.  “We feel strongly that writing is, for the creator, the most accessible of all the possible participatory and contributory art forms at the event … Writers just need a pen and paper. It’s hard to imagine a more accessible or radically inclusive form of expression — but literary expression is only effective if people know about it and are able to connect to it.

Our ultimate goal is to create connections within the writing community that will help shape what and how we write about Burning Man. We are here to champion literature, a creative art form that will remain hidden unless it is highlighted. What The Artery has done for the visual arts at Burning Man, we want to do for the literary arts. This is only our first year, but we are excited about the possibilities and committed to the project. Based on the response to our efforts this year, we will build upon the idea and bring even more to the playa in 2014.”

Will this work?

Not necessarily.  As I detailed in my post, there are cultural and aesthetic minefields to establishing a literary culture in both Burning Man and writing as an art form itself.  But … and this is key … the issue is going to be a hell of a lot more interesting with passionate people working to address it, rather than just bitching about it (like … ahem … me).  This could be the beginning of something big.

You can learn more about “Get Lit(erary) at Burning Man” at their Spark page (http://spark.burningman.com/ads/get-literary-at-burning-man/) and their Facebook page ( https://www.facebook.com/groups/GetLitatBurningMan/), as well as their as-yet in-progress website (http://www.getlitatburningman.com/).

I’ve also copied my entire interview with What and Wonton:  read everything they’re planning to do below.  That includes their contant information if you want to help out.

It’s exciting!  Get Lit(erary)!

Goddamit, now they’ve got me doing it.

 

Caveat: Tell me the story of how Get Lit(erary) at Burning Man came about – was it something you’d been thinking about before I wrote the post?

What: I’ve always loved the visual art, performance art, music and other forms of expression that manifest at Burning Man, but as someone whose primary creative outlet is as a writer I’ve felt disconnected from the community of on-playa creators. That said, I’m not sure if I would have ever thought of starting the Get Lit project if I had not seen your blog post.

Wonton: The blog post is really what sparked it for me. Your post coincided with my decision to begin writing a novel, which for me was a new concept as I am typically more of a visual artist, so it really resonated with me in a way that anything newly cherished resonates with a convert.

Caveat: What was your reaction to the essay?

What: Your post put into words what I had been thinking about for a while. For a few months I let the idea incubate, while I batted ideas around with friends and family. I was worried about taking it on by myself — you can’t build a community with just one person — so I knew I would need to find collaborators to succeed. Would there be enough writers and support for the idea? After speaking with enough people and receiving only positive feedback and support, it hit me that I needed to get going if I was going to have an impact in 2013. It was time to start the group.

Wonton: Your post was what got me thinking about what I could do to contribute to the literary culture at Burning Man. I am a natural coordinator and instigator, but after being one of four people to spearhead an Esplanade camp in 2009 I was loathe to take on such a huge task by myself. When I saw Courtney’s post in Spark, I was immediately drawn to join the group and excited to contribute whatever I could.

Caveat: What kind of reaction have you gotten so far? Have you thrown any events?

What and Wonton: We haven’t held any events off-playa as we really started gaining momentum only within the last week. There is a definite possibility for events post-burn, as Wonton is planning a collaborative venture that will start on-playa and culminate in a Kickstarted, published book of collaboratively authored myths and folktales inspired by this year’s Burning Man.

Caveat: What do you think a Burning Man literary style (or styles) might be? What is your vision for the literary culture at Burning Man?

Wonton and What: We are hoping that this project will help answer the question of what Burning Man’s literary style is. We feel strongly that writing is, for the creator, the most accessible of all the possible participatory and contributory art forms at the event. There are no up-front entry costs involved in creating a literary work, whereas art and theme camps often require a significant investment of materials and money. Writers just need a pen and paper. It’s hard to imagine a more accessible or radically inclusive form of expression — but literary expression is only effective if people know about it and are able to connect to it.

Our ultimate goal is to create connections within the writing community that will help shape what and how we write about Burning Man. We are here to champion literature, a creative art form that will remain hidden unless it is highlighted. What The Artery has done for the visual arts at Burning Man, we want to do for the literary arts. This is only our first year, but we are excited about the possibilities and committed to the project. Based on the response to our efforts this year, we will build upon the idea and bring even more to the playa in 2014.

Currently, our planned Get Lit(erary) activities include:

1) Burning Myths: Traditional Storytelling for Modern Times, inspired by the art and people of Burning Man.This is an anthology Wonton is putting together that will be (hopefully) funded via Kickstarter once we’ve returned from the desert. If the project is funded, the book will be published. The book will consist of stories and poems written by Burning Man attendees, and burner photographers and artists will be invited to contribute complementary pieces once the submissions have been curated. On-playa, Wonton will be hosting two events at Tectonic (who are hoping to be placed at Esplanade and 7:30). Those who are interested in contributing to the anthology will be led through a series of inspiration sparks that will help them view their experiences at Burning Man through a lens that assist them in creating their contribution to the book. Writers will be offered the opportunity to submit their work both during the event and after they have returned home and had time to reflect and write.

2) Flash fiction contest: Penguin Cafe will host an early-in-the-week writing competition that we’re hoping to list in the event guide. We’ll give writers prompts and then challenge them to quickly write Burn-inspired short stories that incorporate the writing prompts. Writers will have a chance to read from their instant stories on a stage, and judges will reward their top pick with a prize. Writers will also have the opportunity to submit their stories for publication on the getlitatburningman.com website (which is not fleshed out just yet).

3) Burning Bedtime Stories: A flash fiction workshop during the day, where writers will create bedtime stories that will then be read to weary Burners at night.

4) Read-aloud relay: Everyone takes a turn reading aloud from a single work of fiction, for as long as it takes to complete.

Other workshops and events are still coming together, and there are a lot more opportunities for people to collaborate with us. We’d also love to know hear from camps and artists willing to offer space for literary events, and learn aboutliterary activities that other people are coordinating. We want to do as much as we can to spread the word about allliterary endeavors on the playa. And we may be able to help people who have an idea but aren’t sure where to take it next. The best way to connect with us is by emailing What at csherwood here: csherwood (at) gmail.com and/or Wonton at wendi.y.anderson here: wendi.y.anderson (at) gmail.com .

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man hangs around Burning Man in the hope that someone will serve fish tacos.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization.  Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat grew up wanting to be a Russian novelist, but the closest he ever came was getting personally insulted by the first democratically elected president of Poland. Now the volunteer coordinator for Burning Man's Media Team (itself a volunteer position), Caveat has been messing with Burners for the last five years, and has a hard time believing some of the stuff they've let him get away with. He is a publisher at Omnibucket.com, served as editor of Chicken John’s philosophical autobiography “The Book of the Is,” and archives his publications and personal blogs at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

13 thoughts on “Writers of Burning Man, Unite!

  • For a couple years, now, I was actually planning on having people tell me their burning man stories while I’m holding a digital voice recorder, and then re-writing it and publishing it on a blog so everyone could access it for free. It would give me a way to participate as a writer, as well as contribute to the oral AND literary history of BM. Since I have a ticket this year(!) I’ll be putting this plan into action.

    And now that I know there are other writers out there striving to make an impact on BM culture, I think I’m gonna Get Lit at BM!

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  • I’m a poet and essayist, among other things, and can’t imagine how a “literature” that somehow reflects a word crafting esthetic unique to the playa and the incredible quantities of SIMULTANEOUS visual intake that occurs there once a year could emerge. The fact that it hasn’t should be a clue to the difficulty.

    The task is daunting. Words are extremely low resolution metaphoric trigger devices that don’t handle simultaneity very well. James Joyce and other “stream of consciousness” or “chance” writers try to use text to approach the ability of images to present two or more things happening at the same time. Read your McLuhan. Text is a linear-sequential medium that has, in the past, attempted to provide the all-at-onceness of an image, with mixed and easily skewed results. This is why print journalism, for example, evolved to include first, etchings and later photos and later, via the internet, video clips, or why magazines spun off from journalism. This is why YouTube is now potentially the primary provider of news of the day to the world audience. It’s where I certainly go if I want a detail rich update on any breaking news story. Details is the name of the game. If you don’t absorb them and suss their implications, then your enemy will, to their advantage. It’s that simple

    The only literary style that I could see emerging from the Burning Man milieu might be an ongoing blog format of real time text interpolation from a blogger speaking into a voice recognition iPhone their impressions as they receive them walking or riding from art piece to art piece, the more mind altering cognitive enhancements involved, the better. Other than that, a language of utter ecstasy using single syllable exclamations such as “Gaaaaaa!” or “Wooooo!” might echo the subversive DADA impulse that suffuses and informs all anarcho-situationist “happening” type art from Fluxist to Suicide Club to Mark Pauline to culture jamming.

    Walter Alter

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  • why are people always wanting to normalize the city? why do people want to have things fall into niches? why make blackrock city just like main street america? why do you think blackrock is missing something like another group of people who want to join things? does blackrock have a huge gaping hole?…..wanting people to join a conveyor belt to conformity and establish a uniform style is not interesting to independent thinkers……now piss clear, there was some literature! and the gazette…they had style…build a theme camp that the city hasnt seen before, thats whats lacking out there more unique theme camps, not more bar camps, photographers, people coming for the music, cell phones, or writers…….burningman was more or less an art festival …..people who wanted to create things not tell people what they thought or explain things……this isnt anytthng more than my opinion, i just think there are other things we need more out there…..

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  • @ Walter Alter:

    The task IS daunting – but I think you’re being unfair to “low resolution metaphoric trigger devices.” For all that they don’t handle simultaneity very well, there are an awful lot of other things words can do brilliantly. I quite like Shakespeare, myself – and Billy Collins, and Terry Eagleton, just to name a few. William James is quite nice.

    No one has to share my aesthetic preferences, but the idea that YouTube clips are a substitute for even cursory print news … let alone long-form reporting … is to mistake hits for comprehension. McLuhan’s point, that the medium is the message, is precisely the reason that video can never “replace” writing as an aesthetic or epistemological experience.

    But we can certainly see what else it’s capable of. Your proposals have the strong advantage of novelty. But if I were to guess, I would put my money down on the idea that a Burning Man literary style (should one emerge for any length of time) would harken back to classical antiquity as much as to future-shock, and repurpose the middle ages as much as it repurposes Burning Man’s immediate influences.

    But that’s just my guess.

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  • @dragnet:

    No one’s trying to normalize the city. No one’s suggesting the imposition of a uniform literary style. But wouldn’t it be great if a style were to emerge that inspired people? That excited them, and caused them to write where they weren’t writing before, or take their writing to the next level? Why wouldn’t people … if they’re interested … seek that out?

    And then, once they’ve gotten everything they can from it, invent something new? I would suggest that the real sign of success of a Burning Man literary culture will be not the creation of a single style that everyone follows from now on (which is a fairly absurd prospect on its face) but the development of meaningful disagreements over well thought out artistic ideals.

    But that’s way down the road. First you have to start somewhere. I think that’s what this is.

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  • I understand your reluctance to supercede text based (or even audio based) communication with visual/video modes of information throughput. There’s a whole lot of tradition at work trying to keep words in their historic place of primacy over pictures or (gasp) diagrams. But this discourse begs the question of the components of “style” as it seeks a unique literary style for the playa experience. What I see and intuit from the beginning discussion here is that the variables being optioned are variable is the method of presentation, some unique form of delivery of the text rather than a unique arrangement of subject, object, predicate or observational intensity or some such.

    10,000 years of verbal signaling evolving into the excellent Mr. Shakespeare and beyond into symbolist poetry, James Joyce, DADA syllabic utterance, Gyson’s “cut up” poetry and other chance methods, and even the rants of schizophrenia, doesn’t leave much territory left to explore as experiments in formalism. Burning man is essentially a visual experience and, apart from the raves which are hardly unique to the playa, would not be an venue for full enjoyment by the blind.

    So my take would be that the impetus to this discussion, to balance all the unique and creative visual uptake with something equally so via auditory uptake, will have its work cut out for it. A relay poetry or prose reading will be more presentation oriented rather than formally unique and brings to mind Herman Berlandt’s San Francisco 24 hour Poetry Marathon from the late 70’s. Trying to do something that’s never been done before in the auditory realms is not for the faint hearted.

    A decade ago I was going to join up with a BM group from Dunsmuir, CA and their poetry oriented “Temple of the Burning Book” (admittedly a difficult group title, but interpretable benignly due to the flaming imperatives of the BM venue) by reading violent ranting poetry punctuated by gunshots (hey, I was a bomb throwing anarchist and hung out with John Law for a bit back when shooting events were on the BM agenda, c.f. the “Drive By Shooting Range” and “Golf and Skeet” events from the early 90’s.)

    This may have been unique in its presentation by requiring a conquering of fear on the part of the listener and the rant aspect might have had unique text resources, and it would have risked eviction from the event which is kinda edgy, but it wouldn’t have constituted a literary style unique to Burning Man, though it certainly would have invited trouble with the law if performed in an urban coffee house.

    All I’m saying is that your nostalgic frame of reference will be hard pressed to find unique expression at the late juncture in history. Maybe some form of mixed media with text or word or spoken word modified by various sound treatment electronic boxes a la Diamanda Galas or Nina Hagen would nibble at the problem, but I fear that it’s an idealism that might have evolved to its near maximum potential at this point in history.

    Maybe I’ll dress in a formal tuxedo with tails and white tie, stagger about with a magnum of champaigne in one hand repeatedly shouting “VIVA LA OLIGARQIA!!” “VIVA GOLDMAN SACHS!!”, tho I’m fairly certain that overt political organizing is kinda taboo on the playa.

    Walter

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  • I’m a college student studying English with a focus on Creative Writing. I will also be attending Burning Man for the first time this August. When I read about this work shop, I really could not describe the joy I felt at something like this. I was a bit intrigued by the culture from a friend who has been attending the event for 8 years, so intrigued I decided to seize the opportunity to go. Anyway, this will be one of my primary visiting places.
    Kudos to this idea!

    Kimberly

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  • I’m thinking of the power of a single word on the Playa. MOM in huge silver block letters. Or our playa names. Names we choose for ourselves different than our Default Reality given names. I happen to be studying to be hypnotist when I first came to BM. I called Mesmera and it stuck. Perhaps we can work with individual words. There’s a BM diziinario currently being created on FB Get-lit page.

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  • Im my own late night “mock show” host. Ive got my own “Late Night” talkshow on YouTube. Which I’m bringing to The playa this year. I know it’s not writing persay but. It’ll be another way to document the whole burner experience via a guy in bat wings. See you in the dust!!!!

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  • Doing sometihng because someone doesn’t think it is a good idea is not normal it is inspired. As Kay Ryan said;
    “Inspiration doesn’t sweeten,
    it should be picked young and eaten.
    Sometimes only hours separate the cotyledon from the wooden plant.
    Then you want to eat it, and can’t.”

    Swimming gets you wet whether you’re going with or against the current.
    UP WITH BURNER LIT-TER

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  • Doing something because someone doesn’t think it is a good idea is not normal it is inspired. As Kay Ryan said;
    “Inspiration doesn’t sweeten,
    it should be picked young and eaten.
    Sometimes only hours separate the cotyledon from the wooden plant.
    Then you want to eat it, and can’t.”

    Swimming gets you wet whether you’re going with or against the current.
    UP WITH BURNER LIT-TER

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  • To describe sensory-perception requires multi-dimensional writing. Because the burning man experience is a new dimension in itself, writing
    about it must be complicated. (If it was not complicated it would already be done).

    As writers this is a challenge, and if overcome, a new ‘style’ or even form of writing will naturally be born. ….

    “some unique form of delivery of the text rather than a unique arrangement of subject, object, predicate or observational intensity or some such.”-

    — I think we are all capable of this unique arrangement and delivery…to me the variable needed for ‘burner lit’ to be born is undetermined and we can only figure it out with practice.

    I think this practice will include collaboration, connection and unity of our literate minds in order to break down any stylistic rules or pre-dispositions which may prohibit a uniquely-complicated, multi-dimensional and simultaneously-descriptive yet legible style of writing.

    Words ARE capable of giving a subject more comprehensive depth which media can not and as writers I think it is important to believe in Words. I am excited that my first year at burning man will hold something for us!

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