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 .
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