The Current Importance of Innovation in Writing and Publishing
Author: Colin Winette
What are some of the ways you’ve strayed from the traditional publishing path, and how have those experiences changed your view of what literary work should be?
I certainly haven’t done anything that hasn’t been done before. Right now, more than ever maybe, writers are looking for new ways to be heard, new ways to distribute their work, new forms, and new ways of approaching old ones. People are vying for attention, sure, but they’re also having some fun, trying things out, fucking around with tired shit. If by “traditional publishing path” you mean getting an agent and signing with one of the NY top five (or is it three at this point?) I’d say 95% of writers at least are operating almost entirely outside of that world. There are just way more writers than there are opportunities there. We would be deeply fucked if that were the only route. But we’re in luck because it isn’t. Small to mid-sized presses and university presses are thriving (not financially, necessarily, but there is certainly a lot of exciting, new work being put out by presses like Dalkey Archive, Mud Luscious Press, Dorothy: A Publishing Project, New Directions, Les Figues, the list goes on and on). There’s not a lot of money in the small press world, but there’s a lot of enthusiasm. More importantly, there’s a lot of great work coming out of these smaller venues. For better or worse, that’s what I’m drawn to: these smaller, unique, often essentially community-based pursuits. I’m excited to see what people come up with, how they can surprise me. I also think smaller avenues attract people who really and truly want to be there because they are excited about literature, their own work and the work of others, if only because there’s really no other reason to be there.
But, I guess, a specific example of how I’ve strayed from the “traditional publishing path” might be these books I made a few years back, for AWP. I hadn’t published a book yet, so I didn’t have anything to distribute at a reading I was doing at the Washington D.C. Zoo. I asked a friend of mine, Dorian McKaie, to do the art for the book, and after a lengthy brainstorm session we came up with the idea that Dorian would hand write the stories into blank leather-bound journals. He did about twenty and I sold them at the reading and at events following the reading. It was a lot of fun, and we both really liked the idea. We just made these little objects that were half-journals, one-quarter book, one-quarter art object. I was really excited about them then, but now I sort of wonder what the hell I was thinking. I’d be curious to hear what a reader thought!
Innovation is important in any artistic pursuit- do you find innovation of medium and delivery particularly important? Why or why not?
Well, yes and no. People say that matters more is the interaction between form and content. That neither is going to be truly innovative, that such a thing doesn’t really exist, so the most you can hope for is an engaging combination of familiar (or unfamiliar because they’ve been forgotten or ignored) elements. That seems obvious enough. A simple story told orally from one friend to another can have enormous impact and can drastically alter, if only momentarily, the receiver of said story. I’ll set aside the issue of whether or not there is such a thing as “true” innovation, but we can certainly agree that we, individually and as a part of a particular generation, experience old ideas as new. There is always a first time hearing/thinking a certain thing, and there are always moments when an idea that feels tired or like a dead-end to us suddenly has life breathed into it. That experience is invaluable to me, seeing an idea, a moment, some part of the world or my experience as if for the first time. And I think the potential for that is inexhaustible. We can have those kinds of experiences over and over forever, which is somehow both terrifying and extremely comforting.
Do you ever value medium as much as content? To what extent?
I used to feel that the medium was essential to the content. They were one and the same. But I’m starting to feel this is not entirely the case, or it is the case in a different way than I had originally thought. It’s much more the case in visual art, that each and every decision made, from material to placement/context, etc., is essential to the reading of the work, and I do believe that graphic signals guide our interaction with a text, but I’ve also started to wonder to what extent this is completely the case. I had an experience at the beginning of this year that got me questioning my own line of thought in this regard. I was really excited for a book that had just been released, but I couldn’t find it at any of the bookstores in the small town I was visiting at the time. I was headed out of town too soon to order it, so I went ahead and bought the ebook and started reading it on my iPhone. This was my first ebook. So then I was just reading it everywhere: in line at the coffee shop, standing on the corner, in the bathroom, etc. It was in the bathroom that I thought to myself, this book could be printed on a roll of toilet paper and I would still be this excited to read it. I would still be equally engaged with the material. Someone might argue this, but it was undeniably the case. It didn’t matter how the text was delivered, just that it was delivered. I just wanted access to the sentences. It didn’t matter if it was digital, printed, hand-written, whispered softly through the crack beneath a closet door, etc. So I’ve started to rethink my feelings about how presentation affects our interactions with a text. Certainly different methods of delivery command different kinds of authority, but authority can be achieved in any number of ways. And with the rise in publishing opportunities, and the increased quality of independent publishing methods, the traditional book form is losing the authority it once had, I think. People are looking for other things, more comprehensive/thoughtful/involved/artistic book design, unique objects, live performance, etc., work that engages them in different ways. I haven’t fully developed this thought, but I’m convinced this is somehow related to the high-demands we put on categories like memoir or “creative” non-fiction. People are demanding “authenticity,” which grants the text a certain kind of seemingly essential authority. This is why interdisciplinary artists have always interested me. They are able to attack an idea or issue(s) from several angles simultaneously.
Do you think it is necessary to stray from traditional representations of literature to make it relevant?
Nah. I think if a work feels urgent, it’s relevant. There are an infinite number of ways to make something feel urgent. Engaging with tradition is certainly one of them.
Explain your website, colinwinnette.com.
It is a website that provides links to published work and interviews.
When do you think an author ought to begin to consider getting a website, and for what purpose?
It seems like a website of some kind is a necessity at this point, unless you have a very strong presence on the literary scene in some other way. A website/blog, etc. is probably the first thing anyone who is interested in your work would go looking for, and you wouldn’t want to disappoint, would you? So I’d say a website is worth considering as soon as you have something to present on it. I don’t necessarily mean publications, I just mean some content that people who are interested in you would be rewarded to discover.
A lot of writers have websites that are little more than a repository for links/lists of accomplishments, and that’s fine. But I always prefer a website that is somehow an experience on its own. That can be tricky, though. It’s a fine line, especially online, between interesting/engaging and deeply annoying/alienating.
We go to the web looking for information or to be entertained, for the most part. In my mind, a good website should do at least a little of both.
You’ve spoken in a recent interview about thinking cinematically—do you think this is inevitable for contemporary writers? Or is it something worth cultivating?
I think most contemporary writers are also moviegoers, so maybe. At the very least, I think it can be extremely useful to consider other methods of storytelling/artistic production when writing. Some writers worry about contamination, and try to limit what they’re exposed to when working on a particular project. I’m more excited about the ways in which things we see and experience and think and feel bleed into one another. But I’m a total mess in so many ways. I’ve said this before, but I really do feel that each work is a temporary organization of certain ideas, thoughts, feelings, impressions, etc. that are normally all mixed up and difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate. I think movies offer all kinds of useful tools, organizational and otherwise, to consider when approaching writing, and art-making in general.
What are you working on right now?
I just finished a long poem that I’m currently calling The Animals, and a book of poems written collaboratively with the poet Ben Clark, called Kate Jury Denton Texas. I’m about halfway through a novel that I might abandon, which might be fun to do. I’m writing some short stories and editing the collection that’s due out on Spork Press in September, Animal Collection.
What have you learned about producing and publishing written work that you wish you would’ve know five years ago?
If I could write an email to myself five years ago (probably anonymously) it would just read, Don’t worry. It’s worth it.
You’ve done a lot of collaborative work, and even some performance-based work. Tell us a little bit about what inspired these projects–how influential was your MFA program?
I love working collaboratively. I thoroughly enjoy making things with other people. Some of the collaborations I’ve participated in have been more successful than others, but they are always fruitful in one way or another. I genuinely love people, and I learn the most about myself when I’m working with others. I learn things I would never have considered otherwise: unique ways of looking at work, production, how to live, etc. My MFA program was pretty influential in this area. I started the particular program I did (the MFA in Writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) largely because it allowed me to work across departments with artists working in different mediums. SAIC gave me access to a wealth of artists and writers to work with, and some faculty who have similar interdisciplinary/collaborative practices as well. It was a really great resource in this way, and I felt very encouraged in these pursuits.
Are the goals for those projects different than the art you create for the page?
Not really, no. In a way, when I’m writing, I feel that I’m collaborating with various aspects of myself. I have to struggle to make sure all the different voices/ideas are heard and considered, included or thoughtfully rejected. I am very capable of shutting things down prematurely, narrowing my own vision to follow a particular idea or to adhere to a particular conceptual framework. In my writing, as well as in my collaborative projects, I work very hard to remain open to new ideas, accidents, interruptions, strange occurrences, whatever feels right and essential.
Do you see events and readings as opportunities to promote works of art, or opportunities to create new works of art using other, previously created art?
Both. The performance of a text is inherently different than one’s private experience of it. While I feel there are a number of ways to perform a text, when I’m promoting a book I try to perform in a way that communicates what I experienced when writing it. Usually this is some combination of humor and sadness and delight and anxiety. I used to hate reading because my body shook involuntarily and my voice quivered and cracked and I appeared just so nervous it was probably unbearable to watch. But the more readings I gave, and the more books I wrote, the more I began to embrace my own worried little way of reading. I’m still a freak up on stage, but I think, or hope, it now appears intentional. Whereas my mannerisms were once at odds with the text, I’ve reached a point where they can now be, at least in my mind, an extension/illustration of the emotions at the center of a particular text.
TEX Gallery was an event space, an occasion that not only allowed individual works of art to be put on display, but also put them into a unique context and conversation with many other works from other genres—explain a little bit about what that means for you, and what you had in mind when you put those together.
We were trying to do a lot with TEX Gallery. On the most basic level, we wanted to put together events that highlighted and brought together the thriving artistic community in Denton, TX. We felt that didn’t limit us to only showing Denton, or even Texan, artists. We wanted a space that was home to work belonging to a wide network of ideas, including artists working all around the globe and in an endless variety of forms. We wanted it to be a place to share the community’s work, but also to open the community up to what else was out there. It was really great to have so many artists and writers presenting work alongside one another. Some events were huge, featuring a large number of artists and disciplines, and some were much smaller, featuring a single artist, or a single performance. The idea was to keep us thinking and enthusiastic, to provoke new ways of thinking and to encourage people to make work and share it with one another. I am of the opinion that a great deal is learned through the collision of ideas. Also, most of us involved in TEX were deeply Denton. We grew up there, lived there most, if not all, of our lives. So it also felt like a way of giving back to a town that had given us so much.
Can people gain from creating their own such events, and do you have any advice in that regard?
There is nothing more rewarding to me than presenting the work of an artist or author I admire, or someone I have learned from, or someone who has irritated me in a productive way, or who has caused me to question certain foundational elements of my approach to reading/making work. If anything, by putting together an event that showcases this kind of work, one creates the opportunity to experience the work again and in another setting. But one also provides that opportunity to others, which is really incredible, in my opinion. I learned a great deal from each and every event I’ve put together, at TEX or later in Chicago.
It can be frustrating work too, though. At TEX we were always faced with an onslaught of problems because we were working simultaneously with so many artists and our entire crew consisted of volunteers working for nothing other than the excitement of doing something like that. So it wasn’t easy, not ever really. It was stressful and hectic and terrifying and exhausting, but it was always ultimately enjoyable and rewarding. It wasn’t that rare for all of us to fall asleep on the floor of the gallery after a particularly intense show. Those were some of the best nights.
I totally encourage anyone and everyone to put together events in their own communities. Or to simply seek out what’s already happening, attend shows/performances/openings, and help out when you can. TEX benefited incalculably from attendees who later volunteered to help with future events. So, depending on how involved you want to be, how in control of the event, you might do better to seek out a series or venue that you can get on board with and just help them. The biggest problem is always getting the word out and getting people to events, especially if you’re working with an author or artist who is a little lesser-known or lower-profile. But that’s precisely the reason events like this are so important. There’s so much greatness that goes unseen and uncelebrated. At the risk of sounding cheesy and naive, I would sincerely encourage everyone who’s interested to dig around, unearth something special, and devise their own way of presenting it to the world. If done right, it’s good for everybody involved.
For the most part, that’s all that we were doing with TEX, really. We were just saying, Hey, look, these are things that we treasure: ideas, feelings, experiences, people. Look. These are of value.