let someone else worry about the categories

where a memoir ends and a novel begins. thoughts on T Kira Madden's Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls.

“I am trying to deprogram myself from separating genres and skill sets into boxes. I think genre is of service to publishers and booksellers and certain realms of organization, but it’s of little use to artists.”—T Kira Madden, in an interview with Ellen O'Connell Whittet at Ploughshares

I’ve been sick this week but instead of being all bummed about it, I used it as an excuse to take it easy and catch up on reading.

I shot through T Kira Madden’s extraordinary memoir Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls in less than 24 hours. It’s a book I’d recommend to anyone who aspires to tell stories, regardless of whether they’re working in fiction or nonfiction, long- or short-form, books or some other medium.

“It’s so well-paced!” I thought to myself many times. Pacing is challenging enough when you’re writing fiction and you can bend time and space at will, but to be able to keep readers turning pages on a life actually lived?

Well, that seems to me actual magic (AKA evidence of incredible hard work and skill) and so I wasn’t surprised to learn Madden is also an amateur magician. Good writers and magicians alike “make it look easy,” but do you know how much work it took to make things flow like that?

I was first introduced to Madden’s writing in her essay arguing that memoir is not catharsis. I was struck both by the style and the thoughtfulness of the essay, and so her memoir has been sitting on my shelf waiting patiently for my time and attention.

Sometimes it takes getting sick for me to do the things I most want to do.


I’ve written before about how the categories of “fiction” and “nonfiction” are imprecise, arbitrary—and it’s a subject I’ll no doubt return to again and again. I agree with Madden: genres and categories are words for publishers, bookstores, libraries. Words for organizing and selling.

Don’t get me wrong—if you want to successfully publish your work, at some point you wanna think about your category and audience. But you should not get so hung up in defining your work using industry terms that you cheat yourself out of borrowing from other genres, forms of art, and modes of storytelling.

“In every class I teach, we read across genres,” explains Madden. “We dissect the structure of a poem and use it as a story model; we look at classic tragic and comic form and shape an essay around it. The writer’s toolbox is for everyone, because we all have the same job: to make the art and to make it true.”

It’s taken me a long time to understand all the tools at my disposal.

A lot of my early-stage book development work with clients boils down to looking at other books for structural and formal inspiration. (It’s why trips to the bookstore aren’t just fun for me—they’re an important part of my job.) I definitely use improv forms to help me structure essays and scenes. And I can’t imagine crafting the climax of a book without drafting it to music that builds builds builds just the way I want my story to…

Question for the week: How do other genres, forms, or styles inspire you?

xoxoxo

Sarah

I can't write in the morning and other lies we tell ourselves...

How to keep your creative process fluid and fun

Today, I have one big idea for you. It’s a question to sit with for the next week:

What are you telling yourself about your creative process?

I’ve told myself a lot of things over the years. I’ve told myself what kind of writer I am, what kind of things I write, and what kind of things I don’t write. I’ve told myself I’m a writer first and foremost, so it’s a waste to focus on other artistic skills or disciplines.

And time and again I’ve proven myself wrong.


I was recently talking with a client who said it’s hard to write on the road. Now, I hear what he’s saying—travel can disrupt our regular routines, especially work travel. But I also have found that movement can stimulate my creativity, snap me out of ruts, and send me down unexpected new paths.

When I’m traveling it’s much harder for me to, say, sit down at my computer for hours and hit my 1000 words a day. And so, I treat any words amassed during trips as icing on the cake. But I don’t drop my relationship to whatever I’m working on—I still show up for it, even if only for a few minutes a day.

I suggested to my client that instead of feeling pressure to have the on-the-road process look exactly like the at-home process, to just commit to spending a little time each day with the project.

  • A five-minute walk just thinking about some idea, subject, or time period.

  • Ten minutes writing longhand at the end of the day.

  • A special notebook or notes file to capture unformed ideas, memories, or anything else you don’t want to lose. (I then turn to this notebook when I have plenty of time but need some sort of writing prompt.)

This is what I do to keep my creative process fluid, consistent, and fun. It’s what I do to honor the work I’m passionate about even when life is pulling me in a number of different directions.


That’s not to say I don’t still catch myself making bold declarations about my work and my process ALL THE TIME. Sometimes these declarations help me create rituals and routines that really work. Other times, they’ve stopped me from finishing things or from going somewhere scary but exciting.

Whenever you catch yourself speaking in absolutes about your process, take a step back and ask yourself “Is that really true?”

It might be, but it also really might not be.

Or it might be true for today, but not tomorrow.

Give yourself permission to contain multitudes!


A bit of news: I’m in the process of developing my first courses on creativity; publishing; and book writing, editing, and development!

I’ve been thinking about a lot of these ideas for over a decade now, but only very recently have they begun coming together into something resembling a methodology. Right now, I’m in the research phase, checking out different course-hosting platforms and approaches to course development. There is such a wealth of resources out there for this kind of independent publishing and education—and I am truly nerding out at the prospect of going back to school and taking you all with me.

I want to keep these courses focused and affordable, and my target audience is creative people who are getting more serious about their work and who would like some assistance developing processes and rituals. To give you a little hint, my first course is going to be about balancing your own personal creative goals with the demands of the outside world (including the DUN DUN DUNNNNN market).

If there’s anything you’d like to me to focus on, anything at all, please let me know.

xoxoxoxo

Sarah

an interview with the king and queen of Halloween, Patrick Keene and Corin Wells

on genre, subverting expectations, and making things real f*cked up

I’m still buzzing from the show I was part of last night, Black Lodge/White Noise: an Immersive David Lynch and David Bowie Halloween. I’ve been part of this big Twin Peaks Halloween party for something like SEVEN years, I think, and so it was fitting that it was my last big show before I trade in my Brooklyn apartment for a cozy little place in the woods somewhere where Massachusetts meets Rhode Island. (Don’t worry—I’ll still be here all the time, just living that airbnb life.)

And while our beloved party is coming to an end, I will always feel like The Log Lady character is a part of me. I’ve been playing my version of the role immortalized by the late Catherine E. Coulson for four years now (you can read about the Log Lady’s origins here). I feel so deeply connected to her that I decided to set up an email account so that people can ask my log questions, and I can translate. (People have said I’m pretty good at this but, honestly, I can’t take credit for the intuitive powers of my log. Hit us up at anotherloglady@gmail.com.)

Speaking of Halloween, I also got the chance to join Fesh and JZT on their horror movie podcast, I was scared, too! We talk about a totally bananas movie I’m obsessed with, Beyond the Black Rainbow, and I was bestowed with my very own monster movie moniker, “The Headcrusher.”

In case you can’t tell, I love Halloween. The other day, someone asked me what movie I was watching and I said, “It’s apparently so scary people have begun seeing demons!”

And so, in honor of my favorite holiday, I interviewed two of my favorite comedic performers, Corin Wells and Patrick Keene, who both share my love of the weird and macabre. I was thrilled to see they both have horror-inspired character shows coming up at UCB Hell’s Kitchen next week. Check out Patrick in The Spotlight: A Spooky Showcase at October 30th at 7:30 pm and Corin in Tales from the Clit—same place, same night at 10:30 pm.


Since you both have spooky shows coming up at the UCB, I’ll start by asking, fave horror movie?

Patrick: My all-time favorite horror movie is Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but lately I have been really into Tenebrae and Deep Red. Argento movies can be so uneven in quality, but his maximalist style always gives you some amazing moments.

Corin: That's a tough one! I think I'll have to lean towards Patrick's answer but be a bit more basic about it and say Suspiria. I saw it very young and it imprinted on me. As is with most of my favorite horror movies. I have two much older brothers and a grandma who bought every VHS she saw, so I started watching at an age when the world is already so big and scary. Then you add a bunch of other wild nonsense to it like a witch coven/ballet school. I loved it. Some honorable mentions: Puppetmaster, Pet Sematary, and The Shining. 

How does horror, or genre in particular, inspire your characters and comedy? Do you have a particular process for bringing genre into your work?

Patrick: Genre gives you a nice collective framework to communicate with an audience, without having to explain a base reality. There's also a very strong set of expectations that are fun to subvert. I just love horror so much and have since I was very young, so I love to play around in those tropes. One of my favorite things to do in improv is to initiate with a real trope/scene from a movie and see how it naturally gets filtered and twisted by the performers onstage since you obviously cannot recreate things perfectly.

Corin: Like Patrick said, genre provides the framework and the base reality where the performer and the audience can meet. The audience already understands this language and these tropes so they feel they're in on it. I think there is a fine line between comedy and horror so the two work very well together. Some of the best horror movies are also comedies. And it's one of the only genres that has a sub-genre of making fun of itself while still honoring it.

My comedy is usually inspired by the things I think about the most. That tends to be sex, race relations, anime, and horror. Horror is usually the launch pad for everything to come. I'm usually like... how can I make this real fucked up.

I think you both are willing to go to wild and twisted places in your comedy—but even when you’re playing demons or deities, they’re funny because they’re also so human. How do you strike the balance between “out there” and relatable?

Patrick: Actual people are really wild and twisted, so I don't find it so hard to balance those. I love to play freaks and find it easier to be the "real person,” rather than creating something insane/fantastical out of whole cloth. I have known a lot of twisted people in my life, so I am mostly just emulating them or cranking up what's already there.

Corin: In the best horrors, at the core of every freak, monster, or twisted person, is a very human justification as to why they are the way they are and why they do what they do. Candyman was the son of a slave who fell in love with a white woman. Carrie was a regular magic girl who was bullied and her mom sucked. The Scream killer is the son of a man who Sydney's mom had an affair with. These are all very real things that have happened to people in real life and horror shows the extreme side of those real things. I think in comedy we can take it a step further and completely subvert those ideas and make them ridiculous but still with relatable and real justifications. 

Okay, let’s say a rando ghost, ghoul, or creepo wandered into the UCB, what do they think of your show?

Patrick: Any ghoul wandering into UCB would probably appreciate the amount of screaming and death in the show. I love to yell. 

Corin: "Why is that woman's vagina lighting up?"


Have a wonderful week and a creeptastic Halloween, my little Saturdemons,

xoxoxo Sarah

an interview with russ marshalek of a place both wonderful and strange and Adventure[s]

collaboration, pop-culture, and the Davids (Bowie and Lynch)

Good morning to you, my lil Saturdaisies,

Have you all been rocking out with your scarves out this fine fall week?

You know who hasn’t been? The dude who just passed by my window with shorts on in 50-degree weather. I have respect for that kind of hearty constitution, I do. But as soon as there’s a breeze, I like a sturdy sheathe to guard me from the elements.

That’s why I invested in a beautiful Rachel Comey scarf four years ago—it’s still in perfect condition and still looks chic as hell even though I use it as a veritable swaddle like five months out of the year. It keeps me so toasty I don’t even get bronchitis anymore! (I mean, also, I don’t smoke cigarettes anymore—but I’M CERTAIN my magical scarf doesn’t hurt.)*


This week, I’m launching my very first interview in this here space. Fitting that I get to interview someone who was one of the first to put me on a stage in the big city all those years ago!

In the decade I’ve known Russ Marshalek, I’ve seen him launch too many cool projects to count, and he’s introduced me to music, movies, and memes I would never have discovered otherwise. If I have ever told you about anything cool, there’s an 87% chance I heard about it from Russ. (As I told my brilliant astrologer friend Kiki the other day, Gemini’s are such TASTEMAKERS.)

Next week, I’ll be performing with Russ at Black Lodge/White Noise: An immersive David Lynch + David Bowie Halloween presented by a place both wonderful and strange (that’s Russ’ electronic duo with Laura Hajek) and ADVENTURE[s] (that’s the Brooklyn-Based party collective Russ is part of and who are responsible for “This Party Is Killing You” known to many as The Robyn Party.)

This annual Lynchian Halloween party [tix here] is one of my favorite shows and I’ll be reprising a role I care so much about.

This time, with a Bowie twist…

Before we bid Laura Palmer farewell for a while (maybe we’ll see her again in 25 years?) I asked Russ to share with us some ideas about collaboration and pop culture.


an interview with russ marshalek of a place both wonderful and strange

One thing I’ve felt from Day One of working with you is that when I float an idea that I’m toying with, you’re all in. That trust has really helped me take some creative chances I’m super proud of. What do you look for in collaborators, and what can artists do to become better collaborators?

Russ: That's really flattering! Thank you! I really enjoy working with you a lot, and I think that might speak to what I look for in collaborators--in a lot of ways, it's like entering into a transaction, but with someone's brain and soul. So, as in any other sort of transaction, you have to be willing to know what you know AND cede that which you might not know, and trust that who you're engaging with is going to do the same. 

At the last Black Lodge party, I think we were all like blissed out about how much fun we had and how good everyone was. How did the “whole gang” come together?

Russ: It's funny, it's basically a perfect converging of a New York scene--like, an old-school type scene, where "dinner party" or "stew" could be an apt metaphor.  Everyone involved were friends, or friends of friends, from various little factions or venn diagrams of weird, dark conceptual art/music. In situations like the black lodge halloween parties, where you have about 5 hours of entertainment squeezing into a three hour window and venues screaming at you to get out on time so they can keep the money train moving (which i totally get), it's also a matter of everyone's ego taking second shelf to the idea of putting on a good cohesive night, which is really difficult to find. so it's a balancing act.

You’re one of the creators of one of New York’s most beloved parties—and you’ve taken it to Berlin and the West Coast. What were some of the signs that the Robyn party was something special that really had staying power and the ability to grow?

Russ: awww, thank you! the robyn party is really near and dear to my heart, and I think we knew it had staying power when it began to outgrow venue after venue and start to make an impact on people--and, apparently I guess, which is WILD to me to be saying, Robyn herself!?!?!?  like, it's always been a party in service to, by and for fans, so to have an emotional resonance is...well, it's wild.

[check out russ and the robyn party in Robyn’s Missing U message to her fans!]

You and I both love bringing pop culture into our work and I think our ideas about using pop culture are always evolving. Any thoughts about that?

Russ: pop culture is a form of hypersigil, like we're in essence pre-stating the art that we want to use as existing before we use it. it's a conversation that's happening on a level that doesn't need actual linguistics which makes it a very very effective pallet to paint with.

You’re definitely a producer and performer who puts your whole self into your events and projects, so how do you know if something is worth the energy it will require?

Russ: that's the problem! i don't! i'm actually in a place right now, and this is one of the many facets of why the black lodge halloween is ending, where i just have never known if something is going to pay off, so i give my all to everything, and now i need, for a while, to maybe take some of that energy back.

Anything else you’re excited about right now?

Russ: i'm writing a book. for real this time.


I hope you’ll join me, Russ, and a bunch of other talented musicians and performers next Friday, October 25 at 3 Dollar Bill in Brooklyn. You don’t need to be a Twin Peaks diehard to appreciate this show. The performers are all out of this world and I guarantee this is a night that will feel like a step out of time…

Later Saturgators!

xoxoxo

Sarah

*I am not a paid spokesperson of Ms. Comey but I would be in a heartbeat.

since i said we were gonna talk about consequences...

what happens to your characters does not need to make sense.

I’ve known this day was coming for a week now…

I’ve known it since I typed the words “Next week we’ll talk about consequences” in last week’s newsletter…

And since I WROTE I was gonna do it, I guess I gotta do it.

Grrr.


That’s my weekend creative brain in a nutshell. Note I said “my weekend creative brain.”

I also have a weekday creative brain.

My weekday creative brain shows up for my 1000 words a day.

It loves calendars and planners and deadlines and to-do lists.

It makes sure things get done.

We might think about the part of the brain that handles the business and housekeeping side of things as the “logic” brain or our “practical” side.

But I don’t think of that part of our brain as inherently uncreative.

It’s just a little tidier about it.

A little more on top of things.

And thank goodness for it, because otherwise I would never publish a thing, meet a deadline, or make a deal!


But there is another part of my brain that needs a lot more

SPACE

to daydream…

to change course…

to run in the complete opposite direction of where I wanted to go in the first place…


Actually, there are probably a million parts of my brain that all need a very specific kind of food, self-care routine, and radio station to do their best work. Each neural pathway has a different love language and rising sign—and all my synapses disagree wildly about favorite movies and pizza toppings.*

This newsletter is my humble attempt to help you get in touch with all of them.

Which means that even though I send this out on Saturday, it would never make it to your inbox if I didn’t also give it a little bit of my Tuesday brain, too.

If I didn’t mix a little structure into the flow.

And so, here I am about to honor my promise to write about consequences.

But I’m going to do it in my way, in my time.


Here’s how I’m currently thinking about “consequences” in the novel I’m writing.

I’m not.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I’m always thinking about how to throw ironic lessons, gifts, and even punishments at my characters—active scenes built around lessons which they may or may not be able to grasp depending on who they are and how much they’re willing to grow over the course of the book.

But I’m not holding on too deeply to my initial ideas about how things are gonna shake out for them.

I’m not writing a religion, after all.

What happens to your characters does not need to make sense.

xoxoxo

Sarah

*Full disclosure: I honestly have no idea what a synapse is, let alone what it thinks about pineapple on pizza.

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