Project Maker Interviews

Just in time for late spring and summer is Heather Menicucci’s new book, Let’s Get Primitive — a guide to getting out and enjoying the great outdoors, not just in the local park, but all the way out in the woods. That’s right — camping. The book will fill you in on all the details with regard to planning and having a great trip, but most importantly, it’s going to inspire you to want to pack up and hit the road, so that you get beyond the crowded city streets and into the wide open spaces of backcountry.

I got the honor of reading an advance copy of the book, and of providing a “blurb” — a short quote of praise. This is what I wrote: “Working in a cubicle is as open-air as most of us city folk get, and that’s no way to live. Thankfully Heather Menicucci has offered an open-ended ticket to sunrises, sunsets, and warm, whiskey-doused sing-alongs in the great outdoors. Let’s Get Primitive is an enlightening guide that will inspire you to tear down the (half) walls, delve back into nature, and dream under stars that you can actually see.”

Following is an interview with Heather about how she got into camping, what camping does for her, and reasons why everyone should make a point of pitching a tent and spending some quality time in the sunshine and moonlight that is unique to places where the day ends around a campfire.

How did you get into camping?

Heather Menicucci: I met a former Boy Scout, a sturdy guy who convinced me I wouldn’t be abducted by aliens my first trip out. After hearing his exciting stories of campfires and canoe trips, I thought camping was something I should finally try. I didn’t think I was going to fall in love, I just thought camping was something everyone should do at least once in their life. That first trip was actually my birthday celebration and the car got stuck down a ravine, the lake we were supposed to camp near turned out to be a manmade mucky pond, and it rained all day on my birthday. And yet, I still loved it! I guess that’s a testament to the power of camping.

What led you to write Let’s Get Primitive?

HM: Let’s Get Primitive started as a how-to guide for Bust magazine. I pitched the initial article because I thought there had to be other unlikely nature girls like me out there. I wanted to show them how I became a camper and prove they could too. Most people envision a certain kind of person as a camper and I wanted to show that the unlikeliest of campers can make this their own. I was really excited to share my love with anyone I thought would be too scared or skeptical to go for it.

What does camping do for you on an inspirational level — how does it impact, say, your work?

HM: To use a silly cliche, it clears out the cobwebs. I’m a ruminator. I get myself into mental traps where I overanalyze my work, my relationships, whether or not my cat is too mean, but I don’t really ever think about that stuff (as much, or as intensely) when I’m camping. It frees me from a lot of the things that weigh me down in the real world, which does wonders for my inspiration. There are plenty of surprises to be discovered in nature, but what’s even better is when you surprise yourself. Maybe you’ll break out in song around the campfire, or you’ll be able to climb a big rock when you can barely make the stairs in your building. When all that wholesome stuff happens, it’s inspiring. It just feels good. And simple. And clear. It’s not unusual for me to come home with tons of pictures and pages of notes in my journal.

You also are a filmmaker — any plans to shoot something that involves camping? I could envision a whole host of short viral, comedic videos of urban gals out in the great outdoors for the very first time…

HM: Yes! You had actually inspired me to think along these lines. I’d like to do a Double Dare/Iron Chef takeoff where city girls compete to prove their primitive prowess. They’ll pitch a tent in less than five minutes, find their way back to camp after being led blindfolded away, and cook up a campfire meal with limited ingredients. There would be prizes and camp-inspired banjo music. It would be very silly and fun, and the girls would earn their backcountry badges. It’s kind of in the works.

Bugs, sunburns, the lack of a toilet, sleeping on the hard-earth floor — lots of reasons why people opt for the nice hotel room on the beach or at the lodge… and yet, one sunrise out in the forest, and you can be sold for life, right? What else draws you to camping?

HM: To be honest, it’s partly all the hardships you mentioned at first. I think it’s good to be deprived occasionally of the things I take for granted. And solving the logistical problems, like a hard floor or rain on the fire, is fun in a crafty, MacGyvery way. Not to mention, once you conquer the cat hole, you feel pretty damn proud of yourself. But it’s not all about overcoming difficulties. There’s fresh, sweet air; tons of green; interesting critters; still quiet; endless stars. Food tastes better. I also love how I feel tuckered out and fulfilled at the end of the day. And, it’s a unique bonding experience. I think camping encourages openness. It brings people together in a unique way. I could go on and on and on. Camping is not just a vacation. It can’t really be compared with a nice hotel room on the beach. They’re each valuable for very different reasons.

Are you known amongst your friends and family as the person who introduces people to the great outdoors?

HM: Well, a lot of my friends and particularly my family are still resisting being converted. But I think now that Let’s Get Primitive is out, they’ll have a harder time saying no. I should be able to exert a little more influence now that I’m official.

Describe how it feels when you arrive back home from a camping trip?

HM: It feels as refreshing as it does when I get to my campsite that first day. I’m not crazy. I love camping, but after a few days out there, getting home is dreamy. I check my email, order pizza, and indulge in a thirty-minute post-camping shower. I often hear that Soul II Soul song playing in my head, "Back to Life."

What’s the best way for someone, no matter where they live, to find out about good camping options in their area?

HM: Part of the fun of camping is nerding out until you hone in on your ideal spot. The internet is the best place to research a trip, especially if you don’t have a group of camper friends to ask. My trips usually involve a bit of research on the the National Forest Service website (www.fs.fed.us), the National Park Service website (www.nps.gov), and then in a camping forum (my favorite: www.backpacker.com), where campers often review where they’ve been. letsgetprimitive.com also has a list of about thirty cities and towns with nearby backcountry camping opportunities and gorp.com has handy articles and reviews. Remember to follow up your online research with calls to the ranger station for special regulations, conditions, and permit information.

What’s a place in this world that you haven’t yet camped at, but dream of going to?

HM: The list is so long because I don’t camp or travel nearly as much as I’d like to. I’d like to do a cross country camping trip and pitch my tent in as many states as I can. I’m really curious about camping on the Keys in Florida, Tongass National Forest in Alaska, Channel Island National Park in California, and anywhere in Hawaii. There’s also a waterfall in Maine’s Baxter State Park that I’ve been promising myself I’d hike to. Outside the U.S., I know I’d like to camp Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica and along the Abel Tasman Coastal Track in New Zealand. I’m really drawn to water, especially the ocean. All my seaside campouts have been magical.

Visit the Let’s Get Primitive website for more information. Buy the book here.

So many projects out there, so many people doing amazingly creative things. When it comes to the crafty arts, I can always count on CRAFT to highlight some very cool stuff. But I especially like the way CRAFT not only showcases crafty projects, but members of the craft community as well, helping to connect the dots to who is creating what. The result is a further strengthening of the already tight-knit crafting community. Following is an interview with CRAFT Editor Natalie Zee Drieu about the overall CRAFT project, the art of writing about craft, and what has been inspiring her lately.

What led to the creation of CRAFT Magazine?

Natalie Zee Drieu: It was in late summer of 2005 and MAKE Magazine had been around for a year and a half. MAKE was getting a lot of craft projects submitted so the idea came up to do a special issue of MAKE dedicated to crafts. Soon after, while working on the special issue, we realized that the craft space really needed something like this as well as the fact we had too many projects to fit in just one issue. It was then that Dale Dougherty our publisher decided to make CRAFT its own magazine!

Presenting projects in a way that readers can create on their own, that’s not always so easy. When you are writing an article showing how to do a diy project, what are some things you do to make sure your project directions are easy to follow?

NZD: I’ve been a designer for 12 years so I’m a very visual person and I think most crafters are. I also have written a few web design books back in the day so I take the same approach to writing up craft projects. Step by step is always key with photos that show the important steps or difficult ones. I also like to link to certain techniques (needlepoint or knitting) to give readers a good foundation for techniques.

How does the blog and the podcast fit into the overall CRAFT effort?

NZD: With CRAFT, it’s all about projects, making something and showcasing what’s happening in the craft world today. Since our magazine comes out only once a quarter, the blog and the free weekly pattern podcast are other ways for us to bring a dose of what’s out there in more timely manner. Hopefully, we can inspire readers to pick up a new craft or start a new project that they might not have known about otherwise.

The CRAFT blog highlights all kinds of crafty ideas and projects found online — how do you go about finding out about all the projects you feature on the blog?

NZD: I have no idea how I do it! I think part of the reason is that I’m such a tech nerd that I’m always online so I’ll always be looking out for interesting finds. I have a large pool probably around 500 of sites on my RSS reader ranging from crafts, design, fashion, technology, almost everything. Crafters also submit their site to us for review through the blog. It’s really about the community. Sometimes I’ll do a post and I’ll get an email or a blog comment that will trigger a new story on what a certain crafter is making. I really love that!

You’ve published 3 issues of CRAFT so far… how is the magazine progressing? Anything that’s surprised you in terms of response?

NZD: We just finished vol. 3 the Japanese Style issue which is one of my personal favorite craft topics. Everyone on our team is so passionate about crafts. It’s nice to have this overwhelming positive response we are getting from the craft community about our magazine. We are so happy that crafters are loving what we are doing because we really love what we do.

What’s a recent craft project that has just blown you away? This giant knitted glove that’s really a chair cozy. I can barely finish knitting my sweaters and this woman knit up a giant glove! So cool!

NZD: The Knitted Ferrari also is an amazing feat. It’s my all time favorite.

What artist/crafter most influences your own crafting endeavors?

NZD: Textile designer Lotta Jansdotter has been a big influence for me. I’ve known her personally since the early 90’s and saw her create her own business out of her silk screening hobby. What I love about her is that she created her own signature style for all the things she designs whether it’s textiles, bags, clothes, or ceramics. When you look at it, you know it’s a Lotta Jansdotter design. Lotta has just the most beautifully designed handwriting out of anyone I know! Her personal recipe book that she keeps is like looking at a special scrapbook. She’s amazing! I think in some way having known her all these years, her influence has steered me closer to my craft career now.

Also, recently I’ve been inspired by Kim P. Werker of Crochet Me and Editor of Interweave Crochet. She has really gotten me into crochet ever since I met her at the TNNA show in Jan. She has started some fun side projects such as the Granny Along which I’m a part of. I’m primarily a knitter and a sewer but all three of my projects I’ve got going on right now are crochet. I’m completely addicted and excited to learn more projec

What is your inspiration for the work you do on CRAFT?

NZD: All the crafters that are out there. Seriously, everyday I’m blown away by something someone makes. I keep a long list of craft projects I want to do for myself from either seeing it online or from meeting a crafter at a fair who’s shown me something new.

I’m also inspired by technology. I’m working on some digital craft projects that will be up on Craftzine this summer to bring together my background in digital design and the tactile craft world. I love vintage craft books and magazines and have a growing collection of those that I like to look at. It’s nice that there’s this history to crafting and that we are this new generation of crafters that are adding to it.

Be sure to also check out Natalie’s personal blog Coquette Digital Style, as well as her flickr site.

With projects that range from yarn to wood, from found objects to fabric, with contributors from all over the craft spectrum, Tsia Carson has put together a creative lightening bolt — a force of craft. I’m not at all surprised, really. I’ve been a fan of her dynamically charged SuperNaturale.com site for quite some time (and have been fortunate enough to contribute to its Glimmer blog, along with many others, for the last year or so). But the book, Craftivity, takes the whole crafty mission up a notch — it’s inventive, wondrously colorful and full of creative surprises, and I am not alone in singing its praises. I’m really happy and honored to present an interview with Tsia about her new book here at 52projects.com.

Craftivity — what a wonderful name for the book. What does that word mean to you?

I wanted to get across the idea that crafting is active, that it is an activity and that the practitioners are activist. They take agency over their lives by making beautiful stuff. Most of the happiest crafters I know craft in groups or have a community of people they engage with about their work. I think that this is at the heart of what makes it relevant interesting culture and not just more stuff to consume and own. But I have to give props to Holly Gressley and Aviva Michaelov for introducing me to this term.

How have you met all these crafters? How much did your website have to do with pulling together all the artists for your book?

Most of the makers I have met but not all of them. There are a few I can’t wait to meet! The website was instrumental in meeting and discovering contributors. It’s the best calling card in the world.

Tell the truth — what was the hardest project in the book to make happen?

Twist my arm! I think that knit hammock, while not the hardest project to do in terms of skill level, was the hardest to make happen. It took a really long time and knitting with the hemp twine was really hard because it has a mind of its own. Poor Annika (Annika Ginsberg made it)! She is a master knitter and it was driving her nuts. Every step of the way something went awry with that project. Even building the harness at the end was nuts. But I think I would know how to do that much better now.

If you had to pick a theme song for your book what would it be?

"One Nation Under a Groove" Funkadelic?
"Who’s Got the Crack?" the Moldy Peaches?
"One Divine Hammer" the Breeders?

Gosh, I don’t know.

How does your background in design flow into your personal crafting?

I don’t really separate these creative activities up. I am heavy on the concept, I think through things and have to be excited by the idea before I make anything. If anything, becoming a designer has made me more sensitive to detail and more particular.

How do you think the web has impacted the world of crafting?

The way it has opened up communities to like-minded individuals rather than geographic location has been phenomenal. It has really facilitated discourse and making in a way that would have been impossible. I think that it has fueled the scene so that people are not working in isolation.

Do you recall your very first craft project? What was it? Why did you make it?

I was such a craftive kid. My parents totally encouraged it. I think what comes to mind is that I made a whole zoo of cut-out paper animals and then photographed them against a dark window so you could see the backs as well in the photograph. I wanted you to be able to see the back and front at the same time. It was all about the image. I was a total OCD kid. My father is an artist and when I just learned how to write I signed my name on all his work. That was a good idea too. Also there was my "multimedia" JFK presentation in 2nd grade…

In terms of crafting, knowing you’re a partner in a design firm and have a baby — when do you get it done? How do you find the time?

I still haven’t put together almost any of my personal projects.

There’s a baby quilt, a lampshade and house painting. Honestly, I have started to outsource and have people help me. It’s funny — I do find time to do those activities I enjoy. For instance I hate to sew, so that is going to be outsourced to a friend. But I like to knit, so I made my daughter a red scarf just like her favorite book character — Jenny Linksy the cat.

How is your crafting different as a mother from how it was when you did not have a child?

What project will take an evening max is the major deciding factor.

What’s the one craft project you’ve always thought about creating but have yet to get started on?

I thought I would be really DIY’d out after this book but it has actually fueled my desire to make stuff. I am going to study permaculture over the winter and my husband and I are going to make our property into an edible forest garden. I would also like to implement a grey water system for the house to feed the water from the washing machine through a drip irrigation system for the garden. Even saying this stuff makes it clear why I haven’t had the time to do it yet.

More on the book.

Buy the book.

Read an interview with Tsia at Craftzine.com.

Putting together a book is tough, but when that book is an encyclopedia, the job has got to be so much tougher. So many words, so many entries, so much fact-checking, so… all encompassing. But Dr. Melissa Hope Ditmore has done just that with her years-in-the-making project two-volume Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, just published by Greenwood Press. A one-of-a-kind reference work about a subject matter that is often seen through a narrow, cliche ridden vantage point, the encyclopedia delves into and explores sex work and prostitution from a full-view perspective: the historical, political, societal, cultural, activist and more. I interviewed Ditmore about her "mega-project" — how it came about, what’s in the encyclopedia, and who it’s for.

How did this project come about? How long have you been working on it?

The Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work was the brainchild of an editor at Greenwood, the publisher. She grew up in Detroit in the 1970s and witnessed pimp culture, especially souped-up cars. Pimpmobiles really stood out for her and may have been the genesis of the encyclopedia! As an acquisitions editor at Greenwood, she inquired after potential editors for a reference book about prostitution and was referred to me by Priscilla Alexander, the doyenne and ally of the American sex workers’ rights movement. Priscilla co-edited Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry and I had hoped to co-edit this with her, but her other commitments prevented her from taking this on. An encyclopedia is a mega-project. My opportunity was a triumph of experience over hope: no one who had published a book before wanted to edit such a large volume!

Coming up with the list of topics was wonderful fun. The list is exceptionally rich because of the many entries that were suggested by the contributors. Pulling this manuscript together took more than two years of contact with some of the most fascinating writers and subjects you could hope to meet.

Has there ever been an academic reference book about prostitution and sex work?

This is the first reference work devoted to prostitution and sex work, despite the huge variety of academic and mainstream writing on sex work. Sexologists Vern and Bonnie Bullough published History of Prostitution in 1964, and Prostitution: An Illustrated Social History in 1989. These great resources are very different from the encyclopedia. The most obvious difference is that the encyclopedia has content addressing the last twenty years, including sex worker activism. The wide variety of voices in the encyclopedia is just not possible in a smaller book with two authors.

Who is the encyclopedia for?

Everyone should have an opportunity to read it. Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work is meant for a general audience. The writing is clear, there is no jargon, and the topic has universal interest. Most readers will probably be students because reference books are usually library resources. But everyone is a student of human nature and sexual activity!

I wonder how many people will find it not in a public library but in the private collections of their favorite sex professionals. Sex workers proved to be enthusiastic readers of the encyclopedia as soon as it became available. The positive response has been overwhelming, demonstrating the need for this book.

What are some of the entries — entries that would be good examples of what one will find in the encyclopedia?

No matter who you are, something in the 342 entries will interest you! There are people, history, places, health issues and more. Some of the entries that I recently re-read are Hip-Hop, Habsburg Monarchy, the film Midnight Cowboy, and World War I Regulation. The religious entries always engage me, especially the early Christian ascetics the Desert Harlots. Sacred whores indeed!

The entries on people include many familiar names: Paul Cezanne, Emma Goldman, Annie Sprinkle, Victoria Woodhull, and Emile Zola. But the encyclopedia also offers opportunities to learn about fascinating people you may not have heard of, for example, the Renaissance composer Barbara Strozzi, the medieval Chinese martial artist and courtesan Liang Hongyu, convicted madam Regine Riehl, and Network of Sex Work Projects co-founder Paulo Longo.

The 179 writers include the novelist Tracy Quan, who wrote about Opera, and popular music critic John Holmstrom, who wrote about Rock Music. Renowned scholars include Helen J. Self on Britain’s Street Offenses Act, Jo Doezema on Abolitionists, Heather Montgomery on Child Prostitution, Thomas Steinfatt on Trafficking Propaganda, and Stephanie Budin on the Ancient World. Advocates

Greenwood produced this beautifully. Illustrations abound, including Daryl Hannah as the automaton prostitute in Blade Runner, depictions from the Kama Sutra, ukiyo-e prints, and scenes from sex work venues in Amsterdam, Bangkok, New Orleans, and New York.

Are there political issues with a reference work like this? Could you see libraries NOT take the book because of its subject matter?

Yes, this has already come up. One contributor said that her local library, which was a university library, hesitated to order it. It is, after all, the only encyclopedia featured on Fleshbot. The library needed reassurance that Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work is a serious work that belongs in its collection and ordered the encyclopedia after she showed them the press release and excerpts that are on the website.

It’s priced more for the reference/library market, right? It’s more than normal book buyers are used to paying for a book… if someone can’t afford it, how might they go about getting access to the book?

The encyclopedia is an unusual book with an unusual price. Most readers will find it through their libraries. Request that your local library — whether that is a public library, a university library, a school library — get the encyclopedia. You can make it easier for your librarian by bringing a printed copy of the order form, and, if necessary, the excerpts offered to reviewers. They are available from the online press kit.

Any chance you might create an online wiki around this work?

What a great question! The encyclopedia would be an enormous resource for someone creating a wiki about the sex industry. I don’t see myself taking on such a technical project. I would like Greenwood to produce a cd-rom of the work, which would be more affordable and portable. My next book will be smaller!

More information about the Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work.

Not Beth and Trina. That’s illustrator Wendi Koontz on the left, and author Julie Blattberg on the right.

First, I promised not to mention any details of the backstage "experiences" author Julie Blattberg may or may not have had with Vanilla Ice, David Lee Roth, Jon Bon Jovi, and Madonna.

Now that that’s out of the way, I can let you know about Julie’s very cool new book, Backstage with Beth and Trina (illustrated by Wendi Koontz). It’s a colorful, sexy adventure story about two rocker chicks who are determined to get backstage and, well, party with the band. But this book goes beyond the visual and ventures into the realm of scents. How does it transcend the normal confines of the picture book? By reaching back to the tomes of our youth. That’s right: Backstage with Beth and Trina is a scratch-and-sniff adventure. But the scents in this book go way beyond strawberry and banana — we’re talking beer, cigarettes, leather and latex. Beth and Trina are rocker chicks, after all. I interviewed Julie about the new book. What follows are her on-the-record responses.

How did you come up with this idea? When did the scratch-and-sniff element come into play?

I’d been working for a publisher of children’s books for a few years, and it occurred to me how unfair it was that kids have all of these different books with fun formats — scratch-and-sniff, lift-the-flap, glow-in-the-dark, and so on. I thought about existing formats and wondered what could be done for grown-ups. Around the same time, I was photographing a lot of rock bands and concerts, and thought I could do something cool with music. The brainstorming led to the characters, which led to the rock club setting, and the rest, as they say, is history. Rock shows are full of…interesting smells…

How much testing was done to get the smells just right? Any misfires that didn’t make it into print (and scent)?

My favorite part of the process of having this book published was a meeting requested by my editor: "Can you come downtown this week? The swatches are in." The two of us sat in her office scratching and sniffing scent samples, suppressing giggles when staff walking by overheard phrases like, "This doesn’t really smell enough like vomit," and "I know what we can use for the condom!"

The one aroma that we couldn’t quite get was Jack Daniel’s. But everyone knows what that smells like anyway, right?

Are you Beth, or Trina?

What do you think?

How old were you when you first tried to get backstage?

My first success story: High school. INXS. Jones Beach, NY. A friend of mine was infatuated with Michael Hutchence (R.I.P.) and HAD to get backstage. Despite our best efforts to sweet-talk security, it was time to give up hope…until an angry guy stormed out of the backstage door, due to a "situation" we overheard. He saw three forlorn-looking girls on the sidelines and did the right thing: He gave us the backstage passes that he and his friends could no longer use. We got backstage, had underage drinks with the band, and talked about mundane things like popular movies and restaurants in Manhattan.

Any tips to getting backstage?

Get a job in the music business. Or (and I hate to say this), if you’re a girl: get a boob-job, wear lots of makeup and little clothing; crying works, too.

What’s the soundtrack for this book?

The soundtrack is the self-published debut album of a hard rock / heavy metal band of undetermined origin. There are so many talented singers, writers, and musicians out there, trying to make it in the highly competitive and somewhat shady music business. The headlining act in BACKSTAGE WITH BETH AND TRINA is not one of those bands. Instead, imagine a cross between Whitesnake, Cinderella, and Def Leppard; take away half of the hair product — and half of the charisma; and turn the amplifier up to 11.

Will there be further adventures for Beth and Trina? I’m pushing for a catfight…

Further adventures are in the works. And rest assured — there will be guitars and there will be long hair involved. Now what do you suppose a catfight would smell like, Jeff?

Visit BethandTrina.com | Check out their myspace page | Buy Backstage with Beth and Trina

You better really mean it if you’re going to put the word "portal" in the name of your website. You better have lots of links and lots of stories and cover all the seasons and in general be opening up your audience to all kinds of new stuff all the time. And if your focus is creativity, well, then you’ve really got to have it together. Creative types are always looking for fresh ideas and original concepts and new ways to further their own endeavors, whether they’re old hat experts or new to the craft. Well, Creativity Portal means it. The site, run by Chris Dunmire, is a launching pad to creative quick fixes and craft ideas, as well as in-depth explorations of inspiration and living the creative life. I interviewed Dunmire about Creativity Portal and creativity in general.

Why did you start Creativity-Portal.com?

Short answer: Because I’m a creativity enthusiast!

Long answer: I started the Creativity Portal Web site in 2000 shortly after leaving a corporate job at a company I’d been with for seven years — one that I originally thought I’d be with for several decades until I retired (it was that kind of company). However, in the years leading up to my departure, an astonishing number of life-altering events took place that forced me to take stock of my life and realize that I was undergoing a creative awakening that needed to be tended to and incorporated into my working life somehow.

As I was in the process of changing career paths, I began to embrace my creativity enthusiast nature more and knew I needed a dynamic "container" to pour my creative energy into. A Web-based project based on my creative vision became that container — the Web site known as the Creativity Portal.

How has the site evolved over the years?

Watching the Creativity Portal grow and evolve over the years has been such a satisfying experience. The site began with a hand-selected directory and profile of instructional art, craft, and writing resources and grew to include my own creativity-inspiring projects, articles, and book reviews. I opened up the site as a creative community project after an author approached me with her syndicated column series and asked if it could be published on the site. Welcoming that collaboration resulted in other creative professionals working with me to add their voices to the collective Creativity Portal project.

Today the Creativity Portal features over a half-dozen regular monthly columns in addition to ongoing contributions by various authors, coaches, and artists to help educate and inspire visitors no matter where they are in their creative lives. The site has earned a generous share of accolades as well. It’s been named a Writer’s Digest Best Web site (since 2002), was lauded as a Kim Komando "Kool" Site, and has appeared in Imagine magazine, a college textbook, and on Blogger’s Buzz. Several authors have also acknowledged the Creativity Portal in their books and on their Web sites, which is a great honor.

How do you balance a site about creativity with all your personal creative projects?

Serendipitously, the Creativity Portal is a continuous source of inspiration and motivation for my own creative life. The same articles and resources that inspire its readers also inspire me. As the sites’ creative director and publisher, I read every single article and project published on the site and work closely with its regular contributors in the shape and direction of new site features. All of this has a very personal and profound effect on me that spills over into my personal creative work.

It’s no coincidence that many of my creative projects are weaved through the pages of the Creativity Portal Web site even though I have my own personal site devoted to my creative play (www.chrisdunmire.com). I am thrilled to be the site publisher and an active contributor. It’s like running an ice cream shop while inventing new ice cream flavors on the side in the back room. It all just flows together in a fulfilling, creative dream kind of way.

We’re all creative beings, doing creative things all the time. But how important is it to emphasize creativity in one’s life?

I’m naturally biased about this and pro-creativity in the fullest sense of the word. Having said that, I believe the gauge on this is for each of us to decide for ourselves — how much or to what extent we should personally emphasize creativity in our lives.

You are correct in saying that we are all creative beings, doing creative things all of the time. Not everyone recognizes when their creativity is engaged as artists, inventors, problem solvers, or ‘outside the box’ thinkers. It happens in the kitchen, at the store, while we’re driving, during meetings, while we’re playing, and when we’re working. Creativity permeates every aspect of our lives, whether we label it as such or not, and we all benefit from the freedom to be creative. Creativity keeps us progressive, improves our lives, and gives us the opportunity to express ourselves and communicate with others.

How has your personal view of creativity evolved as you’ve built up and worked on the website?

My personal view of creativity has grown so much over the years — and I suspect it will never stop evolving for as long as I live. Every person I come into contact with contributes to the dynamic definition of creativity that I carry within me.

Long ago I used to think that creativity was only about artistic expression and problem solving, but I have grown to understand it also as a tool for healing, personal growth, and spiritual practice. It is a multi-faceted component to our lives that makes everything possible.

What kinds of things do you hear from readers of the site?

I’ve received an abundance of affirming feedback from visitors who enjoy the Creativity Portal’s vision, articles, projects, and resources. I get a lot of fun comments from people who’ve used my novelty Money Plant Project. I also receive kind personal notes from newsletter readers about my musings and the community projects I invite them into.

Recently, one reader shared with me how an article from the site discussing how "getting outside of your routine promotes creativity" helped inspire her writing life during some challenging times after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area in which she lived.

Other contributors to the Creativity Portal have also been recipients of life-changing feedback to their work. One author was approached by a popular health magazine after her article on creativity was published on the site. They wanted permission to publish her article in their print magazine! Another author received so much feedback on one of her articles about day jobs that she went on to write a book about it.

How does a creativity coach work? I’m sure each has his or her own creative approach, but for those who have only heard the term, can you provide some insight?

You are correct — professional creativity coaches, depending on their background and training, may have different approaches to their coaching style, focus, and philosophy. I have trained as a creativity coach under Eric Maisel, Ph.D., and his coaching philosophy is well-reflected in the many books he’s written on creativity and coaching.

In the broadest sense, creativity coaches help support artists and creators of all kinds with their creative work in working regularly and deeply, overcoming blocks, and achieving success in the marketplace. Some coaches have specialty niches and may work primarily with writers, visual artists, or performers in-person, by phone, or through e-mail.

For anyone interested in more information on creativity coaching, I recommend visiting the Web sites of Eric Maisel, Ph.D. and Jill Badonsky M.Ed., who are two well-known coach trainers.

When was the last time you were creatively stuck, and how did you get past it?

I get creatively stuck all the time. How do I get past it? Sometimes it’s a matter of allowing the creative process to work (you know, idea gathering, incubation…). Other times I need to shift into self-coach mode and figure out what’s going on with me. Do I know enough about a subject? Am I being a perfectionist? Am I afraid? Do I need to take a nap? Do I need to eat more cookies? And on and on it goes.

Sometimes getting past it means I have to put aside my fears and do it anyway. Sometimes it means accepting that doing things creatively average is okay. And sometimes it means scrapping an idea and saying "Chris, what WERE you thinking?!"

It’s summer timeā€¦ Any good summer creativity prompts?

Yes, go outside to your favorite park, lake, or forest preserve and really notice what’s going on around you. Whether you see ducks floating on the water, little kids hanging on the monkey bars, or families enjoying quality time eating together, you’ll find all of the creative story starters you need to last you until autumn. Here’s your first one: go count all of the white butterflies you can in five minutes fluttering through the flowers and then write about what you think they’re really up to. These family-friendly prompts are brought to you by the letters C, D, B.

What’s currently inspiring you, and what are you working on?

I am currently inspired by flowers. Flowers are such amazing works of art. I am gifted with a teacher friend who is educating me on all kinds of flowery things and has some very cool ones growing in her yard that I’ve never seen before in my life. She’s recently sent me a postcard from her vacation in Minnesota featuring the state flower called "Showy Lady Slipper." The flower actually looks like an elegant slipper shoe!

I am working on many creative things. I recently finished a coaching writers training with Eric Maisel and have plunged deeper into my writing life. I have a growing list of writing projects that keep me busy, and when I’m not doing that I’m doing my best to chronicle my creative journey and reflect on the richness of being alive in the now.

Describe a perfectly creative day:

I think that it’s okay to live un-perfectly creative days. My current philosophy is this: I believe in meeting a day creatively where you are, knowing that tomorrow is another day you can continue on the journey if you are up to the challenge. If you’re not, rest and recharge. Some days I am exhausted from all of my spent creative energy, and other days I am resting and queuing up for the next exciting project. Occasionally, in between days I unplug from it all and put my creative life on pause. I’ll admit though, that’s really hard for a creativity enthusiast to do.

To MFA or not to MFA, that is the question many writers ask themselves. It’s a big decision, a major commitment of time and money and of course lots of writing energy. Which program is right for me? Will I get in? How much does it cost? Tom Kealey, writer and writing teacher at Standford University, has put together not the answer for you (only you can do that), but a guide to help you figure out your MFA plan: The Creative Writng MFA Handbook. Below is an interview I conducted with Kealey about his book, the MFA Blog he runs, MFA programs, and writing in general.

How did your book come about? Why did you write it?

Six or seven times a year I’d get a call from a friend of a friend of a friend who was applying to creative writing programs. They wanted advice and insights, and it was no problem to talk with them. I began to realize a few things though: 1. They didn’t know anything, 2. Relatively speaking, I knew a lot about MFA programs, and 3. When I applied in 1998, I was every bit as clueless as the people I was now talking to. There’s just a real vacuum of information out there, and the MFA program websites are little to no help.

I mentioned this to my friend Katharine Noel one day. I said, "I’m thinking about writing a handbook about MFA programs." She said, "You should do that. You could actually pull that off." I said, "Really?" She said, "Really." So, I did.

How does the website complement the book, and vice versa?

The MFA Blog takes up a lot of time, but I learn a lot from the visitors there, and there’s a good deal of fun involved with it as well. We joke around on there often, especially about Man Facting. Basically, most of the visitors have read the MFA Handbook and have additional questions. I attempt to answer them.

Again, it’s a learning experience for me. Sometimes I have the answer, sometimes I don’t. When I don’t I say: Does anyone else know? And often, people will begin to post comments. We get over 1,000 hits a day.

It’s been a big help in selling the book. Basically people surf over, they listen to our advice, and they know that they’ll receive similar attention in the book. It’s also a nice way to build some community in the MFA world.

What’s the most common question prospective MFA students have? What answer do you give them?

One of the most common is: "What’s the best program?" I answer with another question: "What’s the best program for you?"

The Creative Writing MFA world is not like law or medicine, where you can just pick out Harvard or Stanford or Northwestern or whatever. The MFA is an artistic degree, not necessarily a professional one. Perhaps more importantly, if you’re applying for law or medicine, you know what your undergraduate transcripts say, and you know what your standardized test (LSAT etc.) scores are. You know whether you have a good shot at a particular school.

This isn’t true at all in the MFA world. Students are chosen based on their writing samples (stories, poems etc.), and so it’s a subjective process. I encourage students to apply to between 8 and 12 schools to increase their chances.

Just as importantly, criteria like location (city, ocean, mountains), funding (whether you’ll receive financial support from a school), or receiving teaching experience can be every bit as important as, say, who teaches in a particular program. Just because William Shakespeare teaches at State or Private U doesn’t mean that he’s a good teacher, or even that he’ll be around.

I have profiles of 50 programs in the MFA Handbook. But I encourage students to approach them with a critical eye and by using their own criteria.

Every once in a while some MFA graduate publishes a blog post or essay explaining that getting an MFA was a total waste of time and money. It seems to be a debate that pops up rather frequently, some people agreeing wholeheartedly, others disagreeing completely. I’m not so interested in the debate, but I am curious why you think the debate comes up time and time again (perhaps it’s as simple as writer’s writing what they know)?

It really has to do with the person. It is a complete waste of time for some people. You really have to be willing to commit 2-3 years of your life to the craft. That’s what the degree is about in many ways: You’re ‘trying on’ this life of a writer. It doesn’t fit for everyone.

I think most of the negative opinions come from people who dropped a lot of cash on their program. Columbia for example is around $35,000, plus the expenses of living in NYC. I make funding a main focus of the MFA Handbook.

And then there are also people who have had truly horrible experiences. Lousy teachers, angry peers, not much support from the community. That’s why it pays to do your homework when researching programs. You want to know that the program has a good track record, especially from the last few years.

Overall, I think most writers really enjoy and value their MFA experiences.

As for your question: the debate comes up because of all these factors, and also because I think people sometimes have unrealistic expectations. The idea in some people’s minds: you put in two years and you come out of it with a book deal and a professorship. But that’s very far from the reality of the degree.

It’s a craft degree, and it’s an experience. It’s pushing yourself to be the best writer you can be, and that includes falling on your face a little or a lot. Like most serious pursuits, those people who fail, get up, and dust themselves off often have the most long-term success and personal fulfillment.

And finally, yes, part of it is: Writers write. And they write about their experience. Part of their experience is the MFA program. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

How do people in MFA programs engage the writing process?

I guess that they do it every which way you could think of. On a basic level, some people write in the mornings, some in the evenings, some people write intoxicated on their rooftops in their underwear. Some people write from experience, others use their imagination and make everything up. Everyone has their own process.

This may or may not be relevant to your question, but I was discussing attitude with a writer friend the other day. It came up because he’d said "I’m working on my novel this afternoon. I’ll probably end up crying a lot."

I laughed. "You won’t," I said. "You’re just saying that."

"That’s true," he said. "It’s actually my favorite time of day. But you’re supposed to act like it’s the most terrible thing, because that’s what writers do."

And writers definitely do. I definitely say that kind of thing often. Though, less often recently. I always write a quote on the board before every class, and I sometimes used to write funny things like "Writing is easy. You just open up an artery and bleed." — Red Smith

Or a thousand other quotes that make the process seem this horrible experience. Anyways, I stopped writing these on the board last year. Why? I guess I believe attitude goes a long way, and if you think writing is going to be a terrible experience, then that attitude will often become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That’s not to say that writing isn’t difficult. It certainly is. But I want to instill in my students the idea of ‘play’ in writing. The idea, quite frankly, of fun. That when you sit down with your characters or verses or screenwriting software, whatever, that there’s a sense of play there. A sense that something really interesting is going to happen, not just on the page, but actually within the writer. You’ve got to keep that sense of play, and that sense of discovery, otherwise you begin to see your writing as your enemy, and that’s poison for a writer.

I’m not even sure if I’m right about all this, to be honest with you. But I believe it, and I want my students to believe it. I think the old way: the "bleeding from your forehead" way is unhelpful, especially for younger writers.

I guess my main point is: writing is about creating, and it’s also about solving problems. And while the problems themselves may be unpleasant, the actual process of solving them is when we grow the most as writers. I think it’s important to look at that process in a positive way. It’s important to remember that sometimes the solving of problems is the most fun in the writing process. And often it produces the best writing.

What can someone who does not want to go the MFA route do to engage the writing process in a similar way?

I guess the best advice, MFA or no MFA: If you want to be a writer, read a lot, then write a lot. Then read a lot more. Then, at some points, get some feedback from readers that you trust. Then read and write again and again.

There’s no substitute for these things. An MFA program simply facilitates these activities in some way.

So, you can either be self-disciplined about these things or you can help yourself in multiple ways: Write with one or two other people a few times a week. At a coffeehouse, or over at someone’s house. You can take writing classes too. That’s always a good way to meet people. Also, go to readings. And ask other people for book recommendations. Don’t just stay in your narrow field of interest. Read as many varied and interesting works as you can find. The person behind the counter at your local bookstore is an excellent resource.

Bottom line: be around writing, in both private and social ways, and your writing will improve.

You know, I haven’t read this book, but I’m going to plug it anyways, because 1. I’ve heard good things about it, and 2. It seems to be aimed right at your question.

The Portable MFA in Creative Writing by the New York Writers Workshop. Check it out and see what you think. It might be a good way to keep non-MFA writers focused and on task.

What do you tell your students on the first day of class? What do you tell them on the last day?

First day: Don’t be afraid to fall on your face in this class. I want them to stretch as writers and move outside their comfort zone. That’s the only way to learn. In writing and outside of it.

Last day: Ha. I guess I tell them a lot of things. Certainly: "I’m going to miss you," because they are usually great classes and I enjoy teaching them. But I think the quote I put on the board is the most important:

"Advice to young writers? Always the same advice: learn to trust your own judgment, learn inner dependence, learn to trust that time will sort the good from the bad." — Doris Lessing

What writing advice do you often give out, but have to remind yourself about on a regular basis to actually follow?

Work hard, but make it play. Make it fun, or you’ll begin to see it as homework instead of something you love. Write about what interests you, not what you think will interest other people.

Visit the MFA Blog.

Read the interview with Tom Kealey over at The Publishing Spot.

Buy the book: The Creative Writing MFA Handbook.

About a year ago, I got a project submission to the What’s Your Project? project — Four Hundred Words. I thought it was a great project, and posted it. This project was a little different from most of the others in that it requested submissions from people. I’ve tried to express in the guidelines that if you open it up like that, please be sure to have something at least partly established (beyond the “just an idea” phase), and be pretty darn sure you’re going to see it through. But as the publisher of the site, I have no idea if something will actually get completed. And, hey, that’s just the nature of project-making — projects don’t always work out. Any project-maker knows that (and I include myself in this lot, most definitely). But how wonderful it was to check in on the Four Hundred Words site recently and see that the Four Hundred Words book (issue 1) was done and published and available for sale. And even more wonderful was ordering a copy and having it arrive in the mail — what a wonderful, insightful, creative project. Congratulations to Katherine and all those who participated.

Following is a short interview with Katherine — I checked in with her to discuss a little further what the project means to her, how she took it from idea to printed book, and what inspired her.

The Four Hundred Words idea serves as a sort of writing exercise, but what else is it to you?

First, a way of connecting to other people. That’s been the most rewarding aspect so far. Doing Four Hundred Words has gotten me in touch with so many people I wouldn’t otherwise be. And it’s funny: most of the contributors are people I’ve never met and only communicate with by e-mail, but it turns out that that type of connection can be powerful in its own way. Like the serendipity adds something to compensate for the face-to-face parts.

Second, it’s a learning exercise for me. I’ve always been obsessed with magazines, and most of my ambitions lie in the direction of writing, editing, print media — with a special soft spot for independent outlets. Given those interests, it seems like a lot of the knowledge I’m picking up doing Four Hundred Words could be useful down the line: soliciting bookstores, working with contributors, the printer, doing layout and building a website. I’m learning a lot in a really haphazard and hands-on way, which is fun.

After seeing all the submissions, were there some common themes that were revealed?

Sure. I saw a lot of love, sex, work, family, different kinds of struggles — as expected. What I didn’t expect so much was the recurrence of moving as a theme, literally uprooting and going from one place to another. Most of the authors talk about some kind of move to a new city or country, and a lot of them really structure their pieces around moves. The attitudes about moving vary, too: moving is everything from traumatic to bittersweet to triumphant to just a part of life, a given. The people in the collection lose and find themselves through moves. I think it’s neat, the way that the collection seems to show this one facet of modern life, our transiency, having a big effect on people, or at least on how they choose to tell their life stories.

What was your inspiration for the project?

Being 22 and 23 a couple years ago and having no idea what direction to point myself in after college. Feeling simultaneously mind-boggled by all the choices supposedly out there, and demoralized by the setbacks: like the way that a 4-year degree didn’t protect me from not being able to get a coffee shop job in Portland, OR in the 2002 economic slump. I became keenly interested in other peoples’ life stories, like maybe there were answers in there somewhere for me.

How many 400-word pieces do you think you’ve personally written?

Five? I played around a bit with lengths when starting the magazine. I knew I wanted the pieces to be short but not too short. So I wrote 600-word pieces, 300-word pieces. Four hundred just seemed right. So then I tried writing my 400-word autobio a bunch of times, but telling it differently each time: the happy version, the sad version, the just-the-facts version…

How did you get people to submit to your project? What advice do you have for those folks out there that are trying to put together their own writing-based projects that involve soliciting submissions?

First, I bugged all my friends, personally and through postings on Friendster, and that paid off pretty well. Second, which worked even better in terms of volume, I made a lot of posts on Craigslist. Over the course of a few months, I advertised on Craigslist in about fifteen different cities. And people actually wrote in! I’ll never forget how exciting it felt to log into my Four Hundred Words e-mail address and find the very first submission, which was a good one to boot. Eventually, I got a few hundred that way.

For the next issue, I’m going to try those two methods again, and also take out a classified ad in Poets & Writers magazine.

What book/writer/publisher/publication has most influenced your own writing and publishing efforts?

I remember being a teenager and first starting going to local indie rock shows. The culture of the shows and the sense of community really attracted me. I wanted to get involved, but even then I was aware of having zero musical talent. I was good at writing, though, and I fantasized about a world where small, local publishers could do for writing what indie labels had done for rock, where the culture of writing and reading could approximate the culture of music…

Over the past five or six years, I’ve noticed things trending in the way I dreamed of then. Writing will never be rock ‘n’ roll, but I’m fascinated by the McSweeney’s phenomenon, and its many spin-offs: the books, the tutoring centers, The Believer. Authors have gone on book tours for a long time, but lately I’ve noticed writing-related tours undertaken with a more celebratory and collaborative spirit, like Found Magazine’s tours, or the Projet Mobilivre/Bookmobile Project, whose coordinators pilot an old airstream trailer full of zines and artist books to workshops and other events all over North America. That kind of innovation excites me — new combinations that make print culture a more immediate and communal experience.

Most zines run for maybe a handful of issues. Some publish even fewer issues, but stretch out a publishing schedule over many years. A lot of zines don’t ever get past issue #1. That’s okay, that’s just the nature of the zine scene. But there are a rarified few that go from paper zine to full-fledged magazine, and then just keep on publishing. Venus is one of those zines. Started by Amy Schroeder ten years ago (in her dorm room, of course), Venus is now one of the premiere magazines covering women not just in the world of music, but in all the arts, with a precise angle on — true to its zine roots — the DIY.

In a recent Venus email newsletter, Schroeder mentioned that she would soon be handing over the reins of the magazine she started. Whenever you hear something like that, it gives you pause. Sure, you wonder why they are stepping down or moving on, but you also get a glimpse of the fuller picture in terms of what this project-maker has created. From nothing to something, years in the making, the ups and downs, the evolution of the project. It’s something to respect and be inspired by. I thought it would be an excellent time to check in with Schroeder about the magazine — how she started it, how it’s evolved, what she learned, how she kept it going, and how it will feel to let it go.

How hard was it to make it official that you would be letting Venus go, something that you started and have been working on for 10 years?

It’s hard, because Venus is my baby. I started Venus when I was 19 and now I’m 29, so I feel like I’ve come of age with the magazine. But one of the things I’m excited about is training whomever the new editor will be. I hope the new editor will be just as excited about heading up Venus as I have been.

Where are you in the process? Is your main concern making sure that Venus continues on after you’ve left the publisher post? Recouping your investment? Making sure the magazine’s charter is upheld?

I’m taking my sweet time to make a decision on whether to sell Venus and, if so, to whom I plan to sell it. I’ve got a couple offers from folks who would like to purchase Venus, and they’re being cool about letting me take my time to make a decision. I hope to make a decision by the end of 2005 or the beginning of 2006. In the meantime, I just released the fall 2005 issue of Venus and I’m having a great time working on the upcoming winter 2006 issue.

Many zines often end after the third or fourth issue, and even the ones that go the distance don’t normally last as long as Venus has been around. How were you able to achieve this? What has driven you to keep publishing the magazine?

A number of things have kept me inspired over the past 10 years. I’ve continually set new goals for myself and for Venus, and it feels good to accomplish them. The goals have ranged from "get global distribution" to "figure out how to be a good manager" to "get an office space" — the list goes on and on. As long as I’ve had a goal, I’ve always had something to work on, and that keeps me going.

The other important thing that has kept Venus going is that I love working with the Venus editors, interns, and contributors, and I love meeting and hearing from Venus readers. The Venus staffers and contributors are so excited about what they’re doing and that, in turn, keeps me excited. Also, to me, the readers are one of my top priorities, because without readers, what’s the point of publishing a magazine? I love hearing from Venus readers and encourage their feedback.

Do you recall the genesis for the idea of Venus? Was it the lack of coverage of female musicians? Or maybe how they were covered?

I created the first issue of Venus in one night in my dorm room at Michigan State University. The first issue was a personal zine (or perzine) and it talked about my experiences as a college freshman living in the Midwest. I also talked about feminism. I had so much fun making the first issue that I kept producing new issues – about one per year while in college. Each issue improved, and as time went on, Venus took on a women-in-music focus. This is because I was learning more about feminism and more about music and I wanted to combine the two interests. I also felt that female musicians weren’t receiving as much coverage in alternative music publications as men. And, thus, a niche was born. Then, as time went on, Venus expanded to cover women in DIY culture, visual art, film, fashion, etc.

There were probably times over the years when financial issues weighed heavily on deciding whether to keep publishing Venus. How did you overcome those times? I’m thinking more about your inner resolve as a person, and not so much about how you crunched the numbers.

Yup, you’re right — like just about all creative, independent projects, financial issues can weigh heavily on day-to-day operations. Shortly after I quit my day job as an editor to work on Venus full time in 2002, I nearly had a breakdown. I was working long hours — up to 16 hours a day — to keep Venus afloat financially. After a sleepless night, I e-mailed the whole staff and said that I didn’t think I could handle the stress anymore and was thinking about quitting. Several of the staffers called and e-mailed me to say, "No! You can’t quit. You’re not allowed to." That kept me going and I’m glad I didn’t quit.

I’m sure you could write a whole book in the area of publishing an independent magazine, but what’s the best advice you could give to someone who is considering or just embarking on a new venture?

I am planning to write a book about the Venus experience and how to make a DIY project successful. I suggest that entrepreneurs be willing to make changes to the original plan. Successful businesses need to evolve in order to survive. Of course, you must hang on to the vision or philosophy that you are passionate about, but be willing to alter the business plan when necessary. Also realize that in order to grow, the founder of the company must learn how to delegate tasks to other talented people. Sometimes the founder has to delegate her or his favorite tasks in order to grow the company.

What was your favorite cover, and why?

I like a lot of the covers for different reasons, but the spring 2003 issue with Cat Power on the cover — which is now sold out — was a cover that helped us to establish ourselves. Chan Marshall’s lip is chapped and we decided not to "fix it" with Photoshop. We decided that we want to run photos of how women really look, which is different from a lot of mainstream publications.

Which story do you think had the most impact in terms of establishing Venus’s reputation?

I can’t think of one story in particular that has helped us to establish our good reputation, but I think something that has helped us is creativity. There are a number of publications covering musicians, actors, and artists, but we try to mix it up a bit. For instance, in our fall 2005 issue, instead of just interviewing Allison Wolfe (formerly of Bratmobile and now of Partyline), we did an astrological star-chart reading with her and then asked her to chime in about what the astrologists had to say. The answers are funny and witty, and you get to know more about Wolfe than just the same-old same-old.

We also have a regular column called "In Her Own Words," in which musicians write a review of their own albums. For example, in the fall 2005 issue, Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki review the band’s new album, The Runners Four, and it’s interesting shit.

Do you still have a copy of issue 1? Is it in pristine condition somewhere safe?

I get asked this question pretty frequently, and I’m realizing that I need to find the first issue! I think it’s in a box under my childhood bed at my parent’s house. It should be in pretty good condition.

I imagine lots of up and coming writers got their start writing articles for Venus — any that have hit the big time?

A number of our writers and former staff editors who were just starting their careers and contributing to Venus back in the day are now successful editors at other publications. One of our former writers, Stephanie Trong, is now deputy editor at Jane. Several of our former longtime editors now work for TimeOut Chicago and TimeOut New York. Our first Webmaster, Gabe Jeffrey, released a book called Stoned, Naked, and Looking in My Neighbor’s Window, about his other Web site, grouphug.us. One of our longtime writers, Anne Heppermann, is a producer for NPR.

Was it common for bands that got highlighted coverage in Venus showing up in Rolling Stone two years later? How did you balance featuring bands that were fairly well-known versus bands that were making cool music but maybe not going to help newsstand sales?

I pretty much just assume that the artists we feature in Venus will be covered a year or so later in the bigger publications. I enjoy covering up-and-coming artists. We enjoy covering new artists just as much as we enjoy covering established artists. We don’t have an intense process of deciding who we cover. We just cover folks whose work we like.

What do you have lined up next for yourself? You mentioned wanting to teach journalism at the college level, and working towards attaining that goal.

Right now I’m daydreaming about what I’d like to do next. I’m still working full-time on Venus, but in my spare time, I dream about the other opportunities that are out there and it’s really exciting for me to think about. I may end up working part time for the new publisher of Venus, in which case, I’d also like to work on a book. And at some point, I’d like to go back to school — hopefully to get either a master’s or phD so that someday I can become a professor. I’d love to teach journalism, independent publishing, or small-business entrepreneurship. I’m also going to be on the board of directors for an organization that helps DIY businesses get off the ground. So, basically, I’ll be around. I’m not going to fall off the face of the earth.

What’s going to go through your mind after you transmit/send off that last issue (in which you serve as editor and publisher) to the printer?

Good question. I bet it won’t really sink in, psychologically, until quite a while after I send my last issue to the printer. I always operate that way. I like to keep things in motion all the time, and I don’t take a whole lot of time to sit down and think about what it all means. But, I hope that I realize that it’s OK to retire from your longtime project to take on new challenges in life.

What publication/writer/publisher has most influenced your own writing and publishing efforts?

I realize now that Sassy magazine has been one of my biggest inspirations. It was one of the first magazines I read, and I remember thinking, at age 12 or so, that I wanted to be like one of the Sassy editors — they always seemed like they were having so much fun. I also was inspired by Gloria Steinem. I remember writing about Steinem for an assignment in high school and thinking she was so cool for starting Ms. Magazine.

What was your inspiration for Venus at the start, and how did it evolve as time went on?

My very initial inspiration to start Venus was just having a ton of creative energy — I was 19 years old and wanted to make something. Over time, a lot of my inspirations come from other people’s energy. I get really excited about all the amazing women making great music, films, art, and running their own businesses.

by Jeffrey Yamaguchi

Do you ever order dessert from a restaurant that involves glazed strawberries? Well, according to Ayun Halliday, you should most definitely not do that. What does it mean when a waitress is “In the weeds”? Want to know what a nude model is musing over while the art class sketches away…? Or what the massage therapist is thinking as you say “I was really tight back here, huh?” All of this, and a barrel of laughs to boot, is found in Halliday’s newest story collection — Job Hopper: The Checkered Career of a Down-Market Dilettante.

But more than these juicy, hilarious bits of insider information, Halliday’s stories get to the heart of “career” trajectory, that collection of jobs that heavily marks and intensively impacts the passage of your very life. Where we are today often has something to do with what we learned and experienced on the job. And oh, boy, have there been some jobs, right?

A few other notes about Halliday — she’s one of the most lively readers I’ve ever seen (naturally this interview is posting right about the time that her tour for Job Hopper ends, but if you join her mailing list, you’ll be kept informed about future appearances). She is also the author of The Big Rumpus (about motherhood) and No Touch Monkey (travel adventures). And she has put out 26 issues of her famed zine, The East Village Inky, which endearingly and quite humorously chronicles her family adventures in true zine fashion. The following interview sneaks in some details about all these projects, but the focus is mainly on the new Job Hopper book. So here we go:

Many zines putter out after, well, issue 1. The East Village Inky is still going strong. How have you kept it going? How has your zine impacted your book writing efforts?

It’s been my good fortune that I now have deadlines and publicity-related chores competing for and usually taking over the child-free time formerly allotted to The East Village Inky. The subscribers provide the impetus to keep it going these days – heaven forfend some woman in East Bumblef*ck Idaho should get fleeced for a sixteen dollar two-year subscription ordered in good faith. The subscribers have been very kind. Not only do they send little treats for the kids, they go way beyond the call of duty by buying my books soon after publication, giving them as gifts, and spreading the word about readings in their area. That right there is a reason to keep cranking the damn thing out.

The freedom to go to press w/ run-on sentences several pages long is a close second. As the sole employee, I can greenlight everything from made-up words to handwritten “typos”. It’s the closest I’ll ever come to riding a motorcycle without a helmet. Finally, each issue of East Village Inky serves as a family history, a selectively edited baby book for Inky and Milo and substitute for all the photographs that should have been taken but weren’t.

How did you find writing about your work experiences in Job Hopper? How was it different from writing about motherhood or travel?

The experience was closer to recalling my low-budget travels in No Touch Monkey than eyewitness reporting about life with the kids. The difference is that in writing No Touch Monkey I could mine journals, photos and occasionally my husband Greg for research purposes. I had to bushwhack it more with Job Hopper, because really, who – with the exception of a few disgruntled zine publishers – records the minutiae of their crummy day jobs for posterity?

One thing you mention in the introduction is the freedom found in those first jobs, the jobs you hop from one to the next, when you’re young and sure, the job might suck, but you don’t yet feel trapped and the whole world still feels open to you… Is that what you were getting at?

Sure. Crummy day jobs are but one of many BC (before children) experiences recalled with fondness from the other side. One day I’ll be sentimentalizing the first eight years of motherhood.

The book is full of humor – these are hilarious takes on your work experiences. When you were writing, did you ever start going in another way, perhaps a more negative look, or a more serious tone, at career difficulties or the stress that comes with not being where you want to be career-wise?

Why, thank you! I knew from the get go that this book was going to be played for laughs and having worked with the same butcher, I mean editor (Leslie Miller! She knows I love her.) I had a fairly good idea of what to leave out, which paths not to take. One aspect that I feel is mostly missing from the final manuscript is an examination of the part race played in many of these jobs. Who starts with more advantages than a young, educated, English-speaking white person? When temping, I eventually was classified un-FOA (front office appearance) because I, already slovenly at best, was busted for not wearing pantyhose. But word was there were certain companies where African-American temps were automatically branded un-FOA. Sounds pretty plausible to me… but these sorts of observations were largely cut because the publishers take is that race is an issue too hot to be tossed off the cuff by a jester like me. There are a couple of places where I’m allowed to acknowledge the racial inequities and complexities of the workplace, most notably in the first and last chapters. And loose cannon that I am, I get to sound off about it in interviews!

Of course the Job Hopper jobs paid the bills, and now they provide the basis for your
story collection, but what else did these jobs do for you? How did they shape your view of “career” and the world of work?

Each one was like a journey through a foreign country. You know how the experience of reading a book set in India is enhanced by virtue of the fact that you once traveled in India? Well, I love having backstage knowledge of all these random jobs, knowing the terminology, knowing what goes on in the parts of the service industry the general public never sees. Maybe one day I’ll write a novel drawing on these experiences … I remember reading The Robber Bride and wondering if Margaret Atwood could really know all the stuff her characters seemed to know so convincingly. Maybe I know more than I think. Or maybe Margaret will slip me the secret formula.

I can’t help but think this book is for people who the Job Hopper class serves – people who order that tray of shots from the hottie waitress, who regularly get massages, or perhaps most importantly, those who take art classes that use nude models. It seems to me that they would have the most insight to gain… Who do you see as the reading audience, and what do you think people get out of this book?

I think it’s a book for anyone who’s ever held a crappy job, not to mention an excellent graduation gift for that special theater major in your life. While waiting tables, I often thought I’d like to write a book along the lines of One Hundred Things Your Waitress Wants You To Know (starting with the gratuity) but I question whether that book would find its way into the hands of the intended audience. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Your stories always recount personal experiences – what is your writing process? Are you surprised with what you recall as you are putting the stories down on paper?

Always. I remember something the playwright Beth Henley said about the process of writing Crimes Of The Heart, how all she had at the beginning was an image of someone all by herself in a room, blowing out a birthday candle on a frosted cake… but that loaded image was the key that allowed her to discover the rest of the play. It’s been my experience that if I can focus in on the appearance of some unremarkable item I used frequently or some aspect of the area that was my domain, a whole cast of characters and memories comes flooding back. I thought I remembered the costume shop pretty well and writing about currying all those disgusting Easter Bunny suits was an excellent gateway, but then I mentioned the break room and suddenly, I could see the faux wood finish of this folding conference table where we ate our dreary lunches and BAM! All of a sudden I remembered this guy who drove the delivery van and swept up all the threads and fabric scraps when there were no deliveries. He was quite a character and he really hated the owner, for whom he’d worked for nearly a decade, who scapegoated him mercilessly. I literally had not thought about this guy since my last day at that job some ten years earlier! He wound up on the cutting room floor, but it’s nice to know that the few brain cells that remain from those days still function with a bit of a tweak.

What’s your favorite story out there about the world of work – could be a movie, a zine, a book?

Gee, it’s hard to pick. I loved Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, even though I have no doubt he’d have torn me a new a-hole, had I ever had the misfortune to wait tables in a restaurant where he was chef. I love 21 Dog Years: Doing Time at Amazon Dot Com by Mike Daisey and all of Harvey Pekar’s stories about clerking in Cleveland’s VA Hospital (I swear I’m not saying this ‘cuz they blurbed the book).

Film-wise, I’ve got a hankering for another viewing of Office Space by Mike Judge, priceless for the scenes of a demoralized Jennifer Anniston lamenting her ‘flare’, the gag buttons she’s forced to wear on her uniform suspenders while working in a TGIFridays type of restaurant. I recently saw Fear And Trembling, a very dark comedy about a Belgian woman who idealistically accepts an entry-level position in a huge corporation in Tokyo only to be disgraced to the point where she’s demoted to towel girl in the men’s washroom. That one had it all: bosses you love to hate, a sympathetic coworker as well as a vindictive one, a pathetic attempt to pull off business attire and travel to boot!

What was your inspiration for Job Hopper?

When No Touch Monkey came out, everyone kept asking how I managed to finance the travels depicted therein, which started me thinking about all the crappy jobs I held in my twenties.

What book/writer/publisher has most influenced your own writing and publishing efforts?

Spalding Gray I admired the most for being a performer and writer who examined his foibles in a way that was enormously entertaining, self-mocking but never self-pitying. A long time ago he told Tricycle Magazine that he started performing his autobiographical monologues because he got “sick of waiting for the big infernal machine to make up its mind” about him. Words for every outside-the-mainstream zine publisher to live by.

Are you ever going to write a book that focuses entirely on your theater adventures? It’s an element of your life that threads through all of your other published work…

Yeah, that’d be a blockbuster. Haven’t you heard that the theater is dead!??!!? (Or so they’ve been hearing for the last twenty-five years.) Actually, I’d love to write something like that, but truth be told, I’d be starting with a fraction of the raw material I had for Job Hopper. Maybe I could leech some of my hotshot husband’s stories.

I know you’ve been doing lots of readings and went on tour for Job Hopper, but how else are you getting the word out about the book?

I drop glaring references to it in The East Village Inky and waste a lot of time on websites devoted to low-budget travel, hoping that some stranger will wonder what “Dare To Be Heinie” means and click on my signature, which leads straight to my website, where I wait, spinnerets at the ready.

When I get a sec, I’d like to post flyers all over the Lower East Side: HEY YOU! STUCK IN A CRAPPY JOB THAT YOU HATE? If so, you’re gonna LOVE this book. When No Touch Monkey came out, I Xeroxed up bookmarks with all the particulars, then visited the Strand and various libraries to slip them into books by Tim Cahill, Bill Bryson and the like. Is that so wrong? Maybe I should do the same for Job Hopper, only this time I’ll target all those advice books penned by financial gurus who’ve devised seven-step formulas for ‘success’. And this just in: I hear Job Hopper is going to be stuffed into this summer’s Siren Music Festival’s goodie bags. I’m all for the publisher lobbing free copies at the public!

Did you ever find out what is reflected in the eyes of the monkey on the cover of No Touch Monkey?

I just realized that our jeweler’s loupe has gone missing. Without it, I stand no chance of getting to the bottom of this mystery. It’s probably a skull smoking a cigarette with the word ‘sex’ figuring prominently somehow.

Ayun Halliday’s website

Job Hopper details

Interview with Ayun Halliday at Bookslut.com