Therese here. I’m so pleased to bring you the WINNER of the WU 7 Sundays of Summer Flash Fiction contest, David Olimpio. David’s story, Dory T. Wellington and the Fire Orange Blue Jellyfish Kite, was submitted on week 2 of the contest. The story was a clear favorite from the beginning, and positively ran away with the vote in the end.
After David won, we shared a few emails, and I was struck with how the contest had impacted him. When an unexpected opening in the WU calendar appeared, I invited David to take the spot and share his thoughts with us. Happily, he accepted.
I have a feeling you’ll love this piece as much as I do. Enjoy!
Wherein I Use Ugly Words Like Platform and Audience
I’m very much a confessional writer, so I’m going to do what comes naturally to me and start with a confession: I’m not usually inspired to write by reading other writers. I’m also not inspired to write by talking about writing. This isn’t to say I don’t like to do either of these things. I do. It’s just to say that doing these things doesn’t usually make me want to immediately sit down and write. It does not summon the muse. At best, it makes me restless. At worst, it makes me drunk. It gets me worrying over things like “process” and the “business” of writing. It often leads to me making unhealthy comparisons of myself to other writers. These are terrible things to do when you need to be unfettered and create stuff.
So when I come to this site, when I come to Writer Unboxed, even though I do it for good reasons, I mostly do it for reasons other than immediate inspiration. That’s why I was surprised when, a few weeks ago, I followed a link here from my friend Faye and found myself itching to write.
It was a Sunday evening and my wife was working at the kitchen table and I was across from her surfing aimlessly, probably thinking about dogs. Or beer. I read about the Summer Flash Fiction Contest, which my friend had just entered. I saw the image prompt for that week: a boy flying a kite, silhouetted against a fire-orange sky. I thought: I know this story. So I wrote it. I wrote it right there at the kitchen table (not my normal writing spot.) I wrote it with a mess all around me (normally, I like a clean workspace). I wrote it with a slightly fuzzy beer brain (normally I prefer a clear head). I did not do my normal pre-writing routine of doing the dishes with my headphones on to sober up and focus, listening to the prescribed playlist I have set for myself that evening.
I did not make a cup of a tea. I did not situate the open windows on my Mac in the most functional way.
I just wrote the story.
There are a couple of reasons I think the Summer Flash Fiction Contest worked to get me to sit down and write. One has to do with Debbie Ohi’s image. Art forms other than writing always work well for me in spurring creativity. They help me do the free-form association of ideas without over-thinking form or plot. They sort of free me (temporarily) from the burden of solving narrative puzzles and the piles of stylistic baggage I carry around.
But another reason I think the contest worked was the contest itself—the inherent element of competition. I’m a huge proponent of competition in art and play. You see it all the time in art. Picasso and Braque. Just about any group jazz performance. Competition provides an impetus. Competition provides motivation. For me, knowing that what I wrote for the contest wouldn’t just sit on my hard drive—that I would post it and people would see it and they would either like it or they wouldn’t, and it would either move on or it wouldn’t—gave me a much-needed push to just write the thing and post it and have done.
If this essay ended here, this would be a reflection on how this writing contest, and maybe writing contests in general, can be good for writing because they provide two much needed elements: context and inspiration. But the contest wound up being about more than that for me.
And here’s the part where I get back to my comfort zone: confession. Because here’s the part where I tell you I am heavily ensconced in social media. I post to Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr every day. I take a photo every day and I post it to a photoblog. I do not see these activities as something “separate” from my writing. For me, they are part and parcel of it, a continuation of it. These various forms of publication are all mediums through which I tell stories. Just like the novel and the short story and the essay are mediums. And yet they are very much not novel. They are very much not short story. They are very much not essay. They are something altogether different.
Social media is more than “platform.” Social media is more than “marketing.” Sure you can use it as that and that alone. But I can’t imagine the people who do that get very much out of it. I do not follow people who mostly promote. But I do follow people on both Facebook and Twitter who are using these platforms in exciting ways as an extension of their writing. They aren’t just linking to things and talking about the stuff they are writing. They. Are. Writing. Good sentences. Good content. They have a voice. They tell a story. They’ve become part of my world, in a way. I find that fascinating. That is what I aim to do: to extend my writing presence through other platforms. I think this opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities for what we call “literature.”
If you were to ask me for my current creative influences, only one would be a writer (Martin Amis). The rest would be musicians, especially independent ones. Somebody like Ani DiFranco, whose songs are unique and earnest–poems in their own right–and who has made her career without signing to a major label. Musicians in general—and indie musicians in particular—seem to be intuitively more aware of something a lot of writers aren’t: that today, our art and this thing we call “platform” are inextricably linked. That we have the power to determine our own success instead of catering to the big publisher (or record label) and their interest in what will sell. If there is good writing, if there is good music, then there are people out there who will like it. Audience is just something that needs to be found. It’s another word for like-minded friends with whom your work resonates. And you don’t need a publisher or a record label to find those people. Indie musicians get in front of people. They put together albums themselves. They give the albums away at shows. They sign people up for mailing lists. They engage. They take control of their artistic fate. They refine their image. They develop their…*gulp*…brand. They simultaneously take themselves less seriously and more seriously. (They’re okay admitting that they have a brand.) Writers should be doing all of these things, too. Many are. But many seem content leaving this important stuff in the hands of somebody else. I’m not.
All of this might seem a little off-topic, but what I’m trying to get at here is that, while the Summer Flash Fiction writing contest at Writer Unboxed started out just being about inspiration and context and competition for me, it really turned into an exercise in engaging with audience. Which, like it or not, is just as important as the words. And I had to do some things I am not always comfortable with. Instead of using Twitter and Facebook to “write” and to quip and to tell stories, I used it to inform people of the contest. I used it to talk about my writing. And to ask people to vote for me. I also sent out emails. And spoke to people about it in person. And I worked at staying true to my voice while I did it.
And here’s the amazing part: they responded. They voted. They did it, and they did it gladly. And they offered words of encouragement while they did it. Which was both surprising to me and confidence-boosting and tremendously exciting and freeing.
So perhaps the biggest reason this contest worked for me, perhaps the greatest thing it offered me, was the opportunity to practice how to interact with the people who are reading my work. How to ask for something. How to show them my gratitude for being there. How to not take them for granted. How to do all that and to just do it and be real in doing it.
My friend Jonathan, who is a bit of a new-media guru, gave me a pep-talk recently. He told me, in sometimes nice and sometimes not-so-nice language, that I needed to use the tools that were out there to do what I do and to stop waiting for other people do to it for me. I think he’s right. We writers are lucky to live in a period where we have unprecedented control over what we publish and how we publish it. We also have unprecedented control over our image and our name. It’s a shame not to harness it.
We all have different goals and motivations for what we do. Two of my goals (aside from doing the actual writing) are independence and using new media to make good literature. This approach isn’t for everybody. I don’t mean to suggest that it necessarily should be. But it is for me, and this contest helped make that clear. I’ve never felt so in-control of the thing I’m doing. I’ve never felt so comfortable with the way I’m doing it.
David Olimpio grew up in Texas but currently lives and writes in Northern New Jersey. He believes that we create ourselves through the stories we tell, and that is what he aims to do everyday. Usually, you can find him driving his pick-up around the Garden State with one of his dogs in the passenger seat and the other on the floor behind his seat.