Munney and I were walking around the Totem of Confession, marveling at the intricacy and imaginative power of the surreal black-and-white photos that covered its façade. On the side facing away from Center Camp and out towards deep playa, we saw two metal chairs had been incongruously placed inside one of the alcoves.
“Hey,” Munny said to me, “let’s sit inside the art.” So we did.
The dust started to kick up, so we put our goggles on.
I got out two cigars, and we smoked in our goggles in the dust, sitting in the alcove of the Totem of Confession.
We must have been a sight, because people walking by started taking pictures of us. I kept thinking someone was going to say “hey, get the hell out of the way of the art so I can see what’s behind you!” but no one did. Our own incongruous image was now part of the experience, an encounter with an impossible moment that makes Burning Man so potent.
No one, that is, until a dark haired woman in a white dress walked up to me and asked “Excuse me, but, could we get you to move in about 10 minutes so I can get married here?”
I puffed on my cigar and turned my head to face her. “I dunno,” I said. “Is it important?”
It was a moment balanced on a knife blade – was I being funny, or an asshole? Sometimes you’re the last one to know.
She burst out laughing. Everyone around us took their cue.
Her playa name (if memory serves) was “Black Johnny,” she was in a high-five themed camp, and we were suddenly best friends. I offered her a cigar while we waited for the rest of her party to make it through the dust, and she sat on my lap, proclaiming “I want yours to be the last lap I sit on while I’m still single.” We kept laughing.
Then I said “Can I offer you a wedding gift?”
“What?” she said. “You gave me a cigar!”
“No no,” I said. “Forget that. Or make that your birthday present” (it was also her birthday.) “But the point is, that’s just a cigar. This … is special.”
“Okay,” she said. “Yeah. Please.”
I pulled my backpack out from where it was hidden in the alcove. “I brought an art project this year,” I said. “And I would like to give it to you.”
From the backpack, I pulled out a large black binder with a gold and white serpent holding flowers on the cover.
She picked it up. Held it in her hands.
“But don’t open it yet,” I warned. “Within this book are 100 unique, original, and individually packaged stories, each one fitting on a single page. So every story is a page, and every page a story.”
“Are they … did you write them?” she asked.
“Yes. Every one. And I would like to give you one of these stories. That is my gift, to you. And you will even get to choose what story you’re given. You will get to pick.”
She started to say something.
“BUT!” I interrupted sharply, “I also have an egg timer.”
I pulled a clockwork egg timer out of my backpack.
“This is the egg timer of doom, and it jealously guards this book’s secrets. So based on my best predictions, you will have about three minutes, give or take, to go through this book and find your story, the story that speaks to you, before it goes off. Once you’ve made your decision – either because you’ve found your story and that’s it, or because the timer has gone off and you just have to make a choice now – I will pull the plastic folder containing the story right out of the book and give it to you, yours to keep. Do you understand?”
“This … is so awesome! Yeah! Three minutes!”
I set the egg timer. “Then go! Any way you want to choose. There’s no right or wrong approach, whatever works for you …”
Three minutes is not enough to read 100 pages. It’s not even enough to skim them adequately. Each page in the book had a notably different full-color layout, and I have no idea what she was looking for as she raced through them. Her friends came over to watch.
“This is actually really tough, it … THERE!” she said suddenly, stopping on one page and putting her finger down hard. “This is the one?”
“Yeah,” she said. “This is it.”
“All right!” I said, setting the egg timer off and putting it away. “You’ve made your choice! Let’s see what you chose …”
I saw what she was looking at. I kept my smile warm but my blood went cold.
There were maybe three stories in this book that I would never, never, have given someone on their wedding day. And she’d picked one.
It was an all dialogue piece, a profoundly cynical negotiation for sex between two deeply wounded people. It casually mentions a lot of nasty things … that’s kind of the point of it …
“Shit,” I thought. “I’ve just ruined her wedding.”
She started to read. I wondered how I could possibly walk this back.
“What are you reading?” a friend called out to her. “Is that a story?”
The bride looked up from the page. It was just a few hundred words, she might have finished it already.
“No!” she called back. “It’s not even a story, it’s just people talking, but … it’s AMAZING!”
… oh thank god …
I could feel the blood returning to my face as she gave me a big hug. “This is so wonderful,” she said. “I knew my Burning Man wedding was gong to be, but you’ve just made it … magic.”
Munney and I were made honorary members of the wedding party, and were included in the champagne toast afterwards. Of course we’d brought our own cups.
There were many incredible moments at this Burning Man – it was an extremely good Burn for me – but this one is a favorite. It was also the debut of this new art project in which I gave out 71 stories, mostly to complete strangers.
The literary arts are, as I’ve noted before, very underdeveloped in Burner culture. If you ask someone to describe Burning Man “art” generally, they’ll talk about visual arts. About giant sculptures, about flame-shooting mechanical devices, about temples, about art cars – it’s diverse, sure, but there’s a fairly common and widespread aesthetic, and even if you’re doing something different, you understand that it’s there. Ask someone about the fashion of Burning Man and you’ll get a similar result: any given costume may be different, but there’s a clear sense of what “Burning Man fashion,” on the whole and in the average, is. Burning Man music? The concept of what that is is clear enough to make fun of (which I do).
But Burning Man literature? There is no clear sense of what that is, or even that it is a thing. No sense of what a “Burning Man novel” might be stylistically, or a short story, or a poem … and no new literary forms have yet emerged out of Burning Man.
There are, to be sure, a lot of people at Burning Man who write, and who love literature. There are open mics and storytelling events. There are certainly other good and interesting experiments with literature out there: this year’s giant typewriter piece gradually unveiled a fantastic poem, and various forms of storytelling events have an impact. But Burning Man has no “literary culture” or aesthetic to speak of in the way it has with other forms.
When is to say that there are a lot of people interested in a Burning Man literary culture, but who don’t have a clear sense of what that is or how to do it.
I don’t have answers, but between Burning Mans and Regional events I’ve now spent five years experimenting with literature in Burning Man culture – two years, in which I presented projects that we utter failures, and my last three, which I would call successful enough (in their own ways) – to suggest a few useful approaches. (You can read about my 2013/2014 literary project here.)
My approach is definitely not, to be clear, the only things that might work, nor is this meant to be instructions on how to “do it right.” I look forward to the day when somebody proves I’ve been doing it completely wrong.
But after years of trying to make something, anything, work as an experience of written literature for Burning Man, here’s what I’ve found works for me (so far):
First: my projects work best when they’re on a small scale. Intended for a single person or small group at a time.
Part of this includes giving literary projects a defined time-frame. My earlier literary ventures at Burning Man failed so badly in part because they were open-ended: “Here’s a thing, and you can spend as much time with it as you want.” While a few people will jump on that, for most people that’s actually an imposition, not a gift. (There may be no more terrifying words in the English language then “Read my poem!”) By contrast, my successful projects had a clear limit built in: either you get one of these short things performed for you, and that’s it (the 2013-1014 project) or you get exactly 3 minutes to make your choice, no more (2015’s project). Often people want more. Great: always leave ‘em wanting more.
Second: in my experience something should be at stake beyond just “you get to hear a story or a poem.” This is, to my mind, actually the most important part of what Chicken John has called “the non-fiction show” – the stakes are real. (At least in that moment.) The different between walking around saying “would you like to hear a story from my collection” and “the story I ready you from this collection will tell your future” or “you get to pick any story you want out of this book” is enormous. The first case is little more than saying “you wanna see a movie?” Maybe you do, maybe you don’t, but nothing is at stake beyond whether you’re going to spend a little time on it. In the second case: your future is going to be determined. In the third, you get something to keep, a prize to take with you. Case 2 is bullshit, but the stakes are high if you suspend disbelief. Case 3 has real stakes: you will be walking out of here with something you didn’t come in with, and how much you like it is in your hands.
Which brings us to point three: ideally, the person receiving the literary gift should be able to make a choice. I’ve never been particularly creative with this – all the choices I’ve offered have been variants of “what story will we be reading” – but even so it has helped tremendously. I suspect that any major breakthrough in Burning Man literature will require active participation from the “audience.” Should we be surprised?
Fourth, and finally: all of these ideas suggest a particular kind of writing style. Short, tight, and intense. This has surprised me, as it seems in many ways like a rambling Keroackian or Burroughs style would be more appropriate for the synchronistic and surreal landscape of Burning Man. But in fact I’ve had far and away the most success with stories that move in the opposite direction. Not “realism” in the common sense – a lot of my 2015 stories were fables – but tight, terse, and fast, intended not so much to take the reader on a journey as to kick them in the gut. Perhaps we should think of the Burning Man literary experience as analogous to a trip to the porta-potties: at its best when it’s over quickly.
I offer these ideas not in the hope that they will be followed (please prove me wrong) but in order to offer those who are also struggling to figure out “How can I turn my writing gifts into a Burning Man project that will work among the giant statues, flame throwing art cars, and endless techno?” something to consider.
Good luck out there. And if you’ve found other ways to make literary projects successful at Burning Man, please tell me about them.