Tobias Wolff once defined an emerging writer as “anyone not yet famous enough to enjoy the certainty of publication.”
All of us – writers and readers alike – emerge from the same beginning. We acquire language and writing skills. For the truly talented, writing becomes a way forward. Writers give meaning to our lives as they make clear the complexities of the world around us.
A number of accomplished nonfiction and fiction writers have developed these skills as students at St. Thomas, including Blue Zones author Dan Buettner ’83 and Evan Schwartz ’09, author of Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story. Perhaps the best known is the late Vince Flynn ’88, whose political thriller novels featuring counterterrorism operative Mitch Rapp have sold millions of copies worldwide and have appeared on The New York Times bestseller list.
To emerge as a literary artist requires perseverance, passion and perhaps a dash (or more) of moonlighting to help make ends meet. St. Thomas magazine spoke with four emerging, though undoubtedly accomplished writers: Mark Ehling, Lisa Brimmer, David Doody and Dustin Nelson. Collectively, these four young alumni illustrate the diversity and reality of emerging writers today.
Mark Ehling ’99 | Delivery Boy of the “Weird”
You could say a motto Mark Ehling lives by is “Create, then watch what happens.” It’s a phrase he used to describe his work ethic.
“Words are the connecting tissue for writers,” he elaborated. “We love the sound and feel of language. But it’s what you do in getting those words shared that keeps the love alive.”
Granted, he doesn’t have much spare time to write – he’s a full-time adjunct English teacher at a Twin Cities community college, a husband and father to two boys, including a newborn. As a result, he often asks himself, “How do I keep myself creatively in the game and not turn off the spigot? Is that part of me withering or dying?”
It’s a juggling act, but judging from his impressive and full resume of creative projects, he keeps himself snugly in the game.
Since graduating from the MFA program in creative writing from the University of Alabama, Ehling has been published in respected journals and magazines, including Utne Reader, Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review. He also has written plays that have been accepted into and performed at the Twin Cities Fringe Festival and other venues.
“In any medium,” he said, “I don’t know a single practicing artist who’s good who’s doing it without working full time. Creating doesn’t mean making money – that’s just a necessity. Who in a Monday-through-Friday job has time to say, ‘Hmm, here’s how I’m going to advance my creative writing career’?”
To maximize his creative efforts, Ehling employs a philosophy he calls “writing plus.”
“Whatever you want to substitute for the ‘plus,’ be it static images, film, having a person perform your work live, whatever it is – all of those things contort and alter your meaning in wonderful ways.”
Ehling’s “plus” mostly involves visual media, which he incorporates with strange subject matter. “In mixing mediums, I find an ability to connect with other artists. … A director can bring to life something I’ve written and help me work with actors.”
The stranger, the better. Case in point: Ehling spent a month at the James J. Hill Library in downtown St. Paul doing research for a play, rummaging through photo essay books of the Nazi party. He found “a crazy assortment of Nazi kitsch items … a party horn with a swastika, a paper beer cup with Hitler’s smiling mug on it,” which he incorporated into the play.
In a marketing textbook used at the University of Alabama, he unearthed a bizarre case history that involved contact lenses developed for farm chickens. “The contacts were meant to solve the problem of chickens pecking each other to death when in close proximity, which stems from bad eyesight. The testers found the product failed because of a human problem: Farmers were afraid of being mocked by other farmers for applying contact lenses to their chickens.” The story worked its way into “Bath of Surprise,” a Fringe Festival project he created in graduate school.
“I always import something from the stream of detritus in the world. If there’s a feel of truth to it that hints at the human, that’s all I need,” he said. “People like to be reminded of the strangeness of reality. I love finding strange things that exist in the world and repurposing them. I’m kind of a delivery boy of the weird.”
One of his more recent accolades is for “How to Live Better,” a short film he wrote, directed and co-produced with his brother, Matt, about “a botched delivery of self-help literature that propels a man into a nightmare of mistaken identity.” It was selected for the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival in 2009 and broadcast on PBS the same year.
Ehling recognizes that for some writers “the page is where they live and excel … their interaction is with a single, human reader via the page.” But for him it’s live performance that brings his written work full circle.
“I like to get people laughing and gasping together. For me it’s about the crowd and that communal experience that’s there for a moment and then vanishes,” he said. “Anytime I can get that, it makes all the work I put into it worth it. I’m addicted.”
Getting his creative work noticed in his day-to-day life requires some ingenuity. It helps if artists “create a scene,” he said. By this he means artists proactively creating a communal space for themselves where people can gather to experience their work.
“Think of it as ‘Let’s put on show!’ in the spirit in which kids do in their basements,” he said.
Ehling prefers slightly more public spectacles: “I like to attack little places like open mic nights as often as I can and watch those ripples go, versus solely searching huge public platforms.” Likewise, in 2004 he approached Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis and booked, “Good Clown, Bad Clown,” a play City Pages called its “absolute favorite BLB show of the past year.”
A self-described “glorified show-and-tell artist,” Ehling credits his father, a former 3M speechwriter, for nurturing his love and knack for performance.
“My dad is a great orator. He has a love of oration that comes from religion and is heavily invested in theatrics,” he said, noting that his delivery is “Midwestern deadpan: I learned to pay attention to my dad’s cadences without bringing the fire and brimstone.”
Ehling has no qualms about being considered an emerging writer, even if he has been writing steadily for nearly two decades. The payment he has received for his efforts may not have reaped substantial financial rewards, but they have been meaningful.
“For me, I’ve had the honor of seeing humbling, life-sustaining results. Sometimes I make money; sometimes I lose. My film lost money, but it got me my teaching job. More often than not, my compensation is derived by discovering a new friendship or by the satisfaction of entertaining an audience.”
Lisa Brimmer ’08 | Taking Poetic License
“I truly believe that it is my practice to have art in all things,” said Lisa Brimmer, on the force that drives her life.
A poet, playwright and organizer, Brimmer believes “building a life, building a solid life, is the same as building a solid career. It’s about the right people and dalliances and inspirations and obsessions. Choices make a difference.”
Brimmer has built a life for herself that, she acknowledged, has included choices both good and not so good. She has always found a way to do what she loves and embraces the reality that artists typically must do something other than writing to keep their cash flow robust: “Most people do,” she said. “Sometimes we kick and scream; sometimes we enjoy it.”
She’s found waiting tables, which she’s done since college, to be “the easiest way for me to create the boundaries I need to produce as a writer.” Brimmer also has sold auto insurance and moved to a third-ring suburb, both of which worked only to stifle her imagination.
“Everyone’s path is different,” she said, “and for me live performance with musicians makes me feel most comfortable and serves my work right now.”
In 2012, Brimmer founded High Society, a collaborative project comprised of herself and a group of acclaimed local jazz musicians who provide a rich backdrop against which she performs her poetry live at Twin Cities venues.
Brimmer, who was adopted by white parents and raised in largely white Lodi, Wis., told MPR last year that her draw to jazz sprouted from her effort as a young adult to learn about black American culture.
“Music is in my work and has been a part of my creative process before poetry got into the fold,” she said. “I find it liberating and exciting to perform in improvisational settings where you can find yourself with success and failure in the same five minutes.”
Still a few years shy of 30, does she consider herself an emerging artist? Some might because her work hasn’t been widely published, she acknowledged, though she couldn’t care less; instead, she hints at a more tantalizing conclusion: Shouldn’t all writers aspire to continually emerge? With two fellowships – from the Playwright’s Center and the Givens Foundations for African American Literature – standing monthly poetry performances at the Black Dog Cafe in St. Paul and past performances at The Loft’s Equilibrium Spoken Word Series, she’s far from an aspiring writer-artist.
“I consider myself an artist,” she stated, “and if you want to say emerging, that’s great. I’m not done yet.”
David Doody ’01 and Dustin Nelson ’05 | From the Dust of the Crossroads
David Doody and Dustin Nelson’s story begins in the mid-2000s at Coffee News Cafe, when the two worked behind the counter at the beloved neighborhood coffee shop formerly on Grand Avenue in St. Paul.
Doody, who sought employment at the cafe during a “crossroads phase” a few years after graduating from St. Thomas, described the scene as “a creative hub” where students with a creative bent worked and local writers and artists convened.
“I was older than everyone else working there, which felt weird. I was reading and writing a lot, but I didn’t know how to put myself out there. Working with those guys gave me a new spark that had gone dark for a little bit,” Doody said.
In retrospect, he chalked up the experience, which seemed like a downgrade at the time, to “a blessing” that helped him answer questions that had been plaguing him: “Do I keep on teaching English as a Second Language?” And the notorious, “What do I do with an English major?”
A writing group was formed among the cafe staff, and soon after, Nelson, Doody and some of their fellow baristas formed InDigest, an online literary magazine and arts blog focused on creating a dialogue among the arts.
The magazine has evolved since its inception in St. Paul in 2007. It now publishes quarterly versus monthly, and Nelson, who has lived in New York City since mid-2008, is the sole original editor.
“Dustin’s a total freak of nature when it comes to being passionate about something and putting in the time and effort to make it good,” Doody said. “I don’t think he slept for seven years through his mid-20s while we were getting InDigest started and working on his own writing.”
Throughout InDigest’s six years of publishing, the artistic motivation behind it has remained the same. And it’s picked up a few accolades: One of its short stories was shortlisted for a Pushcart Prize, and it won Best of the Net in 2010 (and was shortlisted for the honor in 2011 and 2012).
Nelson recently described InDigest as having two main components: the online magazine and a reading series. “We’re more than a journal; we’re a platform to try new stuff. We let the readers pass around the bullhorn. People often email us to say, ‘Hey, I’m interested in trying out this weird idea. Do you want to help me?’ I like that.”
He’s organized many events in that spirit, including a nighttime benefit reading in an abandoned church. Last year he held a reading of poetry and stories on the “supposed” Mayan apocalypse, 12/21/12.
Both Doody and Nelson keep in contact and continue to work with words in one form or another. In addition to editing InDigest, Nelson works full time at Le Poisson Rouge, a music venue and art gallery that he helped open. The venue’s past roster includes an eclectic mix of internationally renowned acts, including Yo Yo Ma and Iggy Pop. He writes mostly poetry and comedy, though he is developing a radio script and does freelance work in the film industry. “Minnesota Nice,” an episode he co-produced, aired this fall as part of PBS’ Web-based series “Are You MN Enough?”
Doody switched gears three years ago when he and his wife decided to have a baby: “I needed to stop writing poetry for free and started looking at print mags as an actual job,” he said. He since has worked as Web editor for Utne Reader, associate editor at the former Metro magazine (Twin Cities) and is now editor for Ensia, an independent environmental publication published by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
The literary world, he said, is never far from his thoughts, and he believes it’s not unlikely that he’ll find himself back in that world again.