It’s Omaha Lit Fest time again. Chances are you didn’t even know Omaha had a literature festival but it does. Nine years strong. It’s all the brainchild of Omaha-based novelist Timothy Schaffert. The 2013 edition brings authors together from near and far for panel discussions and shop talk. There’s also a cool exhiibtion entiteld Carnival of Souls that has top local designers showing their takes on cult movie posters.. It happens Friday and Saturday, Oct. 18 and 19, at the W. Dale Clark Library downtown. I’m serving as a panelist on one panel and as a moderator for another panel. Visit omahalitfest.com for details. My story about Lit Fest is now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Omaha Lit Fest Offers a Written Word Feast
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
©by Leo Adam Biga
Writer predilections take precedence at the October 18-19 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, an annual orgy of the written word organized by acclaimed resident author Timothy Schaffert (The Coffins of Little Hope).
Nine years running Schaffert’s partnered with the Omaha Public Library for the free event that calls the W. Dale Clark Library, 215 So. 15th St., home. As usual, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor and Nebraska Writers Summer Conference director has gathered an eclectic roster of authors for quirky panel discussions. This year’s theme is Literary Obsessions and Cult Followings. Helping him explore these musings are authors from near and far and on different publishing paths. Ohio author Alissa Nutting‘s novel Tampa and its frank distillation of a sex deviant was published by Ecco/Harper Collins. Omaha author Thom Sibbitt self-published his Beat-inspired pseudo-memoir The Turnpike. Nebraska author Mary K. Stillwell’s dual biography-critical study of poet Ted Kooser was published by the University of Nebraska Press.
“I like inviting writers that I think are doing work that has a lot of edge and maybe not getting all the attention the other writers are getting and yet are worthy of that attention,” says Schaffert, who like any good host mixes and matches authors to enliven the conversation.
The intimate, idiosyncratic fest offers opportunities to talk-up authors, some of whom will be at Friday’s 6:30 to 9:30 opening night party and exhibition, Carnival of Souls. Creatives from the Nebraska chapter of AIGA, the professional association for design, will display their takes on classic movie posters from cult cinema. Beginning at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday a series of panels unfolds, including one billed Cinematic that considers movies as subject, inspiration and influence and another, Trigger Warnings, that promises a provocative spin on sex lit.
A 5:30 signing by Lit Fest authors concludes the festival.
As an academic and a former newspaper editor Schaffert tracks currents and poses questions. That’s how he arrived at the panel Obsessed and its topic of authors doggedly pursuing biographical subjects. Panelist Mary K. Stillwell’s book The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser grew out of a dissertation she began years before. She says she discovered Kooser’s work when a poetry instructor “started bringing me in work by all the Nebraska poets and he kept saying, ‘You come from this fertile land of poetry, look what your people do.’ It really turned me on. Here were people from my own neighborhood talking about things I knew, so it was really a gift to me. We have this long history that goes all the way back to the Pawnee. It got me to thinking of the (Ogallala) Aquifer – there must be something poetic in that water.”
Her fascination resulted in the anthology Being(s) in Place(s): Poetry in and of Nebraska. She cultivated an association with Kooser, the 2004-2005 U.S. Poet Laureate. Then she decided to make him the subject of a book. Researching it meant visiting his childhood home of Ames, Iowa, interviewing his friends there and elsewhere, corresponding with Kooser and immersing herself in his poems
“Going back to his poems you can see the depth of his literary knowledge, you can see the influence of (John) Keats or Thomas Transformer or even (Robert) Frost. Some of his images just seem to be in brotherhood with Frost. So each time you go back you get another layer. It’s sort of an archaeological expedition when you study a Kooser poem over time.”
She says Kooser proved a “cooperative” and “generous” subject who was “patient” with her many questions.
Research comes in many forms. New York state-based author Owen King informed his new novel Double Feature about a famous B-movie director by watching unholy hours of old flicks.
“Taking a survey of the B-movies of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s was essential to the book,” says King, the son of authors Stephen and Tabitha King and the husband of fellow Lit Fest guest author Kelly Braffet. “I had seen quite a few before I started but I gained a newfound respect for them in the process of watching and rewatching so many in a relatively short period. There’s an earnestness at work in most of the films that I didn’t fully grasp beforehand. Which is why, although I have some fun with B-movies in Double Feature, I also hope aficionados feel like I did them justice.”
Portland, Oregon author Monica Drake partially drew on her own experiences as a clown for her novel Clown Girl. Her observations working at a zoo and her adventures in parenting helped inspire her novel The Stud Book.
Timothy Schaffert became a virtual 19th century explorer researching his new novel The Swan Gondola set at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha. He enjoyed the immersion in all things Victorian for his novel due out in February.
“it was completely pleasurable. It was valuable to learn about the history of the world’s fair and also the general development of the city of Omaha. When I embarked on that research I knew nothing about how people lived day by day in the 1890s and so reading newspapers and books published at the time I did feel myself drawing closer and closer to that age,”
“It got to the point,” he says, “I would get up in the morning and read from the Library of Congress website that day’s news of 1898. You get sort of hypnotized by it so that you’re even imagining yourself living in that period, driving some place in a horse and buggy.
“The 1890s were kind of a terrible time for anyone who wasn’t a wealthy white man. Despite all the racism and ugliness I began to feel more comfortable there than in the 21st century.”
He says his investigation “did require a great deal of time and concentration,” adding, “I was kind of writing and researching at the same time, so I’d write a scene and then go back and figure out how close that scene could be to the reality of the culture of the time – to the social customs and habits and gestures. I wanted it to be an authentic representation of the day.”
Schaffert’s among a handful of Lit Fest authors with novels at some stage of development for the screen. Local crime and suspense fiction writer Sean Doolittle has The Cleanup in development with director Alex Turner (Dead Birds). Unlike Schaffert and author Monica Drake, whose Clown Girl was optioned by Kristin Wiig, Doolittle’s taken an active hand in the process.
Doolittle says Turner “wrote the initial draft of the screenplay, then asked me if I’d be interested in rewriting it. That was my introduction to screenwriting. I’ve been with the project through a number of additional rewrites, until the screen version evolved into both a faithful representation of, and a significant departure from, the original story.
On “the metamorphosis” from novel to script, he says, “I learned a lot about structure – looking at an existing story from different angles and moving as much weight as possible with each narrative decision.”
Most writing’s done in isolation and if you’re self-publishing it can be an especially lonely but rewarding journey. Thom Sibbitt will join fellow lone wolf authors on the panel Experiments: Writing Around the Mainstream that discusses risk, invention, small-press publishing, dangerous subjects and the literary underground. Given that his novel The Turnpike is “this not for everybody material” Sibbitt says he felt it best served by self-publishing. Despite the hard work the process entails he says “it’s been great – I actually feel super empowered to have been able to do it myself.”
Schaffert says today’s digital platforms and micro presses are viable options that allow authors to get their work out as never before. “This is a really exciting time for writers.”
In an era of shrinking attention spans and publications that values technology over literature, Lit Fest celebrates the enduring power of the written word.
Omaha Public Library marketing manager Emily Getzchman says the event aligns well with OPL’s mission. “This event inspires people to think critically and look beyond the words on the page. It provides a rare opportunity to combine authors, art and their works with the community who consumes it. Our hope is that the ideas and perspectives that emerge will inspire people to continue conversations about life and culture.”
For event details visit omahalitfest.com.
NOTE: Leo Adam Biga is the author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. Read more of his work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.
- Leo Adam Biga, Author of ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,’ to Serve as Panelist and Moderator at (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the desk of Mary Stillwell (nebraskapress.typepad.com)
- Author Wins National Poetry Award (nebraskapress.typepad.com)
- The Life & Poetry of Ted Kooser (ameshistoricoldtown.wordpress.com)
Leo Adam Biga, Author of ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,’ to Serve as Panelist and Moderator at (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest
Under the Skin:
Literary Obsessions & Cult Followings
Featured authors delve into their own preoccupations, nervous habits, bad influences and literary obsessions. Nationally acclaimed writers will discuss the appeal of dangerous characters, the danger of appealing characters, the experimental, the sentimental, the personal and the impersonal. Hosted by Omaha Public Library, the (downtown) omaha lit fest features author panel discussions, an art exhibit and an opening-night party.
FRIDAY, OCT 18, 6:30-9:30 pm
In a partnership with AIGA: Nebraska, (downtown) omaha lit fest kicks off on Friday night with A Carnival of Souls opening-night party & exhibit. Members of AIGA: Nebraska, a professional association of designers, will exhibit their own versions of classic movie posters from the golden age of low-budget horror and drive-in theater (think: Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman; Little Shop of Horrors; Night of the Living Dead; Mothra), in celebration of B-grade cult cinema, cheap thrills, exploitation and scary carnivals. Among the authors in attendance is Owen King, whose debut novel Double Feature tells the story of fictional B-movie actor Booth Dolan.
SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 12:30 pm
Love/Hate: The villain as hero in contemporary fiction.
Moderator Annasue Wilson kicked off a national debate earlier with a 2013 controversial interview in Publishers Weekly on the topic of whether literary characters should be likable. Annasue will explore this topic with Lit Fest authors: Carolyn Turgeon, whose The Fairest of Them All tells the story of a fairy-tale heroine-turned-villain; Monica Drake, whose The Stud Book is “the freshest look at the tyranny of the baby bump since Rosemary got pregnant,” according to Chelsea Cain; Alissa Nutting, whose Tampa was declared the “sickest, most controversial book of the summer” by Cosmopolitan; and Kelly Braffet, whose Save Yourself is “an electrifying tomahawk missile of a thriller with honest-to-God people at its core,” according to Dennis Lehane.
SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 1:30
Obsessed: Research and biography.
Authors discuss the rigorous, obsessive (and sometimes unhealthy) pursuit of their subjects. Panelists: Author and journalist Leo Adam Biga (Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film), who’s long followed the career of the Oscar-winning filmmaker and visited the set of Nebraska; Mary K. Stillwell, whose The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser is the first critical biography to consider the poet’s life and work together; Owen King, who researched Double Feature by watching hours and hours of horror films and is now furthering his obsession with baseball; and Timothy Schaffert, whose forthcoming novel The Swan Gondola involved full immersion into 1898 Omaha.
SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 2:30
Experiments: Writing around the mainstream.
Authors talk about risk, invention, small-press publishing, dangerous subjects and the literary underground. Panelists include: Elwin Cotman, author of Jack Daniels Sessions EP: A Collection of Fantasies; Brion Poloncic, author of Xanthous Mermaid Mechanics; and Thom Sibbitt, who explores sex, death and drugs in his novel The Turnpike.
SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 3:30
Cinematic: Movies as subject, inspiration, and influence.
Leo Adam Biga, whose extensive journalism about Alexander Payne is the basis of his book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, moderates a panel on how movies shape a novelist’s vision. Panelists: Owen King; Monica Drake, author of Clown Girl (optioned for film by Kristen Wiig); Carolyn Turgeon, whose novel Mermaid has been optioned for film; and Sean Doolittle, recently involved with the development of an adaptation of his thriller The Cleanup.
SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 4:30
Our semi-annual “writing about sex” panel. Panelists: Alissa Nutting, whose Tampa centers on a sexual deviant; Kelly Braffet, whose first novel was written with a “restraint” that “lends the novel a prim mystery, deepening its creepy intensity,” according to the New York Times; and Elwin Cotman, who is a “synthesizer… of lewd dialect and high lyricism,” according to Karen Russell.
SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 5:30
Book signings by lit fest authors.
For more details, visit http://omahalitfest.com.
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The late Nancy Duncan had such a passion for oral storytelling that I felt compelled to write about this form she was a master practitioner of time and again. Nancy was a professional storyteller who was active in various storytelling circles locally, regionally, and nationally. On this same blog you can find my article about Nancy, Her Final Story, which details her use of storytelling to chart her dying process. As time allows I will eventually add to this site an earlier profile I did of Nancy, as well as other articles I did about the storytelling festival she helped organize in Omaha. The following piece is about that storytelling festival and about the art and craft of storytelling itself. I couldn’t have written it without Nancy’s input and expertise. Reading it, you’ll get a sense for her boundless energy and passion. The story originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, which is no longer with us. Although Nancy is gone, too, her spirit very much lives on.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly
How subversive can you get in this digital-electronic age? Well, consider storytelling festivals, where tellers from near and far gather to recount real-life dramas, chronicle fanciful deeds and spin chilling ghost tales, all without aid of sets, video images, recorded music, computer graphics or special effects. When the yarns start unraveling, an ancient oral tradition is rejoined in an unadorned celebration of the spoken word made story.
More than a diversion for children, storytelling is a traditional art and craft, a communal form of heralding, a personal means of expression and a life-affirming educational/healing tool. Whether told at a fireside, a bedside or a festival, stories tap a deep well of shared human experience.
Once upon a time, telling stories was the primary means for people to interpret and pass-on their heritage. “Everybody used to tell stories, but within each oral society or culture one person was designated to be the story carrier and that person would be someone like Homer who memorized it and kept it all inside of them. That role was primarily given to women, but then, when it became a sacred role, men co-opted it. The priests became the storytellers,” said Nancy Duncan, a storyteller in Omaha, Neb. She is an organizer of the annual Nebraska Storytelling Festival and a Pied Piper for the art form in the state.
With the advent of publishing, storytelling became proprietary. “When stories were oral, they belonged to everybody,” Duncan said, “but then along came the printing press and stories then belonged to authors, so there became this distancing.” Still, the oral tradition flourished in pockets, especially the American South, where Duncan, a native Georgian, grew-up spellbound by her father’s and maternal grandmother’s tales. Today, the oral tradition survives, but only for special occasions, like family reunions or festival, or in designated places, like schools or libraries, or in reconfigured forms, like talk therapy.
The Nebraska Festival, along with similar events in other states, have sprung up amid a general storytelling revival sparked by the success of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn. Duncan said there is a demand for these public storytelling forums because people are starved to hear stories again or for the first time. “Some come because they just miss the stories in their lives. It may be they grew up when we didn’t have all these machines do our work and we didn’t have television sap up our time and instead we gathered on our big front porches in the evening to tell stories. Some never had it in their lives and miss it because they know television is not giving them the stories they want to hear. They want to be present in the story — to recognize themselves — because stories celebrate who we are. They validate us. It’s like identity maintenance.”
In an era when so much human exchange occurs in isolated, impersonal ways, Duncan said storytelling provides an intimate and interactive experience that is part organic and part mystical. “You don’t tell stories into the wind. You tell stories to people. Because storytelling is a live process, a story is not frozen. It’s like jazz — it’s still living and being shaped — and the storyteller navigates the story with the audience and changes it depending on what they get back from that audience. The audience makes the story in their minds. They create all the pictures to go with the words, and they get those pictures from their own lives. So, by the end of the evening you have as many different versions of the story as you do people in the room because each person has co-made their own part of the story. And when that happens, it’s very powerful and bonding. It’s like going on a journey together to a different place. It’s sometimes deliciously entertaining and funny. It’s sometimes spiritually intriguing and challenging. It’s sometimes moving and bereft with all the memories that get brought to the story.” When a teller connects with an audience, she said it is practically transcendental. “There are certain stories that take you so deep into an emotion or into an event that they are trance-inducing. The audience goes off with you. You can see it in the way the story flows across their faces. They’re eyes lock-in and their jaws go slack. It’s as though they are dreaming.”
The enduring appeal of storytelling may be rooted deep inside us: “It seems genetically programmed into human beings to think in story. We story everything that happens to us and, if we don’t, we forget it. Storytelling is the most efficient way to think about anything and to not just think about it but to help us understand our experiences. So, in that way, it’s the essence of history. It’s also a very healing process because as we turn our own experiences, including very negative ones, into stories and share those with other people, they share back and their comments shape the way we feel about our lives and a community is created. As we story, we heal the situation or solve the problem. It’s very healthy,” she said.
Since being diagnosed with breast cancer in March Duncan (who had a mastectomy and is now undergoing chemotherapy) has been crafting a story dealing with her illness. “I want it to be a very funny story because breast cancer is very funny, really, and very tragic, but at the same time transformational. I mean, I can feel already changes happening in me because of this. And it’s all based in the community of people out there, like me, with cancer. We have a relationship other people don’t have.” Frankford, Mo. resident Gladys Coggswell, a national teller at the Nebraska Festival, was plagued by nightmares from a childhood assault and only found peace in the stories her great-grandmother and, later, her husband told her. “Stories helped me survive some of the crises in my life by making me feel connected to the world and helping me know I was not alone in my pain,” she said.
In addition to healing qualities, there is anecdotal evidence storytelling is an effective medium for captivating students as learners and readers. Both the International Reading Association and the American Library Association advocate storytelling as educational tools. This spring and summer Nancy Duncan is conducting workshops with Omaha Public Library children’s librarians and media specialists to develop their storytelling skills. A workshop participant, South Omaha Branch Children’s Librarian Linda Garcia, said, “Children’s response” to storytelling “is unbelievable. Once they’ve tasted one or two stories, we get them hooked” on reading. Storyteller Lucille Saunders, a retired Omaha Public Schools teacher and a part-time media specialist today, said, “I’ve discovered that by using the techniques of storytelling – voice, gestures, eye-contact — I can more easily engage students in the lesson. It’s more interesting for them. It gets their attention.”
Not all stories are welcome. Duncan said she is banned from performing in two area school districts by fundamentalist-controlled school boards who fear her sometime storytelling alter ego, Baba Yaga, a cranky but wise witch adapted from Russian literature. “A lot of people are afraid of any stories dealing with the dark side. But the consequences they talk about are important for young people to learn.” To gauge what audiences might accept or reject, she tells test stories. “If they’ll go with me on those stories, they’ll go anywhere.” Duncan, who conducts school residencies, finds some youths today lack the active listening and imagination skills stories demand. She feels these “lost kids” are overweaned on TV. “Their bodies and brains are programmed for something to go either bleep or bloop every two minutes. They’re jittery and wiggly. They look away. They show no affect during the story. They don’t even have the ability to visualize. It’s tragic because if they can’t imagine, how can they make moral choices?” She is encouraged, however, by how well most kids respond, including some budding young tellers now performing in public. Among them is Sarah Peters, 13, a student at Platteview Central Junior High School. Peters, who will be telling at the Nebraska festival for the fifth time, enjoys creating stories based on real-life incidents — like fishing outings turned survival tests by flooding river waters — only embellished a little. What does Peters like best about telling? “I like coming up with stories of my own and knowing when I tell one of my stories to people they can pass that on to other people.”
Duncan said the more emotionally honest a story, the more reverberation it has. For a residency in a Fremont alternative school last year she asked a group of wary students (“thinking rebels”) to listen to personal stories told by adult mentors. To their surprise, she said, “the kids were wiped out by the stories.” Students then had to tell the stories back and find a personal link to their own lives. “This time, the adults were in tears. The kids and adults realized they had a real human connection. They wanted to known each other better.” Unlike reading from a text, storytelling springs from the recesses of the teller. According to Duncan, “If you’re holding up a book and reading from it you are not present in the same way you are telling a story. You’re just processing words and your personality doesn’t come through in the same way it does in storytelling, where who the teller is and how they feel at any moment is in what they’re telling. You can’t separate the teller from the story. That’s why there’s such a wide variety of tellers.”
Among the featured tellers at this weekend’s Nebraska Festival: diminutive Don Doyle, of Mesa, AZ, tells stories from the Celtic tradition; Kentuckian Mary Hamilton draws on folktales from her family’s deep roots in the Blue Grass state; Bill Harley, a Seekonk, MA resident and commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered, is known for his humorous children’s tales and songs; Denver’s Pat Mendoza finds inspiration for his stories and songs in his eclectic adventures as a Vietnam veteran, exp-cop and Kung fu teacher and his Irish-Scottish-Cuban-East Indian background; and Corrine Stavish, of Southfield, Mich., is a noted teller of Jewish folktales. Other scheduled performers include a state senator, a family counselor, a poet laureate, a high school student and several mother-daughter teams. Anyone with a hankering to tell can weave a yarn during the swapping session and anyone wanting pointers can attend workshops and coaching sessions. Perhaps the most popular program is Friday’s 9:30-11:30 p.m. Ghosting on the hillside facing the Administration Building.
As far as Duncan is concerned, “storytelling is the best-kept secret in the world. It’s not just for children. It’s for anyone. We all have valuable stories to share.”
- Tall tales: Meet the storytellers spinning edgy new yarns for the digital age (independent.co.uk)
- Healing with Story: Healing the Storyteller (health-psychology.suite101.com)
- Ten Years of Telling Tales (nytimes.com)
- Creating a Youth Storytelling Community One Kid at a Time (storytellingadventures.blogspot.com)
- Storytelling (sallyjenkins.wordpress.com)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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