Next Level Craft at the House of Sweden

#igdc visits the House of Sweden

InstagramDC recently got a sneak peek at the Next Level Craft exhibit at the House of Sweden in Georgetown. This beautiful embassy along the Potomac played host to an exhibit described as:

A mythical wedding, a demonstration, a carnival, a funeral procession, a fashion show or perhaps a combination of all these? A colorful parade of mysterious creatures wander through a fictitious northern landscape carrying unique crafted objects. Who are they and where are they going?

Next Level Craft is not your typical handicraft exhibition – it has its own soundtrack and music video. The renowned young Swedish artist Aia Jüdes has created a playful and different tale of craft, mixing voguing (a modern dance style characterized by perfect, stylized hand and arm movements, acrobatic poses and flamboyant fashion), street art, high fashion, pop culture and electronic music with everything from wool embroidery, weaving and felting to root binding, wood turning and birch bark braiding.

It was a surreal experience, a room filled with bizarre objects and an ever-changing lightshow. Adding to the strangeness was a trippy video of dancing Swedes. So much weirdness for InstagramDC to photograph, as the lights cycled from red to blue.

Best of all, photography was encouraged! It’s a very forward-thinking embassy for hosting this strange exhibit and for reaching out to local photographers to cover it. We had a blast taking pictures of these unique crafts and posing for photos in the weird lighting.

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Ever feel like you're being watched? #igdc #georgetown #emptyhos #nextlevelcraft

That was cool. But getting up on the roof was even cooler.

There was an amazing view of Rosslyn and the Kennedy Center, from a vantage point that few get to see. It was sleeting but no way was I going to miss this experience.

A little snow wasn't going to keep me from the roof of the House of Sweden during the #igdc meetup. That's the Potomac River and Rosslyn in the background.

Kennedy Center

As a writer, it’s inspiring to see creative work. It’s source material for me. I wrote Murder on U Street, my novel about homicide in DC’s art scene, after having similar experiences. So don’t be surprised if a trippy Swedish art exhibit shows up in a future book 😉

 

Five Places to Write in Washington, DC

courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery
Kogod Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.

If you want to truly write a book, and not just live out some Eat, Pray, Love fantasy, then you need to go to a boring place. That’s the conclusion of Chris Guillebeau, author of The $100 Startup, in a recent blog post. He advocates going to a place where there is nothing to do.

While writing is a solitary activity, it doesn’t mean you need to be alone while doing it. I’m a city person, and like to write around other people, even if I’m not talking to them. A writer’s retreat in a remote cabin would probably turn me into the Unabomber. I need to see and hear other humans.

I’ve written two books in public in Washington, DC. These are my favorite places to write in the city:

1. Peets – 17th and L. I liked it when it was a Caribou, and I like it even more as a Peet’s (better scones). Located on a corner, with windows all around, it’s the perfect clean, well-lighted place. If you’re creatively stuck, you can always stare out the windows at cyclists going by on L Street. On the weekends, it’s so slow that I wonder how they stay in business. But they do and that’s perfect for me.

2. Cove – If you need more structure, than check out the co-working space Cove. They offer desks, fast wifi, coffee and even meeting rooms, all at a very reasonable rate. They have locations around DC but I like the Cove on 14th Street above Barcelona. If you’re there on a Sunday morning (when I like to write), you’ll have the place to yourself.

Never too hot for a cappuccino!
Cappuccino by Illy.

3. Renaissance Hotel – West End. Hotel lobbies are underused writing spaces in this city. This one has an Illy Cafe in it and they make the best cappuccino in the city. One upside/downside: no free wifi. If you can’t control your social media compulsion, come for the isolation.

4. Kogod Courtyard – Located at the National Portrait Gallery, it’s a calm oasis in the center of the city. There’s wifi, plentiful seating and a cafe. Plus, if you run out of ideas, you can always explore the fascinating exhibits at the museum. Open from 11 – 7.

5. Pound the Hill – This indie coffee shop has awesome food – the chicken salad is particularly good – and they even have a happy hour. With art on the walls, it’s a cute place on Capitol Hill to get some work done.

Note: I hate laptop campers, especially in small places like Pound. Give yourself two hours, do your work, and then leave. You can get a lot done if you give yourself a deadline.

A writing place doesn’t need to be boring. It just needs to be a spot where you like to write. When I wrote Murder in Ocean Hall, I discovered that I liked to get my writing done early in the day. And that I couldn’t do it at home. I had to leave my apartment, as if I were going to a job. Which is why I love and patronize coffee shops. While you may have a different preference, the most important thing is find the writing place that works for you.

Middle Men: Stories of Purgatory in LA

“I look at you and I think: middle management.”

That was that was the insult a friend of mine received. It was perfect. After all, no one in America aspires to be a middle manager. Why would you? Middle man – the title alone speaks of failure. You couldn’t make it to the top so now you manage the work of other people. You spend eight hours in a cubicle and write TPS reports.

Middle men are also replaceable, the type of jobs that get supplanted by technology. Instead of going to Sears and talking to a middle man, you just order what you want from Amazon.

middle menIn his short story collection, Middle Men, Jim Gavin explores the world of men stuck somewhere between their dreams and reality. Appropriate for a book on purgatory, these stories are primarily set in Los Angeles. The sun-blasted landscape of the city looms large in Middle Men. Characters escape to the freeway or Del Taco to ease their troubles.

In an interview at the end of the book, Gavin explains that Middle Men is about mastery. It’s about growing up, learning a trade and accepting your fate in a very uncertain economy. The men in the book start out young dreamers – they’re slackers and standup comics and aspiring screenwriters – and end up grizzled vets grimly hanging on to their piece of the American dream.

There are a couple of great short stories in the book – Illuminati and Elephant Doors – that perfectly describe the entertainment business in Hollywood, stripping away the glamor and revealing an industry in which very few find success. As a failed screenwriter in the book says, “Nothing always happens. The literature of Hollywood is depressingly consistent on this point.” Middle Men should be required reading for anyone seeking fame in LA.

You root for the men in Middle Men, trying to make it in a strangled economy with few opportunities. You believe in them. They’re trying. They haven’t given up the idea that they can be better. And that America can too.

 

Friday Photo: One Hundred Years of Solitude Edition

One Hundred Years of Solitude

There’s something about an old-fashioned paperback that can’t be duplicated in this digital age. It’s not neat and clean like e-text. Paperbacks reveal themselves through use. Good books become worn and tattered as they’re passed from reader to reader. The better the book, the worse it looks.

This is my $3.95 copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. It shows a couple decades of use. I read it in college, read it again when I had a job working in one-person library, packed it when I moved to Florida, packed it again when returned to DC, boxed it up a couple more times as I switched apartments in Washington, reread it some more and finally placed it on a shelf with much shinier books in better condition.

It’s the book I won’t part with, no matter how shabby it gets.

Tell It Slant: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

The Unchangeable Spots of LeopardsLiterary fiction gets a bad rap. It doesn’t have to be ponderous, inscrutable, unreadable. Literary fiction doesn’t have to mean some doorstop of a book that will be earnestly discussed in quiet voices on NPR, the kind of thousand-page novel that everyone buys and no one reads. Literary fiction can be more than just a marker of elite taste – literary fiction can be fun, inventive and playful. It can have a plot. It can be enjoyed.

Authors like Michael Chabon, TC Boyle and Gary Shteyngart demonstrate that you can write sophisticated fiction that’s loved by the public.

Kristopher Jansma shows how its done in The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. This debut novel, now available in paperback, follows the worldwide travels of the ultimate unreliable narrator. It’s like ten books in one – a Southern coming of age story, an academic farce, a New York excursion and an expat’s tall tale – propelled forward by neatly contained chapters (which are like stories within stories). The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is compulsively readable, filled with oddball characters, strange situations and sudden turns of fate, all told by a sort of Nick Carroway, looking on enviously at the Gatsbys all around him.

My only criticism: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards switches scenes too quickly. Plot threads are picked up and dropped. Sometimes, you want to know more about that couple in Dubai. You want more – a good sign in a novel.

Ultimately, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a book about stories, the ones that are true, and the ones we tell ourselves. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson says, a mantra that runs throughout this novel. With their ability to tell it slant, novels contain truths that you won’t find in the newspaper.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards demonstrates the power of literary fiction to provide enlightenment through entertainment. Great storytelling is a kind of trick, an ancient one that we’re programmed to enjoy. Like listening to some stranger’s shaggy dog tale, we know that what we’re hearing is not technically true. But we have to know how it ends. Great literary fiction is like that, wrapping us up in an engaging story that tells it slant.

Guest Post on Digital Book Today: Want to Be Productive? Get Thee to a Coffee Shop

Fueled by caffeine, surrounded by low chatter and the hum of background music, I am at my most productive. Something about being in a coffee shop just makes me want to get to work. I wrote my first novel, Murder in Ocean Hall, in a couple of downtown DC coffee shops. I prefer Caribou Coffee, particularly stores that are populated by freelancers and grad students. Being around the studious makes me feel like I better get writing.

Check out my guest post – How to Be Productive? Get Thee to a Coffee Shop – on Digital Book Today. It’s about the link between coffee shops and getting things done.

Digital Book Today was founded by a book industry veteran. Its mission is to help readers find new authors in the digital world. It focuses on e-books and provides a great list of free new e-books every week.

Guest Blog on Digital Book Today: Reading Novels is Good for You

I have a guest post on Digital Book Today on how reading novels is good for you. Novels teach essential skills, such as concentration, careful reading (not skimming web pages) and the ability to frame and express a story. Novels are more than just entertainment. Immersing yourself in words on a regular basis will improve your writing ability, something that is vital for business success. You’d be surprised at the number of college grads I’ve met that can’t write a sentence. Being able to craft blog posts, articles, reports and other kinds of communication is a way to differentiate yourself from your ADD-afflicted peers.

Digital Book Today was founded by a book industry veteran. Its mission is to help readers find new authors in the digital world. It focuses on e-books and provides a great list of free new e-books every week.

The Son by Philipp Meyer

The Son book coverThe best book I’ve read all year – The Son by Philipp Meyer.

It’s a long read but it flies by as fast as a Comanche warrior on the Great Plains. The novel starts out strong with the memories of 100-year-old Eli in 1936. The book is divided up between his story and the stories of two of his descendents.

Their tales give us the history of Texas, from the 1800s to the present day. And what a history it is, filled with violent Indian raids, rich oil barons, horse thieves and a long decline – or is it progress – into contemporary America.

It’s a brutal book. The Comanches are not the gentle savages of Dances with Wolves. They kill, rape and enslave everyone they can. There’s brutality on all sides and the Colonel, the lead of the novel, is the most matter-factedly brutal of them all. He does so to survive. And maybe because he enjoys it, a fact that later generations struggle with.

Real history isn’t pretty. It’s not politically correct. It’s brutal, uncompromising and fascinating, like The Son itself.

Writing a Novel? Get Thee to a Coffee Shop

Never too hot for a cappuccino!

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that everything is better with coffee. And even better in a coffee shop.

I wrote Murder in Ocean Hall in a coffee shop. I reported every morning, as if I was going to work, and sat there writing away from 8-12, telling myself that I was not allowed to leave until my time was up.

I aimed for 2000 words a day but most of the time wrote 1100 or so. But the important thing was to be there, to be present, and to keep going.

Why are coffee shops so productive for me? A recent New York Times article says it’s all about the background noise:

In a series of experiments that looked at the effects of noise on creative thinking, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had participants brainstorm ideas for new products while they were exposed to varying levels of background noise. Their results, published in The Journal of Consumer Research, found that a level of ambient noise typical of a bustling coffee shop or a television playing in a living room, about 70 decibels, enhanced performance compared with the relative quiet of 50 decibels.

The article goes on to profile Coffitivity, a web site that provides the sounds of a busy coffee house anywhere.

But it’s not just sound that makes coffee shops productive places. When I would report to Caribou (and I thought of it that way – reporting to work), seeing all those people all typing away on laptops made me think that I better get to work. Call it peer pressure or socialization. Seeing others work made me think that I better get to work. I better start working on that novel.

And don’t underestimate the power of caffeine. It’s not alcohol that makes writers – it’s coffee, with the cheery, well-focused buzz it gives you. Coffee houses have given birth to sprawling novels, symphonies and Western Civilization. Not bad for a simple bean.

When people ask me how to write a novel, I tell them to go to a coffee shop. My advice:

  • Pick a store populated with grad students or freelancers – you want lots of people sitting alone at tables, with a minimum of talking.
  • Slow or no wifi is a good thing, because you’re supposed to be writing.
  • Put yourself on a schedule and commit to it.
  • Reward yourself with as much coffee as you want.

Habit is a powerful thing. If you spend one hour a day writing, imagine how much you could accomplish in a year. Plus, you get to drink coffee. Writing and drinking coffee – is there any better way to spend your time?

Murder in Ocean Hall – The Perfect Inauguration Gift!

cover of Murder in Ocean HallBeyond the pomp and ceremony of the Presidential Inauguration, there’s a whole other city, a real city, where people work and live in a world far removed from the ideals and monuments of the Washington you see on TV. It’s a place where ordinary folks struggle to find good schools and survive in a rapidly-changing urban environment.

It’s the world of Murder in Ocean Hall. This mystery novel takes place in city neighborhoods like Dupont Circle and U Street. In this book, the world’s most famous oceanographer is murdered. It’s up to a cynical DC detective to solve the case. Along the way, we learn about the history of city and why it works – or doesn’t work.

A reviewer wrote:

Read this book if you think you’ve been to Washington, DC. The author, Joe Flood, will take you behind the scenes of places you’ve been and tell you how they function then give you insights into people in power and how they fail to function.

Think you know Washington? Uncover what the city is really like in Murder in Ocean Hall.