Artistic collaboration, arghh!

25 Feb

Dave Eggers, writer and advocate. (Photo from Huffington Post.)

One stereotype of authors is that, more than anything, they want to be left alone. There’s a profoundly individualistic side of the craft – a deep need for the flexibility of schedule that allows them to play out the conversations in their heads, and the exacting work of shaping those conversations into something of lasting creative merit. It creates a fear of distraction that makes each potential commitment to the community seem like a career-ender of a threat to one’s productivity.

Leave it to the ever-original Dave Eggers to find the flip side of the situation – one that turns writers’ need for freedom into an opportunity to serve others.

Eggers burst onto the literary scene as an author with his self-parodying memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a brilliantly self-conscious approach to storytelling in which he recounts the death of his parents within 35 days of each other and how he and his sister moved to San Francisco, where they raised their eight-year-old brother while also pursuing their own dreams as 20-somethings. But after this both moving and frequently hilarious book focused on his own family and friends, his vision expanded far beyond his own relationships or even the United States. You Shall Know Our Velocity! is a novel about two friends traveling the world trying to give away a huge amount of money, What is the What tells the story of an African refugee, Zeitoun focuses on the hardships of an Islamic family from Syria, and Surviving Justice offers interviews with the wrongfully incarcerated.

Meanwhile, during a 2014 road trip – in which I volunteered my way across the country in search of my own next cause – I came across Eggers again, in the form of his preface to a book about San Francisco’s famously activist Glide Memorial Methodist Church, where I volunteered myself. Eggers introduced Beyond the Possible by focusing on what seems impossible – living up to the church’s goal of “unconditional love” for any person who walks in the door.

In that preface, Eggers writes: “Could an individual person keep his or her own lights on, their arms and doors open, at all times?”

“It’s hard, that’s for sure. It’s really damned hard. There’s always someone who annoys us. … Wherever you are, there is someone who is unwelcome.”

Particularly, you might add, when you’re trying to write.


Yet Eggers and his fellow writers at McSweeney’s found a remarkable way to keep their own doors open to all – by opening the literary magazine’s office to children in need of tutoring. Eggers tells the story of the tutoring organization, 826 Valencia, in a TED talk that, like so much of his writing, uses his quirky imagination and outright hilarity to move and inspire. Of course, the subject matter is intrinsically amusing and inspiring: 826 Valencia combines a tutoring center and the magazine office with a pirate supply store “for the working buccaneer.” (The latter because, as it turned out, real estate zoning required them to sell something.)

Since its start, 826 Valencia has inspired similar centers from coast to coast – the Brooklyn version includes a crime-fighters supply store with a “capery”, and the Los Angeles version offers a time travel quickie mart. Eggers stresses the local leadership of all these places, but what they all have in common is the merging of the adult writer and school children, who even generate their own books. Underlying the entire project seems to be a deep and abiding belief in the power of the imagination. Ironically, one of the things that make it possible is that due to their flexible schedules, creative types locked into individualistic pursuits are the most available to help future generations of writers and artists.

I urge anyone interested in education or community-building – or anyone who loves the life of the imagination or even just a good laugh – to check out Eggers’ TED talk, as well as my previous blog on Eggers and Glide As well as deeply consider the challenge Eggers makes to his audience at the end of his TED talk – to reach out to our own local schools and ask how we can help.

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