A Man's Life: Why Dressing Like a Pirate is our Strategy for Saving Literature

by Greg Behr and Billy Warden

July 20, 2009

An ongoing conversation about what it means to be a man in the 21st Century

Diving into a kid’s toy bin opens as many possibilities as it does problems.

A bright green sword looks really cool, but those neon flourishes could bleed away our credibility.

On the other hand, a plastic replica of a 16th century cutlass may make us look way too serious. And who wants literature to be overly nerdy anymore?

Thankfully, there’s a pair made for kids who want to battle each other like Jack Sparrow without muss or fuss.

Tucking the sabers into our designer belts (we are metropolitan men, after all), we head to a local gallery for the launch of Big Beard: The Sea-sational Story of Blackbeard’s Little Brother—an offshoot of our literary magazine, The Raleigh Quarterly.

“Big Beard” encapsulates our strategy for reinvigorating reading and writing today through a more engaging and authentic experience.

No, that won’t do. That is old school literary talk.

We wrote a story about a kid pirate and asked hip artists to illustrate it so we could entice people to read it. Then we transformed into Toys-R-Us pirates to make sure people would experience the story on a still deeper level, surrounded by others, commenting on it, making it better.

We tricked them.

But it had to be that way. People are jaded about reading and writing. Long ago, they spit out the traditional take-your-medicine approach. And neither cool book covers, nor celebrity authors, nor Kindles have sparked a sustained return to the word.

So here we are, two clean-cut professionals who put together a magazine on the side, festooned in fake dreadlocks, standing on a shaky ladder-turned -crow’s-nest, reading a kids’ story through accents that mix B-movie Long John Silver with Zimbab-wean drug lord.

And, it seems to be working.

Publishing The Raleigh Quarterly for the past 18 months in the city for which it is named has been fascinating, but not that tough. Turns out our basic hunch was right: Folks other than English majors still write in their spare time. Often, they are the ones we least expected but end up loving most. And by “write” we mean more than monosyllabic “tweets”—which we’ll get to in a minute.

Yeah, the professors send in their work. It is good. It hammers all the points a quality short story or poem should hit and you feel about the same level of satisfaction you do when finishing a too-perfect Richard Ford novel.

Accountants and attorneys, store clerks, and seamstresses on the other hand, they know how to tell a tale. Theirs are the stories conceived out of a life experience that just has to be told. Born of humiliation or triumph. Consigned to a drawer, forgotten, unloved and brooding like a bastard child.

We can relate. We believe in do-it-yourself revolutionaries. In writers who write despite not being their English teacher’s favorite. In artists whose lines aren’t perfect but whose fierceness is undeniable.

So we find the frustrated, undercover artists among us and convince them that an audience wants to read them, needs to read them.

We launched our print edition last October with a story by an unknown named Michael Fischer, a talented writer and a former patient at an area psychiatric hospital. In his memories of that now-shuttered institution, Michael found the words and passion only he could produce but many could appreciate.

Is Michael Fischer a literary name? Has he been published in The Paris Review? No, and chances are he won’t be. But for a certain audience, Michael’s story was as revelatory as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

On our site, a searing narrative about a boy in an asylum lives alongside an erotic story about body painting by our city’s best-known public relations executive.

Yes, a PR pro letting down her guard, sharing a fan-tasy, showing some skin! That is the power of opening the floodgates.

Now, the tremendously trendy founders of Face-book, Twitter, etc., might say, “Oh well, we’re doing the same thing, only bigger and better. We’re opening the gates and letting OCEANS spill forth.

OK, but oceans of what?

There may be a few clever folks capable of turning a fragmented Facebook status update into a veritable Doctor Zhivago. But millions more seem most intent on informing the world that they hate the Giants or love meat loaf or can regurgitate a quote from the latest Will Ferrell movie or can’t sleep or…zzzzzz…

These flashes from the front lines are fine—with one major exception. They’re terrifying if and when the millions of potential creators gathered ’round the virtual campfire come to believe that these tiny and tinny transmissions are the only way or the best way to express themselves. That Twitter is as good as it gets, and that their daily (or hourly) pad pecks are as good as they’ve got.

No! Stop! Step away from the iPhone and listen…if you have the urge to communicate, it may mean that a beast or a ballerina of a STORY is struggling to get out. Giving birth to it will be infinitely more painful than picking 10 words to describe today’s lunch, but it’s also going to be so much more rewarding. Not only to you, but to people you’ve never met who need YOUR story to make sense of their own.

Look, you 20-some-things didn’t ask to be born into a generation where philistinism is the status quo, things are “hot” or “not” and you are judged by how cleverly you Tweet. And you more senior folks couldn’t have known that your pop culture would become culture, period. But you can transcend. You can be the Charles Dickens Toni Morrison Stephen King Sylvia Plath next door.

Literary magazines traditionally pick 20 pieces each quarter they deem important and publish them for the same folks who read the last edition. For all its often annoying inanity, social networking now makes that model impossible to take seriously.

As a species, we’ve become too wired for stimulus. Our minds have become raging piles of octopi, electric tentacles swooping to and fro looking to grab the snarky and scary, frivolous and fantastic.

That’s why The Raleigh Quarterly goes a different route than the old literary magazines. The porn route.

Pornography Web sites give users exactly what they want when they want it (not that you’d know anything about that). Whatever you are into, you are most certainly able to find it right next to things you wouldn’t want to look at in a million years. 

But you don’t have to see it unless you want to. It is always there for you. And at some point, you can’t… help…but…LOOK!

Living your life as a foot fetishist can be as dull as reading only Southern Gothic writers. Sometimes you just have to make that leap into latex or Contemporary Mystery. At the RQ, you can slip out of a bracing story called, bluntly, “Jew” and into a poem that begins, “I untied the black ribbon. I tied it ’round your breasts.” Out of an essay on flowers in the desert and into a digital art exhibit in which, according to the artist, “the banal becomes beastly.” Hard to believe none of that is stimulating…intellectually, that is.

Now that we’ve touched on porn, it’s time to return to the children. Or at least our children’s story, Big Beard.

We are halfway into our third reading of the night… and fourth beer. Suddenly, every line has a double mean-ing—teased out either by us or by the sloshy, standing-room-only crowd.

Squinting through a boozy blur (and a pair of eye patches), we spot a face we know but never expected to see here. It’s a judge. He’s wearing his usual spectacles, but a different sort of expression. He smiles crookedly, and his eyes dance a jacked-up jig that seems choreographed by Li’l Wayne.

After we wind up, His Honor begins the cross-examination. How did we get into all this? Do our significant others know (and approve)? And the one that makes our night and proves our point: How can he get involved?

The judge’s story hasn’t arrived yet. But we imagine that every night he shoves aside stacks of legal briefs, grabs a quill pen, and scratches out his tale. Something lawless, twisted, and totally worth waiting for.
Read more about Raleigh Quarterly at www.raleighquarterly.com



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