Working Writers Series: Brian Beatty
Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com
Today’s Working Writer is Brian Beatty.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Well, I started writing poetry and fiction in high school, at the encouragement of a composition teacher who convinced me to give up on my dreams of studying music. My first finished short story actually won a scholarship that paid for my undergraduate studies, and I started publishing as a college student — book reviews, poems, a short story in Seventeen (which paid for my first computer). But precociousness failed me soon enough. I experienced a crisis of confidence shortly after finishing my MFA studies. The summer after grad school, I met novelist/Merry Prankster Ken Kesey, who suggested that there was more to writing than just writing novels. I should turn my life into my art, he suggested. I did, but it took me a little while. After grad school I wound up not writing or publishing anything “creative” for nearly two years, before returning to poetry in an entirely different style than I’d been working before. Later I started writing stories that had more of a genre-fiction than literary-fiction feel to them. Once those poems and stories began to appear in journals, I started freelancing articles, too. One idea that I pitched to a magazine: What if I took a stand-up comedy class and reported the results. The results, it turned out, were thrilling.
I fell in love with the immediate response of the comedy audience. I started performing on a semi-regular basis and wrote “Jokes by Brian Beatty” for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency for about three years. When boredom set in with the one-liner form, I pulled the plug on the regular McSweeney’s gig. Around that same time, I wound up being the first Twin Cities winner of the traveling roadshow known as LIterary Death Match. I’ve published more genre stories and a pile of poems in the meantime, as well as a 100-page humor chapbook, DUCK! I’m supposed to have my first chapbook of poems appear sometime this year from Ravenna Press. Since the year 2000, I’ve paid the mortgage as a creative agency copywriter as I’ve pursued my personal writing and performing interests. I’m currently the Director of Copy and Web Strategy for an award-winning Twin Cities design firm. I also author “The Columnest” twice each month for mnartists.org and the Walker Art Center. I also host mnartists.org‘s monthly literary podcast, “You Are Hear.” I’ve been performing less stand-up comedy lately, though I recently gave a talk about comedy and public speaking at photographer Alec Soth’s Summer Camp for Awkward Storytellers.
What does it mean to turn your life into art, as Ken Kesey suggested?
For Kesey, for a while anyway, I suppose that meant experimenting with mind-altering substances and paling around with the Grateful Dead. Then, later, capitalizing on his great myth. For me it’s not been quite that exciting. I don’t know that it’s true, but I choose to believe that Kesey was giving me permission to live a writer’s life without beating myself up about my lack of interest in writing a bestseller or something more serious that might outlive me. My ambitions have never included wealth or fame or a big, important book. All of that seems vain to me. I’ve always been a process-oriented miniaturist interested in getting from this moment to the next, so I’ve created years’ worth of little projects to keep myself busy and sane — and, I hope, to entertain folks.
Can you tell us a little bit about how humor functions both in your own work and how it just, simply, works? What’s the diagnosis of a good joke?
I agree with Kurt Vonnegut that the best jokes are dangerous because they contain some truth and some level of threat. (I’m paraphrasing.) I hope that my humor lives up to that standard. I enjoy jokes because of their simple, beautiful tension/release mechanics. There’s no better word machine in my opinion. I didn’t really realize how much I relied on jokes to communicate in my everyday life until after I started writing and performing comedy. Growing up, I was often warned that my “smart mouth” was going to get me into trouble someday. I’ve also been called a “smart ass” more than once in my life. In my writing for the page, my humor is more situational and character-driven than it is up on stage, where it has to be more direct and self-deprecating because I’m the most obvious character standing under those lights. I’m not an insult comic who goes after his audience. I’m much more likely to go after myself up there. I would say that my sense of humor in general tends toward the dark, the absurd and what some apparently consider to be the unsayable. Labeling my material “edgy” would be ridiculous, but I have heard gasps from comedy club patrons and had public librarians threaten me with censorship over something I wrote. Like Kurt Vonnegut, I grew up in Indiana. Sometimes I wonder if there’s a genetic defect unique to Hoosier writers.
What do you think about the comedy / censorship debate that’s been going on recently?
There’s been a censorship debate going on? Nobody informed or invited me. If you’re referring to the recent brouhaha between comic Jim Norton and writer Lindy West on W. Kamau Bell’s “Totally Biased” TV show, I suppose it’s most interesting because of the questions it raised, rather than how/if it resolved any of them between commercial breaks and in back-and-forths on Facebook. I know Kamau a little bit, so I suspect that might have been his intent from the start. The comedy that matters to me is typically a response to the status quo, targeting those in positions of power, not comedy used as a weapon to beat down or to dominate others. Targeting jokes at the victimized or less fortunate is a bully tactic. That said, I’m not compelled to tell folks what they should (or should not) address in their art. So long as they’re willing to deal with whatever repercussions they inspire. To take a baseball bat to a hornet’s nest then try to hide behind “But it was just a joke.” feels like a cowardly move to me.
How does a Literary Death Match work?
Writers are pitted against each other in front of a rowdy (read: drunk) live audience, reading six or seven minutes’ worth of work they think will impress judges in three categories (Literary Merit, Performance and Intangibles). The two survivors of the earlier single-elimination rounds are tasked with some ridiculous exercise in futility by world-traveling host Todd Zuniga. The winner of that contest wins it all. In my case, that meant wooing the judges and audience with humorous poems, then having to pitch beanbags at posters of famous Minnesota writers. Beating out short story writer (and pal) John Jodzio to take home the Twin Cities’ first LDM medal was an incredible honor. Or so I’ve been told.
So the death part of that is greatly exaggerated?
As far as I know, no one has died at a Literary Death Match yet. But I wouldn’t put a cover-up past them.
Could you go on a bit about the Socially Awkward Storytellers?
Art photographer/publisher Alec Soth and his Little Brown Mushroom crew recently conducted a weeklong workshop for artists of various practices. The Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers hosted fifteen attendees from across the country and around the world. A longtime fan of Soth’s work, particularly his LIttle Brown Mushroom projects combining photos and texts (typically supplied by his writing partner, Brad Zellar), I applied to attend as a camper, but didn’t make the cut. Soth had a different plan for me. He invited me to attend the last day of camp as a guest artist, to talk about stand-up comedy and public speaking as an art form, because campers’ final projects were to be old-fashioned slideshows presented in front of a live audience.
I wound up discussing the four levels of comedy, dissecting joke and story structures and dishing out a handful of performance tips based on my own experiences. In addition to my talk, I made myself available for one-on-one consultations as campers put together their final presentations. The Saturday night after camp, I emceed the “Slideshow and Dance” at The Soap Factory, a Minneapolis art gallery known for its adventuresome exhibitions. More than a hundred happy, laughing people showed up to see what the socially awkward campers and counselors had been up to all week, which I think qualifies as a success.
What place does your sense of humor come from?
I grew up among a bunch of older country folks who had an appreciation for comedy of all different kinds. My grandparents never missed a week of Hee-Haw and kept a stack of Bill Cosby albums in their console record player. I also had a great uncle who introduced me to the stand-up films of Richard Pryor when I was much too young to realize how brilliant Pryor was beyond the sex, drugs and profanity. My parents weren’t really jokers, but they tolerated my attempts to make them laugh. Probably because I was such a quiet, bookish kid otherwise.
My literary tastes have always tended toward the humorous: Twain, first, when I was in grade school. Later, in high school, I read Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People and picked up Terry Southern’s Red Dirt Marijuana collection of shorter pieces somewhere. I didn’t “get” most of the jokes in either book, but they broadened my horizons. Barry Hannah’s Airships story collection, my fiction Bible throughout undergrad and grad school, is brimming with bleak absurdity, not to mention great language. Flannery O’Connor’s gothic weirdness was high entertainment to me back then, too. Berryman’s Dream Songs seemed like the funniest poetry in the world, until Dean Young and Jennifer Knox arrived on the scene. Canadian poet David McGlimpsey is also pretty hilarious. Donald Barthelme and Padgett Powell both expanded my ideas of “story” and “humor.” Powell’s Wayne is one of my favorite characters in literary fiction.
Growing up in Indiana, there was no way to escape Vonnegut, of course. And like Vonnegut, again, I think my sense of humor has been largely defined by an impractical combination of moral outrage and existential helplessness. Once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier. I’m focusing mostly on writers here because this conversation is for The Missouri Review. There are plenty of comedy performers I enjoy, but I don’t consider them influences in quite the same way. Once a writer, always a writer.
You can follow Brian Beatty on Twitter @brianbeattympls or online at www.brianbeattympls.com.