Contextual Residue: An Essay in Action Shots

The following screed was influenced by several factors. First, in David Sklar’s Operative bio, he writes: “wearing this [story] while dropping his kids off at school– that was harsh.” Then, yesterday, he sent me this set of Action Shots, of him taking his kids to the park alongside our latest issue, and the words started flowing.

The Ties That Bind

I’ll admit, that until seeing these photos I hadn’t really stopped to consider what it really means to wear a story like Berit Ellingsen’s– about (in my own interpretation) a ferociously insular and self-defeating family, among other things– to a public place like the park, with your kids. It hadn’t even crossed my mind.

There’s no telling which stranger around you is reading the story, nor how they’re taking it into account in their judgment of you. Or, on the other hand, how you yourself feel wearing a story that portrays such a dysfunctional family (in collective first person, no less), while doing something as family-minded as pushing your kids in the swing at a Jersey park.

The Ol' Heave-Ho

The Safety Pin Review was created to present works of short fiction in a nontraditional venue, to allow them to be experienced by a larger and, in most cases, unwitting audience.

But until now, I’d never really thought about the larger experience of the wearer him- or herself. For the contextual purposes of this particular story, it’s almost as if the wearer claims some kind of subjectivity. Though the words on the patch are credited to Berit Ellingsen, many incidental readers are bound to see the story as a reflection of the wearer’s character. As David Sklar said (at an experimental fiction panel!), Safety Pin Review stories effectively become part of “a book that is totally human.” Viewed at a park, as a father, with happy children, wearing this story; it’s a little unnerving, to say the least.

I’m at a loss to fully comprehend the implications of all this. Perhaps material for a later post.

The Anti-Gravity Chamber

A friend, Jake, who recently returned from a stint in Paraguay for the Peace Corps, asked what it was like for me personally to wear one of the stories. He wrote:

“One of the things that I enjoy most about being home in the States is the anonymity that American individualism provides in even a neighborhood or small town. It is nice to simply disappear sometimes instead of having to elaborately greet every person you encounter … I imagine the safety pin submissions get lots of attention and prompt many questions. Is this intrusive?”

Back in September, when the SPR was first starting out, I wore each story myself. I’m a student at a tiny liberal arts college in Richmond, Indiana, and to be perfectly honest, it often seemed as if no one cared at all. At a place like this, we’re so wrapped up in our own sense of individuality that to see some dude wandering around with a story stuck to his back is not really all that exceptional. People will probably read it, but only a few will actually comment or ask about it. On occasion, I would feel dejected because, deep down, all we really want is attention.

Get In the Trunk.

But now that we’ve expanded our reach, and our stories have gone on to grace the backs of people far beyond the cloistered confines of Earlham College, I am finally beginning to understand how this thing works, how each of these stories is additionally, contextually defined by the person who wears it.

This is the Safety Pin Review at its best.

"Hostage w blindfolded son"

So, in honor of this (personally) revelatory post, I would invite previous and forthcoming SPR contributors and operatives to sound off, share your opinions; what was it like to wear a Safety Pin Review story? How does it feel to have someone wear your work?

5 Responses to “Contextual Residue: An Essay in Action Shots”

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

    It’s surprising to hear that people didn’t ask about the story on your back. I think I would have been very tempted to ask about it, but that might be since I’m a writer. I’d at the very least try and get a closer look at the story.

    Did people try to read the story, or didn’t they even notice there was a story on your back? Maybe they thought it was a slogan?

    I’m surprised and delighted that David had the courage to wear the story on the playground and when he fetched his kids at school. That was above and beyond the call of duty, as the story shows an unhappy, maybe intimidating, family life.

    So a thousand thanks to David and you, Jacob, for making it happen.

    • It’s true, I didn’t really have much sense of who was actually reading the stories on my back unless they asked me about it, and a few people actually did (or whispered to their neighbors). Far, far more people noticed than actually said anything about it, of course.

      Besides that, I’ve been told that I “look angry” all the time, and this may have unintentionally frightened off people who might’ve asked about the stories. My neutral expression looks kind of like glowering.

      And you’re right– I’m sure more than a few people just thought it was a slogan or some vague band shirt.

      And yes, major, major props to David for taking this story to the park with his kids.

  2. […] read Simon’s essay about wearing stories and sticking out from the crowd. Advertisement GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  3. I’m sitting here kind of stunned that you went to Earlham, which I attended for just over two years back in the late ’80s. I should probably have noticed some of the shots of Runyan Center and front campus (w/Earlham Hall) in the early issues, though at the time I figured there were probably lots of college campuses that looked like that.

    After getting over that surprise, I quite liked the essay, and am pleased as punch to have inspired it. I’m very fond of the idea that art can be defined–or redefined–by its context. And it occurred to me almost immediately upon reading this story that it would have one meaning if worn by a teen or young twentysomething, and quite another if worn by a parent. And since my parents are miles away in Michigan, I went with the…uh…context I had available.

    Sadly, the night playground shots, where the playground equipment looked like turrets at a prison, didn’t come out. But I was thrilled when my son’s ear-warmer slipped down over his eyes and my wife snapped two pictures (yeah, the “blindfolded” shots weren’t posed, just a happy accident).

    I also tend to believe that an artist needs a certain amount of bravery and should be ready to suffer for his or her work (if you run into anyone who remembers me from Earlham, they may be able to tell a story about that), and an art “operative” should be willing to suffer for somebody else’s.

    So far I haven’t been asked about the patch by anyone near the school or the playground, and (despite what I say about courage) I’ve largely been walking quickly and hoping no one will notice. But we’ve got three school days left, so we’ll see if anything comes of that.

    • Whoa– it is a very small world. I will have to make inquiries as to your suffering for your art. I agree that an artist needs bravery, and hope to step up that game myself the next time I wear a story.

      My gut reaction to Berit’s piece this week was how awkward it would be to wear the story as a dad, but now I’m seeing the meanings that could be drawn from virtually anyone wearing it. For a teen, it could speak for an entire generation, or at least a certain social set; in a twentysomething, maybe a rejection of a tortured familial history.

      I sent the piece to my mother, a novelist herself, and she responded:

      I suspect people read the story, looked warily at the kids and the dad, and wondered what the heck was going on. It’s amazing how scared people are to ask a simple question… I guess someone could say, “That’s an intriguing story!” or (what I might say and be sorry for): “Gosh, hope that story’s not about you!” And then there’s the camera-person there, taking photographs… Another aspect for the viewing public/wearer to deal with.

      Good luck at Arisia, Operative Sklar!

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