Arts & Literature Op-Ed Column
Written by Nathan Mattise
I’m spending the summer in Albuquerque, N.M. with an eccentric aunt. I know less than six people in town between the ages of 17 and 30. There is likely a direct correlation between these two statements and my increased summer reading. But seeing this idea from Esquire didn’t hurt either.
Esquire Magazine is running what they call the Napkin Fiction Project. It’s based on the age old premise that writers are crazy people who will scribble their ideas down on anything within reach (I carry a reporter’s notebook in my back pocket whenever leaving the house for that very reason). They sent out 250 napkins to writers from all walks of life – young and old, new and established, etc. – and they received nearly 100 in return. All of them were then posted online for the viewing pleasures of young wanna-be writers and hardcore fiction lovers. Simply put, I am still in awe of this idea’s genius.
I personally never heard of any of these authors, but apparently some are quite famous. ZZ Packer has written in The New Yorker and won a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction. Thomas Beller has appeared in SPIN and The Village Voice and has his own very cool fiction web site. I could go on but I don’t want to wiki-link you to death. Just know that these aren’t all amateurs scribbling on napkins.
The collection offers a lot in terms of variety from what I’ve read. I liked this short, comedic first-person piece by Millard Kaufman (co-creator of Mr. Magoo by the way). I liked this longer, “is there some type of social commentary” piece by Tom Junod. Even this pseudo-graphic, sad-state-of-the-world bit from Jonathan Ames had me checking out more napkins.
One of the cool things about it is when you check out the entries you see the pdf of the napkin and then the readable text version of the story underneath. That above is a pdf of the napkin I mailed in to this thing this morning. Why not? They specifically said they were contacting “writers from all over the country — some with a half dozen books to their name, others just finishing their first.” Let’s say I have a manuscript in progress and call it even (c’mon, I was so compelled I had to try).
Even if my napkin doesn’t settle among the stars, I think I (and any other young writer) can really take something away from this. Allow me to stream-of-consciousness some romanticized lessons from these napkins:
Good fiction can be spontaneous. It can be as long as you’d like (for instance six out of the eight square on my napkin) or as short as you like (Mr. Magoo’s went about two squares). It can come in any form and over any medium. It’s about engaging someone – through narrative, content or even form. Most important of all, it’s something that anyone (young or old, established or not) can participate in and have a voice. It doesn’t take formal training, years of experience or knowing the right people necessarily. It can all start with an idea, a pen in your pocket or purse and a napkin from the dinner table.
Even if none of that was valuable to you, this post and project at least exposed you to some interesting afternoon reading. I only wish David Sedaris participated, but maybe he was too busy with The New Yorker.
(Links today found via: Wikipedia, USA Today’s Pop Candy, Esquire and YouTube)