Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Entry # 137 - Polly Buckingham, Interview with Editor & Writer

Background Notes

Polly Buckingham is the editor of StringTown, a Northwest magazine of creative writing, and of StringTown Press, publishing new Northwest authors (http://stringtownpress.org/). 

She teaches creative writing and literature at Eastern Washington University.  In addition to teaching, she has worked as an editor, independent bookseller, transcriptionist, ghost writer, abridger, fisher person and deckhand. Her fiction and poetry appear in national literary magazines.  Her work appears in The Literary Review, The New Orleans Review, The North American Review, The Tampa Review (Pushcart nomination), Exquisite Corpse, Kalliope, Hubbub, The Chattahoochee Review and elsewhere.  Her books have been finalists or semifinalists for the following awards: Flannery O‚Connor Award (twice), Bakeless Prize, Blue Lynx Prize, Whidbey Island Emerging Writers Contest, the Snake Nation Review Contest, and the Spokane Prize (twice).  Polly teaches all of EWU's online creative writing courses: intro. to creative writing, advanced short story writing, and advanced poetry.  For more information, follow this link: http://outreach.ewu.edu/online/courses/course-list.html

Jan:    Thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to talk about your work as a writer and editor. As a founding editor of String Town in Washington State, what was the impetus in 1998 to establish an annual literary journal?

Polly:    I’d worked on a number of literary journals and loved the process.  The idea of coupling a contribution to the community of writers with something I loved doing was really appealing.  I love reading the work and finding pieces that might otherwise go unnoticed, and I love design and layout—the cover, the art work, the ordering of the work, even detail-oriented technical stuff engages me. 

I was living in Astoria, Oregon when I decided I would start a journal of my own.  I’d written encyclopedia articles for Salem Press (in my mid-twenties) on 101 famous women, and many of them had been publishers, and publishers of multiple journals and newsletters and political publications. I was awed by the role publication played in enacting change. All these women were famous for their contributions, and these publications were part of that. At the time, I was editing a newsletter for the local community radio station for pay, and soon after, as a political activist, spearheaded a newsletter called Out of the Coast as part of a movement against the anti-gay initiatives in Oregon (mid 1990’s).  StringTown just seemed like a no-brainer. 

Jan:    Describe your involvement in the start-up process and your role now? 

Polly:    I actually started the journal (before the press) in Seattle where I’d have a larger audience to draw on.  It wasn’t something I debated.  It just seemed like what I should do, and what I wanted to do.  I did it all pretty much on my own.  I didn’t do a lot of research; I learned by doing, which is generally how I operate.  I printed up postcards calling for submissions and put them in bookstores and coffee shops. 
Every year for the first ten years, I drove up and down the coast of Oregon and Washington and sold the magazine to independent bookstores.  I’d been a bookseller for eight years before returning to college (grad school) and later teaching in college, so I felt real allegiance to these stores.  I camped and walked the beaches with whatever dog I had at the time and always bought way too many books. 

I left submission postcards all along the way.  I noticed that distributors mostly stuck to the cities; rural areas didn’t have literary magazines—it wasn’t worth anybody’s money to go out there and sell them.  But I didn’t much care about money.  I wanted the magazine to represent those areas.  I have had co-editors now and then--mostly they read submissions and go through the selection process with me, and I do the rest.  I’ve always done 75% of the work or more.  Volunteers come and go.  They get good experience, and I get a little help now and then.

Jan:    What kinds of work are you looking for when you, and your volunteer staff, sift though the stories, poems, essays, and art submissions?

Polly:    Authenticity, emotional integrity, resonance.  I used to say and still say, if it makes me cry, I take it.  I read an article once on editing a journal that said sometimes there’s only a very fine line between the best stuff and the worst stuff, and the best editors know that line.  I like that.  I like work that takes risks, risks that other editors and readers might really balk at, but I see something in it.  I don’t like to compromise on these things.  I don’t like journals with big editorial boards where the best stuff gets weeded out for the bland stuff everyone agrees on.  People don’t agree on great literature.  Much of it got panned in its time.  That’s actually one of my favorite parts—finding those thrilling pieces no one else notices.  I think I’m good at that.

Jan:    In your opinion, what is essential for beginning writers to know about publishing today?

Polly:    A friend quoted me in the beginning of her book saying, “you can’t get published if you don’t submit.”  That’s really it.  Rejections are good because you’ll have to rack up 50 or 100 of them before you’ll get an acceptance.  People think I’m crazy when I say I have 100 things in the mail.  But that’s what it takes, and almost no one escapes that.  Don’t take it personally.  It’s not you.  It’s the crazy world that doesn’t value this stuff enough.  That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. 

Jan:    What can you say about publishing and self-publishing from both an editor’s and a writer’s perspective?  What factors do you think are helping to establish the legitimacy of self-publishing?

Polly:    I’m in academia where self-publishing is forbidden, but as a young person, I put together a couple books of poetry and gave them to my friends.  It was fun.  I liked the process.  But I don’t take them seriously, not now and not then.  I think the process of finding an editor, a journal, a publisher, ideally (key word here), is a marvelous one: we get better because our peers assess our work, not because we said it was good and goddammit someone should read it. 

Literature gets better, keeps its quality, improves, because we offer each other a critical eye, because we create honest publication space for new schools of thought that help prevent literature from stagnating.  The relationship between an editor and writer is perhaps as sacred, and as important, as the relationship between a writer and the work.  And I don’t think it’s a step you want to leave out.  It’s too crucial to your development as a writer: preparing a manuscript for the right audience and getting the approval of your peers.  (That absolutely does not mean thinking about audience while you’re creating.) Self publishing is a one way street.  It can lead to lazy writing and to an unwillingness to improve, an unwillingness to see yourself as part of a community dedicated to quality literary work that really moves people.  I’m not saying we need gatekeepers.  I’m saying we need each other.

Jan:   What are the benefits and problems associated with social media for writers?  In your opinion, which of the social media venues gives the biggest bang for the time and effort?

Polly:    None.  I really can’t quite engage in social media.  It makes me itchy.  And I have tried.  I just get disengaged pretty quickly.  You know, I suppose an internet presence is a good thing for a writer and I do look at author websites a lot.  But there are so many different venues and so much stuff out there that isn’t vetted in any way.  I find it impossible to weed through, and my time is important: I don’t want to spend it online.  It’s never going to replace the process of publication.  It’s always going to come down to the work: at least that’s the way it should be, to my mind, and I like to operate out of that ideal.  I love sites that contribute to discussions on writing, that post live readings, interviews, that kind of thing.  But I find promoting myself through social media sites really difficult and unpleasant and antithetical in many ways to what I do and love.

Jan:    What do you see as the future role of agents? Do you think agents will become obsolete?

Polly:    I struggle with agents.  As John Keeble, my greatest fiction mentor, said to me, if you don’t have a connection with one, it’s like spitting into the wind.  For me, it began to feel like a waste of time.  I have an unpublished novel, and it’s gotten really positive feedback and I’ve had some chapters published in journals, but I am definitely discouraged by the limited availability of places to reasonably submit it. 

Small presses focus on story collections and poetry collections, not novels.  And large presses are closed without an agent.  Because novels actually sell, it can feel nearly impossible to get them published.  Damn the role money plays in all this.  That’s what I love about poetry: no poet ever expected it would pay.

Jan:    Congratulations on your impressive list of published poetry and fiction. In your opinion who is more likely to find a literary journal to publish work in today’s literary climate: poets or short fiction writers?  

Polly:    Both are really tough, but definitely I’ve had more poems published than short stories, proportionally and otherwise—and I pretty sure I’m a far better fiction writer than poet.  Again, fiction pays more, on all sorts of levels, so it’s more competitive, and it takes up more space in a journal, so fewer pieces are accepted. Money really does corrupt the process. 

Fiction writers are often taken more seriously, which baffles me since poets know the language better than any other type of writer.  But I suppose people think, “oh, that’s only a few lines—that’s easy.”  And then, so much of the public has no idea what the hell poetry is. But everyone knows a good story. So poetry exists in this wonderful little bubble. The downside is - you never quite get treated well. 

The upside is you’re more likely to get published and you can ignore the rat race that publishing fiction can feel like.  Poets, for example, don’t get “three book deals” or $50,000 advances. They don’t get much, actually. “Just” the respect and awe of a small audience. And yet, they are our greatest visionaries.
  Jan:    Tell me about your favorite published poem and short story that you have written? What was the spark that helped each burn into a powerful finished work? 

Polly:   That’s hard.  My favorite works haven’t been published.  But…my favorite published poem would have to be “The Crone.”  This was recently published in The Chattahoochee Review.  I wrote it after my sister’s death.  It has a lot of dream imagery in it and brings me back into the experience of grieving. That space isn’t a bad space.  It’s a necessary space, a respite, and seeing this poem on the page, published eight years after I wrote it, reminds me of that. 

The story would have to be “My Doppelganger’s Arms” published in The North American Review.  This is a story that had been around over ten years before it got picked up.  It is one of my stranger stories, also based on a dream, and when I brought it to workshops people used to say, “You can’t do that.”  Well, I did.  This week I had another strange, strange story (“The Apology”), also about my sister’s death, accepted by a new journal called The Moth in Ireland.  The thing that really struck me was that they accepted it in seven days.  And when I commented on how quick it was, the editor, Rebecca O’Connor, wrote, “It’s beautiful, Polly.  I’m not normally that fast!”  The story is really experimental, something difficult to place.  I feel really good when a piece is so clearly appreciated, when it seems to have found a very welcome home.  I will send them more work.

Jan:    If a great poem tells a story, which of yours provides the richest narrative? 

Polly:   The last lines of “Sacred Window” are below.  I chose them because they tell the story about the sacred relationship of writer to publisher that I’ve been discussing.  This is what it is when it works: you’ve found your audience.  They are the ones (and maybe only a few) willing to go out in the rain and listen.  You have to listen to that, even if the audience is a small one.  This is the think that poets understand more than fiction writers, I think.

…Why shouldn’t I

choose my audience, those willing

to travel this far, willing to sit by the river

in a veil of May rain and listen,

each gift unwrapped in a tumble of words.

Jan:    Yes. I see what you’re saying and it is represented in this poem. So what are you working on now?

Polly:    I finished a new collection of poems (my second) this summer, though I don’t feel secure enough with it to submit it as a whole yet, and I’m rewriting the last three stories in a new collection of stories called What the Dead Know.  It’s my third collection.  I’m really proud of it and am in the stage of loving it more than I love anything. 

I have a four-day writing retreat coming up in a few weeks to finish up, and then I’ll start submitting it when I return.

Jan:    What have you recently read that you loved and would recommend to readers and writers?

Polly:   Oh gosh—so much: Jose Saramago (Blindness, The Stone Raft, The Cave—all stunning).  Kevin McIlvoy—I’ve read three recently—his most recent The Complete History of New Mexico, but Little Peg and A Waltz are both stunningly weird and transcendent also. 

I read and reread this summer the Collected Stories of John Cheever and fell in love with him all over again.  I reread Joy Williams’ Taking Care, one of my favorite story collections.  I reread all of William Stafford’s work last spring.  Others: Neruda’s Selected Poems—with various translators; Christopher Howell’s Gaze; Tomas Transformer’s Selected Poems (edited by Robert Haas); Antonya Nelson’s novel Bound and her collection Nothing Right; I’m working on Albert Goldbarth’s Everyday People (poems) and Ramona Ausubel’s No One is Here Except All of Us—first novel.  These are all stunning.  You see a lot of rereading because I’m teaching some of these authors to my own writing students.

Jan:    What is the advice about writing that you have chosen to ignore?

“You can’t do that”

“Get rid of the dream”

“Tell us more about the mother”

Jan:    What is the best advice anyone ever gave you and that you would like to pass on to other writers?

Polly:    For me the best advice has more to do with living, since writing was never the problem: taking care of myself and living well was.

Here’s this from a William Stafford poem:

For it is important that awake people be awake,

Or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;

The signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—

Should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

This applies communication, love, and also writing.

And this from a recent interview with Christopher Howell:

 “He believes having a good attitude is very important for writing poetry, and the worst attitudes to have while writing are envy and anger. Howell believes a poem should be something that encourages people.”

Jan:    Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Polly. What advice would you share with aspiring writers about nurturing the creative process?

Polly:    Write a lot.  Trust yourself.  Take care of yourself.  Be generous.  Forget about an audience while you’re writing.  Forget about externalities.  Writing is intrinsic.  It needs to be yours.  And you need to do it because, well, you need to do it, not because you have expectations about how it will be received.  It should be like love: that good, that hard, that risky, and that important.  Nothing bad can come of it.

To obtain submission guidelines or to obtain a copy of String Town send an email to:  stringtown@earthlink.net

Bio Notes

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2011 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction.  Glimmer Train nominated a story as an Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Award for New Writers. Her stories have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, two O’Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. A story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. Her nonfiction work appears in Pen-in-Hand and Trajectory. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers, editors and publishers.   Learn more at:

Friday, February 22, 2013

Entry # 136 - Featuring June 2013 - Writing Workshops - Tinker Mountain Writers Conference

Tinker Mt. Writers Conference Workshop
Hollins University  
Roanoke, VA.
Friday Reflections Special 
 offers information on
Summer Writers Workshops one each Friday for a month.
2013 Workshop Dates: June 9 -14, 2013

Want to be a writer who makes people think, ponder, and listen? Then this is the place for you. The Tinker Mountain Writers' Workshop is your opportunity to develop the writing skills you've always wanted in a one-week experience at Hollins University. Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you'll be surrounded by peace, beauty, and inspiration as you discover your full potential as a creative writer. Choose one from nine workshops in fiction, creative nonfiction, screenwriting, and poetry — led by a remarkably talented faculty. With class sizes of no more than 12 students, you'll benefit from one-on-one interaction with your workshop leader along with in-depth class discussions. You can expect faculty and student readings, manuscript reviews, craft seminars, and a variety of other activities developed specifically for your workshop.

Prepare yourself for in-class critiques and find yourself immersed in lively discussions with fellow writers as your leader guides your conversation along. With such tranquility along with rousing discussion, the atmosphere at the Tinker Mountain Writers' Workshop is sure to bring out the best in your writing.

2013 Workshop Course Descriptions

Advanced Novel

"A novel is really like a symphony," Katherine Anne Porter once said, "where instrument after instrument has to come in at its own time, and no other." Whether you’re working on conventional or experimental fiction, your novel is shaped by the instruments you choose: the scenes you select and extend, the voices in which you describe them, and your treatment of narrative time. In this workshop, we will examine your novel excerpt (of no more than 20 double-spaced pages) for both technique and the critical impulses that inspire a long work of fiction. What pressures exist in your work that create novelistic tension, and how can these pressures be further exploited? What is your novel accomplishing in its narrative tracks, character arcs, and structural shape? For any writer who has completed several polished chapters or a first draft of a novel, this workshop will help you evaluate how your approach to the novel is working for you and offer you ideas for development and revision.
Instructor: Fred Leebron, advanced fiction

Beginning Novel (beginner to intermediate)

As readers, when we settle in with a novel, we make a commitment. Whether it delivers sympathetic characters, moving situations, or gorgeous prose, if we are drawn in, we are usually drawn in for good, for days on end. A novel is also the most forgiving form of storytelling we have—inherently generous, comfortable and satisfying in its depth— and perhaps the most daunting to begin. In this workshop, we will focus on finding a manageable way to look at the broad story from the very early stages. How do we choose a compelling place to open and a compelling point of view from which to see everything we need to see? What do these choices tell us about what is to come, and how quickly we need to come to it? Bring a loose outline and a draft of your first chapter. Leave with a plan.
Instructor: Ashley Warlick, fiction

Poetry and Beyond: Tradition and Beyond

This class examines what strong poetry does, but also what it might still do. To that end, we will look at some traditional poetic techniques and sample some experimental forms. As we discuss and analyze your writing, we will work to strengthen the foundations of our poetic craft while asking how we might venture into new formal territory. This course is geared both toward students who are just starting to write poetry and toward those with experience who are looking to reinvigorate their practice. Expect some outside reading/writing, in-class exercises, and of course workshop of student poems. Special topics this year include meter, the poetic fragment, and titles. Participants should bring 10 pages of their poetry (at least three poems).
Instructor: Nick Lantz, poetry, all levels 

Re(en)vision: A Workshop for Short Fiction Writers With Manuscripts That Have Been Rejected at Least Once

Few writers enjoy learning that a magazine or journal has "passed" on work to which they’ve devoted long hours and much energy, and yet most writers will experience exponentially more rejection in their writing lives than acceptance. This short fiction workshop is designed for writers who don’t want to give up on manuscripts that have been turned down and want to see in rejection an opportunity to revise and develop stories, but now with the clearer, sharper vision that comes from knowing that at least one editor, for reasons that may or may not have been specified, loved it less than the writer does. In this workshop we'll approach rejection as a positive part of a story's progress from draft to published work. We’ll do our best to identify what each writer has succeeded in accomplishing in his or her story as well as what stood in the way of its publication. Writers should bring to the workshop a fiction manuscript of no more than 18 pages and, if possible, one or more of the rejection letters it garnered. Together we’ll help one another’s stories reach the larger audiences they want and, I believe, deserve.
Instructor: Dan Mueller, intermediate to advanced

Shaping Drafts: An Advanced Poetry Workshop

Making successful poems requires the writer to read the drafts as mysteries. To shape a poem's energies, we must let its energies shape our shaping. It is a dance of both proximity and distance, vision and blindness. This workshop invites poets with experience and a mature sense of aesthetic persuasion to explore the delicate art of tapping into a poem's urgencies, a kind of open heart surgery. We will grow more familiar with the anatomy and texture of poetry: image, word, diction, voice, syntactical configurations, rhetorical devices, and matters of form and tradition — stanza, line, punctuation, and page. In addition to having our poems read and discussed, we will read widely and closely poems from across the ages as well as read essays on craft. To be considered, please submit no more than six poems and a 200-word description of what you hope to gain from the workshop to tmoeckel@hollins.edu.
Instructor: Thorpe Moeckel, advanced poetry

Stretching Your Short Fiction

Writerly evolution most frequently takes place as a series of great evolutionary leaps: writers - often inspired by some profound challenge or undertaking - find themselves suddenly, swiftly, and significantly advanced in their art. This workshop, through challenging writing exercises, far-ranging discussion, and intense scrutiny of participants' manuscripts, will endeavor to induce just such an evolutionary leap. Prepare to leave the class both exhausted and changed.
Instructor: Pinckney Benedict, intermediate to advanced

Survival Stories: Nonfiction on Crisis

This workshop is for people writing about crucial difficult experiences and about the moments when one way of thinking about one’s life stops, and another begins. Difficulty, or crisis, disrupts the “continuously rewritten autobiography we all carry with us in our minds,” as Charles L. Mee writes. Writing can be the bridge, the way to connect up the story again. Writing about crisis can be the way to move forward in our writing lives, creating new wholeness in narratives and meditations. And crisis writing allows us to explore difficulty. It allows us to explore fresh territory as we articulate what happened, how it felt and what we think about it now. We will aim for accuracy, insight, and discovery. We will try to create writing about difficulty that is as urgent and compelling on the page as the experience feels in our lives. The workshop will focus on experimenting with the technical elements of artful nonfiction, and creating original, distinctive work. We will read each other’s work closely and try daily writing exercises for revision and generating new material. We will also read and discuss essays and memoir excerpts as time allows. Please bring a manuscript to share (up to 15 double-spaced pages).
Kathryn Rhett, creative nonfiction, all levels

The Art and Craft of Screenwriting (and Adaptation)

This intensive and challenging workshop will guide screenwriters through the entire screenwriting process: idea, story, structure, scenes, dialogue, pacing, etc. In short, the elements of a professional grade screenplay (or television pilot). And for those adapting a novel, short story, or play, we will review fundamental strategies for writing a successful adaptation. The workshop also involves the practical analysis of feature-length screenplays and movies to see what works and what does not, and considerable time table reading and workshopping pages. We will also look at proven methods for writing a strong logline and synopsis. The logline and synopsis are arguably the biggest selling tools a writer uses, yet they are often overlooked by emerging screenwriters. It is recommended that students arrive with a short synopsis, the first 10-25 pages of their screenplay, and a beat sheet or treatment for that screenplay.
Khris Baxter, all levels

Time after Time in Memoir and Personal Essay

"I wish I knew then what I know now," might be reason enough to set your pen to paper. The memoirist Sven Birkerts says, "I need to give the reader both the unprocessed feeling of the world as I saw it then and a reflective vantage point that incorporates or suggests that these events made a different kind of sense over time." In this workshop we’ll focus on those events that gave our lives shape and how our writing might help us review "now" at we experienced "then." Whether you’re leaning toward the narrative of memoir or the reflection and focus in personal essay, we’ll look at how to craft both showing and telling, with an eye on timing, balance, and reader engagement. Open to all levels, this workshop will offer examples, reading assignments and/or exercises if needed, a sympathetic audience, and individual conferences. Please bring one or two examples (up to 20 pages double spaced) of your work in progress.
Instructor: James McKean, creative nonfiction, all levels 

Tinker Mountain Writers' Workshop
Hollins University
Christine Powell
P.O. Box 9552
Roanoke, VA 24020-1552
(540) 362-6229

Fax: (540) 561-2325


It is winter in Roanoke, VA now, but by June 2013, it will be a beautiful green instead of a beautiful white.

Go to the website for details about costs and faculty.  This is an excellent workshop for beginner or advanced writers to submerge themselves into the writing life for a week of concentrated growth in a supportive setting. 
Go To Entry # 70 - 6/22/12 of my blog for personal impressions of this workshop.
Blog Bio. Notes 
Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2011 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction.  Glimmer Train nominated a story as an Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Award for New Writers. Her stories have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, two O’Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. A story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. Her nonfiction work appears in recent Pen-in-Hand and Trajectory. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers, editors and publishers.   Learn more at:
Website – www.janbowmanwriter.com
Blogsite – http://janbowmanwriter.blogspot.com

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Entry # 135 - Lance Kramer, Interview with Co-Founder of Meridian Hill Pictures

Lance Kramer, Producer, Co-Founder of Meridian Hill Pictures
is a documentary filmmaker, educator, journalist and a co-founder of Meridian Hill Pictures. At MHP, Lance produces the studio’s documentary films and media education projects, spearheads development, social media, outreach and engagement strategy, and curates the PictureHouse pop-up public film screening series. Lance has participated in a variety of successful projects with emerging digital technologies, including the Mozilla/ITVS/BAVC LivingDocs ‘Hackathon’ project at Silverdocs 2012. In 2009, Lance helped lead a digital and grassroots outreach effort to screen the environmental documentary Hope in a Changing Climate in over 20 countries. As a journalist, Lance has written on news, music, film, arts and culture, for a variety of publications. Lance holds a Bachelors Degree in History from Dartmouth College. He is the author of Great Ancient China Projects You Can Build Yourself, a children’s book selected to the American Bookseller’s Association Fall 2008 Indie Next List. Lance serves as Board Chair of Docs In Progress, a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to building community through the power of documentary film. Lance has also served as a Humanities Council of Washington DC humanities scholar.

Jan:    Congratulations, Lance. This summer you and your brother, Brandon, celebrated two-years of film-making with your new film company, Meridian Hill Pictures (MHP). I appreciate your taking time to answer some questions.
What do you truly love about having your own film company?

Lance:    We grew up surrounded by entrepreneurs in our family. My dad is an architect and a sculptor and for many years, he had an office and studio in our house. I remember as a kid, going down into his workspace in the basement — playing on the computer, sitting with my legs dangling at his drafting table, borrowing his pens and pencils (and more often than not, forgetting to return them), flipping through his architectural drawings, and playing with his blocks of clay. 

Since starting MHP, I’ve never had a morning where I’ve woken up and not wanted to go to work. No two days have been similar, and each day is challenging, but I find myself constantly motivated to face each challenge, learn and grow from the experience. Though I wish I could say otherwise, I think that’s rare to find in a day job.

Jan:    Your family has deep roots in the Washington, DC area. How has this also inspired you?

Lance:    My grandfather Sam also had his own business, a meat and produce shop in Northeast DC called Kramer & Sons, which was actually started in the early 1900s by my great-grandfather Isadore. As a teenager, I loved going to the market to visit, wandering through the aisles of pig’s feet, wheels of cheese and stacks of paper products. The market was also where I first experimented with taking black and white photographs. It’s age and history and weathered-nature, to a certain extent, made it feel like such a visually dynamic setting full of countless stories. Though I always appreciated and admired what my father, grandfather and great-grandfather did, it wasn’t until I got a little older that I realized a big part of what I respected was the fact that they had each figured out how to translate something that they loved into an actual job and sustainable enterprise. 

For my dad, he found a way to create a living out of being an artist. For my grandfather, he took his own father’s business, made it his own and created a lifelong sense of community with his customers. For Brandon and I, the real gift is being able to work with my brother on something we care deeply about, finding those ways of turning the art form we love into a sustainable career that has positive (and hopefully lasting) impact. Even more important than creating something that we care about, it has been inspiring to create a sense of community around MHP, watching how other people have gotten just as excited about MHP. I feel like we bring a lot of the qualities and lessons we observed and absorbed from our family into the way we have tried to build MHP, and we are certainly trying to do our best to carry those legacies and traditions onwards.
Jan: What is the mission for MHP?
Lance:    This is an important question for us. I suppose some businesses simply have ‘making money’ as their sole mission. For us, it was essential that we established an entity where the mission and desired social impact was deeply embedded into Meridian Hill Pictures’ DNA. From the moment we started MHP, we had faith that it was possible to create a sustainable mission-driven business (though we didn’t necessarily know how from Day One). We were intrigued by the idea that there could be many different pathways to addressing a social issue or problem — and that a non-profit structure is one method, but that a business could also achieve meaningful impact. 

Unlike a non-profit, it’s not formally required that a business identify a greater mission, so we took it upon ourselves to self-impose and communicate that aspect of MHP. In a lot of ways, though we’re technically a business, we’ve adopted many aspects of how a non-profit operates (for example: we don’t make a lot of money, and we re-invest almost everything back into the company to help the studio grow and sustain itself). In short, we’ve tried to create a hybrid structure that incorporates and leverages the best parts of a company and a non-profit. So far, while not perfect, it’s worked well for MHP.

With that in mind, we feel that MHP’s mission is to help provide access for diverse individuals and communities to tell and experience real stories of importance and relevance to their lives. 

Jan:    So how do you make those connections between diversity and community?

Lance:    Our programs and services encompass several different areas. Our independent documentary films focus on stories that examine critical issues and moving personal narratives, connecting the power of documentary film with efforts that advance dialogue, impact and engage broad audiences. We also facilitate media arts education residencies in schools and community groups, working with youth and adults to build their visual storytelling and literacy capacity. We also regularly facilitate ‘pop-up’ public screenings, to bring documentary films to spaces and communities where access and infrastructure may not be in place.

Jan:    So how do you make media that matters, that stays relevant in the face of rapid technological changes?

Lance:    We are surrounded by more visual media nowadays than at any time before. Technology has done amazing things to reduce barriers, democratize media and improve access, through much more affordable equipment and methods for self-distribution that were unimaginable just a decade ago.  Even still, we are in a real mixed-bag media landscape. 

It’s still harder than it should be to find media that matters, particularly through mainstream venues beyond social media and public broadcasting (thank goodness for PBS and NPR). It’s certainly much easier to find plenty of puff, and in some cases, even destructive or degrading media. Through our own filmmaking, teaching and public screenings, we hope that we are playing at least a small role in the emerging movement to create more outlets for the public to access and engage with meaningful media from under-represented perspectives. We are committed to helping provide the tools for diverse people of all backgrounds to become more active participants in creating media and authoring their own representation in the media.

Jan: What is the most difficult part of getting started with a film project?

Lance:    Though the funding landscape feels like it is becoming a bit easier, it definitely remains a challenge to secure the resources to make a project happen.

That said, the real challenges are more rooted in the creative process. For us, the thing that almost always takes the most time and energy is the process of building relationships and trust with individuals and the communities participating in a project. It’s an essential element, because without this, a project can never be successful, and may not even be possible in the first place.

Jan: How do you go about selecting film projects? 

Lance:    Sometimes we joke that the projects find us. Happenstance, curiosity, accidents, relationships and wrong turns have all been responsible for leading to new projects. For example, after moving into our studio in the Josephine Butler Parks Center in 2010, we learned that Washington Parks & People (the organization which manages the building) was helping to build a community garden in a formerly abandoned, vacant alley nearby in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. We decided to spend an afternoon at the garden one day with our cameras to film some of the effort. We found the whole project to be totally fascinating and wound up returning several times to document more of the process. From that footage, we created a short film called Community Harvest, which actually went on to get some recognition in local film festivals. After completing Community Harvest, we realized we were more interested in the story of the people who built the space, even more so than the space itself. That question led us on a two-year path to tell the story of the Green Corps, which has become a major initiative of the studio and our first feature-length documentary.

Around the same time in 2010, when walking to grab lunch in Adams Morgan one day, we decided to pop into the Sitar Arts Center and have a look around. We had passed by countless times, but for whatever reason, we decided that day that we should learn more about the Center. We got a tour by one of the wonderful Sitar staff and were blown away by all that the Center was doing for youth in the neighborhood to provide access to arts education. We decided to teach a documentary production class at the Center ourselves, which ultimately led to the film Life as a Collage. The experience of teaching at Sitar and making the film with the Center’s young people was a life-changing experience for us. The film itself was screened all across the country, including at the San Francisco International Film Festival. We also now have a formal partnership with Sitar and are expanding the documentary filmmaking class into a robust long-term program.

In all cases, it’s been about remaining open to anything, while at the same time having a good idea, at least in abstract terms, about what we want to do, how we want to do it, and what kind of impact we are looking to achieve. Thinking about these things has helped to provide a kind of rubric that’s allowed us to think strategically about whether a project will be a good fit. Often these projects can take anywhere from six months to several years to complete, so we want to make sure that we care deeply about the work and that the care can be sustained day-by-day, month-by-month.

We’ve also tried to create and pursue projects that are demonstrative of the kind of work we hope to do in the future. It’s funny how you can actually create these kinds of self-fulfilling prophecies. When people understand what you want to do, then it becomes easier for those things to actually happen. Now that we have built a portfolio of our work, I think people are better understanding of our identity and what constitutes a Meridian Hill Pictures film. Now some projects have started to come our way, where people or organizations are seeking us out based on some knowledge of our interests or strengths. It has been very encouraging and I hope it leads to more great stories and collaborations in the future.

Jan: And how do you finance them?

Lance:    As I mentioned, financing the projects is always a challenge, but I think we have found ways, through a combination of hard work and lots of luck. In some cases, non-profit organizations have helped to underwrite the costs of a production, particularly when the film speaks to an issue area, subject, person or community related to their work. We have also started receiving some grants from foundations and public arts agencies for our independent films. Given that the documentary field is changing so rapidly, this is something we think about a lot. Currently, we’re spending a lot of time thinking about different models and new ideas for funding that can help make producing a documentary easier. If you have any ideas, send them our way.

Jan: How do you go about obtaining rights?  Do you purchase options for projects or what? 

Lance:    Because we are not creating films from books, in some ways this isn’t an issue for us. We’re typically looking for a story to tell that already exists out in the world, but hasn’t been told yet. Rather than obtain rights for a literary entity like a book, a bigger challenge is securing the willing participation from each individual person and community in a film. The personal release form, and the trust it represents, is crucial in our field. Though there are many aspects of informally building trust, the release form is where a person formally offers and indicates their support and buy-in for a project. We take these very seriously and do our best to thoughtfully explain with each person what is involved when they participate in a project. If a person refuses to sign a release form, in most cases they have effectively blocked access to their story being included in a film. Being in front of a camera requires a tremendous amount of trust and openness to being vulnerable. We do everything we can to respect that people have shared this trust with us. As a result, we try to do everything possible to ensure they get a lot out of the experience.

Jan: You both have sturdy journalism backgrounds. How does that experience inform and support your documentary film-making decisions?

Lance:    I am so thankful for my early experiences with journalism, especially at the Black & White at Whitman. There is no doubt that your class and inspiration had a substantial impact on my growth, development and career. 

I learned as early as high school that I loved listening to, researching and investigating stories, and the act of creatively bringing those stories to an audience. At the time, I thought print journalism was the only way to do that. In college, I continued writing for my school’s paper. After college, I moved to Portland, Oregon, where I worked as a print journalist for several years, mostly at a wonderful alternative newsweekly called Willamette Week. All of these experiences as a journalist, especially my time in Oregon, taught me how to find good stories, become a better storyteller, how to ask critical questions, connect the dots, build trust, and my own confidence in sharing my work with audiences.

Jan:    So how did you make this transition to film?
I also always loved film from a young age, but for whatever reason, I never really thought that film and journalism were inter-connected. It wasn’t until several years after college that it occurred to me that documentary was the perfect blend of film and journalism. Around the same time, there were some aspects of print journalism that were becoming more difficult — in particular, the constant, short deadlines, and the fledgling nature of the field overall as everything rapidly shifted focus to the web. A move to documentary filmmaking felt natural and allowed me to continue honing the non-fiction storytelling muscle. At the same time, I appreciated how documentary as a medium afforded more time to thoroughly explore a story and also embraced a range of new-media approaches that only continue to become more prolific. So it feels like a medium that is growing and developing, which is exciting to be a part of.

Jan:    Are you still writing? 

Lance:    Oddly enough, though I work in documentary film now rather than print journalism, I write just as much, if not more, than when I worked as a journalist.

Jan: What particular skills do you and Brandon each bring, as individuals, to film production projects?

Lance:    First and foremost, I like to think that both of us bring a strong sense of story to each project. Because we think about story from different perspectives and use different techniques, usually, our collaboration leads to something stronger than either one of us might have created on our own. Brandon is such a gifted director, he has such a beautiful knack for asking insightful questions, building trust, understanding how to visually tell a story and how to lead and inspire a creative team. I’ve seen my role as a producer to help put the footwork in-place to support a director’s vision for a film, whether the director is Brandon, our collaborator Ellie Walton, or anyone else. If I can take the lead thinking about fundraising and development, outreach, engagement and distribution of the film, then the director can focus on the art of storytelling and the creative minutiae that go into making a great film.

Jan:    Do you think your strong business sense is innate or learned?

Lance:    Though neither one of us realized it, I think we’ve also both inherited a decent sense of business and knack for building and running a real organization. Being able to step away from the films themselves, and creatively and strategically think about the operational end of things, has helped us to build a sustainable platform for doing the work.

With all that said, I am reminded each day of my own weaknesses and areas where I would like to grow. It is something that’s always on my mind and I find myself constantly thirsty for learning more. Brandon and I both often talk about how one of the things we love about this work is that we can see how it can be a lifelong process, that there is potentially an infinite space for improvement and mastery. There is still so much separating us, as young peons, from the masters of the craft. It gives us a lot of motivation to keep at it.

Jan:    What are the pros and cons to working together as brothers? 

Lance:    The pro is that alongside my parents, I love my brother more than anyone else in the world. Being able to see and work with him every day to create work that I care about is the greatest gift I could ever imagine.

Of course, it can also be very difficult. Because we are so close to each other and know each other so well, we can take a lot of things for granted. Often times we get into trouble when we get too comfortable with each other. For us over the past few years, working together has been a constant process of learning how to build a new chapter in our relationship as brothers. We have tried to create new ways to listen and understand each other and handle conflict.

More than anything, the most important thing for us is always to preserve our relationship as brothers. As much as I passionately care about Meridian Hill Pictures, if anything ever came down to the company or my brother, it would always be my brother first.

Jan:    What is the most useful advice you ever received? 

Lance:    Find a mentor. Don’t spend money until your reach a breaking point and absolutely need to. Business, and documentary filmmaking, are largely about relationship-building. Be confident and vulnerable at the same time. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. 

Jan: What advice have you chosen to ignore?

Lance:    “Don’t start a business in a recession.”

Coming Soon - see a follow-up interview with Brandon Kramer - co-founder MHP


2010    Meridian Hill Pictures    (MHP)

2012 Our City Film Festival "Best Short Documentary" (Porchfest)
2012 Our City Film Festival "Best Student Documentary" (Life as a Collage)
2011 Our City Film Festival "Best Short Documentary" (Community Harvest)
Official Selection, 2011 Columbia Gorge International Film Festival (Community Harvest)
Official Selection, 2011 Southern Appalachian Film Festival (Community Harvest)

Meridian Hill Pictures is an innovative documentary production company dedicated to producing, teaching, and sharing films that inspire meaningful community participation and engagement.
General Information
Meridian Hill Pictures was founded in 2010 by a dedicated crew of filmmakers and educators interested in leveraging the power of documentary film to create social change.

Meridian Hill Pictures is a fully licensed and insured limited liability company proudly doing business in the District of Columbia.


Bio Notes

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2011 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction.  Glimmer Train nominated a story as an Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Award for New Writers. Her stories have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, two O’Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. A story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. Her nonfiction work appears in Pen-in-Hand and Trajectory. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers, editors and publishers.   Learn more at: