Like thousands of other people, this past Saturday, I cheered on participants in Baltimore’s 15th annual Kinetic Sculpture Race. This is truly a wacky and wonderful event, and it contributes to Baltimore’s image as a place full of fun and quirky people (see the films of John Waters for more evidence). Here’s a quick description from the race’s website:
“Kinetic Sculptures are amphibious, human powered works of art custom built for the race. Each May, the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) hosts the East Coast Kinetic Sculpture Race Championship on the shore of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in central Maryland. The eight-hour race covers 15 miles—mostly on pavement, but also including a trip into the Chesapeake Bay and through mud and sand.”
The people who make this race such an amazing spectacle each year have a lot to teach us—everyone, but here I’m focusing on writers and readers—about creativity, stamina, and teamwork. We may laugh as we cheer on “Team Fifi,” a group of bicyclists propelling an enormous pink poodle whose “fur” consists of hundreds of yards of tulle (that’s tutu fabric for those who aren’t textile-savvy), but we can learn some serious life lessons from watching such a phenomenon.
1) Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself! Kinetic Sculpture Racers wear ridiculous costumes and do ridiculous things, but the risks they take make the event a showcase for creativity and ingenuity. Writers sometimes feel like fools for writing a novel or publishing independently, especially if they are not reaping any financial rewards from their efforts. Were the pilots of “Go Ask Alice” having such worries as they pedaled through the streets of Baltimore–and later through water, sand, and mud–in their enormous blue caterpillar? They are in it for the fun rather than the money, and making it through the muck is part of the game. Writing may feel like a silly thing for grownups to do, but grownups need creative outlets. The question is whether we can amuse or enlighten others in the process—and laugh at ourselves along the way. Readers will forgive (or enjoy) our foolishness if they find something that captures their imaginations or their sympathies.
2) Packaging matters, but so does engineering! There are plenty of kinetic sculptures that look great, but have inadequate underlying structures. On Saturday, “Desdemona Duck,” which began to fall apart as soon as it got rolling, was the perfect example of that. Later, it fell over on its side as soon as it got into the water at Canton Waterfront Park. With the enthusiastic support of the cheering crowd, they ultimately made it through the water and the rest of the race. The lesson here for writers is that if your packaging is good, you may find plenty of fans and actual readers (not always the same), but isn’t it even better if our narratives truck along smoothly and stay afloat (ideally, without bad clichés like these)? Many kinetic sculpture racers come back year after year, perfecting their structures as they learn from experience. As writers, we can do that by revising our current projects (something I am doing now) and applying the design principles we have learned to future projects. Readers can help us by letting us know what works and what doesn’t work, and you can alert us when the whole structure is tipping over or when our narratives need more momentum.
3) Power through the obstacles, and get help when you need it! The kinetic sculpture race is full of excitement and entertainment, but it is especially inspiring to see teams go through the obstacle course at Patterson Park. Each sculpture has to make it through a sand pit and a mud pit. While the goal is to make it with locomotion contained within the sculpture (usually several bicyclists), many teams also rely on others to push them through. A sculpture needs a lot of momentum to make it through the mud pit at the top of a hill, and few of the teams are able to do it without assistance. Because most of the sculptures are powered by teams of cyclists, the race highlights the value of teamwork, yet it also emphasizes that teams need help of various kinds. For kinetic sculpture racers, that may mean team members who stand in the mud pit and push the sculpture up the hill—sometimes falling into the pit as they do so. All writers can benefit from having the literary equivalent of a “mud pit crew.”
Although writing itself tends to be a solitary activity rather than a team sport, there is a strong social dimension to everything that surrounds the writing process. We need the support of other writers—whether in writing groups or in online forums—and we need the help of editors and other professionals pivotal to the publishing process, but most of all we need readers. Readers can help push us through the mire by remembering writers are people, too. We are human and we therefore create imperfect narratives, but we can make them better if we hear from you.
You Have Your Own Kinetic Potential Whether you are a writer or “just” a reader, engage with literature by writing book reviews, commenting on blog posts, and sharing your opinions via social media. I have found it inspirational to have both friends and strangers cheer me on in my endeavors. The rise of Internet culture and the transformation of the publishing industry have empowered readers to be more than just passive consumers of culture, so if you value books, then embrace your kinetic potential.