Y Spy: Josh Olsen – Quick Walks Outside the Lines

If there’s one word that kept coming up in my interview with newly published author and fellow La Crosse expatriate Josh Olsen, it was nontraditional.  In describing himself, his writing career, his road to becoming a teacher, and his family life, Olsen often defaulted to using this term.  The shoe seems to fit; most of the roads he described in his life were painted as accidental journeys, not so much paved by choice but by unexpected opportunity.  It was through these slips of fortune ‒ finding himself a father at age 19, taking an inconsistent educational path through graduate school, developing a writing style he expected no one to see, and being offered various teaching positions in which he could teach that growingly public craft ‒ from which Olsen was able to gain the chance to enact a more conscious change, recently publishing Six Months, his own book of one page stories, over a decade after he began writing.

Even his choice of writing these one page stories doesn’t come off as conventional.  “Initially, I definitely did consider what I did poetry.  That’s what I called it; that’s what I submitted it as.  It’s probably because I wasn’t really familiar with other possibilities outside the genre.  I knew that what I was writing wasn’t traditional short story or a novel, but at the time I wasn’t familiar with the smaller subgenres like flash fiction.  I always had that short narrative style, but once I started gathering it into a collection, thinking what it would look like on the printed page, I intended to contain each piece in one page or less.”

Despite literature traditionally being a more time-consuming investment, Olsen enjoys this short, easy, and concise style of writing.  “60 minutes, 90 minutes, there are a lot of good things you can do in that amount of time: listen to a fantastic album, watch your favorite movie.  I like that condensed space and time.  I think that a lot of people are moving in that direction of condensed style, saying as much as you can in as few words as possible.”

At first he wrote solely for himself.  “It was definitely used as an emotional release, helping me cope with various things I was going through at the time.  I didn’t begin with any expectations of anybody reading my stuff.”  It wasn’t until he attended creative writing classes at Viterbo College in La Crosse that he decided to grow his writing beyond journal-keeping.  “I was exposed to the idea of other people seeing my stuff.  I’ve gotta workshop it, I’ve gotta tweak it, make it presentable.”

One thing that came up in our conversation was the idea of a journaler’s conflict, of writing solely for one’s self in a medium built for communication.  No matter how secret a piece is kept, writing is designed to be read, either by being found by others or read and remembered by the author in the future.  The question always arises: who is a writer, even a solipsist one, really writing for?

“I think there’s definitely a conflict.  I would be hard pressed to think of a time when I’ve written something and not thought afterwards about whether it was something I could use, revise, build upon, extract to another piece.  It’s still for myself to this day, but there’s still that thought in the back of my head.”

Though he submitted a few pieces to college publications at Viterbo and later at Mankato University in Minnesota where he undertook graduate work, Olsen didn’t submit work for publication until he was out of school.  By then he had decided to not only write but teach about writing.  For seven years he has led the life of a nomadic instructor, working primarily at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and at Wayne State University in Detroit as well as picking up college level writing courses around the area, sometimes hitting multiple schools in one day.

Teaching wasn’t something he planned to do.  “I knew that I wanted to work on my writing and improve it.  I knew that I eventually wanted to publish, but I had no intention to teach.  An opportunity came up to intern in a screenwriting class.  I enjoyed the time I had there with the professor I was working with.  I had the opportunity to teach my own section of Composition.  Definitely a rough start, but it was the one job that I enjoyed, more so than my experiences waiting tables or working at gas stations or factories.  I came to it rather late, at least with my intentions.”

Olsen noted that a lot of writing instructors are past life writers themselves, something which he is determined to avoid becoming.  “It was a goal of my own, seeing so many former writers become teachers and then forget about the writing.  For me, part of being a writing teacher is to teach what I’m actually doing.”

What he ended up doing was releasing Six Months in 2011, finishing off a year and a half long process of creation.  The stories within this book were taken from a five year period in Olsen’s writing, roughly spanning the years 2005 to 2010.  After writing for 10 years and attempting to develop various projects to fruition, he received a book offer from Brian Fugett, publisher of the online-print publication Zygote in My Coffee, a frequent supporter of Olsen’s work.

That support was vital for Six Months.  “At least for that first book, I wanted somebody else to put their name and trust behind it, that traditional model where somebody embraced what I have written.  Since then I’ve definitely put my feet to the pavement as far as promoting it.  It’s definitely another part time job, more time consuming than I’d assumed initially.”

Going the traditional publishing route, however, isn’t something that Olsen sees as necessary to his work.  “I’ve definitely had my hangups about, in certain forms, how the ideas of self-publication and self-promotion are accepted.  You expect a band to put out their own demo; if you sell albums out of the trunk of your car, it lends credibility in the music work.  You expect an independent filmmaker to fund, direct, produce, and put out their own movie. But for some reason there’s a stigma of why a writer can or can’t do that.  It just seems kind of unfortunate to me that there is that idea of ‘vanity publishing’ is lesser than getting somebody else to publish your work.  You need somebody else to lift you up, and I have my own hangups on that which I’m trying to move away from.”

The stories in Six Months tend to be intense recollections of Olsen’s past and analysis of how those moments affect the person he is today.  “The theme wasn’t intentional as the individual pieces were being written, and I don’t think that that idea really came to me until I moved to Michigan, until I was living 10 hours away from La Crosse, which was for the most part my hometown.  It wasn’t until I left when that theme came through in my writing, and I really didn’t notice it until I started putting the book together.”

The story’s main piece, a tale of periodic homecoming featuring La Crosse as its center, is a perfect example of this battle between past and future.  “[It’s about] going back and forth every six months, taking that trip from Michigan to La Crosse every Christmas and summer break and having that distance, that sense of clarity in seeing things I hadn’t seeing before, being more of an outside presence within my family, within my circle of friends, people I worked with.  There’s that conflict of nostalgia and clarity when that homesickness, when that nostalgia wears off.  It’s nice for a couple days, but you can only go downtown so much.”

As well as analyzing his past surroundings Olsen gets quite blunt in his opinions of his family, freely disclosing his parents’ shortcomings with varying levels of amusement and bitterness.  Yet according to him these stories aren’t displays of bridge burning.

“Once I grew accustomed to writing with the intention of publication and getting things out for other people to read, I made a point to not censor myself.  I don’t write with the thought of somebody possibly reading it and being offended or passing judgment on me.  I’d have to say that despite the other people, family members, and friends that come up in these stories, I don’t think that I’m casting any negative light on them.  I think that myself, as the speaker, the narrator of the story, is the punchline.  For my friends and family members who have read the book, that’s what they take away from it as well.”

Even more important within the overall theme of Six Months, however, are Olsen’s relationships with his own children, now 13 and 7 years old.  Having started his path toward professional writing at around the same time as the birth of his first child, Olsen’s works often draw stark, occasionally fearful comparisons between the bizarre events of his own childhood and the strangeness which surrounds the new members of his family ‒ again, a nontraditional setup ‒ today.

Olsen himself credited fatherhood as the primary fuel which operates his writing.  “As my children grow up, as they experience things that I may have experienced at their age, I may not have thought about the things I experienced as much if it were not for the fact that I have two children.  I’m very conscious about what they experience now, and I draw that comparison or parallel to what I experienced.”

The sum total lesson that Josh Olsen took away from the long process involved in making his quick book which incorporates all these parallels, fears, and misadventures, is that though its results may be gratifying, creativity doesn’t just manifest by itself.

“It takes a lot more time and work than I ever could have imagined.  I know that I had the ideas that many prospective writers have, that all they need to do is put together a manuscript, send it out and get published.  Maybe that does happen for a lucky few.  I’ve never done things the traditional or easy way, in my education, my work, or my family, so I think it’s only natural that I took that roundabout path to publication.”

“Being able to read the book with some distance and time between me and it, it’s interesting for me to look at it as an artifact of my thought process, the things I was observing and doing at that time, and to compare and contrast with what I’m doing and working on today.”

That today includes plans to put together a second book, another collection of stories featuring some which will break from the one page format and run longer.  Describing the forming whole as both more autobiographical and more fictional, Olsen hopes to finish and release the book in a year or so.

Six Months is available for purchase at zygoteinmycoffee.com.

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