How to Run Your Own Literary Series: Mira Ptacin, Freerange Nonfiction Series

Publication is important, but being able to perform your work in public is critical to the life of the written word. Because of our belief in going beyond the page, Moonshot is starting a new online series that interviews event producers, independent venues, and other like-minded individuals to learn more about creating successful literary events. In our first segment, we’ve tracked down a few literary event producers to learn more about what drives them to stage these events and how they got started. This week, we talk to Mira Ptacin, curator of the Freerange Nonfiction series in Manhattan, New York.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m the director and curator of “Freerange Nonfiction”, a reading series & storytelling collective in NYC, which has been spinning since my first year as a grad student in Sarah Lawrence’s creative writing MFA program (circa 2007). In addition to Freerange, which I work on whenever I have moments to spare, I’m a professional writer and teacher: I recently finished a memoir that’s making its rounds at publishing houses and I teach writing at York College in Jamaica, Queens. I also freelance write and edit manuscripts. I’m also the family dog-walker. At times, I think I’m like fourteen-year old Mr. Rogers stuck in a 32-year old lady’s body. I’m not financially motivated, I’m not a grump, I give people the benefit of the doubt, and I strongly believe that anything is possible.

Why did you decide to produce literary events?

I was in graduate school and wanted my work to be shared with people other than my classmates in my writing workshops. I really wanted to find a place that wasn’t exclusive or inaccessible or abstract or boring or messy or trendy, but something that was fun and inviting and organized yet spontaneous while still being literary. So I decided to start Freerange Nonfiction–a monthly event, initially held at Cornelia Street and currently at Pianos–and an online magazine that’s been going strong for about 5 years.

We buck the trend of the male-dominated publication records, we’re welcoming to everyone, and, most importantly, the stories we publish and showcase are awesome. What’s interesting about Freerange is that, while we’re “nonfiction”, we’re not genre-specific: “freerange nonfiction” implies that the stories are the storytellers’ version of the truth, their truth, in whatever form it happens to take. A few times, I’ve heard people describe Freerange as This American Life, but live. That’s pretty apt: the stories we showcase are specific yet universal, and, while our storytellers are mostly nonfiction writers, we have storytellers of all types–journalists, essayists, memoirists, comedians, novelists, war reporters, musicians, poets, illustrators, chefs, lawyers, whatever–and they bring in an audience that is just as diverse. Freerange brings people together and people leave happy. And often, drunk.

What kind of dialogue do you think your events brings to how people are consuming/creating written work currently?

My goal at Freerange is to pry open people’s hearts and brains, to inspire independent thinking and empathy, and also to encourage writers to to be brave. I want writers to know they’re supported and important and necessary. Freerange doesn’t care if you’ve won a Pulitzer or if you’ve never even written a recipe. If you have a good story, we want to help you share it, you need to share it so that sure literature and the art of storytelling doesn’t fizzle out or become obsolete. Storytelling is vital to our humanity. People need to be reminded that other people cannot and should not be generalized or stereotyped, that our lives are complex and unique. What I hope for is that after our shows, the audience will continue to think and talk about the Freerange performers, and be reminded that while all people are complex and unique, we’re also not all so different from one another—that the stranger sitting next to you on the subway may not be the person you think they are; perhaps their story is not the one you assume it is. Perhaps that person is just as much as a sensitive creature as you.

What are some of the toughest challenges of what you do?

With Freerange, the annoying things are technical: stay on top of things, be professional and charismatic on the stage–even if I’m in a terrible mood and all the interns bailed and I have papers to grade after the show. I don’t make any money from Freerange, so sometimes it’s hard to prioritize it when all I want to do is zone out to trashy reality television after a long day. Luckily, I have the best staff and volunteers and they keep things fun, plus the Freerange fans are so sweet and keep me motivated.

Since the majority of my friends and colleagues are writers, and our community is so very supportive, another challenge is when they approach me and tell me they want to read at a Freerange show, because we get many submissions and try not to do favors for friends when there are talented strangers who have submitted work per our submission policy.

What are some pleasant, but unlikely areas of personal growth of you?

Hearing other people’s work inspires me and makes me a better writer. The literary community in Brooklyn and NYC is so so so pleasant and incredibly loving and supportive. Another thing I’m learning is that when I am brave and take risks and do things that are out of the ordinary, good things almost always grow out of it. Striking out on your own. For instance: Freerange. Also: my own writing. Also, I got my lovely, encouraging, ball-busting, ass-kicking, incredibly wise agent just by not following the standard protocol, and I’m so glad I found her; she’s like a literary fairy godmother. That was the best and most surprising thing that’s happened to me in a while (and if I hadn’t been feeling independent/confident that day, I’m not sure I would’ve queried her the way I did, and probably would’ve ended up in an intern’s slushpile.) In a nutshell: when I go against conventional wisdom and trust my own wisdom, that’s when I most blossom.

If someone with no experience came up to you and told you they wanted to start up a reading series or run a one-off event, what advice would you tell them?

Be organized. Keep checklists. Be pleasant. Ask for favors and do favors. Get your hands dirty. Keep your ego in check. Have fun. Be nice to your readers, be nice to your audience, be nice to the bartenders at the venue, be nice to the manager at the venue. Read a lot, support other reading series. Do not be competitive. If you want it to last, focus on the quality. If you want to be a flavor of the month, focus on the trends. Seek out good writers, not just big names. Do lots of prep work before you start. Get good interns. Be nice to your interns. Cook your interns a big dinner at least once. Have a business plan even if you’re not making any money. Treat your reading series like you’re a professional, not like you’re a bohemian. If you’re a bohemian, you’ll still be a bohemian if you’re organized and on top of your shit. Don’t let your reading series take over your own writing. Don’t let your ego take over your reading series. Be direct and straightforward. Most importantly, be honest with yourself about why you’re starting a reading series in the first place.

If you’re doing it because you want to market yourself, you’re going to be disappointed and your series will fail. If you want to showcase art and literature and do a good deed to the world of art and literature, then you’ll be fine…as long as you keep checklists.

Mira Ptacin is a creative nonfiction and kids book author, and a New York Times-bestselling ghostwriter. Her work has appeared in Guernica, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Morning News, Lumina Literary Magazine, among others, and was recently featured in the collection The Moment (Harper Perennial 2012). She recently completed a memoir about the uterus and the American Dream, and she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two mutts. Follow Mira on Twitter here; follow Freerange Nonfiction on Twitter here.