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Why I’m writing about Burning Man

Posted in Burning Man, and Other Writing

An image of some words at Burning Man. Photo by Keith Harris.

Note: I actually wrote this several days ago and set it aside for the right time to post. Given a recent, minor flame war on a local Burn list over my Lexicon, now seems like the perfect time.

Gyesika Safety wrote to me to say, in part: The burn community has all sorts of ways of teasing out people’s creative strengths and it rocks toe socks to see you find this niche, as a writer.

This is not just a very sweet comment but it cuts right to the heart of why I’m writing about Burning Man, Burning Flipside, and Burner culture in general so much in this blog recently. I’ve been attending events in this community for over a decade now, since my first Burning Flipside in 2001. One of the crucial insights of these events — which are, in part, freak arts festivals — is that almost all of us have an ‘artist’ inside of us, given a sufficiently liberal definition of art. At my first Burn I realized that feeding my fellow campmates a creative, hot meal from available ingredients was a form of art.

But my primary art form is writing, and I’ve had a much more difficult time finding ways to contribute to the community through my largest creative outlet. Many projects on the playa need builders, engineers, pyromaniacs, painters, musicians, and so on, but comparatively few require writers.

Writing even sometimes seem like an especially divisive art form in our community — I have friends who are sure that A Burner Lexicon will land me in legal trouble with the BMORG (the corporation that oversees Burning Man) any day now. When a reporter visited Flipside and wrote about it without permission and in an unflattering light, they faced legal action from Flipside’s LLC. I don’t consider myself a journalist — and they only faced legal action because they hadn’t gone through proper channels — yet the firestorm that erupted in that case also seemed to suggest some hostility toward written documentation of our culture.

For me, this is a service to my community. Forming words is my art and I give it lovingly to the community. A Burner Lexicon is released under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license — it belongs to the community as long as it remains non-commercial in the spirit of the gift economy, and eventually I plan to release more of my Burning Man non-fiction under this license.

I want to shed more light on who we are, what we do, and why we do it through my words. People already think we’re a bunch of druggies laying around in the desert, a huge free-love orgy, or just a giant rave. We can’t stop them from talking, all we can do is try to control the message. Rather than pretend there’s nothing weird about us or that we do nothing that’s unacceptable to the mainstream, I’d rather talk about how and why we do what we do — how we really are.

I don’t want to gloss over the rough edges, because talking about them helps us fix them, but I do want to focus on what makes us wonderful — the life-changing, open, mature, silly, snarky, loving, crazysane gestalt of our culture. We have photos that help, and art and music inspired by it, but we need words as well to enhance our understanding and our ability to pass that culture on to others.

I’m still looking for just the right way to bring my words to the playa — to the events themselves — as well as standing outside and using words to reflect back on what goes on inside. In the meantime, projects like the Lexicon, the recently launched Story of a Theme Camp series, and upcoming fiction like “Lifting the Veil” help me give back some tiny portion of all the goodness the Burn has given to me.

Update: I’ve just updated the main Lexicon page so that more of my writing is explicitly available under the same Creative Commons license as the Lexicon itself.