Something To Write Home About: Artist Turns Author
Lou Beach is used to coming up with ideas. For the last thirty-plus years, his surrealistic illustrations have accompanied articles in The New Yorker, The New York Times, TIME, Rolling Stone, Wired, and Harper's. He's designed record covers for The Weather Report and the Neville Brothers and shows his own work at galleries.
Never mind that the college dropout taught himself to do collage work by visiting museums and galleries, and reading books. The only art class Beach ever took was in high school and "it wasn't well received because I was drawing blue hands and green polar bears," he recalls.
That whimsical imagination has come in handy. Three years ago, at age 62, as Beach was perusing the 420-character limit (at the time) status updates on Facebook, he realized they were a major bore, including his own. "Who cares what you ate for dinner and how you cooked it?" he says. Rather than continue writing and reading insipid Facebook posts, Beach had a novel idea: Why not write a 420-character short story every day on Facebook?
Just as he had taught himself to do collage work, Beach boned up on writing by reading and then doing. Writing just 420 characters (Facebook has since upped the limit to 63,206 words) "started as an exercise," he says. "But the word constraint forced me to distill the essence of the story."
Like his art work, Beach's mini-pieces have a stream-of-consciousness, dreamy feel. Some of the subjects, in fact, come from Beach's dreams; his subjects include tough guys, cops, cowboys, stolen cars, summer dresses and talking dogs. What they all have in common is that they use language sparingly. His plots are unexpected and often humorous. First line example: "Zuma Pedley hailed from Lubbock, came to L.A. in '02 with his guitar, some songs, and an ugly dog."
His daily Facebook entries caught on, and soon Beach had a following. He's also written serial pieces within that tight word count.
End of story? Hardly. Beach showed his work to friends, who insisted it was good enough to be a book. Celebrity buddies Jeff Bridges, Dave Alvin, and Ian McShane recorded his entries. Another friend designed a website to look just like a book. Beach used ten original collages.
Since the book, called -- what else -- 420 Characters was published this December by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, it was chosen as an Amazon Best Books of 2011, and reviewed (major thumbs up) in the New York Times, Mother Jones, and Elle. Beach was on NPR.
"That it all came together was a magical accident," Beach says. If there hadn't been a 420 character Facebook limit, he never would have become a writer. Sometimes he even ignores that teeny, old Facebook word count and writes far longer pieces.
Says actor Jeff Bridges: "Lou is a master of collage. His work is comedic, insightful, profane, blissful, common and transcendent. And, now my old friend gives another gift: his writing. He's been trickling his new art form to me over the last few years. It started with paragraphs where entire novels were implied. They were very short and very satisfying and felt like some sort of extended haiku. Like a great radio show, they leave room for your mind to fill in the blanks. His stories are longer now and intriguing. Lou still creates worlds that are both familiar and fantastic."
The writing, Beach believes, has reinvigorated his art. He exhibits with his children Alpha, 31, and Sam Lubicz, 23, who are collage artists, too. (Beach, who moved from Germany to Rochester, New York, with his Polish parents when he was just four, changed his name). No wonder his kids have a creative gene, his wife is photographer Issa Sharp.
Meanwhile, he posts stories a couple of times a week. What's the next chapter for Beach? "When I was younger, I wanted to be a musician, writer or artist. In my 60's, to be able to have two dreams come true is pretty amazing," he says. "Now, all I need is to learn to play the saxophone and I could die happy!"