the contextual life

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Posts Tagged ‘diy

Interview with Nathaniel Kressen, author of Concrete Fever

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This is an excerpt from an interview that ran on The Rumpus. Read it in full here

Concrete FeverWhen I first saw Concrete Fever on the front table of a local bookstore, I knew it was something special. With e-books on the rise, smart publishers are taking more care to create physical books that are also art objects. With its colorfully-splashed, slightly-ribbed cover, French flaps, and interior illustrations, Nathaniel Kressen’s debut novel stood out among the sea of many new releases.

Kressen, a playwright, screenwriter, and a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, brings to his fiction a love of acting, a knowledge of stagework, and a desire to tell stories without waiting for permission.

We met up at Café Grumpy in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and talked about Kressen’s experience creating the book from start to finish, the importance of editing, the difference between self-publishing and independent publishing, and what writers can learn from musicians.

The Contextual Life: I saw your book in the store and found myself picking it up over and over again. It’s so gorgeous. It’s well-designed and the textured cover feels so great when you handle it. I immediately needed to know who published it. When I looked on the spine, I saw it was a small press I’d never heard of, Second Skin Books. On closer look I noticed it was you who was behind it. You are also the author. To me, this felt like it was more than self-publishing, like you were taking it to a whole other level. In my mind, it’s more like indie publishing rather than self-publishing.

Nathaniel Kressen: I think that’s definitely a phrase that’s worth noting: independent publishing versus self-publishing. I think the difference is, an author by themselves who can’t wait to get their stuff out to people might not necessarily take the time to edit everything, think about the design and the materials. They’re just so happy about finishing their product they want to get it out to people, which is totally valid, but I think that’s what self-publishing is. Indie publishing is where you do research and look at other small presses. You see what fits what you’re trying to do, what you would like to explore. You make sure it’s edited to a T, no typos. Make it tight as can be. You give it out to people to look it over and give you notes, and then you make the best possible product you can; make something that people will pick up off the table time and time again. That’s what I think the main difference is.

There are a lot of people doing that around this area. I’ve spoken on a couple of panels about indie publishing, at Spoonbill and WORD, where there are a few people coming from the same place I am. Authors who aren’t necessarily writing stuff that’s so outside of what the mainstream wants, but for whatever reason it doesn’t get the initial traction. So we decided maybe we’re chasing the wrong dream; let’s just make this the best possible thing we can, make it look sexy as all hell, and get it out to people.

………

The Contextual Life: A stage is public. Performing is public. Do you see the novel as a stage? Is there any connection?

Kressen: Recently, I’ve been thinking about novels as physical art objects, with everything from judging a book by its cover to how it feels in your hand; we chose this textured stock because I wanted something that feels really great in your hand. I mean, I’m a no-name author at this point; I need this to be my marquee. You walk by a restaurant and you see a great typeface on the awning and you think, Oh, I bet they have good food.

………

The Contextual Life: What have you learned about publishing from doing this?

Kressen: Tons. One thing is that it’s accessible. It’s not this monster out there that one day you hope to get into as a writer, that somebody believes in your piece. Nobody is going to fight for your piece as much as you. It’s like anything else. As long as you write the hell out of your book, get somebody to look it over, take notes, and revise it fully, as long as you pair up with a designer who understands your vision and really makes it fly, and as long as you’re willing to work your tail off, go around the stores, talk to people, come up with really unique events, just work tirelessly on behalf of your product, at the same time making new writing because that’s the only way you grow, and just go ahead and do it. Nobody has to give you permission.

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Written by Gabrielle

September 11, 2013 at 6:54 am

Life Hacking 101: Just Don’t Call it Self-Help

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Art of DoingThe other day I sat in a room full of colleagues and said something along the lines of “I don’t read self-help books.” Note, I did not say this disparagingly; it was simply just a matter of fact, or so I thought. No more than an hour or two later I realized I was wrong. Leaving aside that one summer between my junior and senior year of college when a bad breakup brought me to If the Buddha Dated, I found I could come up with a number of recent examples: Dale Carnegie, John C. Maxwell, and David Allen, to name a few authors. The thing was, I hadn’t associated them with the self-help genre.

While Carnegie is shelved in self-help, often taking up full rows, I was surprised that he had not been placed in business instead. As with Maxwell and Allen’s wildly popular books, I saw Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, as a treatise on work relationships rather than something for one’s personal life—although it helps with that as well. I had thought of all three, along with Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki, as part of the life hack family.

Life hack is a relatively new phenomenon—at least in name. According to Wikipedia, “life hack refers to any productivity trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity and efficiency … [it’s] anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever or non-obvious way.” The origin of the term is credited to computer programmers in the 1980s who devised “tricks to cut through information overload and organize their data.” Today, it’s associated with almost anything that increases personal productivity and helps navigate workplace situations, as illustrated by the popular website Lifehacker where you can learn about the best apps to help you through your workday as well as interpersonal skills that will help advance your career—even in the trickiest of situations.

So, as it turns out, I do read self-help, sometimes voraciously.

Recently, I learned of the book The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well after coming across an excerpt of Mark Frauenfelder’s tips for creating a successful blog. As the founder and coeditor of Boing Boing, a popular website for techy-types and genre fans, Frauenfelder exudes authority on the subject; it would be wise to listen to what he has to say.

What might come as a surprise to some, given the computer-geek culture associated with the site, Frauenfelder’s last piece of advice is to “keep it real,” that “the best material for the blog is usually found in the real world from real-life experiences.”

The Art of Doing is full of these surprising anecdotes and aphorisms, often from unlikely sources. How the editors came to collect them is seemingly simple, they asked “successful people how they do what they do.” They asked for “work habits, turning points, experiences, insights and goals” and wound up with a handy reference book that can be opened to any page and read in any order to obtain words of wisdom—and inspiration—for life in all its many forms.

While gathering stories and expert practices from contributors, the editors, Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield, “began to see patterns” and noticed that “people shared core principles and practices.” Among them were dedication, intelligent persistence, community building, listening, testing, managing emotions, evolving, and cultivating patience and happiness.

For 30 Rock writer Robert Carlock, “It’s important to create the environment where everyone wants to contribute so that moment of inspiration can happen, because sometimes, you’re just one step away.” The band OK Go urges readers to ignore the false line between promotion and art, believing that the elevation of “one type of creativity over another is crazy,” saying that “You can call making videos, posters and other visuals crass commercial promotion, but all of our creative ideas are connected and promote each other.” They “see no line between the music and the work that supports it.”

The advice is as varied as the participants: from neurologist and neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak on optimizing your brain; to Simon Doonan, creative ambassador at large for Barneys New York, on being “the most fabulous you;” to Philippe Petit, high-wire artist, on letting life be your teacher.

Whether you call it life hacking or plain old self-help, the goal is the same: to become the best at what you do. In this day and age—as we move further away from the Industrial Revolution and deeper into the Digital and Social Age—that often means becoming the most creative, innovative person you can be, to think far outside the box and to help those around you do the same. The Art of Doing is an excellent look inside the minds and practices of people who have strived and succeeded, and who continue, every day, to be better. Pick it up, read it, hack life.

::[Links]::
Buy The Art of Doing at your local bookstore
Read Mark Frauenfelder’s excerpt at Fast Company
Read Lifehacker
Find useful articles at 99u
Listen to Seth Godin’s interview with Krista Tippett

Written by Gabrielle

February 26, 2013 at 6:51 am

I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit by Aaron Cometbus

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I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit If you grew up in the punk scene in the 90s, chances are you didn’t get very far before you found an issue of Cometbus in your hands. The novella-sized, memoiristic zine, started in 1981 in Berkeley, California, handwritten and Xeroxed by Aaron “Cometbus,” was instrumental in turning me, and a lot of other kids, onto writing and publishing.

Long before the near-universal belief in the Internet’s democratizing effects took hold, long before self-publishing was hotly debated on literary blogs and industry websites, Aaron was showing kids everywhere that they could create their own media. At a time before digital distribution was the norm, before digital publishing was available in every teen’s bedroom, Cometbus showed us that as long as we had a pen, paper, and access to a copier, we could produce our own publication.

Most Cometbus issues are Aaron’s accounts of life on the road with punk bands, living in vans and sleeping on fans’ couches. For those times when he wasn’t on the road, his unconventional home life became the subject of his stories. Over the years the locations varied but the day-to-day remained the same, communal living, social dysfunction, and dumpster diving.

At any given time, in any given city, Aaron had at least one friend suffering from heartbreak, one in a destructive relationship, and another in the throes of a chemical imbalance. His friends reminded me of mine; it was a familiar scene, if only more adventurous. Aaron was an angsty teen’s hero. He was my subculture’s Jack Kerouac.

Aaron’s 2006 novella, I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit is written in the telltale Cometbus voice: the introspective storyteller electively living a hard life, equal parts amused by and concerned about his friends.

The narrator, a character named Aaron, recently heartbroken, lives in a van parked in his friend’s yard. Laura, the friend, is also recently heartbroken.

By night, the van was an icy tomb. By early afternoon it had turned into a toaster oven … It reminded me of being on tour, with everyone piled on top of each other sleeping and the van broken down on the side of the road, smoking. Those were always my favorite times, traveling. My fondest memories. Now it was like that every day. …

Yes, a broken-down van was the perfect place for a person like me. All the appearance of movement and direction without the threat of actual change.

A certain type of fiction is often accused of being autobiography in disguise and it’s hard not to think of I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit as another installment of Cometbus. Fictional Aaron’s world feels a lot like his well-documented real one, right down to his friends.

When the story opens, the first person we meet is Laura. She’s hurling bricks at a passing armament train, presumably in some anarchist-inspired protest against war. However, it becomes clear that it’s anger and frustration driving her, not some belief in a cause. Reckless melodrama dressed in political theory.

Another character, Jemuel, plays the ambivalent friend, destined to remain exactly where he is.

Part janitor, part manager, that was Jemuel’s job. Come in when everyone else was gone and clean up the store, restock the shelves, pay the bills, and do a little bit of the books. Ideal, really. … Except for one thing: he hated music. Or, rather, he resented it. Was it music itself, or the whole business it had become? Jemuel thought about it for a minute. Both. Then he put on a record.

While reading I couldn’t help but think about my early 20s; just out of college, back living in my hometown, working at a local bookstore, hanging out with friends from high school, doing the same old thing we’d always done, not sure what the next phase of my life would look like, only knowing I didn’t want to dress up and work some temp job. Life was uncertain and what happened next was entirely up to me.

This is precisely where Aaron sits: the crossroads. As with Vanessa Veselka’s 2011 indie sensation Zazen, I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit captures a moment in time capable of evoking a visceral reaction.

While one of the dangers of reflecting on an age gone by is devolution into sentimentality, Aaron’s ability to balance the romantic notion of suffering with a pragmatic view of the future helps him sidesteps the nostalgia trap. I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit is an honest look at what happens when adulthood creeps in.

::[Links]::
Buy I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit at your local bookstore
Buy Aaron’s other books from Last Gasp

Written by Gabrielle

January 15, 2013 at 6:53 am

Steal Like an Artist, A Night with Austin Kleon

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Last week at McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore based in the heart of SoHo, Austin Kleon, artist and, most recently, the author of Steal Like an Artist, brought together three fascinating minds on the internet today. Joining him in conversation about creativity and curation were Maria Popova of the website Brainpickings, Maris Kreizman of the mashup Tumblr Slaughterhouse 90210, and cultural critic Maud Newton.

One of Austin’s ideas that I find most interesting is “creative lineage,” those who influence your work, whose fingerprints can be seen in your creations. For Maud Newton, Muriel Spark is woefully underrated; Maris raved about fiction writer Lorrie Moore and recommended Self Help and Anagrams; Maria named Susan Sontag along with Winnie the Pooh and The Little Prince; Austin, a fan of Midwesterners who include pictures with their writings, named Kurt Vonnegut and Lynda Barry.

Here is a profile I wrote and a Q&A I conducted with Austin early in April when his book first came out. It originally ran on The Nervous Breakdown. You can also read my riff on Austin’s analog vs. digital approach to creating, posted in March on this site.

Below are links to all the various places you can find Austin and the panel participants on the internet, along with more recommendations mentioned throughout the discussion.

“It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to” –Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

In 2005 Austin Kleon experienced a bad case of writer’s block. Right out of college, after having studied creative writing, he was struggling to write a short story. To break out of the rut he took a Sharpie to nearby newspapers and started crossing out sentences, leaving only a few words and large swaths of black ink in his wake. Unknowingly, he created something he calls Newspaper Blackout Poems.

But as he said on the phone one Saturday morning before embarking on a major US tour to support his latest book, Steal Like an Artist — the title a riff on a popular saying in the creative world often misattributed to Picasso — “nothing comes from nowhere.” It was soon after creating these blackout poems that Kleon traced the style’s origins back 250 years to a former next-door neighbor of Benjamin Franklin’s. More recently, William Burroughs had done something similar with his cut-up technique.

Far from disappointed by his findings, Austin developed a philosophy, one that he celebrates in the book. “All creative work builds on what came before,” he continued. Whether it’s our subconscious at play or a dedicated effort, we all have influences whose work guides our own. Austin encourages us to embrace and cultivate them rather than see our mashup style as fraudulent.

“Just as you have a familial genealogy, you also have a genealogy of ideas. You don’t get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see.”

Although his “family tree” is always changing, Austin named four influences who have stuck with him over time. Lynda Barry, his favorite cartoonist, showed Austin he could make a career out of pairing words and pictures. He believes her book What It Is should be required reading for high school students. Austin’s work is highly visual, the book features drawings throughout, so it was no surprise to hear him mention two other artists: Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame and Saul Steinberg, an illustrator best known for his work with The New Yorker. Acclaimed fiction writer George Saunders also made the list.

Although the influences he mentions appear cohesive, leading one to assume his work has a singular foundation, Austin says there’s no harm in variation. “Don’t worry about unity from piece to piece — what unifies all of your work is the fact that you made it,” he said.

The beauty of Steal Like an Artist is that it’s accessible, something that was important to Austin. As one can surmise from the subtitle, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, a tagline that fits neatly into today’s culture of pared down how-tos, there’s a noticeable lack of technical jargon. Instead, Austin filled its pages with thought-provoking aphorisms and bite-sized insights. Structured around these ten simple rules, Steal Like an Artist offers a list that will most certainly transform the way you think about your work: use your hands; do good work and share it with people; be nice (the world is a small town); and be boring (it’s the only way to get work done) — to name a few.

Unlike many big thought books, Steal Like an Artist doesn’t leave you stranded: putting ideas in your head without a practical plan for going forward. In the last few pages Austin offers tips on how to harness creative energy: take a walk, get yourself a calendar, start a blog, and take a nap. As an avid reader and someone who believe books hold many answers, he includes a reading list of other books that might help you along the artistic path.

Ultimately, Steal Like an Artist is an inspiring conversation, one worth returning to again and again as your creative process evolves over time.

Here are a few bonus questions I’d asked Austin after our phone call. Check out what he has to say about procrastination, serendipity, and Carl Jung.

You talk about finding one’s voice. I’m curious to know how you found yours — or if you think the search ever ends.

Voice always confused the hell out of me in school. I really had no idea what professors were talking about when they said “find your voice.” I still don’t have a handle on it real well, honestly. The closest I’ve been to understanding is through something Billy Collins said: you find your poetic voice by emulating about 6-8 different poets, and once they fit together, so you can’t tell what comes from who, you’ve discovered your voice. I don’t think the search ends, though — at least I hope not. To have one voice forever sounds boring to me.

Do you feel procrastination is an integral part to the creative process?

Oh yeah. Basically, I always have 3-4 projects I’m working on and when I get sick of one I bounce over to the other. At some point I’ll become obsessed with one and run on that energy until it’s dead, then I switch again.

As much as we like being productive, We also need time to sit around and do nothing. To stare at the wall and think, or do something routine and mundane with your body so your mind is freed up.

How do you procrastinate productively?

I like going for walks and doing the dishes — both get me ideas, but one makes me less fat and one gets the kitchen clean.

You say “Creative work is a kind of theater.” I love that. As an artist, how do you see your work — or creative work in general — as theater?

The stage is your workspace — your desk, or your studio, whatever. The costume is your smock, or your favorite sweatpants, or a funny hat you put on to think. The props are your tools — pens, welding torch, etc. — and the script is just plain old time set aside to work. You know, just like actors “get into character,” I think we can trick our minds into get into the zone, too.

You mentioned recently that you’ve been making more of an effort to step away from your computer — your chapter “Step Away from the Screen” is one of my favorites — and that you spend your time in the local university library looking through the stacks. What’s your take on serendipitous findings in the physical world versus the virtual/online world?

Yeah, you just can’t beat having books in a physical space. I call it the “serendipity of the stacks” — you go looking for a book with a certain Dewey Decimal number, and then your eye gets caught on another book’s spine, and pretty soon you’re reading that book instead of the one you went looking for.

The same thing can happen on the Internet, but it just doesn’t feel quite the same. Steven Johnson says, if you can’t find serendipity on the web, you’re not using it right.

I’d asked you about your favorite artist biography or memoir and you mentioned Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Did it change your life in some way?

I’m not sure it’s changed my life, but what I love about the book is how Jung is constantly on the edge between science and religion, rationality and mysticism, etc. it’s just a great story about one of our great minds coming into being.

You can find Austin online at austinkleon.com, on Twitter at @austinkleon, on Facebook at Austin Kleon, and on Tumblr.

::[Links]::
Maria Popova: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr
Maris Kreizman: Tumblr, Twitter
Maud Newton: Website, Twitter, Tumblr, The Chimerist (A Tumblr about iPad reading, co-run with Laura Miller of Salon)

::[Recommended Links]::
Perchance to Dream: an essay by Jonathan Franzen in Harper’s Magazine
Who is Mark Twain?: an animated conversation with John Lithgow at the New York Public Library
Artist Marc Johns on Pinterest
Maud Newton outlines her day at the Paris Review: Part I, Part II
Maria uses Evernote
Austin likes the show Justified, based on Elmore Leonard’s novels

Dispatches: Talking DIY Culture at McNally Jackson

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Last night, McNally Jackson in SoHo hosted the panel (Re)making media: DIY, zines, punk rock, gen X and millenials in the digital age. The moderator Jacob Lewis, co-founder of a writing collective website for teens, Figment.com, was joined by Blake Nelson, whose book Dream School had been serialized and recently published by Figment, Christopher Bollen, whose book Lightning People was published by the indie press Soft Skull, Mikki Halpin, the creator of the now defunct zine Ben is Dead and the now defunct satirical website Shut Up Foodies, musician and writer Izzy Schappell-Spillman, Japanther’s Ian Vanek, and New York Times technology reporter, and recently the publisher and editor of Girl Crush Zine, Jenna Wortham.

Together, the group of panelists discussed DIY culture as it’s happening today and how technology is affecting the movement.

Most had a positive view regarding the rise of the Internet and its facilitation of independent productions. Izzy, who began her music career with the band Care Bears on Fire when she was just 8-years-old, and who is now 16, felt the online community has brought an end to isolation and has ushered in a time of quick creation. Jenna, who began as a culture blogger at the Times when she was 25, discussed that while it’s easy to get caught up in trying to be ahead of the news curve, especially when one is working for a media outlet, technology can have a profound effect on expressive culture. She mentioned Kickstarter, the online fundraising site where artists of all kinds can raise money for their projects, in particular. Blake Nelson serialized his first book, Girl, in Sassy and when he couldn’t find a publisher for the already-written sequel, Figment did the same by running it in pieces on their site.

The lone voice expressing opposition, mainly because he feels social media creates a culture of self-promotion and self-branding, was Ian Vanek. Although the most skeptical, his argument is solid: people today are too concerned with their public persona and not concerned enough with their actual art. For Vanek, he feels it’s “important to be invisible”.

A reminder of where DIY started, both Ian and Mikki spoke about the continued value of the printed zine. Online publishing platforms, with their endless opportunities for self-expression, are often corporately owned — and those companies ultimately have control over your content. The old-fashioned Xeroxed zine remains a way to share thoughts and ideas privately, or “sneakily,” as the panelists like to describe it.

Far from devolving into a trite debate about the pros and cons of the Internet, the discussion was a reminder that DIY, as an art form and ideology, is still very much a serious venture, regardless of the ease in which it can now be executed.

What’s on the shelf?

Here are just some of the projects and books created by the panelists:

Figment.com
Inspired by Japan’s cellphone novels, “Figment is a community where you can share your writing, connect with other readers, and discover new stories and authors. Whatever you’re into, from sonnets to mysteries, from sci-fi stories to cell phone novels, you can find it all here.” You can read a profile about Figment and its co-founder Jacob Lewis at The New York Times.

Girl by Blake Nelson
“Meet Andrea Marr, straight-A high school student, thrift-store addict, and princess of the downtown music scene. Andrea is about to experience her first love, first time, and first step outside the comfort zone of high school, with the help of indie rock band The Color Green.” [via IndieBound]

Dream School by Blake Nelson
“Imagining a typical ‘J. Crew/college catalogue’ experience, Andrea Marr leaves Portland to attend prestigious Wellington College in Connecticut. Surrounded by the best and the brightest, she works hard to adjust and keep up.” [via IndieBound]

Lightning People
“The fanciful premise behind the title of Bollen’s novel is that, after New York loses the lightning conductors of the Twin Towers, more and more residents die in lightning strikes. But the title also evokes the random nature of post-millennial city life, in which disaster or good fortune can strike at any time. An actor, supported by money from reruns of old commercials, pursues a sinister hobby—frequenting conspiracy-theory chat rooms and meetings. His wife doesn’t know about her husband’s fixation, distracted by her depressing job at the Bronx Zoo and her dysfunctional friends. Bollen excels at creating an atmosphere of Manhattan-specific dread, and certain scenes, particularly the account of a struggling actor’s going-away party, are tragicomic masterpieces.” [via The New Yorker]

Girl Crush Zine Edited by Jenna Wortham and Thessaly La Force
“For those unfamiliar, a girl crush is when a girl has such a deep admiration for another girl that it becomes an infatuation of sorts, though platonic in nature. Editors Jenna Wortham, a reporter for The New York Times, and Thessaly La Force, former blogger at The Paris Review, have taken this concept to the next level by celebrating girl crushes in an online and paper zine aptly called Girl Crush.” [via Laughing Squid]

Japanther
“Japanther have since made a name for themselves in unique performance situations. i.e. along side synchronized swimmers, a top the Williamsburg Bridge, with giant puppets, marionettes and shadow puppets. Out of the back of a moving truck in SOHO, with giant dinosaurs and BMXers flying off the walls.” [website] You can read an interview with Ian at The Nervous Breakdown.

Teenage Izzy Schappell-Spillman’s archive
Teenage is a film and a blog about youth culture. About the film: “Based on a groundbreaking book by the punk author Jon Savage, Teenage is an unconventional historical film about the invention of teenagers. Bringing to life fascinating youth from the early 20th century—from party-crazed Flappers and hipster Swing Kids to brainwashed Nazi Youth and frenzied Sub-Debs—the film reveals the pre-history of modern teenagers and the struggle between adults and adolescents to define youth.” [website] You can hear her perform the theme song for the teen site Rookie.

It’s Your World–If You Don’t Like It, Change It: Activism for Teenagers by Mikki Halpin
“Free Speech. Racism. The Environment. Gay Rights. Bullying and School Safety. Animal Welfare. War. Information about Safe Sex and Birth Control. Free Speech. HIV and AIDS. Women’s Rights. These are the issues you care about — and now you can do something about them. It’s Your World will show you how to act on your beliefs, no matter what they are, and make a difference.” [via IndieBound]

What are some of your favorite DIY projects? Comments are open.

Written by Gabrielle

January 5, 2012 at 5:52 am

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