Page Two: How Your South-by High Can Last Through the Rest of the Year

A veteran festivalgoer weighs in

Page Two
Again and again and again and again during South by Southwest 08, I would pause as incredible amounts of enthusiasm, excitement, passion, and intelligence flowed all around to think about the shallow, misguided, and sad nature of many of the blogs and online posts attacking the event. Even sadder is the amount of time and energy I've invested over the past two years, treating them as reasonable by trying to address issues they raised. The triumph of SXSW has only a limited relationship to the staff that puts it on; we are facilitators, caretakers, and guides. It has everything to do with the thousands and thousands of people attending the events – Film, Interactive, and Music – some going to just one, others attending two or all three. In so many ways, addressing as serious criticisms the mean-spirited, often petty attacks does a disservice to the event and really is insulting to the staff with whom I am so proud to work. This was an extraordinary year for all of the SXSW events, but rather than personally celebrating SXSW – which would be both inherently self-serving and at least partially defensive – instead I've gotten permission to reprint a piece from SXSWorld. Not even acknowledging the artificial controversies, this is not a statement by or about the staff or a defense of the events but rather a consideration of what SXSW means as it is, created by the tens of thousands who attend. – Louis Black

On the last night of SXSW Rookie Year 2000, my new best friend stabbed me high in the heart.

"I get depressed at the end of every South-by," he told me. "It's a few days of inspiration, then we all go back to our lives. I wait the whole year for how I feel right here and then, back to reality."

We'd known each other 72 hours. But based on that confession, I reached two conclusions that lead me every spring while I am in Austin:

1) SXSW is not "real life."

2) I don't care. I want to feel this way most of the time.

How do you keep your South-by-High? The differences between the swollen river of inspiration and beer and the dry banks of bills and responsibility seem too great to reconcile. A week later, it feels like Austin happened to someone who looks like you. Worse, the house is not stacked in your favor – 1500 bands, 400 films, a brilliant idea every hour. No one can live in this meteor shower, and with its brilliance comes burnout.

Was it a dream?

Where do I go from here?

What's this business card stuck to my toothbrush?

Maybe you don't care. If you're just coming to SXSW to party, rock on. But it's costing you, your company, band, or crew an assload of money to be here. For a weekend high, followed by a yearlong hangover, Mardi Gras is the safer bet. More public nudity, too.

But say you're coming to turn your insides into live wires. Then you can't leave it all back on 6th Street. You'll be asking the minute you get home: "How does inspiration ever become real?"

Here's how:

We shake the fantasy awake. Only then can we switch from dreaming about what could be to making it what is.

It can happen here in Austin, to you. But you've got to check yourself hard before, during and after.

Check at home for the dark corners of your creativity and look wide for light. Ask what your body needs (sleep, food, balance) because every cell of it will be tested. Trust me. I have a scar from a 5 AM headstand in the bed of a stranger's pickup to prove it.

Check in on whom you might be afraid to meet. If your hero turns out to be a jerk, move on; six more await you in the next conference room.

Check if you're willing to say yes to chaos. At South-by, chaos always wins.

Check at home. Where is there room for "conference friends" to become co-conspirators, blue-sky opportunities, and the beauty in chance? If the answer is "nowhere," then SXSW can't help you.

But if you let it, it will. Who will you meet this week and how will it feel? What kind of insanity will seize you the minute you try to subdue it?

Where, in little changes or giant swings, can you draw on SXSW as the start of something new instead of just letting what happens in Austin stay in Austin? That's up to you.

Me, I arrive here every year yelling out at the waves of energy radiating off the streets. What is my next project? Where will this year take me? Where do I go from here?

SXSW always answers. Which is why when you see me this week (my 9th SXSW) at some ungodly hour west of Emo's and south of anywhere, I'll be happy to say hello and laugh with you that this is how it could be, most of the time.

Former Austin resident Kevin Smokler is one of the nation's foremost thinkers on the future of publishing and the arts at large. He's the editor of the anthology Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times (Basic Books, 2005), featuring a number of the most intriguing young authors on the state and future of literature in the media-saturated 21st century. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, and Fast Company, and on National Public Radio.

Smokler has lectured throughout North America on the future of reading and publishing and the role of technology in the arts and has also led college and university workshops. As a private consultant on technology in the arts, his clients include Time Warner Book Group, iUniverse, the San Francisco Film Society, Mental Floss magazine, and the Idea Festival. He's also the founder of the Virtual Book Tour.

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