Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: writing

Warren Lehrer’s Illuminated Novel

Warren Lehrer’s illuminated novel A Life in Books is a book about a man who writes books – 101 to be exact – and they’re all created, excerpted, reviewed and illuminated by Warren, a graphic artist/writer who likes to create books about unusual people – and all of them with a visual exploration of their subject that offers us a deep and more intimate sense of who they are and what they’re about.


Warren Lehrer

A Life in Books is so much more than a book, it’s an experience, really… as it pours out of Warren’s quirky imagination like a mellow single malt… to be sipped and savored. An acquired taste, yes, but definitely something to make time for.

It plays like a literary jazz riff, maybe like Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. Here’s Warren, fingers pumping up and down on the keys, laying down pungent notes, sparkling phrases, blowing lilting tunes about who we are and where we’re going. This crazily ambitious book, rich with art and artifice, sends us meandering through all the little cultural byways, pausing here and there to test our assumptions of how life is supposed to be in modern America.  He does it in a way that often brings us up short, saying “hey, never thought about it that before, but yes, it sounds right…”

This illuminated novel pokes around the often invisible infrastructure of American life, soloing on subjects we’ve rarely given a second’s thought. But when he’s finished playing through one of his passages, we breathe it in, smile and turn the page, ready to discover where he’s taking us next.

36. Lehrer performs ALifeInBooks_RGB72dpi

all images from “A Life in Books” site

Here’s what I can tell you for sure:  Warren Lehrer is witty, ingenious, sly, serious, a graphic wizard and literary innovator. His earlier much-acclaimed work  Crossing the Boulevard (created with his wife and partner, Judith Sloan) is a portrait of the multi-culti mix of people that populate their Queens neighborhood.


Boulevard was a graphical tour de force – focusing on stories and lives of immigrants from many lands who make their home in a cornucopia of cultures, individual styles and customs. And what great, mind bending stories. The book is rich with humanity captured in all its poignant glory. And just like the immigrants, breaking the boundaries of their old lives to come to the land of opportunity, Warren used his singular design sense to reform the frame of the page and refocus the eye. So, what do you do for an encore?

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You use your background as a graphic designer, storyteller, humorist and satirist to explore the life work of your alter ego, Bleu Mobley. According to Warren, Bleu has evidently written 101 books and this illuminated novel, as Warren calls it, tells/shows us his story, including Bleu’s ruminations about his life, covers of his 101 books, artifacts, letters, reviews and excerpts from many of them. So the mystery of the man and the past 50 years or so of American history/culture he “lived” through come together in a mashup of “fact” and “fiction” leaving us to discover our own truths about how we view ourselves and our world.

For example, in one passage, Bleu is at a bar with a friend watching the Iran Contra scandal play out on television. They talk about the feds, spies and the government’s intelligence operations. Bleu decides to get a copy of his FBI file, which arrives highly redacted. So Bleu decides to use the file and create an artist’s book, De-Classified. We see sample pages – which are basically patterns of black and white as if inked by an artist gone mad, with almost no text left untouched. It’s at once clever, funny, curious and political – a reminder of those forces in our society that view almost any opposition as a threat to be wiped out. And this was created before Edward Snowden gave us all a new perspective on the NSA.

And so it goes…

But enough from me –  here’s Warren giving the pitch:

Warren is a visual artist trapped in a world of words. So he makes A Life in Books a visual feast. There are the 101 covers, of course, but he’s taken his concept further with animation and music for the web, like this video from book number 95 showing his Illuminated Manuscripts.

In the guise of a children’s book, he wrote, or should I say Bleu wrote, How Bad People Go Bye-Bye – a pop-up book about capital punishment. An excerpt:

And then, in a world of psychobabble where every disorder is ordered, here’s the story of a planet with its own psychiatric disorder:

Warren has so many riffs and funky drum beats that each book is like a new melody – new styling, key and rhythm. This is a book to peruse. You want to sample it, tap your feet to its satiric melodies, smile with his sassy little horn bleeps and then put it down for the next time you can rock to its rhythms.

You can catch an interview with Warren from NPR’s Studio 360 here:

So what’s the takeaway? A Life in Books is fresh, funny and filled with little gems of wit and whimsy. I admire what Warren was trying to accomplish – giving us a memoir rich in memorabilia, that is at once revealing and mysterious, a commentary on ego, celebrity and American society. But while I love his graphic sensibility and imagination in service of his creative ambitions, for me the weakest part was the book excerpts. It was great fun encountering them as concepts, but too often a bit of a slog wading through them as text. If you find yourself a fan of Warren’s satiric sense of humor you will really like this book. And if you’re just curious about discovering a new way to tell a story, you should definitely check it out.

Writing as a Path to Healing

Can writing be a path to healing? That’s what I discovered when I went to my first Creative Mornings meetup not too long ago. Creative Mornings are monthly opportunities for learning and sharing – a morning seminar I found very stimulating, plus a chance to meet other people working in a creative field.


photo from the DC Creative Mornings site

Creative Mornings are the brainchild of Tina Roth Eisenberg, a designer/entrepreneur who likes to call herself Swiss Miss. In a previous VisionThing post I wrote about how her Creative Mornings concept started in New York and then inspired similar monthly morning meetings all around the globe. Talk about the power of ideas.

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photo by Tom Lee from the DC Creative Mornings site

Each Creative Morning has a theme and the one I attended here in DC was about bravery. As part of the presentation I listened to Ron Capps, the founder of the Veterans Writing Project, read some of his poetry. Ron, who served tours of duty in five wars, found creative expression was a way to understand and deal with his wartime experiences. Not only did he feel a deep need to write as a way of expressing himself, he also saw writing as a healing process.


mask photo from NICoE Healing Arts Program workshop

As he thought about his own experience and how much writing helped him deal with his PTSD, he felt that other veterans could benefit too – and he wanted to share what he’d learned from his graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins. That was the impetus for creating the Veterans Writers Project (VWP), as Ron describes in JWMM, a quarterly literary journal:

Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers Magazine

Ron Capps photo by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers Magazine

“The VWP is a nonprofit organization that we set up to provide no-cost writing workshops and seminars for veterans… Less formally, I think of it as a team of writers who were all veterans or veteran’s family members, those of us who are working writers, who give away what we’ve learned in our work or in our graduate writing programs to people who are just getting started at writing.”

An overwhelming experience, something that might trigger PTSD, can leave you trapped in an emotional maelstrom. Finding the words to externalize that experience, so you can examine and share it, can help calm that internal storm. That was Ron’s personal experience, as he explained in the NEA Arts Magazine:


from the Pages and Places website, photo by Karen Blixen

“Writing helps to create a little bit of distance. The way that I think of it is as if you have this traumatic memory and it’s hot or radioactive. You pick it up with your bare hand — your bare brain so to speak — you can’t manage it, it’s unmanageable. But by putting art or music or writing in between, you have a filter — it’s like putting on a pair of gloves. You can reach out and pick it up.”

There is some scientific evidence that the art of writing can also be a healing art. The National Intrepid Center of Excellence, devoted to understanding and educating about traumatic brain injury, is planning further research to explore the arts as a way of helping heal PTSD. You can find out more about that in the same NEA Arts Magazine.

Jacqueline Hames, Soldiers Magazine

photo by Jacqueline Hames, Soldiers Magazine

As Ron likes to say, “either you control the memory or the memory controls you.” This perceptive NYT article takes the thought further:

For a generation weaned in a multimedia confessional society, and at ease with blogging and Facebook, it makes sense that sharing war experiences and fears would be an effective, or at least familiar, way to examine and overcome what Mr. Capps describes as the “powerful sense of isolation” that greets most veterans once home. They leave behind a culture built on teamwork for one that doesn’t seem to value community, doesn’t appear to be at war and doesn’t understand them.

The military is looking to writing and other art forms, like painting and music, to help rewire the brain after trauma. At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Ron Capps leads weekly workshops for service members recovering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury. He starts them off with two fundamental questions: What is different about the military experience, and why do we bother writing things down?

“We write,” he explains, “to bear witness.”

Ron asks participants to step away from their war experiences and observe the details in new ways. To become better writers, they talk about character development, narrative structure and point of view.

As a writer I understand how writing can be cathartic and healing. Of course, you have to communicate too, otherwise you’re just doing it for an audience of one. But more than that, the VWP is a way for people to share their experiences – and for those of us who weren’t there to gain some insight into what they went through.


Cover art is “Under the Mulberry Trees” by retired Marine CWO2 Mike Fay

You can read the work that comes from the VWP on their website 0-Dark-Thirty.  They print a quarterly literary magazine The Review which you can read online here or subscribe and they’ll send you a copy. They also publish work more frequently online in The Report, which you can access here.

You can also donate and send The Review directly to veterans, as 0-Dark-Thirty explains:

“We’re already providing copies for every patient at the Defense Center of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, and to the Warrior Writers’ Program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Our targets include VA hospitals and clinics, units with a high deployment OPTEMPO, and VSOs.”

David Vergun, Soldiers Magazine

photo by David Vergun, Soldiers Magazine

It used to be fairly common that when people returned from war they would be reluctant to talk about it. Having those experiences locked inside created an emotional wall that was hard to breech… for many, that silence held them apart from the stream of daily life.

More importantly, serving in the military is a time of community – people share similar experiences and grow to trust and depend on each other for their very survival. Coming home from that shared existence – and the sense that someone has your back – to civilian life is challenging at best.

Drew Angerer:The New York Times

photo by Drew Angerer:The New York Times

Kudos to Ron Capps and his fellow veterans for creating these writing programs. They’re helping their fellow veterans find a path to understanding and a means for sharing those terrifying moments when death and destruction are a routine expectation. Trauma brutalizes the psyche – it takes a deep personal trust and faith going forward to bring words to a stilled voice and succor to a troubled heart.

You can read Ron Capps’s essay “Writing My Way Home” here.