Walkabout: Young writer Matthew Newton finds market challenging but worth the effort


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Like so many kids in 1980s Pittsburgh, Matthew Newton imagined a better scene and life anywhere else. He found a community playing in punk rock bands.

But writing was his first love, and he majored in creative nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh. Graduating in 2001, he realized he had chosen a field that would be difficult no matter where he lived.

A native of Wilkinsburg whose parents moved to Plum just in time for him to be disaffected by high school, he stuck around and made a go of it, freelancing for national magazines and operating a small publishing business out of his house. In addition to full-time work on the South Side as assistant managing editor for the American Economics Institute, he continues to write creative nonfiction, hoping there might be a future in it, albeit a marginal one.

On Saturday night, at Unsmoke Artspace, 1137 Braddock Ave., Braddock, he and two other writers will read from recent works. His is a 15-page zine titled "In Case of Emergency."

Small Press Pittsburgh will host the public event from 6 to 9 p.m. as the official release party of Mr. Newton's work. It is a companion essay to his e-book "The Death of A Good Job," which was published by Thought Catalog.

The other writers at Friday's event are Karen Dietrich, author of "The Girl Factory: A Memoir," and Karen Lillis, author of the novel "Watch the Doors as They Close," who is also a blogger involved in Small Press Pittsburgh, a pop-up bookstore.

Mr. Newton's freelance work has appeared in Spin, The Atlantic, Forbes and Esquire, but he has come up against a 21st-century irony. By the time he got out of school, opportunities in journalism had slowed to a trickle, but there was a future -- the Internet and its infinity.

Now, you can write all you want, but written pieces come with three-minute and six-minute warnings; attention spans have dwindled as dramatically as the Internet has expanded. Short is sweeter than ever, and that presents a challenge for a writer who wants to open up a narrative and let it rip. That and paying the bills.

Mr. Newton is in the Gen X/Y demographic that has found some remedy in the do-it-yourself movement and a network of creative types struggling to do what they love on the side, if they're lucky enough to have a "day" job at all.

"In Case of Emergency" finds Mr. Newton, our narrator, pulling into the parking lot of the Holiday Inn where he worked as a dish washer in the kitchen of a karaoke bar after dropping out of high school.

He later got his GED, earned a liberal arts degree and found a good-paying job to which he attached a sense of purpose and well-being. But as the story opens, he has just been fired by phone during his vacation, as the result of a downsizing scheme.

In the next few years, he rebounded, freelancing enough to keep his children fed and house payments made, and he carved out time to write "The Death of a Good Job."

The connection between the Holiday Inn experience and the good job he lost was "the value of work," he said. "I worked with people [at the Holiday Inn] who were supporting families and was confronted with that reality. My uncle was a [laid-off] steelworker. I remember as a kid being struck by the fact that he didn't work, and he was a fairly young guy." [An excerpt from the book appeared in the Post-Gazette in July.]

In Mr. Newton's life and his writing, work has been a resonant theme.

He has hope that the literary scene will improve in Pittsburgh, which has a strong and growing network of supportive people, he said. Having invested this much of his life here, Mr. Newton said he feels the need to see it through.

"I grew up in a survival culture," leaving Wilkinsburg as it was becoming pocked. "I remember driving past crumbling Insul-brick houses and cars that had been stripped. The dull grayness of the environment and the psychological effects" feed themes he said he wants to explore -- "the idea that you had to keep moving away from things to find good places, the cycles of decline and rebirth."

If his reading Saturday night leads to sales and enough more readings to kindle a little momentum, Mr. Newton will still be holding onto the margins of his chosen field, but he will at least be in it. The margins are pretty much where most writers hang out these days.

For more information about Mr. Newton's work, visit www.matthewnewton.us/books

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

 


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