02/08/2011 12:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Sadness Museum

Since its inception in 2006, the Sadness Museum has been more of a traveling museum than a museum you travel to, which is appropriate. Who really goes in search of sadness? It usually comes to you. The Sadness Museum has traveled the loneliest road and set up, carny-like, at the Nevada State Fair, where it was not received with the same enthusiasm as Brad's World Reptiles. The primary venue for the Sadness Museum has been the Association of Writers & Writing Programs convention, going on this weekend in Washington, D.C. It probably comes as no surprise to learn that some of the founders of the Sadness Museum have MFAs.

I first encountered the Sadness Museum at the Atlanta AWP in 2007. It was in an unmanned booth draped in black felt cloth. Once you stepped into the booth, you could be invisible to others at the book fair, which, I admit, was initially a large part of the attraction to me.

The circuitous route of the Sadness Museum begins with a writer, who may or may not be fictional, named Buckbee, and the story of his failure as a writer. Buckbee's ability to perceive pain and to disperse it in his writing was intact, but his ability to package his perception of pain in a manner that would make people want to buy it, or even read it, was lacking. That's when the decision to incorporate Buckbee was made. 193 stock options were offered.

Through Buckbee, A Writer, Inc., The Sadness Museum, began. Visitors to the booth were invited to consider one of the objects in the Sadness Museum, take a stamped envelope, and, after writing about the object, submit the story under Buckbee's name to one of the literary magazines. The publication decision would go straight to Buckbee. One of the executives of Buckbee, Inc, Matthew Shrode Hargis, reports that they received several rejections.

The first acquisition of the Sadness Museum, a plastic storm trooper, was found under a motel bed in Mobile, Alabama. The trooper made the finder sad because the finder imagined a child leaving it in a hotel room and the parent not going back for it, and also there is a sadness about rooms in motels not being cleaned very well. In other words, the object was a filter for sadness -- you, as observer, were welcome to filter your sadness through the object.

The second acquisition to the Sadness Museum was obtained by solicitation. The executive board used the time-honored tradition of closing your eyes and pointing to a name in the phone book in determining whom to solicit. Two solicitations per state were sent out, yet only one acquisition was obtained in this manner. This was a Toni Braxton tape sent by a man in Nevada, given to him by his ex-wife. The man had received the letter, taken it down to his local coffee shop, discussed it with others, called the Sadness Museum, and, once he was assured it wasn't a Ponzi scheme, sent on the Toni Braxton tape.

Evidence bags were passed out at various AWPs, and people were encouraged to send in their own objects of sadness, with accompanying narrative if they wished. By 2009, in Chicago, the Sadness Museum had culled many acquisitions, many of which were now mundane -- a McCormick black pepper can -- and accompanied by narratives -- "because pepper is the only thing that makes me cry" -- as well as several objects that belonged to children who had died and a typewriter used to write a father's suicide note. Whether or not all the narratives are true or are narratives about what should be sad cannot be determined. Sadness should be a temporal state, and what happens when it is institutionalized into something static changes it. The Chicago Sadness Museum was different: inside the black felt there were curiosities; there were more dolls; the objects were no longer writing prompts, but often a footnote to a story.

I am always finding things scattered around my house that I have picked up at the Sadness Museum. Trading cards, stock certificates, a button that says: "Who is Buckbee?" I think of Buckbee as the antithesis of John Galt, but then I seem to have collected another button, which says, "I am Buckbee."

I have an evidence bag that I took home intending to send in an artifact. But what would it be? The porcelain carousel horse that is missing half a leg seems a little bit sad, and judging from the expanding acquisitions of the Sadness Museum, people find all sorts of objects with missing limbs sad, but the fact that missing limbs are seen as universally sad, as apparently are old dog collars, should mitigate that sadness with cliché, shouldn't it? I decide to send in my John Kerry/John Edwards button.

It was only a matter of time before the AWP convention itself, part of the corporation against writing sadness, would insert itself into the Sadness Museum. And this is what happened in 2010 in Denver. The actual Sadness Museum wasn't there, or else it had morphed into something else entirely. The objects were now in human form with human language.

There was a booth at the book fair and instructions to go to a room at the Hyatt, where, once you got to the room -- a regular hotel room -- the door was open and no one was there except for mannequins and some mannequin luggage and a table with buttons that you could press so the mannequins would talk about things you might hear people talking about at AWP including, and especially, whether they are wasting their life writing. The mannequins name-dropped. Sometimes they talked about literature. They did not do that thing where they looked around while talking to you to see if someone else more interesting was in the room, but I'm sure if they had neck muscle and eye capacity they would have. My favorite was a mannequin in the bathroom, who just kept bursting into sobs. It made me laugh every time she did.

And this is the thing: very sad things have happened in my own life since I first encountered the Sadness Museum, and in the lives of many that I know. The Sadness Museum was one of the places I went to, as Toni Braxton might say, to un-break my heart.

If you would like to hear an extended podcast about the Sadness Museum or readings and discussions from many other writers, you can go to another creative AWP endeavor, and if you would like to find out more about the Sadness Museum, you can go here.

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