Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

Notes from Flagstaff

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“As for me, I am a watercolor./I wash off.” -Anne Sexton, “For My Lover, Returning to his Wife


It should be monsoon season in Flagstaff but the air is bone-dry and the only thing in the sky that isn’t hazy blue is a plume of wildfire smoke. I sit in a tea house while “Back in the USSR” plays on the radio, sipping oolong and watching passerby walk up Aspen Avenue in downtown Flagstaff. It’s just like the old days, or just like how I remember the old days, but something is different. I’m just like the passerby now. I can no longer be a smug local people-watching the tourists.

My childhood in northern Arizona was defined by two local features: The inevitability of wildfires and the possibility of leaving for outer space. In 1884, a fire destroyed Old Town, leaving only the part of the city closest to the tracks. Ten years later, Percival Lowell founded an observatory on a hill above the city to look for life on Mars, though his research would later lead to the discovery of Pluto. Flagstaff is a city of dreamers, artists, mystics, and scientists. I landed squarely in one of these quadrants, or all of them.

I left Flagstaff four years ago. It’s not as if this city is completely different. Instead, Flagstaff to me has entered the uncanny valley. It’s familiar enough that I recognize it for what it’s supposed to be, but enough of it has changed that it just doesn’t feel right. I am also a different person. We meet one another, the city and I, halfway at our respective crossroads, doing double takes.

Still, I have connections. In a tiny house in a semi-familiar neighborhood, I help fold veggies into egg roll dough with four Flagstaff friends, two married couples, both of whose weddings I missed because I was traveling or had already skipped town. We sit outside under strings of lights in the now seasonably warm evening air and catch up.

I used to live with one friend here in a house on Talkington Street near the ski resort. I’m glad how familiar this scene still is, how easy it is to cook with friends after so long apart. Later, we chat about people we remember from high school, wherever they’ve ended up. Sammie shows me an art project. Cari is going to seminary in New England in a few weeks. Ryan is preparing another album after a month-long tour.

This is the Flagstaff I have always known, catering to the ambitious and the adamant. Following the emergence of art, mysticism, and dreams, though, there is always some form of commercialization, and Flagstaff is not immune from the power of Capital to market nostalgia.

It’s fitting that the first settler structure here was a saloon, before the loggers and miners moved in. Gun violence was commonplace. In one apocryphal account, there was a saloon murder every week between 1882 and ’83. Were it not for the scientists who took an interest in the region, John Wesley Powell and Percival Lowell, Flagstaff would have likely become one more ghost town or company town, its residents finally driven out when logging and mining came to a standstill. Instead, Flagstaff became a tourist town and a college town. And, at a certain point, the college experience is sold to high school graduates using the same advertising techniques that tourist traps use. Come for the mountain view, stay for the nostalgia.

Except, most people who can afford to stay in Flagstaff are long-time residents. And expensive student housing structures have popped up across from the tracks, and parking is now regulated with warnings and tickets, and there’s a fire close to my old neighborhood. The last few days I’m here, my phone is constantly buzzing with evacuation alerts and flash flood warnings from late rainstorms. I am used to waiting for evacuation notices. This is something they don’t advertise in the college brochures, to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, to have a bag packed at the door. And I heed the warning. I am ready to leave.

-jk

On Revisiting a Daybook I Gave Up On

Garden.jpgHere’s what happened: on September 1, 2018, I started a daybook. My goal was to write a few paragraphs every single day, usually a detailed description of something I observed or did. The goal was to think in the present tense, to not compare moments, but simply describe what happened.

I made it two months and six days, stopping short at Election Day, adding a few posts in November and December. By January, I cut my losses. Life got weird. I was involved with some political activism and needed to grade mid-term and term papers for my composition classes, and holiday travel coupled with other writing goals pushed the daybook out of my routine. What I have as a result is a detailed sketch of life in Moscow, Idaho, during the autumn of 2018. An artifact from which I can mine for inspiration.

I wrote a total of seventy posts. Most of them were redundant, but some choice scenes emerged. Here is one scene: one evening in October, I stopped to pet a dog named Tuna outside the one good bar in town, the Garden, and a woman ran out to let Tuna lick her face. Tuna’s human apologized for the dog’s bad breath, but the woman said, “It’s okay,  I just had a shot of gin so I can’t smell anything,” before jogging off in the direction of the police station.

I spent a lot of time in the daybook reflecting on the Muscovites I see everywhere. There is a man with a beard and a panama hat. There are the Neo-Confederate church members downtown. There are the activists I trucked with, a retired state senator I ate donuts with every Saturday morning in October.

This last year, I’ve started to view my writing in the long tradition of creative nonfiction stemming from journalism: the dispatch, the report, the place study, the travelogue. I wonder how many notes essayists record that never make it to print, the observations that get cut. The simplest description of creative nonfiction I can think of is this: to describe what happened.

In mining my daybook from last fall, I have now collected material for three essays by categorizing and cutting. I wrote a lot about food, a lot about politics, a lot about anxiety, plenty about the sheer weirdness of this town in the Idaho panhandle. I described, in the most boring details possible, what happened between September 1 and November 6, not just my experience, but the lay of the land writ large, the season, the changes and my acclimation to the changes.

After the experience, I cannot recommend the practice of keeping a daybook strongly enough to other writers. It is tedious and boring in the moment, but so is exercise and meditation and learning to play music. A daybook for a writer is like scales for a musician. It is foundational, elemental, the bedrock of storytelling and keen observation. Maybe I’m becoming more of a reporter like Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe. Maybe I’m just doing what poets and novelists do to build image and character. In any case, my writing style has come out better for the exercise, simply a paragraph at the end of a long day, a scene, a drink, a ritual like prayer.

-jk

Essay Published in Blue Earth Review

ZionI’m pleased to announce that my flash essay “After Zion” is the featured online nonfiction for the next print issue of Blue Earth Review. It is what the title suggests: Dawdling after a long hike through Zion National Park. You should also check out the featured fiction and poetry for this issue while you’re there.

This short essay, along with one recently published in Dark Mountain, is one in a long string of environmentally-focused flash essays I read back in September as part of an Idaho MFA tradition, the yearly symposium: Each second-year student reads a selection of their work in a low-stakes setting, usually a faculty member’s house, and responds to questions and comments about their work to prepare them for their third-year thesis defense. Two-thirds of the flash essays I read at my symposium have found homes in print or online. Does that mean that I will only successfully defend two-thirds of my thesis next year?

-jk

 

Essay Published in Dark Mountain

Sunset in the WoodsI’m pleased to announce that my flash essay “Notes on Preparing for a Wildfire Evacuation” appears in Dark Mountain 15, which is themed around forest fires. The Dark Mountain Project is a UK-based literary and arts organization whose goal (they literally wrote a manifesto about it) is to use art to realistically address global ecological crises.

Much of my writing is environmentally focused, and this particular essay is about growing up in the mountain West, where wildfire season is a yearly, ongoing fact of life. I’m glad to have an essay in Dark Mountain, and I’m glad for the encouragement for the weird, at times discomforting direction my personal essays are going. Now that I live in northern Idaho, wildfire season remains a fact of day-to-day life. So too, though, are forests and mountains, the quieter features of the mountain West, the areas I’m used to exploring freely, that I hope to continue to explore. My writing will inevitably dwell on forests and fires alike. Now that I am about to enter my final year in an MFA program, as I prepare a book of essays for my final defense, I’m grateful for institutions like Dark Mountain whom I can trust with my weird, discomforting work.

-jk

Essay Published in Split Lip Magazine

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I’m pleased to announce that I have an essay in the August issue of Split Lip Magazine. It’s titled “Faking It,” and it’s a creative nonfiction essay about the time I sold my soul to the devil. It might be called excessively creative nonfiction.

Feel free to read it, but also check out the other work this month and in the archives. Split Lip publishes a small handful of writers each month, as opposed to many other journals who feature a lot of writers two or three times a year.

For me, this is an honor, and also a good way to kick off the semester on the first day back to work for TA training.

-jk

After Hibernation

SpringI found out recently that bears do not, as I had previously believed, hibernate. Now my whole world is thrown into chaos.

I’ve been thinking about bears a lot lately. I took a short trip to Montana last weekend to visit my grandparents, and though I didn’t see any bears, the few I have seen crossing the road, if my memory is correct, have been in Montana. I passed the University of Montana, whose mascot is the Grizzly, and was saddened to discover that they will likely be cutting many of their programs, including English. My grandfather and my father both have pointed out to me it’s a good thing I didn’t get accepted into UM because of their financial issues. I could have been a Grizzly, but in the long run it’s better that I’m not.

Biologically speaking, I am not a bear, but I share a few characteristics: I have a special affinity for honey and berries, I possess a quantity of brownish unruly fuzz, and I require a lot of alone time. Also, I like to stand in front of a river and wait for fish to jump into my open, gaping jaw, but who doesn’t? Most importantly, I have always appreciated bears because they hibernate, or so I thought. I, too, have always thought of myself as hibernating, but if I was wrong about bears, I might be wrong about myself.

Hibernation is absolute isolation. Other species hibernate because they literally sleep the entire winter, clicking off their other functions to preserve heat and energy. Bears, on the other hand, wake up periodically during the winter months to leave their dens. During winter, they stay in their dens with stored energy and warmth, but move about to replenish their needs, but only sometimes, when it’s necessary. Bears don’t hibernate; they’re just introverted.

It’s unlikely that bears clack away on a typewriter during winter, crescent moon glasses on their large wet bear noses as they squint their bear eyes at their bear memoir (beamoir) while taking a sip of mead and then glancing out of their den to contemplate the complexities and horrors of being alive. But if they did, I would sympathize.

It was cold and rainy and almost snowing when I drove six hours to Montana through sloping mountain passes, driving past and in some cases over small secluded towns in the forests. I rarely leave the Palouse, or Moscow, or my apartment. I prefer long periods of seclusion storing energy, writing, digesting berries and honey and whatnot. But apparently, this is not hibernation. Even in summer, I burrow away to write and read. It’s more like conservation, if anything.

Now that the weather in Moscow has finally become consistently warmer, I cannot justify staying inside my den all day. In some respects, I don’t want to. This has been the longest winter I have experienced in quite a while. It has been brutally windy, unpredictably cold, overwhelmingly sunless. It has become easy to stay inside my apartment in isolation, because going anywhere requires preparation, even on good days. For me, I’m realizing, this is true in other circumstances. But it’s comforting to know that what I do is not hibernation. I don’t vanish, I’m just resourceful.

The road to Montana was clear and almost completely empty in the early morning. Low storm clouds obscured some of the mountaintops and dark green forests along the road. It was cold, but not violently so, and the clouds slipped away when I reached my grandparents’ house in the Bitterroot Valley. It was almost warm during the weekend excursion. As a break, it was even almost enough.

-jk

Etymology, From the Greek for Wordstuff

Palouse 6At least 30 percent of creative nonfiction is devoted to reflecting on etymology. We examine the words we use everyday. Fruit, from the Latin frui, meaning to enjoy; paragraph, from the middle French for stroke, as in a painting; field, from the German Feld, for open country; language, from the Latin lingua for tongue. The trend in nonfiction is to meditate on the the roots of our language to explore its deeper, older meaning.

But what about the etymology of etymology? The definition is embedded in the the word itself. It describes itself. The word etymology is self-referential, like a hipster trying to be ironic. Etymology is its own inside joke, wearing seventeen layers of irony. Etymology wears beanies with collared shirts and eats egg whites with spinach on whole wheat toast. Etymology knows what time it is.

Etymology comes from the Greek etumos, for truth. It was adopted into Latin where it had a good life before going to middle French to mean a field of inquiry, and after graduation found its way into English, and then ended up in English departments, as the creative decision to plunge backward through itself into its own roots. Like all words that move from English to English departments, its meaning becomes questionable, which is why etymology is used so often in application, but not applied to itself. Worlds could end if etymology, too, was explored into its roots, dug up, transplanted to an essay, and placed in new soil.

As field of inquiry into truth, in its origins, etymology is an artistic form. An essay could be an etymology, gathered into a collection of etymologies. An essay looks backwards, reflects, investigates. The sixteenth century French writer Michel de Montaigne, whose Essais established the literary tradition of using nonfiction to explore ideas, to “test their quality” according to the etymology of essay, may have simply been creating expansive etymologies, long-form etymologies, extended inquiries into truth. Maybe this is what the field of creative nonfiction, in all it encompasses, is meant to do. Journalism, biography, history, documentary, and auto-theory are all founded on etymology, rooted in root-seeking.

I have only recently started using etymology in my writing, but I think it’s more than a trend. It’s a strategy, and one that is regularly tested. I am beginning to use this strategy more and more. When I write, I start on the ground and dig up the roots around me to see how far they go, to see where I can go from there.

-jk

Teacher Sweat Solutions, Ltd.

shirt stainIf you’re a first-time college instructor, you may have heard this piece of encouraging advice on your first day: “Don’t sweat it!” Well, studies have shown that this is physiologically impossible. In fact, the classroom setting is designed specifically to create more sweat among teachers through a combination of lights, stress, and projectors to overheat the exact spot a teacher teaches in, and nowhere else. As a result, within minutes of teaching, teachers are inevitably drenched in a thin layer of sweat they know their students can see, even those students who spend entire classes with their eyes directed into their phone screens.

We here at Teacher Sweat Solutions, Ltd., would like to offer you, a first-time sweaty teacher, a variety of solutions to alleviate what scientists and Rick who always shows up late to meetings have dubbed “frequent sweating issues.”

  1. To reduce the visibility of FSI, consider wearing only black clothes. This will make sweat stains visible only to the first two rows of students.
  2. Strategically reduce the heat in the classroom. Recent studies cited offhandedly by Rick that might have come from NPR but he can’t remember where suggest that body temperature increases the more teachers realize just how many of their students are judging them for mumbling or for saying “um” or for being a humanities professor who sometimes uses critical thinking. Consider turning down the heat and cranking up the AC. Your students can cope with it.
  3. Be careful with your layers. Wear a really tight undershirt and a really loose top over that, so that your undershirt can become a towel that almost never comes into contact with the rest of your clothes. No sweat stains! However, this solution only works if you do not move during the entire class period.
  4. Head sweat is a growing concern these days. Just ask Rick, who pointed out to you in the meeting he was late to that you look uncomfortably sweaty and offered you a tissue. Consider wearing a beanie or a bandana while teaching to mop up the sweat. Longer hair can also catch sweat, but be sure to wash it regularly.
  5. If all else fails, teach online classes only. This will make it impossible for your students to see the sweat you produce typing emails explaining to them that the answers to their questions are in the syllabus.

Teaching is a risky career fraught with pitfalls and existential anxiety, and not just because tuition waivers are about to be taxed pointlessly while professors are scrutinized by petty, ideologically driven politicians. We can’t help with that, but we can at least help you reduce the visibility of your sweat while you anxiously watch the news unfold during your in-class free writes. We can’t reduce your stress, but we can help you deny that it’s there, like you do with the rest of your problems, Rick.

-jk

Surrendering a Pocket Knife

IMG_4603There wasn’t much going on at the Spokane International Airport. Its two runways did not seem busy yesterday as I navigated the rigid airport security system. I diligently took off my shoes, placed my laptop in its own plastic tub, and placed my sparsely packed backpack in another tub. Shoeless, coatless, without my glasses and a little sleepy, I went through security. Past the body scan, I then waited as a TSA agent rummaged through my backpack.

“It looks like there’s a knife in here,” he said to me, casually.

Of course. My air travel backpack is the same as my camping backpack. Before packing, I had emptied my backpack of all my camping equipment, and even emptied it of pens and pencils, just in case. It seems I had missed a pocketknife, which took the agent a few minutes to locate after it slipped into one of my backpack’s many pockets. Only an X-ray could detect it. He held the knife in front of me, saying I had three options. I could have it delivered somewhere from the airport, put it in my car (I didn’t drive there), or, as he put it, I could “surrender it and let it go to knife heaven.”

I paused for a second. My flight would begin boarding in thirty minutes, and I probably had enough time to have it mailed back to my apartment and then go through security again, even though the knife was the only issue. But the line behind me and the agent’s calm patience made me feel embarrassed, even ashamed, at not doing my civic duties and preparing my backpack for Thanksgiving travel thoroughly enough. I chose to surrender the knife.

During my flight, I mulled over the word surrender. There are so many other ways of putting it: confiscate, disavow, give up. Instead, the situation looked like this: a TSA agent held my knife at me and told me to surrender.

It occurred to me that I felt safer at an airport than I do in my own classroom. I cannot take a knife on a plane (fair enough), but if I wanted to, I could bring a concealed handgun into my classroom while teaching. Idaho’s laws are finicky, and concealed-carry gun-owners, while on campus, are not allowed to reveal their weapons, but I still have the option to have one, and so do my students.

The argument is that the only thing stopping a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, and yet we don’t apply this logic to airplanes. On the plane, we cannot trust anyone with a pocket knife, or scissors, or toothpaste, so we regulate these things, or at least we collectively agree to embrace the cognitive dissonance required to believe that the good guy/bad guy hypothetical situation works everywhere except a plane. Nobody is trusted on a plane, but we have to trust that good guys will be everywhere else.

While teaching my last class before the holiday break, a man walked into my classroom, abrasively opening the door and marching toward me. He was older, balding, and looked frantic. Before I could panic, before I could beg him not to shoot me, he pointed to the lectern at which I stood and said, “I need to get a flash drive.” Then, in a few quick moves, he unplugged a flash drive from the computer. Evidently, he was another professor who had previously used the same classroom, and had left his equipment there. He apologized for the inconvenience and walked out. My students didn’t seem bothered. Maybe they’re all just good guys.

As my plane landed, I thought about something Charles Olson wrote in his 1947 literary criticism Call Me Ishmael: “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.” I’m skeptical that there is one central fact of America, but after the twin incidents in the classroom and airport, I’m inclined to think the central fact of America might be surrendering. This might be the case for every nation-state, but I cannot speak to other countries, but it seems more widespread in America: If I were not white, I can’t imagine what the TSA agents would have done to me after discovering a pocket knife in my backpack.

The word surrender has another, more sinister layer. Only combatants can surrender to another authority, lesser or greater in force. Soldiers surrender in war, and criminals surrender to cops. It suggests a more equal power dynamic than what is actually recorded in history. Native Americans surrendered land and life, Afghan children surrender security under drones, politicians surrender principles and we surrender to them our votes and our privacy, the working poor surrender their labor. What the state calls surrender is more like seizure because those who are asked to surrender are made to feel responsible for their defeat, as if it was their choice to enter into a conflict with America, large and without mercy.

And what was I ashamed of? That I was caught not remembering the state of terror we live in? I think, in truth, I was ashamed that the first time I relaxed this semester was walking into an airport, that I felt safer in a security complex designed to reinforce fear than I do in a classroom designed for comfort and an easy pace, and that I’m made to feel responsible because I’m not a good guy with a gun. Instead, I walk into a classroom with pens, pencils, markers, books, and slideshows, but none of those things, it seems, are enough to make me good.

-jk

Essay Published in Atticus Review

buffalo parkI’m honored to announce that my essay, “Buffalo Park,” is featured online in Atticus Review. Feel free to read it, but also read the other nonfiction essays, short stories, and poetry featured in Atticus as well. This essay has been published one year to the day that I first submitted it to my graduate nonfiction workshop at UNL. I’m grateful, as always, for the feedback my peers and professor offered me about the essay last September. This is also the essay I used as a writing sample for my application to the University of Idaho’s MFA program. With a little luck and a lot of work, I might have a few more publications on the way.

-jk