Category Archives: Reading

Big League Academia

New WriterTwo months into my first year of graduate school, I think I’ve finally started to settle in. The workload is not beyond my management (I somehow function better with less sleep), the faculty are just as thoughtful and thought-provoking, and my descent deeper into the cult of academia is going smoothly; soon, I’m told, I’ll be a card-carrying postmodernist. The support my writing receives is frequent, and the possibility of a writing career is even starting to take shape.

For example, this past week I had the opportunity to meet with two agents and two editors, to have them critique a section of my novel-in-progress and discuss the publishing industry. They told me what they liked about the short section, offered insights, made revision suggestions, and allowed me to see the project in grander terms. I learned that when I eventually get an agent and editor, publishing becomes a collaborative effort, a group project. They offered to stay in contact when I have a polished draft. Suddenly, the fantasy of publication no longer feels so impossible.

Is this it? Is this the next step for my writing? Or is this just the next phase in my hike up the ranks into academia? I ask myself this question because I’m surrounded by people who have it figured out already. I’m surrounded by serious academics, doctoral students devoting years to studying, students fulfilling long-term plans. Many of them took a break after college to figure out the rest of their lives, get married, travel, go on adventures, experience things they can then write about. And here I am, fresh out of my undergraduate career.

Am I here because I want to be a writer, or because I want to be an academic? I feel like a kid who doesn’t yet know what he wants to be when he grows up, and time is running out. Do I teach? Get a PhD? Another MA? An MFA? Is there life after publication? Or should I let my ambitions dictate my future? Tired of studying tragedy but never taking that study out of the classroom, I still want to join a charity, volunteer in a hospital in Palestine or Afghanistan or Jordan, or work on an organic farm in Chile or Brazil. I want to see the world, because I know if I stay in the confines of an English Department, I’ll run out of things to write about.

I’m still just a kid, academically speaking, and I’m surrounded by intellectual adults. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked about my PhD, as if that’s the only end in sight, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve silently shrugged and changed the subject. I only have until next fall to figure it out, though. Do I become a career academic? Teach? Work? Let me know in the comments your own thoughts or plans.

-jk

A Novel That Sounds Like Bach

Typewriter musicStarting a new writing project can sometimes feel like latching onto an umbrella and jumping off a cliff, relying only on improvisation and plain luck to keep me from hitting the ground. The key difference is that, unlike jumping off a cliff, writing is a lot scarier.

The other day, I latched onto a good idea for a novel (lawyers, blogs, Texas). It’s since pulled me over the edge, and there’s no turning back. Fortunately, I have plenty to write about. I pull my inspiration from many sources, the authors I read, the people I talk with. One notion fueling this new novel is that I want it to read like the sonatas and partitas of J. S. Bach.

Of course prose and music are two different forms of art, but I’ve enjoyed listening to Bach for over ten years. I enjoy the deliberateness in his music. Nothing is superfluous, allowing the chord progressions to take center stage unhindered by a fixation with virtuosity, and I say this as a violinist who has personally dealt with the pretentiousness of virtuoso musicians and composers.

Instead, Bach patiently jogs along, sometimes as straight 8th notes for measure after measure. The emotions he conveys vary from movement to movement, but they always carry the same deliberate awareness, the same steady pace, putting focus on the chords rather than the structure. Similarly, I want to write prose that invites the reader to go on a run with it on an Autumn morning, that invites the reader to turn corners in an unfamiliar neighborhood but to keep running no matter what they encounter together. Ultimately, I hope to write something the reader can get along with easily, more a friend than a confusing professor. I admit that I am sometimes guilty of lecturing my readers in past stories.

I intend to listen to Bach’s sonatas and partitas while my fingers unravel this novel, but specifically I will listen to Chris Thile performing them on the mandolin. Bach wrote them for the violin, but I enjoy Thile’s rendition more. The timbre sounds more autumnal, more like raindrops or footsteps. And unless I get back to work writing, I may never see this idea to the end.

-jk

Out of the Frying Pan, Into Graduate School

book boxes A few months ago, I attended the AWP Conference where eager representatives from MA and MFA programs stuffed fliers into my hands. They all offered the same possibility: a few years in paradise with nothing to do but write, read, workshop, and inevitably publish. I was drawn into the illusion that ignored the work, the expenses, the debt, and the difficulty in getting anything published.

While preparing for life after NAU, I knew that graduate school was not the only way to become a writer. I could serve overpriced coffee to people in suits, slipping them poems on their receipts to show them my talent, or I could work as a governess for a rich man with gigantic muttonchops who helps me publish my sad story. Or I could take the realistic approach and work, write, and submit short pieces to journals, like most writers I know, gradually building up a longer and longer list of published works.

After I returned from the conference, I received an email from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I had applied to eight schools last fall, and all rejected me but UNL; late in April they informed me they would offer me full funding and a stipend through a research assistantship. It was a lucky break, and I took the offer, not because I believed it was the only path I could take, but because I believed it was the best path for me at the moment. It’s the opportunity to get a Master’s Degree in English without any debt, which is just short of a fantasy these days. I don’t believe I deserve such an opportunity over other applicants, but because I have the opportunity now, it’s my responsibility to make the best of it that I can.

I’m not going just to improve my writing, though of course my emphasis will be in creative writing, and of course I intend to come out of it a better writer. But I also hope to become a more scholarly reader, a better student, a more disciplined person.  I was born into academia, and I can handle it a few more years without losing my mind. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity. So I’ll buckle down, pack up my four thousand books and my no. 2 pencils, and plunge into the fire.

-jk

In Which the Pen Name, Nickname, and Legal Name Meet Each Other

Who? More authors than I can count have used a pen name at one point. Dean Koontz has used Aaron Wolfe; Charlotte Bronte used Currer Bell; Daniel Foe, being the creative genius that he was, used Daniel Defoe, not to conceal his identity but to convince his readers he was more gentlemanly. My favorite is Daniel Handler’s pseudonym Lemony Snicket, because Snicket becomes a character in Handler’s Series of Unfortunate Events, one who navigates the reader through the troubling plots. I’ve never imagined myself using a pen name, until I realized how many names I’ve gone by.

For most of my life, I’ve gone by my middle name Keene. In middle school, I got tired of correcting people who thought I said Ken or Keenan or Keith, and I also wanted a name requiring no spelling correction. Not Keen, not Keane, not Frank, but Keene! I tried my first name Jeffery, but even then most people misplaced the R, spelling it Jeffrey. So I shortened it to Jeff. This was also around the time I started writing, and I wrote my earliest stories as Jeff Short. But Jeff was not a very pleasant person, nor a very good writer. He was obnoxiously political, and was competitive in music, writing, and grades.

Along the way, I decided that I liked Keene better. Keene Short. It’s a good name for a writer, and frankly I like Keene as a person more than Jeff. Whereas Jeff was picky, Keene embraced just about everything. He had a better sense of humor than Jeff. Most importantly, he gave up competitiveness. Keene wasn’t concerned with being superior with distinction, but with enjoying the show. Jeff slowly diminished into a forgotten nickname.

In the last years of college, I adopted another name: JK. The nickname originated in the place I worked, the NAU Honors Writing Center, which I can only describe as a mythical realm where the drawers are stuffed with candy and sarcasm flows freely from the tutors. My boss began calling me JK, and soon I started signing emails, letters, and even blog posts as JK. Keene now blogs as JK, who can withhold his sarcasm and be somber when the time calls for it but prefers to be lighthearted. You do not know everything about Keene; you don’t need to and I don’t want you to, which is why JK is here as a literary filter.

But I will always be Keene Short, even in publication. JK is a nice nickname, but I can’t see critics taking Collected Stories of JK very seriously. Maybe JK is just the fictionalized version of Keene, and I’m content with that. I don’t think of Keene Short as a pen name because Jeffery Short, to me, isn’t a real person. I’d be lying if I published under Jeffery or Jeff, both strangers to me. I am simply Keene Short.

-jk

The Great Summer Reading List

books

The Summer Reading List is a staple of summer vacations. Like beaches, fireworks, and barbecues, books are a necessity for good summers. I’m sure countless psychologists, anthropologists, literary scholars, and social scientists have devoted hour after hour to calculating the best equation for a summer reading list. It should be filled with books one has meant to read but hasn’t had time to yet. It should be diverse in genre, not just balancing poetry, novels, and plays, but adventure, drama, comedy, romance, or any combination of the reader’s personal preferences. Often they have new releases paired with classics. My summer reading list is hefty; it has books I’ve been meaning to get around to for over five years, as well as books I just discovered months ago. Some come recommended by friends, others I picked up off the shelf on a whim. However, it is most important for a summer reading list to be leisurely and enjoyable. I’ve certainly enjoyed my list so far, and have no intention of slowing my reading until I have to get back to work in the Fall.

My list is as follows:

The Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail (Iraqi poetry)

A Dog About Town by J. F. Englert (murder mystery narrated by a dog)

The Long and Short of It by Pamela Painter (short stories)

The Theory and Practice of Rivers by Jim Harrison (poetry)

With a Strange Scent of World by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez (Cuban poetry)

The Propheteers by Max Apple (historical fiction novel)

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (novel)

The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry

Literature from the ‘Axis of Evil’ by various authors (anthology of works from Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Libya, Sudan, and Syria)

The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry 

Fall 2014 edition of Cardinal Sins (literary journal)

Book of Grass by J. V. Brummels (Midwestern poetry)

They Came to Jerome by Herbert Young (Arizona History)

Salt by Earl Lovelace (Trinidadian novel)

Our Father Who Wasn’t There by David Carlin (Australian memoir)

Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka (Nigerian play)

Volume 35, No. 1 of Mid-American Review (literary journal)

Healing Earthquakes by Jimmy Santiago Baca (poetry)

Aimless Love by Billy Collins (poetry)

Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee (South African novel)

The Blizzard Voices by Ted Kooser (Midwestern poetry)

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque (WWI novel)

The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck (novel)

The Business of Fancydancing by Sherman Alexie (poetry and short stories)

Emails from Scheherazad by Mohja Khaf (Syrian-American poetry)

What books are on your summer reading list? Any favorites? Leave a comment and let me know what you’ve been reading.

-jk

Why a Liberal Education? Your Guess is as Good as Mine

I study English, poetry and fiction writing, literature, twentieth century history, the Western and Central Asia, colonialism, post-colonialism, feminism (waves 1-3), war, culture, comparative religion, social movements, world religions, and philosophy. I spend my time reading, then writing about what I read, and then reading what people wrote about what I wrote about what I read. Why do I do it? Because I have no choice. I am compelled to study the world as it is today by studying the way it was. I read and write fiction and poetry as a way to make sense of the world, only to find that I am still as ignorant. I pore over Persian poetry, Soviet policy records, and Twitter feeds from Tahrir Square, even when I’m not required to for a class, and I still have no answers.

That’s what it feels like to study in the liberal arts. You want answers to questions, but the only answers you find lead to more questions. You are taught to question all answers. There are no answers. For that matter, there are no questions. But that is an answer, so it must be wrong. Right?                                                            When I Return