Category Archives: Reflection

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

Notes from Portland

Portland

“Maybe 1978 was the year the 1960s ended and the 1980s began. Maybe there were no 1970s.” -Rebecca Solnit, The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness

My generation talks about Portland, Oregon, the way my parents’ generation talked about California in the 1960s, in that supposedly magical decade when Haight-Ashbury was for free-thinkers and runaways and Hollywood was a place of romance rather than violence, a place of paradise, freedom, and escapism, or at least just a place to escape to.

For a lot of us born in the 1990s, I think, the Pacific Northwest is still seen as a kind of paradise. I know a dozen people who went to Portland after graduating from college or instead of college, and I know more who talk about going there sometime in the future. In the American West, I think, many of us see it as the only remaining authentic counter-cultural scene, now that Seattle has been corrupted by Amazon and Boeing. It’s paradise, and like California before the cults and murders, this reputation is equally earned and exaggerated.

I will admit that, when I visited last week, I was struck by this city, by its oblique beauty and opaque optimism. But I’m also ambivalent. It’s not romantic to me, but familiar. It’s just like being back home in Flagstaff, Arizona in all the best and worst ways, because it’s a tourist destination, which means that what is visible to the visitor is only one side of the stage the city wants to present. Tourists never peek behind the curtain to see the other city inside the city, or rather, they do, constantly, but choose to ignore anything that disrupts the sense of paradise, the escapism that tourism is built on, a centuries-old colonial logic that treats any visited people or place as a cultural buffet. I recognize the theatricality, the performativity. I lived for two decades as a local in Flagstaff, on the side of town the tourists never go to.

Gentrification is to tourism as imperialism is to capitalism, in which those with economic power, in a given city’s financial Center, invade a marginalized community or neighborhood, buy out its necessary businesses (laundromats, corner stores, diners), and replace them with yuppy businesses that those in the community cannot afford, forcing them to look elsewhere for laundry or food. Meanwhile, the gentry have a new colony in a part of town with cheap rent from which to sell artisinal donuts to wealthy newcomers, or to all the tourists.

I went to Portland as a tourist—as the gentry, as the colonist—for the annual AWP conference. 15,000 writers and publishers descended on the City of Roses to network and share journals and thoughts and their creative work. To be clear, this conference was productive for publishers, writers, for a variety of literary communities, and for me personally as well as professionally. But like all conferences, it came at the expense of the environment and the local community.

Portland is a strange place because it simultaneously compels me to want to be more compassionate to others, while also reminding me how insufficient compassion is, despite its urgency, despite its necessity.

But I see the appeal of the dream here, too. I see why my friends relocated to this gritty, green, rusting city, this place of wondrous contradiction, where the river pushes past the streets and Mount Hood is always watching over the mossy brown cacophony of the landscape, the patches of cherry blossom trees, the network of trains and the bicyclists and the sense of cheerful nihilism. I want to be a part of this scene. I want to fit in here. I do fit in here, feel a kinship with the sense of possibility, the sense of communal towardness to one another, despite the likeliness that this sense is more a product of my 1990s imagination, driven by Twin Peaks and The X-Files. But, like any glorified past, maybe there were no 1990s.

Portland is no paradise—I’m not naïve; I grew up in a city that people from Phoenix called utopic when they came to ski and drink while my friends on the other side of the tracks dealt with floods, fires, and catastrophic rent hikes. But still: I’ve always felt out-of-place until coming to Portland, where I felt like it didn’t matter if I was a tourist or a local, as if the difference dissolved and waking up in Portland felt like deja vu, but in a good way, like delirium. A tourist seals this feeling up for himself, like a trinket; what can I do, instead, to fight for a world in which this sense of immediate community, this impulse toward affinity despite factual difference, is common for everyone else?

-jk

Notes from Albuquerque

four horseman of the western statueEvery time I visit this city, it finds new ways to surprise me. There is no planning for contingency here. Last week, I returned to Albuquerque for the 40th annual Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference to present a paper (animal studies, rats, Paris, Ratatouille, and so on) alongside a broad, interdisciplinary spectrum of scholars.

There was an eco-feminist reading of Hey Arnold! There was a close reading of Nick White and Paulo Bacigalupi’s portrayal of toxic water (in the context of the crisis in Flint, Michigan). There was a critical assessment of whether or not altering National Parks iconography is a useful political strategy against selling public lands to corporate interests. This conference is my  favorite, more than the national PCA conference and even AWP (where everyone is trying to hide how stressed-out they are). Maybe it’s the Breaking Bad T-shirts in the hotel lobby, or the actual meth dealers just down the street on Central Avenue, but for whatever reason, this particular conference allows scholars, an otherwise overly serious bunch, to take themselves just a little less seriously.

I’ve missed the high desert, the southwestern aesthetics, the tan and adobe architecture. I’ve missed the sunlight and the dryness. But this is Albuquerque, a city of endless surprise. So I should have expected that the restaurant a friend and I taxied to would be closed in the middle of a snow storm, forcing us to walk down Central Avenue looking for an emergency alternative. Right now, nearly every place that I have known is covered in snow: Flagstaff, Lincoln, Moscow, Spokane, and for a while even Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I neurotically plan for contingencies at every step, but it’s good to know that the unexpected isn’t always bad. For me, it takes an effort to relax and take things less seriously. Shout-laughing at the high desert snow while looking for an Italian restaurant in the wind and snow with one of my best friends reminds me that some of the most productive, engaging experiences are surprises, without prediction and against planning.

The stakes are high, for interdisciplinary academic work that actually makes a difference. Back home at the University of Idaho, there are two interdisciplinary efforts to address climate change, first an ecocriticism reading group and second an emerging collaboration between the humanities and sciences to communicate accurate climate science to local communities. This weekend, I realized that not only is pop culture necessary to communicating serious climate science, but framing it all as a doom-and-gloom apocalypse is also counter-productive. The most important part of the countless post-apocalyptic films and novels that have come out in the last five years is that, one way or another, people express survival in terms of art. Despite zombies, drought, or plagues, characters always make room for culture, whatever that culture is, no matter how subtle its recreation and preservation is.

Image result for alt national parksPopular culture studies finds a comfortable home in Albuquerque. This academic field, like the city itself, resists expectations. It forces people to recognize that grave concerns and lightheartedness can coincide.

This conference is an (expensive and limited) opportunity for scholars to “make sense of the things they love.” It’s a space to recognize the ambiguity inherent in everything we interact with: TV, movies, comics, music, genre. All of it has a radical potential to shape the way people see themselves and the world around them. It’s not that pop culture is sacred, but that it has the potential, like the most radical aspects of the world itself, to surprise us.

 

 

-jk

Sunshine, Colds, and Swarms of Aphids: October in Moscow

Fall in MoscowThis week in Moscow, several disconnected events are converging. It is exceptionally warm, there are swarms of aphids–called blue ash aphids, local only to this part of the country and, I’m told, one other region on another unspecified continent–and a seasonal cold. I am subject now to all three.

The aphids are so many and so thick they look like snowflakes in the air, and it is impossible to walk anywhere in town without running into them. They catch in my hair and fall into my lap long after I go inside, and get stuck on my glasses or in my ears or up my nose. This blizzard of aphids under the sun is inescapable.

This week, I also caught The Thing That Has Been Going Around. The Moscow Plague. The spread, the disease. I notice that everywhere I live wants to somehow own the common cold. The Flagstaff Flu. The Nebraska Crud. It really is just the common cold, and on a college campus, when I collect my students’ free writes or share an office with conferencing faculty or go anywhere that students who live in Petri dishes known as dorms go, I will inevitably get That Thing That’s Been Going Around. I noticed it early, took action with vitamin C and tea with honey and plenty of nutrients and proteins, and am nearly over it now. The warm weather helps. The aphids are also trying to help, presumably by clogging my nostrils.

This is my favorite time of year in Moscow, though. Soon, it will be too dark and cold to go outside. The aphids are keeping my company, and I’m well, all things considered. If this town is teaching me anything, it’s that at any given moment, everything will happen all at once, without announcement. Swarms of things, plagues, unseasonably warm weather, on top of the smaller things: anxiety, publications, readings, short road trips, sudden deadlines, too many overlapping meetings, and a season so short it could be gone before I notice.

-jk

Return from the Frank Church Wilderness: A Photo Essay

In the wilderness, public policy feels far away. But it has effects, eventually, inevitably. There is wildfire damage. There are species, or sometimes the lack thereof. This is the battleground for conservationism, but the conservationists spent too much of their time looking at the soil, not the sky. The air was filled with smoke one day while I was here, and the next day was clear. This place in central Idaho, this last wilderness, is a refuge, a haven. Given the failures of the environmental movement to solidify a real climate policy, or perhaps given the reactionary violence of counter-movements against environmentalism who have doomed my generation to extinction to preserve their precious branding, even public land that is preserved by the strictest laws will be affected by the inevitable. The connections cannot be felt, now, but what happens in D.C. will eventually alter the air, water, and greenery of this place. But this stretch of wilderness, unlike the rest of us who visit it, will not go without a fight. These photographs will, in ten or twenty years, be testaments to what is no longer there, not entirely. Soon, these will be photographs of spatial ghosts.

 

 

-jk

Will Write for Contest Fee Waivers

Cash and BooksRecently, I had a short story published in issue 20 of Prism Review, titled “The Next Best Thing.” This is good news, of course, and I’m honored to be featured in their journal. In addition to the contributor copy I received in the mail, the journal also offered monetary compensation. This was the first time in my life I have been paid for my writing. Even more exciting is that I have an essay debuting soon in an online journal that also pays its contributors. Twice this year, so far at least, I can say I’m a paid writer.

I haven’t done the math on this, but I know that what I’m been paid in writing this year will not meet or exceed what I’ve paid in reading and contest fees. I know these fees are important for literary journals to survive, and now that I’m volunteering for a literary journal in Idaho, I know how crucial these funds are. It’s standard to pay two or three dollars to submit to a journal online. In a way, it’s like gambling.

In an ideal world, the written word would be more collectively valued and publicly funded, and authors would be paid for their work, and ideally this would include journalists, reporters, and screenwriters. But this isn’t an ideal world. Instead, art is publicly devalued, journalists are called the enemy of the people, and production companies easily get away with underpaying their screenwriters.

To be clear, I didn’t go into writing for the money. If I wanted to be rich, I’d go into punditry or the gun lobby where writing fiction is valued. I’m not the kind of person who cares about, or really believes in, worshiping the bottom line or breaking even. I’m not struggling to make ends meet, but I’m still writing–and submitting–on a budget. I have to decide when to gamble and when to withhold a reading fee, and for many other writers, budgetary decisions are much more pressing.

The last thing writers and publishers need right now is to be divided over funding. Both of these things are true: publishers need to survive, and writers deserve to be paid. This is a balancing act, but it doesn’t need to be a competition. I hope I can more easily do what I can to get my writing into the world, and until then, I’ll happily balance reading fees and writing on a budget.

-jk

 

Another Summer, Another Syllabus

WorkingThis fall will be my third year teaching first-year composition at the college level, and my fifth time drafting my syllabus from scratch. Some instructors keep a syllabus, but so far, I’ve opted to rebuild and try something new. Fifth time’s the charm, or maybe not.

Each time I teach an introductory writing class, I have made significant changes to the syllabus, the assignments, the readings. I change the amount of points that participation is worth, because I am still redefining what qualifies as sufficient participation. Should I have more shorter assignments or just a few really long essays? How can I get students to read what is required? I’ve never believed in reading quizzes, but this year I may try them out.

I am returning to some of the standard readings I’ve used from my first semester in Nebraska, way back in Fall, 2016, during simpler, less stupid times. I will still assign Stephen King’s “What Writing Is” and show Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.” But I’m also adding new readings, like Tiffany Midge’s essay “Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s” and Joy Castro’s essays “Grip” and “Getting Grip.”

Every semester is a tri-weekly exercise in trial and error, and to a degree I regret doing this to my students. I have been in classes where professors try new things and talked excitedly about their brand new syllabus, and now, after three years on the other side of the classroom, I wonder if I shouldn’t just repeat what is familiar, but I know that repeating even the most familiar trials will still result in plenty of errors. Every class is different, and within those classes are unpredictable factors.

Students might hate what I assign. They might not. Conversely, I might hate teaching something they end up loving. It’s rare that we’re all in agreement. The question is how can I teach them this lesson–that speakers struggle to connect with their audiences in the most ideal circumstances–without simply telling them it’s the case. Teaching is like writing in that showing is preferred over telling, but just like writing too, honesty is the best policy.

So, this year, I will write at the top of my syllabus “Please anticipate technical difficulties.” Extra credit to students who pay enough attention to notice it.

-jk