Category Archives: Writing

“Don’t be a writer. Be writing.” -William Faulkner

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

Poem Published in an Anthology

1I’m pleased to announce that I have a poem in an anthology titled Arizona’s Best Emerging Poets, from Z Publishing. The poem is called “Spring Gift,” and is in the anthology’s section on nature and environmental poetry. For me, this was the first publication that came from another publication. An editor at Z Publishing found a poem of mine at The Tunnels, my Alma mater’s undergraduate journal, and contacted me to suggested I submit something new for their upcoming Arizona anthology.

This publication comes at a strange time. It is April, and National Poetry Month. This is the first month in years I have not tried to write a poem a day, because I’m swamped with other obligations. In the MFA program here in Moscow, Idaho, I have classes to take, classes to teach, work for the literary journal Fugue, blogging for the MFA program, and other activities.

I haven’t written a poem in a long time, over a year, maybe. This will change, because sooner or later I’ll have time for poetry. I don’t want to leave it behind, but juggling genres is hard. I’m glad I have this poem, this call back to my home state, as a reminder of what I’m capable of. If you take a look at the anthology one way or another, I’d be honored. If not, I hope, there will be more poems to come in the future.

-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

On Not Going to AWP

Lit Mag ShelfThis year, I will not be attending the AWP conference in Tampa. I will not receive a tote bag, nor will I peruse the book fair and return with conference swag like pins or bookmarks or back copies of cool literary magazines. I will not hear any talented writers read their work, nor will I go to a poetry slam or watch creative writing professors dance awkwardly, nor will I hit up any local bars and wake up too hungover to attend the panel I’m supposed to present at, and when I don’t have time, I certainly won’t visit the many tourist attractions and restaurants that probably exist somewhere in Tampa, possibly.

Academic conferences are big and expensive and time-consuming. This is not to say that they aren’t beneficial, but conferences can be stressful. I know that I’ll be missing out on the best that AWP has to offer. I’ve only been to one AWP conference, way back in 2015, which was intellectually fruitful. Two years after that, I went to regional and national Popular Culture Association conferences. I’ve had plenty of good experiences at conferences. I’ve been introduced to new books, new authors, and some new ideas. But as an institution, and worse, an expectation, conferences are unruly and cumbersome.

(I might be the only remaining academic of my generation who attends conferences only for the panels. I admit it; I’m a nerd. But I don’t want to spend a few hundred dollars just to drink and eat in another city. I don’t know how to be anything short of earnest about it. That’s just who I am).

I won’t be able to meet the editors of journals who have accepted and published my work, or who have rejected it, to see what they have published. To get to know the journals I want to see my work in somewhere. I won’t be able to see friends and colleagues in creative writing I haven’t seen in a long time.

All academic conferences have the same issues. If the amount of money it took to give every attendee a tote bag went to making conferences more accessible or less expensive, or if conferences could find ways to include people without the carbon emissions of travel,  they could become less unruly, less cumbersome. What we get from conferences, most importantly, should not be exclusively available at them.

Instead of going this year, I’m setting my sights on next year’s AWP, which will be in Portland, Oregon, a short trip from Moscow, Idaho. I know more people in Portland; I can visit more friends and family between as many panels as possible. Traveling to Portland from Moscow will be less costly, less polluting, and if nothing else, by then I’ll have forgotten about my conference-induced stress.

-jk

Creative Writing and Creative Revising

moose

There is some way this moose blanket connects to revision, but that’s on you to figure out.

When I first started writing, I thought the process was simple: First, I sit down and write a bad rough draft over the course of a few winter months, possibly in a snowed-in haunted Colorado hotel. Then, I read through it again and make extensive revisions. Then, I read through it a third and final time to make smaller, cosmetic revisions. Then, the final draft goes out to editors and journals for just shy of an eternity. Writing is almost always discussed as primary, and revision as the after-hours, secondary work. Or, the other way around, revision is portrayed as tedious, noncreative work, challenging only because it is time-consuming, as opposed to writing, which is the entire creative process.

Now that I have dissected, deleted, severed, multiplied, and brutalized a few dozen story drafts in the after-writing process of revision, I have realized how messy these two tasks, writing and revision, actually are. Writers talk about writing as if the best stories we can produce are done with as little revision as possible. We say “I wrote this essay, and here’s my process.” We say “While I was writing this.” We say “I am a writer.” We never say “I am a reviser,” even though we (should) spend the bulk of our creative time revising our work.

It’s easy to say that writing and revision are synonymous because they are part and parcel. But I think there is a subtle difference. We write for the present but revise for the future. We write in the moment, but revise across time. We work under the assumption that the hardest part of the process is finding inspiration and then typing it up, and the rest is smooth but tedious polishing. But I think the opposite is true. The hardest part of writing is revising. Ideas come and build up, and when they don’t, we have forty thousand writing exercises and freewriting prompts to help with that.

What if we used the same language to talk about revision? What if we had entire workshops devoted to revision exercises, revision prompts, and revision craft talks?  Creative revising is a much more useful and accurate description of the process.

Revision, at least, should be discussed as more than an afterthought. It is the bulk of the work involved, and we should discuss it with the same sense of working pleasure we use when talking about writing. Revision requires as much, if not more, creativity.

Writing is the discovery of a crime, and revision is the entire investigation, arrest, and legal proceedings, not to mention the healing process that follows. We lose nothing by placing revision at the forefront of our discussions about writing. The only thing we have to lose is our notion that revision is secondary.

-jk

 

We Have Decided to Keep the Flags Perpetually Half-Mast

flag

After careful consideration, we have decided, out of convenience, to keep all the flags at half-mast for the duration of the year. We figure it will just save us all a lot of time and energy if we left the flags lowered for this week’s tragedy at half-mast for the next tragedy, which we’re sure will come but don’t want to do anything meaningful about. This is the easiest thing for us, the people who lower all the flags, to do.

For especially horrific tragedies, we will have the flags lowered three quarters, to show you that we recognize your pain is serious this time, but still not serious enough to do anything about it. For something really, really bad, we’ll just remove all the flags entirely and burn them in the streets. At that point, a lot of Americans will probably be happy to see the symbols of their country burning. We also expect that, if things somehow but predictably get that much worse, whomever takes charge of the country will remove and burn all flags for us, at which point we will consider it our solemn duty to retire and take our large sums of money so we can spend it in another, safer country.

Lowering all the flags is a way of showing you that we know you are in pain, and keeping them perpetually lowered will show you that we know your pain is constant and ongoing. This is literally the least we can do for you, to the point that it’s almost like we don’t actually care. But we do, because we’ll keep the flags lowered on your behalf. The flags are all for you. That, and basically nothing else from us, the people who lower the flags for you.

Half-mast is the way of life in America. The United States is a half-mast country run by people with half-mast efforts. But we appreciate your hashtags and dedication to showing support through gestures rather than actions, and we’re especially grateful to you for not voting us, the people who definitely totally care if your children are murdered in a school, out of office. We’re glad to stay as long as you let us.

We feel it is redundant to continually raise the flags, just as it is redundant for you to continually raise your hopes, because hope is no more useful in preventing violence than lowering flags for a day. Hope has to be earned through action, not the other way around and your hopeful inaction means a lot to us. As long as we’re here, all the flags will be at half-mast indefinitely, to account for the tragedies that will likely come next week, and the week after that, and the week after that.

-jk

28 Unexcused Absences Later

nigh

He skipped class for few days when flu season started, just to stay healthy, and a few days turned into watching every episode of Seinfeld. Ten weeks, when he finally left his dorm room after realizing his roommate hadn’t returned in weeks, he found that campus was dead empty. Garbage cans were upturned and trash was everywhere, and it wasn’t even football season. Posters were stapled to the bulletin boards encouraging students to get flu shots, and next to those were more recent-looking posters calling for military intervention in the university, only some of which were from Turning Point USA.

In the cafeteria, he heard rustling among the tables, the weeks-old bowls of cereal on the floor and ominously empty orange juice bottles. Another student hobbled out of the corner, limbs stiff, eyes glazed over. This student was wrapped in several layers of winter clothes, but still she was pale and had a terrible cough. He recognized all the symptoms: it was the flu. The infected student hobbled toward him asking for vitamin C, so he fled the cafeteria and went to find his 8:30 AM class.

He ran to his classroom, which was deserted except for a few stray backpacks and a desperate warning to get out scribbled on the whiteboard in red dry erase marker. Desks were upturned and a misplaced syllabus was on the floor. He picked it up and wondered if his professor would still give him a D even after missing 28 days of class.

A stack of in-class writing he found next to the computer detailed the gradual collapse of the university as the flu spread across campus. The President ran away as a faction of armed deans staged a coup to protect themselves from the infected. The football coaches drove off, and the business administration faculty barricaded themselves in their offices, armed with the elephant guns that all business administration professors are required to have at all times to protect themselves from the critical theorists. Chaos reigned: the tenured preyed on the adjuncts, the biological science majors feasted on the humanities students, and a rogue band of pre-med students took to finding a cure. They were holed up in the math building, the last place anybody would look for survivors, where they intended to make a break for it as soon as they had enough hand sanitizer.

The student stood in his classroom and wished he had skipped class again today. He started to feel a little chill, too, and his throat was starting to get sore. He went out looking for the surviving pre-med students, to see if they had any OJ or chicken noodle soup. He didn’t even realize he was coughing when he left the building.

-jk