Category Archives: Writing

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

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

Having Blogged for Four Years

Arboretum

Photo taken at the University of Idaho Arboretum and Botanical Garden

. . . I wonder if this is the only anniversary in my life that matters. I started this blog four years ago. Hopefully, the quality of posts has improved just as the quality of the world has diminished.

I’m knee-deep in the first semester in my third college program, this time an MFA in creative nonfiction. Since October 27, 2016, I have started a blog series about the Russian Revolution, had one essay published and one short story published, finished my Master’s degree in English, and moved from Nebraska to Idaho. I’ve also started writing for the Idaho MFA blog, reading nonfiction submissions for Fugue, and volunteering as an editorial assistant for Western American Literature. My literary life has expanded substantially in a year, and yet I’m still ambitious. I have writing and reading to finish, journals to curate, places to visit, sweeping political generalizations to make.

This has been a rough year for the country and the planet. Regardless, I will blog away into oblivion. Here’s to another year.

-jk

Writing Lamentation, Writing Celebration

Close Acorn“I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious,/Each moment and whatever happens thrills me with joy,/I cannot tell how my ankles bend, nor whence the cause of my faintest wish,/Nor the cause of the friendship I emit, nor the cause of the friendship I take again.” -Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass

Recently, one of my nonfiction professors mentioned that, if the tone and texture of writing can be divided into either writing of lamentation or writing of celebration, my writing style tends toward lamentation. She said, unlike Whitman’s celebratory exaltation, my writing texture is more like Emerson’s, brooding and internal.

To me, this makes sense: my writing broods. Maybe that’s why my stand-up comedy special The Writer of Lamentations has done so poorly on Netflix. It’s not that I avoid celebration. I try (and often fail) to celebrate others. I try to support my friends and praise their successes as much as possible, but this celebration rarely enters my writing. Instead, my writing fixates on losses.

More and more, I write about the environment, the west, and disparate interests like history and music, and I think my essays do, in fact, have a sense of lamentation: for places that will soon no longer be, for talents I used to have, for wars that I never fought in, and for friends who have shaped and continue to shape me, even in their absence. Despite my best efforts, friends come and go. I lament being unable to continue being shaped by them, and departure starts to feel normal and they have their lives. Thank goodness they have their lives. And still, I brood.

And what does it mean to celebrate? A friend and colleague of mine shared a poem by Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi called “The Will of Life” about embracing “the love of life,” an active, rather than passive, task. Even in the midst of what is worth lamenting, there is room for celebration. This makes me think of Prior in Angels in America refusing to be a prophet, telling the angels he wants more life: “We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks. Progress, migration, motion is modernity, it’s animate. It’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s still desire for. . . . It’s so much not enough. It’s so inadequate. But still: Bless me anyway. I want more life.”

It’s been almost a year since I saw Angels in America with friends whom I miss dearly. I will admit that I desire, and I often desire stillness. I don’t want to celebrate myself the way Whitman does, but lamentation requires life in memory, the shadow of what was and could be. It is an act of wanting, but it is always active, not passive. To lament is to recognize that life, friendship, love, the burning world will never be enough, will always be inadequate, but to want to celebrate it anyway. Can there be lamentation without celebration, even in possibility? I write for the past while stuck in the present, constantly spiraling headlong into whatever disaster the future holds, one after another.

I want more life, and I want to mourn life for all that it is, all that it isn’t, all that it used to be. Someone should. Life requires lamentation as much as celebration, but the opposite holds true. To lament is to want, but to want without striving toward celebration misses the point completely.

-jk

Short Story Published in Waxwing

on-the-roadI’m honored to have my short story “Scouting Locations” published in Issue XIII of Waxwing, one of my favorite literary journals. It’s one of several historical fiction stories that made up my MA thesis at UNL. It’s about old Hollywood, among other things. But before you read it, you should read the other excellent work featured in Waxwing.

-jk

Fall in Another City

Campus 2.jpgI’m still getting to know Moscow, Idaho. I’ve only been here since August, but it takes me a while to reconfigure myself to new surroundings. I adapt slowly and cling to what is familiar: campus aesthetics, coffee shops, quiet mornings for writing.

The last time I moved, I went from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Lincoln, Nebraska, and it took me about a year to adjust. It took me a year to feel grounded in the place, in the people, like I wasn’t a transplant from the Southwest to the Midwest. Now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, I feel like a double transplant in yet another variation on the west, a west that I want to write down in the long, laborious tradition of writing about places. Do I need to be a tourist or a resident? I’ve gone from deserts to plains to this stranger place called the Palouse, a valley of vast wheat fields and pine trees.

I am not, yet, a tumbleweed, a person with “roaming proclivities.” But I still feel detached from so many places, so up-in-the-air right now. I wish I had spent more than two years with my friends in Nebraska before uprooting myself again. I wonder how long I’ll be in Idaho before I’m again uprooted.

I am still very much a westerner, but after only two moves, I feel scattered. I vote in Arizona, I made strong connections in Nebraska, and now I’m a writer in Idaho. The one constant has been the university as a setting, like a monastic system in which I orient myself toward the library, the English building, and the nearest coffee shop. Campuses are large and sometimes quiet. This is true of Flagstaff, Lincoln, and now Moscow. I like old campuses, brick buildings, planned and structured squares of nature for viewing purposes. In other words, the constant for me is finding places to work, the one thing I hope I am never uprooted from. If and when I move again, I hope there is a quiet campus wherever I go.

 

-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

Writing in the Rain

Rio de FlagI may not be jumping around like Gene Kelly in the rain (writing while dancing is ill-advised, and I would know, because I’ve lost four laptops that way). But I do like writing when it rains.

Growing up, I usually had plenty of free time during summer and Arizona’s monsoon season. In college, I took summer classes during the rainy months, and spent a lot of time indoors next to a window, writing. I associate rain with writing, and I enjoy desert rainstorms. The temperature drops, and the moisture makes everything smell more vibrant, the pine trees and shrubs and soil. Even an overcast sky makes me want to write, even if what I end up writing is terrible.

It’s safe to stay inside when it rains. Overcast skies mean lightning. In the Midwest, rain can sometimes mean tornadoes and flooding, and in Arizona the monsoons always accompany flash flooding, to the point that Arizona even passed a so-called Stupid Motorist Law, which requires drivers who enter flooded areas to pay for the cost of being rescued. I can’t write about rain like it’s a benevolent god when the opposite is equally true. Rain can destroy. But having grown up in a state that, in a few years, will have no water at all has made me appreciate the rain in all its destructive beauty. Noah had the better apocalypse. Drought is not the end I would choose, but it’s what I’ve been dealt.

Rain also feels safer to me, somehow. A swollen, grey-haired overcast sky stretching from horizon to horizon feels like a second roof over the roof over my head. I can hide behind rain curtains, like I’m waiting to go on stage and give a speech or monologue or stand-up routine. It precipitates anticipation, motivates me to prepare for something, but I never find out what. So I prepare by writing, and after the clouds dissipate, I wait for it to rain again.

-jk