Category Archives: Writing

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

Notes from the Four Corners

Desert 6.JPG“I cannot hate them, the tourists, because I am one.” -Nabil Kashyap, The Obvious Earth

They say that when you first encounter the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, it can be disappointing for two reasons. First, it is situated in a relatively small room that is always packed with visitors, so many that you have to shove to reach the painting, and second, even if you make it to the Mona Lisa, the painting itself is small and unsurprising. You already know what the Mona Lisa looks like. You can buy a poster of it in the gift shop. Instead, it’s the art in the hallway outside the Mona Lisa room, the unfamous work you’ve never seen before, that leaves an impression. The Four Corners Monument is similar.

Two days before the country celebrates its independence, I drive through the desert to Colorado, and make a stop at the Four Corners, between Navajo and Ute Mountain land. I drive slowly over the dirt road, following cars and followed by campers. I find a parking space and step out of the air conditioning into the heat. It is exceptionally hot, barely a cloud in the sky. I’m used to this. I’ve almost missed the heat, living in northern Idaho for so long.

Desert 7

The Four Corners Monument is a square of shaded stands around the circular marker itself, directly where the four state borders meet at 90 degree angles, distinguishing jurisdictions and electoral districts from one another. When I enter the square, I’m confused about which state I’m in, but it becomes clear when I see the four stone markers around the circle indicating each respective state, like cardinal directions. There is a long line of people in front of the circle, each tourist standing in summer wear and waiting to stand in the circle to have their picture taken straddling as many US states as one can.

I don’t get in line because it’s hot and I’m on my way to meet a friend I haven’t seen since I visited Albuquerque in winter, and I impulsively don’t want to be a tourist. I grew up in a tourist town, as a local. It’s a habit I can’t shake off, wanting to distinguish myself from them. I’m not any different from the tourists, though, not here. I walk the square of shops in the shade, passing people eating fry bread from paper plates, passing locals selling jewelry, knives, Kokopelli decorations.

In Portland this spring, I saw Nabil Kashyap give a talk about the colonial nature of travel writing, the fraught history of the travelogue. Historically, the genre frames the traveler as a hero and the place visited as a backdrop for the hero’s self-discovery, transforming locals into objects, props. Kashyap’s own collection of travelogues wrestles with this history. In his panel, he advocated for a more ethical form of travel writing that “decenters the visitor” and emphasizes the place, the people, without claiming ownership over the stories that are intrinsic to the place and people. This time last year, a lot of people noted that Anthony Bourdain was an exemplar of this kind of travelogue, taking the role of a reporter, letting people tell their stories on their own terms.

Desert 2At the edge of the square, there is a sign telling visitors not to spread ashes of the deceased here because the scattering of human remains on this land goes against Navajo custom. I wonder how many tourists scattered their dead relatives at the Four Corners before the locals had to put up the sign. Despite the signs, tourists still come to the Four Corners and spread cremated relatives on this special dot on a map. I think about how weird it is to celebrate the alignment of state borders here in the Southwest. 150 years ago, this was Brigham Young’s Mormon territory called Deseret. 160 years ago, this was Mexico. 250 years ago, this was Spain. 450 years ago, this was Pueblo land. Statehood was only granted to Arizona in 1912. The land may appear static, but its cartographic meaning is always changing.

Instead of standing on the corners, I wander out to the trailhead up the hill from the square, but only a little ways. I’m not equipped for a hike in the desert at noon. I look out at the windswept emptiness of one state or another, this stateless terrain. I’m the only one who walks this way, and I’m glad to be out of the crowd. Later, I use the bathroom. I buy some fry bread. I take some photos. I leave with my fingers sticky with powdered sugar, wishing I could hike around this place in cooler weather, see what else it has to offer.

-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 WHLR

Among other things, I start the new year with a new essay in Issue 52 of Wilderness House Literary Review. The essay is called “In the Back Among the Artifacts,” and it’s about many things: Used book stores in Flagstaff, collecting useless artifacts, uncertainty about the future, Richard Nixon.

Feel free to read it, and also support your local used bookstore in 2019. You never know what you might find there.

-jk

Bookstore

Who am I to Write This?

Resource Management.JPGRecently, Jonathan Franzen published his “10 Rules for Novelists” on lithub. Essayist Dinty W. Moore, who also edits one of my favorite journals, Brevity, countered with a satirical “10 Rules for Essayists.” Franzen makes a lot of predictable moves in his 10 rules. Echoing Stephen King, who railed against writers watching TV in his 2000 memoir On Writing (despite now producing several TV shows based on his work), Franzen’s eighth rule states that it is “doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction,” which Moore counters in his own eighth rule by proclaiming that it’s “doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is not being observed by the NSA,” which is more accurate given the things that writers have to look up on the Internet, especially when writing historical fiction (I was once asked by Google to prove I wasn’t a robot for looking up information about trials in the USSR, because freedom).

To be clear, I love Stephen King’s memoir. It was the first writing-about-writing that I read. But the idea that writing should be driven by rules seems strange when so many of those rules are highly fluid and riddled with exceptions. It is odd to me that King and Franzen and even Moore do not mention ethics in their writing rules. I’ve never lost sleep over using too many adverbs or researching too much. Instead, what keeps me up is whether or not I should write what I’m writing.

The underlying assumption is that can should always be read as should, but I want to dispute this assumption. Writing isn’t auto-mechanics. It’s not motorcycle maintenance or plumbing. Its success or failure cannot and should not be measured by the technicalities of performance and the structural questions of craft. Maybe writers should ask the question “Does this work” only after they have answered the question “Who am I to write this?”

This is partly a question of authenticity, but for me, it is primarily about ethics. In nonfiction, I have the ability to, as Joan Didion puts it in the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “sell out” the people I am around. And like Didion, I am “so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate” (xiv) that my presence in any situation is like a sponge. I collect stories that do not belong to me. I have an excellent memory. I know what you said offhandedly around me three years ago. I remember the argument we had five years ago. I remember everything. So who am I to commit those memories to paper?

This is my one and only writing rule: As a general policy, I don’t write someone else’s story. If someone’s story intersects with mine, I only include them if I have their permission. I have asked friends what they think of an essay that mentions them, for approval, for accuracy, for kindness. As such, most of what I want to write about will never be written, and I’m fine with that. If I need to exploit people for stories, then I don’t think I can call myself a real writer. Anyone can write down the most memorable conflicts in their life. All interpersonal conflicts are personally meaningful, by their nature. It takes talent to find meaning around, between, and beyond those contentious moments.

-jk

After Five Years of Blogging

The Dry SeasonWordPress has reminded me, as it does, that five years ago today I started this blog.

I began it initially as a personal website, but as I move forward as a teacher, writer, and for better or worse an academic, I think this blog will likely become more of a professional website. All writers have them; it’s the one piece of advice all published authors have given me in addition to reading and writing a lot.

As such, I expect to write fewer posts for this blog. For a while, I was ambitious: 4 posts a month. I’ve been generally consistent, but I am beginning to realize that even I have limits. Amazing, right?

This year has been good for me, all things considered. I am into the second year of my MFA program at the University of Idaho, I had four good publications (short stories, poems, essays), I compiled a draft of a short story collection (kind of), I had my first writing fellowship, I improved my syllabus for ENG 102, and I also took up a volunteer position as the creative nonfiction editor for Fugue. I also carved out some time for traveling around Idaho and Montana, to linger in places I’ve often passed without stopping to take a closer look.

I don’t want my life to be purely academic, but in grad school, that’s difficult to avoid. I’m also myself not good about leaving time for life outside work. This next year, I will blog inconsistently as I focus on writing, publishing, and teaching. I asked in my first post, why pursue a liberal arts education? After five years of writing about it and as I enter my fourth year as a grad student, your guess is still as good as mine.

-jk