Category Archives: Writing

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

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

 

Short Story Published in Longleaf Review

Guard TowerI’m honored to announce that I have a short story in Issue 4 of Longleaf Review, a relatively new and very cool online journal. The theme of the issue is aliens, just in time for the Halloween season, but the theme is broad. You can read my story “The International Congress for Kids Whose Dads are Commie Draft Dodgers,” among so many other great essays, stories, and poems. For me, this is one more historical fiction story, part of what I hope will amount to a manuscript for a collection. For now, though, I have a full, rich online journal to read.

-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

Into the Frank Church Wilderness

In a few days, I will drive south of Moscow to McCall,  hop on a bush plane at a nearby airstrip, and fly into the Frank Church Wilderness in central Idaho. There, I will spend a week writing in a cabin, in what is arguably the last stretch of land in the lower 48 that still counts as true wilderness. The cabin is connected to the Taylor Ranch research station, affiliated with the University of Idaho. For one free week, I will write, read, and reflect, all in a world without phone service and effectively no internet access. When I return to Moscow, it will be the first day of autumn, but the seasons are already rapidly turning.

This is my first writing fellowship, ever, and I’m lucky enough to have a program that sponsors such a fellowship. It will probably be my last writing fellowship, ever. I intend to make the most of it.

I won’t be completely alone. Some UI students spend a semester at the research station, and an ecocriticism professor (one who led the movement in its early days) will be there for part of the week. But I will have plenty of time to myself, to my thoughts, and hopefully to my writing, which is good, because I have had almost no time to write so far this semester.

I’m told the bears will be preparing for the winter, not hibernating (they don’t hibernate, as loyal readers will remember from an earlier post). A fellow nonfiction writer in the program who is familiar with the wilderness tells me that the area mostly has black bears, who will be filling up with wild berries (as will I).

This isn’t a vacation, but a writing opportunity. I need a direction for my thesis; I have essays to write, ideas to explore, maybe even a poem lurking somewhere. I will not be preparing for winter like the bears, but instead will be preparing for a practice thesis defense two weeks after I return (which, of course, I accidentally scheduled on my advisor’s birthday with my usual terrible timing). I’ll have a week free of teaching, classes, and other obligations. So I intend to make the most of it.

-jk

 

On Starting Yet Another Daybook Again

DaybookI’ve never been good at keeping journals. I’ve started many, but I leave them behind soon after starting them. I’ve tried keeping traditional journals or more work-related daybooks, and once I even tried keeping a dream journal, which was redundant because most of my dreams involved spiders or missing a deadline or sometimes missing a deadline given to me by the spiders.

I know it’s a good habit, not just for writers but for anyone with too many thoughts and too many tasks. It can be therapeutic, and a few times even was. But I’ve never managed to keep a journal for more than a few weeks, despite being a creature of habit. Last winter, I woke up at 6 every morning and exercised for half an hour, and ate the same meal every night for dinner (a can of beans with salsa and cheese). I’m good at regimentation, except when it comes to writing.

I don’t count this blog as a daybook, either, because it’s the opposite of habitual. I post inconsistently, and I have no specific topic. Last year I wrote twelve posts about the Russian Revolution between attempts at satire and wannabe McSweeney’s rants. This year I’m writing twelve posts about American history between joke recipes for smoothies and self-referential metablog posts. This blog is more like an intellectual junk drawer where everything that isn’t easily categorized finds itself one way or another.

Today, I started another daybook. I don’t know if I’ll see it through to the end of the year, but I want to write at least a paragraph every day. Maybe posting about it here will keep me in check; maybe the theme (observations about Moscow from September to May) will make it easier to write consistently. Lately, I’ve wanted to write about this weird place I now live. There’s a lot of take in, even for such a small town. Or maybe because it’s such a small town, there’s a lot to take in, just around the corners, subtle but always there.

My first entry in the daybook was about Farmers Market potatoes. Tomorrow, I hope something just as engaging will fall into my life.

-jk