Tag Archives: creative nonfiction

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

Essay Published in Split Lip Magazine

highway 43 2

I’m pleased to announce that I have an essay in the August issue of Split Lip Magazine. It’s titled “Faking It,” and it’s a creative nonfiction essay about the time I sold my soul to the devil. It might be called excessively creative nonfiction.

Feel free to read it, but also check out the other work this month and in the archives. Split Lip publishes a small handful of writers each month, as opposed to many other journals who feature a lot of writers two or three times a year.

For me, this is an honor, and also a good way to kick off the semester on the first day back to work for TA training.

-jk

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

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

Making Room for More Books

BooksYou can never have too many books, unless you have too few bookshelves. Recently, I’ve accumulated about three dozen more books than I had at the beginning of the year, but I’m not ready to get a new bookshelf. I don’t have room for one in my apartment, unless I put a small bookshelf in the shower or above the toilet or next to the heaters, and all of those options have their pitfalls (water, fire, weird smells).

So, I sat down in front of my bookshelves and pulled out a handful of books that I no longer need or want, for the foreseeable future. Mostly, I chose books I had purchased for past English classes as an undergrad and from my MA program. Others were books I bought, read, used, and simply have to sacrifice now. It became easy to identify books I hadn’t thought about in a long time. It was harder to pull them out and not identify a possible need each one. I’ve found uses for books I’ve forgotten about, or loaned them to others who could use them. Other books I want to reread when I have the time (whenever that will be, sometime down the road, possibly in sixty years). Soon, I had a small stack of books I was willing to donate to a local used bookstore for store credit.

I won’t be buying new books for a while. I already have plenty to read, for class and for pleasure. This semester, I have thirty books in total for classes, plus books for research projects for class assignments, plus whatever books I can read for fun. Last semester, I set out to familiarize myself with a few standard critical theory texts, but that has fallen by the wayside amid the novels, memoirs, biographies, essay collections, and cultural histories I’m reading this Spring.

I may need another bookshelf soon. When I moved to Moscow, I had five creative nonfiction books. Now, I have two shelves devoted to the genre I’m pursuing, and I have two more years in the program. It’s good to make room for the new and dispense with the old. It’ll be better to cultivate room for expertise.

I have a biography of Janis Joplin, a critical reflection on the Talking Heads album Fear of Music, and Rebecca Solnit’s collection of cultural biographies The Encyclopedia of Trouble of Spaciousness. I have John McPhee’s book about oranges (just oranges) and W. E. B. Du Bois’s biography of John Brown and Virginia Woolf’s unfinished memoir. I have Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son and James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew and Franz Kafka’s letter to his father. Creative nonfiction encompasses journalism, memoir, reflection, and criticism. I need an entire library of creative nonfiction to cultivate a proper expertise. Though I had to remove some books to make room for more, right now I think I have a pretty good start.

-jk