Tag Archives: fiction

Juggling Poetry and Prose

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April is National Poetry Month, and by tradition I dedicate this month to writing thirty poems, one each day. I may never have reached that goal, but it’s still an opportunity to write forward. Poetry is a nearly religious part of my life, but I treat every other form of writing the same way.

As long as I’ve written I’ve juggled poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, but in grad school I’m unofficially designated a fiction student. My master’s thesis will (probably, maybe, don’t ask me) be a collection of short stories,  but I’ve never thought of myself as a specialist. Most writers do specialize, though, and as April begins, I can understand why writers might want to dedicate themselves to mastering only one form.

During March, I pushed myself to the writerly limits. I churned out four short story drafts and seven poems, and started a nonfiction essay. While planning my Fall schedule, I schemed ways to take both a poetry tutorial and a creative nonfiction class. The few publications I can claim have ranged from poetry to prose to drama. As a result, my overall portfolio increases steadily, but my skill as a writer continues to be scattered across genres, and while all forms have some things in common, they each require different kinds of effort.

I probably should focus on just one form. I could master fiction, inhabiting characters and pushing plots, or poetry, and improve how I carve roads out of language. Mastering nonfiction would force me into my own head, and theater would confine my characters to the concrete realm of the stage. Or I could shock the world by submitting a series of interconnected Foucauldian pizzas to my committee for cooking competition-style judgment.

The truth is that I simply don’t want to specialize. I started writing because I loved reading and wanted to make others feel what I feel. If my prose suffers for my poetry, or the other way around, so be it. I know the consequences of being scattered, and I’ll write forward in spite of them.

-jk

After Two Years of Blogging, Your Guess is Still as Good as Mine

toastWordPress reminded me that today is my two-year blogiversary. I missed last year’s for the obvious reasons (grad school applications, Macbeth, mud wrestling, etc.). Today, though, I slide two years into the past when I was surrounded by the mess of my education: Beloved, essays on the Holocaust, a textbook on linguistics, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, and drafts of my own poetry. The liberal arts defined my life, but lacked definition; in a confused fervor I wrote my first blog post asking simply, why get a liberal education in the first place?

Two years have gone by. I created this blog to explore the liberal arts generally, the life of a wannabe writer specifically. At varying times, it has served as an open journal, editorial, bully pulpit, and archive of my writing. I started out posting short vignettes satirizing myself as a freshman, but moved on to better creative writing, philosophy, travelogues, history, and humor. If my blog feels eclectic, it’s only because my brain is eclectic. I move rapidly from Steinbeck to colonial Egypt to writing a short story. This blog is one part journal, one part art, and one part scholarship, with three extra parts marked “miscellaneous.” I strive to make sure no two posts are alike, which may be a bad idea when blogging is supposed to be about consistency and ritual, two qualities I lack.

I’ve explored numerous moments in my life on this blog: I mourned Pete Seeger, challenged myself to write a poem every day each April, founded a photography business, announced publications, had breakfast in Ireland, lunch in Jerome, dinner in Wisconsin, went to my first big fancy writing conference, broke up with my hometown of twenty years for graduate school in Nebraska.

For the most part, though, I’ve read, and written about what I read, and read what others wrote about what I wrote about what I read. An endless reading list is the bedrock of any good liberal education.

Liberal Education

On this blog, I’ve also reached many half-baked conclusions, but one thing has remained clear post after post: a good liberal education is worthless if it stays inside the classroom. Sitting around reading and writing is no way to be a writer, if it’s all I do. I have to experiment with baking or acting, work for a charity, travel, read for a literary journal. I should traverse the gridlock of cities, the innards of bars, the vast organs of campsites. My blog may be ineffectively unconventional; the only binding theme is the continual mess of my lifelong education and my desire to be a writer. But I know blogging has made me a better writer, a more considerate reader, a more confident thinker. It’s been an eclectic two years. I hope the next two will be even more eclectic.

jk

Why a liberal education? Your guess is as good as mine, and I mean that. If you’re engaged in the liberal arts, especially outside of academia, let me know in the comments what you study or write or create, and why.

-jk

Writer Seeks Characters

newspaper

March 3: Aspiring writer seeks three to four characters for minor literary endeavor, entitled Untitled Novel. Characters must be diverse, original, and snappy. Villains always appreciated.

March 9: Writer seeks one to two sympathetic protagonists to balance the fourteen unsympathetic villains who answered prior ad. One must be fluent in Russian. Quirks and comic relief are highly valued.

March 10: Fourteen unused unsympathetic villains seek good writer. Willing to die violently; highly skilled in diabolical laughter, fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, etc.

March 15: Lonely protagonist seeks sidekick and/or love interest. Must have agency, thorough backstory, and moderate comic relief. Static characters strictly prohibited.

March 22: Writer seeks spare subplot involving a gun. Alternative subplots acceptable, but must end in the death of an unexpected love interest the writer doesn’t know what else to do with.

March 25: Postmodern short story seeks ironic resolution for a plot involving fourteen unsympathetic villains. Violent deaths are acceptable, but must be meaningless.

March 29: Writer has unused Chekhovian subplot available, after finding a stray Deus Ex Machina in the shed.

April 9: Hastily killed-off love interest seeks new story, preferably one with a less obviously Freudian subtext and better dialogue.

April 11: Writer has unused Freudian subtext available. Writer also requests to be given a break, Marsha, the dialogue wasn’t that bad.

April 15: Postmodernist writer seeks editor and agent for polished fourteen-villain ironic story.

April18: Protagonist seeks new writer who doesn’t kill off characters just to fill a few chapters.

April 20: Struggling writer seeks copyright lawyer for advice on a recently run-away protagonist.

April 25: Escaped protagonist looking for work, has experience with romantic subplots but prefers complex internal conflict.

April 30: Aspiring writer seeks runaway protagonist. Please come back, Harold.

May 1: Postmodernist writer seeks complex internal conflict for new protagonist.

May 16: Writer seeks runaway protagonist, promises to try harder this time, really he will.

May 18: Seriously, Harold, I created you. What am I supposed to do now?

May 23: Postmodernist writer seeks good journal for a metafictional buddy/love story entitled “Marsha, Harold, and the Writer.”

May 30: Writer seeks three to four characters to collaborate on revising an old plot; is willing to work with characters closely; is willing to let the characters move the plot along.

June 2: Unused plot devices, tropes, and schemes available, no charge.

-jk

A Novel That Sounds Like Bach

Typewriter musicStarting a new writing project can sometimes feel like latching onto an umbrella and jumping off a cliff, relying only on improvisation and plain luck to keep me from hitting the ground. The key difference is that, unlike jumping off a cliff, writing is a lot scarier.

The other day, I latched onto a good idea for a novel (lawyers, blogs, Texas). It’s since pulled me over the edge, and there’s no turning back. Fortunately, I have plenty to write about. I pull my inspiration from many sources, the authors I read, the people I talk with. One notion fueling this new novel is that I want it to read like the sonatas and partitas of J. S. Bach.

Of course prose and music are two different forms of art, but I’ve enjoyed listening to Bach for over ten years. I enjoy the deliberateness in his music. Nothing is superfluous, allowing the chord progressions to take center stage unhindered by a fixation with virtuosity, and I say this as a violinist who has personally dealt with the pretentiousness of virtuoso musicians and composers.

Instead, Bach patiently jogs along, sometimes as straight 8th notes for measure after measure. The emotions he conveys vary from movement to movement, but they always carry the same deliberate awareness, the same steady pace, putting focus on the chords rather than the structure. Similarly, I want to write prose that invites the reader to go on a run with it on an Autumn morning, that invites the reader to turn corners in an unfamiliar neighborhood but to keep running no matter what they encounter together. Ultimately, I hope to write something the reader can get along with easily, more a friend than a confusing professor. I admit that I am sometimes guilty of lecturing my readers in past stories.

I intend to listen to Bach’s sonatas and partitas while my fingers unravel this novel, but specifically I will listen to Chris Thile performing them on the mandolin. Bach wrote them for the violin, but I enjoy Thile’s rendition more. The timbre sounds more autumnal, more like raindrops or footsteps. And unless I get back to work writing, I may never see this idea to the end.

-jk

Instructions for a Camping Trip: An Interactive Short Story

I love camping, so I wrote a short story (in the form of an instruction manual) about it.

shadows

Step One: Pack matches, a tent, sleeping bags, pads, pillows, snacks, beer, camera, books, flashlights, water, knives, and then proceed to follow directions from printed maps, a GPS, and a passenger’s memory of “shortcuts” from five years ago.
If you make a wrong turn, proceed to Step Two.
If you miraculously make all the right turns, proceed to Step Four.

Step Two: Following one of several misleading directions, you find yourself in a condo development several miles off course. Find the nearest dirt road back to the freeway.
If you make it back to the freeway, proceed to Step Four.
If you find yourself in a deserted farm with fifteen scarecrows all facing you, proceed to Step Fifteen.
If you stop and ask for directions, proceed to Step Three.

Step Three: After finding the right directions back to the freeway, having asked between one and thirteen grizzled old farmers holding shotguns and potted daisies, you get back on track two hours late but determined nevertheless. Proceed to Step Four.

Step Four: You pull into the campsite, pay the grizzled old camp director holding a shotgun and a potted daisy, and proceed to set up the camping equipment.
If the tent you brought is not broken, proceed to Step Seven.
If the tent you brought is broken, proceed to Step Five.

Step Five: Use everything in your car to fix the tent (clamps, chairs, knives, potted daisies, etc.). Proceed to Step Six.

Step Six: After fixing the tent, you find yourselves exhausted and take a nap. Missing an hour of daylight, you wake up and realize
that someone forgot the bug spray and you are surrounded by bees (proceed to Step Sixteen), or
that you all brought and used bug spray but it inevitably failed and you are nevertheless surrounded by bees (proceed to Step Seven).

bees

Step Seven: You set up all camping equipment, including a bee trap fashioned from a plate of syrup well away from your tent, and you proceed to make a campfire.
If you succeed on the first try, proceed to Step Ten.
If you fail on the first try, proceed to Step Eight.

Step Eight: Nobody can get the fire started.
If you put your heads together and manage to build a successful fire using old copies of Dan Brown novels, proceed to Step Ten.
If you insist on starting the fire the way you saw that survivalist on TV do it involving a shoelace and several ounces of beer, inevitably failing, proceed to Step Nine.

Step Nine: You all give up and decide to camp without a fire, end up freezing, and drink what little alcohol is left for warmth. Proceed to Step Sixteen.

Step Ten: The tent is up, the fire is going, and you are all sitting comfortably in a circle making s’mores and drinking frosty cold beers. You lean back, gaze up at the stars, and
realize that you are insignificant but stranded beautifully on a fragile planet, and that it is your responsibility to care for your world (proceed to Step Eighteen), or
realize that you are insignificant, which induces an existential crisis causing increased alcohol consumption (proceed to Step Nineteen), or
fall backward in your chairs and wonder why you went camping in the first place (proceed to Step Eleven).

Step Eleven: Annoyed at camping in general, you all pull out your phones to see which celebrities have started dating each other, but discover there is no service in the woods.
If this frustrates you, proceed to Step Twelve.
If you return to toasting marshmallows, proceed to Step Thirteen.

Step Twelve: Your unquenchable desire for modern technology drives you to wander into the woods holding your smartphones into the air hoping to find a signal. Proceed to Step Seventeen.

Step Thirteen: Somebody pulls out a harmonica and plays a soulful rendition of Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al.” Proceed to Step Fourteen.

Step Fourteen: You realize that a desire for luxury is the last chain enslaving humankind to capitalism, and that if we all lived a minimalist’s life together in a commune and devoted ourselves to art and human companionship, the corporations would all go extinct and we would open up the doors to Heaven on Earth. Proceed to Step Eighteen.

Step Fifteen: Now stuck countless miles from any sign of human life, you all get out of the car and proceed to argue. Proceed to Step Sixteen.

Step Sixteen: Furious at one another for your collective insensitivities, self-centeredness, and refusal to accept responsibility for your mistakes, you use all the camping equipment to kill each other. Proceed to Step Seventeen.

Step Seventeen: You are all eaten by coyotes. The End.

Step Eighteen: After waking up to the sound of birds and running water the next day, you feel spiritually and socially invigorated and return to the plastic confines of civilization with a renewed sense of meaning and a deeper understanding of the divine, determined to be a better person to the world as a whole. You then sell all the pointless crap you’ve spent decades accumulating, give the money to charity, and finally start playing music again. The End.

Step Nineteen: Having had too much to drink, you sob about the terrible state of the world, the wars, the power that big business has over you, how expendable you are in the scheme of things, the fact that Unfriended was ever produced in the first place, and wander around the campground despondent and terrified.
When the camp director finds you, he
uses his shotgun to “motivate” you back into your tent for a night of silent introspection (proceed to Step Eighteen), or he
uses his shotgun to “motivate” you out of the campground entirely (proceed to Step Seventeen), or he
kindly offers you bread, water, and painkillers, then proceeds to teach you about Zen Buddhism, which you diligently listen to as long as drunk people can before falling asleep (Proceed to Step Eighteen).

Campfire

For more information on camping, consult your nearest grizzled old farmer.

-jk

Copyright Keene Short, 2015

A Brief Note About the Best Weekend of the Year*

*or, That Time I Went to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs 2015 Conference in Minneapolis

Conference 1

“Listen to the language you start with in the first paragraphs. That will shape the rest of the story more than you are aware.” –Pamela Painter on first drafts.

Every year, thousands of writing programs, small presses and literary magazines, publishing companies, writers new and old, writing teachers, and students flock together to share their books, writing programs, new releases, and innovations in the literary community. Thanks to the NAU Honors Program, I joined several friends in attending the conference, and it was one of the most beneficial experiences of my academic life.

“The MFA program is useful because it’s a break from the capitalist shitstorm. It lets you work without giving you black lung, and lets you focus on writing. The problem is that it doesn’t prepare you for life back in the capitalist shitstorm after it’s over.” –Claire Vaye Watkins.

Conference 2

Despite our travel plans going wrong, we made it. Because Arizona does not acknowledge daylight savings time  (but Greyhound does), we missed our bus by an hour. We decided to take a shuttle to Phoenix and ended up taking two different shuttles an hour apart, but eventually gathered in Sky Harbor with enough time to bankrupt ourselves from airport food. By late afternoon and with much applause, we landed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, amidst rain and snow.

“One of the hardest things for an Arab to accomplish is to live apolitically.” –Hayan Charara on whether or not writing should be political.

The conference has two features, an exhaustive list of panels and a colossal book fair. I spent most of my time in the less popular conferences, and tried to explore as rich and diverse a selection of topics as possible:

conference swagLiterature from communities in diaspora, featuring Vietnamese-, Korean-, and Arab-American writers; a reading of flash fiction, from six-word memoirs to 1,000-word short-shorts; a reading from Cuban poet Víctor Rodríguez Núñez and a signing of his newest collection With a Strange Scent of World; a set of memoir readings from U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; a discussion on translating Brazilian minority poets; a lengthy discussion from MFA teachers about the usefulness of seeking an MFA in Creative Writing in the first place; a panel on the usefulness of historical fiction and the rules one can break with it; a beautiful poetry reading from Iranian Farzaneh Milani, Syrian Mohja Khaf, and Iraqi Dunya Mikhail plus a list of historical women poets in the Arab-speaking world; a panel on writing as advocacy; and a reading of creative nonfiction about the value of speculation in nonfiction works.

“The ‘other’ for the writer is simply everyone.” –Elizabeth Kadetsky on the relationship between writers and the world.

The conference reinvigorated my love of writing, but unmasked a great many myths and expectations upon which I had previously built my understanding of the writing life. I now understand that the MFA racket is not all it’s cracked up to be; though certainly useful if applied correctly, MFAs are neither necessary nor financially sustainable if one wants to be a writer. I now have a greater appreciation for the need for good translators, and how deeply politicized translations can become when meaning and identity are at stake crossing the thresholds between languages. Flash fiction is more than an exercise in economizing language but a growing form of art itself.

Lastly, and most importantly, being a lone writer, while romantic, is terrible; good writing can only ever come from the experiences a writer internalizes and interprets, so I must accumulate as many experiences as possible, good, unpleasant, awkward, funny, humiliating, beautiful, terrifying, or calming. Time is not what I need as a writer; a community of friends, loved ones, people who inspire me, are what I really need. This trip generated more ideas for stories than anything I’ve done inside a classroom, and it is to my friends that I owe my ability to write, if I can say I possess such an ability in the first place.

friends

-jk

Flash Fiction: Train Tracks

I’m attempting to do forty creative things (stories, poems, music, art, photography) for Lent. Here is one of them, a short short story.

Train TracksThe chainlink fence delicately rattles. There is nothing in the distance, but the rattling persists like a stick dragged through broken glass. Then, in the distance, we hear it, the horn calling from the right. It’s coming. The fence shakes violently. At last, it spills into view, the bright lights on the front forming a trio of eyes glaring at us as we scurry up the gravel slope to the tracks. The train soars closer.
The all-consuming noise enthralls us. We dig in our backpacks for the ritual sacrifices: an action figure, a light bulb, a marble chess piece, and a platoon of plastic army men. We assemble them facing the train, the unstoppable bringer of death. We line them up on the bright steel tracks, then scramble back down the hill to watch the storm, the explosion, the apocalypse. The train blares its horn once more as we shiver in delight at our violation of the rules. We have been rebelling like this ever since we first discovered how easy it is to get away with it.
Moments before impact, one of us asks whose action figure we used. For a moment nobody speaks, but soon we realize it does not belong to any of us but to one of our old brothers. We look at one another, then take the hill once again, prepared to ambush the rumbling tracks like soldiers emerging from their trench. Amidst one last blast from the horn, an air raid siren before the bombs fall, we stop two feet in front of the train as it eviscerates the entire army we set up. It crumbles the chess piece, it pops the light bulb, it mows down the platoon of army men, and flattens the action figure. We do not turn our attention away, even after the last traces of our sacrifice have vanished. We stand and watch wheel after wheel glide past us where the toys had been.
After the train passes, we stand sullenly around the hallowed battlefield. An atomic bomb has just been dropped. A tornado has just hit. There is not a trace of the army men. We find some glass fragments from the light bulb and a single arm of the action figure. We pick it up and stare at it in horror. Just one severed red arm gnarled at the shoulder. What more can we say? We bury it and begin working on a good lie.

-jk

Photo and story copyrighted work of Keene Short, 2015.