Tag Archives: life

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. Buts 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

Grad School Reboot

booksIn May, Grad School ended with an undramatic series finale in which the protagonist received his degree, went to a few low-key parties, then went home. The writers worked a possible spinoff involving Idaho into the plot, and this Fall that spinoff will appear as a reboot of Grad School, starring the previous series’ main character and, as far as the writers know, nobody else.

In the era of rebooted shows, many of which ended several decades ago, a reboot of Grad School is only the next logical step. In the upcoming Season One/Three, the protagonist will attend an MFA program in Idaho’s panhandle, the only untapped part of the Pacific Northwest not used by modern television’s fascination with the region, ranging fromĀ Portlandia to Twin Peaks to Northern Exposure to Twin Peaks: The Return. Critics wonder if Idaho’s panhandle qualifies as the PNW, and many more critics wonder if Idaho even qualifies as a state rather than several disunited principalities ruled by various Mormons, libertarians, and seventeen armed lumberjacks from Montana, all of whom are named Slim. Our protagonist will have at least three seasons to figure this out.

The reboot’s narrative arcs will be predictably similar to those of its first two seasons in Nebraska: the protagonist will take classes, teach classes, and spend most nights grading, reading, and writing. Most episodes will begin with him walking to campus and end with him walking home. Critics wonder if the show can sustain itself for the intended three seasons of Grad School: MFA, but hope that the introduction of more creative writers will create more quirky dialogue and probably melodrama. The show could also do with more humor and lightheartedness to balance the protagonist’s late-season arc toward nihilistic cynicism, and some critics are even expecting a full-fledged comedy to emerge. But one can only hope.

-jk

 

Tales From the Thrift Store

ThriftyI can’t remember the last time I went shopping for clothes. I still wear most of the same things I had in high school and hoped that my minimal wardrobe would last forever when I moved to Lincoln. After losing forty-two buttons, an unfortunate mishap involving bleach, and then proceeding to lose a significant amount of weight in Lincoln by switching to a diet of mostly oxygen and hydrogen, I realized finally that I’m starting to look a little weird in my old clothes. So yesterday, I trekked through the aftermath of Nebraska’s most recent snowstorm to a row of thrift stores downtown, just to take a look around.

For environmental and humanitarian reasons, I will only ever purchase used clothes. The damage has already been done, slave labor already used, Jesus has already cried his usual tears of blood, and at least fourteen MORE elephants won’t be killed in order for me to possess a belt.

As I searched desperately for clothes to fit a short bony dude with a disproportionately big head (which is why I sometimes look like an extraterrestrial), I wondered about the donators. About the reasons for donating. There were stories behind every article of clothing I perused. Maybe a nasty divorce prompted a disappointed man to donate all the ties his ex-wife gave him; maybe a widow donated her husband’s shirts after he took a bullet in Afghanistan; maybe somebody decided he had too many jeans; maybe he gained weight or lost closet space. It’s easy to imprint little fictions onto these old items. It’s fun, even, to wonder about who owned this pair of pink sunglasses or that tacky gold and green parrot-covered sports jacket. I’m a part of the narrative too; everything I give and take changes the equation. I’m an actor in the saga of the exchange of used clothes, and therefore the exchange of unwritten mysteries.

Or so I’d like to think. There may be mysteries, but I’ll never solve them. I may never even figure out the premise. What really matters is that now I can read at a conference in a neon green sports jacket with gold leather sleeves and smiling parrots patterned across the whole thing.

-jk

Big League Academia

New WriterTwo months into my first year of graduate school, I think I’ve finally started to settle in. The workload is not beyond my management (I somehow function better with less sleep), the faculty are just as thoughtful and thought-provoking, and my descent deeper into the cult of academia is going smoothly; soon, I’m told, I’ll be a card-carrying postmodernist. The support my writing receives is frequent, and the possibility of a writing career is even starting to take shape.

For example, this past week I had the opportunity to meet with two agents and two editors, to have them critique a section of my novel-in-progress and discuss the publishing industry. They told me what they liked about the short section, offered insights, made revision suggestions, and allowed me to see the project in grander terms. I learned that when I eventually get an agent and editor, publishing becomes a collaborative effort, a group project. They offered to stay in contact when I have a polished draft. Suddenly, the fantasy of publication no longer feels so impossible.

Is this it? Is this the next step for my writing? Or is this just the next phase in my hike up the ranks into academia? I ask myself this question because I’m surrounded by people who have it figured out already. I’m surrounded by serious academics, doctoral students devoting years to studying, students fulfilling long-term plans. Many of them took a break after college to figure out the rest of their lives, get married, travel, go on adventures, experience things they can then write about. And here I am, fresh out of my undergraduate career.

Am I here because I want to be a writer, or because I want to be an academic? I feel like a kid who doesn’t yet know what he wants to be when he grows up, and time is running out. Do I teach? Get a PhD? Another MA? An MFA? Is there life after publication? Or should I let my ambitions dictate my future? Tired of studying tragedy but never taking that study out of the classroom, I still want to join a charity, volunteer in a hospital in Palestine or Afghanistan or Jordan, or work on an organic farm in Chile or Brazil. I want to see the world, because I know if I stay in the confines of an English Department, I’ll run out of things to write about.

I’m still just a kid, academically speaking, and I’m surrounded by intellectual adults. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked about my PhD, as if that’s the only end in sight, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve silently shrugged and changed the subject. I only have until next fall to figure it out, though. Do I become a career academic? Teach? Work? Let me know in the comments your own thoughts or plans.

-jk