Tag Archives: Lincoln

The Workaholic Catches Cabin Fever

author-pic-5This weekend, an ice storm fluttered over eastern Nebraska, coating Lincoln in thin layers of slick ice and making it difficult to drive or walk. It has warmed up today, but UNL cancelled classes. I left my apartment only once this weekend for the sacred ritual of movies and food. Otherwise I’ve been inside my apartment avoiding the weather’s risks.

Granted, Lincoln is usually dangerous because the sidewalks are coated in football players’ sweat and the ejaculatory spittle of Governor Pete Ricketts as he laughs at Nebraskan voters from the golden tower overlooking the city, but this weekend it was especially dangerous.

Regular readers of this blog know that I partly enjoy bad weather, especially if it involves snow. It allows me to stay inside, drink coffee, write, and read. I freely admit that I’m a workaholic. I maintain a strict work ethic, in part because it nags me to have unfinished tasks. Knowing I have a deadline coming up feels like hot, smelly breath on my neck, which is also the sensation I have when I look at the face of P. Ricketts. I work hard in order to avoid having things gnaw at me.

This weekend, though, I had few deadlines that I could meet from home. I have yet to receive papers for grading or major assignments to begin. I forced myself to plunge back into the habit of writing regularly, which I had lost over winter break, and what writing I did was weak and unsatisfying.

For once, I wasn’t productive, though society doesn’t normally benefit from my labor. The hours I put into writing, revising, submitting, and making fun of politicians usually go unnoticed, especially by politicians named Pricketts. I’m a workaholic, but I realized this weekend that I’m not a productive workaholic.

I realized that I deal in temporary moments. When I produce, it’s usually particular instances, things that dissipate into the air. As a teacher, I produce lessons, rather than capital. As a writer, I produce reactions and responses, usually from my loyal readership of five people, my dog, and maybe even Pricketts the Farmer of Nebraskan Tears. I’d like to think I produce moments of companionship, like the hairy dog I’m quickly becoming. What I obsessively create doesn’t last. Lessons, reactions, and responses always melt, one way or another, but I still enjoy producing them. Nobody gains capital as a result, but maybe they gain affirmation, if I work hard enough.

I could do very little affirming from my apartment while sheets of ice formed in the freezing rainfall. I still prefer the snowy weather, but I’m glad to be out and about writing, wandering, and listening.

-jk

Graduate School, Season Two

teapotAmong the many things coming this Fall is the second season of me being in Graduate School. This next year looks promising, and I’m looking forward to the goofy Nebraska antics, the creative writing classes I’ll be taking, and finally teaching a class on my own.

I hope the next year of Graduate School corrects some of the mistakes of last season. For example, the protagonist last year came off as exceedingly pretentious, especially in his attitude toward the setting. The protagonist spent too much time complaining about the Midwest, and while the “missing home narrative” was compelling, it got old quickly. I for one hope the main character does more than sit around making bad jokes about the prairies.

The next season will most likely see more of the main character trying to get published, and the audience will enjoy the conflict between devotion to graduate studies versus the effort it takes to write, read, submit, and convince literary magazines to publish his work. Many of last season’s episodes focused on various low-stakes self-contained stories that take place in the protagonist’s apartment or the English department, which is why I hope Graduate School will venture out a little more this season. As a show with a whole city for a setting, it’s strange that so much of it uses only two interior buildings to shoot in.

The show has many strange components: the romance plots are all backstory, the drama is all internal, there’s very little dialogue, and the protagonist doesn’t seem to have changed in the first season, at least not in ways the audience would hope for. Where’s his arc?

The real question is whether or not Graduate School will go on for a third season, or if the show will wrap up with the protagonist just getting a Master’s Degree and stopping his college pursuits after that. Future years of Graduate School could be quite worthwhile, but without major character development, this could be Graduate School’s last year. In any case, I look forward to the season premier, and I hope the coming year will be, at the very least, entertaining.

-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

Reflections on a First Semester in Grad School

AcademyI’m twenty-five percent of the way finished with my Master’s Degree in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Most of what I’ve encountered is unsurprising: the workload is tough, the Midwest is flat. However, there are certain things I’ve learned, perhaps unique to my own situation, that I wish I’d known earlier this summer.

  1. Maturity is a state of mind. I’m the youngest person I’ve met in the creative writing segment of my department, and I’m often made to feel like a little kid, like I don’t quite belong, among the adults (at least among most of the writers I’ve met). Many are PhD students with an MFA or an MA. In truth, I don’t quite fit in with most of the other writers stylistically, humorously, or aesthetically. Both my writing and self are plain weird, and I’m surrounded by tradition and formality. I don’t want to sacrifice my identity to fit in, though. I’d rather be a transplanted weirdo in the Midwest than a converted Midwesterner. Growing up isn’t about leaving behind parts of myself that don’t meet others’ expectations; it’s about maintaining myself in increasingly diverse and challenging situations.
  2. Discussions of craft are not as important as craft itself. Every discussion of craft I’ve had so far consists of an extensive mythology of what other writers did to keep themselves writing, followed by the refrain, do what works for you; coffee, rum, fishing in the Missouri River, whatever will help crank out a daily three to four pages. My own method involves writing for those who inspire me, unhealthy amounts of caffeine, and hikes in nature (which I’ve yet to find near Lincoln).
  3. Nothing is more important than the writing. I came to graduate school to write, and to publish, and to understand literature and improve myself intellectually, but my primary goal is to crank out three to four pages a day, no matter what.
  4. Friendship is more important than the writing. Friends are increasingly hard to come by the higher I climb into academia. Allies are nice, but the few friends I’ve made are crucial to my survival. Without them, I’d have no support for my experimentation. Plus, writing can be lonely, and being cooped up all day is a good way to get cabin fever.
  5. Contradictions are okay (and inevitable). Graduate life, much like undergraduate life, is complex and full of numerous contradictions. Some are basic: a free ride still requires one thousand dollars of student fees per semester. Some are more complex: writing depends upon time and inspiration, but inspiration usually comes from things requiring time not spent writing (loved ones, caffeine, hiking). Fortunately, I now have the benefit of knowing exactly what I need to survive the next seventy-five percent of my degree: writing, friends, coffee, a place to hike, more confidence in my weirdness, and a few more publications would be tolerable, I suppose.

Look out, 2016, here I come.

-jk

Writing on Game Day

The Mill It’s another game day in Lincoln, Nebraska. The city is dripping with redshirts (not the kind from Star Trek, but closer than you’d think) and people asking for tickets. It’s hot, dry, loud, and alive. There is energy and consumerism in Lincoln today. Parking here, fifty dollars! Hot dogs, popcorn, soda, beer! Families move through the streets as the day builds toward the big game. Parties, I’m certain, are in planning, if not already in mid-construction.

Currently I am not involved in the game day activities. It’s nothing personal, Nebraska, but I have work to do. I have a novel to write, several novels to read, essays to research, critiques to work on, and Renaissance comedies to struggle through. I have work for my research assistantship on top of my graduate classes, plus my ongoing attempts to write and publish.

I’ve tucked myself into a corner coffee shop downtown to caffeinate and induce sleeping problems. I’m going to spend the whole of game day here, watching the red sea of fans part against the street corner while rushing to complete the next section of my novel for workshop on Monday, then finish the 4,501 other projects I have (blogging notwithstanding, of course). I can’t afford to see a game, anyway. Four dollars for a cup of coffee and a scone is better than fifty for a ticket. Even if I watched the game, I wouldn’t particularly care who won. I’m told we’re having a bad season, but I couldn’t tell you a single score. It’s nothing personal, Lincoln; fandom just doesn’t suit me.

-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

To Hear Hamlet (In a Cemetery)

Graveyard

This weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing a live production of Hamlet by Lincoln’s Flatwater Shakespeare Company. The performance was held in the Swan Theater, which also happens to be in Lincoln’s historic Wyuka Cemetery. The show started at sunset; as the characters progressed into madness and scheming, the night grew darker and colder, and the full moon rose higher and higher. The experience was exhilarating.

Ham1As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I love theater despite my minimal experience with it. Plays are not meant to be read, but seen, and heard. Words are powerful enough in print, but when given a voice, they have so much more power to move the audience. Some readers are familiar with how important voice is to me. I’m drawn to people with strong voices; to me, it’s the first part of attraction. I grew up caring about voice more than any other part of a person. Garrison Keillor’s rusty voice on the radio; the beautiful harmonies produced by folk singers, The Wailin’ Jennys or Peter, Paul, and Mary. Of course Renaissance theater isn’t for everyone; nothing is. But hearing Shakespeare’s words put to the instrumentation of a cast of strong voices makes it impossible for me not to enjoy those words.

But the experience of hearing Hamlet in a cemetery was even more gripping. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears, the audience is reminded that hundreds of ghosts are in the ground behind him. When Hamlet contemplates mortality, that undiscovered country, we are forced to remember that emigrants to that undiscovered country are just a few yards away. Finally, when a clown digs up a grave, tossing skulls out of the earth, we cannot help but think that an actual gravedigger is performing the same task, under the full moon. We are surrounded by actual skulls while Hamlet picks up Yorick’s skull; we are surrounded by actual corpses while Ophelia is placed in the grave.

The very ground the audience walks on to reach the stage is defined by mortality. The theatricality of undoing the grave’s permanence, of waking up the dead and gazing into their empty eye sockets, hits us uncomfortably close. The stage mocks the dead we struggle to leave hallowed; we depart from the performance facing the cemetery illuminated by a full moon wondering if our own skulls will be unburied, if a tragedy will be staged on the field we’re confined to.

In this case, the play’s the thing wherein the audience finds its own conscience, and as we all know, conscience does make cowards of us all. That’s the power of theater, and poetry, and art. It places mortality in our face and invites us to wonder. To look around. To investigate. To consider that soon we’ll be departing for an undiscovered country, and we can either go mad waiting in line for our plane ticket, or we can enjoy the graces the terminal has to offer. Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, unless we muster up the courage to laugh at all the skulls surrounding us. Why not laugh? Aye, there’s the rub.

-jk