Tag Archives: literature

Reading and Road Trips

Crested ButteTwo weeks ago, I graduated from UNL with a Master’s degree in English. It is the result of two years of reading, writing, and writing about what I read. More importantly, I had the pleasure of spending time with the friends and colleagues I worked with this past year. To celebrate the end of the semester and our program, several folks in my graduate cohort took a vacation by driving from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Crested Butte, Colorado, for a weekend next to a river. Soon, we will scatter and go our separate ways, and the slice of time we gave one another without responsibility, without the need to work for someone else, without tasks to fulfill, was a small slice of heaven (which is, as we all know, a place on Earth).

Right now, I have a summer of road trips planned ahead of me. I have been accepted into the MFA program at the University of Idaho, in Moscow (the fun Moscow). I’ll be driving there from Lincoln soon with part of my family, then through Montana and Idaho to visit a variety of relatives, then back to Flagstaff, Arizona, before driving back to Montana and Idaho a month later. I’ll be spending a lot of time in a car.

When a handful of English Majors go on a road trip, they take books with them, and for me it’s always been that way. As long as I can remember, I’ve taken long road trips every summer from Arizona across the Rockies to Montana, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and California, and I’ve always taken a book with me. One summer, I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Another summer, I read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. On this most recent road trip, I read The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara, and to continue my step in the left direction through summer reads, I think I’ll take along Terrorism and Communism by Leon Trotsky, which I hear is a pleasant beach read.

I’ve spent the last two years reading more books than I expected, various novels, historical texts, books on theory, books on the Russian Revolution of my own volition, craft essays, and several Nigerian plays. It is telling that, on my first break from grad school, I continued to read. The same is true of my friends who went to Crested Butte.

I have a lot going on this summer, much to look forward to and much to fear. I could blog about going to a new graduate program in creative writing or the college-industrial complex after surviving it for two more years or moving to a new state again. But right now the only things I want to do are read and spend time (reading) with my friends. I even hear talk of a Kafka/Marxist reading group in the making.

-jk

All the Great Writers I Don’t Want to Be

Stay in Designated AreaNaturally, writers compare authors’ works to one another. This is useful in workshops, reviews, and literary criticism, and I think it’s inevitable. Writer friends of mine draw inspiration from Ernest Hemingway, others from Cormac McCarthy, and others from detective fiction, and I can see this inspiration in their writing, not as plagiarism but as influence.

More and more, stories I’ve written have been compared to writers I have never read. At a recent conference reading, my nonfiction was compared to Stephen Wright and George Saunders, and I had to embarrassingly admit that I was unfamiliar with their work. Multiple friends, whose opinions I love and respect, have compared my prose to that of David Foster Wallace, another I have never read.

To my surprise, nothing I’ve written has ever been compared to those who inspire me. Maybe that’s a good thing. I know the writers I love, but peers haven’t identified that influence, even when I’ve quite consciously imitated their styles.

My earliest literary influence was Douglas Adams, whom I read in middle school and spent the next four years mildly stealing from. I’ve also been inspired by Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Lately, I’ve found inspiration in short story collections like Monique Proulx’s Aurora Montrealis, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, and Pamela Painter’s The Long and Short of It. I also draw inspiration from John Steinbeck and David Eagleman, who blend science, philosophy, and fiction, and the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke. Tiphanie Yanique’s How to Escape from a Leper Colony never ceases to inspire me, and neither does Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

It’s not that I want to be compared to these writers. Such a request would be too pretentiously egocentric, even for the pretentious ego-driven beast I so obviously am. But I am surprised.

I’m also distraught by the frequency with which my work is compared to David Foster Wallace. I don’t want to be compared to yet another depressed white male author who died by suicide, because it’s too close to home for me. What will I get from a writer I’m apparently so similar to? If I read Infinite Jest and hate it, what will that say about my own writing? Even worse, what if I love it without question? I want what I read to challenge my style, not reinforce it.

Was David Foster Wallace a perfectionist like me? Did he worry that he would die without making an impact, like me? Did he secretly resent himself for being a writer because such a profession requires both ego and humility, both of which are difficult for an introverted perfectionist to simultaneously possess, like me? I don’t know. I don’t want to know.

I also don’t want the comparisons to stop, because I want my friends and colleagues to be honest about my work. But so many comparisons to a writer that some of my heroes love and others hate has made me want to avoid reading anything by DFW. I can’t change what others see in my writing, but I know what writing I find pleasure in, and so far I find the most pleasure in being surprised. Maybe I’ll sit down and chug through Infinite Jest, but it won’t be anytime soon.

-jk

John Steinbeck’s Peach Upside-Down Cake

the-lone-survivorIn 1902 on February 27, John Steinbeck was born, kicking off a wonderful century of war and economic strife. To celebrate his birthday, you can either have a disgusting beer milkshake or delicious mush or even a glass of extremely fresh milk. Or you can be sensible about the whole thing and make peach upside-down cake.

First, lose your land to a bank and drive to California, where the good peaches are. You should lose one or two family members on the trip, which means more cake for you. Lucky you. Find work at a peach orchard and collect four to five un-bruised peaches that you can take back to rusted-out boiler you live in with your seven remaining children back in Monterey. Sell one of those children to buy 1/2 cup of butter, 2/3 cup of brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, and use whatever is left to buy as much bourbon as possible. Slice the peaches, melt the butter, add the brown sugar and cinnamon and a little bourbon if there’s any left after you’ve coped with the Great Depression that is living in California.

Work a few shifts at an apple orchard as a scab while a strike occurs and make enough to buy 2 cups of flour, one teaspoon of baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, two sticks of butter, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 2 eggs, 3/4 cup of sugar, 3 teaspoons vanilla, and several more cases of bourbon because one of your children broke into your stash and is no longer with us, which means one more child who doesn’t have to live in California. Beat the butter and sugar together, the way the system has beaten you, until smooth and creamy, unlike you. Mix in eggs, vanilla,and cinnamon. Add flour and baking powder and mix together. Meanwhile, you have probably lost a few more kids in the police raid on the striking apple pickers.

Take the hubcap of a Model T Ford and place the peach slices at the bottom with the butter-sugar mix. Pour the cake batter over it and cook at 350 degrees Fahrenheit or over an open fire on the side of the road for 35 minutes or until the bosses catch you and have you sent to jail with your one remaining child.

Enjoy the cake barefoot at the side of a river while you contemplate modernism and the horrors of living in America and probably a turtle or some worthless birds or some other obvious metaphor. Also, you’re probably a metaphor for Jesus by now, so change your initial to JC.

Also, happy birthday, John Steinbeck.

-jk

Getting Over the Beats

on-the-road

“We’re all golden sunflowers inside, bae.” -Allen Ginsberg, probably

In high school, I took a creative writing elective, and the teacher assigned numerous Beat Generation authors. We read sections of Dharma Bums and “Howl” and numerous Jack Kerouac poems. It turns out that the influence of the Beats on a youngboredsmallwhitemale is that he starts wearing black button-up shirts and fantasizing about expensive liquor. After reading On the Road the following summer, I spent a great deal of time fantasizing about drinking absinthe on road trips through the desert at night while listening to something called bop. I bought used jazz records that I listened to once, maybe twice.

I thought about rebelling, but I was convinced that the key to rebellion was originality, and just about everything had been done before. I learned the value of originality from the Beats, who were apparently the very first people to realize that dharma and karma fall under the category of “hip.” I learned more from various articles summarizing the Beat Generation that I found online to save time, and it was there that I discovered how powerful single  arbitrary out-of-context half-cited quotes can be, even with no subsequent explanation. I thought about growing out my hair, learning how to sculpt with metal, driving a motorcycle, making out with trees, but they had all been done before.

As time went on, I encountered other writers and poets who influenced me in more nuanced, healthier ways. Had I kept up with my Beat fixation, I might have grown up to the kind of person who uses Kerouac quotes to make myself feel better about spending fifteen dollars on one local IPA at a bar I frequent only because the regular server is an aspiring country saxophonist named Cynthia. Or I could have become the kind of teacher who wears skinny dungarees and Pink Floyd T-shirts with holes in the front and sits on the desk telling his students that Jesus and Steinbeck were both Zen masters who shared some sweet flashbacks to one another.

I still dig the Beats sometimes, but that scene has passed. I’m still not sure what kind of writer I am, but I can’t be a Beat, or any other writer from the past. It’s better to write for and from the present. I’ve almost entirely moved on, man.

-jk

Dear Harper Lee,

TKAMBWhen I heard of your passing, I went to my bookshelves to find my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, to flip through your words, your characters,  your gracious writing. I was surprised to find it was absent from the novels. It was nowhere in my shelves. Somehow, I’d forgotten to bring it with me when I moved.

I dearly wish I’d brought it. Long ago, I was one of the many high school freshmen who read To Kill a Mockingbird, and I couldn’t put it down. I returned to it again and again in high school and college, reassessing the meaning each time. Your characters still speak to us in ways we never seem to expect.

Literary canons are uncontrollable, amorphous little creatures regularly consuming or abandoning texts, but your place in the American Canon is, I think, difficult to dispute. You’ve shaped my idea about the novel as a form, and you’ve shaped so many other great writers. You’ve also shaped my idea of how to be an American citizen when it seems that so little has improved over the decades. There is gentleness in your writing, something so absent in today’s literature and today’s America. In Atticus, Jem, and Boo Radley, you gave us a refuge for gentleness.

My bookshelf is incomplete without To Kill a Mockingbird. There is, and always will be, a place on my shelf for you, Harper Lee. You are one of the reasons I am not a complete cynic (as I’m still only three-quarters a cynic).

Rest in peace, Harper Lee.

-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

In the Company of Roses

Flower Last week, a man told me a parable about a lump of clay and some roses. He cited it as a Persian parable, but I did some research and found that it actually comes from the thirteenth century Persian poet Abū-Muhammad Muslih al-Dīn bin Abdallāh Shīrāzī, commonly known as Sa’di. He is one of the most influential poets in Islamic and Asian literature. In Iran, April 21 is celebrated as Sa’di Day.

While Europeans were busy killing each other in the medieval period, which they eventually termed the Dark Ages like a bad sequel to the Roman Empire, most of Western and Central Asia witnessed an artistic, philosophical, and scientific renaissance. Sa’di was only a part of this unique cultural era.

The poem I heard comes from the “Adoration and Preamble” section of Gulistan, or “the rose garden,” one of Sa’di’s most famous works. It reads something like this:

“I held in my bath a per­fumed piece of clay
that came to me from a beloved’s hand.
I asked it, ‘Are you musk or amber­gris?
Like fine wine, your smell intox­i­cates me.’

Till some­one set me down beside a rose,’
it said, ‘I was a loath­some lump of clay.
My companion’s scent seeped into me.
Oth­er­wise, I am only the earth that I am.'”

Apart from talking lumps of clay, I love this poem because it reminds me that I am defined by my proximity to others more than I realize.

Artistically, I am the product of the writers and poets I read: Billy Collins, Sylvia Plath, Douglas Adams, John Steinbeck, Dunya Mikhail, Jamaica Kincaid, and Pablo Neruda have made me the writer I am. Aesthetically, the Southwest made me an experimental, avant-garde magical realist. Socially, I am shaped by my friends, family, lovers, mentors, and the two or three enemies I keep around for good measure. Professionally, I’m a workaholic, being the son of professors who know education is a religious devotion serving the many at the expense of the few, the happy few.

I’m honored to live in the company of roses. I surround myself with those who inspire me. It took me a while to figure out how miserable one can get surrounded by those who are negative, over-critical, dishonest, manipulative, and toxic. I don’t mean I’m in the company of the perfect; all roses have their thorns. But for what it’s worth, I’m glad to let my friends rub off on me. It makes me a better person (and apparently more appealing to bathe with) to walk with roses.

-jk