Tag Archives: NAU

Out of the Frying Pan, Into Graduate School

book boxes A few months ago, I attended the AWP Conference where eager representatives from MA and MFA programs stuffed fliers into my hands. They all offered the same possibility: a few years in paradise with nothing to do but write, read, workshop, and inevitably publish. I was drawn into the illusion that ignored the work, the expenses, the debt, and the difficulty in getting anything published.

While preparing for life after NAU, I knew that graduate school was not the only way to become a writer. I could serve overpriced coffee to people in suits, slipping them poems on their receipts to show them my talent, or I could work as a governess for a rich man with gigantic muttonchops who helps me publish my sad story. Or I could take the realistic approach and work, write, and submit short pieces to journals, like most writers I know, gradually building up a longer and longer list of published works.

After I returned from the conference, I received an email from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I had applied to eight schools last fall, and all rejected me but UNL; late in April they informed me they would offer me full funding and a stipend through a research assistantship. It was a lucky break, and I took the offer, not because I believed it was the only path I could take, but because I believed it was the best path for me at the moment. It’s the opportunity to get a Master’s Degree in English without any debt, which is just short of a fantasy these days. I don’t believe I deserve such an opportunity over other applicants, but because I have the opportunity now, it’s my responsibility to make the best of it that I can.

I’m not going just to improve my writing, though of course my emphasis will be in creative writing, and of course I intend to come out of it a better writer. But I also hope to become a more scholarly reader, a better student, a more disciplined person.  I was born into academia, and I can handle it a few more years without losing my mind. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity. So I’ll buckle down, pack up my four thousand books and my no. 2 pencils, and plunge into the fire.

-jk

In Which the Pen Name, Nickname, and Legal Name Meet Each Other

Who? More authors than I can count have used a pen name at one point. Dean Koontz has used Aaron Wolfe; Charlotte Bronte used Currer Bell; Daniel Foe, being the creative genius that he was, used Daniel Defoe, not to conceal his identity but to convince his readers he was more gentlemanly. My favorite is Daniel Handler’s pseudonym Lemony Snicket, because Snicket becomes a character in Handler’s Series of Unfortunate Events, one who navigates the reader through the troubling plots. I’ve never imagined myself using a pen name, until I realized how many names I’ve gone by.

For most of my life, I’ve gone by my middle name Keene. In middle school, I got tired of correcting people who thought I said Ken or Keenan or Keith, and I also wanted a name requiring no spelling correction. Not Keen, not Keane, not Frank, but Keene! I tried my first name Jeffery, but even then most people misplaced the R, spelling it Jeffrey. So I shortened it to Jeff. This was also around the time I started writing, and I wrote my earliest stories as Jeff Short. But Jeff was not a very pleasant person, nor a very good writer. He was obnoxiously political, and was competitive in music, writing, and grades.

Along the way, I decided that I liked Keene better. Keene Short. It’s a good name for a writer, and frankly I like Keene as a person more than Jeff. Whereas Jeff was picky, Keene embraced just about everything. He had a better sense of humor than Jeff. Most importantly, he gave up competitiveness. Keene wasn’t concerned with being superior with distinction, but with enjoying the show. Jeff slowly diminished into a forgotten nickname.

In the last years of college, I adopted another name: JK. The nickname originated in the place I worked, the NAU Honors Writing Center, which I can only describe as a mythical realm where the drawers are stuffed with candy and sarcasm flows freely from the tutors. My boss began calling me JK, and soon I started signing emails, letters, and even blog posts as JK. Keene now blogs as JK, who can withhold his sarcasm and be somber when the time calls for it but prefers to be lighthearted. You do not know everything about Keene; you don’t need to and I don’t want you to, which is why JK is here as a literary filter.

But I will always be Keene Short, even in publication. JK is a nice nickname, but I can’t see critics taking Collected Stories of JK very seriously. Maybe JK is just the fictionalized version of Keene, and I’m content with that. I don’t think of Keene Short as a pen name because Jeffery Short, to me, isn’t a real person. I’d be lying if I published under Jeffery or Jeff, both strangers to me. I am simply Keene Short.

-jk

Once Upon a Time, Graduation Meant Something

Empty It finally happened. I graduated. I shook hands with the Dean of Arts and Letters and some of my favorite literature professors, and was handed a fancy diploma case for after the real one arrives in the mail. I went through the whole ritual, but when I left the Skydome amidst Flagstaff’s annual early-May snowstorm, I felt about as empty as the diploma case they gave me.

Most of my friends and family expect graduation to be a time of great joy, relief, sadness, and memory. I reflected on many things, but I tend to be reflective in general. For me, graduation offered no profundity. It was a mess of finding the right place, shaking the right hands, and enduring vague speeches about the future. Walking onto stage, having my name (and other information) announced, and receiving a diploma case should have been meaningful experiences, but I couldn’t keep myself from thinking that it was all a show.

Commencement was a self-congratulatory performance for the university, and the profiteering involved in the current education system was not only evident but ever-present. All students were required to have a cap and gown to participate in commencement, and the only way to obtain them, short of cheating and borrowing them from a friend, is to purchase them from a company; I was among those who cheated. After receiving an empty diploma case, students were ushered into two photo shoots. I was literally pulled into position, but I cannot get any of the photos taken unless I spend more money to purchase them. The commencement speeches had nothing to do with any of our own problems, our crippling student debts, an unnavigable job market, a scary world with an even scarier future. Instead, the speeches were about the university’s accomplishments, its growth and benefits, all at our expense.

College is no longer about advancing art and science and law; it’s become a business for the corporations benefiting from the on-campus dining, the corporations who make and sell caps and gowns, the construction companies profiting on new buildings the school can’t afford without cutting valuable tutoring and learning initiative programs. Education is one of the most important assets of the modern world, but the education system has become a method of exploitation.

All through commencement, I felt exploited. That’s not to suggest I did not receive an adequate education. Indeed, my professors exceeded my expectations, and they’ve changed me immeasurably. But college, as a system, profits regardless of anybody’s intellectual, scientific, artistic, political, technical, or social improvement. Instead, it encourages us to bankrupt ourselves so it can grow. In the end, NAU’s leaders do not care whether or not I graduate; they care about getting my money, and that realization hurts. I’m fortunate to have worked with professors who sincerely value their students’ collective improvement, to the point that they run themselves into the ground physically and emotionally by the end of each semester just to help us. But NAU, and the modern college-industrial complex, has done little, if anything, to contribute to its students’ intellectual improvements. I owe nothing to my university, but I do not blame it. This is a national pattern, and all of us are caught up in it. How long will it last? How long can it last before students realize that they are on a conveyer belt for the profit of private firms with no investment in literature, law, environmental science, political science, understanding globalization, or the development of compassion?

And now I’m going to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Now I’m plunging myself back into the factory.

Am I wrong about all this? Is it not the case that my friends have been placed on a conveyer belt for the past four years? For the next fifteen? Will the education system ever be returned to the hands of the educators and not the businesses? In a perfect world, the students gain more from a four-year program than the university they attend; we’ll never make it to a perfect world, but I think we deserve more than we’ve been given. We are more than crops with full pockets to harvest from. We are more than fruit to be drained and dried. We are scared, we are angry, we are curious, and we seek understanding. We are passionate and seek the means to express. We are knowledgeable and seek to use our knowledge. We deserve to be treated honestly about what we’ve been given, what we can do, and where we are going. Although I’m disappointed in my graduation, my university, and my country for voting the universities into such positions, I’m far from disheartened. Behind the curtain and the profiteering are professors who still work hard to teach and improve us. It is because of these professors that I have the means to express my discontent, and it is only through these means that I see any possibility for change.

-jk

The Snow, the Writer, the Time

Campus Snow Day

Yesterday started so safely. It was overcast and raining, but the roads were clear. By 11:00 AM, though, the city of Flagstaff was covered in snow and slush. Ponds sprouted in road dips and parking lots became marshes. Northern Arizona University cancelled all classes after 2:00 PM, after everybody was already on campus and desperate to get home. Students, faculty, and staff were told to leave before it got worse.

Com Building

I opted to stay on campus and not wait in the snow swamps amid dozens of tense drivers. I chose not to risk driving down Milton or Butler to get home, not wanting to wait ninety minutes because some inevitably bad drivers congested traffic after skiing their cars into each other. Instead, I found a warm corner on campus and set up shop with everything I needed: my computer, hot chocolate, a lengthy playlist of folk music, and a window giving me an unmitigated view of the snowfall.

Cline and Tree

I not-so-secretly harbor an obsession with snow. It’s often a subject in my writing. I’ve written many poems about snow alone, how it feels against my skin and glows under streetlamps. I’ve set numerous short stories in a mountain town in December, a Russian field in January, a Montanan cabin in February, or Flagstaff in March. Snow delights me immeasurably, and imposes an opportunity to sit back and do what I have so little time to even contemplate. When it snows so monstrously, I refuse to let the cold and darkness drag me down. Instead, I accept them as unexpected gifts. I don’t think sitting in front of a cold window improves my writing, but it often gives me direction and motivation. Yesterday, it forced isolation upon me, and isolation prompts writing. I’m grateful for being ushered indoors sometimes. Otherwise, I might never begin sewing the words together.

-jk

There Are No Words

This week, Northern Arizona University entered national news when the White House confirmed that an NAU alumnus, Kayla Mueller, died in ISIS captivity. Some of my friends who work for the school newspaper have been contacted by national news organizations, and various news outlets and reporters have slipped onto campus to obtain as many facts about her as possible. A friend from The Lumberjack asked me to write an editorial for the paper. Another friend wrote a compelling and beautiful post expressing her own thoughts. Many of my friends have suggested I write something about these events. Additionally, I am connected with multiple organizations (which I will not name here) of which Kayla was a member, and reporters asked some of us to comment on her death. Some left business cards between our building’s doors.

To my surprise, it seems I am expected to speak, to write, to openly reflect on Kayla’s passing. Maybe that is the responsibility of a writer, to offer thoughts in a timely, organized fashion. In truth, I’ve been meaning to write about ISIS. As a historian, I wanted to put the self-proclaimed Islamic State in a proper historical context: the destabilization of the region, its ideological origins with Mohamed ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, and Wahhabism’s connection to Saudi Arabia given the recent king’s death. But I don’t think that what I want to write will lend anything useful to the people asking me to write. Maybe I’m expected to separate myself from these events completely, become a mere onlooker capable of expressing myself outside the confines of the grief, confusion, anger, and sadness that all of us are feeling. Some of my friends have succeeded in putting their thoughts into words, and I applaud the courage it must have taken to do so. But one thing has become painfully clear to me: too many people have asked me to say something, but I don’t know what to say.

I’m compelled to write about history and religion, or to write about the NAU community, or to write about Kayla’s life, but right now the words refuse to manifest. I want to express something, but I don’t know what I can express that is not simply grief, confusion, anger, and sadness. To be clear, I never knew Kayla. I only know the people she touched while she was here, a handful of her friends and mentors.

Last night, however, while I was walking home, I was struck by something new on the side of the road.

K M

There had been a vigil for Kayla, and on that windy night, people of multiple communities came together and honored her in lights. Seeing this with so many tragedies already on my mind made me stop. I stood in front of it in silence. For a long time, not a single car passed, and I was alone in the soft glow of love and celebration and sorrow arranged for the world to see. I thought a lot about Kayla. I meditated on the impact of her death, but more on the impact of her life. Her absence brought out the best of my communities, but her presence was much stronger. Though I was alone, I could feel that Kayla had accomplished her goal as a humanitarian. Even in death, she brought people together to declare, plain and simple, that love wins.

I do not believe I have any authority to write about Kayla’s life. I do not feel it’s my place. As a writer, my duty is to express myself in solidarity with the grieving, the confused, the angry, the saddened, down on the ground in chaos and not in some lofty tower above the emotional turmoil. Perhaps solidarity comes in many forms, and right now my place is only to let the lights shine on and stand in their warmth with everybody else as a member of my communities, of NAU, of Flagstaff, of the world.

-jk

Candles

Finals Week at the Library

The last short story of the year about Karl, who finishes his first semester of college facing a handful of final exams, papers, and a pack of ravenous Business students.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

papers

This week, I have so many assignments and tests! It’s crazy! I have a paper for my rhetoric class, a paper for literature with Dr. Corddry, a paper and a test for German (all of it’s in German! I can’t handle that much Deutsch!), a paper for my Honors class, and a giant test for psychology.
So Eddie, Vince, Abigail, Maxwell, Sam, the herd of cynics, and this person from Honors named Jill all went to Cline to study and finish our papers. It was packed! Everybody does last-minute studying in the library, and practically the entire undergraduate college was there. The library is open 24/7 during reading week, and I guess everybody at NAU takes advantage of that. We couldn’t get any of the private study rooms, so we found this table in a big room already filled with students. It was the last table available, and a bunch of Math students frowned and walked away slowly when we got to it first. The librarians started handing out snacks and water to keep us calm. Maxwell called it the opiate of the masses or something, but then he saw they had gummy bears, and he loves his gummy bear opiates.
We set up our laptops, notes, books, and everything else we needed for a study night and got to work. First Sam and Vince and I practiced some German words, then Abigail and Eddie worked on Honors papers, and Maxwell and the herd of cynics studied for Psychology. That was going to be the worst test, because the instructor told us that she actually made a bet with the other faculty about how many students would fail the test, and she bet that seventy percent of us would fail! Who does that?
A little while after we were into our study session, a pack of Business students in suits came to our table and asked us to vacate the premises. These Business students all looked the same. They talked like California surfer bros and had tans the color of cheddar cheese and had short military hair cuts, and they all had Starbucks food in crumbly paper bags. They all folded their arms trying to intimidate us into giving them the table.
Maxwell made some big speech about how we needed to stand up and oppose the man, and Abigail took out this flashlight/pen/screwdriver thing and threatened to remove their fingers. But these were Business students, and we’re in the Humanities. They have us outnumbered, they have suits, they have the Franke building (the Liberal Arts building isn’t named after some rich dead guy, I guess), and they have more job potential than us. The herd of cynics started shouting everything Maxwell said after he said it, and Vince pulled out a pocket knife and said he knew how to use it. Meanwhile, I just tried to write one more sentence in German.
Pretty soon, three librarians came up to our table. One of them had a cart of really huge legal books, one of them was armed with one of the legal books, and the third, who seemed to be leading them, was Autumn Bartlett. The other two were these tall, long-haired, bearded, gangly hipsters in plaid shirts and fuzzy beanies. I guess they would’ve been lumberjacks, but they had headphones in their ears and set their vente double espresso chocolate pumpkin cinnamon spice cappulattes on the library cart, and I don’t think most lumberjacks drink espresso.
The pack of ravenous Business students said the table was theirs.
“We got here first,” they said.
“We have our notes all set up,” Abigail said.
“But we saw it first.”
“We’ve been here for two hours.”
“We have important assignments due tomorrow! The teacher didn’t tell us what was due, and we had to look all the way in the syllabus to find it, and none of us have any syllabuses, so we had to ask our parents to call the teacher and send us a syllabus.”
Autumn didn’t pay attention to either of the arguments. Instead, she spent the whole time texting somebody else while the lumberjack hipsters stared down at us. The Business students started saying weird things like they were entitled to the table, they contributed to society, God was on their side, they weren’t hippies. I guess that part of their argument was kinda right. Vince wasn’t wearing shoes, Maxwell wore a shirt with a grumpy wizard melting people’s faces with an electric guitar, Abigail wore this red beanie and pajamas, and one of the cynics had a shirt with Karl Marx in sunglasses on it.
“Our Apple Mac iDevices are about to run out of battery power,” one said, “and we need the outlets. No other table in this room is close enough to the outlets.”
Autumn looked over to us. I stopped misspelling German words on my computer and looked up. The cynics were all shrugging and Maxwell was digging around in his backpack for proof that human existence had no meaning, and then I remembered that I still had Autumn’s book in my backpack.
“Hey, you’re name is Autumn Bartlett, right?” I said, reaching into my backpack.
“Huh? Hey, I remember you.” She stopped texting and started paying attention to us. “And Maxwell, you too.”
“I think I found a book you own.” I pulled out The Book Thief which still smelled like weird apple cinnamon pumpkin perfume, even after I had it in there for a few months. When I handed it to her, her eyes got really big. But when she opened the first page and saw her name and ENG 254 scribbled there, she almost dropped it.
“Hey! Holy crap, where’d you find this? I need it for my English class. I thought I lost this.”
“I just found it in the library. I thought about giving it to the lost-and-found people, but I guess I didn’t know if you would actually end up getting it back from them.”
At that point, one of the Business students started moving our stuff off the table, and Vince and Sam started putting it back on. Then all the Business students joined the first, then Maxwell and the cynics joined Sam and Vince. The librarians armed themselves with more legal books and the Business students put their Starbucks bags down and spilled crumbs all over the place. Autumn kept talking to me and flipped through the book as she did.
“So you haven’t sold this or anything? Were you just, like, waiting for me or something?”
“Well, I figured if it was for a class, you probably needed it more than some book store.”
“I actually do need this for my final paper. I was afraid I would have to borrow somebody’s copy or rent a new one or something. But this is really gonna help.”
“Oh, that’s good, then.”
She looked at the book, then looked at the librarians on either side of her.
“And you’re with these hippies?” Autumn asked me after a minute. I looked over at Maxwell and the herd of cynics, Sam from German, and Vince, Eddie, Abigail, and Jill from Honors. Vince smelled like hemp like all the time, Eddie was good at stealing things, Abigail went around in her pajamas, and Jill, who actually was a hippie, had this jacket made from recycled coffee cups or something. Vince had tried juggling his knife and dropped it, and Eddie handed Maxwell a hammer. Who just carries hammers with them all the time? But they were all willing to study with me, and they all weren’t completely doomed to fail all these classes, so what the heck?
“Yeah, I’m with these people.”
“Well, if you’re the kind of person who gives lost items to people, I’d say you deserve a study table.” She nodded to the lumberjack hipster librarians, and they used the legal books to remove the Business students, who complained that their dads owned the school and that Reagan was their uncle or something. We started cleaning up their food, until Vince got the idea of eating it ourselves.
“Maxwell,” Autumn said, “that extra joint you owe us is now paid for. Consider your debt balanced.”
“Really? Sounds like a trick, but really?”
“Thank him. . . whoever that one is.” She nodded at me, put The Book Thief on the cart, and rolled it away. Maxwell looked at me and shook his head. The cynics all shook their heads too. I went back to my German essay and we ended up studying the entire night. We finished writing all our papers, getting ready for the giant Psychology exam, and editing each other’s Honors papers. We also ate all the food the Business students left, so nobody had to brave the huge line to the library’s coffee shop. Anyway, that’s how I finally got Autumn her book back.
And tomorrow is the start of Finals Week, and then I’m done with my first semester of college. I think if I can survive the drug-dealing librarians, a Psychology teacher who actively roots against us, a pack of ravenous Business students, and everything else I had to deal with this wacky semester, then maybe I can survive next semester. Anyway, I’ve got a test tomorrow. Good luck with your own final exams. Have a happy New Year, I guess.

-Karl

Novels by Calgary Smith

More short fiction about Karl, who rediscovers his favorite childhood author and wonders why he ever read his books in the first place.

Bookstore October 21, 2011
So we all made it through post-midterms week without flailing around like a squid in soup. Dr. Corddry calls it suffering week. I guess all the professors go out to bars downtown on this Friday to celebrate the number of students dropping their class or something. I didn’t do too badly, but I really need to work on my grammar, according to Lindsey, in the Honors class. My paper was covered in red marks, like it was knifed.
I guess the thing to do on a Friday night for a typical NAU student is to go wander around downtown so I went downtown with Eddie and Abigail. We went out to this place called Heritage Square, where a bunch of hippies play music and sell magic crystals and beads and vortex passports. It’s a weird place on a Friday night.
We went into this tiny little bookstore that had classic volumes of books set up out front. At first, I didn’t think it was worth checking out, but I saw a first-edition copy of one of the great works of English literature, The Android City of Glariton 3 by Calgary Smith, sitting in the shelf. That’s when I had to go in and see if they had more Calgary Smith novels. Eddie and Abigail hadn’t ever heard of him. I was shocked! I thought everybody knew about Calgary Smith. He’s one of the greatest writers ever. I read almost everything by him back in high school. I almost got a signed copy of one of his other novels, Ginger Bates and the Crawling Brains, at a bookstore in Pocatello run by a drunk guy who plays guitar, but a goth from marching band beat me to it.
Anyway, we rummaged around the little bookstore. It was really compact, but the selection was pretty good. The guy at the counter sat reading a newspaper and drinking wine from a coffee cup. He had a big fat mustache and a perm, and looked like Kurt Vonnegut. He’s dead, right? I’m pretty sure he’s dead now. We looked at different books, and then found a door in the back that led to an alley sealed by brick walls with suspicious stains, and a door on the other end. There weren’t any cameras, but the door said “special patrons only.”
“We’re special,” Eddie said. “We’re very special patrons.”
“I dunno,” Abigail said. “We probably shouldn’t go in.”
Eddie said, “If Thomas Jefferson followed all the rules, where would we be now? Karl, I dare you to go in.”
“Are you living in the ‘50s? Who dares people to do things?”
“So you’re scared?”
That’s when I said I’m not scared of nothing, pushed the door open, and went into the place for special patrons only. Inside was this dimly lit room of bookshelves with all the super-secret rare first editions, editions with flaws, unauthorized reprints, and other books that looked more valuable than everything I’ve ever owned put together. We went in, and I found almost a whole shelf of used copies of Calgary Smith’s Ginger Bates series, and the Glariton 3 series. They even had a book I’d never been able to get my hands on, the cross-over novel he could never afford to publish because for some reason he went bankrupt at like a really early age and had to work in a coal mine or something. It was called Ginger Bates and the Rogue Spacecraft, which was published just before his death. I told Abigail and Eddie about it, and they read the first page.
“Whoa,” Eddie said. “He used the word ‘vigorously’ like forty-seven times in the first page.”
“His dialogue is really bad.”
“The hell are you talking about? This guy’s brilliant!” I said. I spent all of my allowance on his books and had them all lined up at home. Granted, I hadn’t read any for a while, cause I got into this other series, but I can’t remember the name, House of Thrones or Game of Cards or something like that.
“Karl, this is the worst writing I’ve ever seen,” Eddie said.
“Yeah, well, I guess you’ve never read any of your own papers, then.” I looked at the special patron books and saw a bunch of copies of John Steinbeck novels, some really vintage comic books, a copy of V for Vendetta signed by the author. If Calgary Smith’s novels were so bad, why were they here with all the good stuff? I grabbed the book from Eddie and read the first page. Then I read it again, then looked at the cover to see if it was the right Calgary Smith and not an evil twin with an identical name, then read the second page.
“Crap, you’re right. This guy’s terrible. Holy crap, my whole childhood is gone.”
“What about the comic books you used to read?”
“I guess I still have those. But still, I always wanted to be like Calgary Smith. What’s the deal? Was my taste really that bad? It’s not like I had a poster of him, but I was like really obsessed with this guy.”
I flipped through the book and found some notes in the margins. They were revision notes, I think. One note said “Plot hole 37, see page 109.” Somebody found 37 plot holes? At the very back, I saw a long paragraph about giving up on writing, and it was signed by Calgary Smith! That’s why it’s in the special patron section, because it has his own notes about how he’s going to give up on writing and live in a commune in the Yucatan with some escaped coal miners, or whatever he wrote.
“Well this is crap,” I said. “My favorite author turns out to suck, and then I find out he gave up on writing cause he sucked so much.”
Eddie and Abigail tried comforting me. It’s not like I was diagnosed with a terminal disease or anything, but I appreciated it anyway. We left the special patron section and wandered around the bookstore some more, and then to make me feel better they bought me this weird piece of local art at an art gallery next door. It was a little bust of John Steinbeck made of shells. I couldn’t tell it was him, but it was cool to look at. It actually looked like those aliens from that movie with all the aliens, whatever it was called, like Predator Vs. Predator or something. Anyway, that was my first time in downtown Flagstaff. I met like forty-seven hippies that night, too, and lots of hobos playing didgeridoos.
That’s my life now. I think I’m gonna start reading Autumn Bartlett’s copy of The Book Thief. It’s time I had a new favorite author. Good luck with your own Friday nights and creepy shell statues.

-Karl