Tag Archives: Nebraska

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

Like a Writer in a Candy Store

Lincoln

My books are on my shelves, my violin is tuned, and my spice rack is full. I’ve finally settled into Lincoln, Nebraska, with a few weeks before I start my first semester of graduate school. I spent yesterday exploring the city on foot, and a few sunburns and several hours later I returned to my apartment exhausted but satisfied.

Wandering alone in a big city is a new experience for me. I knew my former home of Flagstaff was relatively small, but getting lost in Lincoln proved to me that I am only one brick in the world’s framework. In my exploration, every corner I turned showed me a new organ in Lincoln’s body. I flew through decades into the Midwest’s past, into rustic red brick buildings, some dating back to the 1870s. I perused this place’s history, its survival on the plains, and those strange intersections where the past meets the present in the connective tissue of reinvigorated neighborhoods and gentrification.

River

Although being in a big city should be overwhelming, for a writer it’s like being a kid in a candy store. I can use any one of a dozen metaphors to describe my place in the city, a cell in a body or a brick in a building, and all of them describe how I feel. They all express my belief that individuality is overrun by community, and I’m sure that Lincoln will organically change me as a person regardless of whether or not I want it to. But for a writer, a city is just one big candy store because it’s not made of bricks or cells, but of stories. There is street art, there is sewage, there are coffee shops, there are dimly lit bars, and right now all of it is new to me.

UNL

One day of exploration has already transformed me. Today, I’ll find a few good places to write on campus and around town, all of which are within walking distance of my apartment. But for the moment, I am still freefalling through Lincoln’s grid of stories, hardly able to contain my excitement.

-jk

P.S. A surprisingly fitting song to have stuck in one’s head while wandering around lost in a new city is H.S.K.T by Sylvan Esso. I also find it suitable for writing about cities.

Midwest by Northeast

The Map

For someone who grew up safe in the Southwest, the idea of the Midwest is just a scary story, no more real than werewolves or zombies or werezombies. But soon, all the stories may be proven true. I may wake up one day no longer a Southwesterner but a Midwesterner.

We’ve all heard tales of the Midwest. We’ve seen them in movies like A Christmas Story, Field of Dreams, even children’s movies like Fargo. We’ve heard Garrison Keillor’s weekly horror stories about allegedly growing up in the Midwest. I myself didn’t believe the stories, but soon I’ll immerse myself in the region, in the cornfields and endless piles of Lutherans.

I’ll have to disguise myself to fit in. I’m already quiet, so maybe they won’t recognize that I’m an Arizonan. I’ll have to start eating German and Scandinavian food instead of Mexican. But will I really become one of them? One of those smiling, dry-humor-loving, flat-land-roaming, hotdish-cooking huskers? I’m a fully-fledged American Westerner. My ancestors traversed the Rocky Mountains, settled in the potato fields of Idaho and the great Bitterroot Valley. I have family scattered across Arizona, Utah, Idaho, California, Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Will I transmute into a Midwesterner? Or will I be like the lone survivor of a zombie apocalypse, wandering the fields among the throngs of polka-dancing tundra folk?

I’m sure I’ll end up enjoying life in the Midwest, even if resistance is futile and I start eating hotdish and corn. Or I’ll discover that the Midwest and Southwest aren’t that different, and I’ll fit in just fine, because as important as regional identity is, we should dismantle every wall we allow it to build between us. We’re all in this sinking ship together, after all, and life’s too short to let our differences confine us.

In any case, I’ve lived in Arizona for twenty years: Arizona is a dystopian oligarchy whose capital city, which is a violation of basic human rights by its very existence, is run by a deranged sheriff, and about thirty percent of the population qualifies as a heavily armed militia that wants to improve upon the concept of walls with barbed wire and snipers. If I can survive in Arizona, I can survive anywhere.

-jk