Tag Archives: philosophy

Letter to My Future Self Before My First Reading

Brick Wall Portrait

Dear JK,

I’m writing to you because you are about to give your first reading as a published writer, because you stand on the edge of a stage or conference room with a book in your hand, one that you wrote. I don’t know if it will be a collection of poems, short stories, essays, a novel, or a memoir, but I hope it’s good. I want to remind you of a few things.

Right now, I write to you from a place of uncertainty. I’m surrounded by brilliant writers; the competition is tough, and my creative impulse waivers at a moment’s notice. Rejection is a constant, and probably always will be. So before you begin reading, thank the audience for attending. They don’t owe you their ears but you owe them gratitude, and more than that, you owe them a good show.

Remember to read like a presentable version of yourself. Be a performer. Slam your stories, sing your poems, dance your essays. Dig deep to make it memorable.

Remember everybody who brought you to this point: friends, colleagues, allies of your writing, advocates for your experimentation. Remember professors, agents, editors, and your family. They put you behind that mic, after all. Your enemies, hopefully, will show up and sit stroking their lap dogs and sneering at you from the front row.

Obviously your forty-seven lovers will attend as well, so give them a nod of thanks for the inspiration they painted across your body. After all, they gave you something to write about in the first place.

Please remember that you are not here because of you deserve it. You’re here because the world gave you a head start and you navigated forward. The world does not owe you this reading, nor the publication it celebrates. Anybody can write, but only a privileged few can publish. I’m glad that you’ve made it through the fire-branding scorn of rejection and the whiplash of criticism.

Keep one final fact in mind before you step up to the mic: this reading begins your afterlife.

I write to you from the position that getting a book published and reading it publicly, bringing it to life with my voice (ugly as it is) is only an impossible dream. After it happens, I can die happy. And now that you, future self, are going to fulfill this pre-death wish, you are about to embark on an afterlife. Nothing that happens after this first reading can ever hurt you, because you’ve already beaten mortality to your dreams. The time between the moment you begin reading and the moment you give in to the biological inevitability of silence will be the equivalent of Eternity. It will be heaven from here on out, no matter what hell the critics put you through. Nothing can hinder the momentous beauty of what you are about to do. So, I implore you, enjoy the reading. Even if it ends up being your last, even if you end up without a career or subsequent publications, you’ve already made it to heaven.

I hope it’s nice there.

Sincerely and forever writing forward,

-jk

P.S. I hope you’ll never forget how much of a hopeless romantic you really are, and that you spent so much time listening to Father John Misty’s “I Went to the Store One Day” while writing letters to yourself.

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

The Best Advice From Four Years of College

Works

I now begin what will probably be numerous entries reflecting on the past four years of my life, as I near graduation and shores unknown. Be prepared for a lot of sentiment and confusion. For now, I’m going to let my peers and mentors tell you what I’ve learned; the following quotes are from the people who have inspired me in college, friends and professors and faculty. These little stones of thought cannot encapsulate my experience with the array of teachers I’ve met at college, but this mosaic, I hope, will be enough to show you the diverse voices I’ve had the honor of working with.

“Good writers are simultaneously gifted and burdened with insight and razor sharp observational skills, making them hypersensitive to the world around them. And believe me, if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger.” -Professor Armstrong (Creative Nonfiction)

“There’s no one way to do feminist criticism, and at a certain point, no matter what an author does, somebody will call it bad. If a female protagonist is sexually independent and active, a critic will argue she’s being hypersexualized and that she’s a negative portrayal of women; if a female protagonist doesn’t participate in sex at all, another critic will say she’s being sexually repressed and is a negative portrayal of how women should act. And we should remember that there’s no one right answer.” -Professor Renner (Sci-Fi Literature)

“The kind of dizziness people felt when they talked to Socrates is what I feel now after learning and listening to everything around me and trying to take it all in. That kind of dizziness is good. It’s the beginning of a thought process.” -J.E. (friend and writer)

“Online research can be helpful, even digital humanities, even though saying that makes me cringe. But when it comes down to it, the best way a historian can conduct research, to put it one way, is to have boots on the ground. You have to go out and find your sources in person.” -Professor Reese (Islamic Reformist Movements)

“If the story I heard on the radio today about black holes is true, then nothing we do is important, and I’m okay with that.” -Fritz (friend and teacher)

“What will a discussion solve? We can have a really good discussion about history, but if we leave it inside the classroom, it’s just an exercise in academic masturbation.” -Professor Kalb (World War One)

“Everything is problematic. If I hear the word one more time, I’ll flip. Is it so bad to just enjoy a story?” -M.W. (friend and writer)

“Study literature, all literature. You’ll be poor, but you’ll be free.” -Professor Canfield (Postcolonial Literature)

“Stay calm. Just stay here and relax. It’s only an earthquake.” -Mayan spiritual leader

“Studies have already proven that reading literary fiction can make you more compassionate, and being compassionate is really the only hope for humanity.” -Professor Stalcup (Fiction Writing)

“You can only do what you can. We raised so much money for water for migrants; two hundred people are still going to die crossing the border this year.” -A.K. (friend and historian)

“Culture is really the driving force for any movement, and every movement has its own culture. Counter-culture is still culture, still follows the same rules and influences other cultures do.” -Professor Dakan (Resistance and Activism)

“Just asking questions and getting to know people, everyone, can help you out no matter where you go in the world.” -C.T. (friend and traveler)

“I don’t accept the nature of this world. But every so often something warrants a chuckle.” -E.V. (friend and poet)

“There’s no such thing as multitasking. True focus can’t be applied to multiple tasks at once. Everything you do on your phones while trying to listen to a lecture is called serial tasking.” -Professor Sullivan (Asian Mysticism)

“You can do a lot with a B.A. in English. Or one can. You, maybe not.” -Barb (friend and boss)

“Maybe we should stop defining women’s rights so superficially, like whether or not they wear a burqa, and look at bigger-picture issues, like education or healthcare. These are strong, resilient women who survived up to thirty years of war. Let’s treat them as such.” -Professor Martin (Afghanistan)

“A lot of us treat romantic love like it’s a really new thing that somehow never existed in the ancient world. But look at the wording these playwrights use. Look at the anguish and loneliness. I think this is proof that they had a concept of romantic love, similar to ours, at least in ancient Athens. What does that say about humans? About us?” -Professor Kosso (Ancient Athenian Democracy)

“Fuck off.” -E.N. (my muse)

 

Resurrection of the Berries

It’s Spring, and World Poetry Day, so I wrote a poem to celebrate both.

Rivers Flow

They bloom every year,
bulbous little puffs sprouting
cell by cell, drop by drop

from dirt, light, water,
these berries on the vine, soft,
inflated with juice, dark,

and ready to fall.
They grew from the same water
the Buddha’s mother drank,

the same soil Plato
decayed into, swept away
by worms and roots and seeds

that birds carried off
and dropped. Did Socrates know
that I would pluck him clean

off the vine? Maybe
his particles swept downstream,
joined the clay formations

used in giving birth
to Michelangelo’s David.
I let this black juice drip

down my cheek as I
stuff molecules of the past
between my teeth, compress

my dead ancestors
together with my tongue.
I’m sure that we will meet

not too long from now
when we are resurrected
from our bodies, when we

slip hesitantly
into a nirvana
of disconnectedness,

when we fly away
element by element,
cell by cell, drop by drop

into wilderness.
Then I’m sure we’ll meet again
as we’ve met in the past,

me as a flea’s leg,
you as the fur on a wolf,
or me as a flower

placed on the forehead
of a dead saint cremated
with sticks from your branches,

or, if dreams come true,
you as a wild berry bush,
me as a ladybug,

both of us together
in a bubble of green time
carried down a cool stream.

-jk

Photograph of the Lochsa River in northern Idaho, by the good folks at Keene Short Photography. Poem by Keene Short, 2015.

Where Has All the Introspection Gone?

Aran Islands Coast

However, the self, every instant it exists, is in the process of becoming, for the self does not actually exist; it is only that which it is to become.” Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death.

I may not be a depressed Danish philosopher, but I still appreciate the above quote whenever I try to examine my life. The problem, however, is that I have not actually examined my life for several months.

This past semester was one of the most challenging I’ve had. Apart from school, I applied to eight graduate programs, balanced a new job with my old one, and dove into numerous extracurricular activities. Every date on my calendar was a deadline, so I kept going and going, nonstop, without a moment’s rest. Now that I have a break between semesters, I can pause, breathe, and look at myself in the mirror.

But for the past several months, I have not had a single moment of introspection. I confined my thoughts to academia and packed all my energy into other projects, research assignments, and work. I spent so much time looking out that I’ve nearly lost my ability to look in. Now, I find it difficult and even painful to examine my own life, to place my actions under a microscope and investigate the mechanisms of my identity.

Introspection is at the heart of my ambitions, artistic, intellectual, spiritual, and social. I need to examine and reexamine how I treat others, criticize myself before criticizing others, and spend more time watching my self become what it is constantly becoming. I agree with Kierkegaard; I think our identities are always changing, like water traveling from the ocean to the clouds, from the clouds to the land, and from the land back to the oceans. I cannot resist that change, but maybe self-examination can let me influence the direction.

-jk