Tag Archives: writing life

On Writing as a Profession (But Not as a Career)

IMG_4605For me, writing is a practice. More than a hobby, writing is a profession, though I’ve never been paid for it. Writing is work that I enjoy, but it’s not labor. It’s production, but not a job.

My job is to teach on an organized schedule broken into lesson plans, weeks, units, semesters, and academic calendars. I know roughly what I’ll be doing on May 10 (grading final papers) and I know what I’ll be doing on January 10 (introducing a syllabus). Between those dates, I have a little more room for spontaneity, but not much. This is a job, for better or worse: reliably predictable and strictly regimented.

As such, I cannot call writing a job or a career. The point isn’t to make money by providing a unique service, but to make stories and essays, some of which I publish on this blog and others I submit to journals with a broader readership, almost always operating on minuscule budgets. But I can call writing a profession.

I want to completely separate the word profession from its frequent association with economics and careerism. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word profession to Anglo-Norman and Old French. The OED cites one of the earliest uses of the word to a thirteenth century text called the Ancrene Wisse, meaning “manual for anchoresses.” Authored by an unknown medieval priest, possibly in Wales, the Ancrene Wisse was a religious manual addressed to three sisters to instruct their code of spiritual, monastic conduct. This text, like most early uses of profession, aligns with the OED‘s first definition of the word: “The declaration, promise, or vow made by a person entering a religious order. . . Any solemn declaration, promise, or vow.”

Writing may not be a religious order (though graduate school certainly feels monastic at times), but writing is a profession in its oldest sense, a solemn declaration, a promise. When I write, I profess what I am capable of knowing at the time, and I do so for the creative and intellectual benefit of my readers (first) and myself (second). More importantly I read the writing of others, to benefit from my fellow cloistered writers. Writing is a profession of what I know and want to know, a profession of the questions I have.

Not everything needs to be monetized. I don’t want to market my writing as an asset, and I certainly don’t want to think of writing as an extension of my own commodification. If I do one day get paid to write, I’ll be grateful. If not, I’ll be happy for the stories I’ve had published online for the world to view for free. That my professions can be made public is what matters.

-jk

Regional Writers in a Globalized World

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“When I speak of writing from where you have put down roots, it may be said that what I urge is ‘regional’ writing. ‘Regional,’ I think, is a careless term, as well as a condescending one, because what it does is fail to differentiate between the localized raw material of life and its outcome as art. ‘Regional’ is an outsider’s term; it has no meaning for the insider who is writing about life.” -Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story

When I write, I try to pay close attention to where I write and where I’m writing about. My nonfiction so far has focused on Arizona and the American West, where most of my life has occurred. But I had never thought of myself as a regional writer until a nonfiction instructor encouraged me to look into my university’s Place Studies program. I don’t think of myself as a regional writer, but I can understand how someone could read the hundreds of stories I’ve written about how great Flagstaff is and think I’m a regional writer.

I’m guilty of this too. From my vantage point, Ted Kooser, Mohsin Hamid, Eudora Welty, and Michelle Cliff are regional writers because they focus on places (Nebraska, Lahore, the American South, Jamaica) which I have few, if any, firsthand experiences with.

Eudora Welty offers a more useful observation when she writes, however briefly, about the perspective of the insider. She points out that the term “regional writing” is useful only for readers who are outside the writer’s perspective. Decades after she penned those words, the literary community has become wholly global, working in physical and online spaces. No one writer’s insider perspective is independent of outside influences.

Globalization’s consequences are rapidly becoming more visible for those who do not experience it directly. Climate change, free trade agreements, military investments, and world trade organizations force more and more people to emigrate. Similar forces are behind the reactionary anti-immigration ideologies that have proliferated or, more accurately, become more active again. Many writers are aware of this fact; many writers and even more readers are immigrants or the children of immigrants. One of the limits of defining writers regionally is that, more and more, literature is transnational.

Sometimes readers refuse to acknowledge this. Sometimes readers use their lack of experience with a given writer’s region as an excuse to exoticize and categorize. Doing so risks reinforcing a kind of literary colonial gaze, making a spectacle of subaltern writers for the colonial center to consume and monitor, shelving authors based on place of origin (nationality, immigration status, religion, race, ethnicity) rather than subject matter, genre, or form. Again, I have also been guilty of shelving authors this way.

More than ever, literature is a transnational affair. Many writers have inherited a multitude of regions. Their lived experiences, their insider perspectives, often reflect the broad expanse of roots these writers claim.

Eudora Welty adds that “whatever our place, it has been visited by the stranger, it will never be new again. It is only the vision that can be new; but that is enough.” If this is true, then no truly regional writer exists. In a globalized world, no region is isolated enough for a writer to inhabit it independently.

This is not to suggest the literary community is a global village or that writers should act as free-floating clouds. I could not have written Fatimah Asghar’s wonderful poem “If They Should Come for Us” or Ted Kooser’s collection The Blizzard Voices or Reyna Grande’s memoir The Distance Between Us or Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist or any of the hundreds of short stories and essays published in 2017 so far by authors both rooted and rootless. I cannot write to inhabit another person’s space; to do so is to be a tourist because I can return to the safety of my own region the moment it becomes convenient. It is better, as Welty implies, to write from the murky inside I inhabit now, not for an outsider’s diet but for the global readership that any published work has the potential to reach.

-jk


Welty, Eudora. The Eye of the Story. Vintage International, 1990.

The Life and Times of a Short Story

short-story-draftThe young short story begins with a bang as the author manages to write six thousand words in several non-continuous sittings over the course of two weeks, though the author will later describe it in workshop as a single moment of creative pure truth. The short story matures with each passing workshop, experiencing growing pains, expanding and then suddenly being cut by a thousand words repeatedly, and not just because Rick from workshop said it “felt a little novelish.”

Still young for a while, the short story has a weird look. The story has a lot of split endings and wears a tight title that leaves little to the reader’s imagination, which the author is unaware of for several weeks because the author is too busy trying to understand Rick’s workshop submission, which involves a duck and how great New York apparently is.

Eventually, the story graduates from college with a sense of completion: the story has a clear beginning and ending and a fitting title. The story is submitted to four small literary journals. Like many American short stories, this story waits confidently for six months while resting in the back of the author’s hard drive with several older, wiser short stories.

After the first four rejections, the short story wonders about getting a better title, or if there was something wrong with the cover letter. The author polishes the story a bit with a quick makeover and pedicure to work out the typos and plot holes, then sends the reinvigorated story out to five journals. The short story’s determination is palpable.

But palpable determination is not enough, because after five more rejections, the story spirals into a mid-life crisis and gets two new characters and a new ending and then loses five hundred words after going to the gym. The short story feels better and is sent off to seventeen journals, six of which have already rejected the story as politely as is possible in an email. Meanwhile, Rick from workshop has been coasting on his one probably accidental publication in The New Yorker.

Seventeen rejections later, the short story finally decides to retire out of frustration. The author sees the potential in the story, but understands the difficulty in publication and ultimately thinks that better stories are waiting to be written. The author could dwell on the story for ten more years, but several new ideas have emerged in the author’s imagination, so the short story quietly goes back into a file on the author’s computer, solemnly labeled “Short Stories,” and is never heard from again. But the story lives on quietly in the author’s memory, and the memory of Rick from workshop who said it was pretentious and overwritten, but his characters are all just watered down versions of himself, so he can go lick a brick.

-jk

Apparently I’ve Been Blogging for Three Years

all-skull-and-bibles

A photo I took exactly three years ago.

I don’t tend to celebrate anniversaries. I don’t actively celebrate my birthday and I ignore my country’s independence day. But WordPress insists on reminding me that I started this blog three years ago, and I may as well mark the occasion.

Since my last blogiversary, I’ve attended a rad academic conference in Albuquerque, had poems, a short story, and a nonfiction essay published, and visited multiple national parks. I’ve completed a draft of my creative writing Master’s Thesis, a collection of interconnected short historical fiction stories (is there a more pretentious phrase? If so, I’ll find it), as well as poetry collections and essays. My writing has improved (I think), and I’ve developed a better understanding of literature.

I’ve also been in Nebraska for over a year, and my relocation here has started to set in. I’m finding a community in Lincoln. I’m forming connections with friends and colleagues. Sadly, I may be leaving again for another graduate program. Once again, I’ve decided to apply to graduate programs to pursue either a PhD or MFA program, and once again, I have no idea where I’ll be living a year from now.

But wherever I am, I’ll at least have a blog. It may not be much, but if I leave my friends, colleagues, and relations, if I leave them all behind for another new start in another state and another program, I’ll still have this little journal of my affairs. It may not be much, but it can be a grounding ritual, or a way to kill time. In either case, I enjoy it.

Wherever I am, wherever I will be, wherever I’ve come from, here’s to three years of fairly sporadic blogging. Cheers, peace, and until another autumn.

Peace,

-jk

Useful Tips for Making Time to Write

make-timeStephen King once suggested that aspiring writers carve out time to write every single day, which probably works for wealthy retired people like him. For the rest of us proles trying to be writers, carving out time to write can be a challenge. There are, however, numerous ways one can make time to write.

  1. Give up sleep. Talk to your doctor to let her know that you no longer require the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep; four or three or two should be sufficient. That’s what coffee is for, right? If your doctor protests, just let her know that she can have a free signed copy of your fantastic novel-in-progress, American Noun, once you finally get it written.
  2. If sleep is too difficult to give up, try giving up on friends. Thanks to social media, dropping off the face of the Earth has become quite easy. Delete your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Bumble, Thorax, PurpleDeth, and whatever other social media you have. No more notifications from you will quickly let your friends know that you are now and always have been an illusion. No more friends, no more distractions! Now get writing!
  3. If you somehow need friends and sleep, another way to make time is to quit your job. Many aspiring artists have done it. You can call it breaking out of the system, but we all know it’s to make time to write. After a month or so, you can consider more tenable versions of giving up on a well-paying job to pursue your dream, like getting an MFA in something or volunteering with the Green Party.
  4. If you’re the kind of loser who needs sleep, friends, and a job, another way to make time to write is to literally create time. For many writers, this is the most realistic option. Build a time machine (instructions are on Wikipedia) and spend a day writing, then go back twenty-four hours and respend that day working with friends and sleeping. You’ll have a novel in no time, but the problem is that, to the rest of us, you will age twice as fast.
  5. Making time to write is difficult, and you may have to give up a few things: regular TV, some social events, a few good meals. The important thing is to not give up on writing, if you really, really want to write. You can’t have it all, but the parties you get invited to after publication will make up for it.

-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 singleĀ  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