Tag Archives: Writing

Essay Published in Dark Mountain

Sunset in the WoodsI’m pleased to announce that my flash essay “Notes on Preparing for a Wildfire Evacuation” appears in Dark Mountain 15, which is themed around forest fires. The Dark Mountain Project is a UK-based literary and arts organization whose goal (they literally wrote a manifesto about it) is to use art to realistically address global ecological crises.

Much of my writing is environmentally focused, and this particular essay is about growing up in the mountain West, where wildfire season is a yearly, ongoing fact of life. I’m glad to have an essay in Dark Mountain, and I’m glad for the encouragement for the weird, at times discomforting direction my personal essays are going. Now that I live in northern Idaho, wildfire season remains a fact of day-to-day life. So too, though, are forests and mountains, the quieter features of the mountain West, the areas I’m used to exploring freely, that I hope to continue to explore. My writing will inevitably dwell on forests and fires alike. Now that I am about to enter my final year in an MFA program, as I prepare a book of essays for my final defense, I’m grateful for institutions like Dark Mountain whom I can trust with my weird, discomforting work.

-jk

Notes from Portland

Portland

“Maybe 1978 was the year the 1960s ended and the 1980s began. Maybe there were no 1970s.” -Rebecca Solnit, The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness

My generation talks about Portland, Oregon, the way my parents’ generation talked about California in the 1960s, in that supposedly magical decade when Haight-Ashbury was for free-thinkers and runaways and Hollywood was a place of romance rather than violence, a place of paradise, freedom, and escapism, or at least just a place to escape to.

For a lot of us born in the 1990s, I think, the Pacific Northwest is still seen as a kind of paradise. I know a dozen people who went to Portland after graduating from college or instead of college, and I know more who talk about going there sometime in the future. In the American West, I think, many of us see it as the only remaining authentic counter-cultural scene, now that Seattle has been corrupted by Amazon and Boeing. It’s paradise, and like California before the cults and murders, this reputation is equally earned and exaggerated.

I will admit that, when I visited last week, I was struck by this city, by its oblique beauty and opaque optimism. But I’m also ambivalent. It’s not romantic to me, but familiar. It’s just like being back home in Flagstaff, Arizona in all the best and worst ways, because it’s a tourist destination, which means that what is visible to the visitor is only one side of the stage the city wants to present. Tourists never peek behind the curtain to see the other city inside the city, or rather, they do, constantly, but choose to ignore anything that disrupts the sense of paradise, the escapism that tourism is built on, a centuries-old colonial logic that treats any visited people or place as a cultural buffet. I recognize the theatricality, the performativity. I lived for two decades as a local in Flagstaff, on the side of town the tourists never go to.

Gentrification is to tourism as imperialism is to capitalism, in which those with economic power, in a given city’s financial Center, invade a marginalized community or neighborhood, buy out its necessary businesses (laundromats, corner stores, diners), and replace them with yuppy businesses that those in the community cannot afford, forcing them to look elsewhere for laundry or food. Meanwhile, the gentry have a new colony in a part of town with cheap rent from which to sell artisinal donuts to wealthy newcomers, or to all the tourists.

I went to Portland as a tourist—as the gentry, as the colonist—for the annual AWP conference. 15,000 writers and publishers descended on the City of Roses to network and share journals and thoughts and their creative work. To be clear, this conference was productive for publishers, writers, for a variety of literary communities, and for me personally as well as professionally. But like all conferences, it came at the expense of the environment and the local community.

Portland is a strange place because it simultaneously compels me to want to be more compassionate to others, while also reminding me how insufficient compassion is, despite its urgency, despite its necessity.

But I see the appeal of the dream here, too. I see why my friends relocated to this gritty, green, rusting city, this place of wondrous contradiction, where the river pushes past the streets and Mount Hood is always watching over the mossy brown cacophony of the landscape, the patches of cherry blossom trees, the network of trains and the bicyclists and the sense of cheerful nihilism. I want to be a part of this scene. I want to fit in here. I do fit in here, feel a kinship with the sense of possibility, the sense of communal towardness to one another, despite the likeliness that this sense is more a product of my 1990s imagination, driven by Twin Peaks and The X-Files. But, like any glorified past, maybe there were no 1990s.

Portland is no paradise—I’m not naïve; I grew up in a city that people from Phoenix called utopic when they came to ski and drink while my friends on the other side of the tracks dealt with floods, fires, and catastrophic rent hikes. But still: I’ve always felt out-of-place until coming to Portland, where I felt like it didn’t matter if I was a tourist or a local, as if the difference dissolved and waking up in Portland felt like deja vu, but in a good way, like delirium. A tourist seals this feeling up for himself, like a trinket; what can I do, instead, to fight for a world in which this sense of immediate community, this impulse toward affinity despite factual difference, is common for everyone else?

-jk

Who am I to Write This?

Resource Management.JPGRecently, Jonathan Franzen published his “10 Rules for Novelists” on lithub. Essayist Dinty W. Moore, who also edits one of my favorite journals, Brevity, countered with a satirical “10 Rules for Essayists.” Franzen makes a lot of predictable moves in his 10 rules. Echoing Stephen King, who railed against writers watching TV in his 2000 memoir On Writing (despite now producing several TV shows based on his work), Franzen’s eighth rule states that it is “doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction,” which Moore counters in his own eighth rule by proclaiming that it’s “doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is not being observed by the NSA,” which is more accurate given the things that writers have to look up on the Internet, especially when writing historical fiction (I was once asked by Google to prove I wasn’t a robot for looking up information about trials in the USSR, because freedom).

To be clear, I love Stephen King’s memoir. It was the first writing-about-writing that I read. But the idea that writing should be driven by rules seems strange when so many of those rules are highly fluid and riddled with exceptions. It is odd to me that King and Franzen and even Moore do not mention ethics in their writing rules. I’ve never lost sleep over using too many adverbs or researching too much. Instead, what keeps me up is whether or not I should write what I’m writing.

The underlying assumption is that can should always be read as should, but I want to dispute this assumption. Writing isn’t auto-mechanics. It’s not motorcycle maintenance or plumbing. Its success or failure cannot and should not be measured by the technicalities of performance and the structural questions of craft. Maybe writers should ask the question “Does this work” only after they have answered the question “Who am I to write this?”

This is partly a question of authenticity, but for me, it is primarily about ethics. In nonfiction, I have the ability to, as Joan Didion puts it in the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “sell out” the people I am around. And like Didion, I am “so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate” (xiv) that my presence in any situation is like a sponge. I collect stories that do not belong to me. I have an excellent memory. I know what you said offhandedly around me three years ago. I remember the argument we had five years ago. I remember everything. So who am I to commit those memories to paper?

This is my one and only writing rule: As a general policy, I don’t write someone else’s story. If someone’s story intersects with mine, I only include them if I have their permission. I have asked friends what they think of an essay that mentions them, for approval, for accuracy, for kindness. As such, most of what I want to write about will never be written, and I’m fine with that. If I need to exploit people for stories, then I don’t think I can call myself a real writer. Anyone can write down the most memorable conflicts in their life. All interpersonal conflicts are personally meaningful, by their nature. It takes talent to find meaning around, between, and beyond those contentious moments.

-jk

After Five Years of Blogging

The Dry SeasonWordPress has reminded me, as it does, that five years ago today I started this blog.

I began it initially as a personal website, but as I move forward as a teacher, writer, and for better or worse an academic, I think this blog will likely become more of a professional website. All writers have them; it’s the one piece of advice all published authors have given me in addition to reading and writing a lot.

As such, I expect to write fewer posts for this blog. For a while, I was ambitious: 4 posts a month. I’ve been generally consistent, but I am beginning to realize that even I have limits. Amazing, right?

This year has been good for me, all things considered. I am into the second year of my MFA program at the University of Idaho, I had four good publications (short stories, poems, essays), I compiled a draft of a short story collection (kind of), I had my first writing fellowship, I improved my syllabus for ENG 102, and I also took up a volunteer position as the creative nonfiction editor for Fugue. I also carved out some time for traveling around Idaho and Montana, to linger in places I’ve often passed without stopping to take a closer look.

I don’t want my life to be purely academic, but in grad school, that’s difficult to avoid. I’m also myself not good about leaving time for life outside work. This next year, I will blog inconsistently as I focus on writing, publishing, and teaching. I asked in my first post, why pursue a liberal arts education? After five years of writing about it and as I enter my fourth year as a grad student, your guess is still as good as mine.

-jk

 

Short Story Published in Longleaf Review

Guard TowerI’m honored to announce that I have a short story in Issue 4 of Longleaf Review, a relatively new and very cool online journal. The theme of the issue is aliens, just in time for the Halloween season, but the theme is broad. You can read my story “The International Congress for Kids Whose Dads are Commie Draft Dodgers,” among so many other great essays, stories, and poems. For me, this is one more historical fiction story, part of what I hope will amount to a manuscript for a collection. For now, though, I have a full, rich online journal to read.

-jk

Return from the Frank Church Wilderness: A Photo Essay

In the wilderness, public policy feels far away. But it has effects, eventually, inevitably. There is wildfire damage. There are species, or sometimes the lack thereof. This is the battleground for conservationism, but the conservationists spent too much of their time looking at the soil, not the sky. The air was filled with smoke one day while I was here, and the next day was clear. This place in central Idaho, this last wilderness, is a refuge, a haven. Given the failures of the environmental movement to solidify a real climate policy, or perhaps given the reactionary violence of counter-movements against environmentalism who have doomed my generation to extinction to preserve their precious branding, even public land that is preserved by the strictest laws will be affected by the inevitable. The connections cannot be felt, now, but what happens in D.C. will eventually alter the air, water, and greenery of this place. But this stretch of wilderness, unlike the rest of us who visit it, will not go without a fight. These photographs will, in ten or twenty years, be testaments to what is no longer there, not entirely. Soon, these will be photographs of spatial ghosts.

 

 

-jk

Into the Frank Church Wilderness

In a few days, I will drive south of Moscow to McCall,  hop on a bush plane at a nearby airstrip, and fly into the Frank Church Wilderness in central Idaho. There, I will spend a week writing in a cabin, in what is arguably the last stretch of land in the lower 48 that still counts as true wilderness. The cabin is connected to the Taylor Ranch research station, affiliated with the University of Idaho. For one free week, I will write, read, and reflect, all in a world without phone service and effectively no internet access. When I return to Moscow, it will be the first day of autumn, but the seasons are already rapidly turning.

This is my first writing fellowship, ever, and I’m lucky enough to have a program that sponsors such a fellowship. It will probably be my last writing fellowship, ever. I intend to make the most of it.

I won’t be completely alone. Some UI students spend a semester at the research station, and an ecocriticism professor (one who led the movement in its early days) will be there for part of the week. But I will have plenty of time to myself, to my thoughts, and hopefully to my writing, which is good, because I have had almost no time to write so far this semester.

I’m told the bears will be preparing for the winter, not hibernating (they don’t hibernate, as loyal readers will remember from an earlier post). A fellow nonfiction writer in the program who is familiar with the wilderness tells me that the area mostly has black bears, who will be filling up with wild berries (as will I).

This isn’t a vacation, but a writing opportunity. I need a direction for my thesis; I have essays to write, ideas to explore, maybe even a poem lurking somewhere. I will not be preparing for winter like the bears, but instead will be preparing for a practice thesis defense two weeks after I return (which, of course, I accidentally scheduled on my advisor’s birthday with my usual terrible timing). I’ll have a week free of teaching, classes, and other obligations. So I intend to make the most of it.

-jk