Tag Archives: Writing

All the Great Writers I Don’t Want to Be

Stay in Designated AreaNaturally, writers compare authors’ works to one another. This is useful in workshops, reviews, and literary criticism, and I think it’s inevitable. Writer friends of mine draw inspiration from Ernest Hemingway, others from Cormac McCarthy, and others from detective fiction, and I can see this inspiration in their writing, not as plagiarism but as influence.

More and more, stories I’ve written have been compared to writers I have never read. At a recent conference reading, my nonfiction was compared to Stephen Wright and George Saunders, and I had to embarrassingly admit that I was unfamiliar with their work. Multiple friends, whose opinions I love and respect, have compared my prose to that of David Foster Wallace, another I have never read.

To my surprise, nothing I’ve written has ever been compared to those who inspire me. Maybe that’s a good thing. I know the writers I love, but peers haven’t identified that influence, even when I’ve quite consciously imitated their styles.

My earliest literary influence was Douglas Adams, whom I read in middle school and spent the next four years mildly stealing from. I’ve also been inspired by Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Lately, I’ve found inspiration in short story collections like Monique Proulx’s Aurora Montrealis, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, and Pamela Painter’s The Long and Short of It. I also draw inspiration from John Steinbeck and David Eagleman, who blend science, philosophy, and fiction, and the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke. Tiphanie Yanique’s How to Escape from a Leper Colony never ceases to inspire me, and neither does Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

It’s not that I want to be compared to these writers. Such a request would be too pretentiously egocentric, even for the pretentious ego-driven beast I so obviously am. But I am surprised.

I’m also distraught by the frequency with which my work is compared to David Foster Wallace. I don’t want to be compared to yet another depressed white male author who died by suicide, because it’s too close to home for me. What will I get from a writer I’m apparently so similar to? If I read Infinite Jest and hate it, what will that say about my own writing? Even worse, what if I love it without question? I want what I read to challenge my style, not reinforce it.

Was David Foster Wallace a perfectionist like me? Did he worry that he would die without making an impact, like me? Did he secretly resent himself for being a writer because such a profession requires both ego and humility, both of which are difficult for an introverted perfectionist to simultaneously possess, like me? I don’t know. I don’t want to know.

I also don’t want the comparisons to stop, because I want my friends and colleagues to be honest about my work. But so many comparisons to a writer that some of my heroes love and others hate has made me want to avoid reading anything by DFW. I can’t change what others see in my writing, but I know what writing I find pleasure in, and so far I find the most pleasure in being surprised. Maybe I’ll sit down and chug through Infinite Jest, but it won’t be anytime soon.

-jk

List: 30 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month

Umbrella Brick Wall 2.JPGApril is National Poetry Month, so here is a nifty list of things to do to celebrate poetry, nationally.

  1. Read a poem every day.
  2. Write a poem every day.
  3. Go to a poetry reading.
  4. Stick a poem in your pocket.
  5. Having already exhausted the ways people traditionally celebrate Poetry Day after four activities, think briefly about going back to prose, then read more poems or something.
  6. Write a poem and tape it to your office window so people outside can enjoy it.
  7. Read poetry you found on a sign or a movie poster.
  8. Take down your window poem after somebody complains to your boss, then passive aggressively write sequel poems to it.
  9. Try to write a haiku in under 140 characters.
  10. Realize that writing twitter haiku is too hard, and instead tweet a picture of your haiku written on a page in your moleskine notebook.
  11. Write poetry on the sidewalk in chalk before vindictive bicyclists run you down while humming the music from Jaws.
  12. Submit your poetry to journals until those $3 Submittable fees match the amount you spend on wine per week.
  13. Speaking of wine, Holy Week is in April, so you could write a poetry suite using Catholic imagery to talk about your feelings even though you are not Catholic and you have no feelings.
  14. On Good Friday, write another poem that pretentiously uses commas to somehow represent the nails in crucifixion.
  15. Realize that fourteen people online have misinterpreted your religious poem and want to know why you are taking away their right to choose.
  16. By Easter, lose fourteen of your Facebook friends over that one poem you posted.
  17. Share your favorite poems online, checking seven times to make sure you spelled each poets’ name correctly, because you really only read their work during April, even though you insist on how much their work means to you the rest of the year.
  18. Read early drafts of poems you wrote three National Poetry Months ago and die a little inside after counting the number of times you used a flower metaphor.
  19. Go to an open mic night and sit through four harmonica soloists before the poets get on stage.
  20. Research poets whose work you have never read. Chances are high that there are at least several.
  21. Go to a reading of new or recently published poets. They could use the moral support, especially if they’re grad student poets.
  22. Buy a new collection of poetry, then make time to read only half of it.
  23. Read poets recommended by your friends.
  24. Read poets recommended by your enemies.
  25. Write poetry in a coffee shop.
  26. Realize that “writing poetry in a coffee shop” requires four hours of sipping a latte and people-watching before writing down any words.
  27. Revise the thirteen poems you wrote in the past twenty-seven days and call it a statistical success.
  28. Find the good poem out of the thirteen you’ve written (the chosen Messiah of your poems) and revise it again.
  29. Select the Messiah poem as the best of your poems and post it on your blog on the last day of April, then take it down after worrying about its quality, then resurrect it back onto your blog three hours later.
  30. Relax. Poetry is about a lot of things, but first and foremost, it’s about paying attention to the small details around you. You could sporadically write many poems, but you need things to write about: the way your shirt smells like smoke the morning after a campfire, the way the smell clings to you as you listen to the seesaw of traffic over the hill. Or something like that.

-jk

Soft-Spoken in Academia

HallIs there a place for soft-spoken introverts in the competitive fast-paced aggressively limited-time-offer college-industrial complex? The short answer is no. The long answer is no, thank goodness.

I don’t speak often, and when I do, people usually tell me to speak up, and when I do, I try to hand the conversation to someone else. I don’t dislike contributing. What I dislike is overtly dominating conversations, steering them in one direction or another, or making an effort to gain control of the dialogue if I’ve somehow lost it. More than introversion, I prefer to be independently passive, rather than participate actively. I am neither competitive nor aggressive.

What I noticed in teaching an introductory rhetoric class last semester is that students primarily want to know how to win an argument. They want to know how to prove they are right, regardless of whether or not they are in the first place. My pedagogy class last semester reinforced the notion that rhetoric is a competition, and that arguing is an ideal way to participate in society. Academics I have interacted with in higher ed reflect this way of thinking, and it is reflected in the academic system as a whole. A recent conversation I had with scholars (in which I listened exclusively) about recent trends in academia emphasized the need for scholars to publish early and often, to make themselves known through websites and social media, and to compete aggressively for funding and jobs in an already over-saturated market and in fields (the sciences and humanities) that the President and Congress intend to attack in purely symbolic anti-intellectual gestures.

This institutional turn coincided with tuition hikes that have mostly funded increased college administration rather than faculty. The college-industrial complex imposes competition onto both students and faculty, but industrialization might be an overused metaphor, one that is accurate from an outsider’s perspective but does not reflect experiences on the ground level. Instead, it feels like an ecosystem, some stretch of the Great Plains where insects, birds, prairie dogs, and vegetation compete for survival. Academia feels Darwinian because those who do well are those who are aggressive, loud, eager, quick, and uncritical. The push to publish early and often requires faculty to sacrifice either quality or spare time, and students are pushed through an assembly line toward a diploma to simply qualify for numerous jobs, with no time for learning outside their designated specialty. Describing undergraduate requirements as paths and timelines also reinforces the need for students to specialize rather than explore. It’s no wonder so many of my students last semester said they enrolled in an English class to add to their ability to compete, by winning arguments.

And here I am, a shy listener who wants to learn from others more than I believe I can teach them. I won’t thrive in the ecosystem because I value quality over quantity, patience over immediate feedback, and listening over contributing. I consume more ideas than I produce, and as such, I’m not making anything universities can exploit for advertisement or prestige.

I do not contribute to the system, because the system does not run on patience and scruples. It is fueled by the production of ideas, the teeming blue schools of links clicked on a given day, the riptides of steady marketable publications. There is not an overpopulation of ideas, and I do not mean to dismiss self-expression. But there is not a place in the current scheme of things for the soft-spoken, for people who are here to learn regardless of what degrees I may or may not get out of it. I don’t fit in. Maybe that’s a good thing.

-jk

Exciting Spring Break Plans for Grad Students

Spring BreakLet’s face it: Spring Break is an undergrad’s game. Most of them flock to some sunny island whose painful history of colonization you learned about last week in a story form PRI’s The World. Grad students just don’t have the time or money or energy for a ritzy vacation, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a glamorous Spring Break from the comfort of their university. There are many fun activities grad students can enjoy.

  1. Grade! Spring Break is a great time to catch up on the forty papers your students turned in three weeks ago. Knowing that two thirds of your students will probably go to the obscure Caribbean island you mentioned in your lecture about neo-colonialism will make it easier to point out their spelling mistakes.
  2. Enjoy the library! There’s a fifty percent chance your university library will be torn down to make room for another Business Administration building, so enjoy it while it lasts! Remember, the triple-major out-of-state undergrad running both checkout desks at the library during Spring Break is probably as miserable as you are.
  3. Find places to publish your articles! It’s an exciting time be writing in academia, almost as exciting as a train wreck, but finding the right journal takes time. Whether it’s a case study proving that spiders have more successful dating lives than you do or a new argument about something Shakespeare once wrote, academic journals are eager to publish high quality caffeine/wine-fueled work.
  4. Enjoy public broadcasting! There’s a seventy-six percent chance that NPR and PBS will lose all their funding soon, so enjoy them while you can! Remember, the new administration probably won’t imprison you for supporting them, but if you stream PBS on your laptop or listen to NPR while microwaving your last hot dog, the government will know.
  5. Taxes! You still have time to file your taxes, and between grading forty papers and apologizing to your committee for the typos in your 400-page dissertation about John Carpenter’s The Thing and applying for the same teaching position that 250 more qualified graduates are also applying for, this is your chance! What could be better?
  6. Binge watching while binge drinking! Catch up on your favorite obscure foreign-language Caribbean documentaries you heard about on PRI’s The World or rewatch your favorite sitcom for the seventh time! Remember, one bottle of vodka per season.
  7. Find conferences you can’t afford! You have an idea for a paper to present at the Fall Interdisciplinary Shakespeare in the Caribbean Conference held in the ever-lovely Fargo, North Dakota, and even if you can’t afford to attend, you can still submit your proposal and fantasize about the bus ride to Fargo.

This is your time. You’re a grad student; you’re socially awkward and prefer the company of cynics and hipsters, and you prefer dedicating your time to research and analysis, because without it, you’d go crazy. What is there to do on a sunny beach with hours of boring free time, anyway?

-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 this 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

My Heroes Have Always Been Teachers

archivesAs a child, I wanted to be a scientist. Astronomy called to me, but so did biology, zoology, ecology, geology, and entomology. The world was colossal, and to a youngshysmallguy, science was a way to make it less scary. Diseases, meteors, and volcanoes didn’t have to be terrifying as long as someone could show me how to figure out how and why they worked.

Scientists were my heroes because their superpowers (analysis, facts, cool lab coats) were all things I could acquire without being bitten by radioactive nerds or being born on another planet. They used logic and knowledge to solve problems, and I wanted to do the same. The world was colossally scary, and knowledge made it more comfortable to live in.

When I realized that my existential angst about politics and terrorism could be alleviated the same way, I started to study history, religion, geopolitics, literature, and somehow wandered into writing. I left behind old heroes for new ones, but my heroes were still teachers helping me make sense of the world.

This country is brutal to those who teach literature and art, but it is just as brutal to science teachers, who face an ugly twofold set of challenges: First, American traditional values that scrutinize and punish teachers for discussing science that disrupts the status quo, from evolution (contrary to religious conservatism) to climate change (a threat to capitalism). Secondly, there is the marketplace that teachers must prepare science students for, and competition for jobs and grants can be limiting. Humanities teachers face the same set of challenges, but they have enough irony and bitterness to make themselves feel better about it.

Obviously, education systems are far from perfect. Many public schools are underfunded, and university faculty face scrutiny from students, voters, and states. Even under ideal circumstances, teaching requires long, draining hours, and my own experiences with teaching so far attest to that workload. Individual teachers must work against these forces and use what intellectual energy they have left to assure students that the world, as horrifying as it is, can make sense. Teaching requires profound courage in the face of limited resources coupled with deliberate opposition. The best teachers  I had possessed a superpower, and only now do I realize that their superpower was the strength to keep teaching through the cacophony of discouraging voices.

It’s a power I may not possess myself. The new administration is making education even harder with its intentions to cut funding for the humanities and restrict scientists from making scientific facts public. Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education is a tangible threat to public school teachers, given the likelihood that she will push for cutting funds to public education while supporting education’s privatization, which potentially allows leaders in the private sector to control the education of their workforce.

And yet dedicated teachers push forward to understand the increasingly ugly world. I gave up science for writing, but they cannot be separated. Science meets politics and history, and we meet them back with art and social science and language. Teachers now face the full power of the state and its worst citizens, and it now requires even greater moral courage than before to teach science and literature. We need social studies teachers unafraid to tell students what their rights are, biology teachers who are not attacked for discussing climate change,  and history teachers who are not punished for pointing out this country’s hideous past and present of slavery and internment and anti-immigration policies. This country is a furnace of anti-intellectual interests, and it takes strength to teach despite those interests.

I draw my own courage from the quiet heroism of educators I’ve been lucky enough to know, the ones who brought me to this point, uncertain and bitter but not confused. Afraid, but not afraid to know more, to pull back the curtain and look for how and why and what now.

-jk