Tag Archives: Writing

In Which My Grandparents Turn 90

grandparents 2.JPGIn the year 1928, my grandmother was born in Kennewick, Washington, on October 20, and my grandfather was born on July 24 in Elk Basin, Wyoming. Last week, their six children and an extensive number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren got together in/descended upon my grandparents’ house in Hamilton, Montana (approximately halfway between Kennewick and Elk Basin) to celebrate their 90th birthday in the one week in summer when most of their descendants are free between work and travel.

I’ve only been around for twenty-five of those ninety years. I don’t know much about the sixty-five years my grandparents lived before me. I’ve always known them in one place, their garden-surrounded home in Hamilton, but I’m told they traveled a lot, from Montana to Washington to Minnesota. Their house has a kind of permanence in my mind. It has always been there, and has always been theirs. It’s strange to think of my grandparents living anywhere else. But ninety years is a long time to accumulate stories.

grandparents.JPG

They were born on the eve of the Great Depression. When they were five, the Weimar Republic was dissolved. When they were 13, the US entered the Second World War. They married in 1952. At some point, family traditions began to take shape: camping, river floating, fishing, miraculously digesting Spam.

Stories about my grandparents’ lives move all over the place, and I know that any story I hear from or about them will only ever scratch the surface. I don’t know how to quantify my own quarter-century of a life. Quantification isn’t always important, though. Nobody needs to measure a life, old or young, in order to celebrate it. 90 years is a long time, and I can learn to let it meander beyond my understanding. Their lives are too varied for me to know in their entirety, and that’s a good thing. It means there will always be something new to learn, something new to unlearn as well.

They still technically have a bit of time before they officially turn 90, though, and their dedication to wild partying, as evidenced in the weekend-long get-together, puts my own youthful spunk to shame. I have a lot to learn.

-jk

The Dogsitting Writing Residency

Two dogsCommensalism or mutual benefit is a constitutive premise of housesitting, or maybe an enabling fiction. The housesitter is apt to recognize the opportunity as a private windfall, and the pleasure is tandem: first in his own dis-habituation, and then in the adoption of a new readymade home, a vacated life to try on. With the extra keys on his chain, the housesitter leaves work on a different train or by a new road, becomes a local in the café or dogpark, creates or stars in fantasies grown out of his new neighbors’ notice.
-Brian Blanchfield, “On Housesitting,” from Proxies.

Like a lot of writers, I’ve never had a writing residency. Applications for residencies are expensive and highly competitive, and travel is even more expensive and time-consuming. Like a lot of writers, I don’t have the time or resources to travel to another country and write for a month, as much as I want to. But I can construct my own version of a residency with occasional opportunities and a little creativity.

For example, I’m currently dog-sitting for some relatives in Pullman, Washington, just six miles from Moscow but in a subtly different environment. Pullman is full of hills and mosquitoes, whereas Moscow is comparatively flat and full of earthworms. I’m in charge of a few tasks around the house, cleaning, taking out the trash on trash days, but most importantly I’m in charge of two good but regularly loud dogs. It’s been a week so far, and they are starting to get used to me.

I also have access to a large table, the internet, a coffee maker, and a view of the neighborhood. It’s not a real writing residency; I’m not funded to go wander the hills of Pullman and get acquainted with the local mosquitoes, and the dogs’ needs, of course, take precedence over writing. But it’s a chance to use my time wisely.

Since settling in last Saturday, I’ve revised one essay, written another essay, submitted fifteen various essays and stories to journals, and read a handful of essays from various collections (out of order like a heretic). By the time I leave Pullman, I’ll have been productive. I don’t have much of an excuse not to be.

This isn’t exactly a vacation, though, not a real one. Everything is borrowed and temporary. Everything comes with a caveat that I’m a stranger. I’ve been thinking about Brian Blanchfield’s essay about housesitting for friends and colleagues. The notion that housesitting is trying on another life is apt. This is a life I’m not used to, one I have to learn, and am responsible for maintaining in the absence of this life’s real inhabitants. I’m not quite a guest, nor a visitor, and also not exactly a steward.

Stranger still is that Pullman in May is very green, and it’s been rainy and overcast but also somewhat warm, and I wandered around town the other day between showers, passing neighborhoods filled with so many plants that I sometimes didn’t realize there were houses, and as such the city keeps reminding me of Galway, Ireland. I even found an Irish pub downtown, something I haven’t seen since living in Lincoln. I went in for a drink, wishing I could stay, or bring my laptop and write and read in the corner and be moody with the dark wood decorum around me. But I couldn’t stay, because this isn’t a real residency.

This place, in its slight and uncanny differences too subtle to classify but too monumental to miss, makes me want to travel, to break out of my long-established routine, to be the one who needs a housesitter for a change. I know this will never happen, for a lot of reasons. But I can still accomplish as much as a real residency with what little I have. And of course I’ll never say no to access to dogs. Just look at them.

-jk

 

After Hibernation

SpringI found out recently that bears do not, as I had previously believed, hibernate. Now my whole world is thrown into chaos.

I’ve been thinking about bears a lot lately. I took a short trip to Montana last weekend to visit my grandparents, and though I didn’t see any bears, the few I have seen crossing the road, if my memory is correct, have been in Montana. I passed the University of Montana, whose mascot is the Grizzly, and was saddened to discover that they will likely be cutting many of their programs, including English. My grandfather and my father both have pointed out to me it’s a good thing I didn’t get accepted into UM because of their financial issues. I could have been a Grizzly, but in the long run it’s better that I’m not.

Biologically speaking, I am not a bear, but I share a few characteristics: I have a special affinity for honey and berries, I possess a quantity of brownish unruly fuzz, and I require a lot of alone time. Also, I like to stand in front of a river and wait for fish to jump into my open, gaping jaw, but who doesn’t? Most importantly, I have always appreciated bears because they hibernate, or so I thought. I, too, have always thought of myself as hibernating, but if I was wrong about bears, I might be wrong about myself.

Hibernation is absolute isolation. Other species hibernate because they literally sleep the entire winter, clicking off their other functions to preserve heat and energy. Bears, on the other hand, wake up periodically during the winter months to leave their dens. During winter, they stay in their dens with stored energy and warmth, but move about to replenish their needs, but only sometimes, when it’s necessary. Bears don’t hibernate; they’re just introverted.

It’s unlikely that bears clack away on a typewriter during winter, crescent moon glasses on their large wet bear noses as they squint their bear eyes at their bear memoir (beamoir) while taking a sip of mead and then glancing out of their den to contemplate the complexities and horrors of being alive. But if they did, I would sympathize.

It was cold and rainy and almost snowing when I drove six hours to Montana through sloping mountain passes, driving past and in some cases over small secluded towns in the forests. I rarely leave the Palouse, or Moscow, or my apartment. I prefer long periods of seclusion storing energy, writing, digesting berries and honey and whatnot. But apparently, this is not hibernation. Even in summer, I burrow away to write and read. It’s more like conservation, if anything.

Now that the weather in Moscow has finally become consistently warmer, I cannot justify staying inside my den all day. In some respects, I don’t want to. This has been the longest winter I have experienced in quite a while. It has been brutally windy, unpredictably cold, overwhelmingly sunless. It has become easy to stay inside my apartment in isolation, because going anywhere requires preparation, even on good days. For me, I’m realizing, this is true in other circumstances. But it’s comforting to know that what I do is not hibernation. I don’t vanish, I’m just resourceful.

The road to Montana was clear and almost completely empty in the early morning. Low storm clouds obscured some of the mountaintops and dark green forests along the road. It was cold, but not violently so, and the clouds slipped away when I reached my grandparents’ house in the Bitterroot Valley. It was almost warm during the weekend excursion. As a break, it was even almost enough.

-jk

Poem Published in an Anthology

1I’m pleased to announce that I have a poem in an anthology titled Arizona’s Best Emerging Poets, from Z Publishing. The poem is called “Spring Gift,” and is in the anthology’s section on nature and environmental poetry. For me, this was the first publication that came from another publication. An editor at Z Publishing found a poem of mine at The Tunnels, my Alma mater’s undergraduate journal, and contacted me to suggested I submit something new for their upcoming Arizona anthology.

This publication comes at a strange time. It is April, and National Poetry Month. This is the first month in years I have not tried to write a poem a day, because I’m swamped with other obligations. In the MFA program here in Moscow, Idaho, I have classes to take, classes to teach, work for the literary journal Fugue, blogging for the MFA program, and other activities.

I haven’t written a poem in a long time, over a year, maybe. This will change, because sooner or later I’ll have time for poetry. I don’t want to leave it behind, but juggling genres is hard. I’m glad I have this poem, this call back to my home state, as a reminder of what I’m capable of. If you take a look at the anthology one way or another, I’d be honored. If not, I hope, there will be more poems to come in the future.

-jk

Etymology, From the Greek for Wordstuff

Palouse 6At least 30 percent of creative nonfiction is devoted to reflecting on etymology. We examine the words we use everyday. Fruit, from the Latin frui, meaning to enjoy; paragraph, from the middle French for stroke, as in a painting; field, from the German Feld, for open country; language, from the Latin lingua for tongue. The trend in nonfiction is to meditate on the the roots of our language to explore its deeper, older meaning.

But what about the etymology of etymology? The definition is embedded in the the word itself. It describes itself. The word etymology is self-referential, like a hipster trying to be ironic. Etymology is its own inside joke, wearing seventeen layers of irony. Etymology wears beanies with collared shirts and eats egg whites with spinach on whole wheat toast. Etymology knows what time it is.

Etymology comes from the Greek etumos, for truth. It was adopted into Latin where it had a good life before going to middle French to mean a field of inquiry, and after graduation found its way into English, and then ended up in English departments, as the creative decision to plunge backward through itself into its own roots. Like all words that move from English to English departments, its meaning becomes questionable, which is why etymology is used so often in application, but not applied to itself. Worlds could end if etymology, too, was explored into its roots, dug up, transplanted to an essay, and placed in new soil.

As field of inquiry into truth, in its origins, etymology is an artistic form. An essay could be an etymology, gathered into a collection of etymologies. An essay looks backwards, reflects, investigates. The sixteenth century French writer Michel de Montaigne, whose Essais established the literary tradition of using nonfiction to explore ideas, to “test their quality” according to the etymology of essay, may have simply been creating expansive etymologies, long-form etymologies, extended inquiries into truth. Maybe this is what the field of creative nonfiction, in all it encompasses, is meant to do. Journalism, biography, history, documentary, and auto-theory are all founded on etymology, rooted in root-seeking.

I have only recently started using etymology in my writing, but I think it’s more than a trend. It’s a strategy, and one that is regularly tested. I am beginning to use this strategy more and more. When I write, I start on the ground and dig up the roots around me to see how far they go, to see where I can go from there.

-jk

On Not Going to AWP

Lit Mag ShelfThis year, I will not be attending the AWP conference in Tampa. I will not receive a tote bag, nor will I peruse the book fair and return with conference swag like pins or bookmarks or back copies of cool literary magazines. I will not hear any talented writers read their work, nor will I go to a poetry slam or watch creative writing professors dance awkwardly, nor will I hit up any local bars and wake up too hungover to attend the panel I’m supposed to present at, and when I don’t have time, I certainly won’t visit the many tourist attractions and restaurants that probably exist somewhere in Tampa, possibly.

Academic conferences are big and expensive and time-consuming. This is not to say that they aren’t beneficial, but conferences can be stressful. I know that I’ll be missing out on the best that AWP has to offer. I’ve only been to one AWP conference, way back in 2015, which was intellectually fruitful. Two years after that, I went to regional and national Popular Culture Association conferences. I’ve had plenty of good experiences at conferences. I’ve been introduced to new books, new authors, and some new ideas. But as an institution, and worse, an expectation, conferences are unruly and cumbersome.

(I might be the only remaining academic of my generation who attends conferences only for the panels. I admit it; I’m a nerd. But I don’t want to spend a few hundred dollars just to drink and eat in another city. I don’t know how to be anything short of earnest about it. That’s just who I am).

I won’t be able to meet the editors of journals who have accepted and published my work, or who have rejected it, to see what they have published. To get to know the journals I want to see my work in somewhere. I won’t be able to see friends and colleagues in creative writing I haven’t seen in a long time.

All academic conferences have the same issues. If the amount of money it took to give every attendee a tote bag went to making conferences more accessible or less expensive, or if conferences could find ways to include people without the carbon emissions of travel,  they could become less unruly, less cumbersome. What we get from conferences, most importantly, should not be exclusively available at them.

Instead of going this year, I’m setting my sights on next year’s AWP, which will be in Portland, Oregon, a short trip from Moscow, Idaho. I know more people in Portland; I can visit more friends and family between as many panels as possible. Traveling to Portland from Moscow will be less costly, less polluting, and if nothing else, by then I’ll have forgotten about my conference-induced stress.

-jk

Creative Writing and Creative Revising

moose

There is some way this moose blanket connects to revision, but that’s on you to figure out.

When I first started writing, I thought the process was simple: First, I sit down and write a bad rough draft over the course of a few winter months, possibly in a snowed-in haunted Colorado hotel. Then, I read through it again and make extensive revisions. Then, I read through it a third and final time to make smaller, cosmetic revisions. Then, the final draft goes out to editors and journals for just shy of an eternity. Writing is almost always discussed as primary, and revision as the after-hours, secondary work. Or, the other way around, revision is portrayed as tedious, noncreative work, challenging only because it is time-consuming, as opposed to writing, which is the entire creative process.

Now that I have dissected, deleted, severed, multiplied, and brutalized a few dozen story drafts in the after-writing process of revision, I have realized how messy these two tasks, writing and revision, actually are. Writers talk about writing as if the best stories we can produce are done with as little revision as possible. We say “I wrote this essay, and here’s my process.” We say “While I was writing this.” We say “I am a writer.” We never say “I am a reviser,” even though we (should) spend the bulk of our creative time revising our work.

It’s easy to say that writing and revision are synonymous because they are part and parcel. But I think there is a subtle difference. We write for the present but revise for the future. We write in the moment, but revise across time. We work under the assumption that the hardest part of the process is finding inspiration and then typing it up, and the rest is smooth but tedious polishing. But I think the opposite is true. The hardest part of writing is revising. Ideas come and build up, and when they don’t, we have forty thousand writing exercises and freewriting prompts to help with that.

What if we used the same language to talk about revision? What if we had entire workshops devoted to revision exercises, revision prompts, and revision craft talks?  Creative revising is a much more useful and accurate description of the process.

Revision, at least, should be discussed as more than an afterthought. It is the bulk of the work involved, and we should discuss it with the same sense of working pleasure we use when talking about writing. Revision requires as much, if not more, creativity.

Writing is the discovery of a crime, and revision is the entire investigation, arrest, and legal proceedings, not to mention the healing process that follows. We lose nothing by placing revision at the forefront of our discussions about writing. The only thing we have to lose is our notion that revision is secondary.

-jk