April in Review

-April turned out to be something of an uneventful month for me, which isn’t so bad. After all the good news and happening of March, it was nice to have a little more mental space to work in. I took a week off work and did a big revision of my short story collection, How to Die Young in Nebraska. A few stories were cut, I combined a few into a novella, and rearranged all of what was left into something kind of new. I took part in the initial screening for the Prairie Schooner Book Prize this year, and I tried to apply the lessons I learned from that experience as a screener/editor to my own collection. Hopefully it’s much better. I think it is. It’s a little shorter than before, the overall quality is a little more consistent, and the sense of narrative flow has been enhanced. We’ll see if there’s much of a response, as I have it out to a couple contests and small presses now.

-One thing I did a little different in my editing of the collection was to let myself revise older, published stories. My old agent was usually against this practice, maybe afraid that I would undo the magic of a piece by tinkering with it after it had already been edited and published. There’s a certain logic to that, but I felt it was time to make some smaller changes. My main motivation was thinking that I’m not exactly the same writer I was two or three or five years ago, and that the collection read a little too much like a fossil record of my stylistic changes over the period that I’ve been working on the book. Since I didn’t like that, I tried to make the book more consistent in style as well. That seems to make a lot of sense. Common sense even.

-Speaking of PS, Kwame Dawes was officially announced as the new Editor of Prairie Schooner. The last two years have been a little uncertain, as we looked for someone to replace longtime editor Hilda Raz, and I’m excited how it turned out.

-Darren and Lacey had their wedding this past weekend. Congrats to the Keens!

-I finally framed and hung a piece (see photo) that I made when I was at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in March 2010. It’s pretty simple: an original Sunday supplement insert from the Omaha Daily News, from August 1912, on which I inked different descriptions of women that I wrote during my residency at KHN. I found the newspaper at an antique shop down the street from the arts center. It only took me a year, but I finally got the thing up on the wall, and I like it.

-Flatmancrooked officially called it quits in April. Here’s what I had to say about it.

-Looking ahead to May, The Cincinnati Review featuring my prize-winner, “The Current State of the Universe,” will be out on newsstands and in mailboxes. So get ready to hear more about that.

Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks

“Attend the Way” was named a finalist in the Summer Literary Seminars’ Unified Fiction Contest. Kind of a slow month for rejections. I don’t really have that much stuff out there right now.

Just Finished

Greetings from Below by David Philip Mullins. A very nice collection that I’m in the process of reviewing. The final three stories are exemplary, and they make for a knock-out conclusion to the book. I can’t recall another collection that sprints to the finish as much as Greetings from Below does. Usually it’s more of a ruminative, self-reflective inching forward that gracefully puts an end to the proceedings, but GfB doesn’t really follow that format too much, which is good.

My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos. I’m still not really sure what to make of this book. It’s kind of chick-lit for thirty-something men, if that makes any sense. There are long stretches of great, interesting writing, but the first-person narrator is very glib and kind of a frustratingly clueless person at times. MAU will probably reignite some of the debates about unlikable lead characters that raged last year with the release of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

Now Reading

The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia by Mary Helen Stefaniak.

Up Next

Quarantine by Rahul Mehta.

March in Review

-We had out first flowers of the spring pop up mid month. The first sprouts we had were daffodil; the first blooms were crocus. Last year I was doing my residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City when we had our first flowers, and I was pretty sad to miss them. Our winter wasn’t nearly as hard as the last one was, but it’s still pretty nice to be here to see things change. Our house was built in 1905, so we have things pop up pretty much everywhere too. Between the patio pavers, in the middle of the yard. It’s awesome.

-Tomorrow my wife Nicole’s new promotion and raise go into effect. She’s so smart. Although, being promised a raise on April Fool’s Day isn’t all that promising.

-The Royals lost their Opening Day game against the Angels this afternoon. It was a pretty good game, especially after LA starting pitcher Jered Weaver was pulled. KC should have one of the best, most exciting, and youngest middle relief corps in the majors this year. Too bad they’ll be pitching from behind most of the time.

-“How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter” was published earlier this month in The Kenyon Review. It looks like they’re still running a friends-and-family special at this link, for anyone who’s interested in a discounted current issue or subscription. It was some pretty exciting stuff being in a TKR. I’ve had a few of these bigger publications now, and it’s really something a guy or gal could used to.

-I was also interviewed by The Kenyon Review Online in anticipation of the release.

-Then, to cap off a crazy week, Confrontation accepted my story “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life” for publication. I haven’t heard anything for sure, but, judging from the contract verbiage, I’m hoping it will run in November.

Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks

Bat City Review and Missouri Review for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Ploughshares for “Shame Cycle”; and New Letters for “These Things That Save Us.”

Now Reading

Greetings from Below by David Philip Mullins. Still reading this, kind of. I’ve been knee-deep in book prize manuscripts for pretty much the whole month. I will be finishing up my recommendations next week and then will be back on to published books again. I’m very much looking forward to it.

 

Up Next

My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos.

Kimmel Harding Nelson: Wrap Up

There isn’t a whole lot more to add to the writing processes I used and the experiences I had during my residency—as I more or less kept on track with my writing during the final days as I had in the beginning, and ate at the same restaurants—so I’d like to give a short overview of my residency. In all, my approximate volume for the ten and a half days I spent at Kimmel Harding Nelson came in at 24,637 words, which adds up to about 84 pages double-spaced.

There was a blizzard I walked in for an hour one night. Here's what it looked like from my office window.

This is nearly twice the amount of work I expected to finish while in Nebraska City—the safe estimate I gave myself heading in—so it feels pretty awesome to produce this much work. The rough draft of Part II of my novel-in-progress The Hyphenates of Jackson County is nearly finished, which means that I’m over half done with the entire novel itself. In addition, I rewrote five scenes from Part I in first-person point of view in order to tie them more closely to my main character and polished off three blog posts for good measure.

It was a little difficult to work at a high level the final day, with the end in sight. It wasn’t exactly homesickness at this point, but more of a growing excitement to see my family again. So instead of sticking around for the final half day, I ended up driving back on Thursday night and sleeping in my own bed. Good for me, right?

The levies held!

I was off for four days in Denver at the AWP Conference less than two weeks later, so it was nice to half that little extra home time.

As a final word, I’d like to mention that the next deadline for Artist Residencies at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts is September 1, which is for residencies taking place in the January to June, 2011 period. KHN offers great facilities in a quiet setting, a stipend for expenses, and now even cab fare from the Omaha airport. I highly recommend it!

Weeks of Mar 18 – Apr 20, 2010 (Perseverance Edition)

There’s still one more recap post about my Kimmel Harding Nelson residency on the back burner, but I wanted to get a weeks in review post in here too. And since I had two stories accepted for publication last week, this seemed like a good time to do that.

On Tuesday of last week I learned that MARY Magazine will be putting “Let Your Hair Hang Low” in their summer edition. This is a story I’ve been working on since the fall of 2002 and am very glad to find a home for it. Then, on Wednesday, I received an email from the Kenyon Review letting me know that “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter” will be running in their Spring 2011 issue. This was another story I’ve had for a long time, starting it in the spring of 2005. It was originally written as a flash piece in the format of an actual step-by-step manual, basically what the title says it is, but I soon scrapped that idea and wrote it as more-or-less a traditional short story. I’m so excited for the opportunity of being in TKR. I’ve had a few big publications before—in Best New American Voices, twice in Boulevard—but adding the Kenyon Review to my credits feels like another breakthrough. It’s doing something with consistency, rather than isolated flourishes.

Needless to say, both of these stories have gone through countless drafts and rewrites, and have been in and out of the hands of editors for a long while. These stories have received ninety-seven rejections between the two of them, in their different forms. I’ve read that, on average, published stories receive around twenty-five rejections before being accepted by a journal. And even that number surprises other young and emerging writers when I bring it up. In that context, ninety-seven seems absurd, a number too embarrassing to admit to. But there it is.

At some point I probably should have given up on these pieces. But there was one thing that really kept me going—besides a stubborn belief that they are good stories and that I could make them work—and that was encouragement from editors. Of those ninety-seven rejections, twenty-nine were of the “nice” variety. The notes that said the piece was close or requested that I send more work their way. I’ve come to feel differently about these notes after reading for Prairie Schooner the past couple years. I used to disdain them a little bit, saw them a tease, I guess. It upset me that I could be close to publication without actually getting in, because there’s no consolation prize. But now I know how complimentary these encouragements really are. As a literary journal reader or editor, there are so many stories you enjoy reading over the course of a year, but only a small percentage of these can even be sent on for final consideration. And only a select few of those can be printed. So I’ve learned to appreciate the notes as the encouragement they are, and take heart to keep trying because of them.

Dispatch from “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter”

“I didn’t tell anyone this, but if it had somehow been necessary that Brandon die at that particular time, then I wished that he would have killed himself. Then there would have been something to blame. Somehow this was a more acceptable cause and effect. Suicide was a seductive death full of self-hate that seemed more gratifying to an adolescent mind. I’d heard of this happening, at least, learned about it on TV. There would have been physical satisfaction in imagining this. The cool metal slipping between his lips. The buzzing, blooming sensation at the back of his cranium. Then the click. I could have understood that. It would have made sense for him to jump off a boat into the mouth of a waiting shark, but not asthma. How Brandon died was obscene, but it fit the surroundings. I had to remind myself that it was late November in Nebraska and the dirt would soon be frozen. My half-brother hadn’t wanted to die, after all, he hadn’t planned any of this.”

Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks

Ploughshares for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Post Road and One Story for “The Day After This One”; Avery Anthology for The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life”; Contrary, Eleven Eleven, and Spectrum for “You Know That I Loved You.” Also, “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine” was a finalist in the Summer Literary Seminar Unified Fiction Contest, as judged by Fence.

Just Finished

31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan. An antebellum New York murder mystery. A lot of fun to read with interesting characters and a great setting. Highly recommended for those who like more commercial historical fiction. I may be writing a review on this but I haven’t decided for sure yet. There’s a very quaint handling of race that I gives me some pause.

The Underworld Sewer by Josie Washburn. I was reading this mostly as research for the novel I’m writing, and I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed it too. It’s basically a compilation of early 1900s street pamphlets decrying the social evil of institutionalized prostitution, but it has some nice information on the Nebraska and Omaha of that era. It also looks like I can work Washburn in as a character in the novel, which is pretty fun too! There are a few years of her life when she’s in Omaha, after the book has been published, and they just so happen to be unaccounted for in the historical record—which is really a great gift to a writer.

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. I was going to write a fancy review of this book that talked about the perils of having a narrative structure that imitates the mental disorder of its main character, but decided against it. For one, this book has been reviewed a bunch of times already, and secondly, most of those review were negative too. No need to pile on at this point. Ferris is still a talented writer and hopefully his next book will be great.

Now Reading

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño.

Up Next

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill.

Kimmel Harding Nelson: Days 4-6

The late March 2010 KHN Residents: Timothy Eshing, T. Wheeler, Matthew Jensen, Jenn Koiter, Ji Eun Kim. This was an awesome installation Ji Eun did in the window of an empty storefront.

This represented about the half-way point of the residency at the close of day six. I was able to get close to forty pages of new writing done, which is really pretty amazing for me. I came in a little skeptical of the residency idea. It didn’t make sense that I’d get a ton more work done in two weeks here than I could over a normal period at home. But it really turned out to be an amazing experience. Typically I’ll write between 500-1500 words in a day. But I consistency quadrupled that at Kimmel Harding Nelson.

I talked a bit about the reasons why I think this is in the previous post, but I want to hone in on that a little more here. The biggest difference, I believe, is simply the matter of time and space to work in. These are the factors mentioned on the brochures for these places, but it wasn’t really something I could understand until I was there. There are usually a few times during each day when I feel like writing, and they don’t come at the same time each day. At home, on a normal schedule, I can’t just drop everything and write. It’s a schedule—one that thankfully allows me regular time to work in the first place. And I’m very lucky to have that. But at KHN I could work whenever I felt like it. On Thursday morning I was more productive in the morning. On Friday I was more productive at night and was able to stay up late to work. I guess the difference never seemed like that much to me. Finding an extra hour in the morning, or an hour late at night. But if you have the space and the energy to work at a high level for that hour, you’re adding a four-page work period into the day. Sometimes two. And that really adds up, even over five days. If I could keep this pace up, I might have been able to finish drafting on Hyphenates Part 2, which would have put me way ahead of schedule.

A favorite of KHN residents. Best huevos rancheros I’ve ever had.

Still, I did take most of Saturday off, as Nicole and Maddie came down to Nebraska City to visit. We played around the apartment a little, as Maddie and my roommate Matt really hit it off, then got lunch at the Arbor Day Lodge. We went back to Omaha for a while after that, even though Maddie really wanted to stay at “Art House.” She and I went to the store and made dinner so Nicole could have nap time. It was nice to see the family again, something I’d been looking forward to from the moment they’d dropped me off.

It’s always such a strange balance to strike between giving yourself enough room to work (time and space, mental space) and keeping the people who are the reason you’re working so hard close by. The balance any working person tries to find, I suppose, particularly working parents. I think back sometimes to my life before Maddie was born, when I had hours and hours of free time each day. It’s easy to become nostalgic for those times—freedom, nights out, artsy-ness. But the fact is that most of that free time was wasted. There were video games then too, and binge drinking and hangovers. The balance was out of whack.

One of the great old homes of Nebraska City.

It wasn’t until Nicole was pregnant that a change came over me, a biological switch was flipped that made it easier to focus—in fact, it made it uncomfortable to not be working because there were people who depended on me.

I think this was a big part of the residency too, and a major reason why I think it was a big success for me. It’s not that the writing was easier to do when I was at KHN, but there was an imperative to do it. There were people at home missing me, counting on me to do well. And I wasn’t going to let them down.

Kimmel Harding Nelson: Days 1-3

I recently was granted an artist’s residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City, from March 15-26, and I’ll be blogging about my experiences there over the next couple weeks.  It’s a little awkward to be doing this in the past tense, I’d originally planned on doing a daily journal while I was there, but it seemed like a bad idea to announce on the Internet that I was away from home. It was hard enough to leave Nicole and Maddie home alone during the start of the spring gang wars.

Anyway, here’s the first installment:

Nicole and Maddie drove me down on Monday morning and dropped me off at the center. We met the residency directors, Pat and Denise (her last day, sadly) and were given a tour of the facilities. The center was built in 1969 by the Nelson family as a luxury retirement residence for them and a few of their friends, and then was turned into the KHNCFTA in 1999 after Mrs. Nelson died. So there was a main apartment, which is now office space and an art gallery, and two attached apartments that each house two residents. There’s also a caretaker’s apartment in the basement for a fifth resident. The three garages have been converted into studio space, and there’s a great courtyard in the center of the complex. It’s really wonderful. Almost everything here appears to be original, the wallpaper, the fixtures, the appliances. My roommate (photographer Matthew Jensen) tells me that this style is all the rage now in New York.

The swanky wallpaper in my bathroom.

It was very hard when Nicole and Maddie drove away, but I’ve been able to talk to them throughout each day. Maddie’s phone skills are improving dramatically and she’s learning so many new words now. Like, “Salt and pecker.” It’s hard to miss that. I had to focus myself and make the most of my time. Even on the first afternoon I was able to write for a few hours, which really set a nice tone for the two-weeks.

Still, a lot of the first few days were spent just kind of figuring out what to do while I’m here. Of course I’d made plans beforehand, and I stuck to them mostly, but it was almost off-putting to have so much time. There was time to sleep in, time to stay up late and work, time to nap, time to eat when it was necessary. It allowed me to get wrapped up in the novel completely. I think generally I do kind of live through whatever I’m working on, half asleep to the world. I carry it with me, thinking about it throughout the day, whether I’m walking into the courthouse, going through security, or taking care of Maddie in the morning. It’s a preoccupation that allows me to work every day—because at least half of my mind is on the project at all times in order to stay within it. But the process of engagement was so much more complete at KHN. There was no metal detector alarm to break me out, no NW Radial traffic to vie for my preoccupation space. For the most part, during the first few days, I wasn’t working a ton more hours than I usually would during the course of a day—jumping from 2-3 to 4-6, maybe more than that. Anyway, the big difference was having time to think about things.

On Day 2, the writing wasn’t happening, so I took a two hour walk over to the Arbor Day Lodge and back. It wasn’t like I had a big breakthrough or anything, but such trips helped clear an awful lot of mental space. I came back and had lunch, laid down for an hour, read for an hour, and then was able to be very productive for three hours. Usually, I’d have the three hours to be productive in, and if it didn’t happen, the day was a waste.That wasn’t the case at KHN. It was about finding the right time of day to work in, the right mental space, the right location—and actually having the freedom to occupy that space and produce. This was the main benefit of the residency. I wrote about twenty new pages in the first three days, which is a little more than a good week’s worth—and a banner week at that.

My office at KHN.

I think the writing is solid, there’s some nice description, a few images that have really announced themselves, more than a few leaders emerging that will help determine the plot. This was Part II of Hyphenates I was working on, and I chose to go in without any kind of guiding outline, basically just knowing a specific place I need it to end—the day after the municipal election in 1918—with seven pages of notes to guide me. There seemed to be a lack of conflict for a while, but it started to emerge during this time. I wrote about half of Part II and also had the second half plotted, which is kind of a week’s worth of work in itself.

Coming Up: Days 4-6