These Things That Save Us

Bert.JPGThis weekend we had to say good-bye to Senator Berkeley, my constant sidekick for the last thirteen years. As I work from home, it’s no exaggeration that we’ve spent around fifteen hours a day together, either writing or walking or napping on the couch together. Berkeley was born while Nicole and I were on our honeymoon, and we bought him from a farm near Weeping Water not long after that. He’s been around for everything, and now, suddenly, not.

This is painful not because it is exceptional. The opposite.

Going through old pictures and dredging up many memories, I was reminded of this story I wrote when he was a puppy and later published in 2011 in Conversations Across Borders, a now defunct online journal. This was always one of my favorite stories from my early publishing push, mostly because of its depiction of a dachshund named Weasel. (It’s also fun to look back on a story I wrote in my mid-20s that shows my conception of aging married couples in their 30s and how they deal with being so old.) I wanted to share it here, not necessarily as a tribute, but just because.

These Things That Save Us

After seven years of marriage, the only thing my wife and I owned in common was a dachshund named Weasel. The dog was our pride and joy, a tri-color dapple with gray spotted patches and brown ears. He had his own room on the second floor of our townhouse, a closet stocked with toys, special food prepared by a butcher, and a pet-nanny for when we were on vacation. He had it easy, but he earned his luxuries by making things simpler for me and my wife.

Weasel was the reason I looked forward to coming home most nights. We enjoyed long walks, the dog and I, while Sharon snacked on caramel corn and watched television alone. Before we left for the park each night, as a sort of kitsch joke, I’d lean in to kiss my wife’s forehead where the skin had been tweezed raw around the eyebrows. I’d say, “Love you, honey,” and she’d reply, “Have fun, boys,” as we walked out the door.

Sharon was a big blond woman, but not really fat. She was tall with hips, a small paunch. She looked athletic in a way, but my wife was no athlete. “She’s lazy,” I’d grumble to our friends at dinner parties, emphasizing her faults. Sharon had empathetic blue eyes and could be a wonderful kisser after some wine, but I never told anyone about these things. I stuck to my well-rehearsed punch lines when talking about my wife. How she planned monthly “mental health days” from her morning radio show at a Top 40 station; that she spent little time grooming herself during the week, which is common for morning radio hosts; and that she wasted most of her time wrapped in her grandmother’s quilt, curled into the elbow of our leather sectional. This was what I talked about when I talked about my wife.

It wasn’t quite as bad between us as I liked to make it sound, but it was close. We were in our mid-thirties then and had been married for seven years. We didn’t have kids, we didn’t have a mortgage, we leased our cars. We ate dinner separately, off paper plates, and only begrudged a visit to each other’s families in odd-numbered years. In even years we vacationed to peninsular Mexico during the holidays. It’s safe to say that we valued our privacy above all else. That’s just how we lived.

Sharon, Weasel and I rented a historic townhouse in a revitalized urban district, a nice gentrified neighborhood near a city park. Because the area had been declared blighted, our landlords made a killing remodeling old railroad houses into hip new digs for young professionals and childless couples. The wood floors and antique bathroom fixtures were a real boon to our self-confidence. And despite the air stream that blew through them, the single-paned, oak latticed windows were breathtaking against the backdrop of a white hot Nebraska thunderstorm.

I loved our neighborhood in those days. The park was spectacular when in season, sugar maples and red oaks blooming up with color against a deep fall sky. There were tennis courts and jogging paths, a thru road on which the WT who lived just beyond the park sped through.Bert Ball

It was a nice place to walk, which was what Weasel and I were doing on a late October evening several years ago when everything changed, a Friday just minutes after I’d returned home from tedious business meetings in North Carolina. (I worked for a venture capital firm that specialized in agribusiness and genetically enhanced corn.) The sun was starting to set as we started off, but it was still warm enough to be in traveling clothes, a polo shirt and slacks. There had been a lot of cool rain that season. The grass shivered in the mud when the northern breeze moved over it.

Walking the dog allowed me a kind of privacy, which is also why I enjoyed traveling so much. I yearned for the bustling lonesomeness of airport white noise, the freedom to be secluded in public—to appear deeply pensive without someone asking, “Whatcha thinking?” This is also why I liked to walk, to indulge in the secret adventures of a man and his dog, cruising down the sidewalk with nothing in particular owed to anyone. Just a man and his dachshund. We were free to look in our neighbors’ windows from the sidewalk, their domestic projections lit up incandescent. We could kick and sniff at garbage left at the curb. A man walking his dog has a right to be there.

Weasel bounced next to me and smiled a wide-jowled dog grin, exhilarated by the cool breeze and its unsolved odor. Sharon had him under the quilt for most of the week, I could tell, putting him outside only when the rug was in imminent danger. A dog like Weasel loved to be outside. He needed to run and smell dirty things in the park, crunching cast-off chicken bones when he could find them. There was fresh air and sniffing out dead birds.

We stopped to wrestle in a mound of leaves. I let him bite my hands and squeezed his muscular hocks. Then we walked towards a squash court near the far end of the park, where the thru road entered. On cool nights like that one, I let Weasel unburden himself by the court if no one was around. He took such pleasure in it, which was understandable. It’s sometimes nice to know that others will see your shit.

As Weasel backed into a crouch an SUV came speeding over the hill at the far end of the park. Its wheels went out from under it as it jumped the apex. Its tires barked an unsure cadence as it returned to the pavement. It was going to crash. I saw this. The SUV tipped and screeched on its side across the street.

Weasel jumped towards the noise, he ran out to the length of his leash and yelped at the vehicle as it lay askew against the papery bark of a sycamore tree. Weasel and I ran towards the overturned Bronco. We crunched through leaves as fast as we could, the jingle of his tags marking our stride.

We stopped on the sidewalk across the street and observed the sweat-suited tennis players who were gathering around the vehicle. The Bronco’s airborne wheels still spun, ripped sod trailing its path to the sycamore. “Get me out of here,” the driver cried. The tennis players surrounded the Bronco, hopping on the balls of their feet, but they weren’t helping him. Weasel yelped in a frenzy towards the car’s undercarriage, its muffler, oil pan, and fuel tank—the grime-stained internal organs of a car—jumping on two legs at the end of his leash. After searching for somewhere to tie up Weasel, I slid the hand loop at the end of his leash over a bench post and ran towards the crash.

This wasn’t something I’d thought through, of course, running towards the wreck. It was a corporeal action that just needed to be done. I felt its insistence in that moment and my body was propelled by blind instinct.

The tennis players looked through the windshield at the young man trapped inside, telling him to remain calm. “Jesus Christ,” he screamed from inside the vehicle. “Will somebody help me?”

I leveraged myself on the top of the Bronco, crawled across the dusty front fender and leaned into the window to ask the driver if he was okay. He was little more than a boy, seat-belted into the cockeyed vehicle wearing a camouflage jacket and blue jeans. He had a dirty mustache and greasy, hand-swept hair.

“Can you unbuckle yourself?” I asked, checking to make sure he was alone, but the kid just screamed.

The tennis players began pleading with the kid to turn off the engine. His stereo still played crackling rock. The motor wasn’t running, but the carburetor could be feeding gas onto a hot manifold if the ignition were still engaged.

“You’re going to catch fire,” one of them yelled.

The boy seemed to come to his senses then. He unbuckled himself, wormed his way upright in the small cabin of his Bronco, and reached for my hands.

“The keys,” I shouted, directing him to pull them from the steering column. “Get the keys.”

The kid stumbled off the top of his cab after I pulled him out, tripping into the arms of the tennis players. The neighbors crowded around us and a few of them came to ask if I was okay too, grabbing at my arms, because I must have looked unsettled.

I stumbled through the crowd and sat in the root-crook of a large burr oak, collapsing into a wind-gathered pile of dry leaves. The kid who crashed his car crouched in the group of tennis players, gasping thank yous.

Within the minute, police and fire crews sped onto the scene, lights and sirens blaring, their tires screeching as they arrived. They checked out the Bronco, made certain that it wasn’t a danger to those who’d gathered there, and began marching off distances for their report. The paramedics put the kid on a stretcher and eased him towards an ambulance as they checked for spinal injury and broken bones.

A young cop approached me. “Are you the one who pulled him out?”

He scratched notes in a leather-bound pad as I told him what happened. I explained that I’d recently come back to town, having been away on business. He asked where I lived, and I told him, “Around the corner. It’s a townhouse.”

“What’s your name?”


“Gerry Martini.”

“What were you doing here?”

I explained how the street leading into the park had a higher speed limit than it should have and pointed out the sudden drop on the park side of the hill that surprised drivers. But he only wanted the gritty details. The crash, pulling the kid out of the car.

“I was walking—” I hesitated then, realizing what I was about to say. “My dog. I need to get my dog.”

The cop followed me across the street and explained that they might need a further statement from me.

“That’s fine,” I said, rushing to the bench where I’d left Weasel, even though I could clearly see he was gone. The leash had been removed from the post. There was no sign of him. I dropped to my knees and dumbly searched through the leaves, my hands trembling.

“Have you seen a dachshund?” I asked a group of kids near the bench, but none of them had. I ran to the squash courts but they were empty, his abbreviated pile of shit lay in the dirt. The tennis players had returned to their games. I crouched and squinted, but there was no sign of Weasel anywhere in the park and my eyes couldn’t seem to penetrate the hazy fall gloaming. 

“Did you see somebody walk off with a little dog?” I ran from

person to person in the thinning crowd, pleading with them to help me.

“It’s a park, mister.” A lady in a blue fleece camisole leaned against a tree, smoking a cigarette. “Who would notice someone walking off with a dog when there’s a car rolled over?”

I searched for nearly an hour. The park was empty by the time I went home. The tennis courts were lit but quiet. The parking lot abandoned. The wide lawns held only trees.

The whole time searching I wondered what I would tell my wife when I went home, convinced that there weren’t words which could explain what had happened.

A friend once asked me if I enjoyed being married.

“She drives the nicer car,” he pointed out. “You do most of the cooking and cleaning. You shovel the sidewalks when it snows. You do the laundry. You were the one to get a second job when money was short. And you are the one that has to travel for work every week.” I had complained a great deal to this friend about the many ways in which Sharon succeeded in driving me up a wall, so he had every reason to suspect I was genuinely unhappy in my marriage. “Tell me,” he asked, “why are you guys still together?”

“Isn’t it obvious,” I told him. “There’s a simple reason why it works. I get to leave town every week.”

Sharon and I met at a Jaycees meeting when we were in our late twenties. I was attracted to her on-air brashness, her blonde Amazon height. I wasn’t exactly looking for a commitment at the time, neither of us were, I believe, but we were married within a few years anyway, in a large secular ceremony at the Alumni Center. We didn’t really have long-term goals in those days. Sure, we saved for retirement, my employer provided a great 401(k), but as to kids, or a house, that just wasn’t us. We found the perfect townhouse and were content to lease it. We were interested in the “is” phase of our lives. The middle-term investment of living year-to-year without letting things get complicated. 

But we did concede to buying a dog, after a few summers, that was our idea of an acceptable responsibility. Sharon saw an ad in the newspaper for miniature dachshunds and we drove to this farm outside Weeping Water to have a look. Weasel was the last of the litter, the only one who hadn’t yet been purchased. He was sleeping in the back of a small plastic kennel under a locust tree when we first saw him, curled into the warm belly of a bulldog puppy more than twice his size. The farm boy pulled him from the nest and held him out to us. They called him French Fry; they called all of their dachshunds French Fry for all we knew. His downy fur was grayish. He sort of rolled his sticky little tongue out of his mouth when he yawned, those whimsical puppy yawns that we couldn’t help but swoon for. The whole way back into the city he slept nestled in Sharon’s lap, crying only once, when one of us turned off the radio.

We couldn’t talk about the fact that Weasel was gone in the weeks after he was lost. The details of how it happened were never brought up after my first feeble efforts to explain them. I had my theories—different varieties of thievery—and Sharon must have held her own, but we never discussed them. I was too guilty to even look at her.

I didn’t understand at the time, but the way in which we’d lost Weasel didn’t matter. What became important were the ways in which we grieved.

We put up flyers around the neighborhood advertising a lost dachshund, walking next to each other down the winding avenues. We placed increasingly emotional pleas in the classifieds and drove around nights after dinner, shining flashlight beams into sewer hatches and under park benches. Sharon even gave Weasel’s description on her radio show, choking up as she recited his distinguishing marks, his overbite, the near almond shape of his eyes.

None of it worked though. Weasel was irrecoverably lost.


There were times when that dog meant more to me than anything else in the world, but, until he was gone, I didn’t realize how much he’d also meant to Sharon. She needed Weasel to cuddle with under blankets on the couch, caressing his velvet ears, feeling his cold black olive nose against her neck. Sharon had a strong desire to be soothed, for a soft couch and downy comforters. And for a small dog that liked to sleep inside her space, that burrowed under the blankets and nestled his head in the softness of her thighs. It was enviable, in some ways, what they shared. They had a common space, a drowsy comfort. She needed to freak out with him at strange noises when I was away on business, the fur on the back of his neck mohawking into angry spikes. The only remedy to this nervousness was to scratch his puffed chest until it calmed him and her both.

For two weeks I changed my travel plans at work, concocting paper-thin lies for my boss so I could stay home and look for the dog every afternoon with Sharon after she came home from the radio show. It was a reversal of my former routine, now power-walking the neighborhood during daylight hours with Sharon and a sleeve of flyers, searching out groups of kids to ask if they’d seen our dog. I’d avoided children before, because their rough fingers patted Weasel’s back too stiffly and they asked stupid questions. “What is he? A dog-shund?”

Sharon cried on my shoulder when I finally had to leave for Raleigh-Durham. I kissed her on the top of her head and said I loved her. She cried harder when I told her this, her chest heaved, fists clinging to my jacket. It wasn’t until I was in the car that I noticed my shirt was marked with her tears.

She called my cell phone throughout the first day in North Carolina, but didn’t leave messages. When I called her at lunch and in the evening she was tight-lipped. She didn’t have anything specific to say, but she needed to call. Sitting alone in our house, she was compelled to press the buttons on her phone, to punch in my cell number. She needed to tell me that there was no news about Weasel.

“Do you think it’s time to quit looking?” Her voice, the smoky tenor she spoke through on her radio show, had turned into the whiny voice of a teenager. “It’s all I think about at work. Where could he be?”

“I’ve only been here one day.” I sighed into the receiver at the hotel. “But I can come home if you need me to.”

“Okay,” she whimpered. “If you want to.”

Driving home from the airport, I hoped that Weasel would be there when I walked in the door. Sharon had called three times while I was in the air, but hadn’t left messages. It was possible that she had found him, that she didn’t want me to find out through voice mail, that she wanted to surprise me. It was possible that Weasel would be there, his leash on, waiting for me.

This would be the first time I’d come home from a business trip without his yelping to greet me. I didn’t want to believe what was happening would happen.

The house was quiet when I pushed open the door, the living room lit softly with lamps, the television turned off. Sharon was in the room, I realized, on the couch with her head under a quilt. The quilt was black and yellow and cream, its squares stitched into a pattern of striking contrasts.

I thought to call out to my wife, to walk into the kitchen and yell her name across the house as if I didn’t know she was laying there on the couch. I wanted to compel her to stand up and greet me. I dropped my luggage to the floor and tossed my keys on the table. I pressed the door closed and flipped the dead bolt. I rattled the chain loudly into its lock.

Sharon didn’t move from under the quilt. I could hear her breathing, her stifled sobs that couldn’t be concealed. Sharon could never stand to be looked at when we dealt with real things, if she might cry. She couldn’t take that kind of open suffering, and agonized in different ways.


I walked to the couch, sat by her legs, and rubbed her feet through the soft quilted fabric. For a long while I just sat there. The thought occurred to me that I could leave, that I could grab my jacket and head out for a walk in the park. It was another beautiful fall evening. It wouldn’t have been a strange thing for me to do.

But I lifted the quilt and crawled under with my wife instead of leaving. My body pressed against hers, our long legs mingled. We found each other’s hands and breathed together. In the musty darkness I felt the cold wetness of her cheeks on my face, but we didn’t kiss. We didn’t talk either, but merely shared each other’s air.

The Year in Photos: 2011

January brought plenty of rewrites on the novel; "The Housekeeper" was published on now-defunct Flatmancrooked; my collection How to Die Young in Nebraska, was once again a semi-finalist for the Iowa Short Fiction Award.
February meant attending the AWP conference in Washington DC, and visiting the National Christmas Tree just weeks before it was blown over; my review of Marcy Dermansky's novel Bad Marie was published on The Millions; and we celebrated Valentine's Day with a heart-shaped black forest cake from Zum Biergarten.
In March, "How to Die Young in a Nebraska WInter" was published in The Kenyon Review; I also gave an interview for Kenyon Review Online; did a longer piece on the role of trickster characters in fiction; and "The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life" was accepted for publication in Confrontation.
April was something of a slow month, but it did include a postmortem on Flatmancrooked, and a longer piece on Ellen Horan's historical novel 31 Bond Street and the culture of big advances for unpublished authors.
Nicole and I celebrated our fifth anniversary in May with a trip to San Francisco; "The Current State of the Universe" was published in The Cincinnati Review; my review of David Philip Mullins' Greetings from Below was accepted for publication in Prairie Schooner; I wrote a longish post on the case of Willie McGee and lynchings.
In June, Mixer published "The Housekeeper" on Amazon; my review of Nadifa Mohamed's Black Mamba Boy was published in Prairie Schooner; and my review of Richard Burgin's novel Rivers Last Longer ran in the Pleiades Book Review.
July suddenly took us to Tel Aviv; "On a Train from the Place Called Valentine" was accepted for publication in Boulevard; my review of Suzanne Rivecca's Death is Not an Option ran on The Millions; and we went to the Syracuse dachshund races.
August brought me to the completion of a rough draft of my novel. I also wrote a longer blog piece on what it's like to write about lynchings and other bad things.
September saw "These Things That Save Us" accepted for publication in Conversations Across Borders; I was awarded a partial scholarship to attend the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar and Workshops; and I unveiled my own ranking of MFA programs to little fanfare.
In October, "These Things That Save Us" was published in Conversations Across Borders; my review of Rahul Mehta's Quarantine ran on The Iowa Review Online; and I did a longish piece on the real Winesburg, Ohio and how Sherwood Anderson's experience connected to my own writing of a suddenly not ficitional Jackson, Nebraska.
I turned thirty in November, and took stock of what that meant; we announced that we are having our second girl; and "The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life" was published in Confrontation.
And, finally, graciously, December. With the help of some local archivists, I was able to track down the location (and a photo) of Tom Dennison's famous house. I also started in my new position of Blog and Social Networking Editor for Prairie Schooner.

October in Review (2011)

The big news in what turned out to be a busy month—and this is unannounced news at that, which I hope is okay to make public—is that I’ve been appointed Blog and Social Networking Editor at Prairie Schooner! This is a new editorial position in which I’ve been commissioned to take an active role in the PS blog, social media presence, and other communications with subscribers and contributors. It’s a pretty cool opportunity and I’m excited to move up to the editorial staff. Sadly, I’ll be giving up my Senior Fiction Reader duties, although I doubt anyone would stop me from reading as many slush submissions as I care to.

More to come on this.

In other news:

Boulevard nominated my story “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine” for a Pushcart Prize, and for inclusion in a Best of the Midwest anthology. I’m usually a little wary of touting nominations, but this is awesome news, especially since the story won’t even run in Boulevard until March of next year. Wish me luck!

-“These Things That Save Us” was published in the debut issue of Conversations Across Borders. Here’s what I had to say about writing the story and Cab in October.

-My review of Rahul Mehta’s short story collection, Quarantine, appeared on The Iowa Review Online, just in case you missed it. The review is pretty good, I think. Plus, this marked the first time I’d been paid for a book review, which is something.

The Kenyon Review is offering a new fellowship opportunity to post-MFA/post-PhD writers. It’s pretty awesome. $32,000 a year, for two years, both teaching and editorial opportunities. Plus time to pursue a significant project. Some good stuff is surely going to come out of this; I’m fully prepared to be jealous of whoever receives the first fellowship.

-I got a little love from The Cincinnati Review on their blog recently, in this post by staff member Dietrik Vanderhill about “The Burn” by Craig Davidson. Here’s what Vanderhill had to say, as an aside, about my recent work in TCR:

I’m tempted to write a recommendation for “The Current State of the Universe,” winner of the Robert and Adele Schiff Award in Prose (in the latest issue of CR). This romping story by Theodore Wheeler follows one employee of a company called Make Things Right, Inc., a sort of karmic revenge business. […] a story with passages like this—along with such a provocative concept—can easily sell itself. It provides a direct, satisfying approach to “fixing” the world’s ills, albeit on a small scale.

“The Current State of the Universe” appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of The Cincinnati Review.

-I wrote a long post on this blog about Sherwood Anderson’s connection to the real Winesburg, Ohio–and how a similarly uncomfortable thing happened with my won writing of a fictional small town that turned out to have the same name as a real small town.

-And, finally, let’s not forget that October began with an awesome crossover blogger event, as Adam Peterson and I wrapped up the Royals 2011 season and, mainly, looked ahead to 2012.

Dispatch from “These Things That Save Us”

“Walking the dog allowed me a kind of privacy, which is also why I enjoyed traveling so much. I yearned for the bustling lonesomeness of airport white noise, the freedom to be secluded in public—to appear deeply pensive without someone asking, ‘Whatcha thinking?’ This is also why I liked to walk, to indulge in the secret adventures of a man and his dog, cruising down the sidewalk with nothing in particular owed to anyone. Just a man and his dachshund. We were free to look in our neighbors’ windows from the sidewalk, their domestic projections lit up incandescent. We could kick and sniff at garbage left at the curb. A man walking his dog has a right to be there.”

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

Paris Review and Conjunctions for “Forget Me,” and Agni for “Shame Cycle.”

Now Reading

Shadow Traffic by Richard Burgin.

Best American Comics 2011, edited by Alison Bechdel.

Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott.

Up Next

The Marbled Swarm by Dennis Cooper.

CAB Launches– “These Things…” Published!

“These Things That Save Us” was published today as part of the launch of new online literary journal Conversations Across Borders! The individual story is available for $2, or you can buy the entire issue for $10. The debut issue features poetry by Ilya Kaminsky, Gary Lemons, and Samuel Green, non-fiction by Nahid Rachlin, and my short fiction. All proceeds from the issue go to support literacy and literary programs, and writers. (When I first typed that sentence, my fingers accidentally put, “All proceeds go to supper…”, which is partially correct, I guess, as far as the writers are concerned.) Here’s how CAB explains their mission on the web site:

Conversations Across Borders is a 501(c)3-pending nonprofit literary-arts organization that presents fine literature and journalism from around the world; connects writers across borders; and supports underserved schools, literacy programs, literary programs, and individual writers through financial grants. By purchasing individual poems, essays, and short stories, you enjoy new, vital work from some of the finest writers in the world. You also make a direct contribution to schools and literacy programs in underserved communities. These contributions are given directly to the local school to assure that your gift directly invests in both education and the local economy, supporting local teachers and suppliers.

Yipirinya means “caterpiller” in Arrenente, as any of the students at Yipirinya School would be happy to tell you.

Not too shabby. The first program CAB supports is Yipirinya School of Alice Springs, Australia. Yipirinya School’s curriculum is at the forefront of “two-way” education. Students learn both their own indigenous culture and language, in addition to skills that will allow them to thrive economically and culturally in Westernized society.

I’m very excited and proud to be a part of Conversations Across Borders, and hope they’re able to accomplish a great deal with this important work. It’s an interesting project, using literature (and online literature in particular) as a means to directly improve the quality of life and literacy of people around the globe. Let’s do all we can do help them succeed.

As for “These Things That Save Us,” it is my fourteenth published short story. (Number fifteen, “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life” will be out in Confrontation this November; and number sixteen, “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine” will be in Boulevard in March 2012.) This is a story I worked on in a Brent Spencer-led workshop at Creighton University while getting my M.A. there. So thanks to him, as well as my cohorts in the class, Lucas Schwaller and Travis Thieszen. I also workshopped “These Things…” while at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, in an amazing and lively workshop led by the incomparable Chris Abani. So thanks to all those folks too! I think the story turned out well. As well as any story that gets its seed from thinking about off-color wife jokes can anyway. Further, thanks to Jordan Hartt and everyone else at CAB for getting this going, and for including me in the fun.

August in Review (2011)

I’ll keep this short, as it’s late and the big news about finishing the roughest draft of my novel was already covered in a post a couple weeks ago.

-Some good news came along–announced in September, technically–as I’ve been awarded a scholarship to attend the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar and will participate in a workshop with the legendary Robert Stone.

-I announced in the same post that “These Things That Save Us” will appear in the premier issue of Conversations Across Borders.

-I also did a longish post on my effort to fictionalize the Omaha Race Riot of 1919, just in case you missed it.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“Lots of doughboys were in the crowd. This wasn’t all that surprising, as there were two forts nearby—Fort Crook and Fort Omaha. Jacob saw them around a lot then, in the year after the armistice—the doughboys come home, displaced from their jobs. There were plenty along the streets of the River Ward, husky kids still in uniform, their long green socks and puffy breeches, like football players lost from afield. An awful lot of them had what was called war neurosis. Some twitched, or struggled to keep their eyes open. Some had to constantly skim the palms of their hands over their faces and fuzzy, shaved skulls, like a cat preening itself. So many shuffled along in a painful, halting gait, or like they were slipping on ice, their whole bodies in spastic shaking. You didn’t want to think about what those suffering doughboys had seen or heard over there to make them out this way. The constant bombardments, the nerve gas, horses disemboweled on barbed wire barricades, the still-moving charred grist of a man caught by a flame thrower. There were doughboys who’d been buried alive when the man next to them stepped on a landmine, or in mortar fire, trapped when the four tons of earth thrown up in the explosion landed. There were the flyboys, crazy-eyed, sun-dazed, whose hands curled and shook, forever gripped on the timorous controls of their bi-plane’s yoke and machine gun trigger.”

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

Electric Literature for “Shame Cycle.”

Just Finished

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. Often touted in recent publications as having the sexiest depictions of sex of any novel. It’s sexy, but not very erotic, if that makes sense. A good novel, though.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. A classic that I love to reread. The stories “Godliness,” “The Strength of God,” and “Death” just really can’t be beat. Simply amazing work from who is really the father of the American short form.

Now Reading

My Antonia by Willa Cather.

Up Next

Bohemian Girl by Terese Svboda.

Good Friday News: KWLS, New Pub

Some excellent news to announce today!

First, my short story “These Things That Save Us” has been chosen to help launch the debut issue of Conversations Across Borders, an online journal that will feature literary writing and journalism from around the globe. The first issue will be available early in October, and will also feature work by Ilya Kaminsky (!), Sam Green, and Gary Lemons, among others. I’ll be sure to share some links and more information about CAB as it becomes more pertinent. From everything I’ve heard, it should be a pretty cool endeavor, and I’m excited to be in on the ground floor, so to speak.

Second, I’ve received a partial scholarship to attend the Key West Literary Seminar in January, 2012, and will be part of a workshop led by Robert Stone the following week! How awesome is that? I attended KWLS two years ago and am pretty amped up to be returning. (And I was scheduled to go three years ago to participate in a Robert Stone workshop, but had to cancel once we learned that Maddie’s due date was the same week. Looks like I’ll be getting a second chance at the workshop after all.) The theme of the seminar is, Yet Another World – Literature of the Future, and features Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, Rivka Galchen, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Joyce Carol Oates, Gary Shteyngart, and Colson Whitehead, among many others. They always have such a great lineup; this upcoming year’s is especially compelling. In addition to the literary program, I also get to spend a week on a tropical island during the heart of winter, which isn’t too shabby.

My view of William Kennedy, Russell Banks, and Joyce Carol Oates at the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar.

I’m also still up for a “named” scholarship, which would cover all expenses, including travel and a stipend.It would be nice to have everything paid for, of course, but I’m thrilled to have it all confirmed now, at least, with a large portion of it paid for by KWLS. I’m very lucky.

(Oh, and I apologize to anyone who might have been expecting ecclesiastically-themed content after looking at the post title. I have no updates on Holy Week at this time.)

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.

February in Review

-I was lucky to see the National Christmas Tree when I was in Washington DC last month—as it fell over in a windstorm a couple weeks after I visited. My walking friend and I commented to each other at the time that the tree looked to be in pretty bad shape. Apparently it was! The tree I saw was installed during the Jimmy Carter presidency. A replacement will be planted this spring.

Another cartoon from the Evening Omaha World-Herald, from 1918, this one on the threat global domination posed to local fishermen.

-The reviews I did last year for Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever and Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil were mentioned in a couple different Best Books of 2010 lists. Here are the links:

-A healthy portion of “Welcome Home” was put up on Google Books, as it appeared in Best New American Voices 2009. It’s not all there, but most of it is.

-“Welcome Home” was also mentioned on the news page of the Arts & Sciences College at Creighton University, where I did my MA. I should note, however, that the story may be selected for the Warrior’s Journey coursework. Nothing is official as of yet. If I hear anything I’ll be sure to post about it, as having my work included in that program would certainly be my biggest accomplishment to date. I’m very proud that they asked to use the story.

-My review of Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie was published on The Millions.

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

McSweeney’s, Epoch, and Shenandoah for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Missouri Review for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life”; and Crab Creek Review for “These Things That Save Us.”

Now Reading

Greetings from Below by David Philip Mullins.

Just Finished

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. “I overtipped him. That made him happy. It felt comfortable to be in a country where it is so simple to make people happy. You can never tell whether a Spanish waiter will thank you. Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France. It is the simplest country to live in. No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason. If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money. I spent a little money and the waiter liked me. He appreciated my valuable qualities. He would be glad to see me back.”

Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon. A fantastic novel. Smart, melancholy and funny. I’ve only read two of his books so far, but Hemon is one of my favorite writers. He’s really great, and I need to make the time to read all of his work.

Up Next

Other People We Married by Emma Straub.

[Note: I’m trying something new with the format for these posts, going to whole months in review rather than what was turning out to be 3-4 weeks in review. It isn’t much of a change, except that I’ll be pulling the longer topical and reflective sections out and making those into their own posts. The month in review posts will be more bullet point stuff. Not much of a change in content, but more and smaller posts. Hopefully that’s a little easier to consume.]

Weeks of Jan 7 – Jan 27, 2011: When to Rewrite

For the past few months I’ve been working on a rewrite of my novel. A lot of the process has been interesting and fun. It’s kind of nice to open up long-settled writing and start playing with things like point-of-view, voice, and structure again. Of course, there are some not-so-fun aspects too. Probably the worst, at least emotionally, is figuring out if you’re at the point when a rewrite is necessary, or not. I doubt anyone really wants to take on such a large project that’s essentially redoing work you thought was done, work you may be pretty proud of. There’s so much emotional turmoil that comes with starting over. You start thinking of wasted months, years, the thousands of words that have already been thrown out. And that’s before you start reconsidering POV and structure, the rhythm and tone. It’s questioning your very way of being. It’s a painful threshold to cross. As I’ve been working through this, I wondered how others might confront this problem. Please comment if you have some tips or ideas, or what might be some helpful reading. I’d love to hear them.

In the meantime, here’s how I’ve handled it.

Generally my revision process is tied closely to my submission cycle, especially with short stories. The main thinking here is that, after a dozen rejections, you should have an idea of how a story is being received. Even if editors aren’t sending back hand-written notes or requests to see more work, such silence can still mean something. After a while, the feedback and notes, or lack thereof, point to a course of action. From there, you can ascertain whether the piece needs some tweaking or an overhaul. (Or maybe a trash can.) With short stories, getting positive notes helps point me to what stories are hot or close. I keep close track of them. I may let it roll unchanged then, or it may push me to take a really hard look at what may be a winning revision, knowing that it’s on the verge of acceptance. For the novel, it’s harder because the piece is so much larger. But feedback from agents can be invaluable, if you know how to read what they’re saying. I think the most common cause of an agent rejection is that they don’t connect on a personal level with the material, which can really mean anything. So, is it just that, a missed connection with an individual, or is there a more serious problem with the manuscript. How do you know? This is where volume comes into play. Getting a bunch of rejections can be a good thing, if there’s feedback involved. If you keep hearing the same thing over and over, that’s probably a sign of what the problem is. It’s pretty simple.

With my current novel, I’d received feedback from a half-dozen agents. This isn’t a ton, but all of them gave pretty specific reasons why they felt the book wasn’t right for them. Some of them were kind of dubious of my going from a collection of edgy, contemporary stories to writing a historical novel. I wondered if there’s something about historical fiction that precludes it from being edgy, but realized that that probably wasn’t the problem. It was the way my book was structured, the way I was trying to shelter my protagonist from doing bad things—which is a problem, since I have trouble writing “nice guys”—and the way I sometimes allowed the history to overpower the story and how this also put a dry, scholarly slant to the narrative voice. (And a lot of this came from my having to figure out the history too. It was hard to understand the scope and structure of the story while I was still learning new, game-changing things about the history I’m dealing with. I put a lot of stock in the idea that we think best through writing. It just took me a lot of words to grasp these ideas.) I couldn’t see these problems without my clutch of rejection notes, which is the larger point here. It sucks to struggle through a stack of rejections, but this is why I’ve always enjoyed the process of submitting stories. I’ve been pretty lucky to get some nice feedback from editors and agents—that’s a big part of it—but the process is such a great motivator, conscience, and teacher as well. It makes you be honest with yourself about what’s actually on the page, the quality of the work, and what more you’ll have to wring out of it to make the story a success.

I’m not sure if there’s any other way for me to write besides building out of a series of failures. Maybe I’m too prideful to see my mistakes until well after I’ve made them. Maybe this is how it is for everyone. In any event, I think the rewrite of Hyphenates is turning out well. This new series of stets, scribbles, false starts, and mistakes is progressing nicely.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

yé-yé girl

“It was liberating to sit on the stoop early in a May evening, in those middle-spring hours when it was warm enough for Jacob to roll up his shirtsleeves and let the air hit his skin again. It was one of the main promises of spring, that there would be more of these nights to come, barefoot and comfortable, reclined in a sturdy chair. No mosquitoes yet, no bearing-down evening swelter. The whole world was green in those hours, breezy and clear.”

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

New England Review and CutBank for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Copper Nickel and Third Coast for “These Things That Save Us.” And, of course, “The Housekeeper” was published on Flatmancrooked last week!

Now Reading

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.

Just Finished

Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky. An interesting study of the anti-hero as filtered through French cinema. It’s pretty good! Highly recommended for all fans of movies set in Paris, or for anyone who has named their first-born child after the heroine of their favorite French film.

Up Next

Greetings from Below by David Philip Mullins.