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Archive for November, 2010

Genius

Last year at this time, I had about fifteen applications floating around in the United States Postal Service to various and sundry universities and colleges around the country. In the end, most were not interested in me. But luckily, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was. When I first talked to Sam Chang, I was in denial about the reality of getting in. And for the first few weeks I wandered around lost, confused, and frankly scared shitless. I couldn’t believe that I was “in”. That I was part of it all.

To be sure, there is a lot of hype about the Workshop. The program has a kind of unstoppable inertia, street cred, and fame that is both warranted and at times overblown. But I’m telling you right now, this weekend I read three of my classmates’ work. One of the stories was amazing. One was borderline bad. But one of them, the one I just finished reading by Christina Kaminski, was GENIUS.

And that’s the thing. In the workshop I’m in, in James Alan McPherson’s workshop, there are SEVERAL flat-out geniuses. Writers that are just masterful, taking real chances, with emotion, with style, with story, with form. Writers that pull you into their unlikely stories and MAKE YOU BELIEVE. Christina is a just a marvelous writer. She has dynamic range, great sensitivity, real-world vision, and guts. Hands-down, everyone in the class agrees that her stories fairly burst with guts. With balls.

So I’m here to testify that the IWW isn’t just a name, or some entity without soul, just drifting along on is hallowed history. There are geniuses in the Dey House. Amazing writers.

I can’t believe that they’re also my friends. The people I drink and eat and party with. The people who share their work with me. Just incredible.

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Claire de lune

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It is Veteran’s Day and I write this letter to you from Iowa, where I sit in a comfortably appointed office on the grounds of a major land-grant university. I taught class this morning, to young men and women of the age that in other times of American war, would surely have been conscripted or volunteered for battle. Young, smooth faces. They give me great hope for America. They are sincere, kind, able. They may not love books but it is my job to try and make them love books. My life right now, my wonderful life, is about books. The only things I have to focus on are my family and books. On words. On such silly things as books and stories and poems. I am so fortunate.

There was always a part of me that wanted to be a soldier. That wanted the challenge of conscription, to be assimilated into something vast and mechanical such as the military. To have my body re-made, to learn warfare, to learn new skills, perhaps to lead. I thought, and think, that perhaps there was something bigger in me waiting to emerge, some version of myself more hard, more worldly, more rounded. I don’t know. I was sure that if I joined the military I could maintain myself, my individuality. And I have always loved fraternal endeavors, the camaraderie of teams and shared experiences.

But the truth is, I’d be a terrible soldier. I’m not in shape, not lean. I dream too much and maybe I’m too sensitive.

I watched the film “Restrepo” last night and just the act of passively sitting in a safe, American theater watching such violence, reality, and paradox was overwhelming to me. How could I watch my friends die? How could I march into a village of strangers and enemies and not be afraid? How would I manage my grief and sadness? How does anyone survive these things? How do you keep yourself from falling apart? Do you? Ever?

The truth is, I’m not smart enough to understand the machinations of war – why we as a species are always fighting. But I think that there is always real evil out there and that sometimes you have to stand up against that darkness. If you can’t see the dangers out there, the darkness, then perhaps your eyes are shut. We need warriors. We need codes. What I know is that there isn’t enough to go around, and sometimes people get hungry or angry and this is what war is essentially about.

We have family right now in Afghanistan and I’m thinking of CJ right now. I was thinking about him last night. I’m thinking about my friend and colleague Scott Smith. I’m thinking about Regina’s law-school friends: Ben, Nelson, Pete, and Emma. I’m thinking about my Grandpa and my own father. All those soldiers.

I think it is inside me to kill, to defend, to fight. I know that it is inside me. I think back to a night in Madison when a man once punched out the window of my car and I chased after him and beat the shit out of him in the middle of State Street. I beat him until a crowd surrounded me and pulled me off him. His blood was all over my garments and my fists were raw. In that moment, I didn’t know what was happening – I just did what my body told me to do.

But the notion of losing my friends, the fear of being chased or hunted. I don’t know. I’m strong enough to know that I’m not that strong and I thank those of you out there, right now in the deserts and mountains and cities for what you’re doing. For being warriors. For having a code and brotherhood and sense of things most of us cannot comprehend.

I just want to say thank you. I want to say that I believe in you. That I’m thinking of you. That I know that in some other time, I might be beside you. That I know that right now, I’m fortunate and comfortable. I believe you are protecting me. I believe that you are protecting my family. I will believe in you. I will believe that what you are doing is just and right. The best that I can do today is to be aware of where I am on this planet, to be aware of my family tonight, to know the oak trees of my neighborhood and to recognize them, and to know that you are somewhere else tonight. Somewhere dangerous and strange. But I am thinking of you. That I hope you are safe. That I hope your friends are safe.

You will be home soon too and when you do come home, know that I am waiting to hear what you have to say and what you don’t have to say. I am listening to you.

I don’t know what the right thing to say is, but I thought I would say this. I thought to say, thank you. It is all that I can do right now and it is no doubt not enough.

Godspeed.

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Agent

I met with another agent today. A very nice woman, highly accomplished and influential within the publishing industry. Handed her my manuscript. We had a nice chat. Parted ways. I watched her put my manuscript, my stories, in one of three stacks. Wondering which stack meant what.

It’s so hard. I’m SO close. I’m here, at this amazing program, learning from some of the biggest names in American literature and poetry, and meeting agents and it is all so close that you can feel it. But it’s frustrating. Because today, I had hoped that I could just have a conversation, just talk about what it is that she is looking for, that any agent is looking for. And I’m not sure that I know or understand. I’m not sure that I understand at all. It is enough to rattle a person.

I looked through my manuscript today. I re-read what I consider to be the weakest story in the collection and I thing is, I liked what I had written. It was somewhat raw and sweet and blue-collar and it was true to what happened in my life at that time. And I don’t see other people writing that stuff right now. It is what I would want to read.

Maybe I just need to put my head down. Just work for awhile without any of these distractions. Develop some tunnel vision.

The best advice that I received today was that it is time to start thinking about a novel. To relax and let it come out. And maybe that’s what I need to do. I don’t know. I don’t know. Outside, the world is blue and gray and I am a long way from home.

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This old house is cold. I’m wearing three layers of garments and laying in bed. I should have more blankets but I keep forgetting to bring them south from Minnesota. I just took a shower to warm up for even a little while. The coffee cup resting on the window-sill has even grown cold.

Swan is in town (technically camped just outside of town) and tomorrow I’ll take him for a tour of the university and the Dey House. Hopefully he’ll be able to sit in on my workshop and then perhaps we’ll all go out for dinner and drinks. Though I haven’t frequented the Foxhead much, no doubt we’ll darken its hallowed doorstep. And then I’ll join him for a cold night of car-camping out near Lake McBride. In the morning, we’ll rise and go hunt pheasants.

Truth is, I don’t care much for hunting. But in recent years I have developed an itch to go bird-hunting. In my mind I’m desirous to hunt pheasants and grouse. No interest in capping a duck or goose. They seem somehow more noble. But my Dad and I used to shoot trap (clay pigeons) and I loved that. So I’m looking forward to Wednesday. To walking through frost-crusted fields. To walking beside my best friend and his black dog, the weight of a shotgun cradled in my arm. Condensation in my mustache. The taste of hot coffee and at night, legs sore, the communion of fire and wine.

Post script: Henry-The-Dragon and I went to the grocery store together today, in character. Had a wonderful morning with Henry today. He slept on my chest and then played by himself for a while. He woke me up, a book in his hands, ready for a story. My favorite reader.

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