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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

One year left. In a scant five days I’ll be back down to Ioway. Am I excited? In some ways. I’m ready for the structure of my teaching and learning, ready for the deadlines of Workshop and for the peculiar atmosphere of Ioway City where all my friends and colleagues are all interested in literature and poetry, all trying to figure things out. I’m not excited about another year away from Regina and Henry. Or another year of driving six hundred miles a week. I feel very fortunate that I never had any accdients last year and I’m hoping that my luck holds out for another year.

I’ve had some great weekends of late. Visited my Grandpa in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and was able to spend some quality time with him and also my brother Alex. We took a sauna, had a nice bonfire, took some good walks, and observed more birds than I can remember in recent years. Just this last weekend we returned to Eau Claire and met my uncles there for a tour of the Leinenkugal’s brewery. Also had a nice dinner with my Mom and Dad.

I’m presently reading Josh Weil’s “The New Valley.” It is such a stupendously beautiful book that I read it with equal parts envy and wonder. His style is akin to a young Cormac McCarthy, with elements of Breece DJ Pancake thrown in for good measure. The blurbs on the jacket of the book are the kinds of compliments that any young writer would kill for. Here’s to hoping that my debut book is even half as well received – if and when it comes out.

Which reminds me… In recent months I’ve become reticent to talk about my upcoming publications either on this blog or through Facebook, but I guess I’m doing a disservice to the very publications that believe in my work by neglecting to mention them. In that spirit: the newest issue of “Ploughshares” features my first published short story entitled “Apples” which is loosely based on someone in my life that many of you who might read the story will recognize. I also have a poem forthcoming in the journal “Alimentum” and another short story appearing on “The Kenyon Review Online.” I’m excited about all of these publications and thankful to their editors and readers.

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Last week, settling down in front of my laptop, trying to think of some kind of Facebook status update, I thought I know these roads like the back of my hands. But I’m becoming tired of Facebook, so I didn’t write anything at all. Then, on Friday, back in the car and driving north to Minnesota, the highway stretched out before me like a spool of black tape, I thought What a perfect expression! That’s my new favorite expression!

Because ALL I DO IS LOOK AT THE BACKS OF MY HANDS. For ten hours a week, driving, the road so familiar I could draw you a map from Arden Hills, Minnesota to Iowa City, Iowa – every little hill, farm, rest stop, river, casino, truck stop, pasture, forest, grain silo… Also, as a writer, you’re always staring at your hands. Waiting for them to move, to create something.

Today marks the last time I need to drive south for several months. We visit Iowa City in June for the big reunion, but otherwise, I wouldn’t have to come back at all until August.

In other news:

Completed William Maxwell’s “So Long, See You Tomorrow” – incredible. Presently reading Anthony Doerr’s “The Shell Collector.”

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Alright, I’ve been away from Light Travels Faster Downhill for a period now approaching two months. I have some good reasons:

1.) I’ve been thinking about my stories. A lot. As in, staying up at night, laying in bed, wrestling with imaginary characters and invisible plot lines, etc. In the last three weeks and specifically in four very trying days I completed my longest short story/novella yet; another story about a wedding in the Upper Midwest that presently spans about 57 pages.

This is very good news for me as a writer because to me it indicates that I’m stretching out ideas, developing characters more and settling into scene. The new story is rough (it debuts in Workshop next Tuesday), but I’m very proud of it. It combines elements of a story that my brother-in-law Reidar told me about, the wedding of my friends Chuck & Shannon, and remembrances of my childhood and my father.

2.) I’m beat. I’m exhausted. I’m tired of driving, tired of being away from Henry and Regina. Tired of spending ten hours behind the wheel when I could, when I ought to be doing SOMETHING, anything, productive. I’m really just dog-tired. About two weeks ago I left Minnesota on Monday afternoon and Henry began SOBBING, clinging to me like a little koala bear. It was heartbreaking. I had to wonder if it was borderline traumatic, how much he understands about my current schedule and our lives. I have so much to be thankful for in terms of the Writer’s Workshop, but at the same time, I’m also ready to be coming down the home stretch.

3.) I began wondering about this blog, its pertinence. WHY (?) am I writing blog and who am I writing it for? For myself? For friends and family? I just began rolling those questions around in my head. The truth is, I’m not sure questioning a project like this is really worthwhile. Some of my friends and relatives seem to get a kick out of it, so I’m going to keep maintaining it (this blog.) At the very least, it keeps me writing something.

4.) I’ve received dozens of rejections in the last few months and that has become a little depressing. I’ve also had some nice successes, but I think I’m the kind of person/writer who dwells on the failures to fuel his successes. If that makes sense.

So anyway, I’ll try to be more diligent.

Went to the doctor today. He seemed satisfied with my health though, they’re going to remove a mole from my back next week. So there’s that. Also, today in class, we read a poem written in 1993. I said to my students, “That doesn’t seem like so long ago to me, but I suppose its been eighteen years of pretty interesting American history. A lot has changed.”

To which one of my students said, “I was born in 1993.”

I began laughing hysterically and pulling at my thinning hair.

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Tomorrow (Tuesday March 1st) PBS will be filming our workshop. That is to say, Sam Chang’s workshop; twelve students including myself.

The class is always conducted in the most dramatic of the Workshop’s spaces: a room with a great circular table and expansive views of the Iowa River. In the early evenings crows gather by the hundreds or thousands and blacken out the crowns of nearby trees. Their noises are loud, even through the windows. Other nights, hawks and bald eagles wheel past our classroom.

PBS was also recently filming my friend Marcus Burke. His apartment, how he writes and where, his walk home. I’m so happy for him – you couldn’t BUY that kind of exposure – and he deserves it all. Mark my words: you will know the name of Marcus Burke in the coming years. He’s well on his way.

So, we’ll have to see how things go. Will cameras affect how we deal with one another? Will the two writers who “are up” get an honest shake? What will happen will people stop being polite and start getting real?

Ha. No, tomorrow will be cool. No where else in the world would this happen but at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

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The easiest thing I suppose, is for people to talk to me about the driving, and they’re always nice and sympathetic. It must be tough they say. So many miles, so many hours. But there really isn’t any other way for us to make this thing work, so I’ve always just pushed through. Done the driving no matter what. Monday nights, Thursday nights. Three hundred odd miles one way. And the truth is, if there were no other drivers on the highway, I WOULD LOVE IT. I could open the engine up, drive ninety miles an hour. My STEREO blasting. Writing notes for stories or poems. Drinking coffee. Watching the sunset, farmers in their fields, hawks, deer, turkeys. The rivers, always swollen. On Monday afternoon I was lucky enough to see sundogs for several hours on my drive south. Two brilliant vertical rainbows on either side of the sun, bright as the sun. Three suns above endless fields of white. Snow blowing over the fields of corn and great dunes and drifts along the fencelines and treelines.

My Monday drives are upbeat. I’m sorry to leave Regina and Henry behind, but it is the start of another week. Time to get back into my groove. Time to see my friends and students and professors. But Thursday’s drive is more difficult. I’m so excited to return home that I can’t speed time up enough. I can’t drive fast enough. When I reach the southernmost suburbs of the Twin Cities I’m still 30-45 minutes away from Arden Hills. The traffic bottlenecks in downtown Saint Paul and I can’t slingshot my way through. I always call Regina to tell her I’m close. I want to arrive home before Henry falls asleep. This is what being a father is, settling for even those final moments before he goes to sleep. Anything. Any time.

It’s almost two in the morning and I can’t fall asleep. Too much driving. Then exercise. A short story finished and a little poem.

Some advice for Minnesota drivers:

1.) The fast lane is on your left. Do not occupy the fast lane if you are driving slower than I am. And you will know me because I am glaring at you, ten feet off your bumper.
2.) Use your blinkers.
3.) Seventy really means seventy-five.
4.) Use cruise control so that we don’t perform constant two-car vehicular weaves. This is just annoying.

Just finished Samantha Chang’s All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost. Very elegant with a devastating ending.

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Come Monday, I’ll be back on the road. Driving south down to Ioway. What a terrific month it has been. I am ready to get back to my studies, my teaching, my writing, my reading, my friends, and my academic routine. But a month at home with Henry has been amazing. I am already excited for the summer when the weather will obviously be more hospitable and we can take long walks, go swimming, etc.

Netflix has certainly disrupted my nightly writing patterns, but after a month of watching at least a movie a day (and sometimes two or three), I’ve gotten back into my groove. I finished (or lengthened) a novella the other night and I’ve been cranking out some poems that I really like. Now I just need to find some homes for these writings.

In any case, Saturday night we’re headed to a dinner party and I’ll be rooting on the Green Bay Packers. Hopefully, Sunday morning won’t be a bad comedown.

PS – Over the break I read “This Is Just Exactly Like You” by Drew Perry, and I’m giving that novel my endorsement here. For me, it was akin to reading a more youthful Richard Russo. I also just finished reading the short story “We Have A Pope!” by Christopher Buckley – excellent.

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2011 looks like insomnia, so far. Up nights, watching documentaries on Netflix. Scribbling down notes for new short stories and stalling out every time I touch my novel(s). No handbook to do this stuff. You just enter a dark tunnel and hope for the best. Hope that the batteries in your flashlight don’t die. That’s the upshot of short stories – they’re short. The tunnel is short. You can be afraid of the dark and still make it. But everything I’m thinking about lately is longer. And I keep thinking, god Nick, you really ought to wrap that it into something longer. But the tunnel I’m in right now is very dark indeed.

I get a day to myself tomorrow, Henry at daycare. A day for me to make hay. I’m caught up on my letters. Some reading left to do, some prep work before the next semester begins. But I’m in good shape. Good shape to start kicking some doors down. To start pumping out some great writing. I’m right there.

Also, I think I have some good news to share, but I’m too superstitious to say/blog/write about anything at this moment. But it’s good news.

And I’ve been working out. With a Jillian Michaels DVD. It’s something. She kicks my ass every night. In the basement. I say to Regina, “I’m going to do Jillian now.” But the thing is, Jillian always does me.

AND –

Happy birthday to my Mom. Who I think today turns 50. Happy birthday Mom. No son in the world could ask for a better Mom than you. Truly.

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