"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Summer Academics: What's on Your Reading List?

It's that time of year, that weekend when classes are officially done and there's a stack of portfolios to be graded (by tomorrow, because somehow you thought that was a good idea), but you're not awake yet because this weekend is also always filled with the intense socializing we've been unable to do since the beginning of the semester.  As a result, it's 9:48 and I'm really not awake, after a lovely night with friends.  I'm definitely an early-to-bed-early-to-rise person--most of the time the alarm goes off at 5:30 or 6:00.  So I have some Maritime Mist in the Bredemeijer and I'm contemplating the wisdom of hopping into these fiction portfolios before I'm fully caffeinated or if dishes might be a better way to ease into it.

I'm heading North this week and I'm excited about it.  My nephew had his three-month birthday on the 26th and he's finally the size of a normal baby.  He hasn't hit double digits yet, but he's getting close.  My parents took my three-year-old niece to the horse exhibition at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, because C. is delightfully horse crazy, but my mother reported that there was something going on in C's brain yesterday, some sort of logic that said she was being disloyal to her favorite horses last summer, if she showed too much interest in yesterday's.  But C. wore her little red cowboy boots and what's not to love about babies in boots?  C. and I have a pedicure party planned for this week, among other things.  My grandmother had a stroke two weeks ago and while we thought (again) that this was the end, she's bounced back, good as new.  Between Gram and Grandpa (who passed away in 2006), we've got some good longevity-genes in our blood.  But Gram was diagnosed with terminal cancer in March, three days before she turned 90, so I want to spend as much time with her as I can.  (And all of this reminds me that life is wonderful and worth writing about--and my family is a constant reminder that real life can be as fascinating to write about as fiction.  Though C. and Gram would make excellent characters...)

But there are things To Do.  Many things.  My list includes:

  • Write article on Tim Robinson and Chris Arthur by 1 June.
  • Plan Summer 254 class, to start on 10 June.
  • Read for and then write paper on Irish noir for IASIL conference
  • ...and then turn that paper into a full-length article to submit by 1 September.
  • Continue to submit my two books to various presses.
  • Get some essays out there into the world.
And that's not even counting my summer reading list, which I haven't even started working on.  Right now, all that's on my reading list is what I need to read for those papers and the class I'm doing.  Which includes (some rereads):
  • Tim Robinson, Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom.
    • I'm probably going to need to reread a fair number of his other books to write this paper...
  • Chris Arthur, On the Shoreline of Knowledge.
    • Same, as Robinson.
  • Maeve Brennan, The Long-Winded Lady.
  • Dervla Murphy (haven't decided the book).
  • Declan Burke, Eightball Boogie.
  • Benjamin Black (reread all of them).
  • Adrian McKinty, Cold, Cold Ground.
  • Arlene Hunt (not sure yet).
  • Tana French (reread most of them).
  • Ken Bruen (reread most of them).
  • Paul Gruchow, Letters to a Young Madman.
  • Sean Doolittle, Burn.
  • Joy Castro, Nearer Home (even though it's not out yet).
  • I won't tell you how many William Kent Kruger books I'm behind... 
  • And I really need to read more Colum McCann, Colm Toibin, Emma Donoghue, and Sebastian Barry.
And this morning, hopped up on Maritime Mist (with sugar, because I feel like celebrating), this interview with Theo Dorgan and Colum McCann just gives me all kinds of ideas about writing and place and what does it mean to be a writer-in-a-place, a writer-of-a-place, and why does it even matter? (It does matter, but the question is one worth long hours of consideration.)  And I'm hoping that whatever I read this summer gives me fodder to create a couple of new classes/syllabi to have in my syllabi bank.

Even though I get tremendous joy from rereading books, I really want to plow some new ground here.  I'm hoping that I get to teach Eng. 180 (Intro to Lit), so I hope I can read some new books to bulk up for that.  I want to read more Agatha Christie, more Raymond Chandler--and maybe this is the summer that I make myself read Dashiell Hammett.  My shelves of Crime Lit are full of books I picked up at last year's library book sale--and I haven't read them yet.  I really want to bulk up on my noir, because that's pretty thin in my experience and I find it fascinating.

I haven't even mentioned yet the summer prep required for the extreme sport that is The Job Search.  I need to rework my materials and hope that they will bring me better luck than last year.

Wherever I end up reading and writing, whether it's my parents' basement or their living room, my sisters' backyard, or some other place, there will be much reading.  What's on your Summer Reading List or your Summer To Do list?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

End of the Semester Advice to Students

I've given this speech to my students at the end of every semester for more semesters than I can count.  (And I thought I'd posted it to this blog before, but I can't find it, so here it is again.)  I first came across this piece when I was doing my MFA and my friend Matt sat me down on his couch and read it to me.  It was in an issue of Men’s Health and it was an issue on 100 Things to do Before You Die or something like that.  Bob Shacochis’s “Become an Expat” was #16 and it’s also hanging on my office door for anybody to read. 

This time, as I read it, I have plans in the works for a July trip to Ireland to present at the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures conference (a paper titled "'My Kinda Place': The Craft of the Urban in Contemporary Irish Noir," which basically means I'm going to be looking at how several contemporary noir novelists craft urban spaces to be active participants in their narratives.)  But I'll spend a week in Belfast (which I've only been to once and that was with an incredible sinus infection, so I don't think it counts) and then I'll go to Galway for a week to finish up writing my dissertation.  

Not only do I appreciate this little piece for its content, but I love it as a writer.  It never fails to light a little something inside me, as a writer as well as a traveler.  Besides being beautifully written (listen to the internal rhymes in the “here’s the point” paragraph), it makes me a little itchy and makes me want to explore whatever options are available to go live abroad.  It makes my restless soul a little more restless, which is sometimes a good thing.  It inspires me, so I hope it inspires my students to continue to think outside the box—and even to live outside the box.

I don’t remember when I started making this piece a part of my End of the Semester speech to my students, but this is the gist of it.  

"When you teach grad students, those brainy, dreamy, slack-ass selves who have been squeezed through the educational intestine into the relatively expansive bowel of never-ending higher education, you have a recurring thought each time you enter a seminar room and scan the robust, nascently cynical faces of the whatever generation horseshoed around the table, receptive to the morsels of your wisdom: When are you guys ever going to get the fuck out of here?

And I don't mean finish the degree, get a job, a life. I mean turn your life upside down, expose it, raw, to the muddle. 'Put out,' as the New Testament (Luke 5:4) would have it, 'into deep water.' A headline in the New York Times on gardening delivers the same marching orders: IF A PLANT'S ROOTS ARE TOO TIGHT, REPOT. Go among strangers in strange lands. Sniff, lick, and swallow the mysteries. Learn to say clearly in an unpronounceable language, 'Please, I very much need a toilet. A doctor. Change for a 500,000 note. I very much need a friend.'

If you want to know a man, the proverb goes, travel with him. If you want to know yourself, travel alone. If you want to know your own home, your own country, go make a home in another country (not Canada, England, or most of Western Europe.) Stop at a crossroads where the light is surreal, nothing is familiar, the air smells like a nameless spice, and the vibes are just plain alien, and stay long enough to truly be there. Become an expatriate, a victim of self-inflicted exile for a year or two. Sink into an otherness that reflects a reverse image of yourself, wherein lies your identity, or lack of one. Teach English in Japan, aquaculture in the South Pacific, accounting in Brazil. Join the Peace Corps, work in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, set up a fishing camp on the beach of Uruguay, become a foreign correspondent, study architecture in Istanbul, sell cigarettes in China.

And here's the point: Amid the fun, the risk, the discomfort, the seduction and sex in a fog of miscommunication, the servants and thieves, the food, the disease, your new friends and enemies, the grand dance between romance and disillusionment, you'll find out a few things you thought you knew but didn't.

You'll learn to engage the world, not fear it, or at least not to be paralyzed by your fear of it. You'll find out, to your surprise, how American you are--100 percent, and you can never be anything but--and that is worth knowing. You'll discover that going native is self-deluding, a type of perversion. Whatever gender or race you are, you'll find out how much you are eternally hated and conditionally loved and thoroughly envied, based on the evidence of your passport.

You'll find out what you need to know to be an honest citizen of your own country, patriotic or not, partisan or nonpartisan, active or passive. And you'll understand in your survivor's heart that it's best not to worry too much about making the world better. Worry about not making it worse.

When you come back home, it's never quite all the way, and only your dog will recognize you."

As our time together is coming to a close, I want to end the semester with the best advice I can give you. And that is to Get Out of Here.  If at all possible, study abroad.  And I’m not meaning a vacation to Europe for a couple of weeks.  I mean living somewhere long enough that you have to go grocery shopping and unpack your suitcase.  Go for a semester or a year.  And if at all possible, don’t share your living space with people who come from the same place you do.  There are things you can only learn by picking up your life and seeing what it looks like somewhere else.  There are things you will never learn in a book, never learn in college.  Some things you have to see for yourself.  The milk will come in a different shaped carton, the vegetables might be called by a different name.  Maybe there will be different flavors, different colors.  But what you learn about yourself will be the most important.  I took great classes when I was in Ireland, some of which remain my favorite classes I’ve ever taken, but I learned what I could put up with and what I couldn’t.  Nothing is too small to learn.

I disagree that you shouldn’t go to most of Western Europe.  I went to Ireland because they spoke English.  At least I thought they spoke English—and that’s something you’ll never learn in a book, that Irish English and British English and American English are not the same thing, barely from the same root language.  You need to learn for yourself what you can handle and what you can’t.  You can’t learn that in a book. 

[Pause:  I’m making myself homesick for Ireland, as always happens when I make this speech…and it’s not helping that the weather outside is damp, I’ve got Irish Breakfast in my mug, and the Chieftains on iTunes…]

If your educational plan or finances don’t allow for studying abroad, when you get out of college, don’t take a job in your hometown or even your home state.  If you’ve got a plan for grad school, choose a place nowhere near anything that’s familiar.  Go somewhere you’ve always been curious about. Go to a place you’ve never been, just because you can—go to a place that you have a crush on. Nobody says you have to stay there forever.  But you should go.  Just go.  Because you can—and you should.  There’s no reason why you shouldn’t.  Throw a dart at a map if you have to and go live there long enough that you make a choice to return.  I’ve known way too many people who are still in my hometown just because they never left. If your dream is to go back to your hometown and take a job there, make it a deliberate choice to return.  Don’t ever end up anywhere by default just because you never left. 

I grew up in northern Minnesota and I went to college in western Minnesota.  But when I got out of college, I went to eastern Washington, a place I had no experience with, where I only knew one other soul.  And you’d think that there wouldn’t be much cultural difference between certain parts of the country, because we’re all Americans, right?  Wrong.  Absolutely wrong.  In the Pacific Northwest, I learned that while they’re friendly people, they’re also very self-sufficient and stay out of each other’s business, to the point where people won’t offer to help you.  You have to ask for it.  Why is this?  Well, I figure that because the Northwest was so far away from government that they had to rely on themselves for survival and now they dislike any kind of interference, telling them how to live.  When I graduated from grad school and moved to Ohio, I thought there wouldn’t be much difference between Minnesota and Ohio, since they’re both Midwestern states, but that’s almost been the worst culture shock I’ve suffered so far.  And you’d never know that unless you experience it for yourself.  I've been in Nebraska for three years now and I could talk to you about all kinds of things that happen in Nebraska that don't happen elsewhereand this is a good thing.

It’s been many, many years since I left Minnesota and I’m not back there yet—and it's a place I want to return to.  But I need to make the choice to return there.  I don’t want anything in my life to be default.  And neither should anything be in your life.  Be deliberate about your decisions.

The best advice I can give is Get Out Of Here. 

So, Get Out Of Here.  

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

State of Mind: Boston, Doolittle, Crime Fiction and the Necessity of Fiction in Tragedy

When I was in high school, the welding shop in our small town exploded.  A spark landed where it shouldn’t have and my hometown got its first taste of this kind of tragedy.  Those who were inside survived, but not easily.  Randy Rhodes had third-degree burns over 90% of his body and even at the hospital, he needed to be revived several times.  I didn't know him well, but I knew who he was.  Over the course of several months, he received skin grafts and fought infections, his fingers and toes had to be amputated, but he survived.  I remember seeing him once and the large diamond shapes on his arms, the result of the skin being pulled tightly to cover him.  I remember when he was finally well enough to remake his life and he started making wooden toys.  He joked that they were handmade—no fingers involved.

Last week, Sean Doolittle came to UNL to talk with my fiction class about his novel Rain Dogswhich begins with an explosion in a small town in western Nebraska.  It was an incredible time in my classroom, getting to talk with a writer about the book we’d just finished, to ask him all that we’d been wondering about process and craft, the line between crime fiction and literary fiction.  That afternoon, I assembled a diverse group of panelists to talk about crime literature in the academy—from the fiction writing side, with Sean and Joy Castro, the literature side, with Wendy Oleson and Jackie Harris, and the critical theory aspect, with Roland Vegso.  Bailey Library was full, to my very great surprise and pleasure.  The discussion was lively, lively enough that I didn’t want to cut it off to shift to the Q&A portion—and that provided some incredibly interesting perspectives I wish we’d had more time to explore.  Overall, though, it signaled to me that we have a lot to talk about—and I hope we can continue the discussion in another time and place. (I'll post separately about my class's conversation with Doolittle.)

But as I got up this morning to the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings, afraid to pull up the news on my computer—because I don’t have a television or cable—I couldn’t shake my 9/11 flashbacks, the cold, the nausea.  When 9/11 happened, I was living in Spokane, unpacking my first apartment, and I didn't have cable then either and the entirety of my first impressions was my imagination.  When classes started, we were all hyper-aware of how our students would be dealing with the aftermath and this morning, as I prepare for my classes today, I want to teach them how to channel what they're feeling into their writing.  Partly, it's catharsis, but partly, it's also using the energy of that grief that has nowhere to go.  When 9/11 happened, I ended up writing thirty, forty, fifty pages in my novel, channeling all that grief and impotent rage into one of my characters.  How do we make sense of the senseless?  (It’s another conversation entirely that this was my first disaster that I followed solely via social media.  That’s an interesting way of telling a story—I wonder what that would look like, on a page, if the story was told in tweets.)

In my 252 class, though, we're going to be talking about Sean Doolittle's visit to our class last week—and I want to ask them to consider some other aspects:  Rain Dogs begins with an explosion and the (eventual) death of one of the boys caught in it.  We're doing the second workshop of their short stories (which are due next week) and it's become a running joke in that class that it's very dangerous to be a character in our class, because nearly every single story has killed off at least one character, if not all of them.  Why do we consider violence to be entertaining?  What is our responsibility as writers?  It's not the Boston Marathon Bombings that's the hot point—it’s the fear and the grief and the motive and the aftermath that's the hot point.  There is more to conflict and drama than death—even incredible acts of terror like we saw yesterday. 

Is tragedy necessary for fiction?  And is fiction necessary during a tragedy?  (I do not mean conspiracy theories.)  Is fiction what we need to give voice to things we cannot say?  It's an interesting question.

The point is not that this week is the most dangerous time in America—from 15 April to 20 April—that Patriot’s Day (the 3rd Monday of April) to Hitler’s birthday is the time when the majority of terrorist activity happens inside our borders.  It’s Waco, it’s Virginia Tech, it’s Oklahoma City, it’s Columbine, it’s Boston.  The conflict and the drama is what happens after the terror subsides:  it’s how we trust and distrust, it’s how we respond to the people around us.  9/11 really did change us—and not all in good ways—and it was something I noticed before I had to turn off the looping video of the bomb:  this is the first American bombing (that I’m aware of) where our instincts are now to run towards the bomb, not away, and those who were not close enough to run towards the bomb found their first instincts were to donate blood.  I don’t want to make any sweeping statements about how tragedy brings us together, how we’re all Americans and we won’t be cowed—because that’s not the point either and actually, that rhetoric isn’t particularly helpful. 

The reality, as I see it, came to me as I was driving to campus this morning, on the sixth anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings that reminds me that I am not safe even in a learning environment:  one of the interviews I saw this morning was with one of the emergency trauma surgeons at one of the Boston hospitals and he was talking about the types of injuries he was seeing.  Traumatic amputations, shrapnel, lower limb trauma.  The kinds of injuries you see in a war zone.  He said that the other surgeon he works with is a military surgeon, with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And all I could think was we’re not at war—these types of war injuries should not be feeling familiar.  But then, we are at war.  We’re at war with ourselves.  It’s impossible to listen to the news anymore—and it doesn’t matter if you lean left or right—without hearing incredible and dangerous rhetoric.  Language matters.  This is what happens when we forget that what we say and how we say it matters.  And as writers, what is the responsibility and the opportunity of art to respond to these situations?

I don’t know what to make of violence as entertainment.  I don’t know what my students and I will talk about later this morning, but I’m looking forward to the conversation.  Maybe it’s not that we’re writing violence to be entertaining—maybe we’re not reading crime literature to be entertained—but maybe it’s that we need to write our greatest fears, write through them so they’re not stuck inside us.  If crime literature is based in the greatest fears of a society, than individual works must be based in the greatest fears of a writer.  Maybe the act of writing gives us some way to reconcile the senselessness we see in front of us and forging a way forward when the way is filled with smoke and blood.

But really, I don't know.  And I don't expect that feeling will go away anytime soon.  Fellow teachers and writers, how will you address Boston in your classes?  In your writing?