On Short Stories (2)

The summer of 2009 was significant for me in two major ways. The primary significant event was the birth of my son (our first child) on July 18. The second significant aspect was that I made the official turn toward the short story as my preferred form.

Two years earlier I had entered my doctoral program as a poet, planning to write a poetry manuscript for my dissertation. A year later (2008), I took a fiction-writing seminar (somehow surviving Literary Criticism’s attempts to argue for a text’s essential instability and the author’s unimportance) and found myself captivated (again) by the reading and writing of short stories.

Which brings me to 2009, when I had already decided to move in the direction of a short-story collection for my dissertation, and as a result, I signed up for an independent study with my future dissertation chair, Brian Bedard. We agreed to a plan of three brand-new stories, three drafts each, a conference after the first draft of each. But more than the writing, I decided to read a bunch of short stories. Brian specifically assigned me to read John Steinbeck’s collection, The Long Valley, for the reason that my stories (up to that point) were Spartan in their level of detail. He told me he wanted me to pay attention to Steinbeck’s use of description and setting.

I read the collection, found myself more appreciative of Steinbeck’s gifts than I had been before. On my own, I read T.C. Boyle’s Stories, compiled from his first four short-story collections (60+ stories). I was also continuing in my role as a fiction reader for South Dakota Review (of which Brian was also the editor), reading the stories that were “new,” acquiring a better sense of what others around the country (and the world) were writing at that time.

Then there was the matter of my own stories. I was experiencing an excitement in the initial drafting stage, in my meetings with Brian in his office on the second floor of Dakota Hall–the summer’s easy pace allowing me to take my time on stories and savor the opportunity–, in my second drafts, and in the third drafts I submitted in a portfolio at the beginning of August, just a few weeks after the arrival of my son.

The first half of that summer, for a six-week period (mid-May through the end of June), I drove to Sioux Falls two days a week to teach a remedial-writing course to five motivated students. The class sessions were nearly four hours, but the length didn’t bother me. We spent an hour on some grammatical or mechanical aspect, wrote a particular type of paragraph, read and discussed a couple of brief essays, reviewed the homework, and then had a mini-workshop on their paragraphs from the previous class session. And when I was done, I drove to the Barnes & Noble and spent the rest of the afternoon, a good 2-3 hours (minimum), working on the first drafts of my three stories.

When I began each one, I had no idea where they were going, no desire to know the ending from the outset. And once I completed a first draft, I gave a second pass before sending it along to Brian, curious as to his response, what feedback he might offer. I knew that the stories would only improve with each successive version. I watched how, with each successive version, the characters became more distinctive, the settings more developed, the conflicts more pronounced. I could feel myself growing as a fiction writer, being stretched and tested (experiencing the delight of real education).

In 2011, those three stories became a part of my dissertation, and since then, I’ve published two of those three. I hope the third one will find a home sometime this year (or the next). But I’m not in a hurry. I’m trying to take my time, just as I did that summer. I wasn’t under pressure then, and I’m not now. I am moving forward in my vocation, feeling the sense of satisfaction in doing what I have been called to do.

On My Weather Obsession

In 2 1/2 years of living in Central Texas, I’m still in awe of the weather, the heat of the summer, the mildness of the winter. I suspect that as a native Minnesotan, as someone who lived there for 27 years, I will for many years more remain in awe of the weather here. This afternoon, it will nearly reach 70 degrees. It was over 70 yesterday. Blue skies and those high wispy clouds that I love but cannot name.

Yesterday afternoon, I sat in my backyard, prepping for the next session of the poetry class I teach. I was reading chapters from my textbooks, reading my students’ first poems, and jotting down details for a poem of my own. This afternoon I will sit outside and read from a long novel I’m enjoying very much: Larry Woiwode’s Beyond the Bedroom Wall. Later, I will take my son out to play disc golf. And tomorrow afternoon (again a forecast of blue skies and 70), we’ll take a family trip to the zoo.

All of this in mid-January.

It feels as though I’m living in some kind of fantasy world, my memories of unseasonably warm days renewed by the reality of days not that far removed from the norm for this part of the state. (Average January high here: 57.)  Average January temperature in my MN hometown? 24. Average January temperature in the Northwestern MN town where I completed my M.F.A.? 18.

One of several recurring elements in my poetry, fiction, and nonfiction is weather. As I joke (though it’s true), the wind is always blowing in my poems, stories, and essays, the weather is always present doing something. I’m a weather junkie, have always been fascinated by it, the unseasonably warm days in winter, the unseasonably cool days in summer, the data, the storms (whether they involve snow, ice, rain, wind, etc.). After all, as an undergrad in college, I used to leave The Weather Channel on in my room while I studied or did schoolwork.

I doubt I’ll ever lose my weather fixation, and so it will continue to manifest itself in my creative works, even as a breeze ruffles the pages in my open notebook. Now to head outside and make the most of the afternoon.

2015 Poetry Writing

Last weekend I was creating my 2015 poetry folder in Dropbox, and I started looking back through previous years’ folders (with one for each year, going back to 2004). In 2014 I wrote first (and some subsequent) drafts of 60 poems, 40-something each in 2013 and 2012. Taking that initial inventory prompted me to dig into the files some more.

I sorted out the poems that I’ve published in journals and in my chapbook, and imagine my surprise when I tallied around 300 unpublished poems, counting a 55-poem manuscript I drafted in 2005. I promptly asked my wife to guess how many unpublished poems (dating back to 2004) she thought I had, and her response was 93. When I told her to triple the number, she was as shocked as I originally was.

This entire “discovery” shifted part of my writing goals for 2015. At the end of every year, I reflect on my “production” as a writer, as well as on what I’ve published. Then I look ahead to the next year and set goals as far as poem drafts and revisions, story drafts and revisions, essay drafts and revisions, book reviews, blog posts, etc.

For poetry, my initial idea for 2015 was drafting a new poem each week, and revising a poem each week. Well, realizing my “back log” of poetry, I decided to change my plan somewhat, instead writing at least two poem revisions a week, and not “requiring” any new poems this year. I’m teaching a poetry writing class again this spring anyway, so I’ll no doubt generate some new poems when I’m writing in-class poetry prompts with my students.

For whatever reason, I’ve started working through poems from the 2008 folder, and it has been so much fun! I don’t have the pressure of the blank page (a pressure that after all of these years that I still feel at times), and I have the benefit of six years’ distance. I can’t wait to count how many “old” poems I’ll have revised by the year’s end.