Summer Writing Update

Heading into this summer, I only set the following writing goals:

  1. Make my poetry manuscript as publication-ready as possible
  2. Complete a first draft of a book-length memoir
  3. Write a blog post every other week here on
  4. Finish a revision of a short story

Poetry Manuscript:

This project is “done” (for the moment), and it’s a wonderful and exciting and satisfying feeling. The proposal and “final” manuscript have been sent to my publisher for to begin the various processes on their end. At this point I can’t elaborate more on the publishing component, but I will share more information in the future, and I will be using this website to promote the book, which is called Your Twenty-First Century Prayer Life: Poems.


As of yesterday morning, I finished the first draft of the manuscript. It’s rough, as would be expected, and because it covers several decades of my life, and sketches out various scenes, I had found increasingly difficult to add “new” content.

My first drafts of any kind of prose writing tend to be more skeletal, and so I decided it was time to call the first draft “done” and print it out. I already have some ideas about how and where I need to develop nascent ideas and places that I probably need to delete.

When I printed out all those pages late yesterday morning, that was a rewarding feeling. I am also excited about beginning the revision process because for me, revision is what I enjoy most about the writing process.

Blog Posts:

While 2016 was my “year of blogging,” this year I moved away from writing for others, for the most part. Part of me feels a little guilty about it, which is, of course, bizarre and illogical. Over the summer, I focused on the poetry manuscript and the memoir first draft, my two “big” projects.

Nonetheless, I wanted to get back into blogging in a less stressful, more freeing-way. I have enjoyed writing a post here on plains every other week. That rhythm feels about right to me, and plan to continue that schedule into the foreseeable future.

Short Story Revision:

Periodically throughout this summer I’ve returned to a short story that I’m revising for a second draft. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, I’ve found it difficult to gain traction on the story to finish a second draft. However, I’d like to make my way through it before the summer ends, and I believe that’s a reasonable goal.

Just this morning I returned to the story and found that I had “fresher” eyes to see the story. After working on the two big projects, revising a story feels so much more manageable.

Working Alone and Together

It’s stating the obvious to observe that writing is a solitary pursuit, but there, I’ve gone and said it anyway. No one will write my poems for me, my stories for me, my essays for me, or even that book-length memoir for me. No one. I am the one who chooses (or not) to work on these pieces, even this piece.

I’m by myself at this moment (5:45 a.m.), the rest of my family still sleeping.  A glass of cold water and a cup of coffee both within reach, a candle burning, a solitary lamp lighting me as I work. No one ordered me to set my alarm for 5:30.

To be clear, I am mostly comfortable with this arrangement of my writing life. It’s no real bother to be “by myself” trying to put down the right word, then the next right word, etc. (I’m not sure how strong extroverts manage to become writers, but they do.)

But the other day I was thinking about my “condition,” 12 years removed from finishing my MFA, 5 years removed from finishing my PhD. I realized an essential component of the writing life I was missing: accountability with another writer.

To me, one of the best benefits of the graduate Creative Writing courses I took was the accountability built into the system. I had to turn in a story every few weeks. I had to turn in a poem each week. Beyond those structural “checks,” fellow writers and I talked in and out of class about our writing. There was genuine community, and I made friends with many of these folks, people I still keep in touch with to this day.

My writer-friends are scattered around the country: Oklahoma, Illinois, South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa, Georgia, among other states. I see these folks at conferences, at retreats. I see them online.

What did I do about this lack of accountability?

I reached out to one of my writer friends, to someone I thought who knows my “work,” what I’m “trying to do.” Would he like to start swapping work? He said yes, and we’re in the very first stage of this process, more accurately, on the first piece we sent each other.

As I write this, I am rereading the poem he sent, pining over what comments I might make. And in this set of actions, I’m moving beyond that inward focus towards the self. I am instead considering how I might encourage the writer, what words I might offer that can be of help.

It is a tiny step, yes, towards focusing outward, toward others. Of course, I am curious about what comments he’ll make on my poem. Right now, however, I am not considering that. I am (re)learning this truth: we were made for community. 

The Rhythms of Reading and Writing

I’ve commented here before about how I tend to write in the genres I am currently teaching. Although I’ve written for a long time, I’m still discovering things about my writing process, as well as about my writing and reading rhythms. Over the last weeks, I’ve been thinking and analyzing. What trends and tendencies are there? How might I make better use of my time, to write smarter, to read smarter?

One conclusion, after doing some close study, is that when I’m tired, fatigued, or experiencing difficulty concentrating, it’s much easier to write prose. Trying to write poetry, whether drafting or revising, is near impossible and most often futile at these times. I believe part of this is because I’m thinking less precisely on each word, as I tend to do in poetry. (Of course at the later stages of a prose piece, I am scrutinizing each word, but not so much in earlier drafts.)

For instance, a few autumn’s ago, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. each weekday morning to write, more specifically to write short fiction. With the music of Hammock in my ears, with the large mug of hot black coffee, I was ready to enter those fictional worlds. I could pick up where I left off the day before as I gradually awoke to the real and the made-up worlds.

With reading prose–whether novels, short stories, or creative nonfiction–I am also able to enter into the worlds without much difficulty. There’s no warm-up necessary. I resume the novel, the memoir, or start the next short story with relative ease.  Again, this characteristic is a likely result of the way I read poetry, with such close attention.

I suppose it sounds as though I am a “sloppy” prose reader, and when I’m tired, perhaps that’s true. With prose, however, I do focus on the individual sentence, reading just as much for how the writer uses language.

These conclusions are already helping me as both a reader and writer. Poetry is best when I most alert, most awake, which generally means the mornings. I want and need to interact with the poem in as coherent a state as possible. Prose is for any time.

When I have the desire to write but the flesh is weak, I know I can stumble my way through the sentences, wandering through the rooms of paragraphs, not concerned about the hallways, knowing that I can (and will) return when I am alert to renovate the house of prose into a coherent design.

Bookmarked on the Nightstand–5.2.16

Watching the Spring Festival: Poems, by Frank Bidart

Okay, so I know Bidart is an important name in contemporary poetry, and I first read his work last summer on my journey through the Norton Anothology of Contemporary Poetry.

I’ve been halfway through this book for several weeks now. (Disclosure: there are only twenty-something poems.) It has been difficult to get some traction. I feel as though I’m missing something because I read a poem, reread it, and then scratch my head. Perhaps I’m not the best audience. I’m not sure.

I plan to finish the book, perhaps starting over (again). We’ll see what happens.

One of Ours, by Willa Cather

This marks my sixth novel by Cather, and it’s of special interest to me for two other reasons: 1) It’s set during World War I & 2) It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1923.

As for the former reason, I have a keen interest in World War I, specifically literature set during and writing during that pivotal time. I also teach a literature class in which the first unit is literature from that era. And as for the latter reason, I am slowly making my way through the list of Pulitzer-Prize winners of fiction.

I’m trying to read all of Cather’s novels (and then the short fiction and poetry), and when I finish this compelling novel, I’ll be at the halfway point with her novels.


Leapings: Revelations and Epiphanies, by Brian Doyle

This is a great collection of essays and creative nonfiction pieces by a contemporary author, editor of Portland Magazine. (Yea, Portland!) He writes about faith, about family, about storytelling, doing so with a precision and a humor that is keeping me engaged. Of special note is his longer essay about writing itself.

I heard him give an amazing reading at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College back in 2012. Moreover, he’s going to be the keynote at the writers’ festival I direct, so I’ll have the opportunity to meet him in February. I can’t wait.

Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut

As I’ve noted multiple times before in this pace, I’m a short-story afficiando. I’ve also wanted to read more of Vonnegut’s work. His story “Harrison Bergeron” was one of the first stories I taught as a first-year TA, and I’ve taught it multiple times since then.

That story is in this collection, but so are a host of other good stories. (I’m about halfway through.) They have that characteristic dark humor he’s know for. There’s much absurdity and creativity (in terms of plot, character, and setting), and I’m continually impressed by how in each world, regardless of the length, he manages to create believability and depth.

On Raymond Carver

I was first introduced to Raymond Carver’s fiction in a “Craft of Prose” class nearly 15 years ago when my professor, Alan Davis, distributed photocopies of Carver’s “Popular Mechanics.” We read and discussed the story, and I was shocked by the drama’s high stakes, and even more so by the story’s matter-of-fact ending line: “In this manner, the issue was decided.” We talked about the parallel with the Old Testament story of Solomon trying to determine the true mother of an infant when two women both claimed they were the rightful mother.

A year later in a “Fiction Seminar” was Carver’s “Cathedral,” a story that has become one of my favorites to teach. Something beautiful and transcendent happens in that story, just as in the much darker “A Small Good Thing,” heart-wrenching as it is. (Side note: it’s such a better story than “The Bath,” the version first published but not before it had been gutted by his editor, Gordon Lish.)

Two summers ago I read Carver’s Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories. I was reading his (and others’) stories while also working on revising my own short stories. I felt simultaneously inspired and dejected–in awe of the craft and the character; in despair of my own seeming inability to create something faintly comparable. It’s a humbling yet instructive experience to read and learn from a master as you devote yourself to your own stories.

I recently read a collection of critical essays called New Paths to Raymond Carver. With pieces written by various critics, the book is a great read. Like the best criticism, these analyses cultivated in me a yearning to read the objects of the criticism. I joked to my wife that I wanted to (somehow) spend a week doing nothing but reading Carver.

Over my years of reading and studying Carver’s writings, I’ve learned much about dialogue, pacing, story structure, characterization, and even humor. The writing’s strong without preventing me from caring about the characters and what’s at stake for them. Some of my stories have been inspired by his work, not so much the scenarios, but more so the portrayal of characters that are not overly successful people. One of the things I appreciate (among many) about his work is his depiction of people (often) who are down on their luck in various ways, and he does so while avoiding authorial smugness.

Lastly, a statement from his essay “On Writing” is on a 3 x 5 notecard in my brain: “I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover.”

I apply this to my own work, I preach it to my students, and I consider how that applies to my daily interactions with people.