Visiting Red Cloud

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the childhood hometown of Willa Cather. As I wrote about in an earlier post, she is one of my favorite writers. I had been dreaming about this day ever since we made plans to travel through Red Cloud, Nebraska, on our vacation to visit family in Minnesota.

The afternoon was full of the blue sky and puffy clouds that I associate with her novels O Pioneers! and My Antonia. While my wife and kids played at a nearby park, I toured the inside of her childhood home and visited the newly opened Willa Cather center. This was my first literary pilgrimage, and it was everything I hoped it would be.


Exterior of house

FullSizeRender 2

Official dedicatory plaque


Dining room and Willa Cather’s highchair


Her bedroom (with original wallpaper)


One of Willa Cather’s writing desks

FullSizeRenderWilla Cather and Plainswriter


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.

What I’ve Read This Summer

In the two months since I’ve turned in spring grades, I have written a lot, but I’ve also been reading a lot. Here’s what I’ve read so far:

H. Porter Abbott: Real Mysteries

This is the one “scholarly” book on the list, a work in the branch of literary criticism known as narratology. Abbott explores how the idea of the “unknown” works in narratives, creating drama and developing characters, among other effects.

Saint Augustine: The Confessions

When I finished rereading this, I thought, why read another “Christian” book? There’s so much insight and depth of thought. It’s exquisitely written. There’s so much for the reader to chew on. You read a paragraph, and you’re pondering the big questions along with Augustine.

T.C. Boyle: Stories II

This 900-page tome has close to 60 of his short stories, and I found them to be just as good as those in Stories, which I read several summers ago. Few contemporary short-fiction writers are as good as he is. Each story is its own world.

Willa Cather: Collected Stories

This was the next step after I finished her twelve novels. Just as in the novels, her prose is a pleasure to read, and she has a fine eye for details. In a month’s time I will be visiting   Red Cloud, Nebraska, where she spent much of her childhood.

Dave Eggers: The Circle

This book, along with the last book (the only other novel on the list), was difficult to put down. The lack of chapters certainly helped compel me forward, but more than that was the scenario that Eggers imagines that is eerily prescient, which is especially surprising because the book was published in 2013.

Jim Gaffigan: Dad is Fat

I’ve watched (and listened to) his comedy specials many times, and this book was a great listen because it was read by Gaffigan. His delivery is as good as in the specials. So funny.

Mary Karr: The Art of Memoir

While reading this book, I underlined so many sentences. I was already a fan of her work (having read her first two memoirs), and I found the book to be immensely helpful as I continue with my own book-length memoir.

Sylvia Plath: Ariel

Before I read this influential poetry collection, I’d only read a handful of Plath’s poems (and taught some as well). This volume shows such skill, and it wasn’t as dark as I expected it would be.

Richard Ford: Between Them

Every time a new Ford book is released I feel much anticipation. This book, however, is his first extended work of memoir, with the book divided into two sections, each half about one of his parents. Ford is an only child, as I am, and so it was interesting to read about his relationship with each of his parents.

Suzanne M. Wolfe: The Confessions of X

I’m not a particular fan of historical fiction, not that I hold anything against it. I just rarely read any. But this book–wow! Reading this book while also rereading The Confessions was a wonderful experience. I found the depiction of Augustine’s concubine (who is the main character and narrator) to be very authentic and moving. Highly recommended.

Poetry Surplus

In addition to working on the first draft of a book-length memoir, I’m working on a book-length poetry manuscript. The latter is much further along in the writing process. Roughly a quarter of the poems have been published in various journals and magazines, and I’ve been revising the poems for several years.

I’ve been working on revisions with the help of an editor/poet as well as with another poet. The poems are, overall, becoming more precise and sharp. I’m starting to see the manuscript as a more coherent whole, observing previously unnoticed connections between poems. There’s a satisfaction in those “discoveries.” Right now, I’m revising the last ten poems before I send them along to the editor.

While this experience has been rewarding in so many ways, it motivated me to examine my unpublished poems that are not a part of this manuscript. A few years ago, I sorted through folders of unpublished poems, tallying some 300 (a conservative estimate). To be clear about the status of these unpublished poems, some are first drafts, second drafts, or third drafts.

I have begun pondering how to tackle those poems remaining in my hanging file folders (and their electronic counterparts) dating back to 2004. How could I possibly get a handle on these poems? How could I even begin the process of sorting through them?

However, because of my attention on this manuscript, I’ve been thinking of poems as groups, as possibly other books or poetry chapbooks. Last Monday, for instance, I flipped through the poems in each folder, beginning with the most current. As I worked my way backwards in time, I spotted poems that still had potential.

In that post I mentioned earlier, I resolved to work on revising those older poems. Since then I have only been working on the poems in the manuscript. Yet working on this manuscript has inspired me to continue revision, and without the responsibility of summer teaching, I have the mental space to work on tackling the stacks of unpublished poems.

As one way to get a handle on these poems, I decided to start a notebook listing the poems by year, a way that I can make use of one of my many notebooks. Furthermore, I can investigate the possibilities of other manuscripts in what I already have sitting in those hanging file folders. I feel an excitement about my poetry that I haven’t felt for quite some time.