Signing a Contract

For years I’d dreamed of this day, or maybe more accurately, not the day, but what the day would lead to.

Four weeks ago, I signed a contract with Wipf & Stock for my first full-length poetry collection, Your Twenty-First Century Prayer Life. The book will be published in their Cascade Books imprint as a part of the Poiema Poetry Series, a series featuring collections by poets of faith.

I knew signing the contract was the only the first of many steps before the book appears in the world as a thing, not just as binder-clipped pages in a manila file folder. Yet once I returned that electronic contract, I knew that my world had shifted.

I’ve been working on the manuscript for over four years, and some of the poems date back as far as ten years. I recall the initial drafting of many of the poems, as well as the processes of reworking individual poems. The manuscript is as much the evidence of my experiences as it is a collection of forty poems.

Now as I’m two weeks away from delivering my final of the manuscript to the publisher, I still don’t quite believe a new poetry collection will be published, one with my name on the cover, my poems inside.

It’s the dream of most writers to publish a book; it’s certainly a dream of mine. You imagine a reader somewhere (perhaps on a bus or train, or in a bookstore, or at home laying on a couch) reading your words and turning pages to read more of your words. Yes, I write for myself because I enjoy playing with language, but I also eventually want to share those creations with others.

Even as a finish up the manuscript, there are other matters, the biggest one being marketing. Using my different platforms (this website, my author Facebook page, my Twitter account) to promote the book. Scheduling readings and signings. Trying to spread the word about my words.

I have no idea how this book will turn out. What will the cover look like? That first page? How will it be received? (How many copies will I sell?) And these are a couple of the numerous questions. Regardless of the answers, my stanzas and lines will make their way into the world, and for that, I am grateful.

When the Writing Ceased

I’ve reflected before on periods when I wrote very little before regaining traction in my writing. In an August 2016 post, I shared how I regained writing momentum after teaching two classes in the same summer term.

But last spring, during perhaps the busiest semester of my teaching career, I basically stopped writing. (It feels shameful to see the last four words of the previous sentence. I am a writer, and I teach writing as my full-time job.)

It seemed as though every time I even thought about writing–even a brief poem–, it felt like too much work, work without any possibility of joy. And in the stands beyond those tall hurdles, an announcer droned on about all the grading and class prep. Granted, there were some moments of writing, but they were like the occasional Styrofoam food containers littering the shoulder of a rural highway.

There reached a point where I began to think that I didn’t want to write anymore. That I didn’t have any mental space left for it, and even if I did, that I had nothing to add. I entertained the (absurd) thought that I had lost the ability to write.

I knew that if I floated to the shallow lake shore of May, I would survive, although it didn’t seem conceivable at the time. As much as I enjoy teaching, I was surviving, clutching the boat of the semester that had overturned and was drifting to the distant shore. I didn’t realize how badly I needed May, the time off from teaching, the mental space in which to think a thought that wasn’t about composition or literature.

And so, as I shared a few months ago, I read a dozen books. And as I recapped before, I worked on some important writing projects.

From the end of July through the first third of August, I was “up north” for vacation. During those relaxing days, I wrote a little. I brought along a short story draft, working in a few thirty-minute bursts, and I brought the completed memoir first draft, though I only ended up reading through a couple pages. I read two literary journals cover to cover. I read Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which I enjoyed immensely.

When the meetings resumed on August 14 (three days after I returned), I need to finish three syllabi, as well as the online components for those courses. Also on my mind was the desire to immerse myself back in a more regular writing regimen, to avoid the writing dessert of the previous semester.

Yet so it was that teaching drew me back to writing. I had forgotten how much my teaching is linked to my writing, and how much my writing informs my teaching. The two feed off of each other.

After meeting with my Creative Writing students that first day, I already had an idea for a piece, the first draft of which I discussed in my previous post. Now that I’m six weeks into the semester, I have achieved a reasonable rhythm, completing the second draft of that essay.

I already know what the next writing project is, something that is perhaps one of the highlights of my writing career thus far: preparing the final version of my first full-length collection of poetry. The virtual ink has dried on the contract, and my deadline is three weeks away. More details soon.

Writing as Discovery

Last week in Creative Writing: Prose, my students and I read and discussed pieces about the writing process, about why we write, and about writing as an act of discovery. Both sessions with these five eager writers were enjoyable. They are steadily gaining confidence and enthusiasm for our work together.

I’m reflecting on that week because of my own writing journey in a creative nonfiction piece about two of the most memorable days of life from 2008, two days that, to an outsider, would appear mostly nondescript. I’ve started exploring why these two days have impressed themselves so firmly in my memory.

Using one of my favorite writing surfaces—a yellow legal pad—I penned six handwritten pages during 15-minute bursts over five or six consecutive days. At the beginning of September, I typed those pages, making only minor corrections: the goal at the stage was merely transcription. I printed a copy and slipped it in the nonfiction folder of the filing cabinet that sits to the left of my writing desk.

On Wednesday of last week, the day between my two sessions of that aforementioned Creative Writing class, I closely reread that typed draft. Afterwards, I wrote a page of notes, preparing myself for commencing a second draft. I circled passages that I thought might be crucial points in the timeline of the weekend; I made a list of all of the weekend’s events, in chronological order.

The next day I met my students, and because we were discussing an essay about writing really awful first drafts, I decided to make myself more vulnerable, more transparent. Before class, I made copies of my piece’s first page. I circulated the handout towards the end of class and told them that I needed those copies back after they examined them. I said they couldn’t take a picture of my first page.

I hoped that they would discover something about me, about themselves, through my meandering opening paragraphs. The room, however, was quiet because of their silent concentration. Here they were, reading something that their professor had not edited. After a while, I spoke to them, telling them that when I reread that first page, I was bored, and that I thought the first sentence was grandiose and pompous.

Later that afternoon, I was sitting in a shaded back patio, that same first draft in front of me, my writing notebook next to it. My son was inside an art studio taking a drawing class, and I had the next 50 minutes to work on this same creative nonfiction piece. I reread my notes, along with portions of the draft, and then began jotting down more ideas, making another full page of notes.

It was in that further exploration, through the meandering in that relaxed state with the hum of a busy road nearby, the rattling of a large AC unit, and the continuity of a dry breeze, that I at last “discovered” a structure for the piece. I realized that in the roughly sketched four-page typed draft I had hinted at a way to tell this story. And then my notes became more energized and furious as I teased out the implications of the particular structure.

So here I am, having begun that second draft with a much clearer sense of where I’m headed, aware that this piece will likely be much longer than I originally thought. But it is through these discoveries and surprises that I find joy as a writer. I never know how something will turn out. I never know the shape it will take. And that is part of what keeps me writing poems, short stories, essays, blog posts. I’m too busy meandering and discovering to ever become bored.

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

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Official dedicatory plaque


Dining room and Willa Cather’s highchair


Her bedroom (with original wallpaper)


One of Willa Cather’s writing desks

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