The Life and Times of a Short Story

short-story-draftThe young short story begins with a bang as the author manages to write six thousand words in several non-continuous sittings over the course of two weeks, though the author will later describe it in workshop as a single moment of creative pure truth. The short story matures with each passing workshop, experiencing growing pains, expanding and then suddenly being cut by a thousand words repeatedly, and not just because Rick from workshop said it “felt a little novelish.”

Still young for a while, the short story has a weird look. The story has a lot of split endings and wears a tight title that leaves little to the reader’s imagination, which the author is unaware of for several weeks because the author is too busy trying to understand Rick’s workshop submission, which involves a duck and how great New York apparently is.

Eventually, the story graduates from college with a sense of completion: the story has a clear beginning and ending and a fitting title. The story is submitted to four small literary journals. Like many American short stories, this story waits confidently for six months while resting in the back of the author’s hard drive with several older, wiser short stories.

After the first four rejections, the short story wonders about getting a better title, or if there was something wrong with the cover letter. The author polishes the story a bit with a quick makeover and pedicure to work out the typos and plot holes, then sends the reinvigorated story out to five journals. The short story’s determination is palpable.

But palpable determination is not enough, because after five more rejections, the story spirals into a mid-life crisis and gets two new characters and a new ending and then loses five hundred words after going to the gym. The short story feels better and is sent off to seventeen journals, six of which have already rejected the story as politely as is possible in an email. Meanwhile, Rick from workshop has been coasting on his one probably accidental publication in The New Yorker.

Seventeen rejections later, the short story finally decides to retire out of frustration. The author sees the potential in the story, but understands the difficulty in publication and ultimately thinks that better stories are waiting to be written. The author could dwell on the story for ten more years, but several new ideas have emerged in the author’s imagination, so the short story quietly goes back into a file on the author’s computer, solemnly labeled “Short Stories,” and is never heard from again. But the story lives on quietly in the author’s memory, and the memory of Rick from workshop who said it was pretentious and overwritten, but his characters are all just watered down versions of himself, so he can go lick a brick.

-jk

1917: Tsar Nicholas II, Celebrity Autocrat

nicholas-ii-huntingNicholas II was crowned Tsar at the age of twenty-six in 1894, following the sudden death of Tsar Alexander III. Nicholas inherited a relatively stable regime that he was determined to sustain without change. He grew up believing he had been born simply to preserve the institution of God-granted Russian royalty, to maintain the status quo. Alexander, thinking he would live longer, had not trained Nicholas in diplomacy or politics. Living like a king was all Nicholas knew how to do.

His central policy was autocracy. Nicholas rigidly adhered to a particular image of Russia as ordered beneath and for him, and attacked anything that contradicted his sense of that order. He placed himself in the public eye regularly, but only filtered through artificial expressions of his status. This was clear in the 1913 Romanov Tercentenary, a national celebration of the Romanov dynasty. Virginia Rounding points out that “as many as one and a half million commemorative rubles were issued on the occasion of the tercentenary,” and that Nicholas appeared on numerous stamps and in over a hundred film reels (9-10). The monarchy also granted permission “for the production of scarves bearing a portrait of the Tsar, but only with the proviso that the scarves should not be of the right size to be used as handkerchiefs” (10), because Nicholas did not want anybody blowing their noses on images of him. He viewed himself in religious terms, and treated even petty disrespect as sacrilege.

The Romanov Tercentenary was an elaborate publicity stunt scheduled after numerous disasters under Nicholas’s rein. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 ended with an absolute Japanese victory, and was considered an unprecedented humiliation for Imperial Russia. In 1905, Russia’s political and economic problems proved that Nicholas II was not the carefree celebrity he wanted the world to believe he was. That year, strikes and protests formed in the capital amid widespread unrest. Nicholas responded to protestors by ordering police to fire on them on January 22, 1905, now known as Bloody Sunday. The Revolution of 1905 put enough pressure on the Tsar to allow for modest state reforms, including the formation of the Duma as a legislative body and the Russian Constitution of 1906. Nevertheless, Nicholas continued to rule as an authoritarian, dissolving the first Duma and manipulating the second. Entering he Great War in 1914 was just one more disastrous move.

The elaborate publicity displays were what Nicholas wanted the world to see of his empire. Instead, he met countless challenges to his authority, to which he responded with oppression or dismissal, sometimes removing ministers who disagreed with him and distrusting many others. By September of 1915, he had taken complete control of the military, leaving the capitol for the front. By 1916, unrest among soldiers had grown such that in April, “orders were issued forbidding free and open exchange between enlisted men and aid workers unless specifically allowed by the military leaders”  (Sanborn 170).

Nicholas was untrained for leadership and unwilling to admit his shortcomings. He took more interest in sports and his family than in political reforms, which he viewed as a threat to his sovereign, divine authority. He had been raised to live as a ruler, but not to rule, and he began ruling at a time when many Russians grew tired of aristocrats flaunting their inherited God-given wealth and silencing anyone who pointed out the problems in the system. When he abdicated the throne on March 15, 1917, Imperial Russia was a lost cause. With his extravagance and sweeping political abuses and abrasive leadership, Nicholas II exhausted Russian statehood to the breaking point.


Rounding, Virgina. Alix and Nicky, St, Martin’s Press, 2011.

Sanborn, Joshua. Imperial Apocalypse, Oxford University Press, 2014.

 

My Heroes Have Always Been Teachers

archivesAs a child, I wanted to be a scientist. Astronomy called to me, but so did biology, zoology, ecology, geology, and entomology. The world was colossal, and to a youngshysmallguy, science was a way to make it less scary. Diseases, meteors, and volcanoes didn’t have to be terrifying as long as someone could show me how to figure out how and why they worked.

Scientists were my heroes because their superpowers (analysis, facts, cool lab coats) were all things I could acquire without being bitten by radioactive nerds or being born on another planet. They used logic and knowledge to solve problems, and I wanted to do the same. The world was colossally scary, and knowledge made it more comfortable to live in.

When I realized that my existential angst about politics and terrorism could be alleviated the same way, I started to study history, religion, geopolitics, literature, and somehow wandered into writing. I left behind old heroes for new ones, but my heroes were still teachers helping me make sense of the world.

This country is brutal to those who teach literature and art, but it is just as brutal to science teachers, who face an ugly twofold set of challenges: First, American traditional values that scrutinize and punish teachers for discussing science that disrupts the status quo, from evolution (contrary to religious conservatism) to climate change (a threat to capitalism). Secondly, there is the marketplace that teachers must prepare science students for, and competition for jobs and grants can be limiting. Humanities teachers face the same set of challenges, but they have enough irony and bitterness to make themselves feel better about it.

Obviously, education systems are far from perfect. Many public schools are underfunded, and university faculty face scrutiny from students, voters, and states. Even under ideal circumstances, teaching requires long, draining hours, and my own experiences with teaching so far attest to that workload. Individual teachers must work against these forces and use what intellectual energy they have left to assure students that the world, as horrifying as it is, can make sense. Teaching requires profound courage in the face of limited resources coupled with deliberate opposition. The best teachers  I had possessed a superpower, and only now do I realize that their superpower was the strength to keep teaching through the cacophony of discouraging voices.

It’s a power I may not possess myself. The new administration is making education even harder with its intentions to cut funding for the humanities and restrict scientists from making scientific facts public. Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education is a tangible threat to public school teachers, given the likelihood that she will push for cutting funds to public education while supporting education’s privatization, which potentially allows leaders in the private sector to control the education of their workforce.

And yet dedicated teachers push forward to understand the increasingly ugly world. I gave up science for writing, but they cannot be separated. Science meets politics and history, and we meet them back with art and social science and language. Teachers now face the full power of the state and its worst citizens, and it now requires even greater moral courage than before to teach science and literature. We need social studies teachers unafraid to tell students what their rights are, biology teachers who are not attacked for discussing climate change,  and history teachers who are not punished for pointing out this country’s hideous past and present of slavery and internment and anti-immigration policies. This country is a furnace of anti-intellectual interests, and it takes strength to teach despite those interests.

I draw my own courage from the quiet heroism of educators I’ve been lucky enough to know, the ones who brought me to this point, uncertain and bitter but not confused. Afraid, but not afraid to know more, to pull back the curtain and look for how and why and what now.

-jk

Invite List of the Men’s March

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Protestors in Flagstaff, AZ, Winter of 2009, who just so totally accepted (without complaint or whiny over-dramatic public display) the election of Obama, courtesy of Lost Compass Photography.

To begin with, organizers would disagree about who to invite. Percolating through social media spontaneity, the Men’s March would draw folks who (apparently unable to cope with the emotions they felt at the sight of women moving forward in a linear direction expressing a desire to not be assaulted) would want to band together and reclaim their long-lost manhood.

Robert Bly would be there of course, but because Manly Men © have been defunding the humanities for so long, nobody would actually know who he was, and he would sit in a corner shirtless beating a drum, alone.

There would be a substantial debate about inviting women. Sarah Palin, Kellyanne Conway, Michelle Bachman, and other female meninist allies would show up, but would be accused by a few marchers of preventing men from enjoying their bro-friendly safe spaces.

Glenn Beck would show up and, within ten minutes, begin crying. Even though his tears would be patriotic and cowboy-like, a few hardliners would dismiss him. Attempting to recover their lost ideal manly hair-sweat manhood, organizers would publicly invite Nick Offerman, only to realize that he attended the Women’s March, thus disqualifying him. Organizers would desperately tag alt-righters with questions about which men they would invite to help recover America’s manly bearded manhood.

Ernest Hemingway? dead. Evel Knievel? dead. Charlton Heston? dead. John Wayne? dead. David Foster Wallace? dead. Elvis Presley? probably dead. George Washington? very dead. Freddie Mercury? queer and dead. Muhammad Ali? Muslim pacifist and dead. Johnny Cash? advocated for Native Americans too often and dead. Roger Goodell? too many penalties. Nick Offerman? feminist. Robert Bly? poet. Clint Eastwood? old Hollywood elite. JFK? dead cuck. John McCain? living cuck. Mike McCarthy? did you even see the Falcons game? All the oldschool manly male beer-stained men would be either dead or somehow disqualified. Organizers would realize this too late, but could easily tweet photos of the Women’s March and call it the Men’s March as a convenient alternative.

In the end, the number of men fitting the standard would be thirty-seven. Those in attendance would chant about being persecuted by society’s trends, like all the feminists not in congress, not passing laws requiring men to father children even if they don’t want to. They would complain about the woman who is not President and who was never recorded bragging about grabbing men by the purifier. Marchers would lament their dead sense of manhood in a prolonged circle-jerk of one another’s angst (but not in a fun way).

There would be many issues marchers would not discuss. Mike Pence would not mention mental illness among men or alcoholism or drug abuse. Franklin Graham would not mention institutional poverty or suicide rates among men, boys, and gay youths in particular. Piers Morgan would not bring up the consequences of concussions for football players or the fact that male rape victims tend not to be taken seriously. From the start organizers would be unconcerned with men as a totality. They would not care enough to lobby for men who are gay, foreign, disabled, or suffering a mental illness. Instead, they would see only themselves reflected in a wilderness of mirrors as they marched, self-consciously alone.

-jk

The Workaholic Catches Cabin Fever

author-pic-5This weekend, an ice storm fluttered over eastern Nebraska, coating Lincoln in thin layers of slick ice and making it difficult to drive or walk. It has warmed up today, but UNL cancelled classes. I left my apartment only once this weekend for the sacred ritual of movies and food. Otherwise I’ve been inside my apartment avoiding the weather’s risks.

Granted, Lincoln is usually dangerous because the sidewalks are coated in football players’ sweat and the ejaculatory spittle of Governor Pete Ricketts as he laughs at Nebraskan voters from the golden tower overlooking the city, but this weekend it was especially dangerous.

Regular readers of this blog know that I partly enjoy bad weather, especially if it involves snow. It allows me to stay inside, drink coffee, write, and read. I freely admit that I’m a workaholic. I maintain a strict work ethic, in part because it nags me to have unfinished tasks. Knowing I have a deadline coming up feels like hot, smelly breath on my neck, which is also the sensation I have when I look at the face of P. Ricketts. I work hard in order to avoid having things gnaw at me.

This weekend, though, I had few deadlines that I could meet from home. I have yet to receive papers for grading or major assignments to begin. I forced myself to plunge back into the habit of writing regularly, which I had lost over winter break, and what writing I did was weak and unsatisfying.

For once, I wasn’t productive, though society doesn’t normally benefit from my labor. The hours I put into writing, revising, submitting, and making fun of politicians usually go unnoticed, especially by politicians named Pricketts. I’m a workaholic, but I realized this weekend that I’m not a productive workaholic.

I realized that I deal in temporary moments. When I produce, it’s usually particular instances, things that dissipate into the air. As a teacher, I produce lessons, rather than capital. As a writer, I produce reactions and responses, usually from my loyal readership of five people, my dog, and maybe even Pricketts the Farmer of Nebraskan Tears. I’d like to think I produce moments of companionship, like the hairy dog I’m quickly becoming. What I obsessively create doesn’t last. Lessons, reactions, and responses always melt, one way or another, but I still enjoy producing them. Nobody gains capital as a result, but maybe they gain affirmation, if I work hard enough.

I could do very little affirming from my apartment while sheets of ice formed in the freezing rainfall. I still prefer the snowy weather, but I’m glad to be out and about writing, wandering, and listening.

-jk

1917: Rasputin and the Great War

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Portrait of Rasputin by Anna Theodora Karup, December 1916.

“Dear friend, I will say again a menacing cloud is over Russia lots of sorrow and grief it is dark and there is no lightning to be seen. A sea of tears immeasurable and as to blood? What can I say? There are no words the horror of it is indescribable. . . they will conquer Germany and what about Russia? If one thinks verily there has not been a greater sufferer since the beginning of time she is all drowned in blood. Terrible is the destruction and without end the grief.” -Grigorii Rasputin, in a letter to Tsar Nicholas II, summer, 1914

In late December in 1916, the Russian mystic Grigorii Rasputin was assassinated, two and a half years into the Great War, two and a half months before the Russian Revolution took shape. Aristocrats in the Empire, notably Prince Felix Yusupov, who had grown to hate the holy man invited him to dinner in Moika Palace in Petrograd, now Saint Petersburg. For years, the Tsar had placed Rasputin closer to his family, or Rasputin inserted himself into the family by influence. In 1907, the Romanovs invited Rasputin to visit the royal family and heal Alexei, heir to the throne and ill with inherited hemophilia. Regardless of who pulled whose strings, he became a strange, alien force in the regime’s inner circles, a peasant-turned-occultist who joined the royal family.

Rasputin was an independent religious leader claiming metaphysical power and an extensive knowledge of the Bible, but he ignored the moral norms of Christianity through his abuse of alcohol and frequent sexual affairs. He was not a priest, but served the role of priest to a family that was just as much a facade as he was. He may have been a sophist or a lunatic, serving an incompetent autocrat to preserve the Romanov lineage, however doomed it was.

He could also be seen as a Shakespearean fool, the peasant-turned-entertainer who speaks candid truths to the audience and characters. Rasputin was a pacifist opposed to the Great War, though his graphic prophecy was not enough to prevent Russia from entering the conflict. His description of the war, noted above, was apocalyptic, and predicted the horror Russia would suffer as a result. Here, then, was a man willing to help the Tsar despite knowing the violence he could allow.

Russia lost approximately 1,997,500 soldiers in the First World War, with France trailing behind at 1,400,000, colonies and all. The brutal winters of the war years devastated armies and limited supplies for the Russian population. Military historian John Keegan points out that the “nature of these titanic battles on the Eastern Front is difficult to represent at a human or individual level. The Russian army, 80 per cent peasant when a majority of Russian peasants were still illiterate, left no literature to compare with that of the Western Front” (161). The majority of those who survived the Eastern Front, in other words, could not record their experiences.

However, a few written texts are telling. A Russian nurse named Lydia Zakharova, for instance, described a trench on the Eastern Front one winter as a “city of the dead, its inhabitants frozen in the most unlikely positions, as if a raging, deadly hurricane had just swept past them” (Storey 116). She adds, almost numbly, that “there is a limit, by the way, beyond which the human mind can perceive no more horrors, as a saturated sponge can soak up no more water” (117). Rasputin did not live to see the totality of the violence he predicted in 1914, but millions of Russian peasants experienced it.

Tsar Nicholas II shares much of the blame for the failures of the Great War. In 1914, he took personal control of the military, deeming himself a kind of commander-in-chief. Like many European leaders, Nicholas naively thought the war would end by Christmas of 1914. Instead it continued year after year after year.

Finally, in early 1917, starved of food and hope, bled of its population, and openly mocked by the Tsar’s aggressive displays of wealth and indifference, Russians began to protest. The Russian Revolution began only as a series of strikes. People were hungry; they couldn’t work anymore; they stopped until they got food. The Tsar, whose brutality was clear in 1905 when he ordered police to shoot protestors in Russia’s Bloody Sunday, ordered soldiers to fire into the crowds of strikers.

However, those who were meant to guard Petrograd consisted of wounded veterans or very young recruits. Healthy, loyal, and experienced soldiers were stationed on the Eastern Front, and those left behind revolted too and chose to protect the protestors. First, the holy fool protested, then soon after the workers, soldiers, guards, and even a few aristocrats realized that 1917 was an apocalypse year for Imperial Russia.

Rasputin’s place in regime seems like an ill-fitting cog in a machine, but that might be a limited perspective because almost nobody in the regime was fit for rule. The Tsar was incompetent and disinterested, his children were sick with inherited hemophilia, his ministers were torn between the possibility of a democratic Russia or the Tsar’s brutal autocracy. The monarchy was a network of ill-fitting parts. Rasputin, for all his mysteries, might have had the last good idea for Russia’s future: don’t go to war, it will be the end. Instead, Nicholas ignored the dissenting fool and plunged Russia into the sea of tears immeasurable Rasputin predicted.


Keegan, John. The First world War. Vintage Books, 2000.

Storey, William Kelleher. The First World War. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.

For Me, the Year is Only Half Over

I won’t be making New Year’s Resolutions on January 1. To be honest, I never have, but not because I’m against resolutions. It’s because for me a new year won’t begin on January 1. As long as I can remember, I’ve never marked new and old years by the Gregorian calendar. These twelve-month chunks don’t reflect my own endings and beginnings. Instead, I’ve always marked years by the academic calendar.

I count school years instead of Gregorian years because summers have always marked the major changes for me: every June I leave behind classes and teachers and prepare to meet new ones in August. Friends graduate and leave, relationships end, and the next school year offers new possibilities. The end of 2016 means nothing to me. It’s still winter, I’m still in grad school, I’m still 24. What will actually change tomorrow?

Now, while folks wallow in the regret of not fulfilling their 2016 resolutions, I still have six months left until I have to wallow in regret, and even then I have the whole summer to do my wallowing. I have plenty of time to not get in shape and not get published in The Paris Review.

I also have half a year left to finish my MA, improve my teaching, become a regular at a bar where everybody knows my name, and find inner peace. Piece of cake. Then, in summer, I can start the next year fresh and accomplished. I still don’t know where I’ll be next year, how many publications I’ll have, and whether or not I’ll have to cope with martial law, but that’s fine, because I still have half a year to figure it out.

For the rest of you folks celebrating 2017 like it somehow means something, I wish you a Happy New Year. For me, though, kindly hold your New Year’s wishes until summer. The weather will be nicer then, anyway.

Peace,

-jk