Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Pros and Cons of Living in Nebraska



Reasons to Stay in Nebraska


  • Cheap rent
  • Ruby Red Squirt readily available
  • Cheap utilities
  • Vehicle inspection laws slim to non-existent
  • Nice sunsets
  • Lots of things (stores, bars, parks, etc.) within walking distance
  • Cheap eating out
  • Friends/social group provides support network
  • Leaving means time and money lost through relocation expenses

Reasons to Leave Nebraska


  • Winter is a dry, snowless wasteland of dead grass and trees, with endless views of the torn-up, broken corn and soybean fields as one drives along the highway.  Humidifiers become a necessity, and dry skin reaches its peak during January/February.
  • Summer is hot and humid as fuck, with a mugginess that sucks all moisture from one’s body and causes intolerable dehydration (see earlier note about walking).
  • Social interactions marred by people’s preoccupation with empty politeness, inherent in the idea that they can’t say what’s really on their minds and instead adopt a series of motions designed to simulate friendliness in an acceptable manner.  In situations where social norms don’t require such politeness (for example, when passing someone on the street), a posture of extreme indifference is adopted instead.
  • Prevalence of critical, internal judgment based on a person’s race/appearance/economic status, most often (in my case) implied through questions about one’s career goals and college experience (for example, “What did you go to school for?” “Is it hard to get a job using that degree?” “What are you going to do next?” etc.) in ways that mask the asker’s underlying criticism.
  • City architecture consists primarily of parking garages and bland-colored office buildings, thus contributing to an atmosphere of sameness.
  • No mountains, ocean, lakes you can swim in, or real forests within reasonable driving distance.  Hiking and walking trails minimal, and are usually restricted to prairie grasslands and urban bike paths.
  • The overwhelming feeling that everyone in Nebraska holds the same values, the same beliefs, the same life goals, and strives always to be the same, meaning that those holding unpopular, alternative, innovative, self-taught, or otherwise different beliefs will be subtly made to feel as if they don’t belong, make foolish decisions, or are otherwise just plain wrong, simply because they stand outside the majority.
  • It’s good to keep exploring new places.

Friday, January 22, 2016

In Which Our Hero Discusses Japanese Monetary Customs With a Junior Teller at Wells Fargo

Japanese 2000 yen notes (worth about $20 US), featuring the Shureimon gate (front) and Lady Murasaki Shikibu with a scene from The Tale of Genji (back).

INT. BANK LOBBY – DAY

IAN is buying Japanese yen from a young TELLER behind the counter of a bank lobby whose ceiling is exorbitantly high. The TELLER counts out the notes, which IAN then considers.

IAN: Do you mind if I trade in some of these two-thousand notes for a few five-thousands? Japanese people don't really use them, so they'd peg me as a tourist.

TELLER (surprised): Uh, I didn't know that. (checks computer) Sorry, we don't have any other yen here.

IAN: That's fine. It'll just be like I started using two-dollar bills everywhere.

TELLER (oblivious): Oh. (Pause, after which he begins to speak from a clearly rehearsed script.) Now, will you be using your debit card in Japan?

IAN (tilting his head in the Japanese manner of not wanting to correct someone): Not this time—Japanese businesses don't really take cards. They're still a cash society.

TELLER (wide-eyed): Wow, I didn't know that. I take it you've been to Japan before?

IAN: Yeah, a little bit.

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Time to take a trip—my first time back in Japan in almost five years. Feels good to be doing something exciting again, to be going to a place where daily life will be just a little bit more challenging.  That's the kind of thing that makes you sharper.

Lots of changes coming for 2016. I finished a novel last year, finished grad school, and started doing more things that matter. Blogging also still matters—putting things out there in a form more substantial than a Facebook post or tweet keeps me sharp, and keeps the ideas flowing.

Been working on a better place to do that than Blogspot, though, which has become the blogging equivalent of AOL Instant Messenger (out of fashion, but technically still around). Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

On Toilet Paper and Time Management



I realized recently that whenever I use up a toilet paper roll I tend not to put the new one on the dispenser right away but to instead leave it on the floor next to the wall.  Whether or not I install the roll immediately correlates with how busy I am, and if I’m stressed or have a lot of things going on or am maybe just focused on a writing project the new roll can easily sit on the floor for several days.  I don’t forget about the roll, though, and whenever I’m in the bathroom I’ll see it and think about how I really should put it on the dispenser, but then I’ll move on to something more pressing instead.  The location of my toilet paper, then, indicates how much control I have over my affairs, since an ideal day would always find the toilet paper dispenser filled and ready to use.

A big part of me thinks this is idiotic.  It’s just toilet paper, and I really shouldn’t give two fucks where it goes as long as I have some to wipe my ass with.  I could save a lot of time by not reloading the dispenser at all, just as I could also save a lot of time by not folding my laundry or scrubbing the grease off my stove.  I still do these things, though, because I like having a clean stove and picking out my clothes from a bureau, but what if I could let go of such trivialities and let these chores slide?  If I did, I’d have more time to write and pursue interesting projects and meet people and seek out opportunitiesin short, I'd get more important things done.  The only trick would be to balance enough of the cleaning so I wouldn’t become the crazy old lady with the unopened mail and crusted lasagna pans overflowing on to the kitchen floor, and maybe we carry out our chores in part because we’re secretly afraid of letting things slide too far towards such a disaster—which reads like a stupid fear when you write it out like that.

Someone told me once that our brains naturally prioritize different problems in terms of their immediacy, giving preference to issues that affect our survival, well-being, and ability to reproduce, and if we don’t actively choose how to order our lives, our brains will by default shift into the food-water-shelter-sex gear.  I’m not sure that creating art has a place in that survival mode; it’s probably somewhere down the list between clipping your toenails and watching the sun rise.  It won’t have a place unless we give it one, which means that sometimes the toilet paper is just going to have to wait on the floor.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Hype for the Charleston Anvil



http://thecharlestonanvil.blogspot.com/


Fellow Bennington alum Randall Nichols and I have a history of supporting each other’s creative endeavors, which comes naturally since everything Randall touches turns out approachable, fun, and hard-hitting.  The Charleston Anvil is an indie art/literary/comic/everything else zine he’s started up with some fellow West Virginians, with the first issue released earlier this month in both print (!) and digital copies.  About half comics and half prose (plus photos and illustrations), there’s plenty of variety in style and substance, and the above adjectives I used to describe Randall’s work (approachable, fun, hard-hitting) apply equally to the entire issue. 

I’ve also got a story in there—a piece I had on the backburner called “One Nation, Indivisible” about a telemarketing call gone awry, which also marks the first time that work by both Randall and yours truly have appeared in the same place.  The print copy is cheap and the digital copy is pay-what-you-want (even if that price is nothing), so it won’t cost you anything to check it out.

Hype aside, it’s refreshing to see a start-up lit mag maintaining a print edition, since the costs involved with third-party printers and glossy covers tend to complicate the process more than most literary start-ups are willing to handle.  Comics and graphic novels especially tend to read more easily on the printed page, where readers are spared the scrolling and resolution issues that tend not to be a problem with words alone.  This also marks the first time my fiction has appeared in an actual print magazine, making it feel more valuable that someone’s taken the time and money to prepare a hard copy in the digital age.

It’s also refreshing to see a magazine with illustrations, since so many literary-only magazines tend to ignore visuals under the mistaken belief that poetry and prose are somehow purer when they’re not surrounded by a bunch of distracting pictures.  In reality, though, illustrations in magazines were a staple of the Saturday Evening Post-era and before, where, with so much different content vying for the reader’s attention (as opposed to a novel, where readers go in expecting a single experience), pictures help the reader differentiate between individual pieces.  Randall’s sci-fi story “The Norse Star” is one of the illustrated ones, and it includes a 2/3-page title pic that captures the opening image of the hero staring at the story’s impossible heroine and a few others spaced throughout the columns that enhance the story’s reveal.

Besides “Norse Star,” there’s an opening essay championing self-expression (“We Need You to Be Yourself”), an eight-page comic retelling of Hamlet with giant robots (“Hambot”), a short piece by fellow Benningtonian John Wiswell (“Making Her”), an illustrated essay on the subtle relationships in Jonny Quest (“Sadness File: 037”), and a final comic about a deal with a cowboy hat-wearing devil gone awry (“Walk for the Cure”).  Take it from me—it’s solid stuff, so here’s the link one more time.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

An Open Letter to the Organizers of the TEDxLincoln Event





Dear Mr. Bretz and Ms. Vanneman,

I’m writing in regards to the TEDxLincoln event you hosted last week at UNL’s Kimball Hall.  It was my first time attending a TED event in Lincoln or anywhere else, though I’ve been a fan of TED talks for several years and have found them both a stimulating source of ideas and a medium perfectly suited for conveying these ideas in the internet age.  It was thus that I was quite excited for last Thursday’s event.

I enjoyed your selection of speakers very much, particularly Justin Lepard’s talk on eliminating boundaries in creativity and Rob McEntarffer’s discussion of education’s focus on superficial rewards.  I also applaud your decision to conclude with Abeny Kucha’s “Only Hope” talk recounting her struggles as a refugee, which ended the day on a moving, heartfelt, and brutally honest note.

However—and this is the reason I’m writing to you today—I sincerely felt that the power and value of these ideas was cheapened and debased by your framing of this event, in particular through the tone set by your emcee Susan Stibal.  Each time she came onstage I felt patronized by her artificial cheerfulness and insincere manner of uplifting the crowd, a manner of excessive smiles, lame jokes, and constant attempts to instill vapid positivity rather than mature thought.  Simply put, Ms. Stibal’s manner served not to enhance the ideas we were hearing onstage, but to distract us from them, giving her interludes the stilted air of small talk shared with a dental hygienist before an exam.  So committed did Ms. Stibald seem to her mission of condescension that she cut short the well-deserved standing ovation to Ms. Kucha’s talk by retaking the stage far too soon, and her childish humor reached its peak earlier in the program when she clutched her hip onstage in mock pain as an exaggerated (and arguably nonsensical) play off of the word “hiatus.”

My other main complaint involves the way you handled sponsors and advertising.  As a former marketing representative for a nonprofit, I know how important sponsorship is for events like TEDxLincoln, and also know that having company names prominently displayed serves as a powerful motivator when encouraging sponsors to donate.  However, the overt manner in which you drove the audience’s attention to these sponsors ranks among the most shameless I’ve ever seen.  Not only did the sponsorship slide serve as a focal centerpiece multiple times during the event (rather than having these logos placed more tastefully in the background), but Ms. Stibald actually encouraged us to tweet these sponsors our thanks using the TED hashtag, thus treating the audience more like word-of-mouth-advertisers than free-thinking individuals.

The ineffective nature of this ploy can be confirmed by a glance at the #TEDxLincoln Twitter feed, where none of the sponsors are actually thanked in this way.  When audiences feel that they’re being coerced into sharing their thoughts on social media, they’re less likely to share those thoughts at all; such statements feel most genuine when they emerge organically, creating an atmosphere of open, unadulterated discussion. The numerous points at which participants were encouraged to tweet, use hashtags, mention specific sponsors, and download the Whova app (e-mails for which overcrowded my inbox in the days preceding the event) only served as a turn-off—the reasons for their frequency were too obvious.  At least when the magician Chase Hasty tricked the crowd into pulling up his Instagram as part of a card trick, he did so by clearly (and humorously) drawing attention to the cheap nature of the tactic.  Such honesty goes a long way toward building trust.

TED is a forum for thoughtful, provoking ideas worthy of our consideration—so act like it!  When an organization resorts to cheap jokes, exaggerated cheer, overemphasis on decorum, and overt advertising, it forces audiences to take the presenters less seriously—as if the talks existed in an idealistic fantasy world, while back in the real world sustained by the emcees, mature adults adhere to the same middle-class standards of polite behavior that TED is supposed to be challenging.  This is not how you change the world—this is how you isolate ideas into small chunks without allowing viewers to follow-up, take action, or ruminate on what they’ve heard.

This is of course not to say that a TED event should be completely solemn or joke-free; rather, it’s possible to adopt a more mature approach that’s still personable and even funny.  Instead of ensuring that audience members all have a super-dooper fun time, perhaps next year’s emcees could follow each speaker with a thoughtful comment, some off-the-cuff discussion, or some way of relating the talks to the greater world.  Humor in these situations can be an effective and warming part of a presentation (look at the popularity of David Sedaris, for example), as long as the emcee’s approach assumes a certain level of intelligence from the audience.  No one likes to be talked down to, after all.

To close: your event motto is Re:Think, and I highly suggest you apply it to the way you present these talks.  Because, frankly, it sucks.

Sincerely,

Ian Rogers

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

How to Write an Academic Literary Bio



[Writer Name] is the author of [Novel/Short Story Collection/Chapbook Title] ([Name of Small Press]).  [His/Her] work has appeared or is forthcoming in [Insert list of other journals where the writer’s work has appeared, in order of most to least prominent].  The recipient of [Insert list of awards and fellowships received, in order of most to least prominent], [he/she] teaches in the [program name] at [name of university]. 

Literary bios are a common sight in creative writing journals where writers get published primarily as a way of getting or keeping a job as a tenured professor.  “Bio” here is different from “biography” in that a biography is usually the story of someone’s life, whereas a bio is primarily a tool for highlighting important things the person has done.  The goal of a literary bio isn’t to tell an interesting story (“He moved to the Yukon at the age of six and learned to clean and gut fish with only a butter knife”) or to reveal unique information (“She’s ambidextrous and teaches fine woodworking courses on weekends”), but instead to portray the writer as an established, competent, and esteemed individual whose writing should be viewed as important.

Literary bios usually consist of four parts:

  1. The Lead. This should be a larger work that the writer has published.  (If no larger work is available, the Works List can serve as the Lead.)  Including the press name is a plus, since a higher-status press carries more weight than a lesser-known one, and mentioning the press name is good publicity. 
  2. The Works List.  This is a list of places the writer has been published, starting with the most well-known.  (The Holy Grail for writers is to begin this list with The New Yorker.)  The names of the stories or poems aren’t important, since the focus is really on the status of the journals that have selected the writer’s work.  (This is especially evident when mentioning places where the writer’s work is forthcoming, since such unreleased work cannot by definition be appreciated by anyone—it is only necessary to mention the new outlet as soon as possible.)
  3. The Awards List.  Fellowships, prizes (especially the Pushcart Prize!), shortlists, residencies, and the occasional artist grant all denote the writer’s work as worthy of such commendation, further establishing the writer as an important person.  Announcing the writer as the “recipient” of an award also sounds more prestigious than saying that the writer merely “received” it!
  4. The Current Position.  Most bios mention the writer’s university and job title at the end almost as an afterthought, thus implying that the writer’s (usually academic) day job is less important than the writing itself, when in reality the writer’s procuring such a position is a large (even primary) motivator behind publishing in creative writing journals at all.  It is especially necessary here to mention the job title of “professor” or “assistant professor,” since saying that the writer “teaches in the creative writing program at X University” is often code for “works as an adjunct.”

In short, the secret to an effective bio lies in its predictability: bios are a tool for conveying information, measuring a writer’s achievements, and establishing a reputation, and thus serve the same purpose as the ingredients list on a box of fruit pies.

Monday, August 24, 2015

I Tried to Write Something and It Was a Failure



Three weeks ago I got one of the best ideas I’d had in a long time—it was funny, spoke about a meaningful subject, and would permeate with energy when read in front of a group.  I planned out the idea for a full two weeks, jotting down jokes and clever turns of phrase as they came to me, and confident in exactly how the final product would sound.  (This is the fun part of writing, where everything feels easy and perfect in the idea stage.)  When my schedule finally settled down I set aside a morning where I would type out an actual draft to make real, and this is when things changed.

Sometimes when I start writing I’m filled with energy and know exactly how I want those first few sentences to sound, though other times I stagger in my opening and find the rhythm as I go.  This was one of those times when the beginning felt weak but I knew I could iron out the tone and pacing over the course of writing, and so I continued through a sloppy opening.  It was a dull, stiflingly humid morning, and in my kitchen where I write my air conditioner hadn’t yet driven in enough cool air from the living room to make a difference. I’d also become aware of a sharp, weighty headache that caused me to lose focus every few minutes, though I knew that if I could just get past those opening paragraphs and start adding the jokes I’d already written that everything would be fine.  I thought again about how good the piece would sound when finished, hearing sections in my head (fragments of sentences, mostly, or certain dramatic climaxes) that rekindled my confidence and drove me to continue.

My headache, though, was getting worse, and when I added in the jokes from my notebook they felt out of place, like I was trying to beat life into an otherwise stagnant piece of writing.  I thought about things I needed to do that day and how late I’d slept, and tried to remember the glorious rhythm of the piece as I’d rehearsed it in my head, trying hard to summon the energy, the humor, and the bitingly sarcastic voice I knew would make it a success. 

I don’t remember when exactly I lost faith in what I was writing; I think for a long while I believed that a few rounds of revision could smooth out the rough prose, the inconsistent voice, and the overly long paragraphs, but then this hope fizzled out and left me wondering whether to abandon the draft and return to bed (it was still very humid in that kitchen) or to finish and commit to paper the ending I’d planned.  Those last two paragraphs were the hardest—hard because I didn’t believe in the piece anymore, and was writing for the sake of finishing something I’d started, and I knew that no idea, no matter how clever, could save the piece now.

When I typed out the last sentence I felt sick from fatigue and defeat; the piece would need a complete overhaul that required I start it again from scratch, which I did not at that point (and still don’t) know how to do.  It bothered me that the piece was a failure, and I didn’t write anything after that for a long time. 

I find myself wondering what lesson can be learned from this experience, what I can take from it that will make me a better writer, and what I can explain in this final paragraph that will uplift and educate you as readers, but I don’t think there’s any lesson to be learned here, and any attempt to churn one from this story will come across as childish and trite.  No—failing to write that piece was just something that happened, like breaking a shoelace or finding mold in your sour cream, and now it’s done with and should be forgotten—not in that repressed memory kind of way where later on you cringe upon recalling this thing that bothered you, but in that way where you can’t quite remember what you ate for breakfast the previous day but could probably recall it if someone asked you and you concentrated for a short while.  It was just a thing that happened.