Learning to Fail Better

 

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There’s a chapter from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird that I make students read. It’s called “Shitty First Drafts,” and it’s largely about the “fantasy of the uninitiated” — the idea that writers “take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.” It’s a myth, I tell the students. But it’s a myth that experienced writers still have a hard time abandoning. We believe that real writers pump out perfect prose.

A few months ago, Fear No Lit accepted my pitch for an interview series called Fail Better. It has adapted a little bit, but remained close to the original intent of debunking the “fantasy of the uninitiated.” The series explores how writers become better through trial and error, failing and learning how to fail a little bit less, a little bit better, the next time. It has been fun to learn from each writer.

Here is a list of links to the interviews so far.

1. John McCarthy

A lot of the poems in Ghost County started off way too long. I don’t want to throw myself under the bus, but in the copy of the book I read from, I still make edits. One of the poems has at least six or seven lines crossed out. I’ve even reworded the way a few of the sentences read.

2. Stephanie Wilbur Ash

You need to be honest about your failure, but you can’t dwell there. You have to move forward quickly and see that knowledge as an opportunity. You have to let your feelings go and be scientific about it. … A negative result is still a result in science. You don’t feel bad about a negative result. It’s just a result.

3. Sarah Layden

With very few exceptions, I’m happy to be published, happy that someone out in the world found some sort of connection with my work. There’s little harm in being published early and online, other than being internet haunted by your past self. It’s like having your gawky seventh grade school picture on your work ID badge. Both exist, but you wouldn’t necessarily choose the former to represent who you are now.

4. Eric Blix

For me, the pleasures come when I discover something new either about a project or about the act of writing. Maybe the biggest thrill is discovering a question I didn’t know I was asking. This probably applies to both drafting and revising, which for me typically overlap to the point of being essentially the same thing.

Next up on Fail Better: an interview with short story writer Hasanthika Sirisena in June!

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16 Things That Didn’t Suck About My 2016

Last night I superglued my thumb and forefinger together. Not on purpose. I was attempting to repair a ceramic spoon rest that my jackass cat, Herman, jumped from one counter he’s not supposed to be on to another counter, which he’s also not supposed to be on. A miscalculation on his part shot the spoon rest at the back of the counter and sent him falling to the hardwood.

This rectangular dish my wife and I had bought early on in our relationship, during a school trip to France. It had survived five moves, one across state lines. But it couldn’t survive 2016 unmarred.

It’s become popular to blame 2016 for everything bad. But as a person, not just a span of time. One of my friends put it this way:

The personification of 2016 as a supervillain is pretty interesting. We seem to feel helpless, as if the year is out to get us and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. There’s just no better way, we seem to be saying, to express our bewilderment with the countless unfortunate events of the past 52 weeks. From humanitarian crises to celebrity deaths to political nightmares—or on a personal level, my wife and I getting laid off, my grandpa Charlie being diagnosed with cancer, and the unexpected death of my cousin Kim—some nefarious nutcase must be purposely perpetrating this horror show.

With all the bad remaining ever-present, it can be difficult to remember the good. So I decided to make a list of things that were pretty great about this year, even if, overall, I’d still like see 2016 get kicked in the balls and stumble backwards to fall into an active volcano.

1. New digs

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In June, Stephanie and I moved into a house in Mankato that we really love. Built in 1908, it has hardwood floors and built-in cabinets. It’s a rental, yes, but it’s the type of house that we’d like to own one day. Did I mention that two of our best friends here in MN live in the upstairs unit?

2. First Anniversary at the North Shore

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Stephanie and I stayed at an Airbnb in Two Harbors, Minnesota, for our anniversary. Exploring Duluth and other areas along the shore of Lake Superior ranks among my top experiences of 2016. We went as far north as Judge CR Magney State Park, about 30 miles from the Canadian border, where we hiked the Devil’s Kettle trail. It was a great place to celebrate one year of marriage and look forward to many, many more.

3. Scavenger HuntMidwestern Gothic issue 22 literary journal

My short story “Scavenger Hunt” was accepted for publication in the summer issue of Midwestern Gothic. Which features a photo of the cable cars at the Minnesota State Fair on its cover. (The story also received honorable mention for MSU Mankato’s Robert C. Wright award.)

4. Independence Day Pregame Party

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Using our new house to its fullest potential, we and Tyler and Erin hosted an American barbecue two days before the Fourth of July. We grilled out, tie-dyed T-shirts, and roasted marshmallows to a patriotic playlist. An intense Euchre tournament continued long after the sun went down. It was great to spend time with 20+ friends from the MFA program and their significant others, some of whom had just graduated and would soon move away.

5. AWP 16

Attending the Associated Writers & Writing Programs convention in Los Angeles was definitely a highlight. It also provided plenty of fodder for a short story I’ve been working on about an actress on the lam who wants to go back to doing commercials, those no-name anonymous roles, like she had to take at the start of her career.

6. Stranger Things, etc.

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Who didn’t love this quirky, ’80s throwback series? We binge-watched every episode in one day. Can’t wait for season two. #justiceforbarb

Some pretty good, thought-provoking movies came out this year. The documentary 13th is a must-see for all Americans, and The Lobster is an absolutely stunning piece of art.

img_03787. Elizabeth Moving to Minnesota

The day we watched Stranger Things was the day after my littlest sister Elizabeth moved into the dorms at MSU. Her living in Mankato has been great, especially our regular Sunday dinners.

It’s still weird to run into each other on the bus or at Target, but it’s nice to have her nearby. Plus, my family visits more.

7. Novel Workshop

Over the fall semester, I worked on creating a novel. The goal of the course was to produce a lot of words, to have a decent first draft that we could work on later with the skills we learned during the semester. I ended with more than 60,000 words and a good idea of how to address the myriad issues that demand I keep slogging away. Hopefully, this mess will turn into a beautiful, polished thesis by April 2018.

8. Prodigal Remodeler

bad jobs and bullshit anthology

My personal essay “Prodigal Remodeler” was accepted for publication in The Geeky Press’s anthology Bad Jobs & Bullshit. This is the first piece of creative nonfiction I’ve published, and it’s about something that means a lot to me, something I consider pretty much as key to me becoming the person I am as my education: working construction with my dad.

9. Publishing Grandpa Figy’s Memoir

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My Grandpa Figy does not call himself a writer, instead using terms like “old chicken-plucker.” But over the past few years, he has labored away on a book about his life. It was never about making money. Writing the book was about fulfilling a lifelong dream and having something to give to his friends and family. This year after a lot of time spent editing and designing, I was able to help him print 100 copies of the book called What Life Is. I’d suggested the title What a Life Is based on a line in the text, but grandpa, being a man of definites, wanted to delete the indefinite article. Before I’d even seen them, he said they were all spoken for. We had to order 100 more.

10. Thanksgiving

Being around all of my Figy family was a nice reprieve from school life. Plus, the food!

blind-pilot-cover-art_sq-849a7a0e2d3debce76d65026091c30b494a0f646-s300-c8511. Blind Pilot’s New Album

And Then Like Lions by Blind Pilot was probably my favorite album of 2016. Stephanie and I were able to catch the band’s performance in Minneapolis this fall, and it only reinforced this opinion. The concert also introduced us to folk quartet River Whyless, whose 2016 release, We All the Light, is an excellent album as well.

However, And Then Like Lions was the soundtrack to many miles on the road and late nights studying, writing, or prepping to teach. Joik #3 is one of the top cuts from the album.

12. The Good Brews

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I don’t drink beer often—okay, that’s a lie—but still, when I do, it’s not Dos Equis. It’s the good stuff. This year I was able to try new brews in Indianapolis (Metazoa), Beijing (Great Leap & Arrow) and Shanghai (Boxing Cat), and a lot from across Minnesota (Castle Danger, Wild Minds, Voyageur, Montgomery, etc.). I don’t think I’m a snob, but call me one if you please.

13. Reading Year

My goal this year was to read one book each week, and I exceeded it. Only two rereads. This is the most I’ve ever read in a year, partly because I have to read a lot for classes, and my reading speed has increased quite a bit. Also, Jonathan Safran For released a new book in 2016 after a decade-long wait. The more books I read, the more books I realize I haven’t read. A quote from Mary Ruefle’s poem “Merengue,” which I read in her Selected Poems this year, comes to mind:

What book will you be reading when you die?

If it’s a good one, you won’t finish it.

If it’s a bad one, what a shame.

14. To My Healthy

In 2016, at the tender age of 27, I had my first physical. I also sought help for my mental health. I have struggled with depression and anxiety for more than a decade, and was diagnosed on the extreme end of both this summer. In the spring, I was so tightly wound at a poetry reading that a friend wouldn’t stop asking if I was okay. After a panic attack forced me to leave yoga class—YOGA CLASS, the most relaxing, mindful place one can be—I decided it was time.

Since I would be teaching in the fall and didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of students, and since I would be traveling to Beijing where 21 million people live, something needed to happen. Things have been much better since.

15. China

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Stephanie and I travelled to Beijing and visited our friend Ben, then travelled south with him to Shanghai and Shaoxing. We walked a portion of the Great Wall and explored small hutongs. From the people to the food to the architecture to—oh my gosh—just everything—it was such an incredible experience.

One thing the doctor told me to do to combat anxiety is picture myself where I want to be. I didn’t know where that was before going to China. Now I picture myself in the courtyard of the Lama Temple on a sweaty day with Stephanie and Ben, the smell of incense rising through the air.

16. Teaching

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My first teacher mug, a gift from the director of composition.

I wanted to become a teaching assistant to find out if I was any good at teaching and if I enjoyed it. I know the answer to the latter, and as for the former, I believe I at least did no harm. Teaching, like writing, is a skill that everyone has to work on—and work on, and work on, and work on some more. Continuing to work on my teaching abilities while not screwing up too badly is my goal for now; being boss at it will hopefully come later.

At the end of my first semester teaching, the director of composition reminded all of us new TAs how much power we have to engage students, to help them write, and by necessity think, better. This work gives us a chance to make a difference in students’ lives every day, she said. She said, Not many people have that opportunity. Looking ahead to the new year, I hope to prove those words true. I hope as a reader, writer, listener, husband, son, brother, volunteer, and teacher to make an impact.

And I hope we will forget about that jerk called 2016. And I hope we will not view 2017 the same way, as a maniacal madman inflicting his ill will upon us. Let us look at it as a story, something that each one must write, and rewrite, and rewrite, and continue to make sense of as we go.

The 60-foot tall Buddha and my first last day of teaching

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(Note: Student already had an A before sending this.)

Ten days before teaching assistant workshop began, my wife and I got on a plane for Beijing. Reading books and workshop materials, and sleeping, occupied me over the thirteen-hour flight. Anxious about teaching, I studied the sheets closely, making notes.

In China, we visited the Lama Temple, where visitors lit incense, despite the stifling heat, and prayed to Buddhas at the red, green, and gold structures with orange tile roofs. At the furthest pagoda stands a sixty-foot-tall statue, not counting its base below ground, carved from a single sandalwood tree. Standing nearby, my friend Zefeng told me to make a wish. “It’s not a religious thing,” he said when I hesitated.

The issue, though, was deciding what to wish for. I am not hungry or homeless, uneducated or unloved. But my wish came to mind, stemming from my anxiety about TA workshop. I wished at the towering Buddha’s feet to be a good teacher. Or at least, I thought, not to screw it up.

The workshop came and went like a whirlwind, and all of the sudden, I was standing in front of twenty-five students who expected me to say things. Smart things.

The first task was figuring out their names and then figuring out how to remember them, both of which I failed. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but what I realized is: It is a big deal to them. This very basic slip-up told them whether I cared enough to know who they are. I made a point to write down the ones that tripped me up and memorize where they sat.

Thankfully, they choose their chairs forever. Even if the semester lasted a decade, not a one would consider switching locations.

One crisis averted, I moved on to the next: creating engaging activities. Some activities I thought would be engaging fell flat, while others I was unsure about were roaring successes. They either succeeded or did not based on whether they engaged the students. Did the students become invested in the activity? Did they find it fun? Did they feel like they learned something as well? For successful activities, the answer to all of these would be yes. However, it is still unclear why some activities did not meet some of these criteria.

I wondered why the Twitter rhetoric activity was not as fun as it could have been. I wondered why students were so distracted during an audience activity in which they had to write about their favorite movie, then write about it to convince me and a classmate that it was a great movie based on what they know about us. Most of the time, it came down to a lack of structure. I had not thought through all of the tiny details about the activity, and that made it stressful, and maybe a little bit annoying, for the students.

My biggest successes were the Logical Fallacies Theatre and teaching sentence patterns activities I created. Logical Fallacies Theatre required six groups of four students to act out a short skit that illustrated a logical fallacy. One part always chimed in with: “This is a classic example of the [fill in the blank] fallacy…” The students were not sold at first, but at the end, I overheard one student tell another, “That was actually fun.”

For the sentence patterns activity, I divided the students into groups and had them create a short lesson based on materials I provided them about common sentence patterns. One of the reasons it succeeded, I believe, is that I modeled a micro lesson for them first. This was one thing my TA mentor advised I do more of after her observation. The students did a great job of coming up with their own examples, and afterward, I uploaded a document to D2L that contained examples from the class. It seems that doing this gives value to their work and makes them more confident in their composition acumen.

The final day of class, we put together what I called The English 101 Bible. Students worked in groups of two or three, which I randomly created to prevent cliquish work avoidance, to write a page about an important composition concept. This seemed to be an appropriate test of their knowledge in lieu of a final exam. I was not sure how well it would work, or if I really wanted to know how much they had learned over the semester, but they all did very well. Some of them even surprised me by writing things from their notes that I had said in class but had not posted on D2L. I compiled the work with everyone’s names and sent the PDF as a reference for future courses but also as a way to show them that they do know how to write.

We had a party in another room after writing the Bible. Each student shared what they improved at over the semester and which skills still need work. The final student to share, an international student who had expressed his anxiety about the class early on, answered, “Everything.” I asked if that meant he got better at everything or needed to improve at everything. “Both,” he said. He laughed and everyone joined him. With a smile, he added, “I didn’t know any of this stuff before—thesis statements or APA.” It made me feel like I had done something good and important. Which is what I’d been striving toward since I first applied for a teaching assistantship.

To close, I thanked the students, whom I could name at a glance, for such a great semester. I gave my Mr. Feeney speech, saying that they learned many things over the semester, but the two most important are how to organize their thoughts and how to craft a rational argument.

“You’ve learned how to look at other people’s viewpoints and agree or disagree using research and actual factual information,” I said. “And those two things, I believe, are the signs of an educated person.”

They applauded, as if it really were an episode of Boy Meets World, and then filed out, and my first last day of teaching ended.

Buddha at Lama Temple, Beijing

Carved from a single piece of white sandalwood, this Buddha at the Yonghe Temple stands about 60 feet tall, though there is more buried underground to support it.

Did I get my wish then? Though there were struggles, I didn’t screw up—well, not everything. Much of this came from hard work, not any cosmic forces or the alignment of stars. So I will continue to work on activities and assignments and to build a catalogue of both. However, my anxiety about not having anything to say to the students has faded, a little bit, at least.

My wish did have some strings attached. Striding through the stone courtyard, Ben said that if your wish comes true, you are supposed to visit the temple again to return the good fortune. That way, you do not hog all the luck, and someone else can share in the good fortune. While I will keep working to become the best teacher I can be, I can’t help daydreaming about maybe, one day, revisiting the tall, tall Buddha.

Reflecting On: Brand New – The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me

I wrote a piece about Brand New’s third album, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, for the music site It’s All Dead. Check it out!

it's all dead

I wasn’t into Brand New before it was cool. But I did love the Long Island emo rockers before The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me landed on November 20, 2006. In fact, I was waiting for it. By that time, I knew what to expect—straightforward mid-aughts rock with pop punk undertones and emo vocals. That, however, is not what the band brought to the table with its third album.

The first track, “Sowing Season (Yeah),” begins quietly—Jesse Lacey’s vocals just a whisper, the solitary guitar a mere hum—before exploding into a mourning waltz. “Time to get the seeds into the cold ground,” the lyrics say. “Takes a while to grow anything before it’s coming to an end, yeah.” Lacey, who was raised in a religious family and attended Christian school, is no doubt referring to the parable of the sower. The sower spreads seeds of faith across his…

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Our Guarantee

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Welcome to Any Tire Store™, where we take pride in our sincere commitment to not skimping on your wait time! In case this is your first time here, please know that our 2-Hour Guarantee© makes us a leader in the industry. That’s right: We will make sure that you enjoy no less than a full 2 hours in our luxurious showroom, which—before we forget to mention—is equipped with racks of tires for your viewing pleasure, as well asa TV that shows the Maury Povich no matter what time of day* and a collection of hand-crinkled, vintage magazines from 2013. Thirsty? We brew fresh brown-tinted liquid every morning, a special roast that gets its woody taste and texture from the sawdust that comprises most of our grounds? Hungry? Please help yourself to a smorgasbord creamer cans full of an unknown bag-of-concrete-style powdered substance!

At Any Tire Store™, you can rest assured that our 2-Hour Guarantee© will not let you down. What if you show up at 7 a.m. right when the doors open, you ask? Fear not! We make sure to keep just one hungover tech on hand to ensure that work progresses at the proper pace. What if you drop your vehicle off the night before due to your hectic work, family, or school schedule—will you still get the quality promised wait? No problem! We will make sure to change the price of each tire by a negligible amount, which then allows us to delay the work until we get your approval—which you are unable to give because of that doggone busy schedule. Then, in the morning when your brother-in-law** drops you off on his way to work so that you can get your vehicle that was supposed to have new tires, you can enjoy your waiting period at that time. Feel free to call your boss from our lobby or use the spotty Wi-Fi to search for a new job if necessary.

Thank you for choosing Any Tire Store™ especially considering you have no other options. We come to work each morning prepared to fulfill our 2-Hour Guarantee©, ready to spend the day helping you lose yours!

* In extreme conditions, we reserve the right to show Judge Judy or Jerry Springer reruns.
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Erasure Poem of a Quote from Angie’s List CEO Scott Durchslag

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

 

A transformative moment

we completed quietly, moved

our existing demand. Today

 

I am impressed, enthusiastic

and delighted with the dropping

of key members. Unique visits,

 

unique searching, these early days

the data is very encouraging. It is

a critical milestone in executing our profit.

 

 * * *

 

Angie's List CEO Scott Durchslag

Note: This is a found poem inspired by one previous employee’s night of insomnia after being laid off. The words in this erasure poem come from a quote that Angie’s List CEO Scott Durchslag purportedly said in a July 13, 2016, press release. The accompanying photos—many will be surprised to learn—are not from the press release, although the company can feel free to use them however they please. Which some would say is common practice. Nor is the title a piece of the press release. You will remember (unless you’ve developed convenient-onset amnesia, otherwise known as Giuliani’s Disease) that a silly white guy announced these words soon after starting one of the longest wars in American history.

4 Angie Hicks Fan Fiction Pitches from 1 “Non-Revenue Generating Headcount”

angies list layoffs and firings

1. Angie’s Lust

When a mysterious CEO comes to town, innocently midwestern Angie Hicks develops a dark obsession. She trails him, wearing a necklace of large white balls and crimson sweater, through Carmel’s lightless nightscape, right into his trap. During their midnight confrontation on an empty suburban street, he runs his hands through her close-cropped cut. What’s more seductive, she wonders, his cunning or washboard abs, curtained between an unbuttoned silk shirt? (Which would obviously be the book cover.) He whispers, “Ever tortured for pleasure?” his face so close she feels the flick of his tongue against her lips. Angel Angie’s body pulses, breath heavy, as he leads to a dank love nest in her city’s wet municipal sewer.

*

2. Angie’s Lease

Absent-minded Angie made “a major uh oh,” as she tells the kids, by leaving her purple purse at Splash Mountain during the family’s Disney World vacation. “Whoops!” she says on the return flight, realizing she’ll never recover the strawberry lip balm, prescription sunglasses, and $16.8 million in fun-money it held. But that won’t get her down. Always the optimist, she decides to identify savings. First, she gives up her house, seeing so much untapped sleeping space on her office floor. Next, she decides they can give up eating, which causes her kids grumble as they were accustomed to a certain lifestyle. Ever plucky, Angie encourages, “Come on, guys—be grateful for all of the savings we’ve identified!” Lastly, her Mercedes Benz has to go. Though emaciated and homeless, this hurts worst. But she finds happiness in a great lease on a 1998 Saturn.

*

3. Angie’s Lips

The massive amount of cosmetic surgeries have taken their toll on Angie, but even though doctors warned this last one could kill her, she can’t give up now. How did it come to this? she wonders, wrapped in bandages in her private recovery room. The story plays out in flashback, with Angie remembering how it all started with the varicose veins. Then came the facelift, then the arm and leg lengthenings, adding eleven inches to her height and nine to her reach. She could take the pain, although the Kim Kardashian ass made lying flat in the hospital bed very difficult. Her perfect lips must come last, transforming her into the bombshell basketball player she always wanted to be. She’d finally achieve her dream, an Air Angies shoe line. Finally, she’s wheeled into the operating room. Will she come out? More importantly, will she be happy?

*

4. Angie’s Lost

What started as a getaway turns to tragedy when a storm tosses Angie Hicks’s shiny $16.8-million yacht onto a deserted island. She must now learn to make fire, forage for food, and overcome fears of the distant howling. Then one day she encounters a hurt wolf pup, whose leg she bandages with trembling fingers. The wild canines encircle her the next morning, and they bow, inviting her to join them. Angie cries out in a howl, and they join her. Now she’s in the wolf pack, bolting barefoot across the island, pouncing on backs of deer. She eats their meat rare, blood running down chin, and smiles wide. Around the fire with her new fur-coated family, a burp escapes her lips. She feels none of the guilt that plagued her during her years in the cutthroat business world. When a search party shows up, however, Angie must decide whether to rejoin the human world or remain in the wild. Which one, she wonders, is more savage?