My essay on remodeling

bad jobs and bullshit anthology

The great folks at The Geeky Press have published my essay “Prodigal Remodeler” in their new anthology, Bad Jobs & Bullshit. The collection contains fiction, CNF, and poetry about those less than satisfying jobs that everyone has had to work. And, though I might be a little biased, there’s some great stuff.

Mine talks about that stuff, yeah, but it also talks about working with my dad and—sort of, sometimes—missing the rewarding parts of remodeling.

Here’s a brief excerpt:

At age four, I began riding to work with dad in a series of rusty trucks and vans. I started working with him full-time at age seventeen, and continued full-time until age twenty-one. Then I went to college to pursue writing, which was the beginning of the end for my construction career. But I continued to swing a hammer twenty to thirty hours a week.

I hated how my thin arms would heat up, muscles straining to lift cabinets or carry lumber or break shit. How we’d demolish entire rooms down to nothing but bones and dust, just to rebuild them. How the saw would kick and many times could’ve taken my hand. How the sawdust would spray into my mouth.

Important note on eating sawdust: There are many flavors—take your time to savor each one, recognize the differences between a fine oak and cheap pine two-by-four. It’s an acquired taste.

You can get the book on Amazon (a free Kindle edition is out for Prime members) and Barnes & Noble. You can also add it on GoodReads to make that end of the year reading goal!

‘Get hammered, write better…’

And other quotes from my first year in an MFA program.

james-figy-mfa

Paper: “First day of [grad] school! When I grow up, I [still] want to be an astronaut.”

While working to survive the first year of grad school, I scribbled down some notable quotables in class, at events, wherever. Some good ones popped up as I recently flipped through my notes.

The notebooks held a professor’s joke: “‘Get hammered, write better.’ We’re all going to get tattoos that say that.” (At least, I think it was a joke.) They had visiting writer Susan Power’s twist on the write-what-you-know axiom: “When I write what I need to know, need to feel, need to experience, I step outside myself.”

Here’s a smattering of others.

1. Susan Power’s craft talk

“There’s this myth that the writer sits down and they type, ‘Chapter One,’ and the piece just rolls on forward.” Later, she added: “For me to get to my best work, I have to be feeling something. It’s not purely intellectual for me.”

2. Literary editing and publishing

On the origins of literary magazines: “They’re always born in some passion, but often born with some grievance. … You have to have passion because there’s no money in it.”

3. Fall fiction workshop

On how setting shapes character: “Where we are is who we are.”

4. Form and technique in fiction

On chasing an idea: “Let go of worrying whether it’s stupid or not because that’s not what artists do.”

5. Contemporary prose

On mainstream/genre versus literary fiction: “Some of this [tension] I think is between our emotional response and our intellectual response.”

6. Steph Burt’s craft talk

On “talking object” poems: “Poetry can give you things the world doesn’t have for you.”

7. Spring fiction workshop

“If there’s not trouble ahead in a story, I’m probably not interested.”

8. Professor’s research presentation

Writer’s comments on own short story: “I’m like the lovechild of Walt Whitman and Don DeLillo.”

9. Form and technique in fiction (again)

Why writers can’t be lazy: “We are in competition, as storytellers, with ten million screens.”

10. Contemporary prose (again)

Why writers, especially in MFA programs, must care about more than craft: “Isn’t that the importance of indulging your rebellion—that you have something to say?”

Review: Michael Martone

Michael MartoneMichael Martone by Michael Martone

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The narrator Michael Martone is talking on the subject of Michael Martone in the book Michael Martone by writer Michael Martone of Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is, strangely enough, the birthplace of the author Michael Martone. The voice is matter of fact, copying the third-person style of contributors’ notes over and over. Martone breathes new life into these typically comatose creations that he believes “have settled into a conventional form.”

Because he’s playing on the traditional contributor’s note, the voice is not loud and not very personal, though nostalgic at points. The reader is aware of the author because of the form, which reminds people that there is an author and the narrative of each note is an appendage to his supposed stories. Martone approaches the pseudobiographical material with a whimsy that originates from playing with the line between fiction and reality, breaking conventions under the guise of obeying them.

Martone is discussing that enigmatic character Martone, yes—but more specifically he’s discussing identity. He’s asking how much leeway we have to play with our memories and change our own stories, to present different selves. In the story where his parents leave him at the orphanage, Martone says a friend points out how he continually tells the story. The friend “said often that we all have these stories we come back to. We worry them. We tell them over and over without knowing we are doing it, trying to make sense out of our lives.” Throughout the collection, it seems like Martone is taking real stories, or simple facts, of his life and trying to mold them into something more in an effort not just to keep them alive but to give them a new life.

He’s also playing with memory. For example, the contributor’s note in which he has a colonoscopy and tells his son a dozen times the details contains this important section:

[Martone] had been there, had felt what it felt like, but that part of his memory had been scrubbed clean by the chemicals. And then there he was, trying to start up that machine again. It was like yanking on the ignition cord of a recalcitrant lawn-mower. At last it took, sending the spool spinning centripetally in his mind, the gathering in of the things that would stick again. Martone told himself not to forget how it felt to forget. Remember, Martone remembers saying to himself. Remember how the past started up again, how it reattached to the ceaseless parade of present moments, moments you can’t remember because you forgot how to remember them.

I think this is even more important than the last section in which he discusses his fascination with contributors’ notes. If the entire book hinges on Martone’s novel obsession with contributors’ notes, then the collection is mostly a joke—not a bad joke necessarily, but one that’s too long to be only that. What this section gives us is the importance of memory, how we know who we are and what we’ve done, just as the first sentence (“Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and was educated in the public schools there”) tells us who Martone, the writer and the character, is at the most irreducible level.

The work points out how we make up fictions about our lives to make them more interesting or because we simply can’t remember. When Martone asks his mother—who presumably took part in Alfred Kinsey’s famous studies at IU—about his own origins, “his mother simply said she couldn’t recall much more about that night but that she could make something up if that would help.” I think the mother’s response gets at something important: Sometimes it’s more comforting to believe something, whether fact or narrative, that you know isn’t true rather than not know what to believe. Michael Martone makes up the story of who Michael Martone is, then make it up again and again, because that’s better than not having a story.

View all my reviews

Rabbits are awesome as pets.

(So humans should learn to be awesome owners.)

pet house rabbits

Henry and Harper, working it.

I didn’t originally want a rabbit. But Stephanie was adamant. We were going to get the little gray guy her friend was giving away, and we’d figure out the rest later. It wasn’t until we picked him up that we learned the dwarf rabbit’s name: Frodo. Which absolutely had to change. I was reading Walden, and Henry popped into my head right away. And it stuck.

We learned a lot about caring for rabbits, and some of what we’ve learned over the past five years made its way into my recent rabbit article for Angie’s List. When I was young, I used to chase rabbits across my parents’ yard. I used to devise traps, hoping to score a bunny as a pet. But I’m glad now that I was unsuccessful, because caring for rabbits is serious work.

Bunnies live for about 10 years, and their health, proper diet, and sufficient playtime are all important. Understanding how seriousness of G.I. problems is crucial. We’ve had to visit emergency vets a few times for Henry, who has a sensitive stomach despite the fact he eats like a pig.

Figuring out how to balance all of these responsibilities became more of a challenge when, six months after we got Henry, we brought home Harper. She was tiny then, but as you can see, she now dwarfs Henry.

pet bunnies

Here’s baby Harper and her with Henry (for scale).

Henry and Harper modeled for my article. It was a daunting photoshoot over the course of ten minutes. Of course, this isn’t their first rodeo. Both of them acted in Animaux à Paris, a foreign language film, highly acclaimed by my French 317 class. And Henry performed in the short film Jamie Snodgrass: Class-C Mulberry Scout.

It’s been a wild ride with the bunnies, but I’m glad Stephanie ignored my pessimism about adopting Hen. As one vet told me:

Rabbits can be very social. And the rabbit patients I have share a very strong human-animal bond.

Read the Angie’s List article here.

Minneopa bison

minneola state park bison

A few weeks ago, I went with my wife and some friends to Minneola State Park to go snowshoeing. Unfortunately, all of the snowshoes had been reserved days earlier by people who know how things work here in Mankato.

So we drove through the bison range instead. We didn’t see anything, except a boulder that looked deceptively like a sleeping buffalo from far off, until the very end of the loop. Gathered in the path was the entire herd.

I snapped a few pictures—here they are.

bison at Minneopa state park

A Very Figy Christmas

christmas-pump

Many of you are wondering: What’s the Figys’s first married Christmas like?

And if you’re not, you feel too awkward about walking out now. It’s like you showed up to the wrong class on syllabus day, but already claimed a great seat and asked a question about the midterm—so, why not take Anthro 245? So then, what does mine and Stephanie’s first married Christmas look like?

First off, Stephanie decorated the place. Last year, we didn’t decorate, and found the holiday rather dreary. So this year, she situated a wooden, cartoon-looking moose with a glittery scarf and neatly wrapped gift next to my Kurt Vonnegut doll. We got out four stockings, two for us and two for the rabbits Henry and Harper. Sorry, cats. The stockings continue to sit on the kitchen counter. We got a tree, a little one about three feet tall, and wrapped around a single string of lights.

Our ornaments are mainly crafts from Stephanie’s job working YMCA before and after school care. Herman, cat No. 1, likes this one in particular. It’s a homemade Grinch-stuck-in-chimney ornament—an orange pill bottle rimmed with cotton ball snow, green poof for a butt and two green pipe cleaner legs poking out. Herm would bite the piece of yarn it hangs from, drag it around, then drop it on the bedroom floor each night. An early Christmas present for us.

We opened our stockings early. Half of the chocolate is gone. Devoured. The rest stands no chance. Since we’ll start the six-hundred-and-some-mile trek to Indianapolis to see our families early Christmas morning, we opened our presents, too. As soon as the wrapping paper started to rip, Pumpkin, cat No. 2, got lost in the excitement. She tore off toward the bedroom, paws slipping on the slick floor, almost sliding into the doorframe.

What does our first married Christmas sound like? Not Bing Crosby. We haven’t listened to a lick of Christmas music at home. Instead, my wife has been walking around our small apartment singing Shaggy’s 2000 radio hit “Angel.” Stephanie sings it right to me. And despite referring to me as “girl” over and over, it’s sweet when she croons to me—her “darling angel”—the lyric: “closer than my peeps you are to me.” Then, diving into the verse without skipping a beast, she imitates, quite accurately, the reggae rapper’s flow on thought provoking lines like:

Life is one big party when you’re still young…

But who’s gonna have your back when it’s all done?

We’ve only heard real Christmas music in stores and at Mankato’s Festival of Lights in Sibley Park, where we feed pigs and sheep and goats pellets from candy vending machines in warmer months. No barnyard animals during December—there are reindeer instead! I asked Stephanie, “Can we take them home?” We’re still in negotiations.

The giant light display, synced to popular Christmas tunes, also has Santa’s house, a small skating rink for true Minnesotans—AKA people who actually own ice skates—and a row of Christmas trees decorated by area organizations. We like the fire department’s tree, which is half burned, telling a cautionary tale about the dangers of faulty lighting. We’ve been three times: once by ourselves, once with friends Tyler and Erin, and again with friend and fellow G.A. Irving.

We’ll probably go again. Because it’s festive. Because it’s fun. Because, not gonna lie, I love the reindeer. Because that’s what traditions are about—repeating experiences over and over, establishing a normal.

Tradition helps. Normal helps. When you live in a new place, hundreds of miles from the people and places you really, truly know, from the experiences that are yours, having something to call yours helps. Creating and claiming new experiences as yours—something as simple as eating tacos on Christmas Eve or opening presents early—helps.

Mine and Stephanie’s first married Christmas is about making traditions, since we don’t know in a few years what we’ll be doing, or where on earth we’ll live. Who knows? Maybe Australia or some similarly exotic place, like Canada. Traditions remind us, even when everything changes, that we have each other. No matter where we go, we’ll have everything we need.

Merry Christmas, everyone.