Learning to Fail Better



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!

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


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


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


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.


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


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


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


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


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


(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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Erasure Poem of a Quote from Angie’s List CEO Scott Durchslag



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.

Midwestern Gothic


I talked to thMidwestern Gothic issue 22 literary journale good folks at Midwestern Gothic about life in middle America, Kurt Vonnegut, how to know when work is complete enough to send out, and taking showers. They interviewed me along with many other, better writers who contributed creative writing for Issue 22 of the literary journal, which came out in July 2016.

My story “Scavenger Hunt” is about a reporter who’s a skeptic on a journey with his once-close youth group friends from high school. My piece is near the end, so make sure to read cover to cover.

Check out the interview, and then get the magazine!

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.


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.

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