How to Survive as an Adjunct

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Read at the most recent F-Bomb Reading. If you’re in the Denver area on November 12, join us at The Mercury Café at 6:45 p.m. Admission is free and 4 minute open mic flash fiction spots are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

First, you should lower your expectations. All of them: what you’ll be asked to teach, how much respect you’ll be given, and especially what you’ll be paid. Then cut that in half for a more realistic view. If that doesn’t send you running immediately, congratulations, and welcome to lowest rung of professional academia.

Next, start working on syllabi. You’ll pour hours into them, trying to think of every contingency. Steal prodigiously from those who’ve taught this class before you. Feel a brief pang of guilt when you plagiarize a passage about your strict plagiarism policy. It doesn’t matter—the students won’t read it anyway, and half of the policies will change (either at your hand or the school’s) next semester anyway.

On the first day, you’ll stumble over some of the names on your roster. The students might look at you with contempt for fucking up their name, but they’ll still be calling you “Hey Mister” or “Hey Miss” in week 15, so don’t feel too badly about it. Resist the urge to tell them that about a third of them won’t make it to the end of the semester, even though it’s true. Read them the syllabus so you’ll be able to recite chapter and verse in a few weeks when they ask you about your attendance policy just before their favorite band comes to town—whoops, I mean, their grandmother just died.

Don’t be surprised when they don’t read the assigned chapters or turn in the assignments you spent your nights and weekends crafting. Some of them will, and they’ll go above and beyond your expectations, but that will never be more than 10 percent. Others will meet the bare minimum—that’s fine. They can’t all love learning the way you did, after all. Others will swear they emailed you their homework, and they totally read that assignment, but they accidentally left their book in their girlfriend’s apartment or at the bus stop. Try not to waste too much time or sanity on these losers—they won’t pass anyway.

When your first paycheck comes, take deep breaths. You were advised to lower your expectations, after all. Then, learn to steal office supplies. Wait—not steal. Those office supplies are benefits. All the cheap Bic pens you could ever want are at your disposal, as are paper clips, binder clips, highlighters, index cards, post-it notes, and so on. You can’t take these all at once—that would elicit dirty looks from the hard-working admins who have to restock that shit. But grab a handful whenever you can. Print and copy as much as you dare, but be smart about it. Copy and paste your poetry and short stories to nameless documents so that it shows as printing “Document 1,” not “Poetry Manifesto I Wrote in the Six Minutes of Free Time I Had Last Weekend.” You must always cover your ass.

Speaking of which, keep excellent and detailed records. You’re guaranteed to piss off some entitled little fuck who thinks they deserve an A, even if you haven’t seen them since the second class. Your chair will usually take your side, but they need more than your say-so to shut that entitled little fuck down. Good records are the ammunition they need to put those entitled little fucks in their place.

Try not to get snowed under by stacks of grading, but keep digging if you do (and you will). Stay ahead of your students, even if it’s only a few minutes ahead. Take all the professional development classes you can, if for no other reason than the extra money and free food. Submit your grades on time, or you’ll end up on the naughty list. Above all else, refuse to take the bullshit students try to sling at you. Teaching is not a democracy, and you are the fearless leader.

If you hang in there, your chairs will recognize your service. They’ll give you better classes at better hours. You’ll get to know the content better, and your jokes will get more laughs… probably. Expect that your family will never understand why your superiors don’t just wave a magic wand and make you a full-timer, no matter how many times you explain how these things work (or don’t). But most of all, hang in there. When you get things running, teaching is the best job in the world. All you have to do is survive it.

Living in a World Without The Bad and The Ugly

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For Rob Geisen, In Memory of Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach

Read at the August F-Bomb–Join us the second Wednesday of the month at The Mercury Café, 2199 Calfornia Street, Denver, CO.

We now live in a world where only The Good survives, and that is a very bad thing. I refer, of course, to the greatest spaghetti western of all time, The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, Sergio Leone’s 1966 masterpiece. Clint Eastwood embodies Good in his iconic Man With No Name character, a serape-wearing, cigar-chomping, quick-drawing badass. Lee Van Cleef portrays The Bad, with his steely blue eyes and the most handsomely villainous moustache in film history. Eli Wallach plays The Ugly, a frantic little man who is quick with his pistols and is not above monologuing with a chicken until his crew appears from the shadows.

Unfortunately, the cast of The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly has largely abandoned the mortal coil. Lee Van Cleef went to the great saloon in the sky way back in 1989, so we’ve been living without The Bad for some time. And that’s okay, I guess, because there’s enough Bad in the world to help us along. Lee Van Cleef’s work was done. Granted, nobody can do a baddie quite like him—as the great thrash-funk band Primus tells us, “no one’s steely like Lee Van Cleef”—but we’ve got enough Gary Oldmans and Christopher Walkens and Clancy Browns to fill the gaps. Then, this year, Eli Wallach passed away, taking The Ugly with him. Again, this is understandable—he was 98, and there is no shortage of Ugly in the world, what with Kardashian sisters sprouting like spores and Vladimir Putin on the warpath and the Ted Cruz/Sarah Palin/Michelle Bachman-inspired policies of the Tea Party. But the real tragedy is that, without The Bad and The Ugly to help define The Good, The Good has now completely lost its way.

One would think that, in a world with only The Good left, it would be the best of all possible worlds, but unfortunately that’s just not true. In a world without The Bad and The Ugly, The Good has no more great foil. Clint Eastwood has done pretty well—The Unforgiven is perhaps the last truly great western. But ultimately, most of what Clint Eastwood has done in recent years has been much more in the vein of Paint Your Wagons—campy, strained, and more than a little disappointing. The fact that he can still be a badass makes it even more heartbreaking when he wanders into a dusty saloon, moseys up to the bar, and starts berating the president of the United States where everyone else sees an empty stool. No one wants to make eye contact with him any more, not because they’re afraid he’ll gun them down with his dead-eyed aim, but because they’re ashamed for him. Sure, the badass is still hidden beneath the sad old man, but the sad old man is running the show because there are no longer any antagonists worthy of his demonstrations of badassery.

Every writer worth his or her salt knows that your hero can never be truly Good without the Bad there to challenge him, or the Ugly truth to complicate matters. So the Good goes sour, and makes us all forget what made it so good in the first place. Good without Bad or Ugly will always lead to Greedo shooting first, even though everyone in the goddamn galaxy knows Han Solo did the right thing. In a world without Bad or Ugly, Clint Eastwood leaves loveable scoundrel Eli Wallach to hang in some god-forsaken shithole town because he had already pocketed the reward money and turned a record profit for the fiscal year. In the 21st Century world without Bad or Ugly, Good promotes selfishness as virtue and thinks of Rick Perry as a viable presidential candidate, and Clint Eastwood directs yet another romance film that will probably win an Oscar over some other, far more deserving director. We deserve a world filled with more than just The Good, but to borrow an Eastwood line from The Unforgiven, “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

“Doppelganger” in Connotation Press

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My short story “Doppelganger,” from The Boy in the Well, appears in the latest edition of Connotation Press. Please check it out, and while you’re there, check out some of the other awesome stories in this issue!

Special thanks to Meg Tuite for agreeing to re-publish one of my favorite stories. You should check out her books Her Skin is a Costume and Bound by Blue.

Making It Look Easy: The Writing Process

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My partner’s mom read The Boy in the Well the other day and, to my relief, really enjoyed it. As she praised it, she mentioned how the writing just “flows out of you.” I had no choice but to laugh, because, as anyone who has been a writer for any amount of time can tell you, it almost never just flows out easily.

Those six stories that just “flowed out of me” took three years to finish. They went through maybe half a dozen different drafts each. For some of them, not much changed between the first and final drafts; “The Ambulance Driver,” at a terse 190 words long, has only altered by a few words here and there to add precision and clarity. Others, like “The Boy in the Well,” have had sections put in and taken out, multiple endings attached, and witnessed me on the verge of madness trying to decide not just what a character would say but how they should say it. It really isn’t a pretty process, and it’s little wonder that so many creative writers have turned to addiction and/or often end up divorced.

None of that comes through in polished writing, though. I often tell my writing students that writing is the opposite of math; math teachers want to see all of your work, but English teachers (and readers in general) want to see all the seams welded closed, no untidy strands anywhere. So much of my own writing takes place in the editing stage, when I go through ruthlessly and look for any scene, sentence, or even individual word that does not belong.

One of the great writing advice clichés is “kill your darlings,” and nothing sticks out as fast as a line that a writer left because they liked it, even if it brought the rest of the story to a screeching halt. Short stories are especially susceptible to this, and the shorter they are, the more certain you have to be about every single word. Even a longer story (anything over ten pages or so) has to emphasize this kind of careful grooming. All of this is an incredibly painful and time-consuming process, which is why it is sometimes much easier to write something new than to go back to something and spend several months working out all of the kinks.

Lots of people have this idea that a writers just sits down at a laptop or in front of a notebook and bullshits whatever random crap enters their mind, and that word vomit magically becomes some best-selling novel. (And given some of the “hit” books in recent history, perhaps on some level that is true.) But a real writer—someone who cares much more about craft than the possibility of a royalty check—has to wrestle with his/her own work to accomplish anything.

Take Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan, for example. Both writers have a style that could be described as “easy reading” because, as writers, they’ve done almost all the work for you; all you have to do is enjoy the ride. Reading Cat’s Cradle, one could think that Vonnegut wrote it in an afternoon since we can read it that quickly. However, his writing process was pain-staking: he refused to move on to another page until the page he was writing was perfect.

Brautigan had a similar need to revise and edit constantly; his friend and biographer Keith Abbott once told me at Naropa that Trout Fishing in America went through seventeen separate drafts before it was finally published as the quick, easy read we now think of as a classic novel from the 1960s.

This is not to say that those divine moments of inspiration don’t appear from time to time. There are moments when you’re writing something that you know is gold, and the thing almost seems to write itself. If you’re exceptionally lucky, it doesn’t even need all that much revision afterward. But those moments are rare, and a real writer knows to appreciate them when they come, because between those bouts of inspired genius are long, long stretches of doubt, bad writing, and endless revision.

Five Questions About The Boy in the Well

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I was interviewed by Monkey Puzzle Press about my latest chapbook The Boy in the Well. Here’s an excerpt:

What triggered this project?

Once I finished Tapeworm, my cupboard was bare of stories. Everything I had written up to that point was either among the fourteen stories in Tapeworm or died when my laptop crashed shortly after completing the collection. I had to start over from scratch, which is both intimidating and exhilarating. I started with flash fiction stories about the darkest and most twisted stuff I could imagine. Then, I’d have an idea like “What would Edgar Allan Poe be writing if he were alive now?” or “How would two rednecks dig a grave for someone they planned to kill?” After a few years, I had the thought of putting together a chapbook, so I made a list of the best things I’d written. The six stories that emerged became The Boy in the Well.

You can read the complete interview here.

Embracing New Book Formats While Still Loving The Old

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As long as I live, I’ll never forget the sensation of holding Tapeworm in my hands for the first time. When Nate Jordon handed me that beautiful book, I stood absolutely speechless for several minutes. My heart swelled with pride. Sure, I’d been involved with book publication plenty of times before. I’d put out chapbooks of my work twice, and I’d been an editor enough times to know the joy of holding the finished product. But this was a book I’d spent nearly six years writing and editing, and it was all mine. All the weight of those experiences and memories—from sitting in the window of a furnished apartment in Russellville, Arkansas, typing the first lines of “Second Coming” to the looks on people’s faces when I read “Tapeworm” at the Summer Writing Program to the elation of seeing “The Ringing in Her Ears” in print the first time (then the second, then a third)—flooded back to me in that moment.

I had a similar experience the day after Christmas 2013 when Nate handed me The Boy in the Well, though I do suppose that was less of a spiritual high than the first book. Part of it was I had made the trek to Monkey Puzzle HQ in Harrison, Arkansas, with my brother, and he’d never met Nate before, and I didn’t want to leave them to watch me drowning in a sea of self-indulgent reverie. (This did not stop me from taking long, loving glances over at it from time to time.) Part of it too, I suppose, is that I was, for the first time I can remember, almost equally excited about the prospect of my book appearing on Kindle, Google Play, and the other e-reader formats.

Full disclosure: I don’t own any e-readers. I’m not against them (obviously), but I just prefer the experience of holding a book. I enjoy the book as object—when I moved to Colorado, my parents laughed that I had only one chair, two boxes of clothes, and six boxes of books (and two more we couldn’t fit). For as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer, I longed for the days of holding a completed book in my hand, and I maintain that there is no experience quite like it. But the reading world has changed, and it will do me no good to hold on to the nostalgia of the past, especially if I have any hope of success as a writer.

People often complain about how we don’t read as much as we used to, and, to an extent, they are correct. People don’t read novels as much as they once did, but they read plenty of shorter stuff. People want quick fixes, and paperbacks and hardcovers take time, both to produce and to ship. A really thick book can also take up a lot of space, which makes it slightly more inconvenient for people who have to travel. You’ve also got to deal with nosy people (like yours truly) looking over your shoulder, trying to figure out what you’re reading.

Things like the Kindle help with this. Readers can access books in seconds, rather than waiting a week for it to arrive in the mail, or the indignity of putting on pants to go find a brick-and-mortar bookstore. Within minutes of posting that The Boy in the Well was live on Kindle, I had Facebook friends posting that they’d purchased it on Amazon. Because it’s cheaper, because it reads quickly, and because it will always be the same size as your tablet or reader, this new format makes it easier to get my work out into the world. Of course, there might still be people reading over your shoulder, but it’s probably only so they can add that new book to their own queue or wishlist.

Nothing can ever replace the book as object, though. I can still autograph paperback copies (like, say, at a release party on January 15) and I’m guessing no one wants me to take a Sharpie to their reading device. And while I’m happy that my writing can get to people faster than ever, it just doesn’t quite have the same charge as holding a collection of stories in my hand and knowing that every word between its covers is mine. I’m not mourning the loss of paper books—I don’t think they’ll ever go away completely—but I do want to take a moment to praise their contributions to the reading experience before fully embracing the digital revolution in publishing.

The Boy in the Well: Now available on Kindle

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The Boy in the Well is now available on Amazon Kindle for the incredible price of $2.99. While there is no experience quite like holding a book in your hand, e-books are making it easier than ever for people to read. Please help support independent publishing and purchase a copy. If you do, I would also very much appreciate a review for Amazon and for you to follow my author page–that makes it more likely that others will find my work as well.