Archive for April, 2011

Staring at elephant backsides by myself, or not.

Sitting at my kitchen table this morning, drinking too much coffee so that my elbows buzz, beating my figurative head against a figurative elephant ass, making no progress whatsoever in moving this freaking elephant, I became nostalgic for the good old days, when I wrote largely in a crew of writers who were nice looking (good facial hair, great looking glasses, excellent smiles) and then put on a show with a bunch of musicians, singers, actors, as well as the writers.  There was no way for me to get stuck, because some nice looking person was always there to pull me out of my elephant hole with their own good looking thinking.

Yeah, the most fun I’ve ever had was sitting around with Sam Osterhout, Brady Bergeson, Steph Ash and Andy Sturdevant.  We’d eat cheese fries at some Kopper Kettle in Iowa and we’d giggle for hours.  Or, maybe practices were the best, with Dave Salmela and Jenny Adams Salmela and the band.  That’s fun. We’d sing dumb songs about babies and kitties until they made perfect sense.  Hmm…

It is sort of a big life choice: strike out on your own or work in a crew.  I am going to spend some time thinking about what more socially-oriented work brings verses this focused aloneness.  Is this aloneness why writers have a depression rep, maybe?  Oh, I think, perhaps.

I want to do collaborative work.  Now, please!  It is seriously so much more fun than staring at elephant asses all by myself.  And we did good stuff, really…

This goofy musical, for instance, is good.

Should be great day! Except I am jerk.

This should be a great day: I haven’t yet seen the fantastic Nicole Helget read, even though she lives here in Mankato.  Today I will.  I haven’t seen my old pal Jim Coppoc read poetry in several years.  This guy performs.  Today I get to see him. Excellent.  I get to talk about YA writing on a panel with Kirsten Cronin-Mills.  She’s very funny and smart.  There’s a conference today!   And, yes, this is all good, such good stuff.

And, I get to eat out a lot. Nice.  I get to stay out late.  Tired.  I get to walk around campus a lot, although I do have a weird pain in my hamstring. Tight.  I’m pretty tired and I am definitely dehydrated, but I don’t feel like drinking water.  I want coffee, because I’m tired.  And cold.  It’s freaking cold.  I’m so cold.

Last night there was a student film festival on campus.  It was really good.  First year production students accomplished a hell of a lot. Good little stories, some amazing images.   Loved it.  Then, the reception went down at my place.  Little hummus. Pita. Olives.  Some fine cheeses.  Etc. I did nothing but eat and talk to really interesting, engaged, ambitious people.  I also drank a lot of coffee all night, about a pot, to stay awake until people who generally stay up late go home.  And, oh yeah, did I eat so much cream cheese dip.  I almost exploded.  And I couldn’t sleep because I was jacked up from coffee and cheese dip and people.

If Nicole and Jim weren’t reading, if Kirsten weren’t coming to campus, I would order a pizza and drink some Gatorade and watch a little HG TV, because I’m pretty sure my giant rental property in Minneapolis is falling over.  I need some help.  Can stucco dissolve?  I think it can.  It is dissolving. Some great days the world feels like it’s dissolving and you’d like to postpone the great day to another day that isn’t dissolving.

I am glaring at my computer.  I’m a jerk.  I’m getting out of bed.

Why is MSU MFA on the Huffington Post “Underrated” List? Hmm…

Yesterday, The Huffington Post posted (that’s what they do) a nice little article providing info on…(drum roll)… (deep echoey voice calling out)… “The Top 25 Underrated Creative Writing MFA Programs” for 2011-2012.  Minnesota State, Mankato, where I teach was on the list.  The author, Seth Abramson, wasn’t exactly sure why people in the know like the program so much, but conjectured a bit about Assistantships and Friendliness.  He’s on the right path, I think — lots of students gain support and we are friendly, I think.  I wanted to add a bit to the conversation.

1. Last night in my graduate fiction workshop students were unafraid to be exhaustively critical.  They talked craft and story.  There was very little discussion that started “I don’t like…”  There was a lot of discussion that started “I’m not sure this is the right…” chronology, structure, mode, etc..  There was smart discussion of what was and wasn’t put into scene (and why).  There was thoughtful analysis of characterization and setting.  Again, these were hugely critical conversations that took place while the authors of the works sat back, listened, took notes, didn’t say a word.  And, there wasn’t a drop of poison that spilled from any lip.  The students were helping each other make sense of, and improve, smart, complicated material.  From what I’ve seen so far, that is the culture in this department.  We know the publishing world is difficult.  It will beat us up.  We don’t batter each other.  We work to make better writing.

2. Students engage here:

  • A minimum thirty people show up to either read or support one another at Writers Bloc, a monthly student-run reading series in this excellent venue downtown, one really suited to host The Pixies in 1986.
  • I host a story show, Tales from the Poorhouse, on the local public radio station (KMSU), which gets most of its material from our students.  They work off a prompt, write for an hour in a shared space, then deliver excellent little pieces recorded live in front of their peers (12-18 students participate ever couple of weeks).
  • Students entirely run The Blue Earth Review, a really good literary journal (alumni go on to run chapbook imprints and other journals).
  • The department raises funds to help students attend the AWP national conference (where the Blue Earth Review has a table, of course).  We must have had twenty students in Washington, DC this February (as well as the entire faculty).
  • I see MFA students traveling in packs (to bars, dinners, each other’s houses, etc.).  Nothing sets a writer up for a good life better than creating deep relationships with peers.  These sorts of relationships have sustained me through the wicked professional landscape.  What a joy to operate in an environment where relationship building (rather than rivalry) is the norm.

3. The Good Thunder Reading Series is a juggernaut.  Just since I’ve been here (9 months) the department has hosted Dan Chaon, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Reif Larsen, Patricia Henley, and George Saunders (among many other greats).  Students have hours of contact with these people.  Who gets to discuss Buddhism with George Saunders in a kitchen at midnight?  Our students.

4. The English Department is innovative.  They are supporting a growing film studies program that has moved into production curriculum, which means MFA students can write for screen and have the growing ability to actually produce film while in school.  This is huge.

5. Mankato isn’t a big city, but it is urbane and also very small and also intellectually large and, yes, I mean, I guess, some kind of surreal. I hang out at a coffee shop where people argue art, literature, film, reality television, board games, role playing games, computer software, fast food restaurants, sushi dining, weather reports.  Knitting groups meet.  AA meets.  Writerly groups meet.  The shop’s workers know everyone’s name.  This little strip the shop is on looks like San Fransisco, partially depopulated (yoga studio, health drink shop, book store, coffee shop, diner, art gallery down the street…).  Inside the coffee shop, it feels a bit like Northern Exposure.  There is a punk scene here.  There is a farmer scene.  There are Christian pizza shops on the hill.  There are old hippies fully regaled riding their 1964 Raleighs in snowstorms.  I can move from seeing live music to being on a trail in the woods in about five minutes.  This is fertile space for a writer.

6. The MFA faculty: Rick Robbins, Candace Black, Richard Terrill, Roger Sheffer and Diana Joseph are all publishing all over.  But, more importantly, they have their doors open to students.  They host parties at their houses.  If you didn’t know, writers can be completely nuts and egomaniacal and awful to one another.  Not here. I haven’t seen an ounce of it at Mankato.  As far as I can tell, this group wants to mentor, actually enjoys teaching, and often bends over backwards to help students.  I’m with them.  This is the kind of environment where I want to teach.

The result of all this?  Students who come out of this program do good work.  They are publishing big and small.  They are teaching all over the place.  The few alumni I’ve met personally thus far are living excellent, fruitful, artistic lives.  What else could you want from an MFA?

And so, yeah, I agree, this program is underrated.

Running Outside, No Fear for Ass Cheek

One time at 5 in the morning, I stepped in a hole and broke my right ankle.  I was out for a jog in suburban Washington DC.  It was still dark (why I didn’t see the hole).  There were no lights on at any house.  Northern Virginia slept.   I was two miles from home.  No cell.  Broken ankle.  Out of luck.  I hopped all the way back on my left leg.  Oh, the pain! Hopping!  By the time I got home my left ass cheek (the hopping cheek) hurt far worse than my ankle.

Swollen Lower Sections

My left ass, in fact, was swollen to twice it’s normal size.  I looked in the mirror and screamed (the swelling made me look like a bicyclist in The Triplets of Belleville), “I will never be the same!”

And, that was that, I lost my running nerve. After I healed, I decided to smoke cigarettes instead. This happened 11 years ago.

Since then, I’ve not exercised that much.  Usually I’ll hit the gym for a month or two, get on the treadmill (I like to run) and eventually get bored from going no place, tortured by knowing exactly how long I’ve run and how far I have to go (electronic treadmill dashboard), and I’ll stop and go to Dairy Queen for a Blizzard.  (Pronounced Blizzzzzz-zaaaard with lots of exclamation points (!!!!)).  I’ve often thought about running outdoors again to break up the monotony, but am afraid because of the ass injury I suffered all those years ago (If I had been any farther from home, my ass might have exploded and I might have died).

Jocky Man Losing Races, Happily

This year has been different, however.  I moved to Mankato.  I have a great schedule.  And I seriously want to run.  Through the winter, I ran at the Y.  But now, as the ice leaves the trails, I’m starting to really hit it.  People love to complain about cell phones, but because I have one, I no longer fear broken bones and ass swellage.  There are beautiful trails in Mankato.  I can fun for miles and miles through fields and bluffs.

I might like running in the city best, though.  This morning out running Calhoun and Harriet in Minneapolis, I started qualifying why urban running is so fantastic.

Pretty Lake

First, the lakes are beautiful. That’s true.  Second, Minneapolis has great infrastructure, too (trails all over the place that link and link and link, so you could really run the whole day without covering the same ground).  Third, there are soooo many freaking people running here.  I saw like a thousand this morning.  This is what I love best: people watching.  And, people defeating.

It’s really fun to catch and pass people on the running trail.  Generally the people I pass are far older than me and are also in better shape than me, but because I’m naturally sort of fast and middle-aged instead of ancient, I can beat them!  Take that grandma.

Equally fun is to be passed.  I really enjoy seeing good athletes at work.  It’s sort of moving to see a couple of twenty-something women who can run, literally, twice as fast as I can. It’s less fun to be passed by young men, because that just seems too obvious somehow. When the women pass me, I’ll generally speed up and try to stick with them for awhile, but I can’t even come close and I’m just psyched to see people who are completely good at what they’re doing.

And, this morning I ran seven miles without really noticing.  I passed the old folks.  Real runners in their prime passed the hell out of me.  Wind blew waves on the lakes.  Dogs chased sticks in nearby parks.  The sun shone.  And, I didn’t break an ankle or blow out my left ass cheek.  Beautiful.

Yesterday the birds did Triple Lindies/Today they make ugly noise.

Yesterday, the sun shone and students ripped off their coats, cut off the legs of their pants, hopped on long boards and barreled through the mall shouting about how happy they were about everything.  And, yes, it was so freaking warm and excellent.  Flowers burst their tiny heads through the dirt. Birds did stunt flying.  I could breathe.  In between classes, I wrote fifteen pages on the new book, pages that were pretty dang sharp (they’ll be revised, certainly, but they’re going to be used). I felt sharp.  Everything is going to turn out just great, I thought.

Today it is cloudy, a little misty, probably twenty degrees cooler.  There is a twisting wind that cuts everybody down to size.  I have a stuffed nose and feel like I’m breathing through my ears.  The students have wrapped themselves in parkas crusted with stale beer from some winter party yore.  They stumble up the stairs like they gained a bunch of weight. They grow very bad looking facial hair.  Their pants don’t fit at all.  And, I have a sack of intro to creative writing stories to read.  I need to fax some crap to my mortgage broker, which I cannot find in unpacked boxes.  I can’t drink enough coffee.  I am completely dehydrated.  There is no food on this planet that can make me feel good again, and yet I eat (lost brownies in the break room, a couple of bacon cheeseburgers).  Here I am, falling asleep at the wheel.  I can’t do anything.

This is my question: Do Buddhists ever feel like crap?  If they expect to suffer do they suffer like me and the students suffer?  We suffer so bad.  We smell like stale beer (I haven’t even had a beer in so long, and yet I smell like stale beer).  Am I so weak that weather can fill me with desire, a desire that transcends night, and thus faced with a new cold and a rainy day, I am left with a sense of preternatural disappointment? If I had a disciplined mind would these stupid waves have any power at all?  I should shave my head and put a buffer down so it shines.  I would like to live in a cave and wear a loin cloth.

Political causes I have supported in the past send me desperate emails today.  The world is going down the crapper, they let me know.  Music I loved yesterday is tinny and cliche. My phone rings and I don’t recognize the number.  It’s a fraudulent company suggesting I need some different insurance.  Yesterday the birds did triple lindies.  Today they’re parked in trees and they squawk while I try to get this all done.

I would like an orange baby aspirin for my clog-ged heart, please.

Title Trouble/Title Schmitle/Punch My Face/Maybe Not, Underpants

One morning a couple of years ago I woke up with the words “Stupid Fast” stuck in my head. I had a title before I had a book. Then, the book sort of wrote itself.  Stupid Fast. In January of this year, I woke up with pretty much a book stuck in my head.  I outlined the fugga, the publisher picked it up as my option book, and gave me until July to write it.  I called the book “The Whole Warm World” because the phrase described the first and last scenes.  I knew that title wouldn’t stick, because if you say The Whole Warm World out loud, it feels like you have a bunch of warm gummy worms jammed in your mouth. Unpleasant.

Now, I’m in the middle of really writing this book, but am having trouble moving forward writing this book, because the issue of the title is driving me crazy.  This is a sequel to Stupid Fast and it is from the POV of the little brother in Stupid Fast, named Andrew, a kid who is decidedly not Stupid Fast.  He’s sort of mediocre at everything, he thinks.  One of the requirements of the title (I’ve thought) is that it somehow reference the book’s relationship to Stupid Fast.  So, I’ve come up with lots of bad titles that do it, like: Crazy Mediocre, Moderate Slow, and Middle of the Pack.  These titles make me hate myself.

So, I thought screw the bizzle, I will not directly reference anything.  Um… How about Mr. Middling, Smart Like Orangutan (Not That Smart), or the Gothic Blog of Drew? Buh.  Dipnut.

Last week, my editor, Leah Hultenschmidt (whom I love) (in a professional way, of course), asked me for my thoughts, as marketing at Sourcebooks is already doing some of the preliminary work (even though the book won’t be on shelves for a year).  I panicked.  I walked around in a circle in my apartment.  I drove to The Cities without remembering the drive.  I pulled over across from the Purple Onion in Dinkytown.  I emailed from my phone: I’ve got it!  Stupid Stupid. Perfect!  References Stupid Fast. Reflects the non-triumphalist nature of Andrew.  Puts me in my place (because I feel stupid).

This was April 1st and Leah thought Stupid Stupid was an April Fools joke.  “I can just see the reviewers’ headlines now…”

I said, “Ha ha!  That’s right.  Great joke, huh?”  Uh.

Together on the phone we came up with a pretty decent, okay title, which I don’t want to say, because I’m not completely sure it will stick, because titles are a big deal and who knows what will evolve.

You have to remember: titles are for the reader not the writer (I tend to want to complexify and obfuscate).  They should be memorable, hook the right audience, at least be reasonably descriptive (especially of tone).  The best titles are loaded.  They hook, stick, and make even more sense after the book’s been read (satisfying).  Stupid Fast works that way, I think.

My first book title, The Miracle Letters of T. Rimberg, is hard to remember and doesn’t reflect the tone or even content that well, even though the book is built out of letters (I also sort of panicked at a certain point with that one, I think).  I hate regretting the title.  So…

All night, last night, I tossed and turned and felt crazy and punchy and sweaty and I got up and drank too much water and watched some TV and then had to get up again and again to use the bathroom because I had so much water and while I walked between bed and bathroom, I came up with new titles and revisited old titles (especially Orangutan-centric titles) and now I’d like to punch my face.

So tough!  What?  Jerk.

I’m sitting in my underpants at 9am on a Friday, drinking coffee, fumbling around with dorky words, trying to sink into my teenage brain (not far to sink), doing some jumping jacks here and there to fire up the energy, and I remember this: I used to work in a cubicle programming computers, which I didn’t know how to do very well — I faked it every day to not get in trouble — and the days would last forever, blinding office light, while the weeks, months, years slid by.

Yes.

I like my new underpants very much.

Minneapolis Geeks United

Parents often worry about their kids’ educations.  I do.  My son comes home from his city school and tells me what happened in the bathroom (often resembles a movie bar fight while he tries to do his business) and I get scared.  “Oh no! What are we doing to him? Can he possibly prosper in such a wild environs?”

Then I remember the S.E. Hinton-style “gang” fights at my own middle school out in them there rural hills. Weird sort of preps verses greaser ordeals (lots of swearing, some sweating, the rare wrestle down before teachers broke it up).  I remember the car accidents and the lunch-line dust-ups, and the occasional sweet-smelling sleepy whisky teacher and I feel a little better.  My education wasn’t perfect. There were dangers.  There were obstacles I doubt hinder private school kids.  And, yet, I did okay in the end.  In fact, many of my peers are really prospering.

Will my son? Prosper?  At a real city school?  Last weekend gave me great hope that he’ll actually be far better prepared for the real world than me from my cow town (and most prep school kids).  He and his pal showed their history day project in a competition involving kids from all the middle schools and high schools in Minneapolis.

Son and Pal with medaling history paper and display

Why am I so hopeful?  The competition, at South High, was completely packed to the gills with kids and teachers and volunteers.  Every race and religion was represented.  During a break, there were Muslim girls in head scarves throwing around a football, skater boys tossing Frisbees, Latinas laughing with African Americans chasing stereotypical Minnesota Swedes in a mass game of tag.  These kids were only superficially different. Mostly they were united.  They were the United Geeks of Minneapolis.

United Geeks and Adult Entourage

At the awards ceremony, the cheering turned raucous as projects from all over the city earned medals. Everyone cheered for everyone (there was a little mild booing — weird — aimed at Southwest High, which is a high-achieving school in the richest part of town (class consciousness, I guess)).  The United Geeks of Minneapolis naturally supported each other.  Very pretty.

Son and Pal medaled and are moving on to the State competition.  I’m very curious to see if this spirit of common geekery holds.  What I know, in Minneapolis, no need to fear, because the kids are all right.


I am…

Geoff Herbach. I am the author of Stupid Fast and Nothing Special, among a bunch of other stuff. When I'm not writing, I teach writing at Minnesota State, Mankato.

Stupid Fast

Nothing Special

I’m With Stupid

Fat Boy (Gabe Johnson Takes Over)

PowderKeg Stage

Herbach's favorite store

My Bizzle

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