On Ambivalence and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

By Carrie Cook

My husband loves the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. No, he hasn’t done it (he eschews all cameras), but he did take some of his Facebook friends to task for pooh-poohing it, citing the 100 million dollars raised for ALS research. Criticism abounds. He is engaging in a Sisyphean game of whack-a-mole: Wastes water! 100 million! Useless social-media activism! 100 million! Stem-cell research! 100 million! His support is utterly uncritical. Why? I have ALS. He believes that hundred million dollars can pardon my death sentence.

I’m more ambivalent. Ambivalence is interesting. It is conflict; it is the war waged between the heart and the head, and those battle wounds are always raw. It’s something I try to engage with in my stories: to make my characters conflicted about each other, to leave you feeling equal parts hatred and love for them as well. If you feel that – well, I’ve done my job, because you will keep thinking about them, turning them over in your head, trying to resolve the conflict.

For the last few weeks, I’ve tried to resolve my own ambivalence about the Ice Bucket Challenge. I don’t care to watch or comment on the videos – even the ones dedicated to me. I am unable to engage with the most prolific ALS fundraiser of all time, one that has given ALS some of the street cred usually reserved for breast cancer and type 2 diabetes. I’m happy for that kind of awareness, I really am. But then I see gems like this popping up in my Facebook feed: “The Ice Bucket Challenge mimics what it’s like to have ALS.” This is not even remotely true, but the let-your-anesthesiologist-paralyze-you-without-actually-putting-you-under challenge doesn’t seem to be catching on. The idea that ice water mimics ALS symptoms is a retcon*, designed to give the challenge’s origin story a little more heft. More likely, it has its roots in the polar bear plunge, where people jump into a cold pool or lake for the charity of their choice. Because I am a pessimist at heart, I think the Ice Bucket Challenge is more suited to a viral breast cancer awareness campaign targeted to sororities, because wet t-shirts plus ice – well, you get the picture.

And then there are the haters. Everything popular (even Chris Pratt, possibly the most perfect human ever assembled) gets pushback; that’s just the way we’re wired. California’s in a drought and by 2050 we will all be trading wet naps in a dry, post-apocalyptic wasteland, so why are thousands of people dumping buckets of water on their head? Save it for the children! And can’t we see, say the most curmudgeonly (curmudgeonliest?) among us, that this is just another instance of internet slacktivism, designed to make people feel like they’re doing something – #Kony2012, anyone? Then there’s the ALS Association itself: bloggers report 73% of donations to ALSA goes to overhead, and the association even tried to trademark the words “Ice Bucket Challenge.”

Personally, I just can’t get worked up over these claims. People waste water every day: as they warm up their showers, or fill their pools, or water the lilies in front of their picture windows. It takes more than 1,000 gallons of water to make a t-shirt, and I guarantee every one of us has a collection of unworn cotton shirts sitting at the bottom of our closet – but this waste is invisible, so there’s no concerted effort to stop it. The slacktivism? Well, all kinds of things find popularity, from silly bands to swallowing goldfish – why shouldn’t we attach trendiness to social activism? In a summer bookended by Elliot Rodger, the MRA mass murderer, and Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot the unarmed Michael Brown, I really don’t have an issue with people looking for something uplifting, something easy they can do in order to make the world a little bit better. Finally, according to Politifact, Ice Bucket naysayers earned a pants-on-fire rating: the ALSA uses 79% of donations for “purposes that advance its stated mission” – and it dropped its ill-advised adventures in branding.

I think the root of my ambivalence lies within that 100 million my husband likes to cite. It’s possible that money could result in an actual, viable treatment. It’s happened before. What would I give to see my forearms plump with gently sloping muscle? To be able to shake hands, to wave gracefully, to flip the bird to drivers who cut me off? What would I give to even arrest my ALS in its current form, recovery be damned? To simply not get worse, to be able to keep my voice and my legs and my arms just as they are, even if I would still suffer the occasional humiliating fall or need help to button a shirt? But that’s just a fantasy. Matthew Herper points out the gains made in Cystic Fibrosis research – the drug Ivacaftor – made possible by a grant from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The drug treats only a small portion of sufferers, those 4-5% with a specific genetic mutation, and it costs each person $300,000 per year. That’s the reality: small, expensive achievements, gained inch by $100 million inch. Does that make it unworthy? Should they stop trying? Of course not. My conflict is my personal stake; I live in my body, and I have to prepare for what I know is inevitable. I don’t know what I would give, but I know what I can’t – hope. I spent eighteen months in a diagnostic limbo hoping that I had anything other than ALS, and it nearly destroyed me. The conflict between hope (that feathered thing that won’t shut the hell up) and my reality rages whenever I see someone post yet another video of another celebrity dumping ice water over his head. But for that, I would dismiss the Ice Bucket Challenge as simply more proof of the internet’s inherent absurdity. And I would do it without a second thought.

*Do not click! Internet time suck ahead!

Carrie Cook is a second-year K-State graduate student in creative writing. She also has a degree in Apparel and Textiles with an emphasis in fashion design, and she enjoys purchasing fabric and then not making anything out of it. Last year, she completed her goal of using her entire GI Bill, and she recently started collecting rejection letters.

Word and Play

imageCamille Dungy’s trip to Kansas State included a stay at the Konza Prairie.

By Brennan Bestwick 

Before I met Camille Dungy, I heard her laugh echo down the stairwell. Her joy fills a room, any in fact, and I shared many spaces with Camille during her visit at Kansas State last week. It started with a conference in the basement of K-State’s English building. I was excited but nervous. As I soon learned, the key to overcoming my nerves was the same needed to improve my poems. I had to loosen up, to play.

I struggle with line breaks, always have, and Camille quickly zeroed in on this. My anxiety in writing poetry is as much visual as it is contextual. I want my poems to move on the page, the lines to vary in shape and size freely, yet I lean towards symmetry. When the lines aren’t tight and compact, I’m uncomfortable. I had a difficult time explaining this concern to Camille, though I didn’t need to. She understood. With pen in hand, she showed how some lines could break to play with the reader, to misdirect, so some lines’ meanings come into dispute as you continue reading. The return key holds that much power. Together we played with the text, and the humor I hoped to achieve in my first draft began to reveal itself. My poem grew layers. It asked more of the reader. As Camille would say, if the poem does not mean more than one thing, it means nothing.

The instructor’s manual to Camille’s lesson is her latest collection, Smith Blue. The best example of this is “Prayer for P-,” an elegy for a friend. Despite its tragic tale, the poem is written as an acrostic, the first letter of each line spells out the words of a poem, “Prayer” by C.P. Cavafy. When I asked Camille why she wrote it this way, she smiled. Because it was fun, she said. The play kept the story beneath the tragedy in focus. Smith Blue is often a collection of catastrophe, both environmental and personal, but you may not know it. The poems dance on the page, they deceive, they play. They mean more than one thing.

After my conference, fellow grad student Cormac Badger and I interviewed Camille, but it felt more like a conversation among friends. Between moments of laughter, we discussed Camille’s experience with loss and her grave reminders about the swift depletion of the natural world. We ended the interview by talking about the end days, but even this was interrupted by our chuckles, talks of “go bags” and an apocalypse-ready utility belt Batman would envy. As we talked, I came to understand the next step in the process of word and play: sharing it.

The next day, a large crowd filled K-State’s Little Theater for Camille’s reading. Her joy filled a much larger room now. She read from each of her collections, some new prose, and two sections from “Prayer for P-.” When she wasn’t reading from the page, she was making us laugh. When her hour was through, she handed me a collection of poems she recommended during our conference. A crowd engulfed her before we had the chance to talk about it, but I was struck by her generosity, as I had been throughout her visit. 

Later, at a reception, I thanked Camille for all of the time and attention she gave me. She smiled, shook my hand, and told me to share the book she gave me, to share it with as many people as possible.

When we choose to take writing seriously, we must not take ourselves too seriously. We need humor. We need to find our balance between word and play, within the text and outside of it. Sometimes this means breaking form and cutting a line shorter, deceiving our readers, inviting them into the conversation. Sometimes this means, simply, that we must laugh. Laugh among death and catastrophe and chaos. Let them all exist within the same stanza, the same hour in a day. Then share it. When you make the choice to write seriously, you enter a community. This community extends beyond class workshops. It’s attending readings, trading books, being an active listener when work is shared. Camille taught me this.

Brennan Bestwick is a first-year K-State graduate student in creative writing. When he’s not stressing over line breaks, he reads comic books and watches re-runs of Gilmore Girls.

On Finding Poetry


By Traci Brimhall

Originally from Little Falls, Minnesota, and a resident of nine cities since, I’m glad to have finally made Manhattan and Kansas State University my home. Though I’m here to teach creative writing classes, poetry hasn’t always been a part of my life. Growing up there were the usual rhymes sung at doubledutch and lullabies (“The Owl and the Pussycat” a memorable favorite), but I didn’t start writing poetry regularly until high school. I studied it in college, and my Norton anthology from my first poetry class traveled with me through five moves. Upon graduating college, I stopped writing, got a house, started working something I considered a “real” job, and then I got very, very bored.

Fortunately, that “real” job was at a Shakespeare theater, and one of the actors there was also an English professor. When he found out I’d studied poetry in college, he started leaving books of poetry in my mailbox at work. Every time I showed up to unlock the doors for another showing of Twelfth Night or Hamlet, I’d discover Rainer Maria Rilke or Stephen Dunn waiting for me. Though I loved the poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay, T.S. Eliot, and John Keats I’d studied in school, reading living poets and poets in translation renewed my love for poetry.

That kind of diversity of reading is something I hope to bring to every class—understanding the poetic traditions and forms that shape the poems being written today, as well as the talented voices around the world. The essayist Rebecca Solnit said: “Books are the solitudes in which we meet,” and through poetry books, I’ve met political poets, people grieving or in love, parents, doctors, insurance salesmen, mystics, sincere writers and ironists, writers praising and lamenting. It’s given me a new way to understand the world.

Another thing I always bring to the classroom is a deeper understanding of how a poem is made. Emily Dickinson once wrote: “Split the Lark—and you’ll find the Music,” and while our dissections in workshop are gentle ones, I want to show everyone the talent and complexity of writers we study, as well as help them see their own gifts. It’s important to recognize that a line of poetry (or an image or a metaphor) is good, but crucial to know how it works. Why does a shift in tone in a poem make you laugh? Why did the juxtaposition in the last line make you cry?

Wildcats, bring me your larks. Let’s find their music.

Traci Brimhall joined the Kansas State University Department of English in August as an assistant professor. She is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton, 2012), winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award.

Meet the New Graduate Students

The new semester has started, and we’re still organizing our purple shirts by gradient and trying to remember our passwords for the copy machine.

To help everyone get back in the new-school-year groove, we asked our incoming creative writing MA students to introduce themselves by answering a short questionnaire.


Name: Jack Lawrence Anderson

Hometown: Dwight, Kansas

Alma mater: University of Kansas, Webster University, Hogeschool Voor De Kunsten Utrecht

Primary genre: Romance de Gare or Airport Novels

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: While illegally working as a bike messenger in the winter in Toronto, I almost ran over Elton John. I brushed up against his fox fur as he gasped.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why? Sun Wukong (the Monkey King in the Chinese classic Journey to the West): Who wouldn’t want to be less than and greater than man?


Name: Cormac Badger

Hometown: Shawnee, Kansas

Alma mater: Kansas State University

Primary genre: Fiction (short?)

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: I’m a big ol’ Japanophile, spent part of last year there

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why? I would be that one guy from that one Murakami novel that goes down in a well. That sounds nice. I’d do that.


Name: Brennan Bestwick

Hometown: Randolph, Kansas

Alma mater:  Kansas State University

Primary genre:  Poetry

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: I spent the last three years working in the health-care industry. Though I never imagined working in a hospital, learning the ins and outs of the surgical world was fascinating.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why?​ Remus Lupin, though not the Remus caught in a war, the Remus known as a dazzling Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. How exhilarating and rewarding it would be to cast evil from a classroom to the delight of every student in a desk.


Name: Liz Culpepper

Hometown: San Antonio, Texas

Alma mater: Texas A&M University

Primary genres: Non-fiction and poetry

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: I spent six years in Europe and Asia.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why? I’d be Hollis Henry, the protagonist in William Gibson’s Zero History. She’s smart, poetic and cool. Plus, she travels light.


Name: James “Hunter” Gilson

Hometown: Overland Park, Kansas

Alma mater: Kansas State University

Primary genre: Short stories

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: While working at the Kansas State Agronomy Farm this summer, I had the opportunity to walk through a seemingly countless number of wheat fields, clean out grain bins, operate a bagging machine, and stack bushels of wheat. Additionally, I learned a good deal about tractor pulls and why they are, in fact, incredible.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why? Jeremy Mars from Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners.” I’d like to live in one of Kelly Link’s stories, and Jeremy’s story is my favorite.


Name: Seth Kristalyn

Hometown: Iola, Kansas

Alma mater: Pittsburg State University

Primary genres: Fantasy, metafiction, fabulist fiction,

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: I am originally from North Dakota and a big hockey fan. I have more hobbies and interests than I can find time for, including writing, reading, fishing, running, painting miniatures, playing roleplaying games, listening to and playing music, and watching movies.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why? I would become Nick Carraway from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to observe the world through the eyes of a disillusioned 1920s man. I would like to do so to truly feel and comprehend the strong emotional fracturing of Modernism.


Name: Tim Lake

Hometown: Topeka, Kansas

Alma mater: Washburn University

Primary genre): Fiction, primarily fantasy

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: I was born in Frankfurt, Germany, the same city where Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why? Harry Potter. I can’t think of anything that would be more fun than waving a stick around and changing the laws of physics.


Name: Robert J. Sanders

Hometown: Kalamazoo, Michigan

Alma mater: Western Michigan University

Primary genre: Poetry

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: I was born in Anchorage, Alaska. I ride a custom motorcycle that I modified and repainted myself.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why?​ Galdalf from Lord of the Rings. He is wise and has a zen-like calm about him. His life philosophy is a lesson in not taking things for granted and in never missing an opportunity.


Name: Christopher Sims

Hometown: Columbus, Indiana

Alma mater: Indiana University

Primary genre: Fiction

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: I have a special interest in the graphic novel and actively work on illustrating my stories.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why? Claude Lantier. Then I could experience the maddening forces behind the noblest fool’s errand: the pursuit of one great masterpiece.


Name: Adena J. Weiser

Hometown: Manhattan, Kansas

Alma mater: Kansas State University

Primary genres: Speculative and historical fiction

Please tell us something interesting/unique about you: I can play the first few chords of “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley on my secondhand acoustic guitar.

If you could transform briefly into a literary character, who would you want to become and why? Toby from Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood because she is an intriguing, resourceful survivor who talks to bees and is an expert gardener. Toby is a strong, fully fleshed character who explores her spirituality and cares for and about others while existing in an ecological apocalyptic world.

So Long, Farewell

By Stephanie Kartalopoulos 

May 13, 2014. The temperature in Manhattan is supposed to range between 60-70 degrees this week with mostly sunny skies. The trees are in full bloom; small, strange spiders are starting to pop up in the most random places—they’re skittering across a computer keyboard, crawling around a bulletin display in Eisenhower Hall, peeking up from shower drains; and purple and white irises are in bloom all over campus. This is not the scene for a Von Trapp song at the end of the day. This is, instead, Kansas State in the early half of May.

The entire campus is under the throes of one great big caffeine buzz: many students are cramming for their final exams. K-State Creative Writers are revising their poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction and trying to beat early drafts into the kind of wild submission that will inch them closer and closer to greatness. Faculty members are grinding their elbows into their desktops while grading projects and papers. Everyone is looking forward to the  blissful idea that seems almost within arm’s reach: 

Summer Vacation.

The cliché is that “summer vacation” means easy novels to read, simple part-time jobs in cupcake shops to make enough money for beer during the Fall 2014 football season, and lots of easy, long outings spent nursing a glass of wine late into the night, with little to no consequence, in the back porch bar area of pick-your-choice restaurant in Beachy Town, USA, with a bunch of easy-going friends. The cliché is that “summer vacation” is the time when you think you can stay young and carefree forever. The cliché is, well, a total cliché. 

Around here, we know a different reality. Let’s try this instead:

Summer vacation: \SUM-mer vay-CAY-shun\ noun;

  1. The time when student creative writers can dive deeply into creative projects that don’t need to work within a professor’s writing prompts (or graduate writing project requirements) but that are entirely their own.
  2. The time when faculty creative writers can write freely and blissfully with a much smaller “to do” list interfering and the wonderful gift of free time to play, research, visualize, and mold ideas until they become sketches, drafts, and then, hopefully, journal-submission-worthy pieces of literature.
  3. The time when everyone can be free with their imaginations, live life, experience new things, and lose themselves in the richness of the world around them. These memories-in-the-making, after all, will find their way into poem drafts, essay paragraphs, and plot elements or character development for future works of art.

We’re looking forward to this and hope that you are too. And we hope that you’ll tune back in to the blog come late August when the Fall 2014 term starts up. Have a great summer, everyone.

Stephanie Kartalopoulos is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kansas State University and recently completed her Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Missouri. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in journals that include Laurel Review, Harpur Palate, Phoebe, 32 Poems, Subtropics, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Grist, and Barn Owl Review.

On the first Driptorch Fiction Reading

By Dillon Rockrohr

Seventy-two people filled the rows of K-State’s little Campus Creek Amphitheater on Friday evening to hear local fiction writers share their work. The ingredients of the moment—a sun just starting to set, a breeze arriving and exiting, a perfect warmth, and the sounds of stories— coalesced into a truly satisfying first gathering of the Driptorch Fiction Reading Series. 

The first Driptorch event featured work by four writers: undergraduates Ora McIntosh and Cormac Badger, graduate student Hamza Rehman, and instructor Chris Nelson. The pieces covered a diverse scope of themes and voices — from Ora’s coming-of-age tragedy about two boys who meet at camp and support each other through the turnings of life to Cormac’s hallucinogenic account of a deadbeat’s spirit journey and the elk-man who confronts him there; from Hamza’s magical realist narration of a painting at the Beach Museum, the painting itself a depiction of a story by Borges, to Chris Nelson’s second-person history of a small southern town backdropped by the Blue Ridge Mountains, forgotten once and remembered again. In less than an hour and a half, we lived so many lives.

Driptorch developed out of a conversation between a few of us undergrad creative writers and Professor Katy Karlin. We mentioned our desire to see the creative writing community in Manhattan become something vibrant. We dreamed up a community in our Little Apple with creative writing weaved into its fabric, where the craft of storytelling comes in from the margins and where writers sharing their work with each other and the community is celebrated. We see the spark of this sort of place in fantastic events like Poetry (and Short Prose) on Poyntz. With Driptorch, we hoped  to add to that by opening up an outlet specifically for fiction. Maybe we could help turn the communal spark into a controlled burn. 

To be honest, we had no idea how many would make it out to a reading put on by four undergrads who had never organized an event before. Then seventy-two people gathered, students and faculty and community members, to enjoy the stories in the sweetly convivial atmosphere. This tells us that Manhattan is a town that values creative work. The creative spark is not so dim here; it is pulsing with life.

In reflecting on the reading, on the significance of storytelling and why it feels so human, I imagine ancient meetings by primal fires, the assemblies of villages in moonlit town squares where a figure stands to tell the town its history, its myth, and I wonder if it might have felt much like Friday evening. Something so fundamental exists in the stories told by human voices that feels different than the silent scanning of words. There’s life in them, relationship, truth even in the fiction. We cannot make whatever we want of the person reading; there they stand, and they’ve got something to tell us. We feel the rocks underneath us, catch the other humans in our peripheral vision, sit in the tug and pull of the wandering breeze, and listen to the reader spin fictions unwrapping subtle truth. To exploit the metaphor of the driptorch — fiction, like art, like poetry, consumes and burns up the reality around us, ever so carefully, in order to make the real come alive to our eyes once more.

For all these reasons, we can’t wait to do this again, and we’re planning the second installment of Driptorch for this fall. We hope to make this a monthly event next year, and in order to do so, we are already looking for new readers. If you would like to share your fiction with us and the Manhattan community, please send a submission of your work to driptorchmanhattan@gmail.com. A big thank you to everyone who came out to the first, and let’s make this thing happen again.

Dillon Rockrohr is a junior double-majoring in English and philosophy. In the fifth grade, his team won sixth place in a national Bible quiz competition.

The Neverending Process

By Ginny Vincent

Over the past year, I’ve written a draft for a novel and worked closely with my professor to revise the first chapter. I went through eight drafts of the chapter. Some of the drafts had minor changes, while others went through major revisions such as rewriting whole scenes or changing the roles of characters. The process was tough, but in the end that chapter became my best writing ever. My prose no longer had any redundant phrases, and my world and characters weren’t flat caricatures. However, I’ve still received feedback from people, and I’ve spotted areas where a concept isn’t quite working, the description isn’t enough, or the phrasing sounds wrong. Even though I have become a stronger writer over the last year, I know there are still areas where I can improve. The first chapter is still not perfect.

My novel is set in the world of Ila where humans and beings called cuna have been at war for centuries. My protagonist, Sayriah, has struggled for her whole life to keep the fact that she is half-human, half-cuna a secret. However, when her heritage is revealed, she must discover who she really is and decide which side of the war she is really on. My revisions of the first chapter have focused on building the world of Ila and creating Sayriah’s voice. I had to get to know Sayriah—her interests, dislikes, personality, and quirks—in order to know how she would respond to the world and events around her. For instance, the feelings she has about her mother color the language and phrasing I use when Sayriah thinks of her mother’s death. While I have made great strides in Sayriah’s character, some of the technology I created for the world still doesn’t feel like it belongs yet. I’ll have to keep that in mind as I start the revision process for the rest of the book.

Of course, it seems daunting to think about all of the revision I have to do to the other fourteen chapters. If I’m still not done with the first chapter after eight revisions, how many revisions am I going to need for the rest of the novel? Five? Twelve? What if editors and readers keep coming back to me with more suggestions or concerns? What if I keep finding things that need to be improved? When will I ever be done revising?

Answer: there will always be something to change.

Just like for every author, it doesn’t matter how long I spend writing the piece. It doesn’t matter how many drafts I go through. It doesn’t matter how much of my soul I put into the writing and then have to rip out during the revision. There will always be something else that could be added, cut, revised, etc. Different readers will have different ideas about what could make the story more believable, more unique, more concise. Even a concept I thought sounded good at first can seem flat or trivial the next time I look at it. It’s the nature of writing.

William Faulkner once said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” That became my motto over the last year every time I went back to start another revision. It hurt to delete those passages and sentences that I loved so much, and sometimes I resisted taking them out for a few drafts. But my writing was only sub-par because of them, and so they had to go. Although I loved Sayriah’s snarkiness towards her captain, the whole exchange made the captain into a buffoon rather than the cold, analytical man he was supposed to be. I think that’s the hardest part about being a writer. You write these scenes that you enjoy and came as inspiration while you were in the shower, but no reader will ever get to experience them because they don’t fit into the story. I always feel like I need to save a copy of those scenes somewhere just so I can pull them out one day to show to someone and say “See, isn’t this a neat scene? It held the plot back and made the character seem too perfect. But don’t you like the way I phrased this, and can’t you just picture the landscape here?” In the meantime, though, I go back to my writing and find a few more darlings to kill.

At some point, I think I’m just going to have to give up. Well, not “give up” as in accept defeat and never again believe that my novel is publishable, but I’ll need to give up the idea of revising. I’ll have to tell myself to stop. I can work and re-work on my writing. But I can’t keep changing my writing forever. I can’t keep listening to the ideas of others. I can’t keep questioning my own skill. And I can’t keep forcing perfection on the world in the story when perfection doesn’t exist in reality. If I never stopped revising, never thought that my novel was complete, then I’m pretty sure I’d go crazy. In fact, I’d probably end up hating my writing. It would become a dirty shirt that no matter how many times I washed it or how many different homemade tricks and store-bought stain-removers I used it would still have one ugly stain on it somewhere. Something like that is better off in the trash.

So eventually I have to say “Enough is enough. Yes, there’s probably a comma splice in there somewhere. Yes, there’s probably an item that needs to be described more or less. But at this point, at this moment, it’s the best it can be. And that’s enough for me.”

Ginny Vincent is a second-year master’s student in the K-State English Department. Her focus is young-adult fantasy. She is originally from St. Louis but plans on staying in the Manhattan area after graduation. Her next goal is to find a job as she musters the strength to finish revising her novel and hopefully get it published.

On Summer Reading


Tuesday, April 22: sunrise 6:39 AM and sunset at 8:10 PM (according to weather.com’s schedule). Projected high of 73 degrees. The weather has hopefully surpassed the early spring turbulence. The prairies are buzzing with new life, the magnolia trees have begun their spring bloom, and the (Flint) Hills are alive with the sound of music. And there are approximately 2.5 weeks left of classes before the intense week of final exams, projects, and portfolios. Even with looming deadlines, K-State creative writers are always thinking about their next writing project and dreaming of the next book to read. Some of this semester’s bloggers chime in on their most anticipated summer reading and hope that you can find suggestions for your own evolving reading lists:

"I’m looking forward to reading A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams. It’s my husband’s all-time favorite book, and it’s been on my reading list for several years now. I finally started reading it a couple of weeks ago, and I love it so far, though it’s been put on hold until the end of the semester. It seems to defy all the rules of fiction writing I’ve ever learned, and yet it’s brilliant. I can’t wait to finish it.” —Lacey Brummer (http://k-statecreativewriting.tumblr.com/post/79361174206/on-suzanne-roberts-scalpels-and-stories)

"I am looking forward to reading The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich. It is actually a children’s chapter book, the third in The Birchbark House series. We read the first two novels in Lisa Tatonetti’s Louise Erdrich class last semester. I really developed an appreciation for Erdrich’s unique writing style and the perspective she offers into Anishinaabe culture, and I am looking forward to relaxing with an easy read about little Omakayas, the narrator of the series.”—Stephanie Hutaff (http://k-statecreativewriting.tumblr.com/post/76329351212/the-vulnerability-of-writing-what-you-know)

"The first book I’ll get back into is the fourth of the Game of Thrones series: A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin. I love the intrigue that has been three books in the making. I want to see which of my favorite character set lasts to the end of the book…A Feast for Crows has a little something for most fans of fantasy. There are dragons, ice zombies, castles, royal families, continental wars, and local political squabbles, frequently involving murder and trials that may or may not be rigged. The descriptions of scenery, dress, and battles is breathtaking without being too heavy-handed all the time. I’ll admit here or there I stop caring what color those roofs are when I’m not going to focus on them for more than this second. Yet the plot can kick right up in a moment and really absorb me.” —Fetch Sellers (http://k-statecreativewriting.tumblr.com/post/77078760056/on-genre-fiction)

"There are a lot of books I want to read this summer, but one I’m most excited to read is Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. Not only is the author from Nebraska (Midwest represent!) and the story set in the ’80s (give me all the ’80s goodness), but also the book itself has gotten a lot of critical acclaim since its release. I adore YA realistic fiction, and this one is sure to please.”—Heather Etelamaki (http://k-statecreativewriting.tumblr.com/post/82089226330/on-time-and-writing-processes)

"I want to re-read The Brothers Kamarizov (Dostoevsky) and As I Lay Dying (Faulkner) this summer. I haven’t read them in years, but I keep recommending them to friends, and it reminds me how wonderful they are. I love re-reading books during the summer, especially novels, and I’m looking forward to having the time to work through Faulkner and Dostoevsky. They’re not traditional summer reads, but you can’t read Russian novels in the winter, too depressing.”—Sam Killmeyer (http://k-statecreativewriting.tumblr.com/post/80686804470/on-the-importance-of-being-human)

On Writing and Selfishness

By Cara Hillstock

Morbach, Germany, 2013: I’m lying on a bed in a spare bedroom, listening to my grandfather watching odd sketch comedies in the living room and my grandmother watering flowers on the balcony. The clock tower of our village chimes one in the afternoon, and I almost fall off the bed. The collection of short horror stories I was reading was so creepy, I have to see what the author had to say about them. But when I turn to the afterword, I find this instead:

"Writers love their words. They have to. They spend much of their time isolated, hunched over a keyboard, squatting at a screen until their eyes burn and their spines scream and their wrists stiffen in protest. And all they have to show for the sacrifice is a scattering of glyphs that sometimes seems to have no meaning in any language. To then assume that barrage of symbols will take on a comprehensive narrative and satisfying arc is truly an act of arrogance.

"But writers go one step further—we expect people to not only read the words, to not only piece them together into a coherent story, but we demand adoration for our act. And, occasionally, a little bit of cold coin." — Afterword: From the Ashes, Ashes, Scott Nicholson

Reading this set off a surge of anger that I could only communicate to my grandmother through a flurry of inarticulate German-esque sputtering. After she walked away, shaking her head, I had to sit for a little bit to calm down and figure out why, exactly, I was so bothered.

The author acknowledges the arrogance of writing directly, before anyone has the chance to call him out on it—as if to say that because he knows what he’s doing is stupid, it’s okay. He knows writing is dispensable in our culture and that to “demand adoration” for it is ludicrous when placed in a practical context. So he beats you to the punch. Nicholson’s afterword taps into a kind of defense, a maneuver many artists tend to use when faced with the fact that their craft has no practical value to the world. Writing isn’t growing food, it’s not tending to wounds, it’s not building houses. Artists spend their whole lives subject to a barrage of criticism because they should have a “real job,” something helpful that contributes to the future of society, or at least our wallets—teaching, managing, or accounting. It’s no wonder we are on the defensive about our art. But why do we feel the need to defend ourselves in our books, in our journals, in the confines of our own heads? Why do we feel the need to justify ourselves and our craft, even when no one is asking?

It is obvious that one who writes is one who believes himself or herself worthy of having written. We write because we believe we have something to say, something worth reading. It’s arrogant — not because we presume that our worthless selves have something important to say, but because everybody in this world has something equally meaningful to say, and we’re just the assholes who think we deserve to be published for it. We’re not doing anything special, or particularly important. In this, Nicholson’s afterword has a point.

But when confronted with the reality of the selfishness and lack of practical value of our craft, we try to pretend it’s somehow a noble and selfless endeavor. To make ourselves feel less like terrible people for choosing to do something that has personal value to ourselves but not to the practical world at large, we try to fool ourselves into thinking we are writing to set the world “right” in some small way. We force in morals and lessons. We add token minorities. We side-eye the future of the planet. We stop writing what is natural to us and instead hope to change the world and make it more accepting, or fair, or just. Miniatures of The Celestine Prophecy, small moments like the woman in Housewife Down who is respected during her trip to India – unlike the vain women who flew with her – because she looked up the dress code before going.

Writing is selfish. We write because we have something to say, and because we feel the need to get something out. We write because it feels good to us, not necessarily to other people. We can’t avoid this reality. Even when we present people with a new perspective in the hopes that they’ll learn something from what we’ve written, we’re generally hoping they’ll shift their perspective closer towards what we think is right. Even when we hope what we say will have some impact, we’re still waiting for other people to take the action.

Cara Hillstock is a junior in English with an emphasis in creative writing. She is currently writing for a top-secret video game collaboration and will appear in the movie Hell Town.

On Time and Writing Processes

image A conference with Julianna Baggott (above) helped graduate student Heather Etelamaki think about time, her anxiety about it, and about putting it to better use.

By Heather Etelamaki

In junior high and high school, I wrote nearly every day, both in the morning and right before bed. I was mostly a notebook kind of gal. The two novels I worked on over the course of five years were written in wide-ruled notebooks with bright, solid color covers or with Lisa Frank illustrations splattered over them. I didn’t notice problems until I started rewriting one of the novels in a new notebook—a three-subject with a royal blue cover and no pockets—sharpening the characters and reworking scenes. The sap was alleviated, but my main character was still not fully there, and the plot and alleged romance therein were falling apart. I didn’t know where to go, and so I moved on to other stories.

I still write fiction and am determined to write young-adult novels. These days, I still write in notebooks but not exclusively, and I don’t do the kind of writing I did in high school anymore; unless I have a solid stretch of time, I’m only able to sit down for 15 minutes or so to write. These little spurts aren’t doing the work they should be.

After having the opportunity to meet with Julianna Baggott during her visit to Kansas State last week, I found myself even more aware of my current writing process. In my conference with her, we discussed the idea of practicing writing for 10,000 hours, which builds off Malcolm Gladwell’s idea in Outliers and which, Baggott explained, breaks down to three or four hours a day every day for ten years. Practice is how you grow and improve. Baggott herself works on many projects at the same time and has published such a breadth of work across all genres—there is no doubt she has surpassed her own 10,000 hours. I’ve done a lot of writing in the last ten years, but not enough to achieve results like that. 

Outside of the revelation of 10,000 hours, I’ve always had a preoccupation with time. The manuscript I shared with Baggott, for instance, is set around 1997-98, and relies heavily on a nonlinear timeline. In the three drafts I’ve worked on, I have arranged and rearranged scenes to find the flow that works best with the plot. I’ve been conscious of what is referenced—everything from arcade games to the music videos the characters see on MTV. Time not only drives everything we know, but it also tells us where we are and how far we’ve come. It shapes our perception of the world.

Time also brings me anxiety, and in my conversation with Baggott, I felt that anxiety start to set in. I fear I’ll never be able to write like I did as a teenager again. I thought about the fifteen-minute writing increments on my to-do list  each day and about all the writing I could do if I were a vampire a la Twilight who never had to sleep again. Fifteen minutes isn’t nearly enough.

Despite this, I think a lot about writing and felt a great kinship with Baggott’s belief in writing in the head, which she sees as a small part of the 10,000 hours. She explains that writing in your head is a way to visualize setting and action and try things out: language, various scenarios for plot, and character motivation. It’s still writing, just in your head. I often spend solitary roadtrips home in the writing headspace—I play out scenes and find myself drawn to scenarios with my characters that don’t make complete sense until I’ve written them down on the page. I sometimes even talk to myself, working through characters and their reactions to new situations. I pretend I’m explaining them to someone else: this is what she feels and thinks. Trust me. I know these things.

Time, once again, makes me nervous. I often find myself without a spare moment to write things down, and I worry that all that time in my head will have been for naught. When I was a teenager, there was no question in my mind about the words spilling onto the page. But now, after so many hours in the day working through my characters and plot in my head, I lose things. Sometimes I remember, but other times, details disappear. I often forget to follow through from brain to paper, and in that disconnect, I do  a disservice to my own writing practice. When I do sit down to record it, there’s often writer’s block.

“But what do you do when you’ve written something in your head and you go to commit it to paper and it doesn’t work out?” I asked Baggott. Again: time and anxiety. The fear that I will never make real the stories in my head. That even when I do, the stories will never work even after all that time spent in my head. She told me to just work through it. Sometimes it’s going to work well, but often it’s bad writing. And you just keep moving forward, rewriting over and over again. In other words, it’s after the initial push where the story comes alive. It’s about being fearless.

Baggott closed our conference with the advice to be selfish with my time. Selfish. That word stopped me. It’s something I try not to be—after all, I grew up being taught to be considerate of others, to share. But even as these thoughts crossed my mind, I realized that she was telling me to be a different kind of selfish: to take charge of my time, to carve out whatever time works best for me right now at this moment, to break that fear that comes with time. I even thought about it in the same way I take charge of time in my fiction, whether that is situating my characters in a specific place and time, or arranging and rearranging the nonlinear timeline. You’re ready, Baggott told me. Your talent deserves time. Give yourself two hours of solid writing, at the very least. Exhaust yourself.

As I wrote  this, I slowly approached three and a half hours of writing time. I listened to the Divergent soundtrack, and I kept going back to play the first five songs over and over again. In between bites of scrambled egg and toast, I picked up where I left off with this post the previous night. I wrote seven poems for Poet in a Box, and then I returned to this post. My new goal is to get back to the kind of writing I did in junior high and high school. Fearless writing, with no questions, with faith that everything will get done. Sneaking it in between grading and lesson-planning and writing papers. Writing and reading every day, until I have to pull my brain away.

Heather Etelamaki is a first-year graduate student in the creative writing track at Kansas State University. She spends a great deal of her free time recording childhood memories in notebooks, thinking about what it would be like to go to concerts in the 1980s, and drawing parallels from Disney and superhero movies to Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.