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Writer, Editor, Designer

My first story, “Punchline Number Nine” is now up in the latest issue of decomP magazinE. Read it. Or listen to an oddly, extra-bassy me read it to you. It takes eighteen minutes. It took hours and hours to write and revise. Think of the time compression. Think of how dense an experience it is that you’re digesting. Reading a story is, by this analogy, one of the richest experiences. Like the difference between a thousand calories of kale versus a thousand calories of cake. Same calories, but cake is the dense story of the two. Have some cake. You deserve it.

I’m excited to announce my story, “Punchline Number Nine” will appear in the February edition of decomP magazinE. I’ll also be recording an audio version of the story for them this week as well.

This is my first official publication since I started down this path in earnest and not too shabby for the third story I ever wrote, though it’s been heavily revised since that first rough draft tumbled its way out of me back in the spring of 2012.

"Transam Bird" by Russ Pekkonen

“Transam Bird” by Russ Pekkonen

Who knew, back then, that my little faux-noir story of a recovering alcoholic subpoena process server driving around in a beast of a TransAM looking for his artist ex-girlfriend would be my first publication?

I’ll update later when it’s live and you can see the beaut. Right now, I have to go update my CV and publications page and my Submittable bio.

As my son said, I’m playing on the pro courts now.

I did not win the 2014 Missouri Review’s Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Nope. Lost! DID NOT WIN. But I was so excited about the results I told everyone, jumped around (figuratively), and had such a goddamn big smile on my face, that four more rejections that week did little to scuff my shine because I was a semifinalist. Which means I was in the top 25, that elite 1% of stories that made it to the final rounds. Holy hell.

Early in your writing career, the reward system of your brain gets rewired. We face so much rejection that even the tiniest wins seem monstrous achievements. We might break our legs over and over trying to ascend Everest and almost die of exposure, but you should see us dance when we actually step up a curb without falling on our asses.

We check RejectionWiki for the slightest chance that we got a higher-tier form rejection letter, something our published advisors have said is like trying to read fortunes in tea leaves. We brag to our fellow writers about that Raiders of the Lost Ark golden idol of a personal rejection—sure we lost to some pompous prick and were almost killed by Amazonians, but by golly, someone fucking noticed us.

So sure, I lost the contest and had stories rejected almost 40 times last year, but this time, this time, that Pavlovian response of dopamine is mine and I’m going to savor that son of a bitch.

This blog languished this semester while I taught fiction and forged through another workshop and a composition pedagogy class. But here is what I learned:

Anger and spite are a great way to decimate writer’s block.

Composition pedagogy has its gaze a little too far up its own navel.

Teaching fiction in a workshop is as fantastic, frustrating, and fun as being in a fiction workshop.

I learned that Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” is a great story to teach backstory and epiphany. That Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror” is great for stressing how important character is, even to a genre piece. That half your class with hate Lorrie Moore’s “You’re Ugly Too” but the other half of the class will love it and you won’t have to teach, because the love-half of the class will explain to the hate-half all the things that the hate-half didn’t understand and why it’s such a brilliant story. That kids these days don’t care much for Hemingway and Carver-esque icebergian minimalism. That Sherman Alexie stories will bring out unexamined privilege. That everyone loves Flannery O’Connor. That it’s really easy to accidentally fill your syllabus with stories featuring gun violence. That your students will surprise you with their creativity, shock you alternately with their originality and banality. That they are addicted to melodrama. That a lot of them want to write stories about people with superpowers. That sometimes the harshest, truest, most unflinching stories come from the most unexpected writers. That we’re all storytellers, that we groove on plot, that we’re all armchair psychologists. That a lot of them don’t like to read out loud. I learned that a class-wide round of exquisite corpse is a great tension breaker to end the semester.

I go back to teaching First Year Writing next semester and I’m going to miss running a fiction workshop. I’m going to miss my students and their stories and their ability to surprise me.

Primarily my summer writing projects have been editing and submitting stories from earlier this year and last year. Most of the markets for literary fiction are closed during the summer, so my options for submission are limited until September. Which is good if I’m trying to avoid rejection letters, like yesterday’s Paris Review form letter. I send out to these long shots, knowing it’s unlikely I’ll get picked out of the slush pile, but it still hurts a little when the rejection comes through. I’m also making the decision to only submit to venues that pay. For some reason, literary fiction writers are expected to publish for free, for exposure, for the publishing credit, rather than get paid early in their career. Having spent enough time in the graphic design/art world, where this is also a prevalent expectation, I can assure you it’s also some bullshit.

For Throwback Thursday, I’m posting an in-class assignment from my sophomore year of high school creative writing class. It’s about the last box of candy canes left on the shelf after Christmas, narrated by a broken candy cane.

Sitting here, strapped into a cardboard cell, I suffer. I sit alone, waiting for my destiny. My pride and self are broken, similarly with my cellmates. My captors hold me for ransom just to make a buck, constantly marking me down, as iftumblr_n85dcx1caB1qhyj0po1_1280 my life is worthless the more I suffer.

I lie here, unable to communicate, longing for an escape back to freedom. Many other cells of my companions have been rescued in what appeared to be a raid. I sit and wonder why my friends haven’t come back for me. I wonder of their fate, and pray that mine is a long-lived one.

Weeks, I sit and wait. Many times, people have the chance to rescue me, but they don’t. I wonder what harsh evilness is hidden in their heart that would make them turn away in disgust, and not help and injured being and his friends.

Finally my cell is moved one day. We are placed in a dark pit. Many hours pass. I wonder if I am being rescued or if this is an execution. The pit closes. The air runs low. I pray that this is not my destiny, to suffocate in a large bag. I wonder if this was the fate of the many other cells of my companions who were “rescued.”

But as I take my last final breath, I realize I will never know.

Apparently ten years ago, I wrote an acrostic?

 A Message From God

Attention Inhabitants of Earth!

My message to you must be heard
Earnestly spread from this day forth!
Say I to you that you must go!
Sunday shall be the last day,
As you pack and you pray,
Groveling won’t help because
Evicted from Earth you are today!

Fail to heed this warning you may,
Rot in hellish flames on Monday,
Or delay your timely excursion, do not!
My vengeance is powerful and you are not!

Good tidings I bless and send to you,
On your new planet, the home you must move,
Deliver to me your keys and your deposit you recoup.

I have no memory of writing this. Weird.

Regarding portrayals of women in fiction, Junot Diaz said, “Unless you are actively, consciously working against the gravitational pull of the culture, you will predictably, thematically, create these sort of fucked-up representations.” If you’re not actively subverting the sexist/racist/homophobic status quo of our culture, you’re likely reinforcing it. And it’s the duty of any writer worth their salt to do so. Subvert, transform, transmute the shit of our culture into gold. And it’s hard work and it’s not easy. There’s a fine line between accurately representing a racist culture and reinforcing that racism. Just ask Dave Chappelle. One of the advantages of a workshop-centric MFA program is that you have the opportunity to learn these lessons before you start putting your sexist/racist/etc stories out into the world.

A few weeks ago, a to-remain-nameless writer in our program wrote a story in which there was a borderline racist portrayal of a character. (The only black character in the story is the one with all of the problems; everyone else in the story are white saviors. Oh, and her skin is described using food terms.)

So we spend—at the most—five minutes saying that yeah, that’s problematic, when you write about marginalized groups, you have to be careful not to stereotype, do your research, avoid racist tropes, maybe read Writing the Other, et cetera. You know, general helpful things that any aspiring writer should know before sticking their uneducated, privileged, white foot in their mouth.

Fast forward to aforementioned writer’s next story. Universally panned as a terrible: the plot is incoherent and illogical and there is no arc nor character development. There are no physical descriptions of people, nor are there any gender pronouns (which could have been a great experiment but hang on—), because all of the characters are only described as food items and their behavior never stretched beyond their food moniker. (For instance, a nice and sweet character would be named after a candy bar, that sort of shortcut.) We are baffled by the story and the writer’s general incompetence.

The writer informs us later, after we’d workshopped it, trying our damnedest to find something constructive to say, something to salvage in this trainwreck of a story, that the whole thing was basically a fuck-you to our workshop for “wasting twenty minutes harping on” their black character in the previous story. A childish “Oh you don’t like that I described someone as food . . . I’ll describe everyone as food!” retaliation. Needless to say, everyone was pissed that this writer would waste our time in such a way, wasting a precious workshop opportunity on what’s basically a 101-level, getting-called-out-on-your-racism, temper-tantrum.

Want to piss off your entire workshop, the community of writers whose support, advice, insight, et cetera, et cetera, you’re paying an ungodly amount of money for? Want to take a big steaming dump on an opportunity to learn, to grow, to avoid filling the world with more racist bullshit? This is how you do it.

This fall I’m going to be teaching an undergraduate class, an introduction to fiction writing. Which is a whole new level of badassery I can barely understand nor contain. There’s a tiny part of me that still squeaks, “Who the hell are you to teach anyone anything about writing!” I don’t listen to that voice much. Mostly because it’s like the one guy who says something sarcastic when the room is the loudest because he doesn’t think anyone else can hear him. I should know. I’m that guy.

The rest of me is ridiculously excited and has been planning a syllabus in my head since I got the news. It is amazing how night-and-day my attitude to teaching fiction is compared to teaching composition. I realize I give zero shits about composition and rhetoric. Maybe I don’t appreciate it because it’s something I’ve always been pretty good at, whereas with fiction, it’s something I love that I’ve had to work spine-crushingly hard at to get where I am. Maybe it’s ego, maybe it’s love, maybe it’s Maybelline.

But yeah. I’m going to be teaching fiction writing. I’m going to be constructing my own canon. I get to decide what to teach, what stories get read, showcase what I think is important about literature and storytelling.

Shit, I just scared myself.