“because love too is like a county fair/ in that it’s at its best in the dark/ next to someone you just met.”- Keegan Lester
Keegan Lester’s debut poetry collection this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all i had so i drew it, winner of the 2016 Slope Editions Books Prize, possesses a haunted urgency that, as one careens through its poems like a semi navigating mountain roads, suspends one between what we cannot know about being human and what we cling to as gospel. Gospel’s an accurate word for Lester’s verse. He explores language, love, grief, and Lester’s adopted home state of West Virginia.
The collection, however, is not coal-dusted or steeped in stereotype, but instead luminous with the acknowledged humanity of Appalachians. This is summed up neatly toward the book’s end in “You Appalachian Re-appropriating Asshole Poets,” in which Lester writes, “i don’t write about killing deer… my great uncle pitched/ for the yankees. He also killed deer/ he never wrote a single poem.”
There is an impossibility in both capturing the places we have lived, how they must necessarily change in our actions and through the echo of our memories. In the first “half” of the book (although this part accounts for the majority of the book), Lester weaves together disparate poems into a singular “ghost note,” which is like an elegy. Or prayer. Or the scribbled final thoughts of the dying. Or the dead.
In early 2017, I had the opportunity to see Keegan Lester perform his poems. He reads with both the New York Poetry Brothel and the Travelin’ Appalachian Revue. I use the word perform because Lester affects the posture of a backwoods preacher. The words travel through him, rather than from him as if transfused through the mother-lode vein of a word mine.
I picked up the book this morning for a long car ride and tore through the book for the third time. Perhaps it took some time to compose proper thoughts on the collection, but there must be a reason I keep returning. This book is itself a return, a home town not yours but nevertheless intimately familiar.
“Keegan Lester is an American poet splitting time between New York City and Morgantown, West Virginia. His work is published in or forthcoming from Boston Review, The Atlas Review, Powder Keg, Boaat Journal, The Journal, Phantom Books, CutBank, Reality Beach and Sixth Finch among others and has been featured on NPR, The New School Writing Blog and ColdFront. He is the co-founder and poetry editor for the journal Souvenir Lit. This is his first book.” – Found on Publisher’s Website
Arrives around midnight, an itch on the inside of the skull. A nag– a voice of a friend or professor, perhaps editor if you’re lucky. “You should be writing.”
So you drag your sorry corpse from the sheets and sit before a blank screen, fingers poised. Wait, you need to drink something, not anything too caffeinated. You still must work tomorrow, the “real work,” whatever that means; you feel less as if you’re producing anything there than spinning your wheels, making enough money to rent an apartment where you may write. Where you may store the books you buy and never read, neglected friends forlorn on the shelf. But of course it is past midnight, and the story or the novel or the poem remains unfinished. An aching empty, a white space suggesting brilliance but yielding nothing.
David Foster Wallace once said, “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in…it’s actually kind of tragic because you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.” (Wallace interview here)
You worry about what it really is. Just words, your words even. A sad attempt at magic. You keep pulling rabbits from the hat, but they come out limp, dead. You envy the authors who make these tricks appear so easy, how they talk of their work as something natural. In their wizard presence, you’re a squib. But Ira Glass said something very similar about this terrible self-expectation.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass
This sort of thinking lends me hope. When I was a younger, I was too stupid to question the validity of my work: of course I was a writer, destined to be a writer. I wrote a novel every year since the age of eleven, and while writing each manuscript, I never doubted it would be published. Now that I have my first novel published and some poems in journals, I am immobilized by the fear of not being good enough. My expectations for myself have drastically changed because I have the ability to perceive the gap between where I am and where I wish to be.
Sometimes the excuses come easy. I worked five months as a busboy in a fine dining restaurant following college graduation. I worked more than forty hours a week, often returning home exhausted. I would sit at the bottom of the shower, rubbing lotion on my calloused feet at one in the morning after working sixteen hour shifts, then wake up early again for another double. While I imagined this fast-pace life might have conjured stories, I became bloated with self-doubt. I didn’t write. I began and halted a few pieces. I gave up all summer revising my second novel, its direction unknown, the genre flip-flopping between magic realism and literary drama. I spent my days off in the library, typing at a school computer. I wrote first drafts for six or seven different stories over the summer, but still I could not forgive myself for not pushing myself further. After all, I had only become a busboy to create free time to write, to produce a schedule that would give me mornings to myself. And yet I found myself so often sleeping in, shirking all responsibilities.
When I quit being a busboy and began instead working at a used bookstore, I still didn’t use the free time wisely. Unlike in a typical job or even while at college, there were no concrete deadlines dangling over my head. It feels awful to be unable to recapture the productivity I embodied as a teenager or while I was in university; but I am learning too to forgive myself.
I am reading again. Mostly short stories. Returning to stories that shocked or changed me, stories that dug under my skin and remained with me. I sought out novels that had done the same. I have been spending entire afternoons on the Edge of America at Folly Beach, reading poems aloud to the Morris Island Lighthouse. I have spent entire days discovering discographies of jazz musicians to whom I’ve never before listened. I am unwrapping the world, and I can’t get it all down. Not all at once.
But I’m still trying. I have found a good new direction for revising my second novel and needed time away from it to figure out what to do. I am piecing together a poetry collection, which my publisher is currently reviewing. And I’m writing. Not always something I consider good or brilliant. I close my eyes and conjure something incredible in my head that never translates to the page. But I forgive myself for what I could not do, for what I could not write when I could not write. I forgive myself for waking late and sitting too long before blank pages before going to wash the dishes. Because it comes in the middle of the night.
I climb out of bed, something bouncing in the back of my skull. Insistent. An idea. A notion of where to take the story next. I sit down, and I write.
In the past week, I have written 12,000 words. 1,000 of those words have been fiction, 0 words poetry, and the rest devoted to various academic projects. With the publication of my first novel fast approaching, I must consider myself more and more a writer, and yet such a title demands attention and effort. A writer, after all, must write. Not just blog posts like this one. Or Tweets, a form of which I am particularly fond. But rather, stories. Novels. Poems. Essays for lofty literary journals. And in the past few months, I have done little of this. Moored to the workload of senior year, I have neglected my holy and dreadful duties as a writer.
So what to do? What is a writer who does not write? Recently, my laptop crashed—kaput! The latest draft of my second novel, on which I’ve been working since my Freshman year at College of Charleston, was lost within a fried hard drive. The loss eliminated any motivation to continue working on the novel, and for the past four months, the story has languished in the purgatory of forgotten manuscripts. Where novels-in-progress go to die. Of course I still have the second draft for reference, and I can jump right back in with a new draft.
After all, my inspiration in writing has been replenished. This year I am taking my first ever fiction-writing course with Professor Brett Lott at the College of Charleston. What I expected to be a course crammed with trite advice and undergraduate pandering has actually been quite helpful. Several of the most basic lessons of fiction have eluded me until now, and I must return with a critical eye to my new material. Like all young writers, I am already terrified of my first novel (I wrote the novel when I was seventeen and eighteen), and yet I still have such pride in it. It is, after all, a fine work, especially for someone as young as I. But nevertheless, I intend to do even better next time, applying the lessons I have learned in the course.
But what of time? How does one grapple with the lack of time one receives in university? Some college students participate in Nanowrimo, and I long for the days I could spend hours in a coffee shop furiously typing. But no, that won’t do. It’s not that I don’t have the energy to write nor the ideas, but rather that other obligations have wrestled me away from the stories. Too often I wish to scribble ideas into a notebook and abandon whatever essay, presentation, or op-ed I am working on. Too often I find myself at the end of the day exhausted by the sheer effort of living, of academic rigor, of the expectations of professors and parents, of the black hole of social media that promises either publication success or ruin. Too often I find myself discussing writing with friends rather than writing. But I am finding my groove. I am writing on the toilet, on planes, in cars, in class, between classes, and in the library while I am supposed to be working on the two essays, three group projects, and poster presentation due in two days (as I am doing now).
So I must work without ceasing. I must work even when not writing. Always, a tiny elf sits in my head, scribbling down experiences, filing away gestures and odd phrases, and composing grand scenes. When I am in class, I am working: who needs to listen to a lecture on Benedictine monks when one has read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose? When I am exercising (which means here riding my bike aimlessly through the decrepit and ruinous parts of my city), I am working. During sex, I am working. While eating lunch, I am working. While taking a shower, I am working. When I am out drinking with my friends, dancing a wild gig of youthful merriment, I am working. I am cataloging my life for the sake of my art. My mind is alive with stories.
I have taken a semester to step away from my second novel, hoping to return with renewed vigor during winter break. For now, I am perfecting my storytelling. I have written six short stories so far since August and I intend to write another two before winter crashes into South Carolina and forces me inside. And when it does, I will pour a hot coffee and keep writing.
I step out of the student secretary office into the sun and cross the street to the library in order to sit down and write my final thoughts on Tuebingen. I am leaving soon, spending the night at a friend’s flat before flying home tomorrow morning. As I pass across the street, I nearly stumble into The Naked Man.
The Naked Man stands in the park every day and has done so for the past few months, often half-naked. People say he’s crazy. He is a homeless man who dresses either in grass-streaked tidy-whities or a full suit. His favorite hobbies include snapping the branches off trees, assuming fighting stances, drinking beer, and laughing at strangers. He often walks toward strangers in order to laugh at them. That’s so strange, so unnverving.
When I bump into The Naked Man, he gives me a queer look, a cocktail mixture of anger and curiosity. And so I ask in German, “Hey, man, I’ve been watching you for some time now. Why do you do the things you do? I mean, it doesn’t make sense. You stand there and kick the air or talk with strangers? Why do you approach random groups of people to laugh at them?”
And that’s all I want to know, the underlying absurdity of his actions. A reason. A meaningful reason.
The Naked Man stares at me, his mouth breaking into a grin.
And he laughs. And laughs. And says nothing more.
Today I am practicing joy, allowed myself the grace and naivety of a child. I no longer want to feel self-conscious for child-like wonder; I seek to exorcise shame, to scrape clean my palette for awe where too long cynicism has calcified like plaque. Today I feel refreshed, the way characters in a Coca-Cola commercial appear. I am determined in the same way fictional athletes seem in inspiring sports films the morning of the big race or big fight or big race.
Recently, I have forgotten too simply the purpose of joy. Having allowed self-indulgent misery to conquer my mood, I have moped through my break, alone too often in the dingy dorm underground. For a week, I have been sequestered in my subterranean single room by torrential downpours. But today the rain stopped, and the sun peeked out its head. Emancipated from late May storms, I traveled with my mother and Oma across the state of Baden-Würtemburg to an ancient Danube-neighboring city. Ulm.
Standing under the neo-gothic spires and buttresses of the Ulm Munster, a sense of awe dawned. There exists perhaps a limit to one’s ability to experience wonder, and lately, I’ve felt as if I reached that limit. Small joys, luscious landscapes, and even stark coffee failed to inspired in my the unnamable intensity for which I craved. Instead, I have betrayed my curious adventurous nature in service of irrational fear. I have spent too many bright afternoons working, subsisting on cream cheese and jazz. I am afraid of something, though of what, I’m unsure.
So I must re-establish my purpose, an unknown direction, to experience each droplet of experience, to lick the dew of life from each blade of grass. Lately, I have been a man abandoned on an island housing the last block of ice, and I have watched the ice become a puddle.
But today I tasted joy. I balanced on the spine of the Ulm wall as we searched for food. The wall slithers beside the wide river, a twin artery, one red and the other a greenish-blue. The sun came out to massage our necks we stared across the Danube into Bayern. Swans soared above the water’s surface, wide wing flaps slapping the river. In that moment, I too recalled what it meant to feel wonder, to look upon something for the first time.
Moment arrive again and again when we must re-affirm our faith in the beauty of living. This is a religion with no holy book other than the days we inhale. We must be reminded often that life is worthy of our presence—our conscious presence—our sense of being in the now, now, now.
I do not wish to imply that I must be constantly astonished to escape doldrums, but rather that I search for meaning in the quiet moments. This may mean the boring-in-between, the train ride, the wait at the bus stop, the long afternoons eating and drinking, but, if we wish, we may reclaim these moments as grandiose. We may experience even the familiar as new. In the mind-frame of now, there exists no nostalgia for any time frame other than the present.
There is always time for joy, which stares refreshing like a sliver of ice on a sultry summer day. But joy is no feeling, like happiness; it is instead a practice, a habit that must each day be reinforced. So today I am practicing joy, even if I’m writing emails inside, even if I’m doing laundry, or even if I’m experiencing the myriad dull rituals of the day; I will look back to yesterday and recall wonder, and I must think, it’s that simple. It’s really that simple, to wait and appreciate, and know I will feel this awe again.
I’m not sure what they’re calling my generation now—Generation Me, The Facebook Generation, The Slacker Generation, Millennial Generation, whatever. The diagnosis, no matter the given title, is clear: self-obsessed, self-entitled, bratty, morally weak, and eternally cynical. That about sums it up, the portrait painted by the other generations about our generation—courtesy of Generation X and the Baby Boomers (which sounds, to be frank, like twin circus rocket-men stuck in the bodies of infants). When we hear the criticisms arraigned against us, we often retaliate—this was your fault, anyways; you’re generalizing; blah, blah, let me Tweet about this.
When it comes to the current generation of writers, however (let’s say 15-25 years old), perhaps these modifiers are correct. Perhaps too are these modifiers useful. We are a generation that passed through adolescence with access to Tumblr. We can talk incessantly about ourselves on Twitter, update each grueling low and ecstatic high of our relationships on Facebook, and upload videos of ourselves talking to ourselves on Youtube. We mastered the act of the confessional in the sixth grade, learned to craft personal narratives in under 140 characters. In other words, our tendency to be solipsistic, to express the world through our particular lenses, allows us also to be some of the greatest marketers in the writing world.
Even now, I am only writing this blog in hopes you might become curious about me as a person; so invested, perhaps you will read about my book and later buy my book, and so invested, you will buy every book I ever publish.
The strange phenomenon of being a “modern writer” is the new wave of marketing techniques, namely writing blogs and tweets and Facebook statuses. Did you know that some writers keep a schedule of the tweets they’re going to send out? I would also totally do that if I were more organized, though it’s a hubris we can pass off as generational, right? The days of locking yourself away in a log cabin to clack out a masterpiece on a rusty typewriter are long over—we’re the generation of Microsoft Word, the generation of the #amwriting hashtag, the generation of getting paid to muse about celebrities online and create lists for, seriously, literally anything.
The internet for the writer offers both an incredible resource and a black hole of time-wasting activities. On the one hand, we can access research materials faster than you can mutter Google, we can connect with other writers via Twitter and complain about all the work we’re not doing, we can save money on query letters with the advent of email, and we can read purchase almost any book with a few mouse clicks; on the other hand, we can waste oodles of time on social media sites and reading Lists of The Cutest Quokas.
But perhaps most significantly, we can blog. WordPress recently alerted me that I had been blogging on Word Salad for four years, and while I’ve experienced an extreme downtown in readership, I have continued to write about the writing life, about movies, about my travels, and at times about cats. There exists a special danger to blogging—over-sharing. At what point does the humorous confessional become the admittance to childish activities? I have been reading writers’ blogs for many years, especially those with whom I am contemporaries, and there exists a trend of sharing what could be potentially harmful to the writer or to the writer’s acquaintance.
Of course, some stories shared on the internet could be shared for the sake of hilarity. Sexual encounters, drug use, and petty theft have become a hot topic for blog-writers. But if one writes these essays, these articles, and these blogs with the hope of one day becoming a writer and then fails to become a writer, where does that place the context of what the writer has written? What will future employers think while reading about you at age seventeen, stealing cigarettes from the gas station?
Maybe there are actions the Internet should not know about, spurring articles like 10 Disgusting Habits I Formed While Living on My Own, The True Reason I Will Never Find Intimate Love Is That I’m Selfish, or Seventeen Slurs Not to Call Someone Interviewing You for a Job. Maybe file these under, things the world should never hear; or maybe file them under, The Internet Is a Great Therapist But Only Until Trolls Begin Berating You and Sending Death Threats.
To write about oneself is a balancing act. While we want audiences to believe we are relatable, that we are human, we wish also not to come across as unemployable.
The true question to pose: am I writing for an audience at all or only for myself? Am I writing to entertain or to create “buzz?” And if I take the focus away from myself, if I reject the paradigm of the Me Generation, if I abandon the internet in hopes of writing “pure prose” and “technologically-unadulterated poetry,” then why am I writing in the first place?
There must exist a love of self or at least an analysis of self (which is an important step toward love-of-self) before a writer may write about themselves. This isn’t a memoir. It’s a blog. This isn’t a bookstore or a job interview. It’s the Internet. The anarchic no-rules-ever, blog-with-aesthetic Internet. If you didn’t come to read about someone talking about themselves, why are you even here?