But the silver lining, when it comes, is a good one. As I get deeper into a life of trying to create things, the one element that continually stands up as lovely and invigorating is the opportunity to spend so much time around other people who practice the making of beautiful things.
A year ago this week, I returned from a year-long, Fulbright-funded year in the Russian Federation. Below is a partial list, shared in no particular order, of things Russia gave to me.
A year ago today, I stepped into Columbus John Glenn International Airport, freshly returned from a year in Siberia.
Good art—really good art—is the best sort of time machine.
“What place do you call home?”
I heard this question a few days ago. It wasn’t addressed to me, but it’s been bouncing around my mind since then, and it’s a deceptively hard question.
A state away in my former home, teachers and colleagues I admire deeply are fighting for another result. They, too, are putting in the work and waiting, just to be told no again. Not by publishers, but by politicians.
I’m wiped out. All of my energy feels gone, though plugged into good things.
And it’s made me look back on my Fulbright year in a very different context.
The first time I ever bought a cup of coffee was about three days after I got my driver’s license, and the drink had nothing to do with wanting to feel grown up, or wanting to emulate Dad’s morning cup or anything like that. In fact, that first coffee had nothing to do with coffee. Exploring the new freedom of life with a vehicle, I’d gone to the logical first place: the bookstore. I would get to stay as long as I wanted this time, not rushing for a waiting parent who had someplace more important to get, or the next stop to move toward on a chain-shopping trip. I explored the place top to bottom, section after section, but at a certain point, even a 16-year-old begins to feel self-aware about wandering endlessly through a shop with no potential purchases in hand. Eventually, I wandered over to the café and bought a small coffee, then played copycat on the adults that populated the tables: I grabbed something from the periodical rack—I’m pretty sure one of them was a copy of the Prague Post, which was at that time sold in a number of U.S. book shops—and plopped down with my coffee and a free read. I bought a paperback or two before leaving, which was a big deal for a kid whose income was paid yardwork for the folks, at least until hay and straw bailing season would begin a few weeks later. Then, I’d make some solid money, but for the moment, two books and a coffee was a pretty full day of expenditure.
This morning, I’m again in the café of a bookstore, again in love with the smell of 10,000 books around me, colliding with puffs of steam from the espresso machine behind me. There are other places to loiter while I work, of course—home and my campus office and cafes both corporately and locally owned. But it’s always been here, surrounded by the written ideas of others. And it seems like the right place to cap a week that’s been filled with news ranging from openly joyful to bittersweet at best. The home I drove back to after that first coffee was sold today. Earlier this year, my parents downsized their home, and while I’m happy for them in that regard, that was the home I always came home to: from college and work, from grad school and at holidays, on long weekends when I just needed to be someplace familiar around someone familiar. It’s tough, knowing I’ll never again drive home to that grey house behind the pond.
Like the sale of that old home, the rest of this week’s news has been a long time in process.
My first book has been published—in Russia. Last year, Russian linguist Olesya Valger and I co-wrote and co-edited a textbook called Stories From the American Rust Belt With Case Studies in English Grammar. The text, published by Novosibirsk State Pedagogical University Press, includes several of my stories, along with exercises and practical details to help second-language students of English interact with contemporary American literature. As I understand it, some printed copies are in the early stages of transit, and I’m looking forward to holding a copy soon.
But that was just the start of good book news.
On Tuesday morning, Seattle-based Orson’s Publishing released my debut story collection for pre-order. Print copies will ship in April, and ebook copies will be available at that time, as well. When the book was announced this week, some of the first questions I received were connected to my time in Russia—namely, whether this was the book of stories I wrote while overseas. It’s not—though I continue to work on those. However, this set did get some substantial editing and revision work during my Fulbright grant, and I submitted it to the press from my flat above Vybornaya Street.
The collection runs the gamut of my writing life: the oldest story got its start during my first month in graduate school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and the newest one was completed last Autumn in Siberia—it made the trip with me as a half-finished stub, and I finally did enough surgery to it to make it feel like a story that belonged in a set.
For much of the last year, Publisher Garrett Dennert and I have pushed and pressed each other and wrestled this thing into a book I’m extremely proud of, one that traces the lives of workers and workers’ kids and retirees in the post-industrial Midwest—the Rust Belt. It felt right working on the collection in Siberia, which in many ways knows a similar history: regions of single-industry towns left to rise and fall at the mercy of economy and other, connected single-industry towns, places trying to reclaim names rife with disparaging stereotypes, regions full of youthful, vibrant generation set against the remnants of past decay. The collection has busted-up factories, yes, but more importantly (and I think more interestingly) it focuses on what the people do after they walk out those doors for the last time—something I can connect with this morning.
A final piece of exciting news: Peasantry Press, the publisher of my forthcoming novel Pine Gap, sent final edits this week, and work has started on cover design. Review copies should be heading out soon, and by the end of the year, it’ll be a trio of books with my name on the spine so that someday, some kid with newfound freedom and a set of keys might just buy a drink as an excuse to linger, and when they do, maybe, just maybe they’ll pull one of those books or its neighbors from the shelf. And if they get to travel the same path I’ve gotten, one full of words and daydreams, a trail of ideas and travelling friends that stretches from Illinois to Irkutsk—well, they’ll be immensely lucky.
Dispatches From Siberia returns: this time with an in-depth look at the process of returning home after a life-changing trip abroad. First up: snow days in Kentucky after a year in Siberia.
A long-delayed dispatch from my final month in Siberia, in which I realized (sort of) a childhood goal of running an overseas race in a team USA jersey.
The final chapter of the long-winded St. Petersburg series: Soviet donuts, missiles on main streets, and an encore at the opera.
With a horde of end-of trip activities the last few weeks, there's a massive backlog of blogging material. The catch-up starts today with continuation of the Saint Petersburg travel log.
I checked in on top-rated coffee shops and encountered a problem that would hound me all week—and one that led me to want to write a full-blown St. Petersburg Travel Log. Namely: most people who visit St. Petersburg seem to do and write about the same dozen things and eat and review the same dozen restaurants. And I wasn't having it.
I'm on the road this week, visiting the incredible, vast, and sometimes confusing city of St. Petersburg. This place is and has a little bit of everything, and I'm busy exploring it, squeezing every milliliter I can from each of my five days in town. Because of that, this week's blog is short, but have no fear: there'll be a mid-week sequel once I get back to Novosibirsk.
This week's Dispatch From Siberia examines the important impact of small changes on the creative process, and considers the global ramifications of an American media company's disturbing process of downsizing.
This has been a week of contrast. Half of my mind is on tying the loose ends and enjoying the last few weeks of my time overseas. The other half is planning for what promises to be an exciting and busy summer back in the U.S. Half of the week was sunny and warm. Half the week was rainy backed with a brutal, chilly wind. I went for a run on Wednesday, the first chance I’d had to do so in ages. It was nearly seventy degrees. Half the university’s track was clear and bone dry, the other was still caked in a meter of built-up ice. Opposites and dualities all over the place, but in the end it’s just more opportunity and adventure.
Winter is receding from Siberia, which is a great duality. At eye level, it’s heavenly. The air is warming, the coats are turning to jackets, and sometimes just sweaters or even shirts. It feels blissful. It looks blissful. The sun is out, and the days are longer, the breezes gentler, and the people are bright and animated. At ground level, though, it’s a different story.
These days, America’s once-favorite sport is just a human video game with expensive snacks between innings. So this week as baseball season began in America, I didn’t regal my Russian friends and colleagues with stories of the games virtues, because frankly, I’m not sure it’s got any left.
Thursday morning, it struck me. My time in Russia is rapidly closing. I got an email asking me to start thinking about book orders for my fall courses. I made plans for an out-of-town trip, understanding that my window to travel around Russia is rapidly closing. I had lunch in a favorite spot and wondered how many more times I’ll get the opportunity to go there, to greet the hostess in strained Russian, and then to order and start working on a story while the grill is fired up and my food begins its path to awesomeness.
My students from the fall held a public reading of the work they produced. Since our course is the only institutionalized, university-level creative writing instruction that anyone seems to know of in Russia, it was kind of like the national MFA thesis presentation. That got emotional, too: hearing the work these students produced and knowing the path their work took from that first draft into some pretty spectacular fiction was a wonderful moment. I couldn’t be more proud of what they accomplished, or more excited for what they will do in the future—not to mention the community of writers that has started to build within just a few short months.
There’s a little sentimentality in all this, and an equal amount of panic. There’s so much I still want to do, to see, to write, to eat, to teach, and to learn. And I’ll have to weave all that in with rapidly approaching goodbyes to the kind and wonderful people I’ve met. I’m trying to take this realization more as a call to action than a prelude to sad departures, but it’s hard to do one without the other lingering nearby.
To compound the sentimentality, my parents are in the process of selling their home, meaning that between now and my arrival in the states, the last pieces of my adolescence will be unceremoniously packed into boxes and stacked in a storage facility somewhere on the east side of Cincinnati. This is one of the great problems and complexities of humanity, of course: the ever-present feeling of being stuck dead in the center of what’s passed already and what comes next. I’ll inhabit that complexity with fullness over the next nine weeks, and I look forward to whatever it might produce.
Regular readers of this blog will know that Russian ground transport has been the bane of my existence, while air transport has been an utter delight.
This week, I actually had a fun bus experience. To most Americans (and probably most Russians) that will sound like quite the oxymoron. One such encounter amused me in brand new ways. On city buses, there’s generally a konduktor, someone who walks around the salon—the main bus compartment—and takes money or swipes transit cards, handing over little paper tickets in return. As I’ve mentioned before, individual bus owners and companies of various sizes contract with the city to cover certain routes. Every company has a different type of ticket and a slightly different procedure. Thursday afternoon, I jumped onto one of the most rickety buses I’ve seen in Novosibirsk. Windows were cracked, the sign displaying the route was half-fastened, flapping in the breeze. One of the wheels moved in an odd pattern, as if it had been struck from the side by another vehicle. But onboard, the konduktor was riding in style. The only reserved spot on the bus belongs to the conductor, who usually reserves it with something akin to a blanket or a small stadium seat. This lady had a leather massage chair strapped to her seat in the front of the bus. And in between stops, she was definitely using the massage function, tapping at the remote control while she talked on the phone. This might seem like a pretty small thing, but look at it this way: this is a thankless job, in which one spends their (usually her) day writhing between tight-packed passengers, collecting money from irritated travelers who wish they were moving much faster. The exchanges are frequently wordless, particularly when it comes to the word thanks. And yet this lady was making the work her own, making the most of it, getting whatever comfort she could out of something that seems like it could universally called an unpleasant job.
And then, I looked up at the wall of the bus, where a flat screen monitor showed that most wonderful of visages: the Russian Public Transportation Public Service Announcement Roll. This isn’t an official title of any sort, but it feels like it should be capitalized. This is basically a stream of silent PSAs that play constantly during one’s trip. In one classic, a bully seems primed to win the heart of a young woman when he shoves the PSA hero out of line in the school canteen. But the hero has a plan. The next day, when the bully pulls his Vespa up to the front door of the school to pick her up, the hero shows up on a high-stepping horse. They ride off together. The lesson ostensibly has something to do with brains over bullying, though I like to see it as more of an anti-scooter ad. I love scooters, but I feel like that would be a more interesting service announcement to make: buy your spoiled kid a scooter, and his date will definitely be stolen by a high-stepping horse. Now, where the kid kept the horse all day during school, or how the boy got out of class early enough to fetch it are beyond me, but sometimes, you just have to look beyond the plot holes and appreciate the art.
In another classic, an attractive woman is talking to a clearly of-age set of men, who seem artistic and are engaged in some park bench guitaring. She’s feeling it, until one of them pulls out a beer and takes a sip. The girl then sees a preppy guy approaching. Thank goodness she’s saved from the beer drinkers! The two rollerblade off into the park, and the guitar players are left to cry into their very small beer bottle.
One film is just dramatically cropped footage of exploded propane tanks, which cascade by with the intensity of a mid 1990s driver’s ed crash compilation video.
In one, a little girl offers a young man fruit. Instead, he spends the day eating random ethnic foods. At the end of the day, he’s doubled-over in stomach pain when the girl returns with a tangerine, which apparently makes everything alright. It’s obviously about healthy eating, but methinks I doth detect a cultural subtext at work.
Finally, there’s a slow-motion soccer game in which a young woman’s attention is stolen (any themes developing here?) from a pair of guys who have just tried their first cigarette. They can’t compete with the flowing mane and goal scoring skills of a dude who looks to be at least 10 years older than the other actors. No rollerblades this time, but the same general effect. These videos are solid gold: they’re the lone thing that keeps me going as the bus fills up, the conductor shoves her way through the mass of bodies, and my face gets shoved up against the window for the dozenth time. Because eventually, that little girl is going to come back with that healthy little tangerine, and much like the actor’s burrito-induced stomach ache, all will be made well.
The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.
This week's Dispatch outlines the birth of an observation-based short story and the ways in which real-life encounters can affect art.