In celebration of getting the OK seal of approval from my MFA mentor, I thought I’d post the preface of my thesis collection of essays here!
I’m almost at a loss for where I’d like to begin, with respect to this collection and it’s (in all likelihood, woefully inadequate) preface. Almost. My thesis represents not just a two-year journey through a terrific graduate program with the intent to earn a degree at its conclusion, but a culmination of life events and a journey that spans from the highest heights of literal mountain tops to the lowest lows of human depression and anxiety. This collection of essays represents, I think, a fresh look at a critical five-year slice of my life that has unquestionably shaped me, not only as a writer, but also, and perhaps more importantly, as a human being—all of this being possible, of course, with a healthy dose of new insight and some refined storytelling capabilities I’ve evolved throughout my two year MFA experience.
Throughout the creation of this collection, I’ve kept in mind two particular goals for every single piece included: I wanted to make sure the essays are both a) engaging and b) entertaining. Maintaining fidelity to these goals was not always easy since they are, at their core, pieces of creative nonfiction filtered through the lens of my individual experience—my senses of sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. These essays are reproduced how I personally saw and experienced them. The line between fiction and nonfiction, because of this human experience factor, is certainly a blurry one (as I discuss in my critical examination of Hunter S. Thompson toward the end of this collection). However, I think understanding the suppleness of the English language and how to make it work in telling a story is as important as the story itself.
I’ve personally changed a lot as a writer. Some of the changes I’ve undergone have been long in the making and others, somewhat more rapidly. As an undergraduate, I studied journalism and found myself powerfully drawn to the writing of the New Journalists of the 1960s, whose style was among the first to bring a great deal of attention to the blurry line between fiction and nonfiction. I loved that they eschewed traditional journalistic writing in favor of engaging with the reader on a level that seemingly only the best fiction can. Even as a journalism student in my early 20s, I knew that I needed full creative expression in my writing. When I went to grad school at Iowa State in 2005, I spent a year in a journalism department before I knew that there was little hope of writing the way I really wanted to, prompting a transfer to the English department where I spent another two years studying literature. However, after all of the coursework was complete, I found myself simply unable to write a traditional research-based thesis written in the stale academic prose such a thesis demands. My brain simply operated on a different frequency than the language of academia. I ended up making a decision that felt impossible at the time, but one I knew was right for me.
After three years at Iowa State, I left the university without a degree to embark on an MFA program through the University of Nebraska that began in the fall of 2009. Since then, I haven’t looked back. Part of me winces when I think about the extra student loans I’ve got now, but that feeling is transitory when I consider how much I’ve grown and evolved as a writer—as a writer writing what I really want to write, and, more importantly, how I’ve always wanted to write: freely. At Nebraska, my ideas were embraced and encouraged. Not only that, mentors and other students actively engaged with my work and offered ideas and criticism with enthusiasm, a completely alien experience for me up until that point. After spinning my wheels in academia for three years, I’d finally found a place where I could open up the throttle and go all out, no one was trying to hold me back. I honestly felt liberated.
So basically, I dove in headfirst. I started writing pieces that were raw in intensity and manic in their energy—very unpolished stuff. The more I read, the more I realized you could do anything you wanted in writing, it was encouraged. This program offered me a chance to dive into some really complex stuff and revisit authors I’d gotten frustrated with before I knew what they were doing, most significantly, David Foster Wallace. I learned what metafiction was, and also postmodernism. I learned that you can use footnotes even when you aren’t writing an academic paper. I learned that you didn’t have to write sentences linearly because, really, people don’t really talk like that anyway. Digressions are OK as long as they have a point. Writing about writing is OK as long as it’s interesting. I learned that good satire didn’t die with Voltaire and Jonathan Swift.
Because of such a heavy journalistic background, I’d missed out on some of the all-time greatest writers of English, both alive and dead. During my MFA program I discovered Thomas Pynchon and John Barth. I got acquainted with Roberto Bolano and Junot Diaz. I started buying everything I could find by Denis Johnson, Rick Moody, Paul Auster, George Saunders, Haruki Murakami, Don Delillo and Philip Roth. Reading became an addiction for me again. I discovered young authors like Joshua Ferris, Karen Russel, Ben Percy and Jonathan Safran Foer, whose worldly perspective really resonated with me. I learned to tell the difference between John Barth and Donald Barthelme, as well as William Gaddis and William Gass. Jeffrey Eugenides, Dave Eggers, Charles Baxter, Zadie Smith and Ron Carlson became household names to me. I couldn’t believe how much truly great writing I had missed out on!
All of these authors have influenced me in some way or another—some, of course, more than others. However, rather than merely becoming a parrot or mime of these fantastic “new” authors, I tried to assimilate what they taught me about writing and the English language. I hope I succeeded on that level. The world needs more writing to make people feel more connected. David Foster Wallace said, “We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside… Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” I agree with this, although I’d like to think that it’s all good writing, not just fiction, that helps us feel less alone.
“An Afternoon With Ralph Steadman,” the first essay in this collection, is a piece I have been grappling with since 2007, the year the events of the essay took place. I’ve written and rewritten this piece so many times, I’ve simply lost count. The draft as it appears in this collection has seen innumerable rounds of edits and revisions, scarcely looking like the piece of reportage it began its life as. It’s ostensibly the tale of a disillusioned graduate student struggling to come up with a thesis topic who, by a stroke of pure luck and simple circumstance, gets to meet an artist he’s idolized for years. Suddenly he’s got a thesis topic, a once in a lifetime interview opportunity and some direction in his academic life. Then he proceeds to muck it all up, royally. The end result is an essay that is “pain-as-catharsis-as-entertainment,” heavily influenced by the manic, Gonzo style of the late Hunter S. Thompson, who influenced so much of the work I was producing coming into my MFA program. In late 2010, TheRumpus.net published a shorter version of this essay on their website.
The second essay of this collection, “2008: The Year That Was… And Was Not,” took a Herculean effort to complete. So many false starts. So many times I wanted to scream, “Abort mission! Abort! Abort!” This essay started as four disparate and disjointed essays, lacking anything resembling a transition or cohesive narrative arc. It was tremendously difficult to isolate a unifying theme, aside from the fact that all of the events depicted within happened during the same year—2008 was nothing else if not a rollercoaster fraught with tragedy, celebration and every emotion in between. There is a visceral rawness and honesty that I think permeates this essay. Putting extreme personal highs and lows under a microscope, dissecting them and then putting what you’ve discovered on display for the world to see creates a heightened sense of vulnerability and exposure from which there is no going back.
“Musings From the Mountains” picks up the previously heavy tone of the collection dramatically in what is basically a man-versus-nature essay. I’ve been an avid cyclist since 2005, though my riding has been relegated to the mostly flat, sometimes rolling terrain of the Great Plains. In 2009, my wife and I took a vacation to Colorado that was, for all intents and purposes, our belated honeymoon. I wasn’t sure which day it’d be, but I knew for certain that I was going to go biking in the mountains. In this essay, I rediscover some of the purity of cycling I’d somehow forgotten riding the same roads back home in Nebraska and Iowa. I tried to capture the thrill of seeing and being somewhere new and exhilarating by means that were still incredibly familiar to me (e.g. riding a bicycle).
The collection’s fourth essay, “My Pre-love Love Life in 9,000 Words (Give or Take),” shares one characteristic of “An Afternoon With Ralph Steadman,” which is catharsis-as-entertainment. However, where the tone of “An Afternoon With Ralph Steadman” is somewhat manic, “My Pre-love Love Life in 9,000 Words (Give or Take)” gives the reader the feel of watching a teen/college comedy movie. The premise is fairly simple: hopeless romantic guy tries to get the girl, any girl by various—usually impossibly embarrassing—means and learns something about himself by the end. However, what stops this essay (hopefully) from reaching the undesirable point of overly sentimental is that it’s true—the only things changed were the names. The embarrassment, the hilarity, the awkwardness, the heartbreak, the person I see in the mirror at the essay’s end—all of it is true.
“We Always Trust Each Other, Except For When We Don’t” is an essay I’m especially fond of. First published in the Fall 2010 issue of Grey Sparrow Journal, this essay has gone on to be nominated for two Best of 2010 awards: first, Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web 2011 anthology, and second, storySouth’s “Million Writers Award,” which honors the 100 best stories published online in 2010. The essay, which reads like a piece of short fiction, but is 100 percent true, is a metaphor for trust in relationships, all types of relationships. The action of the story takes place when my 7-year-old Vizsla, Brock, breaks a toenail that, consequently, needs to be clipped, only he is extremely hesitant to let anyone near his feet after having had a few mishaps (by way of me) with the toenail clippers as a puppy. An old fashioned standoff ensues.
“Ninjas! (…in the Suburbs?)” is another essay I truly enjoyed writing. This piece appears in the December 2010 issue of The Houston Literary Review. Like “We Always Trust Each Other, Except For When We Don’t” before it, “Ninjas! (…in the Suburbs?)” also reads like a piece of fiction (which was my goal with a good number of these essays, a technique I borrowed from the Literary Journalists of the 1960s). Very little actually happens in this essay; it’s basic premise is that I see my neighbor doing something strange in his backyard and I let my imagination run wild with all of the possible activities he might be engaging in. This essay is also the first in this collection to use footnotes as a technique to layer the narrative, a trick that pays homage stylistically to David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest) and Nicholson Baker (The Mezzanine).
“Boxcars and Bomb Pops” is an essay that almost did not get written, or perhaps more accurately, finished. The biggest reason for its close encounter with the recycling bin is that, for a while, I simply hated it. It was originally going to be a short story, fiction (which would have excluded it from appearing in this collection anyway), but the problem was I simply had no direction for it, which turned out to be an extremely fortunate turn of events. What ultimately ended up in this collection is a piece of metafiction-turned-nonfiction-essay. What I mean by that is the essay is aware of itself as being a failed attempt at a fictional short story, but accepts its role as a musing on the intrusiveness of always being connected to the world via computers, smartphones, social media, etc. This essay uses footnotes even more heavily than “Ninjas! (…in the Suburbs?),” a technique I keep honing as the collection moves on.
“Curiosity Doesn’t Discriminate” has a very similar tone to “We Always Trust Each Other, Except For When We Don’t,” which I placed at this point in the collection to give the reader a break from the footnote-heavy, meta-type complexity of “Boxcars and Bombpops.” It also departs from the use of footnotes since the tone and pacing of the story don’t demand that kind of stylistic device. This essay, again sounding like a short story, is ostensibly a musing on death and the ways in which different people deal with it in their own ways. As with “We Always Trust Each Other, Except For When We Don’t,” there is an almost languid drawl to the narrative voice that, while not appearing in my vocal speech, appears in my head when I’m in a contemplative mood.
“Winsome Mshindi” again retains a footnote-less, straightforward approach. This piece, if I absolutely had to pick an essay that bordered on the sentimental, would be it, but in a completely non-negative kind of way. Winsome Mshindi, a.k.a. Mish, was my wife and I’s nearly 13-year-old greyhound we’d rescued when he was 10. Someone had dropped him off at the Humane Society in the middle of a bitterly cold winter, severely underweight. When we saw him there was positively no way we couldn’t adopt him. This essay was my attempt to immortalize him so that he wouldn’t be forgotten. Unfortunately, in January of 2010, Mish suffered a broken leg that turned out to be caused by a carcinoma in his leg. The veterinarian said Mish was unlikely to recover from the injury at his age, so we had to make the impossibly difficult decision to put him to sleep. We keep his ashes next to a picture of him with his collar draped over the picture frame.
“Contemptibly, A Hair,” the last personal essay of the collection, is perhaps best described as a transitional piece—the logical evolutionary step of my writing. This piece probably best represents the blurry line between fiction and nonfiction better than any other piece I’ve written. Here, the footnotes return in full force, the sentences are hyper-stylized in a maximalist fashion and I’m really pushing myself to see what I can do from a technical and storytelling standpoint. I wanted to really bring back both of my goals I mentioned earlier in this preface: to be engaging and entertaining. Real names were changed, but, as with “Ninjas! (…in the Suburbs?),” I let my imagination run completely wild while actual events are unfolding. This piece was published in the March 2011 issue of PANK Magazine. It’s definitely one of my personal favorite examples of my work.
I suppose it is also worth noting that this piece inspired countless pages of notes and ideas for a novel set in the office headquarters of a Human Services agency, of which I’ve begun working on since completion of this collection. There are so many exciting possibilities that have opened up now that I have found my true writing voice, the one that comes most naturally but works the best at being engaging and entertaining. I mostly have my MFA mentors to thank for this; they always pushed me to keep going, to keep writing and see what comes out of it. There were a few times I might have simply settled for the quality of writing I was producing but my mentors helped me see that I could do so much more.
Finally, I’d like to talk about my critical essay, “Hunter S. Thompson and The Anxiety of Influence.” I think the inclusion of this essay at the end is a really great way to wrap up my thesis collection by bringing it full-circle, back to where we started. Though my goal in 2007 was to begin writing a critical, research-based thesis on Hunter S. Thompson, the only thing I was able to produce was what would today be an unrecognizable version of this collection’s first essay, “An Afternoon With Ralph Steadman.” I’d pulled some articles on Hunter S. Thompson together, three hole punched them and put them in a large three-ring binder, only to not look at them again until I began the critical paper for my MFA program the summer before my third semester. I’m not sure if it was the momentum I’d picked up with my creative work or what, but writing a critical essay no longer seemed so daunting and impossible.
In fact, I’d had an idea brewing since I’d read a small book by Harold Bloom called “The Anxiety of Influence” the previous year. Bloom basically says, “Influence—when it involves two strong, authentic poets/writers—always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet/writer, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation.” This got me thinking about Thompson’s own influences such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and the rest, as they say, is history. (I don’t want to give too much away, but in a nutshell, I provide one hypothesis as to why Thompson always wanted to write fiction like those he admired, but never quite lived up to his potential.)
So that is it, I suppose, in a nutshell. I have arrived at my destination, finally, after taking what I could politely call the “scenic route,” but in the end, I think all the struggle and detouring to get here was worth enduring. I became a better writer, I learned about a ton of great authors I otherwise may never have, but most importantly, I came away with a more concrete sense of who I am and who I want to be as both a writer and a human being. I’m not sure whether or not all of this sounds genuine or just overly cheesy, but it’s meant with all sincerity. The last two years of learning and growing have really taught me how to feel less alone.
–Joseph Michael Owens, 2011