Goodbye, Garrison

img_2017-10_Essay_Writers_01_GFrom Minnesota Monthly:

I wasn’t the biggest Prince fan (just the hits, mainly) but I still felt weepy the whole week after he died. Every day the newspaper came, and for some reason I couldn’t get myself to read it. So the papers piled, up and there they sit, still today. In a similar way, the changing of the guard at A Prairie Home Companion threw me off kilter. While I love the new host, Chris Thile, and his manic mandolin energy, I still feel a little lost when I turn on the radio and Keillor isn’t there as he has been most of my life.

Some days, I even miss the Metrodome.

Nostalgia is a powerful force, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. For some time now, but especially in the last year or two, the nature of what it means to be a Minnesotan has changed without most of us noticing.

Read the rest here.

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Shooting A Year of Sunrises

Recent story from the Star Tribune:

DEFe-8sVYAAA0biLast fall I was staying in Red Wing when I got up early to go for a run on the iconic Barn Bluff towering over the river city. The hill wasn’t far from our hotel and seemed like a good place to watch the sun come up.

When I got to the top, the light was still dim, but I was surprised to find a woman there, silhouetted against the morning sky at the eastern overlook. She had a tripod and a camera pointed at the horizon.

Her name was Ellen Lentsch, a 44-year-old aspiring photographer, and it was her 274th consecutive sunrise on the bluff. She had 93 more before she would accomplish her goal: To photograph the sunrise from that same point every day for a year. Her idea was to put them together to be able to see the sun moving across the sky and back again. She also wanted to capture the moment in all its colors and moods and to cast a familiar sight in a new light.

“The world around us,” she says, “we take it for granted. But if we pause a moment and look around, there’s so much beauty right in our own backyard. I want people to see that. I want people to realize this is not an ugly world.”

Read the rest here.

Brand You: Questioning Self-Promotion

jf16_coverFrom last year in Poets & Writers, now online:

It should be said that writers have always been keen self-promoters, as Tony Perrottet pointed out in a New York Times article: In 440 BCE, Herodotus shilled his Histories to wealthy patrons at the Olympics. In 1887, Guy de Maupassant flew a hot-air balloon featuring the name of his latest short story. Walt Whitman wrote anonymous reviews of his work, declaring, “An American bard at last!”

But at the end of the twentieth century something changed, something deep. In an influential article titled “The Brand Called You,” published by Fast Company in 1997, Tom Peters admonished not just corporations, not just celebrities, but everyone to think of themselves as a brand, to promote themselves as a brand, and to see life and work as an endless branding opportunity.

This has come to pass. Today, it’s accepted that anyone with a pulse and a keyboard can and should promote anything that comes to mind. As a result, most of us are drowning in a promotional tsunami. It can feel like a crushing weight, like social media has become a giant pyramid scheme in which we are all selling some idea of ourselves, even as we struggle to believe our own marketing.

Read the rest here.

New Nonfiction Class

imagesThis winter, I’ll be teaching a small online class through The Loft Literary Center. In the past I’ve taught classes on narrative nonfiction, freelancing, profile writing, travel writing and other subjects. This course is designed both for people starting out and for those who want to shift career directions. We will focus on any genre students want to work on and cover practical skills of reporting, structuring your stories and selling your work. The ultimate goal of of the class is to finish with at least two polished, professional clips to use and sell. Please contact me if you want more info: Nonfiction Intensive: Building Your Portfolio

 

The Lobster Coffin of Ghana

MIA LobsterRecently I was asked to write a short piece about something in the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Africa collection. Most of the pieces are old, carved wood artifacts that border on archeological. Then there is the lobster coffin:

The first dead person I ever saw in daylight was a young boy lying next to a road in Tanzania. It was early morning and we were driving south on the country’s main highway when I saw the crows fly up out of a ditch. I craned my neck to see what they’d been eating. He was lying face down, arm stretched over his head, shirt pulled up under his armpits. The driver saw it and hit the brakes.

“Was it a dog?” someone asked.

“It was a person!” the driver said. He turned to me. “Did you see it?”

I nodded.

Stopped in the middle of the road, we decided to tell the next policeman we saw and drove on. But by the time we saw a policeman we were hundreds of miles away from the boy and there was no point. We passed him by and never spoke of it again.

Read the rest here.

The End of the World as We Know It

imagesConsensus is growing that we have entered a new geological era called the Anthropocene. As it does, so does anxiety about our fate as a species. This was the subject of a recent piece I did for Aeon on our love of apocalyptic fiction, film and stories. We fear the end might be near, but we also fear we are part of something from which we have no way to extricate ourselves. If you feel this too, read on.

One day in the early 1980s, I was flipping through the TV channels, when I stopped at a news report. The announcer was grey-haired. His tone was urgent. His pronouncement was dire: between the war in the Middle East, famine in Africa, AIDS in the cities, and communists in Afghanistan, it was clear that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were upon us. The end had come.

We were Methodists and I’d never heard this sort of prediction. But to my grade-school mind, the evidence seemed ironclad, the case closed. I looked out the window and could hear the drumming Hugh-Howey-WOOL-COVERof hoof beats.

Life went on, however, and those particular horsemen went out to pasture. In time, others broke loose, only to slow their stride as well. Sometimes, the end seemed near. Others it would recede. But over the years, I began to see it wasn’t the end that was close. It was our dread of it. The apocalypse wasn’t coming: it was always with us. It arrived in a stampede of our fears, be they nuclear or biological, religious or technological.

Read the rest here.

A Few of my Favorite Books, 2015

KitchensAs usual, reports of the death of printed books have been greatly exaggerated. There were lots of incredible works published this year (on paper and otherwise), too many for anyone to read, let alone know about. I spent a good chunk of the year reading post-apocalyptic fiction, for reasons that will be clear in the near future. A few standouts from that bunch (not all published this year) are Ben Percy’s The Dead Lands, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Hugh Howey’s Wool, and Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, which sort of took my breath away. Back in the the present day, the best novel I read Two Hoursthis year was one that I never would have picked up, but for some trusted recommendations: J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest. It was brilliant and generous and moving in all the best ways. In the factual world, I loved Ed Caesar’s Two Hours, about Kenyan runners, the likes of which I have been wanting to see for a long time. In it he delves into not just the technical side of East Africa’s running boom, but also the rich, complicated, compelling stories behind the runners themselves.