Zak Nelson, writer

Farewell, Wayward Sister!

In MFA creative writing, personal news on April 21, 2014 at 10:56 am

Cover illustration, textbook


I handed in my MFA thesis yesterday. In one week I’ll meet with my committee to defend it.

I’m not going to paint you a picture of a bloodsport, nor of nail-biting suspense. The defense will pretty much go like this: for one hour, I will be workshopped by three tough readers. Since my thesis is a novel, and since the novel is not finished (it currently sits at around 200 pages), most of their questions will revolve around how I see it ending. Which is a bit like asking someone new to chess to describe their endgame strategy. I can’t see that many moves ahead.

But I do have a good idea for the bulk of the second and even much of the third acts. And I know my characters pretty well at this point, so I know how what kinds of choices they might make and how others might respond.

Also, I’ve been immersed in this forest, and all the trees are starting to look mighty fuzzy. My committee—which consists of advisor Wilton Barnhardt and Jill McCorkle and John Kessel—will likely (hopefully) have input and advice that they will kindly share. And they’ll do their due diligence by wagging their fingers at me for some of my more grievous errors, which hopefully are few. The novel is about a homeless man in Orange County, California, who believes he is a cowboy, and the troubled young man and woman who fall into his orbit.

Veni, Vidi, Docui

In inspiration, personal news, teaching on August 25, 2013 at 6:44 am

So teaching went pretty well, I’d say.

I was predictably nervous before class on Thursday, made more so by the fact that I had a late afternoon class, and all day long in Tompkins Hall I was racing to prepare my notes as my fellow grad students descended the stairs to their first classes, sharply dress and visibly tense and jittery.

Earlier that morning I had been feeling relatively sanguine about it all as I wrote the previous blog post and prepared to head in, confident of my ability and my preparation. Angie meanwhile hasn’t begun her new job yet, and so busily flitted about the kitchen preparing a lunch for me, healthy snacks, a water bottle, a travel mug of coffee, and generally making sure little Zaky was all set for his big debut. On the way out to the car she had me pause so she could take a photo of me in my new gray herringbone twill sportcoat, the one I had bought specifically to mark the occasion of becoming a teacher, complete with—forgive me for the cliché—elbow patches. The added attention only ramped up my nerves, but I was certainly grateful as well.

I had English 624, a teaching practicum, several hours before teaching, during which we went over last minute qualms and concerns. Every one of my peers was looking great, dressed professionally in a way grad students seldom are, and I felt like I was back in my last corporate job, at the Convention and Visitor Bureau, where everyone dressed well as a matter of course. Afterwards, up in my cubicle, I got an email telling me that the computer console in my assigned classroom was broken, as well as the overhead projector, and that I should make alternate arrangements. My lesson plan had involved some pretty intensive use of that machinery, so I nearly panicked. Then the internet went out.

It was the second official day of classes, so

Back to School

In inspiration, musing, teaching on August 22, 2013 at 7:31 am

Calvin and Hobbes

Well hullo there stranger. Been a long time. been a busy year. (nostalgic/wistful … the closest I’ll come in today’s column to acknowledging the painful event that has shaped said year)

So, an update to you, dear reader, on my ever-sporadic blog. (upbeat … a promise that I am going to share something that happened, in a buoyant tone)

Today I begin teaching for the first time on my own. (brief sentence for impact, momentous)

True, I’ve taught kids at after-school programs in the past. But today I will walk into a class full of first-year college students, minds still bruised and purple from high school, with the intent of teaching them how to write well. Or at least, better. (context to frame the relative import … or hilarity … of the undertaking)

I’ve taken an truly breathtaking, earth-shattering course on composition research and theory (soft-baked irony … but not without a slight tinge of pride), shadowed an assigned mentor around her English 101 class and graded half her students’ papers (boring recitation of fact that hopefully hints at mixed feelings about the experience). I’ve spent my summer planning my course — the


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