Guts, Generosity, and Gratitude: AWP17 Highlights

I support and defend something in there.

I support and defend something in there.

Randy Brown AKA “Charlie Sherpa” invited me to go with him to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference (AWP17) in Washington, D.C. I was on a panel that he moderated called, Citizen-Soldier-Poet: Using Poetry to Bridge the Civil-Military Gap. I felt out of my league, but seized the opportunity to run my mouth in public. (I dearly love the sound of my own voice.) But, I got more from this weekend than I could ever repay. Like any good veteran, raised on PowerPoint, I’m only allowed to learn three things from this experience.


The crowd of military writers moved from the basement of The Laughing Man Tavern and headed upstairs for some food. Peter Molin (Time Now blog) set up this party on the Friday night of the weekend and what a fun group of people it was. I sat at my table and chatted with Benjamin Busch (Dust to Dust). Earlier in the day, he and some other writers talked about turning writing into other artistic forms. Jenny Pacanowski read her poem “Combat Dick”, J. A. Moad II performed a scene from his play “Outside Paducah”, and Brian Turner (Here, Bullet) asked us all to hum. They pulled me way, way outside my own head.

“I’m so impressed with your courage. You guys are putting it all out there,” I said to Benjamin.

“What’s the point of keeping it inside?” He kind of smirked and shrugged.

It’s still echoing in my head. I’m filing it under “motivation.”


At that same party, Tessa Poppe (“The Grass”) and I stood there talking about the mind-blowing people in the room. The amoeba of a crowd spat out a National Book Award winner. Suddenly, Tessa and I were talking to Phil Klay (Redeployment, National Book Award). He was normal. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe some level of standoffishness? None of that. He asked what we were writing and we said we were on a military poetry panel together the day prior. I said I was halfway through a draft of a memoir, which is the same as saying nothing.

Recovering, I complimented him on an op-ed he wrote for the NY Times that very morning. I already shared it on Facebook. I had no idea I’d be shooting the shit with the author himself over a pint a few hours later. I said his article about morality in war reminded me of a choice I faced in Afghanistan and wrote about. He pulled out his phone and asked me the title of it. He typed it into his phone so he could look it up later.

This is the kind of thing that powers a slob like me for a year.

Now multiply that by 100. That’s how many times someone of national prominence asked me what I was writing. They were supportive, gracious, and friendly. Every. Single. Person. They all offered encouragement to me, a stranger without any real credentials.

I’m trying to put on a writing workshop about military themes in Duluth in May/June 2018 with the help of Lake Superior Writers, my local writing group. Matthew Hefti (A Hard and Heavy Thing) said he’d help if he could. Jerri Bell (Veterans Writing Project) said she’d send me notes about putting on a workshop with both civilian and military writers. J. A. Moad II, from down the road in the Twin Cities, gave me some great ideas. David Chrisinger said he had a template for a three-day workshop I could look at. And so on, and so on, and so on, like the old shampoo commercial.

I ate dinner that big Friday night with Mary Doyle, David Chrisinger, and Matthew Hefti. Later, at the very end of the last panel on the last day, Mary gave me her book The Peacekeeper’s Photograph. Just gave it to me. A gift. Her act symbolized the whole weekend for me.

My nickname is Shmo. I’m regularly called Angry Shmo, by friends who know me well. But, AWP17 caused some kind of positive shift in my chest. It felt like when you’re near a big slab of snow that settles all at once. Whoomp.


I’m still amazed by the Internet. I’ve connected with people like Charlie Sherpa (FOB Haiku). I feel like I’ve known him for years. But I met Sherpa for the first time “in real life” on the Wednesday before his poetry panel. We explained our nicknames to each other. We talked over a military poetry manuscript I have (working title: Hugging This Rock). He’s helped me get stuff published elsewhere via information on his blog. He’s just down the road in Iowa. And in an amazing coincidence, his wife’s sister is part of a couple in Duluth that I’ve known for over a decade. Parallel universes. The day after our first meeting, I sat at his right hand (symbolic?) as a panelist in Washington, D.C. So, that’s cool.

Another example. I met Matthew Komatsu for the first time at AWP17. I first read his work when he wrote about the attack on Bastion in Afghanistan. I was just down the street at Kandahar AB when that happened at Bastion in Sep 2012, so I read it with great interest. Come to find out he’s a runner. Followed his blog about running stuff. Then I learned he’s originally from Duluth, the town where I ended up after 9/11 and plan to remain. Then, recently while trying to build my writing workshop, I wrote him some emails asking about the workshop he put on. He generously (of course) sent me a bunch of notes, information, and advice. Then, I went to the panel at AWP17 when he read his piece titled “Calling Jody with the Ghost Brigade.” Words about war and loss mixed with marathons. He described landmarks in Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, which I’ve run. I found myself nodding in recognition while he spoke, and not just about Minnesota locations.

Sherpa and Komatsu are just two examples of how small coincidences met the Internet and became real. This happened to me dozens of times at AWP17.

The world seems big sometimes. But the Internet makes it feel much, much smaller. It connects me to like-minded people, doing similar things, sprinkled all over the map. There was a tribe out there. I knew it. I could sense it, intellectually. But now, I feel it in my gut.

Thank you all.

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The Wave One Project (#4): On The Edge


I wrote in an earlier episode of Wave One Project about how things would look at the end of 2016 if I stuck with the plan built by Jason Kask at Superior Performance. My goal involves having a good Birkie in February. My training started in June. So, reviewing a calendar year doesn’t exactly say the whole story of skiing prep. But it’s fun, so let’s dig in. In summary, I didn’t do as much as I planned but I still had a lot of “firsts” and “mosts.” I’ll use my list of fitness goals as a framework.

“1) Get skinny. 174 = BMI normal.”

I talked earlier about the myFitnessPal app I use to count calories. Fantastic. But the part when I said I could keep drinking beer was BS. I stopped drinking beer around two months ago and finally made some progress in weight loss. Beer calories weren’t the problem. When I have a beer, one drop of alcohol, my brain stem tells me that I deserve anything I want. Then I might as well sit a chair in front of the pantry so I can shovel the snacks into my face. I’m down to 185 pounds since I’m off the sauce. 185 is the line I draw between Fat Shmo and Skinny Shmo when I analyze my Birkies. Teetering on the edge. Five weeks to go and we’ll see if I can get solidly on the Skinny Shmo side. Skinny Shmo skied the fastest two Birkies, so I’m hoping the trend continues. Down from 193 in the summer of 2016. The last time I weighed 185 was in October of 2015.

“2) Ski a lot. Equal or exceed Ski and Total Volume from this year.”

I put in a total volume of training of 313 hours in 2016. This was ten hours more than the most I’ve ever done in my life. Victory.

Also, I skied 55 times for a total of 68 hours of skiing. This was more than 2015. Victory. Distance wise it was 773k. I read somewhere once that 800k was a “good year” so I’m in the neighborhood.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t the most ever. In 2013, I did a “streaking” experiment and skied 79 times for 78 hours. More times in 2013, but less volume per outing that year.

This was a banner year for rollerskiing. I essentially doubled last year’s numbers by rollerskiing 43 times for 53 hours. This was even better than my best year ever in 2000 when I rollerskied 27 times for 36 hours.

“3) Go fast. Do more ski races of any length. Add more ski intervals than this year.”

I haven’t raced yet this year, but I plan on a few test races before the big one.

The ski intervals are good news, though. I did rollerski intervals 6 times for 9 hours for the most ever. Victory. I did more ski intervals in 2003, but the rest of the story will be told in the first part of 2017 on that topic.

“4) Do strength and core work. Should be easy to exceed this year’s amount.”

This is the most dramatic improvement. Jason’s strength training has really made a difference. When he showed me the plan and it had me doing 3-minute-long wall chairs, I thought it was a typo. But I can do them now. I can do three minute planks…four times. So, we’ll see if it will help but I know these strength exercises would’ve been impossible for me 7 months ago. I put in over 22 hours of strength training compared to the nearly zero hours that was my previous record. I also did 14,000 sit-ups as part of this strength training, which beat my record of 12,500 in 2003.

Things are going well! That post-race beer is going to taste pretty good.

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Shmo’s 2016 Writing Review

Dramatic life of the pilot/writer.

Dramatic life of the pilot/writer.

“You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” — Ray Bradbury

I stumbled across this quote this year. It was helpful. Rejection is part of the writing life and I might as well get used to it. I had a book of poetry get rejected. I reworked a book manuscript, doubled the length, and resubmitted it, all at a publisher’s request. They rejected it. But they want to hang on to it for next year. So they can reject it, I imagine.

Some of these experiences, combined with this year’s politics, helped me invent a new mantra:

“Transmit only.” — Eric Chandler

I’m compelled to write. Maybe someday I’ll actually figure out what those reasons are. But this year, the dumpster fire of 2016 made me choose how to spend my writing time. I started out trying to directly engage with the avalanche of confirmation bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect. I entered a rage spiral. So I stopped directly engaging.

Instead, I tried to put my thoughts into the world without dialogue. I stopped engaging with the world. I withdrew. And somehow, this gave me more motivation to write. Like my writing. Don’t like it. I don’t care. Accept rejection. Reject acceptance. I care less about what other people think, either way.

It’s weird, but feeling like the lone dude with a ham radio transmitting from a bunker after the zombie apocalypse is somehow motivational to me. Transmit only. I don’t expect a response.

How did my writing goals for this year go? Here they were:

  • Submit an updated version of my e-book Outside Duluth to a publisher.
  • Finish first draft of memoir and complete editing.
  • Establish weekly and monthly goals that support 1 and 2.

I submitted my reworked book to a publisher. They rejected it, but at least I met one third of my goals.

2017 writing goals:

  1. Finish first draft of memoir and complete editing.
  2. Establish weekly and monthly goals to support #1.
  3. Begin work on a writing workshop for veterans to take place in Duluth in late spring 2018.
  4. Submit Outside Duluth and poetry manuscripts to other publishers.

Some other great things happened this year that weren’t necessarily goals. I was accepted into the Military Writers Guild as an Associate Member. The people there have helped me write better and find new outlets for my work. I also got into the Outdoor Writers Association of America and their national conference is in Duluth this year.

My short story “The Heart Under the Lake” was accepted into the Lake Superior Writers anthology called Going Coastal for publication in 2017. That was cool to get into the first ever anthology being put out by my local writers group.

I won the 2016 Col Darron L. Wright Award for Poetry at the online journal Line of Advance. It was for the poem titled “The Stars and Stripes is Free.”

I wrote a beer review column for 10 months, thanks to Shawn Perich at Northern Wilds. It was a great opportunity. I learned a lot about beer. And I get to write off beer on my taxes, which was one of my life goals. Most importantly, I learned a lot about how to interview people. I talked to a lot of local brewers and it really helped me come up with a process for conducting an interview.

I was also invited to participate in a panel in February 2017 at the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Conference in Washington, DC. Randy Brown (aka “Charlie Sherpa) is spearheading a panel titled “Citizen-Soldier-Poet: Using Poetry to Bridge the Civil-Military Gap.” I’m excited to read some of my military themed poetry and to meet other writers. Still somewhat flabbergasted about this poetry thing, but I’m going with it.

I read around 15 books this year. You can find my reading list in the above Shmotown menus or via my page at Goodreads. I probably enjoyed the Carver and McGuane I read the most, but I also enjoyed the novel Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.

The rest of this post is an attempt to quantify the precise level of my mediocrity. Of note, I didn’t have a word count as a specific goal for the year for the first time in a while.

Most popular Shmotown posts of 2016:

  1. Dear Cross Country Skier,
  2. E Pluribus Unum: A Review of “Tribe” by Sebastian Junger
  3. Crater in Mosul
  4. Thank You Card
  5. Never Volunteer

28 Pieces Published:

4 poems

  • 2 in print journals
  • 2 in online journals
  • Topics: 1 military, 1 flying, 2 crabby
  • 2016 Col Darron L. Wright Award for Poetry at Line of Advance for military poem

22 non-fiction

  • 10 of 22 about beer
  • 9 of 22 outdoors topics
    • 8 of 9 in print
    • 1 of 9 online
  • 3 of 22 creative nonfiction
    • 2 of 3 in online journals

2 fiction

  • 1 print journal
  • 1 chosen for 2017 anthology Going Coastal by ten Lake Superior Writers

9 Publishers in 2016:

5 print

  • 2 magazines
  • 1 newspaper
  • 2 literary journals

4 online

  • 2 literary journals
  • 2 websites

Northern Wilds

Duluth News Tribune

Sleet Magazine

The Talking Stick (Vol. 25)

Perfect Duluth Day

Line of Advance

Aqueous Magazine

Silent Sports

The War Horse

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