Near the end of 2021, I went to an open mic at the Bluenose Gopher, a taproom in downtown Granite Falls. I’d been performing sketch comedy there for the last two months as my alter ego Jessica Feeler, a bizarro-world gender-neutral version of Garrison Keillor, but now I was going to switch gears and… something the crowd with literary fiction, namely an excerpt from my novel, which was at the time called Dryad.
It was a sharp pivot. Sketch comedy, well, you know it’s working if people laugh, even little polite laughs to let you know they’re listening. My novel was not, I thought, something that would generate much in the way of an audible response. It’s about a young woman who has made an inexplicable choice: instead of flying home from where she’s been living in Europe to finish her studies in the US, she’s failed to get on the plane. At its beginning, the part I intended to read, she finds herself standing in the woods outside her old apartment, watching the boyfriend she’s ostensibly left. He doesn’t know she’s there. A realization builds in her off the page — perhaps her relationship wasn’t the wonderful thing she thought it was.
I’d been querying agents for it, but the process was getting exhausting, so for the last few months, I’d taken a break, choosing instead to run said sketch comedy shows and build a tiny dollhouse village** in downtown and attend Arts Council meetings and tutor students. I wasn’t sure I’d go back to querying, honestly. The novel is not strictly autobiographical, but it is personal. The narrator is very me, is what I’m saying, so every no felt like a condemnation.
I started reading to around ten IPA-sipping people. I kept my eyes on the page; I have no problem looking at crowds when I’m performing something silly, but this time, I felt shy. Wrap it up, I began telling myself, no one wants to hear fiction in a BAR.
Then from the crowd — somewhere in the back, on a bench — I heard a loud “HA.”
It wasn’t mirthful laughter. It was a caw of recognition. One of the subtle signs that the boyfriend wasn’t as great a person as he claimed to be had hit home. I looked up, and my friend Andrea, someone who has suffered more of that in her life than I hopefully ever will, locked eyes with me. Her face, thank God, was saying: go on, say more.
That knowing laugh is much of the reason why my 2022 has gone the way it has. I’m glad Bluenose has open mics. I’m glad I chose to for once in my life be serious. And I’m so glad Andrea was there, because her reaction made me realize, hey, this story is not just about me. It’s a little more universal than that, weird as it is in its particulars.
I started querying again, and in mid-February, I found an agent — CeCe Lyra — who wanted (among other things) stories about women making strange decisions. I sent my letter to her on a Saturday. By Monday, she’d responded. A week and a half later, we were on the phone and she was telling me that this was something she could sell, and the conversation was so damn fun, so like talking to all of the smart friends I have, that I had zero compunction about saying yes.
We’ve since been through three rounds of revisions, and now, at the end of 2022, I’m so much closer to this particular large dream of mine than I was at the end of 2021. I’m writing this in the same office where I wrote the novel; the same snow is falling outside, the same dog is on the bed, the same husband is downstairs. But sometimes shifts, I’m learning, don’t have to be geographical.
I wanted to write this year-end blog post (okay, year-beginning blog post — it’s just three days late, though!) because 2022 has been thus far my most successful year, professionally, and I’d like to be able to look back later and remind myself that sometimes success feels difficult, and that sometimes it feels as easy as working with my agent is, or as easy as being in our sketch comedy writers’ room is. Sometimes it’s a warm place, and sometimes it’s a last cold stretch before a finish line. Sometimes it’s rewarded with laughter, and sometimes there’s silence, then a sudden unexpected reward.
- In January, our Arts Council decided to take over Granite Falls’s artist-in-residence program. Public consensus was that people wanted another artist to come to town (Dani Prados did good work, I’d say), and soon. Unfortunately, that required money and program infrastructure and… a lot of other things, like me, the volunteer Communications Director, and Autumn Cavender, in charge of helping the artist around town, and Dani, who became Program Director and worked her ass off for months for very cheap. Dani hustled for money. I wrote a weekly column to tell the community what we were up to. Autumn and I interviewed artists. In August, multimedia artist Leah Cook came to town and absolutely killed it for three months. Now, thanks to a very large grant from the Blandin Foundation, a third artist will soon come to town — and they can hire an actual Communications Director instead of a stressed-out professor. (I’m keeping the column, though.)
- I’d reached out to Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall in the fall of 2021 inquiring if they wanted adjunct professors — I figured probably not, since English positions fill up quickly, but thought I’d give it a shot. It turns out that my timing was right. In January, I started teaching two sections of Academic Writing, and this fall, I became a fixed-term Assistant Professor with four classes and some supervisory duties. My job technically only lasts a year, but I just applied to one that means I’ll be around for longer, so we’ll see. I hope it works out: the students there are even more delightful than I thought they’d be, and teaching is the perfect scratch for my itchy brain.
- My buddy Michelle and I spent our early twenties in bars shouting “Filmable sketch!” and writing things down on napkins, but were pretty sure we’d never get it together to actually film a sketch comedy show. Fortunately, I married a man who is fucking awesome at filming, editing, writing, acting, and all the stuff in between. In March, we got a state arts grant and filmed Volume I of A Granite Falls Home Companion… Companion; late in 2022, thanks to another grant, we wrapped Volume II. Sketch comedy is a good antidote to the solitude of novel-writing — you get to hear people say lines you’ve written immediately instead of maybe never. Plus, you know, the occasional laugh.
- In addition to the filmed versions, we also did three live shows — one at Bluenose in May, one at the Little Theater in New London in July, and one at Prairie Fyre, the festival we throw on our farm every year. It’s hard to tell which one was my favorite. The May show featured an eleven-year-old wig salesman and my friend Paul dressed as a talking Culligan water bottle. The Little Theater show had, to our shock, an actual audience of people we did not know, and they laughed polite laughs, not seeming too offended by my ribbing of a longtime public radio host. The Prairie Fyre show was able to feature slightly raunchier sketches (looking at you, bondage Gulliver’s Travels skit), and its crowd was more or less people who DID know us, so it was raucous. Perhaps they — and Madi RT, my cohost / onstage Foley artist — are all my favorite.
- Speaking of which: PRAIRIE FYRE. I did not do very much for it this year except for picking up the occasional stick and supporting Miles and writing said sketch show, but the microfestival we throw on the farm had — thanks to all the people who did do things — a successful-as-heck third year that got a full-page spread in the back of the Advocate Tribune and was featured on MPR’s Art Hounds. The Art Hounds program came on my car radio as I was driving home from the college, and I was like, that’s it, we’ve made it, we can rest now. (We probably won’t, though: currently we’re gearing up for Year 4, 6/9+10 2023).
If you’ve read all of this, you are probably my mother (thanks for showing up to all the things, Mom) or desperately bored b/c it’s snowing (again). Either way, thank you for allowing me this recitation — I didn’t mean it to sound so resume-like, but did want to collect it all in one place.
I have a bunch of 2023 resolutions. I guess the big one, though, is to keep doing what feels really, really good — even if it’s hard — and see where it leads me. With any luck, this year will be even weirder than the last, but entirely in good ways.
Happy New Year, folks — from Wood Lake, my new hometown, out here on the edge of the corn. Because of the snow, we can’t exactly see the wider world, but that’s okay for right now — it’s great weather for napping.*
**Jessica Feeler voice*
**Oh, yeah, the dollhouse village! I didn’t even mention the dollhouse village. Anyway, it’s back, and it’s bigger than ever: it now has a mini-mall with a fruit store called Goblin Market. Next time.
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