Jeff Fearnside

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Bio

Curriculum Vitae (coming soon)

I was born in Bowling Green, Ohio, and grew up in the flat, semi-wooded farmland just west of town. My childhood marked the end of an era, a time before personal computers became ubiquitous, and certainly long before cell phones, iPods, and personal Web pages like this one. I spent countless hours wandering through the neighboring fields and woods, wandering through my imagination, reading. And writing.

 

I knew I wanted to be a writer in the fifth grade, inspired by the Hardy Boys and Alfred Hitchcock mysteries. I filled pages of loose-leaf paper with stories, which I read aloud to my younger brother, my first fan. Later, I typed them on a vintage Royal typewriter, which I loved. Clattering away on its heavy metal keys, I felt like a real writer.

 

At Bowling Green High School, I was co-editor of the school newspaper The Scarlet Parrot, while in my early twenties, I co-founded and edited an independent literary magazine, Gestalt. It ran for six issues from 1988 to 1989 and was briefly resurrected for a final issue as This! magazine in 1992.

 

That same year, I earned the first check for my writing, for a freelance interview/article of Laura Joplin, sister of rock icon Janis, which appeared in the Cleveland Scene Magazine.

 

Shortly afterward, I reentered Bowling Green State University to complete my undergraduate degree in creative writing. There I had the good fortune to work with a number of talented writers who were also talented teachers, including George Looney, Wendell Mayo, and Fred Zackel. I’m indebted to them for nurturing the first great growth in my writing, and for their friendships, which we’ve maintained to this day.

 

To help pay for my education, I worked as a staff writer at the Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune; after graduation, I was promoted to religion editor. I moved on to become arts editor of the Boise Weekly from 1997 to 1998. Journalism taught me several important skills, including the ability to work through distractions (a must in any newsroom) and to meet strict deadlines.

 

The greatest lesson it taught me as a writer was simply how to sit at a desk every day, beginning early in the morning and sometimes lasting late into the evening, working with words.

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Since then, my focus has been on my literary writing: primarily fiction, but nonfiction and poetry as well. Entering the creative writing graduate program at Eastern Washington University inaugurated this phase and sparked the second great growth in my career.

 

It’s currently fashionable to criticize formal programs in creative writing, particularly at the graduate level, but I strongly believe that their benefits outweigh any perceived shortcomings. Outside of landing grants and fellowships, entering an MFA program provides one of the few opportunities for most writers to commit full-time to their writing. I have no doubt that it would have taken me years of solitary work to gain the experience and insights that I did in two years at EWU.

 

There again I was fortunate to study under talented writers who were also talented teachers: Ursula Hegi, John Keeble, Carolyn Kremers, Greg Spatz. In particular, I owe a special debt to John, my advisor. His dedication to his students, eye for detail, fidelity to language, patience, humor, and great personal warmth combined to make him not just a wonderful teacher but also a wonderful human being.

 

Graduate school also introduced me to teaching. This has proven to be the most rewarding work I’ve done outside of writing. In many ways, it’s the perfect complement to my writing, pulling me away from my desk, out of my imagination, and putting me in touch with other humans.

 

I greatly enjoyed teaching at Washington State University, but for the first time in my life, I found myself in a position to realize a longstanding dream: to volunteer with the U.S. Peace Corps. Moving to Kazakhstan for what ended up being four years was the most important and far-reaching decision I’ve made. It allowed me to give of myself in new ways. In return, this opened me up to tremendous growth I didn’t expect in my thirties. I refined my teaching skills and gained invaluable experience speaking and presenting workshops at various levels—regionally, nationally, and internationally. I visited places I had never even dreamed of before, couldn’t have, because before I joined the Peace Corps, I didn’t know many of those places existed.

 

The year 2004 was a special turning point. I finished my two years of Peace Corps service in late June and married my Valentina less than two months later in Shymkent, Kazakhstan. Meeting Val was the most unexpected and joyful surprise of the many I enjoyed overseas. We held a wedding reception in a traditional Kazakh yurt in the Talassky Alatau mountains (photos below). That October, I began the most prestigious job I’ve yet had, as manager of the Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. I left a year later to prepare for returning to the U.S. and more fully commit to my writing.

 

It proved to be a good decision. In January 2006, I learned that my short story “Nuclear Toughskins” won first place in Many Mountains Moving’s 2005 Flash Fiction Contest. February brought news that a selection from my first collection of short stories, Making Love While Levitating Three Feet in the Air, was chosen a Grand Prizewinner in the Santa Fe Writers Project’s 2005 Literary Awards Program. In April, I was informed that I had been selected the 2006 Bernheim Writer-in-Residence. Finally, I was awarded a 2007 Dorothy Norton Clay Fellowship at the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts, which allowed me to continue the work I began at Bernheim.

 

Of course, no one, not even the most independent writer, succeeds entirely alone, and I must acknowledge the help of my parents, who sponsored Val and provided other essential support, allowing us to transition to a new life in the States.

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At the ancient ruins of Termessos, Turkey

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The traditional Kazakh yurt we held our wedding reception in (left), with a few of the traditional dishes we served (center) and some of the interior decoration (right).  Photos above by Jeff Frame.   Click on thumbnails to enlarge.

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It’s hard to believe that I’ve now been back in the States for more than five years. The time has passed quickly and very eventfully. It’s been the most fruitful five years of my writing career, as I’ve absorbed my overseas experience, producing and publishing a number of pieces focused on Central Asia. I’ve also more deeply explored my fascination with place in general, and how we as humans interact with our environments, both natural and constructed.

 

Most importantly, I’ve more deeply embraced my spirituality. After a long break, I began practicing tai chi again. I had originally learned the long Yang form in Ohio from Sifu John Cooke. For the past two-plus years I’ve been studying the short Yang form with Sifu Steve Lefkowitz. In that time, I’ve developed a sitting meditation practice as well. There are no shortcuts that I’m aware of to self-realization. It’s a slow and ever-evolving process. I’m not a perfect husband, friend, writer, or teacher. Yet with effort and attention, I slowly keep bringing these elements of my life into better balance.

 

I’ve now published work in many top journals, both well-established and upcoming: The Sun, Rosebud, The Pinch, Lake Effect, Crab Orchard Review, and The Los Angeles Review, among many wonderful others; won four national writing contests, most recently the Standing Rock Cultural Arts 2010 Open Poetry Chapbook Competition and the 2009 Mary Mackey Short Story Prize; and had both my fiction and creative nonfiction nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I was nominated for a Faculty Award for Teaching at Western Kentucky University, one of that institution’s highest honors.

 

Despite these successes, or perhaps because of them, it was important to me to keep focusing my efforts, establish an even stronger center to work from. It’s been a longstanding goal of mine to write a novel set in Central Asia. I’ve also long wished to conduct more writing workshops and seminars, give more readings, and write more book reviews and other pieces of freelance writing in my fields of interest. My schedule had previously made this all but impossible. So I made the decision not to pick up a third one-year contract at Prescott College and instead focus on this other work.

 

I’m happy to say that my other projects have steadily progressed in the past year and a half. “The Right Road,” an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, recently won 2nd Place in the 2010 Long Story Contest, International—which, now in its 18th year, is widely considered the premier competition for long stories (8,000–14,000 words). I’ll be reprising my writing workshop “Without and Within: Nature as a Catalyst for Writing” as a multiple-day event at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon this coming July, hosted by the Grand Canyon Field Institute.

 

Every writer’s path is individual, just as every human’s path is. There are no formulas to follow that will guarantee success. My best advice to any writer—to any artist, to any human—is to trust yourself and follow your passions. Don’t follow money, fame, or power for their sake only. If you do, you may acquire all of those things, but it’s unlikely you’ll feel fulfilled. Following your passions guarantees none of those other things, but at least you’ll always have your passions. I’ve followed mine, in my own way, even if I didn’t always know it at the time, for most of my adult life. It led me to college and then graduate school. It took me overseas for four incredible years in a foreign land, and it brought me back to new and interesting places in my homeland. It inspired every story, essay, and poem I’ve written, every class I’ve taught. It has sometimes been difficult, sometimes tedious. I’ve occasionally lost my faith along the way, and I’ve doggedly picked it up time and again. I haven’t become rich, at least not in financial or material terms, at least not yet. But I do feel rich in other ways: independent and alive. I’m married to a loving and committed partner. My best days always feel like they are ahead of me. I wouldn’t trade this for another path.

 

Last updated 18 March 2012