Alumnus Justin Hocking (M.F.A., ’02) read from his new book, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, at the University Center for the Arts on the evening of March 3rd. Hocking was the featured author of the Crow-Tremblay Alumni Creative Writing Reader Series.
Justin Hocking was raised in Colorado and California and has been avidly involved in skateboarding and surfing for over twenty years. He created and contributed to the anthology Life and Limb: Skateboarders Write from the Deep End; his work has also appeared in the Rumpus, Orion, Thrasher, The Normal School, the Portland Review, Portland Noir and elsewhere. He is a cofounder, with A.M. O’Malley, of the yearlong Certificate Program in Creative Writing at the Independent Publishing Resource Center, and also teaches in the Wilderness Writing MFA program at Eastern Oregon University. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
Hocking said, in a short feature published in AlumLine, that he was “beyond honored and excited” to be returning to CSU for the creative writing reading series. “I owe so much to the professors and the creative community who supported me during my graduate studies, and I’m looking forward to reconnecting with them.”
Communications Coordinator Jill Salahub attended the reading and has this to share:
It’s been ten years since I’ve seen Justin Hocking in person. We went to graduate school together, were Graduate Teaching Assistants at the same time and friends. As introverts, tenderhearted writers teaching for the first time, we bonded over our shared love of the practice of writing and sense of terror in teaching it, (I heard someone say once that for introverts, teaching is an extreme sport).
Although Justin was a bit grayer than the last time I saw him, (I am too), and Professor John Calderazzo was convinced he’d gotten taller, it felt completely natural and familiar to see him, like no time had passed. We hugged and I told him again how happy I am that such good things are happening to him.
It’s the thing that almost everyone who knows Justin will tell you about him — he’s just a genuinely good guy. You really can’t help but like him. MFA graduate Drew Webster, who formally introduced Justin at his reading, said the first time he met Justin, what he noticed was his “disarming smile” and “generous and unfailing kindness.”
Before Justin started to read from his new book, Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, he took time to talk about how when he first came to CSU for his MFA, he didn’t really know what he was doing. After, he said, he maybe still didn’t exactly know what he was doing, but he had a lot of friends. I heard him talk a lot that night about how important community has been to him, both personally and professionally.
Justin started reading from the beginning of his book, a section about surfing hurricane waves. (Hear Justin read the first chapter of his book in this podcast on Poets & Writers). From the first line of Justin’s book, it’s clear how it will go: straightforward and deep. “Late summer 2005 and everything’s underwater.” Cheryl Strayed describes it best in her quote on the back cover of the book,
As generous as it is smart, as intimate as it is grand, as illuminating as it is dark. With grace and guts, Justin Hocking dares to go where few men have gone before: not only out to sea, but also into the depths of the human heart.
Next, Justin skipped ahead to read from “Data. Assessment. Plan.,” a section about his first full-time job out of college in Colorado, how he spent the year before beginning his MFA at CSU as a counselor in a residential treatment center for adjudicated boys.
Then was “All I Need Is This Thermos,” the section of the book that describes being carjacked and having his laptop stolen, thus also losing the novel he’d been working on for two years. In an interview with Denver’s Westword, Justin said,
I was robbed at gunpoint in 2006, and went into an emotional tailspin in the wake of this trauma. I was living in New York City at the time, and started spending more and more time surfing out at Rockaway Beach, taking some dangerous risks, paddling out by myself way past sunset. Looking back, I realize I was in the midst of my own night sea journey. This dark voyage is what comprises the memoir’s core trajectory.
He paused during the reading and talked about this “night sea journey.”
He ended with “The White Dead,” a section that lists historical and literary figures who have shared his preoccupation with Moby Dick, including people like David Foster Wallace, Jackson Pollock, and Orson Welles.
After he finished reading, Justin took questions from the audience. He talked about how he’d actually been working on this book for close to seven years, and parts of it had been published elsewhere — most notably, a piece in The Normal School which eventually led to getting this book published. In relation to this, he returned to the importance of the community he found at CSU. In an interview with Oregon Live on The Oregonian, he described it this way,
It’s funny. I moved to New York City with a lot of ambitions toward making connections and meeting agents and editors and all that. I definitely did meet some wonderful people but the connection that partly led to the publishing of the book was someone I went to grad school with who now runs The Normal School, which is a really great creative nonfiction magazine. They ran an excerpt from the book and my current agent read that excerpt. It was the All I Need Is This Thermos piece about getting robbed at gunpoint. It’s one of the crux scenes in the book. He read it and really liked it and then started shopping it around.
He also talked about writing requiring “dumb persistence, grit.” He said something similar in his interview with Denver’s Westword, offering this advice to budding writers:
Take risks, and don’t be afraid to get lost — some of the best writing arises from uncertainty, from stumbling around in the dark. I don’t advocate for intentional suffering, but the beauty of the writing life is that you can transform traumas and difficulties into art. This profession also requires a special combination of sensitivity to the world and people around you, alongside pretty hardcore grit and perseverance.
Justin said that while his book is about “my own messy emotional life,” as the author, crafting it meant engaging in “the dance of intimacy and of distance,” gently guiding the reader to the truth he wanted to communicate, allowing them breathing room as he did so.
Justin said that even though he’d previously worked on writing fiction, with this book “I feel like I found a home in this form [creative non-fiction]…I just wanted to tell the truth.” And “this book is about me and my foibles, my flaws.” When asked what his plans were now that he had finished this book, Justin said “I have a bunch of things on deck I’m really excited about” — a collection of short stories, a novel, and another long form creative non-fiction project.
Justin signed books at the end of the evening, the CSU bookstore selling out of copies while there were still people hoping for one. If you need more convincing that this is a book worth reading, an author worth watching, a genuinely good guy, read more:
In Over His Head: Justin Hocking’s “Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld” in the Sunday Book Review section of The New York Times
“The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld” by Justin Hocking, a book review on The Boston Globe
Justin Hocking on surfing, trauma and The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld from Denver’s Westword
Book Notes – Justin Hocking “The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld” on largehearted boy
Justin Hocking’s east-west journey: surfing in New York City, writing in Portland with Oregon Live on The Oregonian
Sponsors of the Reading Series include the English Department and Creative Writing Program at Colorado State University, Organization of Graduate Student Writers through ASCSU, College of Liberal Arts, and the Armstrong Hotel. These events are also sponsored by a grant from the Lilla B. Morgan Memorial Fund, a premier supporter of arts and culture at CSU. Please help grow this fund with a gift at: http://president.colostate.edu/lillabmorgan/index.aspx.
All events are free and open to the public. For additional information call 970.491.6428 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.