By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – When Kenny Mitchell writes, things get a little weird.
That’s his style.
He likes to tell stories that explore real human emotions and experiences using scenarios that are obscure or even impossible.
For instance, his current novella, “Everything Here is Reasonably Playful,” follows the development of a 13-year-old boy grappling with his everchanging life and holding tightly to imaginative play as a means of escape. The boy uses his sister’s old dolls to create an alternate world, without realizing the toys also have their own complex lives that are impacted by his actions.
“The book examines child development, familial relationships and the multifaceted nature of human reactions when all the bits and pieces of life seem to be popping out of place,” Mitchell explains.
A junior at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where he’s studying English language arts education and creative writing, Mitchell took on the ambitious task of writing a novella last semester. He’s part of the Undergraduate Research Fellows program, and it was the perfect project for an emerging author.
Mitchell completed the first draft – a little over 20,000 words – in the fall and started the revision process soon after.
“A lot of fiction writers view the first draft as a way to kind of explore what you’re writing, so it was really nice to focus on writing something that’s fun without worrying about it being perfect right away,” Mitchell said. “That process of writing and rewriting and then rewriting again is something I’ve found very helpful.”
With the storyline in place, Mitchell can look at the big picture before zeroing in on specific changes. He’s currently writing the second draft, which he presented earlier this month during the annual Research Day competition on campus. The Norfolk native earned the first-place Wagner Family Writing Award and the Ken W. Nikels Scholarship at that event.
Assistant English professor and research project mentor Theodora Ziolkowski called his work “extremely impressive.”
“If someone says I want to write a novella, that’s great, but it takes a while,” she said. “Something that impresses me about Kenny is how committed he is to the revision process, because that revision is central to being a great writer.”
Mitchell hopes to have a second draft of his novella ready this summer – somewhere in the range of 25,000 to 30,000 words – then he’ll make more edits and changes before it’s submitted for publication.
ACHIEVING HIS DREAMS
As a young boy, Mitchell dreamed of becoming an author, but even he’s surprised by what he’s been able to accomplish at this point in life.
“When I was little, I really wanted to be a writer, and then I kind of told myself it wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “I told myself it wasn’t super realistic for me to want to be a writer, so I leaned more toward the education aspect, which I also really like.”
At UNK, he found the support system he needed to flourish.
“Having professors approach you and say you should continue doing this, this is something you should move forward with as a career, that’s something I didn’t hear from a lot of people growing up,” Mitchell said. “That’s something that’s really special about this department, how much professors are willing to push you in directions to achieve your dreams and goals.”
During his time on campus, Mitchell has written four pieces that were accepted for publication in online journals and literary magazines such as The Airgonaut, Flash Fiction Magazine and The Good Life Review.
“I don’t want these stories to be just for me,” he said. “I also want other people to laugh and be like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ as the story is being told.”
His first published piece, a flash fiction story titled “What the Goose Saw Before Her Demise,” focuses on four people who “suddenly burst into consciousness and become aware of their surroundings as they’re falling through the sky.”
“In that story, I get to examine what it’s like to come to terms with reality, only to quickly realize that you’re going to meet your end,” he said.
“Lobster Facts,” published last month in Flash Fiction Magazine, tells the story of a man who’s released from prison and heads to Red Lobster to celebrate with his family. Instead of enjoying the meal, he steals a lobster and releases it into the ocean – a symbol of his own freedom.
“Even when I write within realism, I like to amp things up so it feels surreal,” said Mitchell, who also wrote a poem, “A Half-Eaten Dead Man Walks into a Night Club,” that will appear on the satirical site The Gorko Gazette in June.
Ziolkowski describes his writing as funny, punchy, surprising and also very serious.
“His prose feels very alive to me because he’s able to negotiate the serious and the funny and the humorous in a really tight way,” she said. “Despite whatever weirdness that goes on, whatever impossible things that happen, it feels more tethered and related to real life because real life is both funny and sad. I think Kenny is able to reflect that.”
When he’s not working on his novella or another short story, Mitchell assists fellow Lopers as a writing tutor in the UNK Learning Commons and serves as an editor for The Carillon, a literary journal that showcases creative writing produced by UNK undergraduate students. He’s also a member of the Sigma Tau Delta English honor society and Teacher Scholars Academy, a program that provides professional development opportunities, academic support and financial assistance for future teachers.
Mitchell plans to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in writing after graduating from UNK, and he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of completing a doctorate. He wants to teach at the high school or college level while continuing to write stories in his own unique style.
“There are so many different things you can do with an English degree, and he’d be good at them all,” Ziolkowski said. “He’s already doing a lot of them at the undergraduate level.”