Kyle Bilinski

Creative Nonfiction

Kyle Bilinski lives in northern California where he works as a flight attendant and painting contractor. He recently received his MFA in Writing from Pacific University, and some of his stories and poems have appeared in places like Black Heart Magazine, Cloudbank, Monkeybicycle, Overtime, and The Prose-Poetry Project. What’s more, he collects stamps and plays bass and harmonica.


Paint and Ink


When your old man comes into your room late one night and asks you if you want to make some real money, you know what he means. But then he says, “Painting houses with me, learning the family trade,” like it’s some kind of surprise. Sure, it’s the first time he’s asked you, though he’s mentioned the subject several times during the school year. “You’ll work hard, and I’ll pay you good money by the hour,” he adds, like it might be a tough decision to make. But it’s not. You’re fifteen years old and just last weekend you pulled a rotten engine out of the old pickup you’re rebuilding. And then there’s that alluring blond girl, Serena, who you’ve been aching to take out on a fancy candlelit date. Both of these things require good money.

“I’ll give the bagel shop my two-weeks tomorrow,” you say, trying to camouflage your excitement. Those jerks at the bagel shop don’t even care about you anyway, with their insulting ten-cent raises every six months. You can’t wait to tell them you’re through with them, and you can’t wait for school to let out, for the summer work ahead. When your old man shuts your door, you snap out your light and fall asleep dreaming of a sparkly new engine and that sweet-smelling shampoo Serena runs through her long blond hair.


The first thing you do is cover every square inch of the apartment floor with dropcloths. Then your old man opens his toolbox and grabs a can of putty and a caulking gun. He loads the gun with a tube of caulk and slices the tip with a box cutter. He pumps the handle and squeezes a blob of caulking out of the slit. Then he says, “Prep work is the most important step in painting. It’s what makes the finished product stand out, what separates yokels from the professionals.”

He shows you how to push putty in the pin holes with your finger and how to use a knife blade for the larger gouges. You inspect the one-bedroom, one-bathroom unit for imperfections. Then he shows you how to repair corner joints and fill gaps with the caulking gun, squeezing out a bead, then pressing it in and smoothing it out with your finger. He watches over your shoulder as you fill gaps around window sills and door frames, instructing while you work. At first you’re slow and messy, but then you grow comfortable and confident with repetition.

After you finish prepping the apartment, your old man kneels down next to his paint tray and asks if you’re ready to paint. It’s still early, but it’s taken hours to get to this point. Your old man woke you up at 05:00 and together you loaded up his pickup with ladders, toolboxes, a bin of roller heads and handles, paint trays, a tub of brushes, a bucket of rags, bags of sandpaper. Then it took an hour to drive to this shoebox-shaped apartment complex south of San Francisco, where you lugged all of the equipment up three flights of stairs. Painting has already been more difficult than you expected, and you haven’t even cracked the lid of a paint can.

You kneel and watch your old man shake up a gallon of latex paint, which you’ve learned is water-based and has a flat sheen, and then he pries off the lid with a flathead and loads his tray with paint. He fills another tray and readies two rollers and two China-bristle brushes that cost thirty bucks a pop. “Don’t ever use cheap materials,” he says. “It’s not worth your time or agony, and they won’t last. You always want to set yourself up for success.”

He moves the roller back and forth in the paint tray until the half-inch head is completely full and even with paint. He takes your brush and dips it in the tray a half-dozen times, scraping the bristles of excess paint. He tells you that you must do this, to break-in the materials. “Now the most important thing to remember about applying paint,” he says, “is to make sure your tools work for you. There’s a way to grip and maneuver a paintbrush and a roller.” He starts painting a big wall with no windows to work around. First, he cuts-in to the corners with the paintbrush, only moving up or down, side to side. Once he finishes, he starts rolling and shows you how to work in small sections. Then he slaps the roller in your hand, stands back, and waits for you to finish the wall.

After you load the roller with paint, it’s much heavier than you expected. And you have to use a lot of pressure to apply the paint. Your old man made it look so easy. You try and make it seem like you aren’t struggling. Already you want to be as good as he is. Already you want to have your clothes caked in an array of paint colors, like his, and not be slow and clumsy and new to the work.


It’s after six o’clock on a Friday night and you’re finishing the final brushstrokes on the exterior of a two-story, 2,000 square foot home that has taken you roughly sixty hours and twenty gallons of paint to complete. It’s the first big job you’ve wrapped up without your old man’s help. Your shirt is soaked with sweat and you’re racing to finish because you need to pick up your girlfriend in an hour for dinner and a movie. After you pack up and collect your check, the home-owners tell you what a wonderful job you’ve done. You smile and say, “My old man taught me right,” then shake their hands before climbing into your F-150 and cranking the motor. As you back up onto the street, you look at what you’ve done. For a few minutes you forget all about your girlfriend, how she’ll give you hell for being late, and admire the fruit of your labor. Because you’ve done everything the proper way, from power-blasting to prep work to the final brushstroke, you know this house will weather through the blinding sun and the pounding rain, that your work will last a decade before it needs to be repainted. And that’s a great feeling. You’ve got something to show for all those hours spent climbing ladders, scraping fascia boards, and slinging paint.


You’ve struggled through three semesters of community college and decided to major in history, mostly because The History Channel is your favorite program on TV. You’ve worked your way through school, taking classes Mondays through Thursdays, painting on the long weekends. But even when you’re sitting in class, you think of all the dry walls and splintering cracks and rusting substrates in your sun-beaten valley just waiting for someone to feed them paint by the brushfull. You don’t fully listen to your instructors. Instead, you usually stare up at the ceiling, calculating the hours and gallons it would take to coat its filthy surface.

When your English professor, Mr. Bruce, asks you to stay a couple minutes after class to talk about your most recent assignment—where you argued that Batman and Superman were two of the most significant American icons—you are slightly alarmed. He is the type of middle-aged teacher who loves debating elements of literature just as much as he loves talking about his small dog and mother, a man who loves wearing jeans and sport coats no matter the season. The truth is you haven’t taken college seriously and you’re worried he’s seen through your half-ass attempt to write a persuasive essay.

But Mr. Bruce doesn’t hate your paper. He loves the heart of the subject, the passion of your argument, and starts talking about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a novel by Michael Chabon, a book about two teenage cousins teaming up to form a comic book empire during the boom of the Golden Age. But you hate to read, so you simply feign interest. You’ve barely even read for school assignments, let alone for fun. However, Mr. Bruce is so passionate that the book starts to sound good, so good that you write down the title and buy a copy on your way home. And you end up loving the novel, all 636 pages of it, because it revolves around two men and the ins and outs of their occupations.

Before long, books stack up in your room. You can’t keep up, can’t read fast enough to make up for all your lost time. And then something funny happens. You start to write. You’ve always been a storyteller in the oral tradition and have always had a vivid imagination. And yet you don’t really know what you’re doing as you hammer away on your keyboard. In all honesty, you don’t realize the difference between a short story and a novel, outside of length—don’t even know what “introspection” and “second-person” mean. Then, after your grandma passes away a couple months later, you start to write about her in an attempt to capture her great spirit, although you fictionalize her character for some curious reason. You change her looks and her house and her name and her overall situation, but keep her spirit beating. In short, you give your grandma a new space and body to dwell, one that can live and thrive on the page despite her passing.


It’s Wednesday night and you’re sitting in small classroom with fifteen other students, the desks turned and spun in a perfect circle so that you can see one another. Students address you, talking about the short story you recently submitted. You’ve transferred into a four-year university, still majoring in history, but cram as many literature classes into your schedule as possible. The class is called “Writing Fiction”—a workshop that meets for three hours, once per week.

One girl flat-out hates your story, but the rest of the class quickly disagrees and provides reason after reason as to why they think it’s the best story you’ve submitted all semester. Your professor, Mr. Hansen, a young teacher and writer who finds it difficult to bottle up his love for words and stories, agrees that it’s a solid piece. The news makes you feel like you’re breathing in helium, your body a balloon that’s lifting into a bright blue sky.

After class that night, you head across campus to Taco Bell with Mr. Hansen, and, while crunching into tacos, he tells you how much you’ve grown and learned throughout the semester, how much he’s enjoyed observing your progress. Then he says, “You can write.” He is the first person with any kind of authority to speak those three words. He goes on to say that he sees potential in you. He is also the one who first turned you on to great writers like Rick Bass, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Flannery O’Conner, and you feel indebted to his kindness.

A few years later, after graduating and traveling and working for a while, you e-mail him, asking if he’d be willing to write you a letter of recommendation for graduate school. You talk about the low-residency programs you’re interested in and how you’ve kept up writing these past years. You talk about how you’ve come to plateau, though, how you need to learn more about fundamentals and craft. You explain how low-residency programs offer students the chance to get mentored, one on one, by published writers. Once again, Mr. Hanson encourages you and writes a generous letter. Not long after that, you configure a portfolio of your best work and start applying to programs.


You’ve just finished your first ten-day residency at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, one of the most exhausting and inspiring experiences of your life, each day a tangle of lectures, workshops, roundtables, and readings by some of the most talented writers and teachers pulled together in one setting. After you board your flight, you fall asleep before the plane pushes back from the gate, but as soon as you land in Oakland, California, you’re anxious to get home, to sit at your desk and start hammering away on your laptop, to put into practice everything you’ve just learned.


There are teachers and fellow students spread out in front of you, and they’re waiting for you to talk about the past two years you’ve spent reading and writing in Pacific’s MFA program. This is your thesis presentation after all, the last hurtle to jump before donning your gown and tassel and graduating. But it’s hard to convey just how much you’ve learned and grown from such an intense and in-depth style of learning. That’s why you started out talking about your journey as painter, a trade that you learned from your old man over a series of years, because your journey as a writer has paralleled that same path of experience, that same road of apprenticeship.

In the same way your old man mentored you in the trade of painting, four well-known writers at Pacific have mentored you in the art of writing. Craig Lesley, your first semester advisor, was the first person to encourage you to write about working-class folks, and you ended up spending the majority of your MFA program writing about mill workers, tow-truck drivers, flight-attendants, highway patrol officers, long-haul truckers, and, not surprisingly, painters. Lesley also helped you along when you started a story poorly, sharing Raymond Carver’s belief that a story “doesn’t begin with an alarm clock going off. That’s when the day starts. The story starts with complication.” And you never begin a piece of fiction the same way again. During your second semester, Bonnie Jo Campbell points out many ways to write more efficiently, and she also helps you incorporate strange and surprising details into your stories, to make your characters and settings pop. Brady Udall, in your third semester, guides you through several drafts of an analytical essay about the subject of work in contemporary fiction—the power and significance of action and jargon in the workplace, in particular. This greatly informs your writing. He also explains how to write proper scenes, how to use section breaks to your advantage, and how to effectively employ dialogue. For your last semester, Benjamin Percy helps you beef up your strengths and draws attention to your weaknesses. He is blunt when something is off or missing in your fiction yet truly encouraging when your narrative arcs and emotional arcs coil together in a dynamic force.

But when you really try to pin-point everything you’ve learned these past two years, you have to break it down in painter jargon, which goes something like this: you’ve learned how estimate a project; you’ve learned the prep-work necessary to set yourself up for success; you’ve learned how to meaningfully apply words and paragraphs to the page; and you’ve learned how to go back and touch up your work after you’ve finished, sanding out blemishes and touching up holidays. This mash-up of language makes perfect sense to you. Even the mediums of the two trades are similar—paint and ink—in that they’re both liquids invented to harden and leave behind a mark, the signature of their craftsman. Just as painted rooms are meant to be lived in, printed words are meant to transport readers into other rooms of experience. And now that you’ve been mentored and coached along, now that you’re graduating, you feel ready to step out on your own and tackle a wide-range of jobs. But this is not the end of something, not a climax. No, in many ways, this is the beginning of a long, narrow path stretching out in front of you. Your writer’s toolbox is loaded with tools, and it’s your desire to create fiction that you’ll be proud of for years to come, sturdy stories that can stand the test of time like a flawlessly executed paint job.