Monday, October 20, 2014

From the Archives…

   A memory hit me out of the blue recently, of my high school friend Oscar Fernandez. For a time, Oscar lived on the same street as I did, and for a time we were close.  I had not spoken to, or even thought of, Oscar for years, but it suddenly occurred to me that he was worth writing about. Oscar wanted to be a pilot, and after graduation he had gone to aeronautical school in Florida. When he came home for his first Christmas break – and here’s the story part – he was kidnapped.

     Oscar’s family was Cuban. Though they may have been wealthy in Havana, in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1976, they were not. His father worked as a carpenter; he, his wife, and Oscar lived quietly and apparently harmoniously in a gray clapboard apartment building at the end of our street. As I began writing the story, I remembered that the ransom was set at $60,000, and that a relative was rumored to have some connection with the kidnappers. Oscar was a diabetic, and after a day or two without insulin he fell into a coma; the kidnappers got scared and dumped him on the side of a Dorchester street. When I saw him after he got out of the hospital, he had lost his eyesight and all of his plans for the future, but he had found God. He wanted nothing to do with his old friends, including me.

     When I started, my story was about a young man friend profoundly transformed by calamity. I wanted to consider the importance of being with people you wouldn’t mind spending your last moments with, because as Oscar came to know, the world can end right now.

     A little way into a first draft, I checked the archives of the Boston Globe.  I was astonished to find how much of Oscar’s story I had forgotten over the decades.  The kidnappers had come to the apartment. Someone had called for help; when the police burst into the house they had, by some horrible miscalculation, shot and killed Oscar’s father. As I read my memories returned, of standing on the sidewalk as police cars crowded the street; of cutting Oscar’s senior picture out of my yearbook to give to a reporter, and of the hole that remained; of learning that he and his mother, who quickly moved away, got a big settlement from the Brookline Police.  

     I came into the MFA program planning to write memoir. I’m in my first nonfiction class ever this semester, and I’m finding that wrestling with memory is way more complicated than I expected. Talking and reading about the ambiguities involved in telling ``the truth’’ is enormously helpful as I try to reconstruct past events.

     If I had written Oscar’s story without any research, it would have captured something of my loss and its consequences, but totally misstated the dimensions of his. I didn’t know Oscar’s father well; his death had little impact on me in the long run. But memory changes when missing facts are filled in. Even my forgetfulness adds texture, in retrospect, to our relationship, to his decision to jettison me as a friend. I may have been satisfied with whatever story I ended up with had I not checked that archive, but I’m glad I did. I wonder what else I don’t know I don’t know. 

Hilde Hartnett Goldstein is working towards an MFA in creative nonfiction.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Thesis Process

I am now in my third year of the MFA program at FAU, and during my time here I have realized something definitive about my writing process:  writing will always be painful.  I used to imagine that once I settled into a groove with writing, once I had a place in an MFA program and actually made time to write every day, the act of writing would become easier.  In fact, being fully invested in my writing is still as difficult as ever.  I am hardly alone in this feeling; every writer must battle distractions, procrastination, self-doubt, and the terror of the blank page.  I know I am in good company. I also find that the more agony I go through when writing a piece, the more positive feedback my piece ultimately receives, so I try to work on embracing the pain.
            But my third year has been my most challenging year yet.  During my first two years in the program, it was necessary that I focus on learning how to teach and on the classes I was taking in addition to my own creative writing.  Now that I have finished my coursework and feel more comfortable as a teacher, there is not much left to “distract” me from my primary reason for being here:  the completion of my thesis, a collection of short stories.  It isn’t enough to simply finish my thesis; I feel that it should represent the very best that I can do.  That added pressure, plus the larger amount of unstructured time, has resulted in some writer’s block.
            Setting regular deadlines can be helpful in ensuring that work gets done, but I am realizing that if I want to do more than just complete the work – if I want to do it well – there will be times that I need to set one story aside in order to work on another.  The particular section of my thesis that I’m most inspired to work on can change depending on the day, my mood, or what I happen to be reading.  I’m learning that the more I can recognize this feeling of inspiration and follow it, the quicker I can get past feeling stuck and the less painful the writing process will be.  I think that this approach is one of the advantages of working with a short story collection, which doesn’t require a strict chronology the way a novel might; I have the freedom to shift my focus to whichever story appears most in focus.  The process is less structured and less linear than I thought it would be.  Instead of focusing on accomplishing a specific task, a good day is one where I can simply remain invested and engaged in my work for as long as possible.

Katrina Gersie is an MFA candidate in fiction at FAU.  She works as a GTA and as Editor-in-Chief of Coastlines.  Her thesis is a collection of realist short stories.

Monday, October 6, 2014

I'll Make This Quick

You’re busy – I’m busy, but we’ve both made time for this conversation and no one’s economy of time is solvent enough to always select something over nothing. 

So I was asked “how does one maintain an art practice when unreasonably busy?”
My reactionary answer is that one does not. Cannot. I cannot. But this isn’t necessarily true. My more measured answer is that one does not practice their craft in the same – or even similar –manner when working too much or even working too little.

This distinction seems obvious once articulated: if my pattern of behavior or my space is disturbed, then so will my patterns of behavior in entering into my imaginative spaces.

Though the constant I see in myself as well as in my busy maker-friends is that we select to make something over nothing more often than not; to make something of the ache of inwardness (?) of critical observation (?) of imaginative fits (?) of the simple need to be making (?) – this is what drove us into this situation in the first place.

Here is the oversimplification of the idea: I practice my craft when I’m too busy to practice my craft in the way I was, just a moment ago, because I want (need?) to.

Within this busy machine, the object of the craft or the manner of accessing it may be an oddity and the process will most certainly have an unusual pace, but it’s clearly better than the existential penalties of selecting nothing.

There are also novelties that will likely occur from both the artificial slowness of this time-restricted process as well as from the necessity to invent situational, compartmentalized methods to access the practice.

If we agree for the moment that – in any artistic endeavor – the process is the product, then we as makers would do well to not only pay attention to the specifics of our process as a matter of course, but also seek to disturb our habits of process to gain perspective on the objects we create.

In short: if you write the first draft of that 5,000 word piece of prose over the course of six weeks and in sessions of no more than thirty minutes – that product will be different in significant ways than if you wrote it over the course of two days at a frantic, obsessive pace.

The benefits of this imposed brake upon the process, for me, often results in new methods to access the specific work – mostly because I cheat this restrictive system. I will find ways to return to the work without falling behind in my other, time-consuming obligations. If I can’t steal a thirty minute writing session, I’ll do some light research into concepts or thematic elements I find the product preoccupied with while I eat lunch at my desk. Or I’ll view or take photographs of images that remind me of the world I’m building while I stand in line or move from one obligation to the next. I become obsessed with the craft object not by working on it tirelessly, but because my time economy forces me to move away from the work often and without enough time in-session to reach satisfaction.   

I think I might produce matured products more efficiently when I’m too busy – which is the opposite of what the narrative on art practices suggests.

Thanks for your time and feel free to interrupt me if you’d like to continue this conversation.  

Jake Henson received his MFA from Florida Atlantic University in 2011. His thesis is a multi-modal collection of fiction, creative nonfiction, & visual art. He has continued to work in and experiment with the combination of language with a variety of forms such as digital photography, stencil making, paper sculpture, artist books and screen printing –in an effort to access the reading experience with an authenticity of expression that resonates with audience.  He is happy to be back with the FAU community and is always interested in collaborative projects.

Monday, September 29, 2014

How My MFA Helped Prepare Me to be a Writer

                Back when I was an MFA student at FAU, people outside of my school circles would often express concern and confusion about what I was actually doing in grad school.
                “You’re going to school to be a writer?” They’d ask, “So, why do you need a degree for that? Can’t you just, like, write?”
                I’d explain to them that yeah, I could just write, but that writing was an art, a serious discipline, and that I planned on having an actual career doing it and that my time in grad school was preparing me for that. So many people questioned my choice, however, that I’d sometimes have second thoughts too. I never doubted the fact that grad school was teaching me to be a better writer, but I did sometimes wonder if it truly was preparing me to enter the scary and intimidating world of professional authors. You know, the part of being a writer that’s more than just writing really cool stories.
                Five years out of the MFA program, I can now say that I finally have a definitive answer, and it’s positive. Yes, my MFA really did prepare me for a career as a professional writer, and it did so in a lot of unexpected ways.
                Most importantly, the MFA program instilled in me a sense that writing is a discipline. You have to sit your butt down and write and write a lot and you can’t continually start projects and leave them unfinished, which was a big problem I’d had before college. When you have an assignment due Tuesday night in class you can’t sit around and wait for the muse to magically inspire you. You have to bang it out and come up with an ending or at least an ending place, regardless of your feelings about it. Same goes for writing as a career. Professional writers have assignments due too and editors aren’t interested in your level of divine inspiration. They want you to produce quality writing on time. The MFA program taught me not to be a flake, and now when I have a job to do, I know I can get it done no matter what because I’m relying on skill, experience, structure and honestly, you could even call it willpower.
                Professional writers work with other people constantly: editors, agents, publishers, marketing departments and freelance clients. Most traditionally published writing is the result of a collaborative effort between many other people besides simply the writer, and writers need to be able to listen to someone else’s ideas (and yes, critiques) of their work. Guess what prepared me for this aspect of my writing career? Workshops! Group Projects!  I used to get really nervous before workshop because I never knew what my classmates and professors were going to say about my stories and poems, but after three years of workshopping I grew a thicker hide and learned that criticism of my writing wasn’t a criticism of me. This has helped me enormously in my real-world writing career. I don’t fall apart when an editor wants changes or if something I submitted gets rejected repeatedly. I’ve learned to listen to other people’s visions for my writing and to be open to new ideas.
                I recently began working with a literary agent, which was an exciting but also kind of scary new prospect.  Suddenly, much more was required of me. I was working on timelines, submission packages, proposals, synopses. I was taking notes, researching new topics. I was even asked to discuss (in detail) the work of other authors. I have new assignments almost every night, and at one point I casually remarked that it was like being in grad school all over again (which I totally meant as a good thing because my MFA years were the best time of my life, for real). Then I realized, wow, it was exactly like being in school again because I wasn’t being asked to do a single thing I hadn’t already done at FAU many times before. This was a pretty big revelation for me. My MFA really had prepared me for the life of a professional writer and because of that I’m confident and secure and ready to kick butt in the publishing world with the best of them.

Victoria Fedden graduated from the MFA program in 2009. She is a stay at home mom living in Fort Lauderdale and is the author of the memoirs Amateur Night at the Bubblegum Kittikat and Sun Shower: Magic, Forgiveness and How I Learned to Bloom Where I Was Planted. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, the Sun Sentinel, Real Simple, Chicken Soup for the Soul and the recent anthology My Other Ex: Women's True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Time to Publish

After graduation, I finally did the thing tons of people told me to do: I made a schedule. I realized very quickly I had no time and that I had to make time to write happen. But time to write wasn’t enough. If I wanted to be a writer for real, I needed to make time to publish as well.

I’ve been familiar with the act of publishing work for a long time, and submitted work both before and during my time as an MFA student. I had a lot of success, too, but that success was directly proportional to the amount I actually wrote. Workshops demanded that I write a few pieces a year. That might sound like a lot, but I promise it wasn’t for me, the self-appointed Master of White Space.

After time to write happened, though, I had a pile of unpublished work and no idea what to do with it all. Things got revised and reordered and turned into actual books, but those books were still full of unpublished writing. I counted it all up at the end and there were about 100 polished, publishable pieces, which is the equivalent of one heart attack.

So I solved the problem the way I solve everything—I dove in headfirst with no regard for how it would affect the delicate balance of my already scheduled life by sending out tons of submissions at once to wherever I could think of while I watched the sun set and rise again the next day. It’s important to note here that I have a number of professional responsibilities in addition to writing (see bio below). Needless to say, commitment to those responsibilities suffered because of this approach. I even stopped writing altogether.  

To fix this for real, I returned to that schedule and spent a lot of time figuring out how to squeeze in one last thing. As it turns out, making time to submit one piece of writing each day really works for me. Now I definitely publish more frequently, but something more unexpected happened. I was learning more about places to actually send work, and was able to make suggestions to other writers about what places might be a good fit for them to submit to depending on what they were writing.

Submitting work successfully isn’t haphazardly slapping new information on the same thing over and over; you really need to get to know each market you’re submitting to by reading the stuff inside it. Because all of that daily research was piling up in my notes, I created a website called Time to Publish to not only remind me that submitting work is an important part of my daily routine, but also to keep track of my research in a way that can benefit everyone that cares to look. I’ve met more writers and editors doing this than I can count, which has been amazingly motivating. Hopefully you’ll find a literary journal or independent press featured on the site that will inspire you to submit something as well.


Nicole Oquendo is the Nonfiction Editor of the annual anthology Best of the Net, as well as an Assistant Editor for Sundress Publications and Flaming Giblet Press, and the Managing Editor of The Florida Review. She has sent out 331 submissions in 2014, which has led to 145 rejections and 22 acceptances so far this year, including publications forthcoming or in CutBank, Sundog Lit, and Gulf Stream. Her chapbook some prophets is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press (2015), and her chapbook self is wolf is forthcoming from dancing girl press (2015). You’ll find her posting about a few literary markets each week at

Monday, September 15, 2014

Teaching English Composition

My first experience with teaching happened while I was driving down Alligator Alley late one afternoon. I was giving a very detailed lecture on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, rewording scholar Stephen Price’s Marxist angle on the commentary track to my highly enthralled (oh, and completely imaginary) class of Film Appreciation students. I was trapped in the fantasy caused by a long, lonely drive down a long, boring road, but the passion was real. Real enough for me to mime my points of interest in grand hand gestures that earned looks from every passing minivan. Real enough for to miss my exit. And real enough for it to take me twenty minutes to notice. Some part of me (perhaps the not quite sane part) wanted to teach or, at least, saw myself being able to.  
During my first term as a MFA student at Florida Atlantic University I was surprised at just how many of my fellow classmates were a part of the Graduate Teaching Assistantship (GTA) program. My vision was too tunneled during my undergraduate studies. I was so focused on getting into the MFA program that I was blindsided  upon learning there were other options and possibilities available. You mean I could teach? No way. What would I teach? Oh, English Composition. How is it? Is it really work intensive? Oh, so it’s not so bad? I get an office? Yeah, I understand it’s a shared office but whatever, still cool. Well, maybe, I don’t know, we’ll see, I’ll think about it…
After many conversations with teachers, students, advisors, friends, family, and random strangers whose opinion seemed important during my time of doubt, I decided to apply for a GTA position.
The road to the GTA was not as narrow and straight as Alligator Alley. I was informed late in the Spring of 2014 that I would not receive a GTA. I was disappointed. My delusions of grandeur reverted from Captain my Captain moments back to my old fail safe—my Academy Award Speech for winning best original screenplay.
Questions of self-worth arose. Am I good enough? Do I belong here? Should I leave? Whispers spoken though a cracked confidence.
I spent most of that summer prepping for the upcoming term. I masked the disappointment of a missed opportunity under piles of thesis revision and new work I would need in upcoming workshops.
An email from my program advisor in late July rejuvenated my enthusiasm for both the MFA program and the future I could make in it—I was offered a GTA position. I’m not going to state exactly how excited I was, but it was somewhere between drinking an entire bottle of whiskey and doing complete cartwheels around my neighborhood. Twice.
Initially, I was too excited to be scared. I printed out a copy of the GTA offer letter and drove to my mother’s house. She was a public school teacher for thirty-five years and an adjunct professor at Nova University. She likes to take credit for any ounce of creativity I may process, so I thought she’d enjoy more affirmation. After that, I drove to my employer to put in my resignation. Management was almost as happy for me as I was that I’d finally be able leave behind the insane hours (and equally insane people) of the restaurant business.
I was excited most for that. Never have I been able to focus solely on school. I’ve always had to balance work, studies, and writing, and I’ve worried each area has suffered due to the sacrifices my juggling act has required.  I knew teaching would replace those restaurant hours, but the thought of staying on campus, constantly surrounded by like-minded people doing like-minded things was inspiring.
But I’ve had doubts. I’m too aware of my weaknesses not to. I’m terrible at giving presentations, I often overlook my own textual errors, and sometimes I waver off point and talk about ideas not relevant to anything. Like fishing, for example: I’ve never caught a Redfish before. I really want to. But I won’t eat it. I don’t like fish. But I love steak. So, anyway, you can see why I was concerned. Would my weakness affect my ability to teach and mold the eager minds of my students?
Well, the process is ongoing. It is, after all, only the end of the first four weeks. But those doubts, those fears, the moments of feeling like maybe I’m a fraud are shared. My fellow incoming GTA’s echo my fears, imagined or otherwise. I know my moments of anxiety will be calmed during the next group therapy section, otherwise known as Colloquium. The support offered within the program, from Colloquium, ENC 6700 and the more experienced GTA’s who have willingly offered guidance throughout the process, has made the experience of learning to become a teacher both worthwhile and rewarding.
My students are great, and some days I feel like I’m doing it right, that everything will be okay. Sometimes not so much. In front of my class, my grand hand gestures can cause confused looks from my students, as if my class were filled with twenty-two minivans drivers turning to peer into my sedan. But I just keep driving, thrilled I missed the exit.

Aaron Avis is a MFA student in Creative Non Fiction at Florida Atlantic University. He is currently in his first year of the Graduate Teaching Assistant program offered by the University.