Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Writing Lessons from a Georgia Belle

Tayari Jones whirled into Florida with a fashionable shawl and the mystique of a Georgia belle. Invited by the faculty at the FAU MFA program, she stayed for a week-long session and a reading as the Lawrence Sanders Writer in Residence. She taught for two hours a day in a weeklong class on revision, and so 12 students entered with 12 pieces left for dead in hopes of gleaming and resurrecting something with the assistance of a growing iconic writer of the urban landscape.

Tayari came each day with suggestions from her own honed experience to help us try and salvage what we felt was lost. In the end, the revision she taught was not the editing of syntax or diction that sprouts, gleaming, in focused workshops searching for helpful suggestions. It was her own way of writing that she brought to the table, her emphasis on the life of the character and the importance of placing that at the forefront—before the process of editing begins.

As students, we’ve been honed and hardened to follow the ritualistic workshop since the day we entered. The line-by-line follows the first-read and then the close-read or two to cement your opinions regarding the authors’ intentions and their achievements in the story. This is a symptom of workshops that has been mentioned regularly in different classes since I started at FAU. The chance to workshop with a different set of rules broke a sort of stagnation in the stories. In some cases it was enough to resurrect the pieces. 

There’s also the possibility that the stagnation did not exist and that Tayari simply made the room shine. As the spring semester comes closer to an end I feel that this may be the more likely case. It’s a very different experience to have someone who has found, through failure and success, a place of personal stability that has led to a glowing happiness. There’s something more than editing that happened in that workshop.

Some students knew the writing of others, but we were not all familiar with each other’s styles and habits. Tayari made it a point to practice ‘pointing’ and give each of us the opportunity to be felt and enjoyed by our peers. This is a powerful exercise, but it really only worked when we took the time to look back at what was repeated back to us—our own words echoed with affection—and looked into those words to try and uncover what they held that had captured the admiration of strangers.

As spring comes to an end in Florida and the crocuses bud in Idaho and everyone looks forward to what is to come, there’s something to take and something to give back; it’s important to carry something with you as inevitability looms in the distance. For me, I carry the importance of anatomy, writing is hard work and it took doctor’s millennia to move from the humors of the body to what we know now. We inherit the work of the past and it is important to give homage to that by taking in lessons given from the wisdom of others. It is also important to note who is around you, who we are, and that the people who read this are those that also believe that somewhere within a sentence and a paragraph is something that is waiting to blossom. So it goes in spring. So it goes forever.

Jason Stephens graduated from Boise state in 2011. He joined the MFA program here at Florida Atlantic in the Spring of 2014. He is the son of Jim and Joan, brother of Jenn, Josiah, and Justin, uncle of Hunter, Wyatt, James, Alex, and Scarlett. He rarely misses appointments, regularly exercises, and travels whenever possible.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Revision & Tayari Jones

It was an honor and a pleasure to have been involved with this year’s writer in residence, Tayari Jones. Aside from any reading or writing tips, techniques and etcetera that come along with creative writers and creative writing workshops, Tayari was a delight to be around. Her passion for her craft was (is) electric, and I both saw and felt the buzz and hum pass right around—first the classroom, and then the room where she gave her reading. If I wasn’t disgusted by the use of the word I’d call it palpable.  
Tayari’s focus in our week of workshop was revision. Revision is a funny thing…in that it can let you know that you haven’t come near to completing a piece in the first place, or that you haven’t found your way to the starting line (let alone tied your shoe laces yet). “Reading a story is a spectator sport,” Tayari said, “and you need to get the reader involved.” The reader needs to be there, bleachered, but not sitting—they need to be on their feet, dressed in the appropriate colors, hands cupped around their mouths shouting viciously at the opposing players and chanting with passion for the home team. But first, indeed, they need to know who (or what) to root for before the score even matters…before the dwindling time on the clock brings nervous nails to teeth. One of the first things one must do in revision, then, is make sure a position is posited at the beginning…that a place is staked out where the reader can ground themselves and ready for the oncoming tide, right from the start. Otherwise, they will slowly shuffle to the exits, confused as to why they took those tickets from their friends and made their way to the arena in the first place…heading out early in order to beat the traffic. This seems like such an obvious aspect of one’s story to focus on—the beginning—but surprisingly, it appears to go overlooked more often than one would expect.  
I was tickled pink to listen to a few of my peers’ stories that I had read (and remembered) in past workshops undergoing the revision process as we worked with Tayari, to hear their labor of revision paying off…to see that it is a workable process, one that we seldom focus on in the workshop. This was a prideful feeling. A ‘hey-I-remember-that-story-and-the-scrutiny-that-it-underwent-and-now-it-seems-you-have-your-finger-on-the-pulse-of-it…you’ve-really-got-it-going-now-no-doubt-you’ll-finish-that-story-and-it-will-be-great-you-are-really-great-this-workshop-week-has-been-really-great’ sort of feeling. I was happy to be a part of it.
The MFA program constructs a community, pours the foundation of the buildings and erects the edifices of a group of friends—readers and writers—that one hopes (right?) to count on in the future MFA-less world where a penny shines a bit brighter (unless the lotto is won), to find readers of what’s lately been writ. I am glad to be a part of this at FAU, and I think that offering a chance at sharing such a community with a visiting writer/professor who deals in words, and trades in commereced stories and books—a writer/professor who is only here for a fleeting moment…much more fleeting than the MFA career—allows for an extremely focused set of guidelines, with even less time to waste. It allows for the development of a simultaneously distant and proximate relationship, rushed no doubt by time constraints, that forces the student to take note, to note take; it betters the workshop and bunkers the community. Though I would not trade the professors I have been lucky enough to work with and learn from for any other in the ‘field,’ the experience of encountering a decorated and knowledgeable passerby of the same sport, with words, wisdom and insight all her own, is a priceless one, if you are so lucky to be afforded it. 

Matthew Parker is a human being. This is an enormous pressure and takes continual diligence upon waking to keep it so. There are too many wires and chords and outletted plugs, and far too many screens to caress to get anything done. In the lulls between the contemplation of these anxieties he tries to write writing. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Revising With Tayari Jones: Editing the Soul

     The first things I noticed about Tayari Jones (after sitting down in the lobby of the Embassy Suites, fiddling with my hands and wondering if I was in the best seat possible to see her when she walked in) were her eyes. I don't mean her beauty, but her alertness, her focus, her ever-present I-have-an-answer-to-that look, her continual observing and evaluating of the world around her, a quality that's so necessary to posses in order to be a good writer.
     This is something that I, personally, had almost forgotten. I had recently covered the clear-glass globe of my world with sticky-notes of To-Do Lists that never seemed to get done. I had bogged myself down in the failures of the semi-finished (books to be read, family to call, student papers to grade, stories to edit) and these lists were obstructing my writerly view of the world, along with my own creativity.
     When I drove Tayari to FAU for the first time, I wasn't expecting any gems of wisdom (I was more so concerned with what notch the A/C should be on) and I didn't know I was receiving them until after the workshop entirely. In the car, she told me about how she wakes up around 5am (ouch!) and journals, writing letters to certain people, and prayers for others who likely won't ever see them. This last bit I took as her focusing on her personal, emotional, and mental health. It was extremely refreshing to spend the week with a person and writer who so openly spoke about all aspects of her life, even the centering bits that happen in between the moon and the sun, over a morning cup of coffee.
     This alertness and self-caring warmth was echoed in the first exercise we did in the workshop itself: pointing. It’s my new favorite thing. She gave credit to the person who first initiated this technique, but I was too excited to record it. Tayari would pick three or four people and have them each take turns reading a new chunk of prose they had written. While they’re reading, the rest of the class records phrases or images that struck them, so that they can point them out to the writer. We then go around the room, briefly stating what we liked best about the piece. This seems like a very sugary sweet exercise where writers are merely massaging others’ egos (she did mention, repeatedly, that it was like a nice massage; “Get your massage oils out.”) but here are three practical reasons why I think this exercise is great:

1. Its obvious confidence-boosting qualities can help a writer feel good about what she’s working on, giving her energy to revise it.

2. Since we’re writing awesome phrases down, it reminds us that writing is about the words—the infinite ways there are to string juicy thoughts together! Isn’t that why we got into this in the first place?

3. It pushes us to get more creative and sexy with our language, to try harder. (What if you everything you wrote was to be read during a pointing session?)

     Tayari also pushed us to re-work our pieces by imagining them as endless stories in order to make the choice of where they begin and end, on the page, a significant one. She taught us how to educate ourselves on our minor characters by giving them monologues that will likely never make it into the story, and she taught us if you’re writing based off of a real personal struggle you’ve faced, “If it doesn’t make you cry, then you’re not doing it right.” She reminded us to push ourselves to be unique with such phrases as, “Stop it, that’s generic,” and “Be you as hard as you can.”
     Her workshop was a jolt to my writerly soul, and I’m so grateful to the people in our Creative Writing program who worked to get her here (and those whose workshops push and inspire me every week!), to the Sanders Foundation for funding these opportunities, and to Tayari, for riding with me to FAU that afternoon, in my little hatchback, A/C blasting.

Kim is about to complete her first year in the Fiction MFA program, and is ready to flex her reading and writing muscles in the summer sun. Send her summer reading recommendations at kgrabenh@fau.edu.


Monday, March 31, 2014

Cooking Eggs and Writing Fiction

I have a good friend in Los Angeles who always tells me to be strong in my relationships.  She says I can never let a man see my “yolk,” the uncooked me, the droopy, yellow sadness of a mess I can be after a breakup, a rejection, or just a bad day.  “They only want to see your shiny shell,” she’d affirm.

In Tayari Jones’s revision workshop, we learned that creating fiction is a lot like cooking an egg.  She often referred to that task, the crafting of the text, as more of an emotional undertaking than writer’s work.  The raw egg is your unadulterated sentiment that stems from real life experience, the pure grit of feeling, the essence of your opus.  In order to cook it up into a fictional piece, compose characters and breathe life into them, you must first boil the egg, therefore solidifying the emotion into something tangible, unbreakable, and palpable.

He saw my yolk!  Over easy, for sure!  I’d cry to my pal as she sat sunny side up listening to my trials and tribulations.  “Stay strong, no one wants runny eggs!”   One day, she actually made me eggs at her apartment, and I watched her patiently time out the cooking.  She dressed them with a bit of salt and pepper, sat them next to garlic spinach and fresh berries and served me the plate, hot and steaming.  The eggs were perfect - centers sturdy with just the right amount of yolk melting like lava when I pricked them with my fork.

Tayari Jones is right.  It’s not only about becoming a better writer, but also growing as a person.  If we serve a bunch of raw emotion on a plate, no one will want to finish the meal.  But, if we study practices of writing, sharpen our tools, become skilled in all areas of the craft, then we can lure readers in with artful appeal and the delicious tales we tell.

I don’t want to be fake though.  The right person should appreciate all my angst!  “Sure, sure babe,” she would say.  “The right one can handle the yolk, but you can’t let them see it all spilled out in the first act.”

Brittany Ackerman is a second year MFA in creative non-fiction.  She eats two hard boiled eggs for lunch every day to ensure stability in her writing and emotional life.  In regards to the recent Cheetos debate that has broken out on campus, she prefers the puff to the crunch.