Monday, November 25, 2019

The Physicality of Place

During a panel at the 2019 Miami Book Fair, a woman spoke softly into the mic and asked Jill Ciment, Karen Russel, and Kristen Arnett about what it means to write about place. I felt my body move to the edge of my seat and I quickly took out my phone, hoping to be able to retain as much information as possible when they spoke. All three writers Florida residences, all three writing about Florida, and all three with different brilliant answers.
Ciment answered that as a Montreal native and someone who previously had lived in New York City it takes a long time before you can write about a place. Russel spoke of how writing where you lived can be hard. You want to get it right. Arnett, a Florida native, answered that place is a physical experience and when writing it should function as such. She said what does it feel like to move through a Florida summer? The muskiness that hits your tongue or the sweat pooling across your skin as you move. She spoke of the sound of cicadas and the annoyance that fills your body when you hear them. That yes of course you see place, but you also feel it, you smell it, you taste it.
Place is more than setting. It is not where the story physical happens. It’s the space between what is happening and where it is happening. Ciment is right, it takes a long time to write about a particular place. Russel is too, you want to get place right. But I think Arnett nailed it on the head.
“There is a physical experience of place.”
There is. When you step into a corn field in the middle of a spring evening in Northwest Missouri there's a buzzing. On your skin, in your ears, between your scuffed up flip flops. It's the way water pools in the rows that draws the mosquitoes and June bugs. A Colorado sunrise after a snowstorm is a warmth like none other, the blinding reflection of rays onto frozen water molecules can give you a sadistic sunburn if you stay out too long. Your skin starts to get hot around your face the way it does on a beach when you’ve forgotten your sunscreen, but you realize you’ve remembered too late. The road outside the Fox Theatre in downtown Oakland during October smells like popcorn, Chinese food, and T-shirt ink. The gentrification of the block feels heavy and you notice it the most when you get your artistic gelato. You should feel guilty. If you get stuck on the side of a riverbank in Bluff, Utah during mid-March, because you forgot that when you paddle board the San Juan River its best to have a car parked at the end point first so you'll be able to get home, there will be a group of Mormon Cub Scouts whose troop leader promptly tells the tall teenage boy to get in his truck and drive “you ladies” back to your campsite.
Write the peculiar ones, the normal ones, and all the places in between. But whatever you do, write the physicalness that place forces us all to experience.

Merkin Karr is a first year MFA student at Florida Atlantic University. She loves standup paddle boarding, her dog Olive, and quiet hookah bars. When she’s not writing true crime she’s listening to podcasts or teaching herself how to snorkel. (One is going much smoother than the other).

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Writing and Traveling

I’d missed my flight. Maybe everyone should miss a flight at least once in their lives, just for the experience, I thought--framing the situation like I often do, delicately sidestepping the whole moderate financial mishap thing.

My girlfriend, always handy with an optimistic scheme of an idea, affirmed for me that I wasn’t dying, that there were worse problems, and then suggested booking a different, more circuitous itinerary that would prove less squashingly expensive to re-book. The next day I got on a plane to Vegas, where I would pick up a miraculously affordable rental car and start driving several hundred miles to my destination of Oakland, California.

That next morning, I woke up in a campsite that faced a mountain range of Death Valley, and the day after that, woke up along a river near Lake Tahoe, California, until at last, I took the final leg down the highway that runs, itself like an inevitable water, into Oakland. Within those three days of highly unplanned travel, I’d quickly hiked a canyon before the barometer hit 110 degrees, met a group of hippies who told me about growing up in a nudist camp, watched cows graze on the greening mountains of the melting Sierra Nevada snow peaks. I took notes at a small desert bar filled, interestingly enough, with young Russians. It’s an understatement to say that it had paid, as I realized later, to have relaxed into the initial supposed crisis, to have done a thing I would never have otherwise planned.

Writing, I’ve come to learn, is often a lot like this. We miss the flight. We thought we were writing a novel but we’re writing little vignettes that we decide to turn into postcards and send to all of our friends, and some of the friends will keep the papers forever and some of them will gently send them to the recycle. We write five hundred pages, believing we’re chasing some great work of our lives, and then what we’ve got is five hundred pages of a messy, funny, poignant, moving good try, but maybe try again.

The remainder of that summer, the almost too dreamy three months of a break between the second and third years of my MFA, was like one darn long extended metaphor as that lesson continued to reveal itself in so many shapes.


As my girlfriend and I worked house sitting jobs across Northern California, taking day trips to redwood forests in Marin County and evening drives into the cities of the Bay, the beautiful-but-bootstrapped writer’s retreat I thought I had designed for myself was clearly not quite happening. California was gorgeous, but for the first week after I arrived, I wasn’t really writing. (The two facts might have been a little related.) Revising stories? I thought, sitting at the desk of a man who owned a beautiful home in a small town known for its bocce ball tournaments and the historic site of John Muir’s home. Someone’s revising stories? I said, staring at the blank computer screen--and not writing.

Why this little drought? I had come a long way, had planned and anticipated what this West Coast light and air would stir to life, and there it was: Something in me was demanding time off.   

It was unlike me to really, truly dip out of my planned writing practice. I keep to it. For many years, writing what Julia Cameron calls “morning pages” kept me alive to the dream of being a writer, and it kept me alive to the truer undercurrents of my life, heart, and creativity. It kept me, quite honestly, afloat in the uncertainty and unconventional priorities that marked my twenties.

I sat on the porch of that couple’s house, petting a cat who wasn’t mine, and thought: How do I need to write, now? What’s the form? I tried to relax, avoid the self-doubt that I was no good for writing until further notice. I tried to sidestep the fear, and search instead for another route to the goal of staying awake as a writer.

I kept notes, journals. I tried my hand at short short stories, realizing that the spontaneity of traveling felt more important than the demands of a four-hour morning devotion to twenty-page story projects that consumed the best part of my day. I shifted a little, moved into a mode of observing and noting short bursts of stories, letting go of the daily jobliness of my usual writing. And when I arrived back home at the end of the summer, settling back into the place of my job, settling into the final year of my MFA, those notes glowed and sang from the vantage point of recollection, and I found them forming into longer pieces I couldn’t have foreseen in the midst of the travel itself. 

Writing, like love, seems to demand a constant attentive listening, where we ask every day: What do you want from me now? What do we need to do next?


When traveling, I noticed, I didn’t need to force myself to have the same kind of writing practice. My foiled intentions to write in a certain kind of way made me uneasy, but in fact, I owed myself a needed release from the pressure of plans and structure. Through travel, we have the freedom and the privilege to direct our attention where instinct moves us, looking where we may have never expected to look, feeling from spaces and positions and views we had never expected to feel. 

After all, traveling can be a chance to refill the well in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Driving once from Florida to my family’s Michigan home, the distance I covered began to feel like it was expanding my stories’ scope, suggesting a new and bigger stage from which I began to imagine the collection I was drafting for my MFA thesis. What was happening in this country, so big that only driving or riding by horse seems to be an appropriate means of comprehending its scale and variety--what all was there in the world, in Ohio and Kentucky and Tennessee, in all of these cities and towns, in all of these homes, while I had been tucked away in my small apartment, so quietly writing for workshop in Florida? Writing about place, writing through travel, can force us to ask ourselves and to reassess: What is it that seems most important, most vital to observe in the world?

And yet, even as the idea of travel writing can just glimmer with such idyllic promise, what happens when the work or the place doesn’t quite run the blissful, easeful program we had imagined? Both writing and traveling are big gifts to ourselves, ones that we often work hard to afford and make space for in our lives. But when I write as I travel, I can find myself assessing the appropriate ratios of art to life. Am I doing this travel thing right, I wonder? Am I living the best life, the best writer life? Am I making the most of my time?

Relaxing into what we have in front of us, the task of listening to the instincts that say, Go for a walk now, or Talk to the person at that end of the bar, or Scribble that down! That thing, the purple polka dot van converted out of an old bus!--all the notes, the thinking, the attention, the settings and characters we jot in messy notebook handwriting are all just as important, and sometimes even just as hard to notice and to find a way to keep, as the desk time work of writing. And who knows? That polka dot van could one day drive you exactly where you had wanted to go. 

Cherri Buijk is a third-year MFA candidate and teacher at Florida Atlantic University. She is working on her first collection of short stories.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Forms Memories Take

Memories are not always clear and linear. I know many of my own memories can be hazy, nebulous, and somehow all the while vivid and crisp—surreal, even. Interestingly enough, these strange recollections are the ones I turn over the most, as if the very fact that these seemingly insignificant details have transformed into colorful memories that have stuck with me all this time must mean there is a profundity in them that deserves examining.  I do most of this scrutinizing in my writing. Perhaps my favorite aspect of writing is the flexibility through which I can choose to express and explore (and at times dissect) my psychological ties to the images and sensory detail from my memory.

As a writer who has dabbled in both creative nonfiction and poetry, I could say there is a method to the way that I choose whether I’d like to convey these kinds of memories in an essay or a poem. Would I rather bare my soul in paragraphs or stanzas? Sentences or lines? And then from there, how can I be clever with my structure, how can I lead my form to follow function?  The truth is there is no real answer I can give, no way I can adequately clarify how I make certain distinctions.  What I can say is this: either way, writers will have to go with their gut.  For me, if the memory I want to convey in my writing is something that is specific and can be arranged chronologically, I might turn to an essay format (though admittedly, I particularly enjoy writing lyrical essays which may utilize a poetic device or two.)  Even in essay format, I find it difficult not to incorporate lyricism when unpacking a memory, but then again, for me, nostalgia has always been hard to deliver without a song. For my more bizarre, dreamlike memories, I turn to poem format much more often.

My poetry, not unlike my other writing, is usually approached with a degree of emotional distance rather than erring on the side of confessional.  When describing or conveying a memory in my poetry, I think this distance allows me a kind of dexterity, an ability to manipulate form and language to illustrate the stranger details of a memory—for instance, a peculiar scent that recalls candy, flowers, plums, and rubber from when I was five years old, the one that would make me ache with the absence of fancy-free youth if I smelled it now. Something about the brevity, and concurrently the great depth, of such a memory certainly lends itself to poetry, which in some ways seems to perfectly serve this type of memory in its own format—brief and insightful.  Phrases that sound like the taste of my grandmother’s spaghetti on Easter weekend, words that feel as toasty as the fireplace in my childhood home—sometimes only the musicality of language in poetry can express that flash of emotion and color buried in my mind’s eye.

Maddy García is a first-year poetry MFA Candidate and instructor of English composition at FAU. Much of her work grapples with identity, ambiguity of form, and the human experience juxtaposed against the cosmos. She is also a visual artist and, in her free time, she enjoys cooking and surrounding herself with cats.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

A Matter of Focus: Thoughts on Craft in Poetry

When A Thing happens, when I feel a poem begin, I feel it as the base of my brain stem humming. It happens when I notice river-water curling around the legs of a motionless heron on the opposite bank. It also happens when I feel the weighty comparison of petty bickering on the Food Network contrasted with a multi-car pileup, the burned-out wreckage alongside my commute. 
It happened when I went to church and it happened when I saw my bare feet framed by stars through my best friend’s windshield way past curfew. I feel the same sensation when I begin a nonfiction piece, or the beginnings of inspiration related to an academic paper, but with a poem it’s different. Less puzzled, more exultant. Less in the front of my brain, more in the back where my molars are anchored, where I hold tension, where tension holds me.
Do I notice the times I describe above, these generative moments, easily? Do I record them? My body certainly records them, my sense of living anxiety as good as a notepad for taking ideas. Not that I don’t use my journal (or even the Notes app of my iPhone) to jot down phrases that sound pretty or stir my sensibilities. 
But more often, it’s common for me to feel the poem in my chest and my stomach before my mind can articulate the words that my guts seem to be singing. When this happens, it’s best for me to get to some paper, pen, and some silence so the poem can emerge, mostly whole, as quickly as possible. Often, this visceral response to a situation is so broad and feels so specific (a macrocosm and microcosm all at once) that my main decision in terms of craft is to appropriately focus the lens of my perception. My poems, painted in large swaths, are unwieldy, licking at the seams of cells with the same fervor that they attempt to use in devouring the stars. 
To rein in my poem, I focus on pulling that abundant response to the world back to what I can ostensibly know about my environment, my body, my immediate surroundings. This might mean using my senses only: what can I touch with my skin? What type of dirt is stuck under my fingernails right this second, and where did it come from? What is it about this particular Marlboro that tastes differently, and what does it taste of?
When that exploration of detail becomes mundane, or indistinguishable from the experiences of anyone else digging in the same field or smoking the same brand of cigarette, then I begin to explore the broader questions (at the risk of challenging my earlier, established focus). Why did that dirt cause me remember the farm I took my first job at, my grandmother who tended those fields, my grandfather who faithfully ran the tilling machines? Where did the smoke of the cigarette go that enchanted me to follow it? 
It’s in this connection between the stimulus and what memory was stimulated that I find the poem. It is the attempt to feel a chill and write, while shivering, what it means to be cold before I am warm again. My decision of craft is less a carefully measured editing or author’s mechanism and more a dreamer’s earnest attempt to explain the dream, to grasp at it with language before it fades from the body upon waking. Eileen Winn is a first year MFA student with a concentration in poetry and an interest in nonfiction. Originally from Ohio, Eileen lives in Florida with their husband and their cat. Without purple pens, much of their work would not exist.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Dear Grad Students: How to Make It as A GTA

First of all, you don’t make it. Instead, as you rush out of your apartment on the first day of class, you skip a block on the staircase and tumble down the rest — right knee and left ankle dislocated. Also, you fall so thoroughly and quickly, like a blink, that you think you imagined it. You, with an entire weekend of lesson planning, bathroom rehearsals and slowly cooked optimism. Naa, this can’t be real, you think. Or! It is a prank, maybe. A joke from the universe stretched too far so you hahah in your head and un-imagine yourself from the ground. Pain, awkwardness and the desire to call your mother. Welcome to the Academia! 
Follow the story to before the chaos begins. Before the fall and the limp and the pool of student’s eyes drilling into you. Before that first phrase: Good morning, Class! And the clear white silence that greets you back. Before that awkward stretch of time, eternity crammed into one teaching session, as you exhaust your lesson plan in the first ten minutes. You know, before that small riot in your head, that slow killing tension, before you realize that your mouth is open, and the words pour out and you are cannot pull them back and force them down your throat – too late! You tell the class about your fall. Laughter follows, sympathy too, and you realize that is not the day you die. 
So yes, before all that. Maybe then to begin at Orientation? That first morning when you skip into the room, bright-eyed and alive with your American dreams. New beginnings shine on your skin. Three years of studenting and teacherly things – how hard can it be? Except you have class activities due for essays one and two. Easy, breezy, you think at first, until night when the words begin to blur and tease and mock, because your English has crossed the Atlantic and now you are simply no longer sure. Also, what is this lingering headache and obsession with bread. What is cognitive distortion? *you cry hot tears! 
It occurs to you on Day Three of Orientation that you are not prepared for this, that you do not know the first thing about teaching and maybe even writing? Because heck, school people like their commas and most times you are too lazy and anxious to care about them punctuations.  But! There is free food and nice smiling-people and the guy from the elevator, so you push aside your doubts as quickly as they enter. Who cares if you ruin the American educational system with your rabid inexperience? 
After three weeks of teaching you will meet K (Yes, K, because you won’t write real actual names in this post; what if K gets you arrested/deported?). The first thing about K is that you think he is a student. You think, from that drowning look in his eyes that he is a freshman trying to piece together an essay, seeking help from an instructor. And then, by means of casual introduction you will find out that K is a Program alumnus with three years teaching experience under his ‘proverbial’ belt. Also, shame on you for thinking otherwise. 
You will learn from K that a student can call you out for looking ‘un-teacherly.’  That anxiety can seep through your pores and leave your palms dripping with sweat. That it is not a good idea to keep the markers in your pocket because those stains are tough to clean out. That some students will sleep in class. That words and your mind will fail you as you lose your thoughts mid-sentence. So maybe then that no matter what you do, the first time was always meant to be a mess. 
Flip the coin. You, Grad Teacher, are also a student. You will begin to use words like Epistemological in sentences and you will do it with a straight face because well, this is your life now.  You will shelve out two separate spaces in your head for reading plots and for your students’ names. Hopefully, you won’t ever address a student by a novel character. (Doesn’t matter that both names start with S and end with A.) Of course, you will learn how to prioritize. There is the unending backlog of papers to grade and your course assignments to wrestle with, but you, my friend, must choose Netflix. Chat all day with your friends from home. Join a dating app and laugh at the absurdity of people on it. Remember that you are a person on it. Leave the app. Cook some meals. Burn hours on Facebook. Try to get some work done. Fail at it. Miss home. Etcetera.
This is the journey and you are figuring it out. Hopefully!

Tochi Eze is a former Lawyer turned wannabe writer. She is a first-year MFA student at Florida Atlantic University, a Program she hopes, among other things, will cure her of her compulsive laziness and procrastination, so that maybe one day she could actually start the novel she has written in her head.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Conjuring Houdini's Papers: Swann Grant Travel Funding

I spent my summer crying over books. I can’t imagine this is too atypical when speaking to a community of readers and writers. But specifically, I spent a week of my summer crying over escape artist Harry Houdini’s books and other writings in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
Harry Houdini (1874-1926) was a writer. It can be easy to forget his intellectual pursuits because even most of his biographers relegate his career as a writer to be secondary to his career as a performer, escapist and magician. Yet, Houdini wrote. A lot. He wrote seven books (mostly on magic), edited a monthly magic magazine, wrote short stories, professional articles on magic, movie treatments for his silent film career, and letters (so many letters), professional and personal, especially love letters to his wife Bess. Houdini left behind a lot more than strait-jackets, leg irons and lock picks. The Houdini Papers are thankfully preserved and collected at UT Austin’s Harry Ransom Center, and I am grateful to have been a recipient of the Swann Grant this summer, which funded my travel, research and tears.
I’m writing an alternate history novel where Houdini doesn’t die in 1926, and I’ve known since I discovered the archive that I would need to visit the Ransom Center. I had done so much Houdini biographical research and yet still struggled with major gaps in understanding Houdini and Bess as people.
When I decided to apply for the Swann Grant, I first spoke with a student who won the award last year to get more information and ask questions on their experience. Then, I met with Dr. Carla Thomas, a medievalist. If I can offer new students any advice, it’s to reach out to your professors, even the ones you haven’t taken a course with and even the ones whose research does not seem to line up with your own. In passing, Carla had once told me she would be more than happy to speak with me about digging around in archives. I made an appointment to meet with her and voiced my concerns. I had never been to an archive before, and while I vaguely understood the genre of the research proposal, I couldn’t quite determine how to write such a proposal for creative work. Carla left me with very practical advice on how to articulate the research I had already completed and show how the specific materials in the archive would contribute to my novel.
At the Ransom Center, even though I was allowed to take (but not share) pictures on my phone, I spent most of my time deciphering Houdini’s handwriting, or copying Houdini’s handwriting by hand into my own notes. As a writer who does a lot of my drafting by hand, it mattered that if I was touching and reading his letters, then I was writing his words. What did those sentences feel like scratched from my pencil? Archival work became even more of a physical experience.
But the best part of the receiving the Swann Grant, was getting to hold the physical published copy of Houdini’s book, A Magician Among the Spirits (1924). This is the only copy in existence with Houdini’s notes for a subsequent edition that was never sent to print—Houdini died before the project could be completed. In reading his revisions—the slash of red ink, the physical inserts of pages glued into the book’s gutter, the asterisks delineating details for new material—I was struck by what I had already known as integral to my understanding of his character all along. Houdini was a writer. And I am so proud and honored to be in that company.

Cheryl Wollner is a second year MFA student studying fiction. Their work has appeared in the anthologies Today, Tomorrow, Always; Hashtag Queer Vol. 3 and The Best of Loose Change. If you ask, they will tell you how Houdini really died (it was not performing a trick).

Monday, September 9, 2019

On Fluidity in the Creative Process

My creative process is young.

Most of the time, I get an idea for a piece stuck in my head and kick it around a while. I’ll think on it, go about my life, and come back to it from a different angle. I know it has potential if the idea follows me around long enough. Usually, I’ll work out the first sentence or so in my mind before I sit down to write anything. Sometimes it’s a couple words that I focus on, sometimes a whole paragraph. I think about the words while driving. I think about the words while talking to someone about an unrelated matter. I think about the words while I’m teaching class. While I’m taking class.

Ideally, I like to meditate before I write, but this is not something that’s always possible. If I’m at home, I’ll burn sage, read a passage from the Tao Te Ching, and lay flat on my back with my palms open. I prefer the lying-down meditation to sitting or walking. I’ve read a bunch of books about meditation and practiced many styles, and this is the one that works best for me. It took a while for me to get there.

I like to squeeze the writing moment for all it’s worth. I write in large bursts, and I like it that way. I don’t do a little at a time. I’m an extreme person, always have been. This area is no different. Kerouac’s philosophy of “spontaneous prose” is fascinating to me. I’ve never written 50,000 words in a sitting while on large doses of speed, but I don’t think it’s a bad approach. Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of experimenting in that way. I’ve worn out my welcome in the drug department.

So, I create a mood and I proceed to exhaust every bit of energy out that mood as I can. I purge myself onto the page. I don’t really like the word “purge,” however. It implies I have something bad to rid myself of. But I guess a lot of times I do. At least “purge” sounds better than “ejaculate,” the other descriptive word that comes to mind, even though the invocation of orgasm is more positive. Writing is much closer to a purging for me, an evacuation of thoughts. The process doesn’t always feel good as a rule, and I’m not always satisfied when it’s done.

I’m forcing myself to write with greater frequency, which means all these little steps I’ve outlined become less feasible. For instance, I did none of this before writing this piece right now. This is a good thing. I can’t expect conditions to be perfect—or even good—all the time. I do what I can to mitigate anxiety and I write. I get as much on the page as possible, and I work it out later. But the spirit of the moment is always paramount.

My creative process is idealistic.      

Jonny Rawson is an MFA student in creative writing at Florida Atlantic University, where he’s working on a memoir about addiction. He’s from New Jersey, which he actually considers an asset. You can check