Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Go Tell it On a Mountain: My Two Weeks at the Mont Blanc Workshop.

Picture this: White tipped mountain tops cascading into an evergreen hillside so mammoth that when you look out of the window of the tiny alpine apartment you rented from a Scandinavian expat who currently lives in London, there is no skyline—all you see is green. This is what happens every day, for two weeks, at the Mont Blanc Writing Workshop.

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

            Some people may have been lured in by the fantastical scenery, or the chance to go abroad and be inspired by a foreign culture, or by the ability to spend time with like-minded writers from all over the world. These are all good reasons for a new writer to go to a workshop like Mont Blanc, but my reason was less picturesque—I wanted the chance to work with one of the writers whose work I had only just encountered in the months prior to applying, one who wrote the kind of prose I always wanted to write. For me, it was Alexander Chee.

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

            The first time I encountered Alexander Chee I was reading an essay he wrote for The Paris Review on James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. Chee began with a narrative in which he recounted working as a makeup artists on a gay porn set, recalling a scene wherein it was particularly difficult for the actors to “rise” to the occasion (pun intended). The director turned off the lights and closed the door so the actors could “work it out,” and Chee predicted that what happened in those moments were probably better than anything they actually recorded. He went on to say, “I thought about how something had happened in the dark that we couldn’t see, an excitement that couldn’t be in the film…It seems to me I am always in pursuit of that.” 

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

            It is clear that Chee was talking about sex—but he was also talking about the moments in life we are too scared to reveal. Moments that reveal our flaws, whisper secrets, admit to lies, or publicize truths that have always seemed better left unsaid. As a nonfiction writer, my work has always been an act of recollection—a way to grapple with the past, collecting and re-collecting the moments in my life that have the ability to say something to the world that exists beyond myself. Part of this is the pursuit Chee talks about—timidly feeling around for these moments and memories in the darkness, and dragging them out to immortalize them on the page. So after scraping around for money and expediting my passport renewal, I made my way across the Atlantic to Chamonix, a little town in France—le pays de mon coeur as my grandmother calls it—to find someone who might help me shine a light in the darkest corners of my memory.

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

            I could tell you I accomplished so much work there (which I did), and how my own project began to blossom again after looking at it from outside of the confines of an MFA thesis (which it did), or the relationships I built while I was there with writers I never would have met otherwise (this also happened)—but what good does that do you? Will it inspire you to apply to a residency next summer? Maybe. It is the same shit you hear from everyone who has told you how important these kinds of programs are? Probably. So instead let me tell you what I learned in the two weeks I spent in the foothills of Mont Blanc, and perhaps that will show the value of these kinds of workshops, both for those of you who are thinking of applying, and for myself who was broke for the rest of the summer after taking the risk. After a careful re-reading of my notebook from the workshop, here are the tips I will take with me throughout my writing career:

1.) Keep A Work Journal: One of the best things I learned working with Alexander Chee was to keep a work journal for writing—especially if you are writing a long form piece. Create a new entry after each writing session, ask yourself questions you have about characters, plot or the writing itself, jot down intuitions about the plot, and keep all your outtakes that you don’t think belong. Doing this allows you to come back to your writing the next day (or week, or whatever your rhythm is) and not have the anxiety of a blank page, because you’ve already given yourself a starting place. It also helps you resist the urge to go back and re-read your work over and over again—which, when you are writing a book-length piece, can slow you down immensely.

2.) “If you need to embroider, embroider the edges and not the center:” Alex said this was something Annie Dillard told him in a nonfiction workshop when he was in his MFA. Much of the work the members of our workshop brought to the table fell into the genre of memoir or autobiographical novel (even when some of us believed it wasn’t). He stressed the importance of not embroidering the center, because this is what gives the reader something to feel, see and touch. We can accomplish this by anchoring the stories in very specific things; however, when we begin to embroider we often fill the prose with abstractions, and the longer we stay in the abstract, the greyer the line gets. For me in nonfiction writing, the center is always the “truth”—the memory, the recollection, the stories I’ve be told throughout my life—and the edges are my own imaginings of the world these stories occurred in.

3.) “The writer must survive the writing:”  This is perhaps the sentiment I find myself recalling most after leaving France. Alex said it at one of our first meetings, where we all spoke about what we were writing about and where we stumbled into the area of trauma. As writers, regardless of genre, we often pull inspiration from our own lives and experiences, and oftentimes this involves moments and experiences that are traumatic. We spoke about the trials and tribulations of this kind of work, and that—as writers—it is important to realize when we aren’t ready to take on these experiences on the page. Often in workshop (I’ve seen it most commonly in nonfiction, but I whole-heartedly believe it is true in fiction and poetry as well), we submit something we’re not ready to receive criticism or feedback on, or we begin writing about something we haven’t finished emotionally processing and feel obligated to press forward in order to finish the project. This is putting the writer at risk, not only for the emotional repercussions of revisiting these traumatic experiences, but for not doing justice to the writing—we leave things out we don’t want to remember, or skew them in a way that feels less authentic to avoid dealing with the pain, or we are unable to receive any negative feedback about the work because it feels like our lives are being judged. Maybe this isn’t what Alex meant by his sentiment, but I think that in order to survive the writing, we must also survive the reaction to the writing. If we are not ready to hear those things, it is better to leave some stories untold—at least until we are truly ready to tell them.

4.) "I hope you leave more of yourself than when you came:" This is the wish Alexander Chee has for all of the writers that leave his workshops. At the end of two weeks I left France with thirty new pages (about 15 of which were usable), a recommended reading list that spanned four notebook pages, a copy of Erin Belieu’s Slant Six, a couple blocks of cheese and a group of friends and writers that I still talk to today. I learned about surviving my work, embracing my strengths and accepting my weaknesses as a writer. I learned that inspiration is everywhere—not just in colossal mountain ranges across the ocean, but in people you wouldn’t have met if you hadn’t taken a giant leap outside of your comfort zone. I learned that there are working writers and professors from around the country who are willing to guide and teach you, but also treat you as equals, and as friends. I learned about myself, and remembered why I started writing in the first place, and in that way I did leave more of myself than I was when I arrived. So you got your wish, Mr. Chee, and I hope one day I can help other writers feel that way too. For now, I hope this blog post will help inspire some of you to decide to travel to re-find your writely selves, wherever that may take you. 

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

In addition to going to France and being an MFA in nonfiction, Nico Cassanetti loves corgis more than anyone else you know. She has written editorial pieces for LIFE|STYLE and M&V magazine, and has a prose poem forthcoming in the A3 Review in London this September. If you want to read other stuff by Nico, she made this little website for you: www.nicocassanetti.com.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Welcome to Fall 2015!

Welcome, everyone, to the Fall 2015 semester here at the MFA program at FAU. I'm your friendly English Graduate Advisor, and I want to give you some information before we get into the more interesting blogs this semester.

Speaking of more interesting blogs, if you have something interesting to say, I beseech you to get in touch with me. We're especially interested in blogs on the craft of writing, the publishing class, your writing process, and reviews of reading events.

And what great reading events we have this year! We will have readings from Chantel Acevedo, Russell Banks, Tom Sleigh, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Jay Critchley, David Keplinger, and our very own Susan Mitchell.

But as you know, an MFA program isn't all readings and philosophical discussions. You also need to take classes and, you know, make progress toward your degree. Let me get some of that out of the way. The program is 48 credit hours: 21 credit hours of workshop classes (seven classes), 18 credit hours of literature/theory classes (six classes), ENG 6009: "Principles and Problems of Literary Study" (this is your only specifically required course), and six thesis hours. Take a look at the advising checklist if you're more of a visual sort of person. Heck, while you're clicking around, why not check out our Web site wherein I go into all this advising stuff in more detail? It'll be great fun.

If you're graduating this semester (or next, because, hey, it's good to be prepared), take a look at the thesis guidelines. Remember! After 18 credit hours you must have a Plan of Study on file. See me for help with this - it's what I'm here for.

Well, okay. And speaking of me being here, I won't actually be here the whole semester. As you may or may not know, I'm expecting a kid (a human one!) this Halloween. Don't believe me? Here's a picture.
He's just the cutest, right? What kind of unborn baby is this cute already? Gah.

But, okay, so I'm going to be here until mid-October and then I'm leaving you in the very capable hands of Kelly De Stefano. She'll introduce herself on the blog soon. I will be back to advising next Summer 2016.

So! Welcome or welcome back, as the case may be. I encourage you to attend everything! To host readings (and invite me)! To write and write and then write some more! I hope this is a wonderful semester for all of you.

MR Sheffield, aka Mary Sheffield, aka Mary Ruth Sheffield-Gentry, aka Mars (that's an authentic nickname, guys) is your English Graduate Advisor. She can be reached at Mfa@fau.edu. Email her and make an appointment - you will make her day, I swear. I mean, I know for sure. Well, because I'm she.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Summer Break

So! Your trusty FAU MFA blog is here to let you know that we're on hiatus for the summer. We'll be back in the fall with fantastic posts from your favorite current, former, and future (?!) MFA students.

In the meantime, please use your summer to write and write and write. And write. Right? Write!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Theory and the Thesis

The graduating thesis essay is a bizarre 15 to 20 page netherworld where you must analyze your own writing as a scholar. You’re to treat your thesis like a real, throbbing literary thing: think craft explication, close readings, and, god help you, maybe some genuine Lit Crit.

Just to let you know, this is not a post about writing the thesis essay. Instead, this post is about where theory belongs in fiction.

The best fiction offers something beyond its moving parts, some framework of understanding. The best theory does this too, can possess those crystalline moments, when reading reminds you about the part of yourself you forgot. That second when you have to look away from the page because you can’t stand it anymore, so you stare awkwardly in the air in front of you and freak out your roommate standing in your eyeline.

For me, it was Cuban anthropologist Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s seminal work The Repeating Island. It’s not an easy read, thanks to Benítez-Rojo’s sinuous, ropey prose, weaving through Spenglar, Chaos theory, and memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But there is a moment when he’s trying to articulate the Caribbean’s place in history, where the region becomes in his eyes “a meta-archipelago...[with] neither boundary nor center. The Caribbean flows outwards past the limits of its own sea with a vengeance… [and] may be found on the outskirts of Bombay, near the low and murmuring shores of Gambia, in a Cantonese tavern circa 1850, in an old Bristol Pub.”

At the time of writing, Benítez-Rojo has already defected to the United States, teaching and writing in Amherst. He knew he’ll never be able to return to Cuba. Beyond the brilliant analytics, here in this crystalline moment he’s just an exiled man, desperate for home, and in his desperation sees the Caribbean everywhere.

I read this in Spring 2014. My uncle, who I worshipped, was in and out of the hospital. I’d bring books to his bedside and read. He was Jamaican, part black and white and Chinese, and had one of those faces that people think they recognize. When he went to Peru back in the 80’s during the civil war, locals would come up to him speaking Spanish, thinking he was Peruvian, thinking he was back home.

Decades later, I went to Peru too because of him, and I saw my uncle everywhere. In the bus conductors dangling from moving buses like they do in Jamaica, shouting “sube, sube.” In the vendor trying to sell me traditional caricature masks that she swears they wore to mock the Spanish during colonial times, though I’m confused because they look like Junkanoo costumes.

I read this passage thinking of my uncle, in all the geographic and historical accidents that needed to happen to create him – a phenomenon both global and distinctly Caribbean. And somehow between my uncle and Spenglar and an ugly white hospital room that could be anywhere, I found what I wanted to write about for my thesis. Perhaps for as long as I write.

So I guess this is a guide for writing the thesis essay – in that theory can teach you as much as practice. Theory can articulate for you what you’ve been trying to do all along.

Monique McIntosh is a third year MFA student at FAU, graduating this semester. She is a fiction short story writer from Jamaica.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Parasitic to Symbiotic: The Power of Form

The MFA faculty at FAU bring in an impressive amount of both renowned and prolific authors for students to engage with; I’ve had the chance to listen to lectures from Tayari Jones, Jo Ann Beard, Richard Ford, and others. One comment that Ford made that resonated with me was: “Anybody who knows me for very long is going to fall out with me.” While he said this with a mixture of seriousness and humor, commenting on his own work and his lack of a writing community, it felt true for me as well.
That fear of a fall out something I’ve dealt with in all social aspects of my life. I assume that I’m going to hurt someone needlessly, so to me emotional distance is protection. However, that attitude is counter to the reason I came to the MFA program here at FAU. I wanted to invest in a community of writers and take risks. Upon receiving tenure, A. Papatya Bucak wrote: “It feels like I ought to do something to deserve it,” and that was a feeling I could relate to early on in the program. A feeling that grew when the University offered me a GTA position, and a feeling that continues to grow with the opportunities I am offered through the English Department and the Creative Writing Director, Dr. Becka Mara McKay.
            Within that desire to both partake in a community and to deserve that community, I have continuously been pushed by my professors to excel. The nudge for success also comes with the support to take more chances, and through this process of escalating demands and adjustments of self-accountability, I see something of my own experience reflected in Papatya’s writing: “It feels like I can try to write something better than what I’ve written before because I can risk failing.” The MFA program offers the opportunity to risk success because no matter what I write, it will be taken seriously, and there is something in that to cherish, something special.
            I’m enrolled in Papatya’s course on the Forms of Prose, and throughout this semester we have been working toward seeing the value in creating obstacles and restrictions to existing forms in order to create growth in our own writing. I’ve always valued form in poetry because of its ability to slip into the subconscious and complicate content.
            However, the forms in prose have been a different experience. Early on in the semester when asked to define what this might mean, I approached it rather literally: “it seems that form is an agreed upon process to mold content with an inherent suggestion to resist the familiar. But, form only works when it’s symbiotic with content.” This explication of form is light and timid. It feels more like an attempt to have something to say rather than an actual definition of the term.
            And this doesn’t surprise me; I fear the fall out with a professor even more than with a peer. I fear losing the chance to be taken seriously by someone I respect. After Richard Ford spoke, a few peers and I walked around in a stupor of amazement at his insight and presence. A professor mentioned annoyance with the fact that we seem to value what incoming authors say more than the professors in the program, even though they say the same things. It seems that somehow from a new voice, knowledge becomes more significant.
That professor was right to question our infatuation, because classes do deliver what we experience from visiting scholars and authors. Richard Ford’s strongest moment was during a contemplation on the serious nature of writing. He said: “Your work is your work. It’s no less important at the beginning to you than it is to me at the end.” That, to me, is a profoundly powerful thing to say to an aspiring writer. It is also a description of what the MFA does for writers here. I love the burden of earnest expectations to not succeed or fail, but to create with no restraint.
At the end of the semester, Papatya asked the class to redefine forms, and looking at my definition, I’ve come to the conclusion that the concept of “forms” might be synonymous with the MFA degree. I wrote: “Forms teach writers to learn the necessary tools that they can abandon. Forms are lessons in rules that subsume the reader’s wants and needs with the author’s intentions through their obstacles and restrictions. Forms are invitations to apprenticeship with no master but accountability.” I latch onto that last line. As much as I want to say it is the drive of the MFA that propels my work, to do so would ignore the reality that the MFA ends.
Last night I was very tired and hanging awake on the lines of a book when my mind woke to a realization. It’s a common one that I have; I see someone in my recent life and remember that we may forget each other, but we will never forget each other’s influence. I am grateful and still surprised that I am here. The conversations that drive my writing community start in the classroom. I know that, I see that in my growth; I want my professors to know.

Jason Stephens is from Boise, Idaho and he joined the MFA at Florida Atlantic University in the Spring of 2014. He published last year his first fiction piece in alice blue review's issue 24.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Freedom of Limitation

“All pieces of writing come with implied or stated limitations that the writer must both fulfill and overcome due to the dual need to satisfy and subvert reader expectations.”
-Papatya Bucak

            Watching my nieces grow into smart, openhearted, creative, beautiful young women has been amazing. When I first started baby-sitting them, I had this idea that I would be their mythical Mary Poppins figure, exposing them to child friendly art, music, and meadows. I would never stifle their ideas, or take their agency away from them. I quickly learned that if you give a child too many choices at too young an age, they begin to melt into a ball of confusion and tears, right there, in front of everyone in the Barnes and Noble Café. I learned that if you make the important choices ahead of time, and limit decisions, it takes the pressure off the child and they get to enjoy themselves; they are free to keep absorbing and interacting with the world around them in beautiful ways (most of the time).

“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.”
- Ernest Hemingway

            This phenomenon applies to adults as well. When working in a chiropractor’s office, I was trained to schedule appointments by giving the patient two options at a time (morning or afternoon? 2:30 or 3:30?) even if the whole day was available. I know, this seems nasty, but if I did make the mistake of saying something like, “Whenever you’d like,” I would be stuck on the phone hearing all of their plans for that day, and their whole life story, about how they have to take their dog to the vet, about how their boyfriend, Ted, has a bladder infection. In a busy office, there wasn’t any time for this. What I’m getting at here is this: limitations can be effective.
            Before taking Professor Papatya Bucak’s Forms of Prose class, I was part of the camp of writers who believe content dictates form. I still believe this is true for particular types of writing, like research papers (there are X points I want to make about this topic so I will write X number of body paragraphs), but I feel so silly for believing it (so whole heartedly) in terms of writing fiction.  What I took away from this class is the important idea that limitations in form can take some of the pressure off of my prose, and me as I’m writing it. If my words are my children, I need to decide on their limitations ahead of time so that they are free to grow and blossom in unexpected ways on the page.

“The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form.”
― Susan Sontag

            This might sound like writerly nonsense, or just plain common sense, and you’re right; it’s both. Have you ever read a book where you think, “Wow, this person just enjoyed writing this?” The pacing is relaxed, the language manicured. I guarantee you this person had her limitations in form in full effect, which allowed her to really enjoy production.
            I guess my second analogy makes it sound like my words are patients in need of an adjustment (okay, sometimes they are) but the important part of the analogy is that if I don’t limit myself, my words can quickly get carried away with themselves, and start giving my reader TMI like some of my previous chiropractic patients.
            I see this happen in rough drafts of fiction (my own included) all the time: flashbacks and character backstories that have nothing to do with the real tension of the story itself, whole scenes and expositions of beautiful prose that ends up being taken out in chunks. This is part of writing, I know, and these chunks we take out can still be useful to us, inform how we write our characters later on. But it can also mean a crap ton of revision and confusion on the writer’s part.

“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”
- Henry David Thoreau

            Yes, there is always some level of confusion and revision, especially when writing novels (and if you were never confused or never revised I’d rather not ever speak to you). But now, I know: you can use limitations in form to limit the confusion, the tears, the tantrums, the bladder infections, and enjoy the process of watching your words grow in contained, yet unexpected ways.

Kim Grabenhorst is an MFA candidate in fiction here at Florida Atlantic University. She’s interested in fiction that explores the individual's relationship with her or his body, and that body's relationship to the world. She lives and writes in West Palm Beach, FL.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Preparing a Thesis: Leveling Up in the MFA

Welcome to an MFA in Creative Writing! PRESS START!

Hello and welcome to the exciting world of creative writing! But first, do you write FICTION, NONFICTION, or POETRY?

You’ve chosen FICTION.

You are a fresh-faced FICTION WRITER starting out in the MFA program. Your current weapons set includes: MAGIC PEN OF IMAGINATION, KEURIG OF ENDURANCE, and A MODERATE AMOUNT OF SELF-DELUSION. You set out into the writerly wilderness on your quest to graduate!

(We’ll fast-forward through the all requisite grinding, leveling up and acquiring party-members. During this period you learn such skills as WORKSHOPPING, TAKING CRITIQUES and STAYING UP ALL NIGHT IN A SUGAR-FUELED CREATIVE FERVOR)

You have reached Level Year 3 of the MFA, your current party members include A COMMUNITY OF WRITING PEERS and A THESIS COMMITTEE. Your current weapons set includes: BLANKET OF PEER SUPPORT, DROPBOX OF NOTES, and A GENERAL IDEA OF YOUR THESIS PROJECT. Your final boss will be THESIS, but before you take on this massive and many-limbed foe, you must defeat these mini-bosses:

1.      THE PROPOSAL: To defeat this monster, you need to decide if you will be writing a NOVEL or a COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES. While the obvious strategy seems to be quick-thinking, do not be rash! If you strike at THE PROPOSAL too soon, you could end up with an unwieldy project that you hate, which only makes THESIS harder to beat. Take your time to think about your strengths and decide what will best play to them.

2.      WRITING THE ACTUAL PROJECT: To take this boss down, not going to lie, will take a lot of time. Sometimes you will get frustrated, you will lose what feels like weeks or months of progress and have to go back to the start. You will get lost in mazes, go in circles and shut the game down and bang your head against a wall. But this is where your weapons and party-members become most useful. Hot Tip: Use THESIS COMMITTEE MEMBER’S special ability: CONSOLE AND ADVISE, and if that does not work, have COMMUNITY OF PEERS cast NETFLIX AND CHEAP WINE.

3.      REVISION: The toughest of the mini-bosses, you must go back over your old progress with your most recently-acquired weapons and abilities and fix past mistakes. It can feel like an endless grind, but with each new draft, your skill level goes up. Trade in that KEURIG OF ENDURANCE for AN ESPRESSO PUMP THAT SHOOTS DIRECTLY INTO YOUR FACE.

You enter the final dungeon, your COMMITTEE MEMBERS have turned against you (not really, but it can sometimes feel that way), and it is time for the final boss: THESIS…DEFENSE?! Wow, what a shocking twist! Yes, throughout all the writing, and re-writing and questing you’ve come to actually care about THESIS, nay even become fiercely protective of it! You use all of your weapons and skill to defend THESIS with all of your might and defeat the final boss (which really wasn’t a boss at all…how deep. This is an artsy videogame). Your THESIS COMMITTEE approves of your strength in battle and you beat the game! Go you!

You unlock MFA DEGREE and can use it to download the DLC expansion pack: Navigating Life after Graduate School.

Megan Hesse is still basking in the achievement of an MFA in Fiction when not struggling at videogames.