Monday, October 9, 2017

Keep it Inside: Argument for Silent Character Minds

If observing each other’s thoughts were a normal part of communication, society would have crumbled in its infancy. The food your ancestors stashed away for the winter would be common knowledge and gone, ailment and weakness within families would be public domain and liability, and any ambitions about climbing the social hierarchy would be flushed out and likely suppressed. The status quo would achieve permanent status. Nice for those in charge, but what about you? What about the protagonist of that story you’re writing? Can there be a story, a chance at change, if the actions taken were known before being taken?
            Maybe. But it wouldn’t be very interesting.
            Concealing the interior thoughts, especially of the first-person protagonist leading your tale, is essential in retaining tension and interest in the story. This is not only because mystery=suspense=climatic jibberjabber, but because revealing interior thought of any character pins their limbs to a rubber-lined tray and forces participation in a dissection of the story’s why, almost always too soon. If characters are plot, then the thoughts of those characters run the risk of selling that plot out before it blooms.
            Consider film. Unless done in some kind of humored irony, character voice-over narration is a scarce phenomenon, and is usually only done to ground the observer early in the plot. Outside of this, film relies on setting, events, and acting to advance the plot. Characters don’t borrow the camera and spill their personal beans; they keep those beans canned and act upon them. In fiction, it’s too easy to supply protagonists with access to the reader’s mind and move the plot through that connection, but doing this cheapens the reading experience in the same way an over-zealous Star-Wars fan can ruin the most recent installation by pausing and explaining the subplots underlying what’s happening on the screen.
            How to guard against this is simple: forego the interior. We can’t read each other’s thoughts in life, so we read word choice and tone, body language, and overt concerns. The same practice should be applied to writing fiction. In Chopin’s “Story of an Hour,” the developmental stages of the plot pass inside Louise’s mind. While the reader is given glimpses into her internalization of her husband’s death, these moments are used to explore an unknown rather than establish some static truth of the story, and physical effect comes with those thoughts:
There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearful. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air. 
Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back[.]
There is physical, observable ramification to the thoughts. They are slight and personal, but her state of mind is established in these moments through her body’s expression. Her elocution doesn’t express her feeling, only what she’s experiencing. The reader is made to interpret her response to these thoughts and derive their effect from them, and that is what they want. Silver platters get returned.


                       

Jason Wilson is a third year MFA candidate for fiction at Florida Atlantic University.


Monday, September 25, 2017

Writing within A Community

I had never been in a workshop (or had my pieces workshopped) before I got into the MFA program. Naturally, I entered the program nervous. I didn’t know what to expect or what was expected of me. Besides a few friends and family, my stories didn’t have much of an audience. I didn’t know how my work would be received.

Everyone is protective of the writing they create and I was too. Initially, I struggled to share my work out of fear of it being misunderstood or misinterpreted. That was something I knew I had to learn to work around, and the program helps you do just that. The workshop class is a small group of approachable and focused people whose main objective is to produce good writing. Working with a group like that helps build confidence to share your work in order to make it better. Having other people look at the development of your writing over a period of time generates a variety of perspectives. The workshop group constitutes people from different backgrounds who produce different readings of your text, which I find most helpful. The writer figures out so much of their own writing style when they view their stories/poems from other people’s eyes. For example, having other people workshop my pieces over two semesters helped me discover my strengths and weaknesses and how to use them to my advantage. Something that I wouldn’t be able to see by myself.

I’ve become more aware of my audience now than before. I’ve never written for an American audience and so workshops from time to time facilitate my understanding of the American publishing world: what kind of writing is successful, how to develop a good piece of writing, etc.

One major thing the MFA program has taught me is to love my work while also maintaining a distance from it. Just enough distance to be able to revise and continue working on it after receiving feedback. Revising a story or poem was not my strong point; it often felt like I was cheating on my first draft by altering or editing it. But over the course of my first semester, I realized the importance of going back and revisiting works that I thought might be ready for the world. Editing is still painful; cutting full chunks out is not the easiest thing to do. For that, I’ve made a folder for all the edited portions I take out of certain pieces, in the hope of using them somewhere else.

Writers are always growing in terms of their voice and their writing style, and workshops are a good place to learn and grow.




Meryl D’sa is from India and is pursuing her MFA at FAU with a concentration in fiction. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

DEAR WRITER: ON WRITING WHILE WORKING

My fiancé, an Army sergeant and former police officer, wants one of those $2,000 massage chairs from Brookstone. I’ve yet to walk past the storefront at the mall without losing him to one of the chunky, buzzing machines. He says if he had something like it at home, he’d get more done, as if his body—and his mind, just as tense from work and thoughts of it—were massaged into compliance. “Sure, I’ll load the dishwasher, just give me a few minutes in The Chair.”

No matter our job, we all know the feeling of physical and mental strain—the feeling of oversaturation, or total depletion, which, for me, turns what could be a couple of hours of writing and/or revision into a couple of hours of Netflix and ice cream. “You’re just not in the right state of mind right now to be creating—try tomorrow.” For those of you with children, second jobs, and/or multiple extracurricular positions, duties, hobbies, etc., you may scoff at the essays and articles that attempt to answer the question “How do you write and work?” Despite what you may think, if you want to be a writer, you have the time to find (key word: “find,” because it may not be an easy task).

All I can really offer is some of what I’ve done in the past year as a writer and Visiting Instructor who committed to teaching twelve courses (an overload both semesters, plus two courses over the summer), yet did more writing than I ever had previously. Perhaps it’s the poet in me, but I’ve tried to choreograph a few analogies (perhaps a writer’s habit, or the crutch of an introverted poet) to explain how I balanced work and writing. Friends and peers seem to like the following most:

The tightrope walker crosses the gap between two tall buildings, slowly but surely. He’s holding a long pole for balance, which begins to tilt with his body as both are nudged by gusts of wind. He regains his balance (aligns his center of gravity) by tilting the pole, and thus his weight, into the wind. Without doing so, he knows he’ll fall.

As I balanced my way through a very full teaching schedule, writing became my counterweight to the winds of paper grading, email-answering, citizenship applications and processing, family matters, and job hunts (I was, earlier this summer, ending my Visiting Instructorship), and general mental gust of stress and exhaustion, I’d never felt more compelled to spend my free time clacking away on my laptop. Many days, I didn’t feel like it. Many days, I questioned my writing ‘ability.’ Many days, I imagine writers abandon their laptops/notebooks in claim of experiencing ‘writer’s block.’ But, let me tell you, there’s no such thing as writer’s block.

Whatever you’re trying to work on, and struggling to the point at which you’re only winding yourself up, minimize the tab/turn the page and work on something else. Revisit that poem you wrote last year. Free write what could be the heart of a new personal essay. Make a list of craft essay ideas (aka. permit yourself the writing time to lists or outlines, and not clean paragraphs of prose or profound poetic lines). Eventually, in doing so, you’ll ‘retrain’ your mind as I have done this past year, to let myself create and work on multiple things at once. Isn’t that, in a sense, the artist at his freest? The child squirting ketchup on his toast? Hey, let him try it. If that’s what he wants, look at him go—no resistance, no self-imprisoning to how he may think he ‘should be eating…’

Even though university faculty often receive forgiving schedules, we know our free days are often spent working to some degree, or at least living with work on the mind. While some formidable writers have suggested simpler methods of encouraging themselves away from these mental work ties and into a creative/uninhibited state, like getting drunk or high, I’ve heard few success stories. I have, though, heard many writer friends succeed by making “appointments” for themselves to write (ex. “At 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, I have an appointment with Microsoft Word. I’m going to turn off my cell phone, deactivate the wifi, give the dog a new chew toy, and assign the children to the basement with a VHS tape of The Lion King and the remainders of last year’s mega bag of Halloween candy”). This method, at least, forces you to examine your schedule and note one—but ideally a few—promising block of free time you may have in the week. Be sure to treat it like an appointment—you must ‘go,’ and if you don’t, a fee will incur (calling yourself up to say, “Hey, I’m so sorry, I’ve made time tomorrow—see you then,” is a wonderful response to dipping out on a schedule write-time. If you’re not committed enough to sticking with an idea like this, then you don’t get to complain about not having the time or energy to write. Stop making excuses for yourself. Your passion, talent, and artistic integrity don’t deserve to be overshadowed by your laziness or mediocre/poor treatment of your time.

Buck up, writer. Buck up, teacher, student, human. You are capable of more. Sit with yourself, think deeply about what’s holding you back.

Answer: It’s you. It’s always been you. Find a greater balance. Take another step forward.



Jamie is the author of hiku [pull] (Porkbelly Press, 2016). Winner of an AWP Intro Journals Project award for poetry and four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, his work has been published with Colorado Review, Black Warrior Review, Passages North, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and DIAGRAM, among other journals. Jamie received his MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University, where he was a Lawrence A. Sanders poet fellow and currently teaches as an Instructor. Born in England, and former resident of New Zealand, Jamie is a first-generation Asian-American (officially--he passed his naturalization test and interview this summer!) currently living in West Palm Beach with his partner, John, and their greyhound, Jack. Twitter: @jamesahwhite


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Welcome back!



Hello, all, and welcome to the Fall 2017 semester!

To those of you currently in the MFA program, I hope you will attend the Swamp Ape Review meeting today (8/23, Wednesday) at 6pm in the Amp Lab. Check your email for more information.

Our Off the Page Series is off to a fantastic start this fall with a reading by Carole Maso on Thursday, 10/12, at 7pm in the Majestic Palm room. Ira Sukrungruang is up next with a reading on Thursday, 10/19 at 7pm in the Palmetto Palm room.

Our Lawrence A. Sanders Writer-in-Residence for this year is the talented Paul Lisicky. His workshop for MFA students will run in March of 2018, so be on the lookout for an email on how to apply to attend.

Which brings me to my strongest advice to you this Fall 2017 semester. Whether you are a new student (you might check out this blog) or getting ready to graduate (this one is for you) or somewhere in between (yeah, haha, there's a blog for you too), be sure to show up. That is, attend as many events as you can this year. Commit to participating in events inside and outside of the program. Form a writing group with friends. Come meet with me and discuss your progress in the program. Apply for grants, scholarships, and travel money. Go to AWP (it's in Tampa!). Check out this blog on how to log onto the AWP website (and email, visit, or call me if you have trouble). Apply for travel money here. The sooner you apply, the more likely you'll be able to receive funding (they give funding to students participating in conferences and to students who are simply attending).

I love meeting with you one on one, so please set up a meeting if you haven't yet. Good luck!




MR Sheffield's work has been published in The Florida Review, Black Warrior Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, and other publications. Probably her poetry manuscript is forthcoming from Flaming Giblet Press, but who really knows how these things shake out, amite? Contact her at mfa@fau.edu and/or 561-297-2974.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Justin Torres Workshop: Finding A Sense of Meaning

A part of me was kind of dreading the workload from an extra week’s worth of workshops, though in the same way I was pretty excited to have Justin Torres critique my work and provide some insight into his generative process, as well as his experience of the writing circuit immediately post-MFA.

I needn’t have worried at all. I think the best thing about having visiting writers come to a program is their insight into these aforementioned processes. It was especially cool as Justin made the workshop relaxed, imploring us on the first day to send out predominantly positive feedback

This was an approach I stuck to throughout the week, and it allowed me to gain better insight into genres I am not so well versed in. The work Justin assigned us was also worth reading, so too was the supplementary knowledge he gave us of each piece and its writer.

One thing that Justin repeated a number of times throughout the week was that, especially in short story writing, the scale of the piece is its biggest strength. In using a simple premise, building on it in subtle though varying ways, you can manipulate the scale of your piece, whatever the genre, so that these subtleties become the fundamentals of the piece.

For example, one piece of non-fiction we looked at seemed to be meandering somewhat in terms of narrative. Though when we delved into it in workshop, Justin pointed out these certain moments of subtle nuance, where in fact the piece was building and building in different ways, manipulating its own scale. In doing so it landed at an ending that was unexpected yet earned.

And that was how the workshop, and the writing I produced for it, seemed to me. Due to our working with multiple genres, I produced a piece of non-fiction that drew on the subtle differences between the UK and the US, my life in both countries, and it was based around what Justin referred to as a kind of “lyrical anthropology”.

While the week went by quickly, and became generative and eye-opening for me, it was also great just to hang out with Justin in our workshop group, as we all socialized together; it was while doing so that he gave us all some pretty cool insights into how his career has been formed post MFA.

So it seemed to me that many of the strengths of good writing go hand-in-hand with the same requirements we have as MFAers, but also really as people of the world: subtlety + nuance + an understanding of our own anthropology begins to denote meaning in its many forms.


Originally from Scotland, Adam Sword is an MFA student at Florida Atlantic University, with a concentration in Fiction.








Monday, May 15, 2017

Torres Workshop

This being my first semester in the MFA, I was both excited and surprised to hear that I was accepted into the Justin Torres Workshop. He asked that we prepare a piece of lyric anthropology, which at least for me was a chance to write in an unfamiliar style. The readings he offered provided insightful exposure to this style. My favorite of the readings was "Love Junkies," a lyric essay from Trust, by Alfonso Lingis, a story about a relationship between two prison inmates. Lingis’ style was detailed and honest, while remaining grandiose and perhaps comical. It encouraged me to attempt to capture an aspect of culture in a few pages; and while some students submitted older work, most of us were inspired to generate new material in more experimental forms.

When opening the workshop, Torres recommended that we try to focus our feedback on what was successful in each other’s writing. This echoed a sentiment mentioned by Jennifer Egan, who visited in March, where finding the language of what is successful in a piece and offering critical commentary on why that language is working often proves more helpful than dealing in flaws. Consequently, our feedback to one another was critical but effective.

Torres was approachable, making the workshop feel perhaps less formal and more honest. He was discerning of new of the literary devices we were attempting to build, while also offering strong comments on how to use conventions to our advantage.

In conversation, Torres offered the idea that the workshop space was less about solving all of a story’s problems, and more about exposure to your colleague's work – helping to find solutions for a story as though it were your own. This approach has already helped me provide stronger feedback outside of the workshop. It seems like the takeaway of my time with Justin Torres was not limited to his commentary on my work, but also on my views of what the workshop is meant accomplish. I had a blast, I learned a lot. The week was quick and intense, but I feel fortunate to have been a part of it.


Daniel Graves is a first-year MFA and is on staff at SwampApe Review. His short fiction ranges across a variety of focuses; from religious imagery, to meme culture, to magical realism.



Monday, May 1, 2017

Revising with Optimism: A Week with Justin Torres

            Some things are easy to write. If a character is alone in a room, we know what that means. It is simple to hold in your mind’s eye like so many other easy musings. Of course there is the artful loneliness of melodrama, of which we also have a pretty deep bench of canned images: mascara running, no missed calls, rain on the window in black and white.
            What I struggle with writing is the feeling of effortless symbiosis, psychic synergy. If describing it is difficult, I am even less adept at provoking it: the sense that somehow, written words are just an extension from author to reader.
When I began my MFA I knew that I wanted my writing to become that. I wanted my words to be familiar like an old winter coat but unexpected like the twenty you find in its pocket. I had some pretty damn high demands. Unattainable! Or so I had thought, despite the many, many authors who had done just that for me. They were something special, something born not taught, something above my pay grade.
Justin Torres was the most recent of those authors.
            So, when Torres hosted a weeklong workshop for MFA students this past March, I was bright eyed, pen poised to capture every insight he shared. The greatest lesson I learned from his workshop was: write the fuck out of everything and decide fast how to salvage the good of it.
            He didn’t outright say that, but I’m pretty proud of my approximation.
He had the thirteen of us focus on the best of the writing – from our peers as well as our own. He was a very positive leader in this way, and without the messy insincerity of being too saccharine. Torres had no problem telling us things that needed to be said, but his decision to avoid the ‘tear-you-down-to-build-you-up’ approach of other workshops allowed us more time to focus on what opportunities we had earned but not yet explored.
Aside from his workshop structure, Torres was a brand new set of eyes on what had become to each of us, familiar territory. He was able to bring honest notes, without picking up on our recurring themes or ideations. Torres met us through our writing. We were all three-to-five pages of first draft fury to him. But, with his facilitation, we all salvaged the good of our fever dreams.
Torres’s approach of determined, quick revisions with a reserved optimism is certainly more difficult than it sounds but I truly believe it is the next step, at least for me, to writing that new familiar feeling.




Caitlyn Davidheiser is a first year MFA fiction student at FAU. Her work has previously appeared in Voicemail Poems, Spires, and Killing the Angel among others. She lives in South Florida with her loving husband and her indifferent cat.