Monday, February 23, 2015

A Week at the Writing Spa

            In honor of Jo Ann Beard, I set my kitchen timer for thirty minutes before I sat down to write this—thirty minutes to mirror the thirty-minute writing exercises she gave us in each workshop.
            I went into the workshop thinking this will probably be stressful but hopefully rewarding. I went in wondering how I was going to fit the work of an extra class every day into my already full grad school schedule. And I went in grateful that it was scheduled for the second week of the semester, before writing and grading papers kicked in, grateful that it wasn’t scheduled mid-semester.
            But here I am, mid-semester, and I would be really grateful if someone would bring Jo Ann back. Contrary to being stressful but rewarding, her workshop was stress free and rewarding. Her class became the most stress-free part of my day; it was like stepping into a writing spa. Her yoga-teacher voice only added to the effect.
            It was a no-pressure environment. All writing was done in the last thirty minutes of class. We could then take what we’d written home and clean it up, or not. In the next days workshop, we could share what we had written, or not. And when we did share, we received only positive feedback. The readings she gave us each day were only a few pages long and could be easily squeezed between brushing my teeth and going to bed. Each was one to five pages and each was brilliant, written by such authors as E.B. White, Annie Dillard, and Amy Hempel. We would spend an hour discussing them. And there was more than enough in those short pieces to fill an hour, a reminder that some writers can do more with three pages than others can with twenty-three.
            Then, with the words of those writers still swimming around our brains, we would write for thirty minutes. And I was amazed with how much I could write in thirty minutes. Each day, I produced about two pages double-spaced. The quality varied. Some felt like fully-formed finished pieces, others felt like the start of some longer piece, and others felt like maybe I should start over, like that was just a pre-write. Still, everyone produced at least one brilliant piece. But perhaps the most important thing out of those thirty-minute writing sessions was the knowledge that all I needed was thirty minutes. I didn’t need to block off a four hour stretch of time to write. I only needed to find thirty minutes a day. And thirty minutes a day has lead to more writing than any four-hour block.     

Shari Lefler is an MFA student and recipient of the Presidents Award at Florida Atlantic University. Her focus is on non-fiction, especially travel and family memoir. Since entering the program, she has served as a non-fiction editor for Coastlines Literary Magazine, and Vice President of Graduate Teaching Assistants for the English Graduate Student Society. She has also worked as an editorial intern for digital content at New Beauty Magazine. She is currently organizing an underground group of rebel grammarians to join her fight against overuse of the exclamation point. To become a soldier for the cause, draw a semi-colon on a piece of masking tape and leave it outside your nearest Barnes and Noble. She will find you.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Those Who Can’t Do, Teach.

            That’s the saying, right? I’m appropriating it for this blog not because I don’t think I can write. I can—or I think I can—at least people tell me I can and I write well enough to get into an MFA program, so I will go ahead and say I can.
            Writing is the reason I am here. It is the reason I signed up for the Jo Ann Beard workshop, and all the other workshops that leave me in the bipolar throes of accomplished elation or self-deprecating defeat. But there is another reason I decided to get an MFA—to teach. This, however, I’m still unsure I can do…at least well.
            Taking the Jo Ann Beard workshop seemed like a no brainer—she’s accomplished and brilliant and everything a writer aspires to be—and I assumed the one-week intensive would be invaluable to my writing. What I didn’t expect, however, was that is also proved to be invaluable to my teaching. I am, for lack of a better word, unorthodox in my pedagogical sensibilities (eye-roll all you’d like). I think that the tools and tricks for writing well are not exclusive for creative writing, or academic writing. Let me explain:
            On the third day of workshop, Jo Ann Beard told us about “The Sentence Test.” She says there are four questions we should ask ourselves to know if a sentence is good. (1) Is it grammatical? (2) Is it true? (3) Is it new information? And (4) Is there a surprise in it?—by surprise, she explains, she means was it interesting, did it DO something unexpected. We tried the sentence test out on Christian Wiman’s essay “The Limit” by closing our eyes and randomly putting our finger somewhere on the page, and then reading it aloud and deciding if it fit the criteria to pass.  
            The Sentence Test—it seems so simple, so obvious that—as writers—we should want all our sentences to be doing something, to have weight and purpose and be worthy of all the sentences around it. But what made me keep thinking about it long after the workshop was over was that maybe it wasn’t obvious to those who don’t identify as writers.
            I decided to test my theory, and scrawled the four questions on the board in my College Composition class later that week. I asked them to try it out on the papers I handed back, now covered in my comments with lines crossed out and the word “rep.” written over and over again (ironically). I asked my students to point to a sentence on their papers, read it out loud, and see if it passed—needless to say, many of them didn’t. 
            I explained to them the importance of a good sentence. How much work it should do, the importance of clarity and finding the right word (is it grammatical?). How to state a strong opinion and support it (is it true?). How to avoid repeating yourself to meet a word count because it weakens the argument and instead to give more evidence (is it new information?) And how to find your voice, create and use fresh ideas, or find new ways to be engaging to keep the reader interested (is there a surprise in it?).
            The Jo Ann Beard workshop helped me jumpstart my writing and gave me tools to hone my craft as a writer. But it also helped me hone my new craft—this strange and often stressful craft of teaching. And perhaps in some indirect way I think it also helped my students’ craft as well (I hope). So whether or not I “make it” and one day become accomplished and brilliant and everything an aspiring writer wants to be (God willing)—whether I CAN do that, well, is yet to be determined. But if I can’t—and I hope I can—but if I can’t, maybe I can teach.

Nico Cassanetti is a Second Year MFA student. She originally hails from the greatest city on earth and likes to ride bikes and leave cakes out in the rain.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Lately, I’ve been thinking about my relation to time and space. More specifically, I’m interested in discovering what this means for my writing and for my process in creating new work. Some people need that quiet, empty, clean space to write. No distractions. Some people set aside time specifically to write and only write. But I’ve never been as regimented in my writing as that. Before I moved to Florida from England, I spent years of my life waiting for trains to and from school. In the moments before the train rolled into the station, and then during the train journeys themselves, when I wasn’t reading, I would be writing. From this experience alone, I know that I am able to pick up a pen and write anywhere, no matter how loud or disruptive the atmosphere is. Those train journeys were rarely quiet. The problem I face is not with finding space or finding time, but finding a way to tackle the blank page. The dreaded blank page.

I first encountered Jo Ann Beard’s work during my undergraduate career at the University of South Florida. I was in my first creative nonfiction class, staring at "The Fourth State of Matter." My first reaction was to ask if what I was reading was really true. Not because I doubted Jo Ann, not for a second, but because the quality of each braid of the essay was perfectly intertwined with each of the others in a way I could only dream of being able to master one day. I studied Jo Ann’s work again in my first semester of the MFA here at FAU and again was struck by the seamlessness of her work, not only in "The Fourth State of Matter," but in other essays featured in The Boys of My Youth. I wondered how she did it.

Jo Ann Beard doesn’t revise. Not in the way we would expect, anyway. She told us she revises her work sentence by sentence, word by word, before her ideas move from her mind to the page. The blank page. The draft is the final product, the finished piece, which we see printed in those celebrated magazines and published as books. Each day in our workshop with Jo Ann, she asked us to spend thirty minutes free writing. Each day I left workshop with a piece I could polish and edit and that I have since turned into longer, more thoughtful essays than my initial scribbles. Her key to getting to this stage is not to fear the blank page, the space, the emptiness. The key is to submerge: into the conscious, into the subconscious, into the place where the deepest and truest stories are. Go there and stay there and pull your stories from there. Pour them onto that blank page.

As I drove Jo Ann back to her hotel after class one day, we talked about exercise. She was excited to play tennis the following morning and asked me if I worked out. Not as recently as I would have liked to admit. But writing is exercise too, or so she made me believe. Spending that time submerged in the writing is as straining mentally and emotionally as a good workout is for the body physically. She explained, “The work is that I’ve gone to that place and I’ve used that muscle.”  And after a week of daily workshops, delving deep into the craft and pulling my own stories up from the depths of myself, I felt drained in the best possible way. Like I’d discovered that muscle and not only stretched it, but worked it out. Jo Ann pushed me to do the work, stretch the muscles, find the place, and fearlessly face that blank page. To submerge. 

Rebecca Jensen is a first-year MFA student in nonfiction at Florida Atlantic University. She graduated from the Honors College at the University of South Florida in 2014. She has worked as fiction editor for Driftwood Press, a literary magazine, and is currently nonfiction editor at FAU’s Coastlines. She writes feature articles for Fort Lauderdale’s city magazine, Go Riverwalk, and her creative work appears or is forthcoming in FishFood Literary and Creative Arts Magazine. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Excuse me – do you have the time? My week in the Jo Ann Beard workshop

Every afternoon in workshop, Jo Ann Beard scrawled a prompt on the white board and instructed the class to write for thirty minutes without stopping, even if we had to begin the way she said she sometimes did: me no want to. The phrase came to mind when I thought about writing a blog post about the Jo Ann Beard workshop: me no want to. Not because I didn’t adore every nanosecond of the workshop with every nanofiber of my being – I did. Not because I don’t like writing for this blog – I do. Me no wanted to write this blog post because I felt I didn’t have the time to do it. Thesising, grading, class taking, moving, yadda yadda, I got ninety-nine problems and free time ain’t one.
Then I remembered: amid all this – “all this” being life, I imagine you’re familiar– I found the time to, first of all, attend the Jo Ann Beard workshop for two hours every afternoon for five afternoons. Those were ten hours I probably would have assumed I couldn’t spare had there not been a draw like, say, Jo Ann Beard. Then, in the workshop, we wrote for thirty full minutes – a quarter of each session! Yet somehow, each day, there was time to read and to discuss and to share our work and to learn and to learn and to learn. I learned a lot about craft and a lot about myself as a writer, and I learned also that thirty minutes really isn’t all that long and that I’m not really all that busy – not too busy, at least, to spare a little time to do what I’m here to do: write.
So instead of deleting the email requesting a blog post about the Jo Ann Beard workshop, I set the timer on my phone for thirty minutes, and I wrote this blog post about the Jo Ann Beard workshop. I wrote today, guys! And probably this means I could write every day! It’s just about finding the time, and it turns out the time has been right there all along – it was just hard to see behind the me no want to.

Risa Polansky Shiman is set to graduate from FAU’s MFA program this spring, as soon as she finishes her thesis, which only references Chipotle seven times.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Jo Ann Beard & the Complications of Genre

I admire the sentence that carries its own weight unapologetically. As such, I don’t fully embrace the distinction between non-fiction and fiction, because personal experience is incredibly difficult, maybe impossible, to divorce from. When I heard Jo Ann Beard was visiting, I was excited because her prose and its publication complicate the expectations of genre that I am interested in. When “The Fourth State of Matter” was first published in the New Yorker, it was designated as fiction. Today you can find it in nonfiction anthologies like The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. In 1996, The New Yorker decided that the quality of the prose carried itself beyond the constructed boundary of genre. The piece needed to be read and its context was an afterthought.
The weeklong workshop is a privilege and a wonderful opportunity. The stakes are heightened for all participants, and because we do not have a pre-existing relationship, the workshop itself is fluid, immersive. We focused on reading, reading well, and writing: the act and the craft.
During a Q&A session after her reading, when asked about the extent and content of possible story development, Ms. Beard said, “Anybody who has lived on the planet can imagine deeply anything.” As she continued to discuss the possibilities of a story, she detailed some of her experiences with writing fiction as opposed to non-fiction.
She suggested that fiction, by its very nature, offers more liberty than non-fiction, and that writing fiction allows the author to tell the truth, but does not imply ownership. However, there was the admission that you can’t create, or re-create yourself; that the persona, or character, is a creation outside of the self, although intimately married to that self.
I think it’s an interesting dilemma and will deserve more time to engage—particularly as I move toward my thesis—there is something within the realm of both genres that is appealing. Non-fiction offers itself as unapologetic truth. Fiction doesn’t demand ownership of anything; it allows for the experience to be plainly pictured.
Since I began writing seriously I prized most the experience of the poet. The exploration of craft in poetics engages both the act and the calling as a priori to the beginning of the career. In that way, genre seems to be a highly valuable commodity. I often return to Companion Spider, to read through Clayton Eshleman’s essay titled “Novices.” His calling to the young novice writer, the torch that he offers out to those invested in bearing the burden of craft, is an invitation to a nameless community invested in accepting the burdens of mortality and offering something on paper to a future that will forever outlast the self. For now since it is my choice, I will see it as I want and take on the obligations of genre without bending to its constraints.

Jason Stephens is from Boise, Idaho and he joined the MFA at Florida Atlantic University in the Spring of 2014.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Jo Ann Beard Workshop and Whiplash Spoiler Alerts

One of my favorite movies of the year was Whiplash.  Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is an aspiring drummer for Terence Fletcher’s (J.K. Simmons) studio jazz band at the Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in the United States.  The overarching message of the film is that no matter what, an artist is an artist is an artist.  In this case, Neiman is determined to make his dream of becoming a musician come true and prove wrong everyone who doubts him, including friends, family, and his conductor, Fletcher.  Neiman is so resolute that even when involved in a horrific car accident minutes before call time, he flees the scene (not unscathed, as he is covered in blood from head to toe) and not only plays, but ruins the show.  This does not deter him from his dream though, as he eventually goes on to play again and wins over the undying respect of his leader, with one final shot focusing on Fletcher’s smiling eyes.  Brilliant.  Bravo.  Loved it. 

Last Thursday I was on my way to day four of the Jo Ann Beard workshop.  I had some time to spare and decided to stop for coffee and a donut at Starbucks (the old fashioned glazed donut) as Jo Ann had read a piece that had donuts in it and I couldn’t get my mind off the sweet treats.  They were doing some construction over by the bank near the Starbucks and I couldn’t see whether or not I had room to get back on Federal Highway, or if I would have to drive around to another exit.  As I kept my eyes on the exit of the plaza, I failed to see the bright blue Prius behind me and backed into him with an audible crunch.  I pulled back into my spot and examined my car, still unaware that I hit another vehicle, checked my own, and saw a tiny smear of blue paint on the back of my black bumper.

“Are you okay!?” I called out, spinning around to see a man in orange shorts walking out of his car and buttoning up his shirt.  He had a fluffy puff of white hair around his head, glasses, and some type of casual beach loafers.  I instantly felt horrible.  I had ruined this man’s day, ruined my own, and my workshop was starting in twenty minutes. 

Neiman takes a bus to the concert for his big show, and it breaks down.  He runs to a rental car office only fifteen minutes from the venue.  Rushing, he forgets his drum sticks at the rental car office, leaving them on a chair in plain sight.  Neiman realizes this and must get back in his car, retrieve the sticks, and hurry to his show.  Fletcher waits but has an understudy prepped and ready to go on stage.   Minutes fly by and Neiman gets back in the car and books it to the venue.  SMASH.  A truck collides with his vehicle.  He is totally f’ed.  However, he runs out of his car, bloodied and bruised but with his sticks, heads to the concert and insists on playing.  Fletcher kicks him out due to his failure to perform and the two brawl it out.

My guy was a lot nicer.  He shook my hand, understood that I had a life changing workshop to attend, and let me go, as I promised my mom would come as soon as possible and handle all the insurance information.  Luckily my mom was off work that day and was able to come help, for that is a godsend, but I still felt awful and began crying hysterically on the way over to school.  I had texted a few people that I was in an accident and that I was running late for class, but that I was okay, just really upset.  When I got out of my car with four minutes to spare until workshop time, I checked my phone and saw a text from my best friend.  He said, “Your day is like the movie Whiplash.  You get into an accident and you crawl out of the car and you run to your workshop!  Blood on your books, you’re still moving forward.  Still doing what you were born to do.  J.K. Simmons tries to take you down during your reading but no!  You keep moving forward.  Keep pressing on.  All of a sudden a close up on J.K. Simmon’s eyes and you can see he’s smiling.  Smiling because he has done it.  He has found that great writer he had been searching for his entire career.  Brittany Ackerman.”

Fletcher had taunted and tormented the members of his jazz studio and was unrelenting about finding that “great one,” a musician that could make his work worthwhile, all the years spent training one after another, all the name-calling and physical assault.  While Jo Ann Beard did not abuse us or say anything negative all week, Fletcher’s character represents for me anyone who ever has said something negative about my work ethic, my place in the program, my writing.  Neiman continued on despite what anyone said about him, and although Fletcher was a bastard, he did prove his point that “the great ones” will not stop and will always continue to move forward and press on. 

Jo Ann Beard confesses it takes her an unusual amount of time to finish a piece of writing.  She also tells us that it would be “easier for her to dig up the sidewalk with a spoon than to write” because it is truly her opus.  But if I wish to call myself a writer, the real deal, then an impenetrable impetus will propel me forward from all of life’s unfortunate occurrences and I will write write write. 

It often feels as if Fletcher is standing over my writing desk whispering, “What are you doing, man?” (just like in the movie!) in a way that makes me question myself.  But in reality, Jo Ann Beard is sitting beside me, assuring me that “Your piece was magnificent!  How beautiful!”  No matter the positive or negative feedback we receive from others or give to ourselves, the only way we will be successful writers is if we continue to write. 

Yelling “I’ll cue you in!” to Fletcher, Neiman demands to play on stage and commands his position as a drummer. It is in this moment that he becomes one of the greats, student transforming into teacher, roles reversed.  Fletcher watches in awe as Neiman succeeds, and that is what I wish to have for myself- the moment where I amaze and surprise my greatest critic, myself, because I am able to show up and write the damn thing.

Brittany Ackerman is a third year MFA candidate for nonfiction.  If you can't find her frantically typing at Spot Coffee in an ironic t-shirt and an unamused scowl, she is probably at Disney World realizing that it actually IS a "small world after all..."

Friday, January 23, 2015

What Is The Truth of the Matter: Part II

My curiosity about how truth functions in writing is insatiable—so much so that last year I wrote a blog post about it. The blog starts with a question that has plagued me from the moment I first came across it…here is me quoting myself:

“Taped to the refrigerator in my grandmother’s kitchen there is a piece of paper marked with a question:
                                                 What is the truth of the matter?”

The first time I saw it I remember thinking how appropriately deep it was for someone like her. I thought about what it said about her as a person, and about the kinds of people who would ask her about it, or try to answer it, and all the conclusions I could draw about someone who would write a question like that on a piece of paper and tape it to their refrigerator…but in the end the question only led to more questions.
The contemporary literary landscape has created a struggle for the working writer, who is torn between the blurring lines of genre boundaries, and the traditional rules that have been put in place to compartmentalize their forms. Historically, the rules of writing have followed the black and white sensibility that a text must be classified as is either factual or fictional…However, there exists today a debate in the non-fiction community about whether truth and fact are always identical, or if there exists a flexibility somewhere—an emotional truth that can be separated from factual truth.

It is fair to state that both poets and prose writers can reveal absolute truths about the human condition and emotional exploration without the concern that any image, character or action that is presented in their work is or is not a recollection of fact or the authors’ organic fabrication. Conversely, journalists are depended on to report the facts, unadulterated and wholly (though they often don’t), and non-fiction writers—biographers, memoirists, and essayists are under constant scrutiny—waiting, post-publication, to be lambasted by readers for the slightest skew or embellishment. So is it fair to say that these rules must be followed in order to create valid examples of texts in each genre? Are novels based in truth less credible because the author chose not to create an entirely fabricated world? Is the memoirist a fraud for conveying an interpretation of his or her own memory that cannot be corroborated?

I find this rigid divide problematic, both as a reader and a writer. As a reader, I want to believe that the author—regardless of genre or theme—is passionate about his or her work, and this passion—if it is to be believed—must come from a place of authority that should emanate from the work that has been created. This authority would most likely stem from a place of personal experience…of retrospection and recollection of a moment, a feeling, a place that has affected the writer enough for it to become an inspiration for their work.

In 2006, Oprah Winfrey chose James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, as an Oprah’s Book Club selection. Three months later, reports exposed parts of his book as being exaggerated—most notably that his account of his 87day stint in prison was no more than a few hours. In a live, on air interview, Oprah Winfrey chastised Frey for his embellishments, saying "I feel duped, but more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers." It was a literary event great enough to merit a re-evaluation of the terms of memoir writing.
What the New York Times coined as, “The Frey Effect” set off alarm bells for publishers and agents alike, some of which had once encouraged authors to turn novels into hot-selling memoirs. New York Literary Agent Christy Fletcher told the New York Times, ''The decision to take on a memoir was always based on how good is the writing and how good is the story, that's not enough any more.''

If a fact cannot be corroborated on a work that is defined as non-fiction, does the “larger truth” that in offered within the text lose it’s legitimacy as well? In the case of James Frey, the line between aesthetic enhancement and outright fabrication was not toed so much as sprinted over. But would the outrage of his readership been as high if he had said he was in jail for 8 days instead of 87? And would the entire message that comes out of A Million Little Pieces come undone without including the narrative of a three-month stay in prison? The Frey Effect is not a consequence of poor authorship, so much as improper representation. If Oprah’s producers had done fact checking of their own, they would have discovered that Frey had shopped the book out as both a novel and a memoir prior to publication—a clear indication that the book was at least partially fictive. Regardless of who is to blame for the misclassification, the fact that the book had an audience at all is based on what Times book critic Michiko Kakutani calls, ''a case about how much value contemporary culture places on the very idea of truth.''

Our job as writers is not to define truth for our readers, but for ourselves. We must accept the fuzziness of our memories, and acknowledge that our perception of things is as unique and personal as our own genetic code. I wrote once that these truths that writers use in their work are “a repackaged retelling of what it means to be human.” That each individual detail, no matter how unique, is just each writers way of converting their truth into some universal truth…and I again recalled the piece of paper taped to my grandmothers’ refrigerator door.

A few months ago I sent her some pages of my retelling of her life, and the life I was living as I wrote it. Along with the manuscript I attached a note that said, …what is the truth of the matter? She responded, via voicemail, something that will most assuredly make into the next set of pages:

“There is no such thing as truth. My truth is not your truth. The truth is the seed that you put in the ground and it grows. Life has no purpose; life is an experience. What you learn is through experiencing life, your life, and that is what you write. That is the truth. That is life, and you cannot stop it.”

Nico Cassanetti likes to write. She has written for Life|Style Magazine, Muses & Visionaries,, and reviewed great literary works on index cards for her staff picks while working at an independent bookstore in Brooklyn. She lives in South Florida and should probably quit smoking.