Wednesday, April 19, 2017

AWP and Recovering from Imposter Syndrome

            As I slipped the mask of the Swamp Ape over my head, the mild-mannered poet who says “Excuse me” in crowded bars, nervously checked Waze every five feet between the Air BnB and the Washington Convention Center, and smiled at each visitor who asked, “What the hell is a Swamp Ape?” at our book fair table – that person disappeared. For 15 minutes, I swaggered, photo-bombed, entered literary magazine raffles by signing “SWAMP APE” to the small yellow tickets, and sat down to lunch with strangers who tried not to appear startled at my swampish ghillie suit and gorilla mask.

            This is a convenient anecdote, because it also works as a metaphor for the transformative power large groups can have on an internal perspective. I would never don the Swamp Ape costume in my home (or admit it if I did), but with an audience, it seems natural. Similarly, writing alone can feel self-indulgent. If you write as I do, balancing your laptop on your ripped sweatpants at 2 p.m. with a piece of stale cake on the nightstand, you may see yourself from the outside and wonder if you’re delusional. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the hordes of literary magazines publishing work you admire and wonder whether anyone needs your voice.

The imposter syndrome is common and shared. Thousands of writers, who are stereotyped as being highly sensitive, solitary creatures, trekked again this year to AWP to brave crowded terminals where there are never enough free phone chargers, planes where free snacks are no longer complimentary and one can catch a virus from just unbuckling the seatbelt, trains that make too many stops, Ubers, too-small hotels - these writers walked half a mile through the chilly and strange streets of DC to a convention center full of strangers and projectors that fail just before each panel presentation begins.

            But we went anyway. We went because walking by the brick buildings and art galleries of DC reminded us what it’s like to be in the honeymoon phase of a romance with a city. And we went to the mixer because while writers are terrible dancers, the lack of inhibition by the flailers on the dance floor was inspiring. We saw that thousands of other writers also prioritized their writing enough to make the same trek and don a lanyard.

AWP was a reminder that while the fact that so many writers exist means the market is flooded, it also gives us permission to value writing in our own lives as well. It’s both humbling and energizing to realize that writing, while done in isolation, can also take place in a larger community. And so, though I will likely not don the Swamp Ape costume again, when feeling inadequate or foolish, I can put on the metaphorical costume of a writer making the awkward trek to AWP, remember that far away, others are doing the same with their lanyards tucked in drawers, and for a moment, it seems we do this together.

Kathleen Martin is a second-year MFA and is on staff at Swamp Ape Review. Her digital literacy creation, Between Memories (, explores the relationship between memory and memory loss through interviews, surveys, art, and erasure poetry.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Vonnegut’s Advice to “Keep it Simple”

I like long sentences. Growing up, engineering these lengthy grammatical feats was like alchemy to me; again and again I transformed words into corridors, labyrinths, twisting pathways that went on and on and led readers through my convoluted ink-dreams. It was impressive, I thought, and a bit magical, to disorient the audience, to keep them on their toes with twists and sharp-edged, polysyllabic declarations of my genius. As a student of words, I believed every reader was like me, and would hang in the grip of every passing letter, carefully picking their way through each sentence’s turns, all the while remarking to themselves what a rush it was to come across an author who imbued so much life and wisdom into her work. I wanted to show readers how smart I was, how I could make language bow to me and give my writing endless beauty in its sentences with curling tails and never-ending clauses.

When I started studying writing for real, I came across a piece of advice from one of my favorite fiction writers, the wonderful Kurt Vonnegut. In a paper on “How to Write with Style” Vonnegut implores his readers to “keep it simple” when it comes to the way in which they choose to present information - particularly that which is exceedingly profound. In his example, Vonnegut cites William  Shakespeare as well as James Joyce, both of whom he admits had the ability to “put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra,” but, as he highlights, chose not to do so in instances of profound genius. Conversely, he asserts, these expert writers in fact chose to present some of their most profound ideas (his go-to example is Hamlet’s famous, “To be or not to be?” as well as the opening passage of the Judeo-Christian Bible) in relatively simple language. In his article, Vonnegut asserts that simple can be beautiful, as countless canonical authors have demonstrated, time and time again. If they can make the simple work, why can’t we? This is something I ask myself and attempt to employ often in my own work as a writer.

(Reference to “How to Write with Style:

Bio: Kira Geiger is a third year MFA student with a concentration in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has been previously featured in NoiseMedium, FishFood Magazine, and tiny poetry: macropoetics

Friday, March 31, 2017

Viva La Ape: On NOT Draining the Swamp in D.C.

Wear a heavy, latex Planet of the Apes monkey mask swathed in mounds of fake Spanish moss, cumbersome black-and-also-mossy-winter gloves, and a ghillie suit in the name of literature?!?

“Sure, why the hell not?”

That was my response, anyhow, when one of my clever peers in the MFA program suggested this little stunt as a way to call attention to The Swamp Ape Review, FAU’s graduate student run national literary magazine. We were weeks away from launching the inaugural online issue.

I was all about getting into that Swamp Ape costume and traipsing around the AWP literary conference. I knew I could ham it up with strangers and goad them into taking a picture with the Swamp Ape and then hashtag the magazine on social media. I would have done something like this anyhow (like…just in my normal, everyday life) because I’m kind of a freak like that, so I was excited that for my first time ever attending AWP, I would be doing so “in character.” I mean, I am a writer, after all, and, therefore, pretty socially awkward around new people and big crowds.

The conference was in Washington D.C., and since I am a part-part time student (I only take one class at a time) and a full-full time high school teacher (I wish I could only teach one class at a time), I was thrilled that I was going to get to take an out-of-state odyssey with my fellow graduate students and would get to know them on a whole other level.

But back to the Swamp Ape. Let me first say that I had no earthly idea what a ghillie suit was when we were in the initial planning stages for the Swamp Ape appearances at AWP. I had to “Wikipedia” it. According to Wikipedia, a ghillie suit is “a suit traditionally donned by snipers, hunters, and nature photographers to allow them to conceal themselves from enemies or targets.” As a pacifist, this amused me. The online adverts for the suit would have you believe they are “lightweight” and “breathable.” I assure you, they are not. They are stinky, sweaty death suits. The experience of being the Swamp Ape was fun, nonetheless, a great success, even (viva la swamp!).

In addition to being one of the students behind the Swamp Ape, I also had the opportunity to attend panels with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sarah Manguso, and Paul Lisicky (to name a few); I was fortunate enough to have had a conversation with Dave Eggers, a social activist and literary hero of mine for over twenty years; I discovered what wonderfully talented, delightful people my fellow MFA students truly are; I learned invaluable lessons about writing and publishing; and, last but not least, our literary magazine gained a ton of exposure.

AWP is happening all over again in a little under a year, but this time in Florida, the home of the Swamp Ape him/herself. Let the countdown begin!

Brittany Rigdon is a creative non-fiction writer who dabbles in poetry and teaches high school students how to think critically and write creatively. She went to Florida Atlantic University and has an M.A. in American and British Literature; she is currently working on an M.F.A. in creative writing. Brittany has edited and published six annual student writing anthologies for the creative writing students at Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts and is a reader for The Swamp Ape Review. When she’s not attempting to finally publish her own work and not just that of her students, she can be found walking her most adorable chocolate lab— Henry Miller, training for triathlons, or watching a stunning sunrise somewhere in the world

Monday, March 13, 2017

Screw the Audience

Dude, screw the audience.

They mean well. They wait so patiently for you to finish your work, then read it. In some cases, (hi, Internet!) they helpfully point out what they liked about your piece or, most often, what totally sucked, which is very constructive criticism.

One of the biggest issues I have when going into the writing process is that idea of audience. Now, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, I can write through a piece easily because I am confident about my concept, what I want to do with it, and how I can build on it. No, the problem starts when I’m sitting at my laptop and that stupid sticker I plastered near the keyboard of Garfield hugging a nug of weed is winking at me and I’m wracking my brain for ideas that won’t come.

Then the rhetorical questions start.

What can I do that’s different? What can I do that will make people go, wooooow, what a genius, please let me buy your currently nonexistent book immediately (be the first of your friends to give me money!!!!).

It is in these moments, these pre-writing brainstorming sessions where I can’t find anything to say that the naysayers start creeping in. Quit while you’re ahead, they cackle at me. Your audience won’t get the concept anyway.

I think that’s when we need to start ignoring the audience. Oftentimes, we (okay, me) fall into this trap of trying to write something that’s universally appealing or perfect in its first draft. Sometimes we have to accept - again, me - that someone, somewhere is going to hate what you write. That terrible review or rejection is going to happen, probably over and over again, but it should not inhibit the writing process.

Funnily enough, the inspiration for this blog post comes from an essay I read last semester for ENC 6700, a course we take at FAU that focuses on writing methodology and rhetoric. The article, titled “Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience” is focused on helping our students write through any writer’s block that comes up while drafting academic essays by teaching them to, at first, not consider the audience at all. The author, Peter Elbow, found that when students were hung up on how to compose for an academic audience, they couldn’t even begin the writing process. While Elbow was specifically focused on academia, I have run into the same problem myself as a creative writer. Too often, I’m worried about the reception a piece will get even before I’ve started writing the damn thing.

So, how do I move past this idea of audience so I can actually produce the work I want to be writing? I have found that the simplest, and yet hardest, thing to do is just keep going. I take those negative things my imaginary audience is yelling at me and use them as motivation to develop the idea at hand.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. But hey, I’ll take it. And the audience can suck it.

With that being said, please buy my future books!

Mary Mattingly is a fiction candidate in her first year in Florida Atlantic University's MFA program. Originally from the Detroit, Mich. area, she is very bad at writing bios and unsure of how to end this one, whoops, looks like we're done here.

Friday, February 24, 2017

First Things First

One of the first questions the writer of non-fiction needs to decide is how present he or she wants to be within the piece. Is the story better told from the first person point of view, with the author as an active participant? Or would an arm's length, third person approach, be more effective? Each have merit, and there are wonderful examples of both. John McPhee usually writes in the third person. For example, in The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (all 192 pages of it), he used the word “I” twice. Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, wrote entirely in the first person. Both are classics, both successful, both very different. This is one of the beauties of literary non-fiction. 

So which to choose? The answer is partly a function of what kind of story you want to write. Your childhood may be better told in the first person, but if you are writing about the families suffering from water contamination in heavily fracked lands, for example, it may be more effective to place yourself - as a writer - at a distance from the issue.

It might also, though, come down to personal preference. How do you like to write? What do you like to read? Personally, I am not so interested in third person journalistic pieces. Perhaps it’s narcissistic but I like to be in the story, and if I’m not in it, I want to have an opinion about it, and I want to be able to express that opinion clearly. I like to reflect on the things I write about. I try to roll them around in my mouth, taste them, chew them a little, smell them, touch them, and sense their texture. I like to speculate as to their larger meaning.  And I like to express those thoughts on the page. If I could not do this, I would not bother to write.  

Philip Lopate put it well: “I am more interested in the display of consciousness on the page. The reason I read non-fiction is to follow an interesting mind…I’m arguing more for reflective non-fiction where thinking and the play of consciousness is the main actor.” Me too. I want to read writers who lay it out there, who expose themselves and their thoughts and I want to write this way too.

To be able to write nonfiction with the skills of a storyteller is a rare gift and I enjoy reading such work. I wish I could write that way; it’s an art. But I don’t want to immerse myself in the organ transplant industry, or in the history of astronauts, or the business of fracking, just to tell a story. Such topics are fascinating, for sure, but I am more interested in the things that are going on right here, right now, in the small but interesting sphere of the world that I find myself in. And I want to make sense of those things. If I can find a way to make them interesting to others, well, that would be just fine.

The writer Jennifer Bowen Hicks sums it up for me: “When a writer voices the agitations of her will through words, I feel my own blood moving inside my veins, transfused and transformed by the essay’s greatest potential gift: full access to another human’s thinking, feeling, core—that place where our truest feelings and agitations live. In writing, is there any other point?”

Kevin Brolley is a first year MFA student. This is not his first career. The others worked out pretty well, mostly, but the jury is still out on this one.  His long-term ambition is to become the most caffeinated man in America.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Beyond Cute, Loud, Obnoxious, and Innocent: Writing Children as Literary Characters

Some of the most enduring characters in literature are children: Scout, the March sisters, Harry Potter and his friends, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Oliver Twist, Liesel Meminger and Rudy Steiner from The Book Thief leap immediately to mind. Each of these characters is as fully-rendered on the page as any of their adult counterparts.
Filling your stories with children will add an element of complexity and authenticity to your writing. Whether you are writing children as main or secondary characters, considering these few points will help you create realistic, identifiable characters for your readers.

Children’s emotions and personalities are as complex and unique as adults’ are. It helps to remember yourself at the same age as your character. While you certainly didn’t know a lot about the world at large, you knew a lot about your world. You were curious and smart and kind and frightened by things that might seem silly now. You navigated relationships with siblings and friends and teachers and neighbors. You had your own sense of humor, your own varied interests, your own insecurities, your own rich and secret imaginary world. Write these into your child characters.

Children are motivated by goals and desires. One of the elements that separates static characters from dynamic characters is desire. Children long to fit in at school, for a parent to love them, to be given a guinea pig for their birthday, to negotiate more screen time or a later bedtime. Much of their mental and physical energy is consumed by wanting things and figuring out how to get them. In fact, since most children don’t need to worry about careers, mortgages, taxes, and politics, it is possible that the children in your stories are even more defined by their desires than adults are.

Despite their rich inner lives and wonderful brains, children are children. Your readers will have a hard time believing that your eight-year-old protagonist has the experience and emotional intelligence to counsel a drug-addicted parent, or the culinary knowledge to whip up a gourmet meal. If readers don’t tire of precocious children who spout zingy one-liners or use obscure four-syllable words in their dialogue, they will certainly begin waiting for “the twist” that explains why these children are so uncharacteristically wise. Readers will also be suspicious of impeccably well-behaved children. Children are sometimes loud. They are impatient and restless, and they don’t always adhere without complaint to adult agendas.

If you’re having a hard time tapping into your own memories, it can help to consult photographs and videos from your childhood. Observe your own children, or your nieces and nephews, or your students. Children are everywhere, but if you’re living in a retirement community or feel uncomfortably voyeuristic observing children to whom you have no connection, consult the internet. Child development charts like this one can help you determine what a healthy (or unhealthy) 10-year-old might do.
Children under the age of fourteen make up more than a quarter of the world’s population. Include them in the landscape of your own writing.

Trina Sutton is a second year MFA candidate in Fiction. She loves teaching students to be logical and critical thinkers.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Accomplishing the Possible: On Writing Good (and Great) Fiction

If there’s anything that I’ve learned this semester (this being my first as an MFA), it’s that there isn’t a formula for good fiction. There is no single aspect of it that’s more important than others. Wonderfully complex characters can suffer if the dialogue is hokey. An intriguing plot can derail if the characters aren’t complex. A distinct voice can risk failure in carrying a piece if there’s not some sort of plot or growth.

I should acknowledge that all of the things I’ve mentioned could work and as creative writers, we should try to figure out how. After all, I think that once we learn all the “rules” for writing good fiction, it’s up to us to try to break them (successfully). But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that most of the fiction that I love often has more than one aspect that makes it strong. It’s finding the right combination that’s the tricky part. But I believe that’s what our workshops are for: targeting the aspects that are working and those that aren’t. How do we make this piece stronger? It’s the question we ask ourselves when we read each other’s work—what we set out to do when we revise.

So maybe this is my long-winded way of saying that feedback and revision are some of the most important aspects of composing good fiction. It often takes stepping away from our work and letting others lay eyes on it to find the direction we need to go next. Finishing a piece isn’t enough. Good fiction comes from thoughtful revision.

But how does one progress from writing good fiction to writing great fiction? This was one of the many questions that Professor Bucak posed to us this semester and to begin trying to answer it, we have to ask ourselves how we define great fiction. Is it simply more successful at doing what good fiction does or does it fulfill a completely different set of criteria? As Professor Bucak pointed out, if great is defined by standing the test of time, does it then imply risk-taking, originality, historical significance, or timeless themes? What is it that separates good contemporary fiction from short stories and novels that hold up over time?

I’m still working out how I would answer these questions, but I think that it’s something that we should all consider as writers as we try to revise our stories. In the end, it comes down to what we want our fiction to do. Do we speak closely to the issues that we are currently encountering or do we want our fiction to still be relevant years from now? Do we want to push boundaries with our writing or do we use traditional or familiar methods?

I realize that I’m posing many questions that I don’t necessarily have the answers to, but I’ve come away from my first graduate fiction workshop with as many questions as things that I’ve learned. As Professor Bucak told us in one of our last workshops, “I feel that you should come out of this class less sure of what makes great fiction than ever. I think that should be a good thing. But you should feel clearer on what you each individually would like to try as writers.” For me, now is the time to try everything. The possibilities seem limitless, which is simultaneously daunting and exciting. But my focus has now shifted away from what is “right” in fiction and towards considering what I want to accomplish as a writer. Towards what is possible.

Madison Garber is originally from Tallahassee, Florida—or South Georgia, according to South Floridians. In 2015, she graduated Summa Cum Laude from Florida State University with a B.A. in Creative Writing. A semi-professional ballerina for 17 years, Madison is now focusing her creative energies on fiction writing as a Master of Fine Arts student at Florida Atlantic University. Madison also hopes to hone her teaching skills as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the university’s Writing Program. She is a movie buff, a part-time introvert, and an Anglophile itching to return to Britain for another (hopefully extended) visit.