Monday, February 18, 2019

Observing like a Writer

When I received the writing advice to slow down in my prose, it felt like (unintentional) life advice. But life advice, I’m sure we all can take. 
            Whether you’re reading this as a current/former/hopeful MFA student or as a writer of any stripe, it’s safe to assume you’re a busy person. Fair chance, writing isn’t your only obligation and to slow down seems impossible because you can’t drop your job(s), children, classes, teaching, spouse/partner, etc. And you can’t drop your writing (I’d hope).
            But you can slow down in your writing, particularly when thinking about setting and details.
            I should have realized sooner that my aversion to sitting in a setting and providing a reader with the unfolding details of a place was a reflection on my aversion to sitting in a setting and taking in the unfolding details of a place in my life. I eat breakfast during my office hours, with a book in one hand and a pen in the other. I meet a friend for lunch and my mind is confetti on the next dozen things that need to get done (the next scene to write, the next paper to grade, the next paper to write, etc) and so place becomes transitory. At lunch with this friend, I won’t be able to recall afterwards whether the chairs were wood or metal, whether the table had both ketchup and mustard but no mayonnaise, whether all the Splenda was gone, but the Sweet n’ Low was packed too tight. If I can’t slow down and notice the details in my life, why was I surprised that I couldn’t slow down and provide those details in my prose?
            Chances are, I’m not alone in moving through the world as if each space is only a bus depot to hop to the next transitory location.
            I know mindfulness is a buzz word that can feel cheapened recently, but there’s something to say about writerly mindfulness. We learn how to read as writers and (hopefully) read to feed our creative work. Reading becomes part of the work of writing. We learn to dedicate slowness with published work and understand that if we don’t read (and don’t read with the purpose to learn and expand possibilities) then we don’t improve. We learn to read mindfully. Can we also learn to observe mindfully? Can observation become the deliberate work of a writer? I’m a fan of carrying a notebook everywhere, but even then, I don’t take down every detail of every room I enter—that’s exhausting for one, and also when you notice everything you can’t hone in on what’s important. But, I can take down one or two ideas. Just the ketchup bottle alongside the mayonnaise packets. Just the Sweet n’ Low with the bent pink corners.
            But even then, taking notes can still be exhausting or cumbersome. Another observation technique is to build your observations into the work you already do as a reader. When I read as a writer, I read for setting. I read for how the writer walks me through a room (or not), how the writer directs my attention. I observe and take notes on the places I would never think to set a story or place a scene.
            I don’t expect any of us to get less busy, but I hope that slowing down can create writerly mindfulness so we can observe with intention. I hope that observation can become a part of your writing life, something as integral as reading. The places we inhabit are not transitory and I, at least, needed a reminder of that, in my life, as well as in my prose.

Cheryl Wollner is a first year MFA student in fiction, currently working on an alternate history novel about Bess and Harry Houdini. She 100% believes in magic.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Let's Do This

Hello, and welcome to the Spring 2019 semester! So, yeah, my picture is from October, but come on. Who can resist that little Pikachu and his big brother? Anyway.

I'm including the picture so you can see why I've been absent from this blog. Those two kept me busy for a full semester of parental leave (I'd thought to get a draft of my novel done - it turns out they had other plans). And as much as I miss their little cherubic faces every day, it really is nice to have the full use of both of my hands.

But enough about me.

There is a lot going on this semester, some of which has already transpired. We had the Alumnae reading with the lovely Brittany Ackerman, Stephanie Anderson, and, you know, me. Not sure lovely applies there. Maybe the adjective needs rethinking. We could go with indomitable. Indefatigable? Hm. Probably we are all three some of these things to some degree. But! Our reading was so fun, and we thank all in attendance. You can find Brittany's book here, Stephanie's book here, and my book is here, or I have a box of books in my office (CU 306F) if you're so inclined.

Last week literary agent  Renée Zuckerbrot spoke, and this week Danez Smith will be giving a reading (2/14 at 7pm in the Majestic Palm Room of the Student Union - do not miss it! Maybe this link to the FB event will work).

There are additional exciting events to look forward to as well. On 2/28 Mary Blossom Lee Poet, Sy Hoahwah, will be giving a reading at 7pm in the Majestic Palm Room of the Student Union, and on 3/21 the next Off the Page reading will be given by John Keene (7pm, Majestic Palm Room of the Student Union).

Remember to meet with me to discuss your program of study. Probably we should update your Plan of Study. Maybe you have questions on thesis guidelines or deadlines. Maybe you've just, you know, missed my office. I know I have... Come on in! I take appointments MW 10:30 - 1:30 and TR 11:00 - 12:30. I'm also happy to speak with you over the phone if those hours don't work.

I'm looking forward to the rest of the semester. We are going to have some great blog posts in the near future. I, for one, cannot wait to read about the Lawrence Sanders Writer-in-Residence Workshop. And listen. I'll probably be bugging some of you for a blog post. Please add your voice to this! YOU are what make this blog interesting. I'm just here, you know, curating.

MR Sheffield is the Creative Writing Advisor for the MFA program at FAU. You can reach her at to set up an appointment. Her debut book of poetry, Marvels, was released by Sundress Publications this winter.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

An Open Letter to First-Year MFAs

Dear Incoming MFAs,

Firstly, allow me to congratulate you all on getting into an MFA program—this is no small feat. You should all be proud of yourselves and your work; I trust that you’ll find FAU to be a nurturing program where you’ll have the chance to hone your skills (and develop new ones) as writers, be exposed to opportunities that will help you grow professionally, and develop longstanding relationships within a community of like-minded people who take their art just as seriously as you do.

As I prepare to graduate and embark upon my next endeavors, I would like to take a moment to reflect a bit on my time here in the MFA program and offer up some advice for navigating the next three years of seriously pursuing your art. Disclaimer: these suggestions may not be for everyone—what you get out of this program will depend, largely, on what you want out of this program—but they are reflective of my own experience here and what I wish I’d known starting out.

1. View Your Responsibilities as a Full-time Job.

Many of you, I imagine, will be entering this program as Graduate Teaching Assistants. This means that, in addition to completing your academic work, you will be teaching two sections of Freshman Composition each semester. Teaching—although the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had—can be very time consuming. Between time spent in class, lesson planning, office hours, and essay grading, you will have plenty to do. I don’t say this to induce anxiety or overwhelm you. In fact, I say this to hopefully assuage your worries. If you treat the totality of your responsibilities at FAU as a sort of full-time job, balancing all of your work won’t be a problem. I recommend carving out some sort of schedule for yourself (even if it’s just a mental one). Allot yourself the necessary amount of time to read your assigned texts, work on any lit essays as they arise, get your grading/teaching tasks done, and, of course, write.

A wise professor at FAU once told me not to forget the real reason I’m here: to write. Your writing, in other words, should always come first. Especially if the inspiration strikes; don’t ignore your muse because you teach the next day and you haven’t figured out a lesson yet. Many of my lessons have been scrambled together on my way to campus (and, ironically, these have been some of my best classes).

Somewhat related to this: don’t view your required lit classes as an inconvenience. Allow them to inform your writing as well. Learn the theory and pay attention to how the authors you’ll study have employed it. Although it may not seem so at first glance, these classes can also serve to improve your craft.

2. Be an Opportunist

One aspect of MFA programs (and this one, more specifically) that often gets overlooked is the amount of extracurricular opportunities that will come your way. It is such a rare circumstance to be in, to have three years to focus on your art and to be inundated with opportunities streamlined straight to you (no need to hunt!). Take advantage of as many of them as you can while you’re here. There will be calls for submissions that magically appear (thanks, Mary) in your inbox. Submit to these places and others. Submit your work voraciously in the next three years—your publications can make or break your job search post-graduation. I’m sure you’ll be told this all the time by your professors as well, but I feel that this sentiment cannot be overstated. Submit, submit, and be rejected. You’re a writer, rejection is just an unavoidable hazard of the occupation. Embrace it. Allow rejection to become an ally, let it make you stronger and fuel your drive to revise and improve.

Apply for every other opportunity that comes up. There will be grants, competitions, travel stipends (see: the Swann Summer Scholarship), calls for conference papers/readings, chances to teach Creative Writing (both to undergrads at FAU and in the form of community workshops), and invitations to work on Swamp Ape Review, the MFA’s national literary journal, visitations by renowned writers (see: The Sanders Writers-in-Residence) and agents. My advice to you is to attend, apply, and participate. Many of us will not again have such easy access to so many professional opportunities post-graduation.

3. Start Thinking About Your Thesis, Now

When I first got to FAU, I had no idea what I was planning to write for my book-length thesis project. That’s okay, most of us didn’t. The sooner, however, you can come to a decision on this, the sooner you can start working on it; and the more time you have to work on it, the stronger and more realized your thesis will be. This might sound obvious, but I think it’s worth explicitly pointing out. This should not be a source of stress for you, though, especially not in your first semester, and you won’t want to tether yourself to one idea too early on. Be flexible. Throw ideas against the wall, try some out, see if they stick. Some won’t, and that’s okay, you’ve weeded those out. Pick a topic or a framework that speaks to your individual strengths as a writer, challenges you, and will sustain your interest for two-to-three years. Again, don’t fret if you don’t have a clue now, but be looking for clues as you write and read and workshop.

Side note: try to take classes with as many different faculty members as possible. When it comes time to choose your committee, you’ll want to have an idea of what kind of writer you are, which professors your work seems to speak to, and which professors will give you the kind of feedback you find the most useful. The people you ask to be on your thesis committee should, like much of writing, be a matter of audience.

3. Forge Friendships and Concoct Community

The stereotypical writer is often portrayed as a more introverted individual, as writing is so often a solitary task. This may or may not apply to you. Either way, I encourage you to be open to developing relationships with others in the program, both personally and professionally. A friend and I sometimes refer to this as the “constant workshop,” as many of our conversations wind up becoming discussions of the pieces we’ve been working on lately.

Some of the most useful feedback I’ve ever received has been given to me at the bar in casual conversation. The possibility of finding lifelong friendships and familiar readers here is very real. This is a truly priceless accident of the MFA program.

These next three years will pass by swiftly. You’ll attend your first day of workshop and, the next thing you know, you’ll be writing an advice column to a group of incoming MFAs you’ll never meet. So make the most of it—be prepared to put in many long nights of hard work, pursue every opportunity that comes your way, and have fun writing—experiment, try new things, augment and obliterate any and all boundaries you may have in how you approach your work. You will not become a writer upon the completion of this degree. You are a writer as long as you’re writing.

Be well, be good, be great, enjoy,

Dustin J. DiPaulo

Dustin J. DiPaulo received his MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University in 2018. He currently lives in South Florida and has no clue where he’ll be in a month from now, but is oddly at peace with this. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously

Paul Lisicky inadvertently broke the ice with our workshop. As usual, we shifted in our seats before the workshop began, nervously making small talk with one another in order to prove we weren’t uncomfortable, wouldn’t try too hard or be dorkily overeager for this year’s Sanders Writer-in-Residence. After launching into the short reading he passed around the room, he realized we hadn’t introduced ourselves.

“Oh my gosh!” he said, bringing his hands to his head. “And now it’s so awkward.”

The week continued like that — valuable literary lessons of how to use small frames to create a narrative, how to use music in writing, delivered with honesty and self-deprecating humor. No posturing or formulaic responses.

Lisicky even seemed to enjoy his time with us. When we would thank him for delivering such thoughtful workshop plans, he’d say, “You’re all energizing me!” He even came out for post-workshop drinks with us, patiently answering questions about MFA programs and agents, putting up with graduate student humor, and posting a picture of our group on his personal Instagram. He shared more time than he was required to, admitted when he didn’t know the answer to a question, and always spoke with joy and energy.

In writing workshops, I learn as much about the leader’s personality as I do about the writing principles they’re teaching.These writing lessons will nudge my poetry and prose a few steps in a new direction, and certainly the sustained, intense concentration on writing for a full week brings me renewed motivation to just sit down each day and write. But I mostly remember how each workshop was led.

Lisicky reminded me about the value of joy, enthusiasm, generosity, and humility. Here is a list of what I’ve learned in grad school:

  1. Every time you don’t know something, admit it.
  2. Always bring food to 7-10 p.m. classes.
  3. If you’re suffering imposter syndrome, know that almost everyone else is, too.
  4. Look for the courage to take your writing seriously.
  5. While teaching and course work are important, don’t use them as excuses not to write.
  6. Enjoy every 2 p.m. grocery shopping trip.
  7. When you’re sleep deprived but have a mountain of work, sleep before you work.
  8. Physical health is tightly braided with mental health, and both are tied to creativity.
  9. Don’t take your writing so seriously that it doesn’t sound like you or makes you afraid to fail.
  10. Experiment with your writing for fun.
  11. You don’t have to know now what you want to do for a day job.
  12. It’s OK to stay home on a Friday night.
  13. If you want to be friends with someone, consider making the first move.
  14. Read work that inspires you and draws you outside your comfort zone.
  15. Enjoy the gift of time to focus on writing.

Kathleen Martin is an MFA candidate at Florida Atlantic University. Her work is forthcoming in Gulf Stream Literary Magazine.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Framing, Compression, Ongoingness

When Paul Lisicky visited our campus in March, we learned to slow words.
The timing was definitely ironic: Paul visited us the week before we launched our first Swamp Ape Review print issue and hosted a panel at AWP Tampa, the week theses were due (for third-year students), and the week before spring break (aka midterms). Adding a daily, 2-hour workshop to the week was, on paper, daunting. Yet to walk into the classroom with Paul on day one was to enter a literary (Vinyasa) yoga class. He’s brilliant, greeted us warmly and spoke with measured words in a way that invited us to pay attention. He is kind, reflective, and a true teacher—someone who is engaged and thinking about how to help his students learn. The way he respected our pieces—really assumed that every choice we'd made was intentional and should be considered—changed the way I will teach in the future, and increased the respect I give to my own work. In the midst of so much feedback from all our classes, and so much self-doubt as writers, he reminded us that what we are doing is a weighty thing, important.

A few days into workshop, several themes emerged for the week: framing, compression, ongoingness. We studied graphic novel excerpts from Thi Bui's memoir, The Best We Could Do, and analyzed photograph-like progressions of prose from D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land. At the end of each discussion, Paul gave us a prompt that generated some of our best work; I have known several of my writing peers for three years now, others for two years, or six months, and I read writing from each of them that was in some way a departure from what they’d done in the past.
That growth is a testament to the energy Paul brought to campus. A workshop like this is a brief encounter... we get 10 hours with this person (though in Paul's case, because he was generous, we also spent long hours at local bars or the Living Room Theatre talking about agents and publishing and craft, relieving our hands of pencils and laptops for sweating glasses of beer). Our teachers instruct us well day in and day out in this program, but the Sanders Writer-in-Residence workshop each spring is by nature a different experience; it feels like a secret society, meeting together in a small group of 10 for the week, our work not privy to our usual classmates and professors. It is a tightly framed experience, a workshop compression.
And compression, as we all know, tends to produce something (diamonds, fossils, overflow...) For me, the compressed energy went into my work. I spent the past year writing my first novel, so attending an intensive, week-long workshop focused on compression was an inversion. Last summer I spent 2-4 hours each day drafting long chapters that I later returned to and whittled down, or removed entirely. In Paul's workshop, we lingered on each word like poetry. The respect he gave to each line, each piece, made me reconsider how flippantly I sometimes write. I wanted to write slowly, lingeringly, because I knew how carefully my words would be attended by him and the writers in that room. I wrote one piece that was only 456 words long. Another that was 224. Yet each was more effective for its length. It was a reminder to me that my verbose style could change—that sometimes a new teacher, a new mind, can show you your range.
There is an ongoingness to writing, I think, in this: I may develop my voice, keep my preoccupations, or gravitate toward one style, but there is always room to encounter a new writer and watch my craft evolve. There is space to slow down, even during the busiest week of the term. And every time we do slow down, slow our words, perhaps that is when we most respect the language we use in service of a story that outlasts us.

Natalie Rowland is a graduating in May with her MFA in fiction and a novel manuscript (following rounds 1 and 2 of emotional drafting and revision). She’ll begin round 3 this summer. Wish her luck. 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Writing Concisely with Paul Lisicky

One of the best things about being in an MFA writing program is the opportunity to get a variety of eyes on your work. And so, when the applications for the Lawrence Sanders Writer-in-Residence workshop with fiction and nonfiction writer Paul Lisicky came out this year, I knew I had to sign up. Inwardly, though, I groaned. How was I expected to devote two hours per day for one straight week in the midst of my regular courseload, the odd jobs I work to make ends meet, and the fact that all staff members for our literary magazine Swamp Ape Review were one week ahead of the 2018 AWP Conference & Bookfair? Regardless, I sucked it up and submitted my application. And I’m so glad I did.

Not only was Paul down-to-Earth, but he created a space in which he challenged participants to reconsider structure, imagery, and form in ways I had never before conceptualized. Our week began with reading short pieces that utilized repetition and scaffolding. We studied writers like Nick Flynn, reading a segment from his memoir The Ticking is the Bomb, paying close attention to the chapters centered around the images presented in their titles. After a lively discussion of the day’s readings, Paul would then challenge us with short writing exercises. The form of the workshop was a welcome introduction to an experience I had never encountered - the chance to apply what we were learning in class in the moment. The week culminated in two days of bringing in short pieces that were image-centered, concise, and cohesively structured. Rather than focusing on critique, Paul created a space in which we expressly emphasized what was working in each of our pieces - a welcome break from the traditional workshop format!

One of the biggest challenges I face as a writer is writing concisely. Too often, I end up over-elaborating and over-explaining every plot detail I am trying to depict. Working with Paul was helpful because he exposed us to pieces in which the writers had the opposite approach. By trimming down the content, the themes of each piece shone through that much more strongly because diction was carefully chosen and frame was considered. It was a lesson I needed to learn and one I will apply to the pieces I currently am generating for my thesis.

Paul was gracious both in class with his feedback and outside of class with his time. His door was always open for those who wanted to meet with him one-on-one and we enjoyed congregating with him after class time, asking questions about the fellowships he’s received, his own experience in his MFA program, and how he approaches teaching creative writing. Our week working with Paul was certainly an influential one and an experience I will remember fondly in the years to come.

Originally a Metro Detroit native, Mary Mattingly now lives in South Florida. Currently, she is pursuing an MFA in fiction at Florida Atlantic University, where she’s experimenting with form and trying (and failing) to keep her bar tabs low. Her work has previously been seen in the literary journal, Arcturus.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

On drafting and finding the heart of the story

In a comedy writing class at The Second City -- a standby in the world of Chicago improv whose classes I would absolutely urge the comedically-interested to check out -- a teacher looked at my scene sketch and made a face. She often made that face.

I strain to recall it all, but I think we were reading my piece about a pair of startup entrepreneurs who get into a steadily escalating blowout debate about their business concept -- and at the same time, they were throwing a party to launch the business concept, and there were some jokes about the food that these guys were serving, and there was some kind of feminist commentary in there somewhere with the entrepreneurs’ wives, and they were regaling their glory days as brothers of a fraternity, and they started outcompeting each other in some fart jokes, I believe -- and then, my teacher made that face. “Here’s something I like to tell people. Imagine you enter a room full of things. You could take all of the things and put them in your story, or you could take just one of them, and really see just that one thing. Which story would you rather read?”

That little parable might have gifted me with the single most important takeaway of my earliest and often embarrassing ploughings-away at writing fiction.

I think the metaphor of ploughing is actually a useful one. When we plough, we turn over familiar ground. A week later, totally unexpected plants might be growing. Ancient seeds, long dormant in that soil, are sprouting. We discover things we could have never anticipated -- and that’s a very exciting process of writing.

One of the toughest disciplines I had to learn, especially in the beginning, is the art of settling on just one main story idea that comes up in the process of drafting discovery -- the art of finding the heart of your story. For instance, looking back at the entrepreneur scene, I can take a glance at that messy draft and think -- ah-ha! How absolutely hilarious and satisfying it would be to explore just that one core emotional element, of these entrepreneurs who can never settle on an idea, and therefore never get their business off the ground. We could explore the blockages that most people can relate to, like perfectionism; the vulnerability going on in these two self-doubting former frat guys. In this case, knowing what I know now, I would not choose to explore all the semi-related items I found in the room. I would zero-in on just that one core aspect of their emotional dysfunction -- inability to launch -- and explore that one thing for all it’s worth.

Within these entrepreneurs, I know that that particular core emotional element is the
most interesting, fruitful aspect of the relationship between them because that element was the initial inspiration for the story; it was an observation that came from life. I once worked at an Internet company and would join lots of conversations that featured deep pining to start the next big app, online food truck, sustainable grocery delivery service, etc. I relished in hearing this group of my coworkers daydreaming about Steve Jobs and Zuckerberg, imagining their own startup careers founding multi-billion dollar efficiencies that solved the world’s inconveniences, but never committing to moving forward with any of these business ideas, big or small. It touched me. I was interested in this moment where Silicon Valley and young entrepreneurship was burning people up with FOMO, yet where dreams seemed so hard to turn into reality.

Do you struggle with focusing in on the core emotional place of your story? I
now readily embrace the beauty of the second draft in coaxing this element to life, reshaping the work around its heart. Of all the material you’ve generated in your first draft, of all the ground you’ve churned up and of all those discovered seeds that are growing, what do you have to trim away so that those one or two different story elements, the most vital, alive, important focus areas, can thrive?

Cherri is a first year fiction MFA student who is completing her first collection of short stories.