Monday, August 25, 2014

The Perks of Being a Corporate Sellout

            “I might be dumber by the end of summer, but at least it’s a good resume builder.” Or that’s what I told my mom when I accepted an internship with a beauty magazine. Spending three months writing blurbs about makeup that are as much advertisements as they are “reviews” sounded about as stimulating as, well, spending three months writing blurbs about makeup. So imagine my surprise when I found myself enjoying it. Yes, I was writing about beauty products, but it was still writing. And I like writing.
            The great thing about the beauty industry is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s completely frivolous, and the people inside the industry are just as aware of this as the people outside. My boss was educated, well-traveled and the first person to admit she never expected to wind up at a beauty magazine. She’s also one of the first people to admit: writing about beauty is fun. And I agree.
            I spent my days coming up with the cheesiest puns imaginable: “Inglot Cosmetics introduces a ‘scent-sational’ new fragrance line;” “Caffeine infused skincare, see what the buzz is all about;” “Worried about extra fat on your pooch? No, not your stomach, your dog.” (Did you know there’s liposuction for dogs now?! But don’t worry it’s purely for health reasons.)
            Aside from being fun, the perks didn’t suck. It was an unpaid internship, but there was a gym across the hall from me, an on site Starbucks where everything was free, a manicurist every other week (also free), and the occasional free beauty products. But corporate perks are never really free. Some part of your soul has to be sold. So what’s the trade off? What gets lost along the way?
            Artistic integrity. Coming from an MFA program where everyone seems to be aiming for different, where everyone wants to break through boundaries and do something surprising, and where I sometimes feel too mainstream (not that I’m complaining), writing about makeup is a big step in the opposite direction. It’s a world where facts sometimes go unpublished in favor of advertising revenue, and I know a lot of good writers who have moral qualms about that sort of thing. Luckily for me, I’ve never been one with an overdeveloped sense of righteous indignation. And chai tea lattes have a way of soothing my conscience
            Sure, maybe there’s something to be said for standards, for artistic integrity, for locking yourself away in a remote cabin in the woods to write a great American novel that no one will read until after your dead. At which point, moody high schoolers will rent the movie and glance through the CliffNotes. But there’s also something to be said for a building full of people sipping Americanos and getting paid to put words on paper. There’s something to be said for paying off student loans and not spending the last week of every month eating ramen noodles. There’s something to be said for making your art into your living. So don’t be afraid to trade in ten-dollar words for two-bit puns. It’s still writing. And as for artistic integrity, that’s what weekends are for.   
Shari Lefler is an MFA student and recipient of the President’s 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.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Welcome Back!

It's the start of a new semester - a time to review and renew your writing habits, goals, and progress toward your thesis. To that end, I thought I'd give you some programmatic information.

After 18 credit hours, you'll need to complete a Plan of Study. See me for help with this. Basically, the Plan of Study is your contract with the English Department and the Graduate College for the coursework that's required for the MFA. As such, it's an important form, and you'll need to stay current with it by filling out the Form 9 (Revision to Plan of Study) pretty much each subsequent semester.

If you're wondering what classes to take, check out our advising checklist and degree maps (for students with and without a GTA). Your degree is made up of 48 credit hours - 21 hours of Creative Writing Workshops, 18 hours of lit/theory classes, ENG 6009: Principles and Problems of Literary Study, and six thesis hours. It's recommended that you take ENG 6009: P&P as close to the beginning of your coursework as possible. Also, take workshops outside of your chosen genre! This will help to not only broaden your writing horizon, but will also enhance your chosen genre (I promise - there's a new energy you'll bring back after trying something new).

When you're ready to take thesis hours, come see me and discuss the process. Basically, you should email your prospective chair to set up an appointment. Don't ask your prospective chair during class or in the hallway - be formal, be polite, and take this request seriously. Your committee is made up of your chair and two other readers. Check out the faculty list for information on the professors' areas of study - consider choosing one reader from the non-creative writing faculty (they can bring a new perspective to your committee).

When you're getting ready to graduate, please see the degree completion page from the Graduate College. I recently sent an email around with Fall 2014 graduation deadlines - check it out, and if you're graduating this Fall, please be sure to set up an appointment with me as soon as possible.

We have some great readings lined up for the Fall, but I'd also love to be invited to readings you host (hint hint!). I'm planning a welcome back yoga class in the next week or so, so feel free to email me if you're interested in that. Don't forget to check out New Pages for information on journals and literary contests. Read Khristian Mecom's blog about publishing if you haven't yet.

I'm looking forward to a wonderful semester with all of you. My email is if you have any questions. Thanks!

MR Sheffield's work has been published or is forthcoming in Pank, Fiction Southeast, and Far Enough East - she's also your devoted English Advisor and an English instructor at FAU. Contact her at or (561) 297-2974.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Lana Thompson

I am sorry to relay the news that one of our beloved MFA alumni, Lana Thompson, recently passed away.  If you knew Lana, you know she was a true character, who loved classical music, ballet, cats--especially cats in cemeteries!--and travel. She also made a lifelong study of the rituals of death and dying, and so it probably won't surprise you to know that she faced her final illness with humor and forthrightness and awestruck curiosity.  The last time I saw her, she said, in a voice of sad amazement, "I just don't know what's going to happen at any second," and so I can only hope that right now Lana's enjoying knowing something the rest of us don't, and that she's found a whole new world of things to wonder about.  

Take care, Papatya

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The MFA Blog is on Summer Break

This is a post to let you know that FAU's MFA Creative Writing Blog will be on hiatus until August 2014. If you have any questions about the program, please don't hesitate to contact Mary Sheffield, the English Graduate Advisor, at

And while I have you here, please keep in mind that the summer is a perfect time to catch up on your writing projects, travel-for-writing, reading-for-writing, and all other activities that suffuse and enrich your writing-life.

To that end, here are some suggestions for summer activities that I hope will inspire you.

1) Check out a best-of 2014 books list (like this one from the Huffington Post or this one from Goodreads) and get reading whatever looks interesting to you. I also like NPR's book reviews. Remember: read to feed your writing. (Yes, I just made that up. Yes, I know it's super cheeseball. I'm sorry, okay?).

2) Okay, great! So now I (probably) have the cheesiness out of my system. Go to places in nature! Even if you're unable to travel out of the area, South Florida has so much to offer. Head over to Mounts Botanical Gardens in West Palm Beach, go to the Morikami Museum's Sushi & Stroll every second Friday of the summer (or just go to the gardens - they are breathtaking), visit the Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach, visit one of Florida's State Parks (I especially love Cayo Costa - you have to take a ferry over to it), or just bike/run/walk the El Rio Trail right over by campus. Oh, yes, and of course there is always the beach...

3) Go out to museums (the Boca Raton Museum of Art, the Norton Museum of Art, the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale). Go see a play (the Delray Arts Garage, the Wick Theatre, and this Web site has a listing of South Florida theatre companies and shows), go see local music (see Pure Honey for information on upcoming shows), see an independent movie (here at the Living Room Theatre on campus, or you can go to Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale).

4) Number four, but actually numbers one, two, three, and four combined is this - WRITE. Take a small journal out with you even on errands so that you can take notes. That amazing idea you think of will simply dissipate if you don't write it down. If you're having trouble getting moving on new projects, begin with revising something you've already written. Find a book of prompts or a Web site that gives them - look, here's a Tumblr for that.

5) Send your work out. See New Pages or AWP for lists of journals accepting work (here is a link to my blog on navigating the AWP Web site). Find literary journals on Facebook and "like" them (they often post about submission openings and contests). I also recommend reading Khristian's blog about this. 

That's about it, folks. That is all I have. But there is so much more! Just remember to make the most of your summer. Yes, you can simply sit inside an air conditioned room binge-watching your favorite television show, and look - I know this might seem like heaven at first, but listen: now is the time - right now - to find that which sustains you. To write. To explore and experience and contemplate.

Mary Sheffield is your ever-faithful English Graduate Advisor. She is taking her own advice this summer and is working on a novel. Hold her accountable!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Exit Survey

The following is a (mostly) verbatim transcription of my response to a question on the “Exit Survey for the Department of English MFA Program,” which is sent to graduate students upon completion of their degrees. At the time of its writing, I mistakenly believed that this was an anonymous survey, despite the fact that the first page of this form explicitly asked for my name, mailing address, phone number, permanent email address, and the identities of my committee members. I tell you this not to flaunt my ignorance nor to prove the limitations of my feeble memory, but to testify to my honest intentions and good will when generating this response; for, as the ever-quotable Oscar Wilde once opined, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."

This post is for you, future MFA’s.

From the section entitled, “As an Alum”:

3) What advice would you give to a student entering the MFA Program?

·         Get familiar with Duotrope, and other platforms that help to introduce you to the wide array of publications that exist. The publishing world is too difficult to navigate alone, and those that publish (even small things in even smaller publications) are happier with their time in the program.

·         Read Khristian Mecom’s post (on the MFA blog) about publishing.

·         Host your own private readings and writing exchanges, a la the esteemed Coastlines Editor-in-Chief (’13-’14) Ben Parham.

·         If you are afraid of teaching and large crowds, or overwhelmed by the prospect of taking on the added work of a GTA-ship in your first semester, then apply to work at the University Center for Excellence in Writing. It will gently expose you to the teaching and tutoring experience, as well as acquaint you with a selection of writing assignments and prompts that may encourage you to teach your own class in the future.

·         If the GTA experience is taking away too much from your writing, or contributing to poor health, do not be afraid to take a year off and work elsewhere (another department, another field), especially if your ultimate goal is not to teach. My decision not to teach was a difficult one, but it was directly responsible for the greatest breakthroughs in my writing. 

·         Alternatively, even if you are positive that you do not want to teach, I’d recommend stepping out of your comfort zone and trying it out for a year.

·         Some of the biggest literary influences on my writing came from the books, philosophies, and principles I encountered in my Lit classes. Do not underestimate the value of the Lit classes, and do not grumble about taking them. Remember: most, if not all, of the best authors were literary critics, philosophers, philologists, and/or delighted in speaking intelligently about the works of others. 

·         Be sure to take classes that will push you as both a creative and academic writer, and do not be so certain that there is a distinct difference between the two. Think critically about what you can use from your Lit classes in your poems, stories, or essays, and do not be afraid to emulate the canonical (and, oftentimes, outdated) writers that you read.

·         Experiment, experiment, experiment. Use the workshop as an opportunity to experiment with voice, structure, genre, and tone, and not just to strut your stuff. This approach will not only take pressure off of you, but it will inspire your peers to take greater risks.

·         Be a kind but honest workshop peer. Workshops are based on a gift-giving economy. You’ll get what you give. Usually.

·         Becka McKay once said, “Your writing has a job to do.” If you aren’t actively working on it, then send it out for publication. Make a game out of rejection. But don’t let all of those files on your computer just sit there, doing nothing.

·         Don’t be afraid to be sentimental. Forget (or, at least challenge) the writing rules that you learned as a high school student and as an undergrad. There are no absolutes in writing. Even clichés can be used well. Just write what delights (or devastates) you.

·         In my opinion, the only thing you want to avoid is writing a piece that sounds like it was written solely for the workshop.

Mikaela von Kursell is an MFA candidate specializing in Fiction. She will officially receive a much-anticipated, though undoubtedly fake, copy of her diploma when she attends her graduation ceremony on Friday, May 2, 2014 . Her thesis, “The Animalcules of Adam: & Other Small Tales,” is a genre-bending short story collection which explores the lives of important historical figures such as Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, the purported father of microbiology, and Robert Cawdrey, the compiler of the first English dictionary. She lives in South Florida with her blind and deaf Cocker Spaniel, Lady, the noblest little animalcule she knows.

Monday, April 21, 2014

What is the Truth of the Matter?

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?”

I don’t remember not writing, and that’s the problem. My mother—as mothers often do—has given me, over time, historically ambiguous documents revealing that at some point I was a child with a pen and paper and almost illegible handwriting who composed disturbingly dark poetry to appear on lilac-colored construction paper:

     The flawr (sic)
     Ugly and dead
     Faints and rots
     Surftly (sic?) death

I was young then, but I wasn’t wrong. The flower would in fact die (in a surftly way perhaps? Or maybe I meant “surely”—surely death. That sounds right) and rot, and dead flowers are ugly. So perhaps this poem was not a foreshadowing of my maudlin pre-teen prose and soon-to-be angsty adolescence, but just…well…the truth.

 I—and maybe all writers—have a perverse relationship with the idea of truth. As a card-carrying “nonfiction” writer, the truth is something I’m always looking for…but for the other part of me, (the closeted fiction writer who stomps her feet asking when it’s her turn to get a fancy college degree) it is something I’m constantly trying to hide. But the reality is that all writing, regardless of genre, comes from somewhere familiar. Somewhere we have known, deeply and intimately, to the point where we could navigate every inch of it without map or compass, or trace the lines of its silhouette in the darkness.

The only piece of writing advice I would ever give anyone is “write what you know,” because how can you expect to create something that feels real if it’s built on a lie? Listen, I get it. “Fiction” isn’t supposed to be real—but that novel you’ve been working on for god knows how long (you know, the one you write ideas for on cocktail napkins and pocket-sized notebooks?) is just a mess of words on a page if it didn’t come from somewhere real. Somewhere you lingered longer than you should have, where you drank too much or said too little. Somewhere that changed you, or broke you. Somewhere you regret leaving before you knew why you were there in the first place. Somewhere something happened, or someone happened; the first place you fell in love or the last place you said goodbye, before driving or walking or running in the other direction to somewhere new where the whole things starts all over. This amalgamation of somewheres is the framework—the bare bones—of anything worth reading. Do you really think when Thomas Wolfe opened Look Homeward, Angel with “a stone, a leaf; an unfound door. And all of the forgotten faces…” that he didn’t know exactly which faces he was forgetting?  Those were bones, easily covered by the fabricated, malleable tissue of the narrative, smoothed over by each characters’ skin to look whatever way the writer wants them to, different each time. But it is the skeleton that holds the story up, and what endures long after the body rots away. The bones are preserved, like artifacts in a museum—the fragile remains of a reality all too familiar. They are what remind us that everything that happens—every stone and leaf and unfound door—has happened before, but is reborn differently each time…a repackaged retelling of what it means to be human.

And that is the truth of the matter.


Nico Cassanetti graduated from The New School in New York City with a degree in creative writing, and is currently pursuing an MFA in the same. After a brief stint in book publishing at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and ABRAMS books, she remembered that she wanted to be a writer. She has written for Muses & Visionaries Magazine,, and reviewed great literary works on index cards for her staff picks while working at Bookcourt, an independent bookstore in Brooklyn. She currently lives in South Florida (reluctantly).

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Writing Lessons from a Georgia Belle

Tayari Jones whirled into Florida with a fashionable shawl and the mystique of a Georgia belle. Invited by the faculty at the FAU MFA program, she stayed for a week-long session and a reading as the Lawrence Sanders Writer in Residence. She taught for two hours a day in a weeklong class on revision, and so 12 students entered with 12 pieces left for dead in hopes of gleaming and resurrecting something with the assistance of a growing iconic writer of the urban landscape.

Tayari came each day with suggestions from her own honed experience to help us try and salvage what we felt was lost. In the end, the revision she taught was not the editing of syntax or diction that sprouts, gleaming, in focused workshops searching for helpful suggestions. It was her own way of writing that she brought to the table, her emphasis on the life of the character and the importance of placing that at the forefront—before the process of editing begins.

As students, we’ve been honed and hardened to follow the ritualistic workshop since the day we entered. The line-by-line follows the first-read and then the close-read or two to cement your opinions regarding the authors’ intentions and their achievements in the story. This is a symptom of workshops that has been mentioned regularly in different classes since I started at FAU. The chance to workshop with a different set of rules broke a sort of stagnation in the stories. In some cases it was enough to resurrect the pieces. 

There’s also the possibility that the stagnation did not exist and that Tayari simply made the room shine. As the spring semester comes closer to an end I feel that this may be the more likely case. It’s a very different experience to have someone who has found, through failure and success, a place of personal stability that has led to a glowing happiness. There’s something more than editing that happened in that workshop.

Some students knew the writing of others, but we were not all familiar with each other’s styles and habits. Tayari made it a point to practice ‘pointing’ and give each of us the opportunity to be felt and enjoyed by our peers. This is a powerful exercise, but it really only worked when we took the time to look back at what was repeated back to us—our own words echoed with affection—and looked into those words to try and uncover what they held that had captured the admiration of strangers.

As spring comes to an end in Florida and the crocuses bud in Idaho and everyone looks forward to what is to come, there’s something to take and something to give back; it’s important to carry something with you as inevitability looms in the distance. For me, I carry the importance of anatomy, writing is hard work and it took doctor’s millennia to move from the humors of the body to what we know now. We inherit the work of the past and it is important to give homage to that by taking in lessons given from the wisdom of others. It is also important to note who is around you, who we are, and that the people who read this are those that also believe that somewhere within a sentence and a paragraph is something that is waiting to blossom. So it goes in spring. So it goes forever.

Jason Stephens graduated from Boise state in 2011. He joined the MFA program here at Florida Atlantic in the Spring of 2014. He is the son of Jim and Joan, brother of Jenn, Josiah, and Justin, uncle of Hunter, Wyatt, James, Alex, and Scarlett. He rarely misses appointments, regularly exercises, and travels whenever possible.