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. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Setting: When Yours is Decidedly Not Subtropical

            Immersion in an environment that’s different from the one you intend to write about poses problems. Our program is situated in a subtropical, largely suburban city. Everything from daily attire and automobiles, to weather and flora differs significantly from the region I’m from—New England. Since my writing is predominantly set in New England, summoning it is essential. Memory is seldom enough. Like a painter, I find props and models are often necessary. Though these don’t need to be objects per se. They can be two-dimensionalish (like books and ephemera). Audio and video, either pulled from archives or drawn from the web, also work. And of course there are physical things. I once kept an anchor and some candle molds under my bed and hauled them out when I felt I needed to look at them. But I won’t admit as to whether or not they’re still there.

What I cannot have on hand here in Boca Raton are places themselves. And it’s impractical to travel back and forth during the semester in order to wander the streets of a given town or stroll a snowy beach for instance in hopes of executing some sort of plein air writing. However, I can bolster my memory of my experiences in such places with those aforementioned examples. A YouTube video of a place I know, a place I’ve spent time in, often will allow me to re-inhabit it enough to fold it into my writing. Audio is particularly helpful in summoning New England vernacular which otherwise evaporates at the Connecticut New York border. Though it doesn’t entirely because Florida breathes in people from all over the country each winter. Many of these snowbirds, vacationers, and transplants come from one of the six New England states. Improbably, I’ve had many fascinating conversations with folks not just from New England but from little towns adjacent to my own. The Wimberly library, in its stacks alone, is very well stocked with books that encompass what I look for in regional history and natural sciences. Add to this, the Marvin and Sybil Weiner Spirit of America—13,000 Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Century books and documents that hold their own against the holdings of many prominent northern athenaeums. A big, pleasant surprise. Bookwise off Spanish River Blvd regularly turns up interesting books on New England subjects. I find myself in there more often than I should be.

Of course the temptation to write about Florida is ever-present. And the subject itself is rich, diverse and intriguing. Wherever you find yourself, that environment will cast a bit of an alluring spell. No offense to the Sunshine State, but I doubt I will succumb. 

Rich Saltzberg concentrates in non-fiction at the FAU MFA program. He is a freelance journalist from Martha's Vineyard. His friends and peers consider him a heretic because he no longer drinks caffeinated coffee. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Happy Accident

There were four days before my community creative nonfiction workshop was set to begin when I learned that, due to unforeseen circumstances, I’d be taking on the community fiction workshop as well. At first this seemed like a daunting task. I had all of my lessons already planned out, my readings selected and ready to be photocopied, and they were all centered around—you guessed it—works and craft elements of creative nonfiction. This left me with two major questions I needed to answer in order to ensure that all of my students got out of the workshop what they’d hoped to: 1.) How am I supposed to fit fiction into the mix now with an already packed-to-capacity syllabus? And, 2.) Of all of the combined craft concerns of the two genres, which do I choose to focus on in the eight class meetings we’d have together?

The second question needed to be addressed first. Once I decided how to shift the focus of the class in order to encompass both genres, then I could worry about organizational measures. With six students in the class, that meant I could only afford to dedicate two of the two hour sessions to craft if I wanted to have enough time for all of my students to have two different pieces workshopped—which only seemed fair to me. A crash course in craft concerns was certainly in order, but which craft concerns should take the focus? Well, I would at least have to cover the elements of craft that are integral to both genres. This meant, for me: plot, characterization, setting, dialogue, point of view, and voice. On top of these, I’d have to cover certain elements unique to creative nonfiction as well. And so I chose to add truth and universality to the mix. No creative nonfiction class could be complete without a hearty discussion of the difference between objective and perspectival truth and how to handle weaving through both on the page. Universality, on the other hand, seemed crucial to bring up in order to avoid the awkward possibility of having to workshop 15 pages of Jane Doe’s private diary entries. “Your pieces should appeal to an audience broader than just you and your circle of friends and family,” I made sure to tell them straightaway.

With that, I added a few fiction readings to the list, photocopied them out, and the class had begun. Over the course of the workshop I found the amount of overlap between the two genres (even in terms of truth and universality, believe it or not) to be quite surprising. In fact, teaching the two genres together didn’t seem to muddle the concerns of either in the limited amount of time we had, but, instead, helped to illuminate the concerns of both in fascinating and beneficial ways. They reflected and refracted one another when they needed to, making for a swift understanding of the craft of creative writing overall. The other happy accident of the hybrid workshop was that it gave the students a chance to step outside of their comfort zones—an experience that I would argue is critical to the practice of writing. If I remember correctly, everyone in the class, whether they originally signed up for fiction or nonfiction, wrote one piece in each genre and I had the pleasure of being able to watch their writing improve and their appreciation of reading increase because of it.

Originally from Rochester, New York, Dustin J. DiPaulo is an MFA candidate at FAU. He writes creative nonfiction and music.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Q&A for Swann Summer Funding

Generally speaking, artists aren’t known for their salaries. As grad students pursuing fine arts degrees, we know this well. The proverbial image of a writer typing furiously into the night, bottle of fine whiskey close at hand, should perhaps be replaced by this: me, stunned by a humbling reflection of myself in the darkness of my zero-percent-battery computer screen, eyes baggy and brow furrowed, with a forkful of 99-cent tuna lunch making its way to my mouth.
The good news is, the MFA at FAU has many good funding opportunities for interested parties. Along with teaching assistantships and stipends, the Thomas Burnett Swann Summer Writing Fund is an opportunity for MFA candidates to pitch their summer writing plans for a chance at supporting cash.
As one of last summer’s Swann recipients, I, tuna girl, will now answer the following questions in the hope that you too can benefit from this (truly invaluable) opportunity:
Q: Why did you apply?
TG: $$$. I was yearning for certain writing opportunities but didn’t have the finances to pursue them.
Q: What was the application process like?
TG: Pretty straightforward. The first step was attending an informational meeting, where Dr. McKay outlined the application process. (This was announced by email in the spring, and took place on a Friday afternoon.) Next, we had several weeks to fill out an application form, and submit said form to Dr. McKay, along with a rough budget outline and a summary of our intended summer plans and how they would inform our writing.
Q: What would you have liked to know before applying?
TG: One helpful tip I did know before applying, thanks to a savvy older student, was that you can submit a ‘Plan A’ and a ‘Plan B’ if your first plan may tentatively fail. In my case, my Plan A was to intern with a high-profile, NYC-based publishing house or literary journal (my applications were in but were pending); Plan B was a self-designed ‘Micro-Retreat’ in which I would spend 2-3 days at an Airbnb location in order to ‘get away’ and focus solely on my writing, and gain new story fodder from the new people and environment.
Q: Where did you go?
TG: Asheville, North Carolina, and the Florida Keys. (It’s not New York City, but I wouldn’t change a thing.) The internship in NYC fell through, so Plan B was the plan for me. I was able to stay in Asheville for two nights, and stretch a bit of my cash to Key West (I’d never been, and its resume of writer-residents was too good to pass up).
            Q: How did the trip affect your writing?
            TG: I definitely got what I asked for. One of my Airbnb hosts was so strange (I won’t say which), he’ll probably be muse-worthy for the rest of my life. Both places were eclectic and arts-supportive; in Asheville, I spent an entire morning writing on a back porch with mountain views, which later became a setting for a story. On that same porch, I spent one long, candlelit evening in a rocking chair and watched the bugs flirt with the flames. One tragic moth was engulfed entirely, and the moment brought Annie Dillard's “The Death of a Moth”, which I had recently read, into truer beauty than the first time I read it indoors. In Key West, I rode a scooter around the island to Hemingway’s house, enjoyed the beach once favored by Tennessee Williams, and revised another short story that is probably my best one this year.
            Q: Why should other people apply for funding?
            TG: So you can set intentions for your summer, your growth, and your writing, so you can get money, so you can use the latter to actually fulfill the former, and (thanks to Thomas Burnett) to invest in creating great art.

Natalie Rowland is a second-year MFA student who has upgraded from tuna to quinoa.