Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Tom Sleigh Workshop Series: Part One

My initial reaction, generally—to a place, to a text, to a person—tends to come to me in the form of a simple question, a one word question. I don’t think an example is necessary. Right? Then, after some limited consideration, I expand upon the interrogative in an attempt to better understand my reaction. The question that came to me during the first day of the workshop with Tom Sleigh: What? The expansion: What makes a person seem, at once, so relaxed and so intense?

“I live a split-screen existence,” Tom volunteered. “That’s a boring thing to have to articulate, but it’s an interesting thing to have to live with.”

    What? What is worth doing? Tom, after relaying some of his own experiences, asked us to consider this question in terms of our writing, to approach language in terms of our convictions. I wonder if my writing is something that grows out of or around a sense of responsibility to those with whom I’ve shared my experiences, to the culture that has helped shape my texts. If so, perhaps my writing has to matter to them as much as it matters to me. If not, perhaps still. Perhaps I have an obligation to do more than advertise my own originality. What? What does it mean to write the best piece? To put words to ideas in the catalogue of my experiences. To pull experiences through my catalogue of words to relay ideas. To show my catalogue of ideas as experiences through words. “If you have an obsession,” Tom said to the group, “don’t question it. You thank your lucky stars and move toward it.”
    What? What is worth doing? Tom, after relaying some of his own experiences, asked us to consider this question in terms of our writing, to approach language in terms of our emotions. I wonder if my writing is something that stems from the way I feel about the world around me, my reaction to the culture, to everything apart from and including me. If so, perhaps my writing will intrinsically matter to others. If not, perhaps it never will. Perhaps I have an instinct to write only that which creates meaning for myself, which, perhaps again, is the only way any writer can intentionally create meaning. What? What do I want to write? Stories that put my emotions to ideas through words. Words that put my emotions into stories. Emotions that— Can I interrupt myself by having Tom’s voice interrupt my structure? “You want to write interesting sentences.”


Tom stressed a micro view of work—as opposed to a macro view of the work—in order to, at least while writing, shift the writer’s attention away from the career, the publication, the piece, the page, and toward the sentence, which, if we want it to, if we deem it worthy, can blend our split-screened perceptions or separate them just enough to let us see the world more wholly, to let others see it with us.

Christopher Notarnicola studies creative writing at Florida Atlantic University.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Fringe: A Query Into Genreless Writing

          I’ll start this blog post off with a light philosophical conundrum. You know, because that’s what really draws the reader in. Blaise Pascal’s logical argument for the pursuit of a belief in God suggests that, based on the possible outcomes of believing in God (infinite reward if s/he does, finite loss if s/he doesn’t), it is more beneficial for a human being to try to believe as opposed to entirely disregarding the possibility for the existence of a God. Many of you have surely heard this argument before and will likely not change your belief in God simply because a dead philosopher says it could help you in the end. Nor am I really concerned with convincing anyone that God exists in 500 words or less.
            What I am concerned with are the consequences of believing in something simply because it is inevitable. In my experience, nearly every writer I’ve met has certain things in common historically. We all loved stories, in one form or another, from a very young age. Personally, I started off with an obsession for cartoons and movies and fantasy novels. The idea of a story has always captivated me. Storytelling, as an art form, is etched somewhere deep inside of me. And, for me, this is God.
            When I first put pen to paper, so to speak, it was actually a box of crayons. My mother told me recently that she used to find picture books that I had drawn on printer paper and folded into my own books. Often they were of scuba-divers on deep sea expeditions, or of astronauts finding an abandoned spaceship. This is when I became a writer. And I am confident that anyone in a MFA program became a writer long before they ever wrote their first “real” story.
            But what did I write, exactly? Right now, having been trained to understand writing through particular lenses, I would say that those picture books were most definitely fiction. I would look back on my scribbled dialogue and tell myself that was the beginning of my career as a fiction writer. But only in retrospect. Back then, before there was even an idea of fiction or nonfiction or poetry or academic essays, I was telling a story that was as real to me as my blood or my skin. I was telling the story of a real diver; a real astronaut. Because when I started writing, the boundaries disappeared. I’ve heard many of my peers call this some form of escapism. But I would argue that I never wrote with an impulse to escape. I wrote with an impulse to explore.
            My point here is a simple one: writers are storytellers. And all writers exist in a system of classification. We applied to schools under the guise of a particular field: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry. And these classifications are certainly not useless distinctions. But they are just that; distinctions. They are the lines drawn on a map to make travelling across the U.S. feel as though you are putting puzzle pieces in their comfortable corners. However, these lines are drawn for the reader, not the writer. The writer (in this exhausted metaphor) is the cartographer.
            So ultimately my query to all MFA students, and more so to all writers and storytellers, is this: How much does your “chosen genre” dictate your writing? How much do these boundaries between Fiction and Nonfiction and Poetry and Academic writing matter to what you are producing? Are you jeopardizing creative exploration in favor of comfortability?
            I should note here that I AM an advocate of genreless writing, in theory. But I am still bound by Fiction and I always will be in some way. And this is why I keep the young storyteller with the crayons at the ready. The writer on the fringe of reality. Because in my naivety, I was as close to boundless as I had ever been. I was able to explore reality by creating the unreal. I was able to paint infinite futures out of poetry. I was on the search for God in an 8x12 piece of printer paper.

And that’s really what it comes down to. I hope that, with an awareness of genre and form and how they either encourage or discourage or guide or misdirect… I hope we are able to write with the same ontological hope embedded in Pascal’s Wager. That it is worth trying to write without genre in mind, even if the results end up being the same. Because the infinite gains outweigh the finite loss.      

Nicholas Becher is working on his MFA in Fiction and is in his 2nd Semester at FAU.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Go Tell it On a Mountain: My Two Weeks at the Mont Blanc Workshop.

Picture this: White tipped mountain tops cascading into an evergreen hillside so mammoth that when you look out of the window of the tiny alpine apartment you rented from a Scandinavian expat who currently lives in London, there is no skyline—all you see is green. This is what happens every day, for two weeks, at the Mont Blanc Writing Workshop.

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

            Some people may have been lured in by the fantastical scenery, or the chance to go abroad and be inspired by a foreign culture, or by the ability to spend time with like-minded writers from all over the world. These are all good reasons for a new writer to go to a workshop like Mont Blanc, but my reason was less picturesque—I wanted the chance to work with one of the writers whose work I had only just encountered in the months prior to applying, one who wrote the kind of prose I always wanted to write. For me, it was Alexander Chee.

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

            The first time I encountered Alexander Chee I was reading an essay he wrote for The Paris Review on James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. Chee began with a narrative in which he recounted working as a makeup artists on a gay porn set, recalling a scene wherein it was particularly difficult for the actors to “rise” to the occasion (pun intended). The director turned off the lights and closed the door so the actors could “work it out,” and Chee predicted that what happened in those moments were probably better than anything they actually recorded. He went on to say, “I thought about how something had happened in the dark that we couldn’t see, an excitement that couldn’t be in the film…It seems to me I am always in pursuit of that.” 

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

            It is clear that Chee was talking about sex—but he was also talking about the moments in life we are too scared to reveal. Moments that reveal our flaws, whisper secrets, admit to lies, or publicize truths that have always seemed better left unsaid. As a nonfiction writer, my work has always been an act of recollection—a way to grapple with the past, collecting and re-collecting the moments in my life that have the ability to say something to the world that exists beyond myself. Part of this is the pursuit Chee talks about—timidly feeling around for these moments and memories in the darkness, and dragging them out to immortalize them on the page. So after scraping around for money and expediting my passport renewal, I made my way across the Atlantic to Chamonix, a little town in France—le pays de mon coeur as my grandmother calls it—to find someone who might help me shine a light in the darkest corners of my memory.

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

            I could tell you I accomplished so much work there (which I did), and how my own project began to blossom again after looking at it from outside of the confines of an MFA thesis (which it did), or the relationships I built while I was there with writers I never would have met otherwise (this also happened)—but what good does that do you? Will it inspire you to apply to a residency next summer? Maybe. It is the same shit you hear from everyone who has told you how important these kinds of programs are? Probably. So instead let me tell you what I learned in the two weeks I spent in the foothills of Mont Blanc, and perhaps that will show the value of these kinds of workshops, both for those of you who are thinking of applying, and for myself who was broke for the rest of the summer after taking the risk. After a careful re-reading of my notebook from the workshop, here are the tips I will take with me throughout my writing career:

1.) Keep A Work Journal: One of the best things I learned working with Alexander Chee was to keep a work journal for writing—especially if you are writing a long form piece. Create a new entry after each writing session, ask yourself questions you have about characters, plot or the writing itself, jot down intuitions about the plot, and keep all your outtakes that you don’t think belong. Doing this allows you to come back to your writing the next day (or week, or whatever your rhythm is) and not have the anxiety of a blank page, because you’ve already given yourself a starting place. It also helps you resist the urge to go back and re-read your work over and over again—which, when you are writing a book-length piece, can slow you down immensely.

2.) “If you need to embroider, embroider the edges and not the center:” Alex said this was something Annie Dillard told him in a nonfiction workshop when he was in his MFA. Much of the work the members of our workshop brought to the table fell into the genre of memoir or autobiographical novel (even when some of us believed it wasn’t). He stressed the importance of not embroidering the center, because this is what gives the reader something to feel, see and touch. We can accomplish this by anchoring the stories in very specific things; however, when we begin to embroider we often fill the prose with abstractions, and the longer we stay in the abstract, the greyer the line gets. For me in nonfiction writing, the center is always the “truth”—the memory, the recollection, the stories I’ve be told throughout my life—and the edges are my own imaginings of the world these stories occurred in.

3.) “The writer must survive the writing:”  This is perhaps the sentiment I find myself recalling most after leaving France. Alex said it at one of our first meetings, where we all spoke about what we were writing about and where we stumbled into the area of trauma. As writers, regardless of genre, we often pull inspiration from our own lives and experiences, and oftentimes this involves moments and experiences that are traumatic. We spoke about the trials and tribulations of this kind of work, and that—as writers—it is important to realize when we aren’t ready to take on these experiences on the page. Often in workshop (I’ve seen it most commonly in nonfiction, but I whole-heartedly believe it is true in fiction and poetry as well), we submit something we’re not ready to receive criticism or feedback on, or we begin writing about something we haven’t finished emotionally processing and feel obligated to press forward in order to finish the project. This is putting the writer at risk, not only for the emotional repercussions of revisiting these traumatic experiences, but for not doing justice to the writing—we leave things out we don’t want to remember, or skew them in a way that feels less authentic to avoid dealing with the pain, or we are unable to receive any negative feedback about the work because it feels like our lives are being judged. Maybe this isn’t what Alex meant by his sentiment, but I think that in order to survive the writing, we must also survive the reaction to the writing. If we are not ready to hear those things, it is better to leave some stories untold—at least until we are truly ready to tell them.

4.) "I hope you leave more of yourself than when you came:" This is the wish Alexander Chee has for all of the writers that leave his workshops. At the end of two weeks I left France with thirty new pages (about 15 of which were usable), a recommended reading list that spanned four notebook pages, a copy of Erin Belieu’s Slant Six, a couple blocks of cheese and a group of friends and writers that I still talk to today. I learned about surviving my work, embracing my strengths and accepting my weaknesses as a writer. I learned that inspiration is everywhere—not just in colossal mountain ranges across the ocean, but in people you wouldn’t have met if you hadn’t taken a giant leap outside of your comfort zone. I learned that there are working writers and professors from around the country who are willing to guide and teach you, but also treat you as equals, and as friends. I learned about myself, and remembered why I started writing in the first place, and in that way I did leave more of myself than I was when I arrived. So you got your wish, Mr. Chee, and I hope one day I can help other writers feel that way too. For now, I hope this blog post will help inspire some of you to decide to travel to re-find your writely selves, wherever that may take you. 

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

In addition to going to France and being an MFA in nonfiction, Nico Cassanetti loves corgis more than anyone else you know. She has written editorial pieces for LIFE|STYLE and M&V magazine, and has a prose poem forthcoming in the A3 Review in London this September. If you want to read other stuff by Nico, she made this little website for you:

Friday, August 21, 2015

Welcome to Fall 2015!

Welcome, everyone, to the Fall 2015 semester here at the MFA program at FAU. I'm your friendly English Graduate Advisor, and I want to give you some information before we get into the more interesting blogs this semester.

Speaking of more interesting blogs, if you have something interesting to say, I beseech you to get in touch with me. We're especially interested in blogs on the craft of writing, the publishing class, your writing process, and reviews of reading events.

And what great reading events we have this year! We will have readings from Chantel Acevedo, Russell Banks, Tom Sleigh, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Jay Critchley, David Keplinger, and our very own Susan Mitchell.

But as you know, an MFA program isn't all readings and philosophical discussions. You also need to take classes and, you know, make progress toward your degree. Let me get some of that out of the way. The program is 48 credit hours: 21 credit hours of workshop classes (seven classes), 18 credit hours of literature/theory classes (six classes), ENG 6009: "Principles and Problems of Literary Study" (this is your only specifically required course), and six thesis hours. Take a look at the advising checklist if you're more of a visual sort of person. Heck, while you're clicking around, why not check out our Web site wherein I go into all this advising stuff in more detail? It'll be great fun.

If you're graduating this semester (or next, because, hey, it's good to be prepared), take a look at the thesis guidelines. Remember! After 18 credit hours you must have a Plan of Study on file. See me for help with this - it's what I'm here for.

Well, okay. And speaking of me being here, I won't actually be here the whole semester. As you may or may not know, I'm expecting a kid (a human one!) this Halloween. Don't believe me? Here's a picture.
He's just the cutest, right? What kind of unborn baby is this cute already? Gah.

But, okay, so I'm going to be here until mid-October and then I'm leaving you in the very capable hands of Kelly De Stefano. She'll introduce herself on the blog soon. I will be back to advising next Summer 2016.

So! Welcome or welcome back, as the case may be. I encourage you to attend everything! To host readings (and invite me)! To write and write and then write some more! I hope this is a wonderful semester for all of you.

MR Sheffield, aka Mary Sheffield, aka Mary Ruth Sheffield-Gentry, aka Mars (that's an authentic nickname, guys) is your English Graduate Advisor. She can be reached at Email her and make an appointment - you will make her day, I swear. I mean, I know for sure. Well, because I'm she.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Summer Break

So! Your trusty FAU MFA blog is here to let you know that we're on hiatus for the summer. We'll be back in the fall with fantastic posts from your favorite current, former, and future (?!) MFA students.

In the meantime, please use your summer to write and write and write. And write. Right? Write!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Theory and the Thesis

The graduating thesis essay is a bizarre 15 to 20 page netherworld where you must analyze your own writing as a scholar. You’re to treat your thesis like a real, throbbing literary thing: think craft explication, close readings, and, god help you, maybe some genuine Lit Crit.

Just to let you know, this is not a post about writing the thesis essay. Instead, this post is about where theory belongs in fiction.

The best fiction offers something beyond its moving parts, some framework of understanding. The best theory does this too, can possess those crystalline moments, when reading reminds you about the part of yourself you forgot. That second when you have to look away from the page because you can’t stand it anymore, so you stare awkwardly in the air in front of you and freak out your roommate standing in your eyeline.

For me, it was Cuban anthropologist Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s seminal work The Repeating Island. It’s not an easy read, thanks to Benítez-Rojo’s sinuous, ropey prose, weaving through Spenglar, Chaos theory, and memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But there is a moment when he’s trying to articulate the Caribbean’s place in history, where the region becomes in his eyes “a meta-archipelago...[with] neither boundary nor center. The Caribbean flows outwards past the limits of its own sea with a vengeance… [and] may be found on the outskirts of Bombay, near the low and murmuring shores of Gambia, in a Cantonese tavern circa 1850, in an old Bristol Pub.”

At the time of writing, Benítez-Rojo has already defected to the United States, teaching and writing in Amherst. He knew he’ll never be able to return to Cuba. Beyond the brilliant analytics, here in this crystalline moment he’s just an exiled man, desperate for home, and in his desperation sees the Caribbean everywhere.

I read this in Spring 2014. My uncle, who I worshipped, was in and out of the hospital. I’d bring books to his bedside and read. He was Jamaican, part black and white and Chinese, and had one of those faces that people think they recognize. When he went to Peru back in the 80’s during the civil war, locals would come up to him speaking Spanish, thinking he was Peruvian, thinking he was back home.

Decades later, I went to Peru too because of him, and I saw my uncle everywhere. In the bus conductors dangling from moving buses like they do in Jamaica, shouting “sube, sube.” In the vendor trying to sell me traditional caricature masks that she swears they wore to mock the Spanish during colonial times, though I’m confused because they look like Junkanoo costumes.

I read this passage thinking of my uncle, in all the geographic and historical accidents that needed to happen to create him – a phenomenon both global and distinctly Caribbean. And somehow between my uncle and Spenglar and an ugly white hospital room that could be anywhere, I found what I wanted to write about for my thesis. Perhaps for as long as I write.

So I guess this is a guide for writing the thesis essay – in that theory can teach you as much as practice. Theory can articulate for you what you’ve been trying to do all along.

Monique McIntosh is a third year MFA student at FAU, graduating this semester. She is a fiction short story writer from Jamaica.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Parasitic to Symbiotic: The Power of Form

The MFA faculty at FAU bring in an impressive amount of both renowned and prolific authors for students to engage with; I’ve had the chance to listen to lectures from Tayari Jones, Jo Ann Beard, Richard Ford, and others. One comment that Ford made that resonated with me was: “Anybody who knows me for very long is going to fall out with me.” While he said this with a mixture of seriousness and humor, commenting on his own work and his lack of a writing community, it felt true for me as well.
That fear of a fall out something I’ve dealt with in all social aspects of my life. I assume that I’m going to hurt someone needlessly, so to me emotional distance is protection. However, that attitude is counter to the reason I came to the MFA program here at FAU. I wanted to invest in a community of writers and take risks. Upon receiving tenure, A. Papatya Bucak wrote: “It feels like I ought to do something to deserve it,” and that was a feeling I could relate to early on in the program. A feeling that grew when the University offered me a GTA position, and a feeling that continues to grow with the opportunities I am offered through the English Department and the Creative Writing Director, Dr. Becka Mara McKay.
            Within that desire to both partake in a community and to deserve that community, I have continuously been pushed by my professors to excel. The nudge for success also comes with the support to take more chances, and through this process of escalating demands and adjustments of self-accountability, I see something of my own experience reflected in Papatya’s writing: “It feels like I can try to write something better than what I’ve written before because I can risk failing.” The MFA program offers the opportunity to risk success because no matter what I write, it will be taken seriously, and there is something in that to cherish, something special.
            I’m enrolled in Papatya’s course on the Forms of Prose, and throughout this semester we have been working toward seeing the value in creating obstacles and restrictions to existing forms in order to create growth in our own writing. I’ve always valued form in poetry because of its ability to slip into the subconscious and complicate content.
            However, the forms in prose have been a different experience. Early on in the semester when asked to define what this might mean, I approached it rather literally: “it seems that form is an agreed upon process to mold content with an inherent suggestion to resist the familiar. But, form only works when it’s symbiotic with content.” This explication of form is light and timid. It feels more like an attempt to have something to say rather than an actual definition of the term.
            And this doesn’t surprise me; I fear the fall out with a professor even more than with a peer. I fear losing the chance to be taken seriously by someone I respect. After Richard Ford spoke, a few peers and I walked around in a stupor of amazement at his insight and presence. A professor mentioned annoyance with the fact that we seem to value what incoming authors say more than the professors in the program, even though they say the same things. It seems that somehow from a new voice, knowledge becomes more significant.
That professor was right to question our infatuation, because classes do deliver what we experience from visiting scholars and authors. Richard Ford’s strongest moment was during a contemplation on the serious nature of writing. He said: “Your work is your work. It’s no less important at the beginning to you than it is to me at the end.” That, to me, is a profoundly powerful thing to say to an aspiring writer. It is also a description of what the MFA does for writers here. I love the burden of earnest expectations to not succeed or fail, but to create with no restraint.
At the end of the semester, Papatya asked the class to redefine forms, and looking at my definition, I’ve come to the conclusion that the concept of “forms” might be synonymous with the MFA degree. I wrote: “Forms teach writers to learn the necessary tools that they can abandon. Forms are lessons in rules that subsume the reader’s wants and needs with the author’s intentions through their obstacles and restrictions. Forms are invitations to apprenticeship with no master but accountability.” I latch onto that last line. As much as I want to say it is the drive of the MFA that propels my work, to do so would ignore the reality that the MFA ends.
Last night I was very tired and hanging awake on the lines of a book when my mind woke to a realization. It’s a common one that I have; I see someone in my recent life and remember that we may forget each other, but we will never forget each other’s influence. I am grateful and still surprised that I am here. The conversations that drive my writing community start in the classroom. I know that, I see that in my growth; I want my professors to know.

Jason Stephens is from Boise, Idaho and he joined the MFA at Florida Atlantic University in the Spring of 2014. He published last year his first fiction piece in alice blue review's issue 24.