Thursday, December 15, 2011
The blog will be back January 9, when school returns to session. Now would be a good time to work on a blog idea of your own! Entries to look forward to in the new year: Kelly DeStefano on revision, Dan Kennard on lit-coms, Tiffany Noonan on publishing, and Mary Ann Hogan on lobster (of a sort)... and Meet the Students and Meet the Faculty questionnaires...
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Before, I didn't know who Michael Martone was. Now, I keep a look out for fabulous postcards to send him. The week-long workshop in collage that I feared would put me over the near-the-end-of-semester edge did, instead, the opposite. It was, in one word, refreshing. Revitalizing. Energizing. Insert your own best synonym and it was probably that, too.
During the semester, I sometimes wish. the end. would. just. come. As much as I love teaching and workshop and all the other fun stuff we do, burnout can settle in and make it seem like the things that I love are work. Mind-numbing, soul-sucking work. And while they are work, most of the time I dig my work. That’s why I do it. Michael Martone’s class reminded me that I love what I do because I got to learn about and write in a specific style FOR ONE WEEK ONLY. One week: that’s nothing! There was no time to get bored, no time to wish it were over, no time to, really, even begin to get a grasp on everything he was teaching. But it was exactly enough time to give me a break from everything else.
When I saw that the reading list for our week long course was 3 books long, I about fell over. Three books in one week? On top of my other work? I didn’t know how to make that happen. But then the course started, Michael Martone began working his magic, and the desire to read and discuss Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein, Dime-Store Alchemy by Charles Simic, and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje grew with each work. It sounds corny. I get it. But enthusiasm ran high in that class because it didn’t have a chance to dissipate. We were looking at work with fresh eyes, and the material that we were able to generate wasn’t for a grade (though we all, I think, wanted to impress Michael Martone), it was for us, for fun. The worth of this toward the end of Spring semester was invaluable: to remember that writing is fun, that it’s why I’m an MFA, that if I hope to do it forever I have to be able, at any point, to find new ways of looking at it.
Collage is not my specialty, but thinking about work as a collection of intersecting and connecting pieces, and Martone’s encouragement to just play with the form, to get a taste for it, to enjoy it for the sake of enjoying it, opened up some space in my head that had been previously filled with grading or deadlines or stress or the fuzziness of drinking done in an effort to relieve all the previously mentioned things. I want that space again. I don’t rightly know yet who Eula Biss is (don’t kill me, those who are already avid fans; I’ll be one soon enough, I’m sure). But I know that if the department is bringing her in, it’s to ignite something in us, to give us some juice. So I’ll take it. I’ll make it work because I know that it’s worth it. And this time around, it’s not for a unit, I hear, which makes a big difference because I had to pay for that unit last time. Adjustments might be necessary, but we should be used to that.
I had to cancel one of my classes the week of Martone’s class. Actually, it was a peer review week, and I told my students about the class I’d be taking and how much I wanted them to be able to still get feedback from each other. I offered them to join my other class, but instead they met on their own, exchanged on their own, met again and returned drafts w/comments to each other, and finished their final drafts. We started a new reading the next week. I had my doubts about them actually coming through, but like I’ve said, it was only a week. Maybe I had an especially good class; I asked them what they wanted to do, they told me, and they followed through. For anyone who thinks that they can’t trust their class to work through a week off, get a substitute. There are plenty of MAs who probably won’t be interested in a week-long creative seminar and we all operate on the favors system. Do I worry this time might be different? Yes. But I won’t let that dissuade me. I owe it to myself, my writing, and my teaching to indulge in a spark when it’s available.
Mary Long is getting her MFA in fiction, plays for the Gold Coast Derby Grrls, and enjoys many kinds of beverages.
*Eula Biss will be the 2012 Sanders Writer in Residence at FAU from March 12-16. In addition to teaching a one week class for FAU's MFA students, she will give a public lecture on Writing Creative Nonfiction (T Mar 13, 7 pm, Live Oak Pavilion, Room D) and read from her work (R Mar 15, 7 pm, Live Oak Pavilion, Room D).
Sunday, December 4, 2011
“Ink and paper are sometimes passionate lovers, oftentimes brother and sister, and occasionally mortal enemies.”
I can recall every single time I presented my work in an M.F.A. workshop: I was rarely ever called first, and if I was given the option to volunteer, I would never volunteer myself first. That was my first and only rule. And no matter how confident I felt about the work I was presenting that day, I’d always feel scared to death about how my professors and the other students would react. The responses were usually positive, yet often frustrating.
The most important lesson I learned was that one “thing” that burdens a lot of creative writing students as they engage within a workshop environment: competition. To be more specific, the misinterpretation of the idea behind “competition” as it works within the apparatus of a creative writing workshop.
It’s perfectly understandable, of course.
I don’t believe this constitutes a failure in the process. If anything, I believe it’s more a product of user error than anything else. You never hear anyone complaining about the equipment at their local gym not being able to function properly as the reason why they’re not getting the proper workout, and therefore the proper results. You also don’t blame the local gym if you're overfed.
Like the local gym, a creative writing workshop does offer an environment and a context: a space where you can engage with other developing writers. Even better, you’ll engage with other writers who (at the moment) are bigger and stronger than you, so to speak. This is where that element of “competition” can disrupt or confuse the routine.
The biggest mistake that a student writer can make is to interpret “competition” as a “race” rather than a “routine.” This is troubling and unstable ground for a writer because “process” is a routine--a forward movement. It’s a system directed to some end, a series of steps that produce a change or development. It’s a method of doing or producing something that doesn’t involve any types of placement or ranking systems that arrange writers by perceived talent, skill or creative output. It’s the cultivation of experience.
Therefore, it’s a lot safer to think of creative writing workshops as “equipment with purpose,” much like the equipment found at the local gym: each one designed to isolate a specific region of your creative musculature. And the same can also be said of the feedback you receive in a workshop. An unnecessarily competitive approach can dilute the feedback, which can be the most important piece of equipment, allowing writers to grow stronger within the routine.
In the end, students that feel they’ve taken part in a successful workshop feel that way because they worked as if they had an equal share in each others' development--like workout partners. Attentions are balanced equally between their own creative work and their fellow students'. Students complement one another as counterparts rather than as competitors. One spots the other, and so on. The “spot” (constructive criticism and feedback) is the most important piece of equipment. As I mentioned earlier, if a student is lucky, they’ll expose themselves to other workout partners that are bigger and stronger. A student writer doesn’t grow “stronger” unless they challenge their limitations and push themselves beyond their initial comfort zone. In order for them to exceed those limitations, they need the “spot” to help them adapt. The routine then becomes a collaborative effort. Only then do they grow stronger.
I’ll never forget those moments when a fellow student writer showed me the same amount of interest in my work as I did theirs. They wanted to see me grow and succeed. And now, I want just the same for them. And because of that, I’ll never forget them.
Born and bred on the rough streets of Miami, Michael Pagan once, after watching the film Black Swan, seriously considered abandoning his dream of becoming a writer in favor of becoming a prima ballerina. Luckily, he realized writing poetry was more manly. Michael is a recent graduate of FAU's MFA program, and currently resides in Deerfield Beach, FL where he continues to work on his first book of poetry, his first novel, and his ballet, of course. His interview with Forrest Gander was published in Coastlines Magazine and in The Rumpus. His poetry has appeared in Bridle Path Press and is forthcoming this March in the Eunoia Review.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
Writing is a lonely work.
This loneliness is necessary to create without interference.
When no one is around, you can listen for the sound of your own voice.
I walk about my house in wonder as I remember the days of a creaky chalet filled with people in Switzerland, balanced precariously on the side of a mountain, sustained by the giving of donors. Of awakening to the “trot, trot, trot” in London, my good friend and I throwing up the windows to see, oh just to share, what was going on in the streets below. We saw a parade. And a parade should be experienced in the communal.
I realize that what I want most is to wake up anywhere to share the day.
It is these quiet days of no one that I wonder. There is a sense of wonder sometimes, in this fact that while writing I am alone much of the time. “As I row, row, row / going so slow, slow, slow” croons Patty Griffin, heartbreakingly. “Alone and alive.”
But to write, I need the careful ear of silence. So for the next three days I wake to still air, seek palm trees whispering outside, turn my ear to listen to the chatter of my elderly Cuban neighbor, invisible behind the hedges. I sigh. I’ve had my fill.
Like an addict, I sit down at my computer, throwing words down like stones thrown at a dirt path that I must later walk on, can hurt my feet on. It can hurt—this sitting down to write.
I wonder what my friends are doing. I assume people are probably with other people, not wondering what I’m doing, assuming I’m taken care of. My newborn eyes focus back on the page. Is this page a diamond hiding under a stupid rock, or is it simply coal to be burned? Is it a miracle; can all the hard work in the world save it? Can hard work make miracles happen? And then, within the silence of my own voice, a surprising analogy:
Observation: Giving our work to others is like putting all of our eggs in one basket.
We writers are like farm kids, working before and after school in the henhouse, hoping to produce a prize-winning set of eggs. We walk in with our feed and buckets, brave angry beaks from mother hens, shovel out pungent hay. We do this for months, collecting eggs, and then one day, we have carefully gathered eggs to put into a basket to sell. Hard work has taken us this far, now for the miracle of getting the eggs to market without breaking them. Carefully packed with straw, we hand our hard work over to the reader. Yet in the back of our minds, what if:
1. The reader uses them as projectile objects, forgetting or not caring they are our precious eggs, and throws them (crack!) against real or imagined enemies.
2. The reader uses them as projectile objects, forgetting or not caring they are our eggs, just to see the yoke fly out.
3. The reader carries them along, well intentioned, but perhaps becomes distracted by a milk cart, or a milk maid, and puts the basket down, never to pick it up again. The eggs sit in the sun and rot, never fulfilling their purpose to eat or be eaten.
4. The reader possesses a limp or an inherent clumsiness, carefully going along but then tripping and falling, causing some or all of the eggs to break.
5. Or we writers carry them ourselves, never giving control of our eggs away to anybody, never risking our cherished basket of eggs to be misunderstood or abused.
I don’t wish to carry my basket of eggs alone. I need the courage to hand the basket over. The eggs are still being laid and gathered, so I hope the courage is there to hand it over when the time comes. And until then, I will write, very much “alone and alive.”
Born in Oklahoma and proud of her Midwestern roots, Erin Hobbie lives in West Palm Beach, Florida and is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Florida Atlantic University. She enjoys compiling soundtracks for the pieces she writes, and stands on the conviction that being a nonfiction writer is like being an American Picker, you have to love scouring “the country’s junkyards, barns, and basements for hidden gems.
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Photography is my default mode, a thought process programmed into me through several years of schooling, and 15 years of practice.
I chose it over my first instinct, writing; I went to school to be Jack Kerouac, majored in journalism and focused on the who, what, when, where, why, and how of news. I styled my articles like the question and answer formats I read in Rolling Stone. My professor told me I needed to wrap-up the stories. I couldn't simply end with the interviewee's answer.
I felt stunted in journalism. My aspirations of wild creativity were subdued by the process of learning the basics, and I was far too shortsighted to understand the importance of this. Instead, I deemed journalism as Not Creative Enough for me, and, inspired by the portraiture of Annie Leibovitz, I plunged into photojournalism. (Never mind the fact that I had never picked up a camera prior to making this decision. My decision-making process at the time was quite derivative.)
I was not a natural, but I had generous instructors, and professors who demanded excellence. And because I was studying photojournalism, I still had the opportunity to write. Once I entered the field professionally, though, writing took second place to everything else. I was a diarist at best, filling my journals with angst and heartbreak.
Six years passed before I made the decision to focus on writing again. It was an epiphany of sorts, inspired by family illness and the awareness of passing time. I loved writing. I always had. I put together my writing portfolio in my mother's hospital room as she recovered from surgery. She was skeptical of my decision to quit work and return to graduate school. She's a realist; I don't share this trait.
As I made my way through writing workshops with professors who later became some of my favorite people, I discovered how little I knew about writing and language. I was not a natural at this either, it turned out, but I adored every moment of making the effort to improve. And one skill I had that helped me a bit was the skill of observation, thanks to my immersion in photography.
That's not to say I don't miss a million beautiful things every day as I rush from one place to another. There's so much to take in and so much to tune out. But when I'm writing essays or news stories, I know that texture is added by choosing the right details, so I pay close attention to scenes I'm writing about, something I also do when I'm taking pictures. And I know careful word selection is similar to a carefully composed photograph; deciding what to leave in or what to crop out can change the tenor of it all.
*All photos copyright Shannon O'Brien
*All photos copyright Shannon O'Brien
Shannon O'Brien graduated from FAU with an MFA in creative nonfiction. She lives in the Land of Lincoln, where she writes and takes pictures for the University of Illinois Springfield Alumni Association. Her work can be viewed at inkandlight.org.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
In the never-ending attempt to compartmentalize and label the “self” with an identity, I think “Graduate Student” or “Composition Teacher” are sometimes placed before “writer.” Even worse, those labels are more often than not placed before “human being.” This seems to be the over-arching lesson I am learning and experiencing this semester. As Graduate Teaching Assistants and MFAs, our lives are a hodgepodge of interdisciplinary chaos. Our routines might consist of a T/TH teaching schedule, a M/T/F graduate class schedule, extracurriculars, an outside job, community involvement, maybe a personal life, and oh yeah, don’t forget the actual act of creative writing. While these responsibilities are related, it’s possible for a creative writer submerged in academia—swimming through pedagogy, club responsibilities, and other variables—to experience a crisis of identity. Before I launch into this, I want to come right out and steal some lines from Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe: “What you do does not define who you are. Who you are defines what you do.”
It can be easy for us to neatly wrap ourselves up in the package of “Teacher” or “Student.” Like every human, no matter how much effort is put forth, no matter how A-type or meticulous we may try to be, there is no way to be the “perfect” teacher. There is no way to be the “faultless” student. Maybe we expect that of ourselves, and maybe we should strive for perfection, but ultimately, those pinnacles are unreachable. However, when those little (or huge!) inevitable human screw-ups occur, it might feel (at least it has for me) like the all the building blocks and identity packages come barreling down on our heads. Here lies the crisis. In flood the lies: “I’m a mediocre student. I’m an ineffective teacher. I’m an inefficient student-leader. Let me take a break and do some writing… oh crap, I’m a terrible writer!” Our world tailspins for a bit. “This is what I do! This is the path I’m on! What the heck am I doing?!” When our hearts are so wrapped up in an occupational identity, a simple incident like a professor’s poor opinion of us, a carelessly lost cell phone, an embarrassing mistake in front of twenty-two composition students can feel like the diagnosis of a terminal illness. We enter crisis mode for a bit (I’ve definitely driven south down A1A sobbing my eyes out, singing Jimmy Eat World’s “A Praise Chorus” at the top of my lungs in response to a screw-up). Now, I know I compared a teaching mistake to cancer, but therein lies the issue. A teaching mistake is NOT cancer! A professor’s poor opinion is NOT the finite definition of your character! And yet, if I’ve labeled myself as “good student,” then any failure can seem catastrophic and worth a sobbing/singing drive down an ocean road. Little failures (or epic fails!) at our occupation are NOT the defining moments of our lives. And yes, I will say, for some, there does come a point where one should reassess whether or not s/he should choose a different life path. But that reassessment should not come after an occupational screw-up. Failures happen (even to those GTAs and professors who seem superhuman). As artists, as members of the human race, we should always strive for perfection—that in no way means there is a perfect person. We are humans first. I am Renee Long: human, optimist, curly haired, sister, daughter, awkward goofball, slow mover, occasional forgetter, whale enthusiast, lover of words, clumsy dancer, laugher, crier, fashion idiot, and friend. Even though these labels are extremely reductive, it helps to remember: our identities are much more complex than we imagine.
When I sat down to write this entry, I was having a crisis of identity. Appropriately, as I opened the Word document to write down my thoughts on failures, Pandora Radio decided to play Modest Mouse’s “Float On.” So I will leave you with some wisdom from the great pop-culture machine:
“Bad news comes, don’t you worry even when it lands. Good news will work its way to all them plans. We both got fired on exactly the same day. Well we’ll all float on. Good news is on its way. And we’ll all float on, okay.”
Renee Long is a second year MFA focusing on fiction. She currently teaches college writing as a GTA and is the managing editor of FAU’s Coastlines Literary Magazine. If she's not on campus, you can usually find her reading on the beach, playin’ or listenin’ to music, exploring hidden coastal communities, and/or being a goofy nut-job with her friends.
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
My mother gave me her camera for Christmas; it’s a really nice one – even if you’re bad at photography (like me!) or unskilled (check!), the camera takes beautiful pictures. I was photographing my cat Luco when an idea fluttered into my head: why not write a blog about Luco, why he’s sad (he’s got this expressive face – so grave), and use it as a way to discuss things that are important to me?
Why not? Well, I mean, I ask myself “why not” because I’m probably too negative most of the time, but besides that, I wondered who would even care about a blog about a cat. I mean, it’s not like one thinks “serious” when one thinks cats. It’s more likely you picture that cute little orange kitten dangling from a string “Hang in there, baby,” written across the top (I don’t want to be called a liar, but I’m pretty sure we all had that poster plastered on our bedroom walls as kids. And maybe I still have one in my house somewhere. Maybe).
So I began the blog thinking I was being silly. Even stupid. But then, I’ve found that with each entry I write, my writing gets just that much better. I think it’s because I know I’m writing for an audience (my blog has a modest [a humble, an astounding, an unthinkable] 13,246 views), so I take my time. This has had two unintended and delightful consequences. One: Because I hold myself to a once-a-week blog schedule (although, honestly? I’m faltering right now because we’re having major plumbing work done – this is a pretty terrible excuse, but major plumbing work has a way of making a person feel pretty terrible in general) I find that I write more, not just the blog, but other stories and poems and essays as well. I’m in the rhythm, if you’ll allow me. Two: I really do think it makes me a better writer, as I suggested above. Maybe it’s the audience thing, maybe it’s the frequency thing, but I can’t recommend keeping a blog intensely enough.
Look. I know you’re busy. Maybe you think you don’t have time to keep a blog. Maybe you’re thinking your work on that novel or memoir or book of poetry is more important, but listen, think of the blog as vitamins (why is “vitamins” such a difficult word for me to spell? Apparently blogging is not a panacea – my spelling is still atrocious). Think of it as light jogging. Broccoli. It’s a thing you do that’s good for you, that really doesn’t require that much work. Just use Blogger or Wordpress – they’re both totally intuitive – you don’t have to be a computer guy to use these sites. Trust me. You have time and ability to string 500 something words together. Every week.
Because the positive effects of my blogging were totally surprising. So I’m telling you now. And I’m using that teacher voice we all have. And I’m gesturing wildly with my hands. Isn’t this enough to convince you?