Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Life of a Writer: Alone with a Basket of Eggs by Erin Hobbie

Three observations:

     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

Writing With Ink and Light by Shannon O'Brien

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
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

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Floating On by Renee Long

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

Blogging: The New Miracle Multivitamin for Your Writer's Block by Mary Sheffield

     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?

Mary Sheffield lives in South Florida with a cat who blogs his despair to the world here: She’s a proud alumna of the MFA program at FAU.  You can read one of her short stories "Modern Science Cannot Keep Up With Her" at the Eunoia Review.