Thursday, December 15, 2011

Winter Break!

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

On Congratulating Myself for Taking the Writer-in-Residence Workshop by Mary Long

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

Body Under Construction: Workshop as Workout by Michael Pagan

 “Ink and paper are sometimes passionate lovers, oftentimes brother and sister, and occasionally mortal enemies.” 
–Terry Guillements
 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.