Friday, October 26, 2012

Advice for Second-Year MFA Students

You’ve been hearing whispers about the Plan of Study and you’re perplexed, concerned. What could a Plan of Study be, and why do you need one when you’re about 18 credits into the program?

Well, my friends, a Plan of Study is your contract with the English Department and the Graduate College; it says that no one can change your degree program, and hey, it’s required! But don’t fret, I think too often we hear the word “requirement” and a shiver starts somewhere near the backs of our knees and travels all the way up our bodies; yes, collectively we are somewhat alarmed, I think, by forms and deadlines, but we need not be. 

On the Plan of Study you’ll list the classes you’ve taken and the classes you will take. You’ll state the fact that you are a thesis student. If you have spoken to your committee members and they have agreed to be on your committee, you’ll list them on this form.

For your thesis, you will work with three committee members. Your committee chair will give you the most feedback; s/he (this is, I know, an awkward grammatical construction, but it’s my favorite of the gender neutral) will work closest with you on deadlines, requirements, and revisions of your thesis project.  

You should be thinking about this now, actually, second year MFAer! Who do you want to chair your committee? Who really gets you as a writer? It’s good advice to approach a CRW professor in whose class you received an ‘A.’

The other committee members will offer valuable feedback as well. Think now, while you’re in workshops, about who you’d like to have critiquing your work, about who you want to be present for your thesis defense.

Fully immerse yourself in the program. Attend lectures and events. Ask questions. Read literary journals to see what is published where. Talk to your peers and professors about writing. Establish a writing routine. Form a writing group with your peers. Play Exquisite Corpse together (not for any particular reason - really I just think it’s fun).

Remember, for the MFA degree you’ll take 21 hours of workshops, 18 hours of lit/theory classes, one required course (ENG 6009: Principles and Problems of Literary Study), and six thesis hours (see the advising checklist).

So, second year, are we clear? Make an appointment with me to complete the Plan of Study. Think about who you’d like to work with as your committee. Get involved in the writing culture and community. Look at your writing and think about what kind of thesis you’re going to create. What shape will it take? Why? How? 

Now is the time to ensure you’re taking classes that will assist in your thesis work. Allow your literature/theory courses to inspire you as well. Take in everything, take notes, and allow your work to grow like a passiflora vine; tend it so that it may bear fruit.

M.R. Sheffield is an instructor and the English Graduate Advisor at FAU. Contact her at Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the Florida Review, Blip Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Pank, and other publications. She received her MFA in fiction from FAU. And her cat keeps a blog.

Friday, October 19, 2012

(R)Evolving Thoughts

After leaving Florida and relocating to the opposite corner of the country (Tacoma, WA), I began the global revision of something that had already been “finished.”  What’s published as a 50-page story in my MFA thesis began as a 25-page submission for one of Professor Bucak’s summer fiction workshops.  In my own writing time, the 25-page-short-story-turned-50-page-long-story has continued evolving into something new:  an experimental work I call a novelistic screenplay.

What I noticed about the work is that, while its form had already become more experimental in grad school, I still wasn’t happy with its strange evolution (just as Nature is never “satisfied” with the adaptations of Her many creatures).  In a story that was already riddled with footnotes, I realized I needed to add even more footnotes – in addition to needing more story.  (Even the 50-page version felt rushed.)  And, structurally, the experimental arrangement of the text needed more order (but in a more experimental fashion).

Nearly three years later, I don’t have a complete first draft of this book, but the fictional world of the story has come to life.  The Narrator has developed a voice of his (-or-Her) own.  (I call this the fracturing of the narrative psyche.)  The Narrator now has various meta-voices (…voices from the human past…).  Distinctly evident is the descending process of the superego, ego, and id (often laden with the emotions and prejudices of unconscious desire).  These dynamic voices were nowhere to be found in the older versions.

For more than two years, I’ve been building a structure of narration that relies heavily on ellipses and parentheses.  This structure is intentional, and enhances the visual cues of descending from one level of the subconscious down to the next. But last year, an art exhibit up here in Tacoma focused on these forms of punctuation, which makes me look rather like a copycat.  The problem is, I feel I generated this structure on my own – long before I saw others experimenting with similar patterns. (Sad face….)

When I decided to build topical elements (e.g., the poverty of the masses, the benefits of decriminalizing cannabis, relief through organic ways of thinking) into the book, I was on the leading edge.  But, that was then; the media operates right now.  This is, by far, the most difficult part of allowing the book to evolve organically.  I watch elements of it show up in popular culture.

Still, I do not regret moving slowly, because the completion of an MFA has taught me that it’s more satisfying to produce something lasting than to produce something premature in nature.  To rush my story – just so it could be released with an earlier copyright date – would’ve been to deny my tale its full potential!

Every time I sit down to write, I feel the peristalsis of Nature moving through my mind, nudging my characters nearer to complete states of being. In meta-fashion, I, too, am nudged forward as a writer and a human (… as are all of you…).

After outlasting the MFA program at FAU, Cory Zimmerman was reborn as c.d. Zim (... the author who doesn't exist...). When not working on the aforementioned novelistic screenplay, c.d. Zim fulfills his(-or-Her) role as Creative Director of BlastFace (... a website specializing in the innovation of a new genre called "magazine radio"...). Blastface is the creation of Christopher J. Pumphrey, a fellow FAU MFAer.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Out, Out, Far Out to Sea, & Alone: My First Year Post-M.F.A.

                                                             for Virginia Woolf

“. . .so I have to create the whole thing afresh for myself each time. Probably, all writers now are in the same boat. It is the penalty we pay for breaking tradition, and the solitude makes the writing more exciting though the being read less so. One ought to sink to the bottom of the sea, probably, and live alone with one’s words.” ~Virginia Woolf

               We are far out to sea & alone; my wife, & ten-month old daughter Izzy—whose pictures you’ll find beautifying the landscape of my Facebook profile—the only bearings I have available to keep me from setting adrift; existing in a place apart from landmass that is the non-writing populace; agonizing over contractions of imagination & creativity on almost a daily basis; living in our heads & stargazing—even placing our thumbs over the moon like Tom Hanks in Apollo 13—at what we can’t help but believe will be eventual success, instead of doing the practical thing & earning a degree in Business, or Accounting, or Business with an Accounting focus, etc. In other words: what have I gotten myself into?
               In my case, it’s quite simple: four years ago, I, of sound mind & body, chose to make a mistake, given that it was the most practical option. I chose to bypass the G.T.A. program at our university. Why? I couldn’t afford the pay cut. I had three choices: 1. Leave my part-time job. 2. Attempt to balance a full course load & my teaching responsibilities while still working a few days a week at the job in order to negate the pay difference. And oh, yeah, while trying to fit in some writing. 3. Maintain the status-quo: skip the GTA, continue going to class & working my part-time job: because Mos Def said it best: “Ends can’t meet where the arms don’t reach.”
               So I have no PhD, no G.T.A. experience (and therefore, no teaching experience), and no book publications. More importantly, my current job (the job I couldn’t afford to leave), makes me (professionally) unhappier than Septimus Warren Smith (minus the suicide). This is why I pine over relative “success.” One positive is that it provides me more free time to write in comparison to my writing brethren who teach. But, with a wife and ten-month old child, “free time” isn’t necessarily free.
               Teaching or not I do manage, however. That is one reality my publications reflect; I’ve written to the tune of twenty individual publications spanning across poetry, short fiction, creative nonfiction, and “performance text” and/or drama. To be fair, most would consider that a very successful year for a developing writer. For me, however, if a full manuscript does not out materialize out of all this “success,” I will regard 2012 as a disappointment.           
            There is no definitive answer as to whether or not I made the right decision four years ago when I was a first-year M.F.A. student.  I have no doubts that I would be happier working in something related to my field of study, whether it be teaching, editing/proofreading, copywriting, etc. & I’ve applied to each of them in gaggles, but to no avail. I do, however, have an appreciation for my professional unhappiness given that it gives me a bit of an edge. It keeps me starving to write & write & write now, which ultimately is what’s keeping me from sinking to bottom of the sea—without my words. 

A graduate of Florida Atlantic University's MFA program, Michael J Pagan's work has appeared in The Rumpus, DIAGRAM, Spork Press, Verse, Requited Journal, and other publications. He currently serves as an editorial assistant for SquawkBack Magazine, as well as a fiction reader for Burnside Review. He lives in Deerfield Beach with his wife and daughter where he continues work on his first poetry manuscript, With a Bullet, Sparrow Voices, along with his first stage play, PING.