Monday, March 19, 2012

Jumping In: A Reflection on the Eula Biss Workshop by Kim Pekala

Initially, I had decided not to take the Sanders Writer-in-Residence workshop. Eula Biss, after all, writes creative nonfiction. The Balloonists is categorized as poetry. Neither are genres in which I often write. Besides that, I’m busy. We’re all busy. 
What changed my mind was how moved I was hearing Eula read her essay “Time and Distance Overcome” from Notes from No Man’s Land on the MFA@FAU Facebook page. I was also chided by that overly-encouraging-camp-counselor-on-a-megaphone voice in my head that tells me to take every opportunity I can, usually besting that tiny chirping voice that tells me I need take it easy every once in a while. That voice never wins. She’s also super lazy and kind of anti-social.
As I suspected, it was a busy week, but a productive one. Eula asked that we write a short piece to workshop for the class by practicing a suggested research method. I chose her first suggested method, immersion research, because I had already done the work, having recently attended AWP (an immersion to say the least, I assure you). Something was happening in that time that was scrambling in the back of my mind, something that I needed to capture, so I sat down and attempted to do so. The result was utterly displacing – first-person POV nonfiction from a fiction writer. No invention to hide behind and no frills to color the ugliness of reality. I had written the narrative equivalent of showing up to class naked – at least, from my perspective.
We were not limited to writing nonfiction, but if you’re going to practice immersion, you need to go in headfirst. To my pleasure, there was much to be learned. New ideas sparked throughout the week as we discussed the reading assignments, each other’s work, and the suggested readings Eula offered to us individually when considering our writing. Despite the fact that the class incorporated writers of all genres, the contributions and feedback were often universally helpful. As my own essay was scrutinized by my peers, they began to pull out the more emotionally-centered threads, the threads that they could empathize with… the threads I was always seeking in my fiction. Eula pointed out the places where I had moved away from myself in the story, where I had shielded what readers most wanted to see – hidden depths that sought exploration. I never realized how much I held back until I made myself the narrator.
The experience was anxiety-inducing, but revelatory, and left me with tools to make my writing better. To think I almost passed up the chance to have a bonus workshop with fresh perspectives and a chance to make a new friend in the writing world. Opportunities like these are limited, especially in this unique time we spend as writers in an MFA. When the next arises, you can be sure I’ll be the first to take the leap.

Kim Pekala is an MFA student in fiction at Florida Atlantic University.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Digging It: A Dispatch from the Eula Biss Workshop by Mary Ann Hogan

Did I have time for the Sanders Writer-in-Residence workshop with Eula Biss? No.
            Are my other classes suffering because of the workshop? Well… yes.
            Am I glad I'm taking the workshop? No question. In the first two days, I felt my brain matter expanding vis-à-vis my own writing, ideas gelling in fresh ways, moving in more resonant directions, into side trips I hadn’t even considered.  Mostly because of what Eula (“Hello, everyone, I’m Eula”) is teaching us about the wisdom of research:
            Newspaper research.
             Database research.

             Different kinds of databases.  (“You might want to try that same thing, with say, LexisNexis.”)  

             Immersion research.
             Go there. Find stuff out. Soak it in.
             Dig it.
             Key, here, she tells us, is don’t let the research shout, “I’m here!” Keep it invisible. Allow it to inform, to play itself out, on the page. Research is the stuff behind the writing, the invisible mortar that gives depth to a text, informing, rather than directing, how the writing manifests itself on the page. “The page,” what appears there, is what matters, in the end. The poet David Trinidad, Biss tells us, is an avid object-based researcher, finding objects on eBay, including Barbie dolls, various colors of Slicker lip gloss (for the poem “Slicker.”) and even, for his work on Sylvia Plath, a phone just like the one in Plath’s office, wallpaper just like hers -- in the end, a kind of totemic recreation of her writing space.  
             For Biss, nonfiction artist extraordinaire, author of The Balloonists and Notes From No Man’s Land: American Essays, professor at Northwestern, and hero to many of us who write creative nonfiction, genre doesn’t matter. Whether you write fiction, nonfiction or poetry, immersing yourself in research can “move you into whole new territories to explore.” Don’t forget the research that can take you in some other direction – the counter-intuitive, the thing you’re not writing about. It just might lead to a passage on the page that you weren’t expecting.
        I have to go read now for Biss’s workshop today. And then go digging. 
Mary Ann Hogan is working on her MFA in nonfiction at Florida Atlantic University.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Stripping "Lolita" & Hurling the Bones by Aj Ferguson

What the hell is Lolita about anyway? Asking that question of ten different readers would yield a variety of responses depending on the sophistication of the reader. But let’s pretend they are all ‘good readers’ as defined by Vladamir Nabakov himself[1]; let’s arm them with, among other things, an imagination, a memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense. Given this object and these aspects, our good readers will most assuredly tell us that Lolita is about a number of things that have less to do with pedophilia and more to do with themes far too complex to be reduced to an isolated independent clause with any accuracy.

Yet an obsession with pedophilia is clearly the motive force that propels Nabakov’s protagonist throughout this novel. Surveying the field of famous literary goals, Humbert Humbert’s quest to obtain a nymphet, a sexually aware prepubescent girl, is more than just a little creepy; it’s memorably loathsome. Nevertheless, what is both loathsome and cruel is part and parcel of a beautiful, brilliant, and sometimes tender novel: this paradox turns the knife. Humbert is witty; Humbert is self deprecating – he is also relentless, condescending, sadistic, and awful. Humbert is all of these things and more, but most importantly for the story’s success – he is driven. That he is driven to pursue nymphets is incidental to the relentlessness of his pursuit. The light of Humbert’s life and fire of his loins could just as easily have been Helen of Sparta, Tadzio the Polish boy, or Rex the Collie[2]. – In short, Lolita is the MacGuffin.

As you may know, the MacGuffin is a term attributed to Alfred Hitchcock; commonly referenced by cinematic directors, it is, unfortunately, often neglected by writers of literary fiction. While the MacGuffin can either be a concrete item or a specific goal, it is always something that characters want badly enough that they are driven to do extraordinary things to achieve it.

The MacGuffin most frequently cited is the Maltese Falcon. A more current cinematic example is the movie Up, where Carl Fredricksen is determined to fly his house to Paradise Falls, utilizing thousands of helium balloons. The MacGuffin is the explicit goal of the plot, the apparent brass ring.  Of course, some characters are willing to do more than others to get what they want. In fact, some stories use the tension surrounding what a character will not do – or ‘prefer not to’ do in Bartleby’s case – as the MacGuffin. But confusing the explicit goal of the character with the stakes of the story is an error because the stakes are the changes that will occur within characters and settings as a result of action or a lack thereof. Therefore, the MacGuffin must be understood to be both as arbitrary and hollow as it is filled with specifics and meaning. For example, we care that Carl is flying to Paradise Falls because we care about Ellie and Carl and feel an urgent need for him to fulfill their lifelong dream of reaching the destination. That he is flying there in a wooden house is a neat gimmick. However, the flying house would remain merely a gimmick if it were not imbued with all the emotion and significance stimulated by rich characterization and a compelling back story. But, of course, the audience is not thinking about any of this unless they are unlucky enough to be writers.

That the reader does not think about the details of artifice is a neat trick. If a writer is doing her job properly, the reader will probably proceed through most or the entire story under the illusion that they are just as invested in the MacGuffin as the characters striving to achieve it. In truth, this explicit goal should diminish once the larger stakes and the character’s core motivations become apparent. We will focus on this transmutation later. But before symbolic action can be understood as symbolic, a character needs to pull the trigger because the target needs to be dead. That is, the needs of the story outweigh the writer’s need to be deep and meaningful. So for the moment, let’s take a look at the narrative arc.

Hitchcock says to begin with a piece of ‘foolscrap paper’ where he places the bare minimum[3]. Here is my stripped-down synopsis of Lolita:

After losing his first love to illness, a young boy becomes haunted by her image. Once the boy becomes a man, his relationships with adult women are unsuccessful and leave him yearning for sexually aware young girls, nymphets. He lodges with a woman and her daughter who he identifies as a nymphet. He marries the woman to gain access to the girl. The woman discovers his interest, but suffers a fatal accident before she can tell the police. The man and the girl begin a sexual relationship. They travel across the country living in motels, then settle in a town where the man finds work. Eventually, the relationship falls apart, the girl tires of the protagonist, and leaves him for another man. After some time, the protagonist finds the girl pregnant and living with a rube. The girl reveals that the man she ran off with was a pornographer who she abandoned once she tired of his propositions.  After the girl refuses to come away with the protagonist, he leaves, finds the pornographer, and murders him. The protagonist is arrested, writes the narrative as his confession, and then dies.

The synopsis above is what Hitchcock calls the “steelwork” or the “barest bones,” from which he would build upon. Of course, Hitchcock was adapting stories to film which is a different animal and exercise entirely. And while I am certainly not arguing for a formulaic or axiomatic approach to writing, I do see tremendous value in keeping one eye on the narrative arc even as it twists into a helix, Möbius strip, or whatever shape one’s narratives take. I am arguing for the value of plot because the arc, its trajectory, and apparent target are what the reader instinctively follows. Humans are hardwired to enjoy narratives because we evolved as narrative creatures with a trail of evidence that spans approximately 77,000 years establishing this fact. But the use of the MacGuffin does not constrain a writer to moribund convention, but it does allow him to exploit human nature.

The steelwork of Lolita as I have constructed it above is a grand opportunity to entertain and delight the reader through a series of moves that include both calculated misdirection and strategic confessions. The writer chooses the point of view, in this case first person, and the protagonist charms the reader with self deprecating wit even as he reveals himself to be a monster. The writer fleshes out the details of the protagonist's obsession, characterizing and complicating both the protagonist and the object of his desire, by making him slightly sympathetic and casting her as manipulative. Along the way, their road trip across the country becomes an opportunity to invert what Joseph Campbell calls the hero’s journey; as the protagonist crosses one moral threshold after another, the reader cannot help but follow the train wreck even as it gyrates through themes and spins off references and symbols that elevate the story as something much more than the perverse and gratuitous yarn it might have been. But I must point back to the target, the tragic end that the reader is certain will arrive. After all, Nabokov begins the novel with the conceit that the protagonist is writing from jail and reminds us several times throughout he is still there. – And here is an important point: as with all magic, the audience can be more easily misdirected if they are given a well-lit target to focus on as the writer performs sleight of hand.

In the case of Lolita, Nabokov does a brilliant job of allowing the reader see what Humbert wants them to see while dropping enough hints that they can go back to interrogate his claims when they reread the novel. But, of course, the target is not always used for misdirection. For example, Margaret Atwood commonly provides readers with strange and incomprehensible image of the novel’s end while slowly revealing how the protagonist arrived there one juicy bit of information at a time. Other writers allude to where the book is going through foreshadowing and may switch out MacGuffins mid-novel. The variety of tactics regarding plot and structure are as numerous as they are immaterial to this essay. My point is that everything that occurs in a good story must seem necessary and organic[4]: as I said before, the character needs to pull the trigger because the target needs to be dead. In the process of making a piece work, one can identify themes and symbols to make it resonate.

One of the wonderful things about seeing the world through a writer’s eyes is that it is almost always replete with symbols and themes. Most humans understand the world through metaphors and similes as they are the bridges one uses to relate a common experience. Writers simply happen to be hypersensitive to such things because they work with language on a constant basis. Yes, language has its limitations, and those limitations are its strength in constructing fiction. Once I have grasped what the MacGuffin will be, I can hurl it forward, mark its progress, and note where it falls. Then the real work begins, placing flesh on the bones and breathing life into the story. The results of this process are only limited by my imagination, energy, and patience in articulating the story. In short, The MacGuffin is not a plot device to be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown straight ahead and with great force.

[1] Nabakov discusses his ’good reader’ at length in a lecture entitled “Good Readers and Good Writers.”
[2] Okay, okay – so Ignatius masturbating to thoughts of Rex was just a weird and disturbingly comic plot device, but I was hard pressed to think of a bestiality MacGuffin. So sue me.
[3] Hitchcock discussed the MacGuffin at length in several interviews, but, to my knowledge, the first recorded instance can be found in a lecture he gave at Radio City Music Hall in 1939.
[4] Yes, yes, I hear you grumbling. I am writing primarily about realist fiction. But while it is beyond the scope of this here blog post to address the specifics, I would argue that some of the most effective non-realist work is also concerned with a quest in some form or another. The conventions of realism are simple easier to talk about.

Aj Ferguson holds an MFA in fiction from Florida Atlantic University where he teaches writing as an instructor. He is working on a number of projects and collects personalized rejection slips like other folks collect crystal bunnies or baseball cards.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Meet Our MFA's

Abbe Greenberg

MFA Track: Nonfiction 

Where have you lived? 
Pennsylvania (Philly), New Jersey (Princeton), Virginia (Norfolk) and Florida (Broward & Palm Beach counties--currently in Boynton Beach)

What are some of your favorite places in Florida?  
Amelia Island, Ponte Vedra Beach

What does your writing space look like? 
I have a writing "studio upstairs," but inspiration usually gets me when I'm on my den sofa with my cat in my lap. Lately, I've been writing in bed as well...

Are you a pen/pencil, typewriter or computer writer?  
Mac all the way...I can't read my own handwriting!

When did you first realize you have a passion for writing?  
At 2 when I read my first book--legend has it I told my mother that Dr. Seuss was God.

What’s a book you’ve reread and why?  
Child of My Heart by Alice McDermott--it's the book I wish I wrote; the voice is so heartbreakingly on target...

What advice do you have a graduate student in his/her first semester? 
Be selective in what you workshop--you get only 2-3 shots at feedback so don't waste them on something you really don't care about or plan to pursue.

Meet Our MFA's

Leslie Smith

MFA Track: Fiction

Where have you lived?
·         Arkadelphia, AR (1969-1989)
·         Dallas, TX  (1989-1990)
·         Arkadelphia, AR (1990-1991)
·         New York, NY (1991-1997)
·         Los Angeles, CA (1997-2000)
·         New York, NY (2000-2010)
·         Ft Lauderdale Fl (2010-present)

What are some of your favorite places in Florida?
Sebastian Beach, John U Lloyd Beach, the Dali Museum – St Petersburg,  Lincoln Road

What does your writing space look like?
Any given Starbucks

Are you a pen/pencil, typewriter or computer writer?
Computer – since I was a young kid, way back when I had to type “Print” “” around each line to make a my Texas Instrument Home computer running Basic print it.  And even with that, I have never learned to type correctly, I have my own home grown typing system which uses three fingers on each hand.

When did you first realize you have a passion for writing?
As a young kid I used to think I wanted to be an actor, so I wrote myself episode arcs that would give me ongoing parts in TV shows that I watched.  My favorite is the one where the buxom detectives at the Townsend Agency adopted me. I was nine.  

What’s a book you’ve reread and why?
Tom Spanbuer’s “The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon” haunts me.   I keep going back to figure out why.

What advice do you have a graduate student in his/her first semester?
Ask!  And if you still don’t get it – Ask again!