Monday, September 30, 2013

A Creative Writing Program Won’t Teach You to Write

During the pursuit of an MFA you might learn to create more engaging dialogue.  A creative writing program could teach you to craft more intricate characters and present beautiful or terrifying environments. It can point out common plot holes, banal prose, or uncomplicated themes.  It will put you in community with a group of people who will help you improve each of the elements that make for good writing, but an MFA will not teach you to write.

This community blog has already addressed balancing writing life with student/teaching/”real” life, by people who suck less than I do, so if you were hoping for some advice on that, look elsewhere.  I am mostly here to admit defeat and failure. I haven’t even taught or taken a class for months and I still don’t get my writing in nearly enough.  I have great reasons for this. By “great” I don’t only mean that they are effective reasons, but that they are sensible, believable, and genuinely time consuming.  These reasons are also positive life events. They are mundane, even typical for a person in his early 30s, but still, congratulations are in order at this point in my life.  This list of good reasons is especially useful to me, because it allows me to do several of my favorite things simultaneously: complain, brag, and make excuses.

Sometimes, grad students complain that we don’t have enough time to do everything: teach, grade, write, read, and attend class.  Mostly, we are empathetic (and complicit) with each other, even when 10 minutes earlier/later someone talks about marathoning all of the back episodes of Breaking Bad over the weekend.  As the primary caregiver (aka, stay-at-home-dad) for 3 children under 4, there is sometimes an extra level of sympathy (to my face, at least).  Almost no one is willing to call me out. And then there is this guy: “Write 500 of the shittiest words you can think of” every day; there are no such thing as good reasons, only bad excuses. I’ve heard similar advice before, but for some reason (probably the humor) it clicked this time.

For some of us, there is no balancing writing with life.  There is only shoehorning writing somewhere into your day or there is admitting defeat. Lose sleep. Miss a meal. Skip the gym. Hand back papers late. Skim your class reading. Be late to pick up your son from pre-school, which I currently am, but at least, for today, I am a writer.

There will always be priorities that outrank writing in practical standing. Being a writer is impractical.  Getting an MFA makes it seem and feel more practical.  There is an end game, something for people to congratulate you for, deadlines to hide behind, and an advanced degree on which to hang your authorial identity. An MFA can be useful when explaining yourself to friends, family, strangers and yourself, but an MFA won’t teach you to write.

Phil Mazzeo chose to pursue a career writing and teaching full-time after retiring from the corporate world after 3 long years.  After 3 short years of writing and teaching, he is now primarily an executive domestic administrator and writes while his oldest son sits on his head and the toddler tries to feed the baby a 4-day-stale Oreo he found under the couch 12 seconds ago.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

On Procrastination (And also Candy Crush)

            That’s an all right title, right? It sounds like some kind of Strunck and White type thing. I wanted to go with something more creative but then my phone buzzed and there was a Facebook update about Candy Crush and I got distracted and then everything got a bit too meta for my liking.
            But procrastination! For any MFA, and probably any Grad student, or student, or person, the word creates an aura of shuddery horror and looping spirals of shame. Or maybe it only does that to me. My name is Megan Hesse and I am a procrastinator. Sometimes it’s not such a bad thing. Instead of grading papers I got inspired and wrote three chapters of a story. Instead of writing more of that story I cleaned the house and took out the garbage which, after procrastinating on that for a good week or two, was piled ever so slightly past my head. I’m procrastinating right now - I have responses and readings due and I might not even do them after I finish this. I’ll probably play Candy Crush. And here’s the really insidious part: sometimes I’ll hit a level on Candy Crush that is so awful, so purely blackly evil (like the ones with the time bombs) that I will procrastinate on playing it because I know I’m still stuck on that level. So I have to find a new game to play until I get around to Candy Crush because come on, it’s not like I’m just going to go write that next chapter.
            I try though, I really do. But the focus never lasts. I’d like to blame society or technology or a documented condition like ADHD but I have no excuse. I’m just a weak-willed individual with too much entertainment at my fingertips. I’ll move to different rooms of the house, ones without TV, but my phone is still with me because how can I leave my phone in another room? What if there’s an emergency? What if someone needs me to fulfill a random, time consuming task that isn’t staring blankly at my computer willing words to happen and I’m not there to answer it?
            It’s an uphill battle. Why just today I was in my living room, stolid and determined and with a new app that knows when I’m doing work and smiles a happy face and keeps time and when I click away to the internet turns red and frowns with disappointment like I just told it I was quitting school and joining a drum circle. According to said app I was productive for approximately fifteen minutes and twenty-two seconds and then hey, I wonder what’s on TV at eleven in the morning on a Wednesday. Golden Girls! And I’ve seen this one!
            “Thank you for being a friend, travel down the road and back again! Your heart is true, you’re a pal and a confidaaaant!”
            Oh those girls. I wish I could say I would be Blanche because she’s the one who gets all the geriatric booty. But in truth I’d probably be Dorothy. I wonder if there’s an online quiz to find out which Golden Girl you’re most like. Oh who am I kidding, of course there is. Still, may as well look to make sure.
            Oh man there’s this video, look at this video. This guy reviews videogames after eating a jalapeno pepper. Look at him suffer! I’ll just watch, maybe, one more. Or ten.
            And now it’s three in the morning and my app is so red and so angry I get worried that apps can internally hemorrhage themselves. And then I wonder if Cutthroat Kitchen is on. That Alton Brown is so sassy.
            In short, I have a problem. I know that this is a problem I should probably fix soon, and I assure you that I am totally going to get around to it. After I beat this level on Candy Crush. And take this quiz…Ah, what the hell, it says I’m Dorothy’s mom?

Megan Hesse is currently in her second year as a graduate student in the FAU MFA program. She enjoys fighting evil by moonlight and winning love by daylight. She is the one named Sailor Moon.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The AWP Web site

          Have you logged into and checked out the AWP Web site recently? Yeah – as a member of FAU’s Creative Writing MFA program, you have access to their membership-only content. You didn’t know that? Well, read on, friend, and discover the resources glinting in your future – that magnificence of online ephemera. Ahem. I mean, um, log on to the AWP Web site and take a look around.
                A good place to start your journey is the About section. Here the AWP goes into whey they exist and why you should care that they do. And you should care that they exist – they are a real voice of advocacy for Creative Writing programs and the importance of the Humanities in a world that seems to care less and less about any subject that isn’t a subset of math or science. AWP discusses why you should be a member and why you might want to attend their annual conference.
                Speaking of AWP’s annual conference, click on the link to find out details about their next conference (it will be in Washington. You should go! Read about Negean’s, Gloria’s, and Courtney’s experiences at AWP conferences). This link also gives information about other conferences and residences you might want to attend (read: should deeply consider applying to). They have a directory of conferences and centers – browse it! For example, I did a search for conferences, residencies, centers, festivals, and retreats in Florida that offer scholarships and got three results (Atlantic Center for the Arts, Eckerd College Writers' Conference:Writers in Paradise, and Palm Beach Poetry Festival). If you find an opportunity you’re interested in that would require travel, put in those travel requests now! I’m telling you – the sooner you do this, the more likely it is that you’ll receive funding (even if you are not presenting).
                Another section that might interest you is the Careers tab. The AWP has a wonderful jobs list – check it out! If you’re looking for a job, you might also be interesting in Erika Dreifus’ blog that tracks Creative Writing jobs.
                The AWP Web site also has a link to contests. For the love of everything that is warm and sweet in this world, check these out. Here they list opportunities for grants,awards, publications, and go into detail on their own contests and well as scholarship contest information (for attending a writers’ conference, center, retreat, festival, or residency).
                You also have access the Writer’s Chronicle (their magazine) as well as relevant blog posts (about teaching, literature, writing – all the fun stuff). There is a section on Writer’s News which will keep you up to date with the literary and academic world(s), the Writer’s Notebook which allows you to search articles on such compelling topics as craft, job searching, the submission process, and myriad topics. And a Podcast series. Seriously. Who loves not the podcast?
                I tell you all of this to say this: check it out! I’ll be sending you an email with your log on information. Log in, look around, and feel free to make an appointment with me or with Becka to discuss any questions you have about publishing or finding a job.
                Oh yeah, one more thing. Go to the AWP Conference while you still get the student rate. I’m just saying.

M.R. Sheffield is the English Graduate Advisor at Florida Atlantic University. Her work has been published in The Florida Review, Pank, Fiction Southeast, and other publications. Email her to set up an advising appointment:

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Magical Realism Moves Into Your Living Room

A few writers have told me to be careful with opening sentences in my fiction, and particularly with magical realist stories. Openings, they say, should situate you (the reader) – let you know where I have landed you – by whispering hints of where I intend to take you. And I think my respected advisors are partially right.

You should know what you’re getting into before I, or any of my kind (writers of magical realism), ask you to go trudging through our long and sometimes obvious allegories and labyrinths of metaphors. And you definitely want to know what kinds of Neverlands you’ll commit to flying through before paying for some poor endangered novel or short story collection (doomed to a dust-filled life in the catacombs of a bookstore) with your firstborn.

But I find that situating for too long and in massive increments can actually be fatal to the magical realism that exists in my pieces.

Below are the common steps we will take to employ the situating process in our writing:

1. We pad the beginning with phrases full of ‘concrete’ information about moments in a lifetime, or about the weather’s all too familiar sadomasochistic tendencies, to create the lining of the reader chair we’ve custom made for you. ‘Cause, honey, we don’t we want you to feel homesick for your actual home or for any parts of the actual world. (The customer’s comfort is always at the top of our priorities).

2. We hire actual words used in Earthen dialogue, like “winter,” “Fort Lauderdale,” and “bedroom” to build our story’s setting. Why? See number 1. Here’s where our duty to your comfort often demands we raise the level of situating.

But here are the steps you take as you read through our magical realism and allow situating to reach toxic levels:

1. You test the entire structural integrity of our magical realists creatures and magical realist scenes with your handy-dandy yellow measuring tape1. The realism parts confuse you. Make you demand we dress magical realism in some size-fits-all logic.

1. This tape changes its units of measurement as it gets passed down through generations of post-colonialists, philosophers, physicists, feminists, anthropologists, activists, priests, rabbis, witchdoctors, biochemists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, mathematicians, and thousands of other divisions of ‘sts, ‘ers, and ‘ors that dictate how it should change.

2. You want to split the atoms of the word ‘magical realism’. You try and cage “magical” far away from you – so as to not let its claws near your eyes. Then, you take “realism” into an interrogation cell where you determine to find if it has been used by us as a means of situating you in a fictional reality that mirrors your own, or if it has been used as a means of dumping you Alice in Wonderland style into some kind of dream wasteland2.    (But magical realism is a slippery sucker. It rips through its clothing from step 1 and scurries away from you – completely naked.)

2. Dream wastelands are scary because they tend to remind you of several personal phobias: fear of losing control, fear of lunacy, and fear of being intoxicated. And, of course, the memory of having indulged in at least one of these fears three times per week.

           Often, as you read through our work, you’ll point out to me a distant border in horizons of other, much older, fiction landscapes, and commission me to build a replica of it. For someone (surely very wise and very old) has decreed that reality is to remain untainted by the touch of the fantastical – lest catastrophes not even Nostradamus himself predicted befall all of us.  

Spoiler alert: Magical realism has a dual citizenship that allows it to melt borders and render their situating powers as fearsome as a kitten’s yawn.

But that whole dual citizenship business will probably make you nervous. Make you suggest I restructure the border. So you’ll ask me to situate using dream-inducing words like “imagine,” “seems,” “vision,” and “perhaps” as watch posts around the border. But to pin those words to the story’s ground is to willingly inject it with potassium cyanide shots.  Those words shred through the wings of mythical hybrid creatures the way Darwin’s “Theory of Evolution” shreds through Adam and Eve’s family tree. They are the black holes through which magical realism enters your dream wastelands – a place where magical realism loses its sanity and forgets its name.

The truth is…magical realism survives on that uncomfortable feeling you get every time we don’t mentally prepare you to witness the Parkour skills of our magical realism or let you situate our work within your borders. And without magical realism, what else can my fiction do but die and return to the great pixel house of fonts from whence it was first typed?

And where will your dream wastelands take all my Mangrinders, weeping women, Cah-ee-mans, grandmother dragonflies, and Hueco priests? And how will they ever again gossip with you about the affairs of your neighbors, or pull out your grey hairs for you, or eat your homemade Matzo ball soup?

Diana Burgos loves hearing the pianist who steps out from some nearby palm fronds play Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1 on windy afternoons. She also makes the monsters in her closet and the boogeymen under her bed pay half of the rent.