Monday, October 28, 2013

Interdisciplinary Meow-sings

1. The flight was five and a half hours from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale, after connecting from Portland, OR. My boyfriend was upgraded to business class, where he was unable to take his cat. So, in a middle seat near the back of the plane, I shuffled his cat and the carrier underneath the seat in front of me. She was asleep, but knowing my luck her tranquilizers were about to wear off. Immediately after takeoff, I heard the strung-out misery song. One snarled yawn, a wide reach for a sound held deep in her throat. Her claws started to scratch at the fabric of her kitty jail; a prisoner on her way to Florida. Florida, where everything will try to kill us all at least once. I slipped my feet out of my shoes and prodded the carrier like a mom trying to comfort her impatient child. Shut up. Two more stores and I’ll get you your damn Dippin’ Dots.

“Sorry about her,” I said to the young woman to my right.

“How is she doing? I haven’t heard anything so far.”

The woman leaned over and peered into the darkness at my feet.

“She’s crying.”

 “What’s her name?”

“Pitts, or Pumpernickle.”

“You don’t know? Is that really your cat?”

The woman wrapped her hand around my arm and grinned. Are you hitting on me? As a gay man, I find being hit on by a woman is like being hit on by a cousin; flattering but directionless. Sometimes they seem like the girl next door (Joanna/Chloe/Stacey) you grew up playing with whose brother with the big arms you fancied. Stacey, let’s hang out—will your brother be around? How is he doing? Oh, he broke up with his girlfriend? Does he still need a writing tutor? I’m free now.

The worst part about flying is the lack of room to stretch your legs. Standing up in the aisle is a death wish, since Minnie the flight attendant has no shame taking you down with her drink cart. Aladdin, mermaid, Aladdin, mermaid, Aladdin—flexed, mermaid—pointed. I pointed and flexed my feet in the little space I had. When you point your feet, send the stretch out from between your big toe and second toe. Look how pretty and long your legs are! Don’t worry, the cramps subside in a couple of years. Ballerinas/ballerinos are known to have the ugliest feet from continuous distortion and wear. Behind the pointe shoes are callouses and blisters (some of which possibly filled with blood, but note: they burst quickly and completely if continuously turned on as I learned first-hand). Blood, sweat, and tears. Literally. And a few quick farts backstage.

Poets have similar characteristics and their own unique wounds, but not on their feet. The marks are deep in the throat, and it is the act of writing that opens our mouths for relief—to release the achy sound of a cat whose tranquilizers are wearing off. Don’t lie, you know that when you read that girl’s poetry from that one poetry class you took in undergrad all you heard was meow, meow, meow, meow, hiss, barf. The amateur poet tends to try to cure heartbreak with their writing, singing their misery song and expecting the twenty other students in their poetry class to eat it up like hot cakes. Mmm, your tears really help your words shine on the page, Paul. I enjoy your first line about missing your mother’s womb.

 No mark is similar. No sound is the same. This separates writers from each other. The writer must understand himself and his unique marks and remedies to communicate and write well.

2. At the front of the plane, my boyfriend was asleep in business class underneath two blankets, four packaged meals, and a mini bottle of Grey Goose. I had enough. Pitts was fully awake.

 "Honey?” I shook his shoulder. “Honey, where are the tranquilizers? Pitts is awake.” Nothing. “Honey, the plane is on fire.” Ugh.

The plane ride was nothing new; moving is in my blood. Boca Raton, Florida only lengthens the list: Surrey, England; Auckland, New Zealand; Holland, Michigan; Annapolis, Maryland; Galesburg, Illinois; Portland, Oregon. As an undergraduate at Knox College, I majored in Creative Writing and minored in Dance Studies. I self-designed three courses to pair the two studies: one on choreographic composition influenced by text, another on text influenced by dance and movement, and the third on the advanced choreographic study of a dance work that I created and was to present at ACDF—the American College Dance Festival—as well as the annual faculty dance concert. First and foremost I researched MFA in Creative Writing programs that motivate interdisciplinary study, eventually applying to twelve.

My time spent studying the similarities between choreographing movement to writing has affected my eye for products, like student papers, that exemplify facets of formal technicality with regard to grammar and rhetoric, and conscious textual musicality. Pieces of text, whatever the size, should flow from one to the next like measures of music. Text relies on rhythm and tempo to sound a certain way on the page. The shifts in these rhythms—a period, an exclamation, a pause—can be translated into physical shifts of movement: a leap, a turn, a run, a fall, (a bruise, a trip to the E.R., a career change, arthritis, a slow dance-less death.)

But can you teach someone rhythm? I’m sure everyone has questioned whether his or her mother, father, or sibling has rhythm after watching them dance, flailing or bobbing like a buoy on turbulent waters. A writer needs some sense of rhythm. Text carries as much movement as dance, and it is obvious when student papers have breath—a life, movement. The student writer must first temporarily abandon the formal “perfection” of technical voice in order to investigate how to access a new level of essay writing. I believe students should come to a place of comfort in their writing to temporarily stray from correctness and investigate how the way they naturally communicate is different from the rules and regulations of standard collegiate rhetoric and composition. With this play of language, the student is able to better understand how he might appropriately implement a personal style into his college papers. Without personal style, the author lacks character or identity—stuck following rules that may be holding them captive to the need to please a scholar of English.

If only Pitts felt the need to please me. After we landed she still didn’t let up, far from lacking character or identity in her traveling attitude. She was probably scared, like an FYC student feeling trapped in the flight of their first semester. Let me out! My goal is to influence my students to want to develop consciousness of textual musicality when at a place of comfort in their writing skills. This place may not be reached during first-year writing courses, and most ‘academic’ writers will argue it need not be reached at any point in a student’s writing career. My time spent dancing and choreographing has clearly influenced this aspect of my teaching, though. Writing students need to be let out of this feeling of entrapment once in a while.

 Jamie White is a first year MFA in Poetry student. He does not like blueberries, touching bathroom door handles, or questions in his students’ essays. Some mistake him for fellow student Scott Rachesky—they are indeed two separate people. Jamie intends on becoming a professor of English post-graduation from FAU, and has made amends with his boyfriend’s cat.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Mysterium Fidei

One of the most maniacal things you can do to a bright-eyed English major is ask, “and just what do you plan on doing with that?” Inception in its finest form. This devil-seed snowballs into a litany of doubts: “What will I do? I can’t really do anything with a BA in English. Isn’t that a song in Avenue Q? Well, I guess I need to get my master’s, if not my doctorate? Can I even afford that? I’m not good enough. I’m useless. My degree is useless. Maybe I’d be happier cleaning the Goliath bird-eating tarantula cages at the zoo.

I went through two years of dramatic, internal battles before I decided what I wanted out of my education, and it only required me to sit in the right chair.

To summarize my decision process: I rejected my acceptance to the MFA once and deferred twice. When I first rejected the offer I was unsure of what I wanted to get from the MFA and I was not convinced that the degree would be useful. Thinking I was being considerate, I withdrew myself. I didn’t want to take the opportunity away from someone who actually wanted to be in the writing program. Everyone told me I was stupid…I agreed. I was certain that I sucked at writing (despite being accepted to an MFA) and I was under the assumption that the only career I could pursue was to become a professor. “Is this what I want to do?” My brilliant mind confronted me with a resounding, “I don’t know,” every single time.

I had been removed from academia for almost two years, and I was completely lost. Money was an issue, which also affected my decision, and I still had not asked the tough question, “what do I want?” Seeking an answer, I decided to attend a reading that included visiting alumni from our MFA program. I was quite nervous to ask my question; there were very important faculty there and I did not want to ruin my chances of being accepted again if I changed my mind. When I finally asked, the alumni tiptoed around the question, which made me more nervous than before I asked. Professor Bucak, on the other hand, stood up, asking if it was all right for her to answer, and said, “You get an MFA because you want to write and be a part of the literary community.” Very direct, and very purposeful; at the time I found this answer as helpful as a keg at an AA meeting. I knew this, but I couldn’t acknowledge its importance. 

It wasn’t until I visited an instructor friend that I knew what I needed to do. I sat and chatted about the university, learning, exchanging philosophies and just sharing knowledge. At this moment I understood the idea of community and what Professor Bucak meant. The MFA, aside from being a terminal degree, creates a bond and a community. If you don’t want to write, there is no purpose in getting the degree. It will waste your time and the professors’ time. When the high of my epiphany wore off I immediately contacted advising and hoped that I wouldn’t be out of luck.

Do these trepidations wear off? I would say no. I still question my legitimacy in the program, but I am reminded that I am in the right place every time I enter into discourse during class or with my fellow grad students. My hope is to become a great writer and to enter into a long lasting community of writers. Based on these wants, I cannot shake the feeling that I belong in the MFA.

…seems about right….

Scott Rachesky is a first year MFA fiction candidate at FAU. Aside from singing Carmina Burana in community choir, being a photographer, solving imaginary murders,  and raising Unipegs, he enjoys to write…go figure. His writerly influences include Chuck Palahniuk, Jennifer Egan, Lori Moore, and Joseph Heller. Some people have described his writing style as similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he doesn’t believe those people and thinks they only make the connection because of the shared name of Scott.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Moment Words Unravel

I’m sitting in CU 311 and Ben Parham walks in and we start talking about writing and our conversation takes a right and then a left and now we’re discussing the “zone”.
I say, “And there are moments when you’re just in it and the words are coming from outer space and you’re writing what you’re supposed to write.”
 Parham says, “Yeah, man. I know it. The keys are falling by themselves, man. The words just come.”
“Yes yes yes…”
And we go on like that: in the zone talking about the “zone”.

I know it exists. I know it exists because I’ve felt it. I know it exists because I experience it. I’ll be writing through a piece, struggling with a piece, when suddenly I’ll be struck. The keys will begin to fall. The feeling that is in my head, that is in my heart, will travel through the ether and appear on the page. The little blinking cursor—something I’ve heard Christopher Irving describe as a “virtual heartbeat”—will race across the screen and I will begin to write beyond my capability. In these moments it is as if I have learned to write for the first time. All of my intentions, once shrouded by a cloud of self-consciousness and apprehension, can now announce themselves. It is not a question of their existence—the message was always there. It is just a matter of relieving the constipation of words. Sometimes the space we write through becomes alarmingly narrow.
I know this phenomenon exists. I know it exists because my peers describe it: Katrina Gersie is pacing her little West Boca bedroom and muttering to no one. So enthralled by her argument, she discusses it with herself before rushing back to the keys so that they can type themselves. Ben Parham sees a scene in his mind. He has the characters and he has the situation and even though he does not know the scene’s importance, he begins to type it and the scene comes; the scene types itself. It is only weeks later that he finds that he has been writing toward that very scene for months. Brittany Ackerman describes it like this: “It’s like runner’s high. It’s like going on a very long run. Like hitting a stride in the last mile.”
Perhaps I am too content to mystify the writing process. Some might think me infinitely naïve to assign such magical properties to writing that, as we certainly contend in our MFA program, can be taught. But I know what I know. And there are moments when the words come without struggle, without thought of rules or form. I also know that when I submit a story to workshop in which this mysterious phenomenon has occurred, my peers almost invariably receive my story well. In these instances, though, I am less confident in my product. It is as if I do not really know what I have done. What have I written? What is this thing?
This is why, in workshop, I always get more out of positive feedback because, perhaps without knowing it, my peers are identifying the moments in which I have written from the “zone”. They are like archaeologists identifying the fossilized remnants of my communication with the fourth dimension. Their critiques only bolster my belief in the mysteriousness of writing. I have no choice. I must believe. My best writing seems to come from the “zone”.
It is this reason that I think the workshop should be the space that we work to recognize the moments that our peers have entered the “zone”. Visiting writer Nick Flynn referred to these portions of text as “moments of energy”. It is these instances that writers should be encouraged to embrace. Our job in the workshop should be to inspire confidence in the intangible element that makes a writer’s words sing. That is not to say the workshop should be devoid of criticism. But I think we can admit that our criticism, however precise or confident, is probably not going to be the catalyst for a successful piece if it leaves the writer doubting the natural ability that got them a seat in AH 104.  
It is helpful, of course, to be directed to the problem areas in a text. Yet, it seems it would be more helpful to point out areas in the text in which the writer has tapped into some greater pool of knowledge. Without this emphasis, the workshop can be too hard a pill to swallow—the writer’s mind is such a self-defeating place that it is tempting to look at an unsuccessful 5,000 word essay or story as a waste. But I think that, sometimes, one has to write 5,000 words to get to the next 5,000 words. The workshop should contain enough generosity and graciousness to instill the confidence necessary to attack the next piece. The workshop should act as a kind of rallying point for our written explorations.
            Because all of us have to sit down at our desks and stare at our little virtual heartbeats and attempt to unclog the words bottlenecked in the narrow space between our souls and brains. And we will continue to pound the keys in a desperate hope that we will be transported into the place where the keys fall by themselves. It is in this world that the words unravel in perfect, unexpected threads.

Donovan Ortega is a second year MFA who, despite not having health insurance, is pretty sure everything is going to be OK. He is currently training to be a professional swimmer (he can do forty laps in a small, community pool) and plans to represent the United States of America in Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics. He is brushing up on his Japanese by watching Mushi-Shi, a contemplative Manga series adapted for television. He has yet to stay awake for an entire episode.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Deep Freeze

About a year ago, the then-editor-in-chief of FAU’s student publication, the University Press, switched formats from a tabloid to a glossy magazine. As the adviser to the publication, I was only too happy to help in the endeavor, as literary journalism is what I love and what I’m best at, and the new format signaled a focus on narrative writing. So, last summer when the switch was made, I held a workshop on the subject for the reporters at the paper. Wanting to keep it simple, I narrowed my advice down to three main points: Good transitions, interview techniques, and when to write. 

On good transitions, my main point was that the average reader is looking for any excuse to put down your story. It’s up to you to force the reader to read on. Your words are competing for their attention with every TV show, video game, or other distraction available, and here in the 21st century, those distractions are more varied and numerous than at any other point in human history. Each paragraph should end with a reason for readers to keep reading. Each paragraph should start with a reward for their having done so. Transitions are key.

On interview techniques, I sort of broke the rules of narrative journalism, but only because of the time crunch we have at a weekly newspaper. Long-form writers for big, feature-friendly magazines such as Esquire or Vanity Fair spend months with their subjects. We did not have that sort of time. But as a stopgap, I encouraged the students to meet with their subjects at least three times, and only one of those should be a true, sit-down interview. In the other two, the reporter should just be a fly on the wall and watch the subject in situations in which he/she is most comfortable. Maybe hang out with the subject and his or her friends, take a look around the place where they live, and so on. Get some color.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I told them this: Never, ever write cold. Some people would argue this point. Take a night to sleep on it after conducting an interview, they’ll say. Get some distance between you and the subject. But these people – or at the very least, these handy straw men I’ve just created – are wrong. Before I came to FAU, I wrote a music column for a local alternative weekly publication. Most of the time, the majority of the column was written at the very event I was covering. As soon as a concert started, or even before, I had already taken down a bunch of notes on the scene. Once the music played, I essentially wrote a journal of what was happening around me. With a judicious amount of rewriting, those notes became the column 95 percent of the time. If you “sleep on it,” you will forget things. Wonderful bits of color will creep out of your mind and into your dreams before being lost forever. You’ll forget about the time your subject flinched as you mentioned a name, or the smell of a place as you entered. Never write cold.

And yet, here I am in Nonfiction Workshop, not just breaking this rule but shattering it. For my first piece in the workshop, I’m trying something a little more humorous, but my second piece will be a first-person account of a rather dark moment from my undergrad years. Only problem with that is that I graduated in 2000. Trying to step back in time more than a decade is a difficult problem, one that I’m attempting to surmount by talking to old friends, getting their recollections, and trying to piece together a fuller narrative from these jigsaw pieces. Couple those recollections with some newspaper accounts from the time, and hopefully, I’ll arrive at something like the truth. Rules are made to be broken, so I guess I don’t have too many reservations about writing not just cold, but in a deep freeze. Still, the story would have been more colorful and easier to write if I had just gotten something on paper when the events occurred.

Turning my notes directly into my articles when I was a columnist led me to also take copious notes about my personal life, but that journaling came too late to help me with the story I’m writing now. (And, to be perfectly frank, my journaling has fallen off as I’ve gotten busier. Tough to write about your day when your 3-year-old walks out of his bedroom demanding one more story or a glass of water.) So, please allow my story to serve as an example of what not to do. If you intend to write memoir, you’d better be taking notes.

Dan Sweeney is the staff adviser to Florida Atlantic University's student newspaper, The University Press, and an MFA student in the Creative Nonfiction program. Prior to coming to FAU, he worked for 11 years as an editor and columnist at alternative weekly newspapers in South Florida, and has freelanced for numerous national and regional publications.