Monday, February 24, 2014

Sometimes an Experimental Notion

The following quotation is from the New York Times Sunday Book Review about a collection of stories titled, “Summer Lies,” by Bernhard Schlink. The reviewer, Lisa Zeidner, observes that “stories filled with observations of background details like the weather or birdsong can easily become dull — or, conversely, poetically overwrought.” However, this particular author of this particular book “avoids both pitfalls, and absorbs us with the blow-by-blows of his characters’ reactions, even when the plot is adamantly short on life-changing events.” This is how normative fiction is parsed, then. What does this quote say to you? Look at the worry and bother over a plot that leaves much to be desired because there are no life changing events. And the lack of life changing events aren’t saved by the other details provided that apparently batter up a bore, dilly-dally in a dullness, or are too elaborately and overly poetic. But, (always there’s a but), this particular author, in this particular piece of writing, saves himself by providing “blow by-blows of his characters’ reactions,” and to someone, somewhere, that was sufficient. (Or to be fair: to enough people, in many places, that was plenty). This is just to say that someone will lay any number of claims against your plot or your characters or your style or your phraseology or any number of things that we have been fixedly looking for in works of art ‘since the beginning of time’ (to quote a student’s essay).
And if someone will forever be displeased with one or all of the aspects that make up a piece of literature, (or fiction, if you’d rather use that referential in this case), then why in the world would you bother to cater to everyone? (Or more extremely, anyone?) Maybe that is a silly question, a rudimentary notion. Allow me to backpedal from that statement somewhat: Why not then, if people will forever be displeased, forget about the whole lot of ‘em and start writing (I guess in the modernists’ vein) to forever try to make it new (whatever that ‘new’ means to you)?
Why can’t a story be constructed entirely of “observations of background details like the weather or birdsong?” Couldn’t that present the possibility to make up a sort of narrative itself? Or instead of the “life changing events,” why not worry over language?
Language changing events—sentences, each, an event in itself where you can let phrases turn and unfold anew, follow the bricked yellow syntactical road at times, and see what pens the page. Take the sentence to a different place. (Ugh, pardon that). Vary sentence lengths, drop pronouns, add qualifiers to the point that an entire sentence, in fact, quite possibly, in all reality, may well, frightfully enough, or delightfully, be constructed of just that. It may come off as gibberish—especially if being read aloud. This is an inherent risk of fleeing, falling or flying from the nest of the normative. Writing is, or should be, a form of risk taking. Why continue scratching out the same grammatically correct sentence in the same neatly structured narrative? Why let words be absorbed into the background? Without the words, surely, all that’s left is __________.
But I’d like to think, or at least fool myself into thinking, that there can be more to an experimental piece that does bind it, enough so that it may even meet with Lisa Zeidner’s approval. One must needle the thread and weave some repetition throughout a piece so that there is something that leaves the reader, one who regularly chooses normative fiction over experimental fiction, less strung out. Give them a dose. Sedate the patient. A story most certainly can be found out in an experimental piece, if one were to look closely enough (if the writer executes the breadcrumb trail aptly). What is absented? What, then, is gained—beyond some selfish desire to scribble in such a way? For me, it seems the more natural approach to applying art to the world, or the world to art, especially that of language and thoughts happening at real time. But be prepared, however, for here teeters the edge of abstraction, and perhaps some vagabond vagaries found in your writing will be the only observables to the reader out there, the audience, so called. Jeanette Winterson, as she discusses patrons observing paintings, writes:
When you say ‘This work has nothing to do with me’. When you say ‘This work is boring/pointless/silly/obscure/elitist etc’, you may be right, because you are looking at a fad, or you might be wrong because the work falls so outside of the safety of your own experience that in order to keep your own world intact, you must deny the other world of the painting. This denial of imaginative experience happens at a deeper level than our affirmation of our daily world. Every day, in countless ways, you and I convince ourselves about ourselves. True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are. (Art Objects)
I like to think that we all want to be challenged, and not only does the presentation of experimental fiction challenge a reader to ‘figure it out,’ but it also calls into question the reason why there needs to be so much figuring in the first place. The same applies to writing, or attempting to write, experimental pieces. They challenge us to be unconvinced, and to provide some sort of object that is worth something, anything, in this world that is crowded by words and by screens and by war and by all of the rest of the etcetera, and perfectly plotted tales that do not exist in any world I’ve taken part in (including those presented in my colorful dreams). When Gertrude Stein arrived back in the States in 1934 for a lecture tour, she was met by a group of journalists and after “she went on to answer their questions lucidly and in good humor,” one of the journalists asked, “Why don’t you write the way you talk?” to which Stein replied, “Why don’t you read the way I write?”

Matthew Parker is a human being who attempts to write writing. He believes that being enrolled in a writing program such as FAU's MFA program helps coin the cup of that cause. As for the future, he suggests counting cards.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Write Like a... Just Write Something

Check out any writer’s thoughts on writing, and you’ll read of procrastination, of blinking cursors and glaring white space, of hours spent composing what amounts to, essentially, birdcage lining. When I left my job to become a full-time student/teacher/writer, I knew I’d be dealing with all of those things, not only because I’d been warned, but also because I’d met me before.
In college, one of my favorite AIM away messages was, “Risa Polansky: Procrastinating since 1983.” (I was born in 1983. It’s funny because babies can’t procrastinate.) My routine, which I have come to understand is not as unique or quirky as I used to like to think, has always been this: wake up early on what I have designated in advance – and therefore left any and all work undone until – a “Productive Day.” Sit at computer only to be confronted by the indisputable realization that I just cannot work in this mess! Neaten my area.
In high school, “my area” was my bedroom in my parents’ house, and, oh yeah, Mom said I had to clean out old clothes to give to charity before I’m allowed to get any new clothes, so now is probably the best time to start. (I always put those less fortunate ahead of writing projects I’m dreading – I can’t help it, my heart’s just so big.)
In college, “my area” was my half of a bedroom in a sorority house. On writing days, one of my forty-six roommates would inevitably be on her way to the store, and I didn’t have a car, so it was only logical that I seize the opportunity and tag along. Grocery shopping is, after all, productive. Especially when you’re out of Swedish Fish.
Post-college, “my area” was my studio apartment in South Beach, which was approximately one-third as nice as my half-bedroom in the sorority house. Because my writing space was also my bedroom and my living room and my kitchen, “neatening my area” could take all day. All weekend, even.
When I left my desk job last year, our guestroom became “my area,” and I knew if I wanted to get anything written in there, I’d need some inspiration. Off to Etsy I went in search of a framed print that would get my creative juices flowing. I’d hoped to find one featuring Cheryl Strayed’s “Write Like a Motherfucker,” but I didn’t, and also my husband said I couldn’t hang anything in the house with the word “fucker” in it. Eventually I settled on a Picasso: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” The thing was, I didn’t have time to wait for it to be printed and shipped – I had writing to write! – and also it didn’t match my desk’s aesthetic.
So here I sit, looking at my do-it-yourself print (don’t worry, I made sure to decoupage the matting). It took hours to make, took weeks to get it and my room and my act together, and, spoiler alert, Pablo’s words of wisdom don’t always do the trick. His quote is to my right, but so is the window, and outside the window is the pool. To my left is the laundry room, and wouldn’t it be nice to have freshly washed clothes. And wouldn’t it be nice to watch Netflix while I fold! And the napping. And the Facebooking. And the napping.
You get it, not just because I’ve beaten you over the head with it, but because you’ve been there. Maybe you’re there right now. In which case, I’ll leave you alone, and I’ll leave you with this: this morning I sat down at my computer. I checked my personal email, perused a blog (or forty-five), blacked out, came to, and found myself in bed reading Sloane Crosley. But when I finished, I sat back down and I wrote this. It’s not going to win any awards, but it’s a series of letters on a page that could lead to more letters on more pages, and you know what they say: the journey to a thousand Pulitzers begins with a single word. So write one (or forty-five) today! I plan to keep going, too. I just need to run out and get a frame for that Pulitzer saying real quick.

Risa Polansky Shiman is one thesis away from an MFA. She and Chipotle will celebrate their fifteenth anniversary next year.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why Students Are Like Ex-Boyfriends

1.     They always want to talk late at night- 1 AM emails: “I know its late but my paper is 2 page under and i just really can’t think of anythin else to talk bout Can you help me????”
2.    They sometimes show up to your important events drunk- If a student randomly starts putting song lyrics into a paper where the grammar has been getting progressively worse, check to see if your due date corresponded with a “foam party.”
3.    They’re never the same when they’re with their friends- they might know the distinction between “gender identity” and “sex” in class, but you’ll be lucky to get a nod out of them on the breezeway.
4.    You may at some point have to deal with their mothers- though to be fair, I’ve never had a student’s mom call me a slut.
5.    They would always rather stay with you then move on- Even the ones who don’t like you want to know which section of 1102 you teach.
6.    They really just need one more chance- They swear that this time will be different.  This time they will treat you the way you deserve.  All their papers will be done early.
7.    Do not give them one more chance.
8.    It is always better to give them a line than to get emotional with them- “Sorry, I just plug the grades in, I can’t really change them.” “It’s not fair to the people who put the work in all semester.”
9.    It’s always uncomfortable to run into them afterwards- Stay composed, smile, say hi, and keep on walking.
10.    When things aren’t going well with their new partners, they will want to talk to you-- These aren’t school-wide office hours where I get paid as long as I’m helping a student.

No movie they show on Oxygen prepares a person for the emotional rigors of being a teacher. While “Freedom Writers” and “The Ron Clark Story” do cover how one becomes attached to them, freshmen are rarely so invested in happy endings. So when one of those kids goes and emails your boss or “co-writes” a paper with a friend or accuses you of being a bad teacher when you won’t change a grade, it stings. 

Perhaps even more unsettling is the fact that every teacher thinks that education and good grades are important.  We’ve devoted years of our lives to this ideal.  We lose sleep and read books and write paper after paper in pursuit of it.  So now we’ve got 44 kids we want to inspire to do well, to take learning seriously; but we have absolutely zero control over their actions. We can’t follow them home and we can’t do the work for them. Nevermind that these students are 18 years old.  They might have fully developed prefrontal cortexes but they won’t figure out how to use them for at least three more years.  They aren’t saints and you can’t be Sister Mary Clarence all the time either.

Learning to teach is like “The Great Debaters” in that the story always ends better than it began.  Confidence comes with practice, and the boundaries of their mistakes, your mistakes, and the payroll department’s mistakes start to become clearer.

Over my first semester it was the people who said things akin to, “how is teaching going?” who kept me sane.  The question made me realize that even though I was tremendously grateful to be in the program, even though I knew I’d taken the place of some other young hopeful, I wasn’t supposed to just automatically be a good teacher.  I was even allowed to have feelings about it.  That simple liberty did a lot for my mental stability.  Thanks to the people who patiently listened to me rant and worry while I was still figuring out the line between being Oh Captain and Miss Trunchbull.  And looking back on my first semester of teaching, I am reminded that, for better or worse, they always remember their first.

Maddy Miller has a full first name, but she would prefer if you didn't know it.  She got her BA from the University of Utah, swears in her sleep, can fence a little, and her first kiss belongs to a frog.  She believes her amphibious choice was probably better than most.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Jumping out of Planes

Sitting on the edge of the mini plane is reminiscent of sitting in front of my laptop.  The luminescent monitor that glows blue and white in front of me is very much like a sea of sky awaiting my entrance, my plummet.  It is terrifying.  I want to jump, I want to write, but I fear the fall, the plunge, the loss of control.

All the people who say “I would never do that” remind me of all the people who respond with “I could never do that” when I’m tell them I’m a writer. I’m not saying all writers should skydive, or that all skydivers should write about their experiences, but a lot of writers are a little insane, and many insane people would jump out of planes.

I begin my dive.  The earth is a grid below me.  An 8 ½ x 11 inch piece of paper with an MLA heading and a title with a perfect colon at its center.  The ground is the goal of the graduate student, of the English enthusiast, of the writer.  The clouds become paragraphs, seemingly heavy and filled with molecules and weather, but they simply float, easeful on the page.  I fall through them and my adrenaline builds, my ideas soar.

I find that there is no loss of control.  The fall puts me into the “zone” and it is a controlled fall.  My body scrolls through the air, gliding and picking up speed.  The energy of flying is indescribable. 

The biggest risk is whether or not my parachute will open and catch me, cradle me, rocking me gently back down to land.  Instead of lingering on this matter, I keep my body light, I practice my craft, and I pull the cord.

When I'm falling, zoning, creating, I can’t be sure what to call it, what genre bucket to toss it into, what feedback to look for when fishing for critique.   All I can think about is the moment; the way the white space gets filled, the way I hug my knees to my chest in preparation for the descent, and how good it feels to press enter.

When I undo my safety apparatus, I am set free from the deadlines, the heavy reading load, the pursuit of my voice, because in searching for all these things, in accomplishing a death-defying feat of flight, I have seen how small the pages really are from up above, each plot of land resembling chapbooks and novellas, and I know that while my time is valuable, my work is what’s important.

As writers, we all end up jumping.  The university becomes a great skydiving school teaching us all how to fly, fall, leap, and land on our feet in metaphorical Elysian fields filling them up with our stories.

Brittany Ackerman is a second year MFA in creative non-fiction.  She believes in magic and wants her life to be a Disney movie.  Her work has been featured in 3Elements Review and One Image, One Hundred Voices.  She would also like to thank all the haters, because as stated in Hustler’s Ambition in the words of 50 Cent, “I need you to hate so I can use you for your energy.”