Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Exit Survey

The following is a (mostly) verbatim transcription of my response to a question on the “Exit Survey for the Department of English MFA Program,” which is sent to graduate students upon completion of their degrees. At the time of its writing, I mistakenly believed that this was an anonymous survey, despite the fact that the first page of this form explicitly asked for my name, mailing address, phone number, permanent email address, and the identities of my committee members. I tell you this not to flaunt my ignorance nor to prove the limitations of my feeble memory, but to testify to my honest intentions and good will when generating this response; for, as the ever-quotable Oscar Wilde once opined, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."

This post is for you, future MFA’s.

From the section entitled, “As an Alum”:

3) What advice would you give to a student entering the MFA Program?

·         Get familiar with Duotrope, and other platforms that help to introduce you to the wide array of publications that exist. The publishing world is too difficult to navigate alone, and those that publish (even small things in even smaller publications) are happier with their time in the program.

·         Read Khristian Mecom’s post (on the MFA blog) about publishing.

·         Host your own private readings and writing exchanges, a la the esteemed Coastlines Editor-in-Chief (’13-’14) Ben Parham.

·         If you are afraid of teaching and large crowds, or overwhelmed by the prospect of taking on the added work of a GTA-ship in your first semester, then apply to work at the University Center for Excellence in Writing. It will gently expose you to the teaching and tutoring experience, as well as acquaint you with a selection of writing assignments and prompts that may encourage you to teach your own class in the future.

·         If the GTA experience is taking away too much from your writing, or contributing to poor health, do not be afraid to take a year off and work elsewhere (another department, another field), especially if your ultimate goal is not to teach. My decision not to teach was a difficult one, but it was directly responsible for the greatest breakthroughs in my writing. 

·         Alternatively, even if you are positive that you do not want to teach, I’d recommend stepping out of your comfort zone and trying it out for a year.

·         Some of the biggest literary influences on my writing came from the books, philosophies, and principles I encountered in my Lit classes. Do not underestimate the value of the Lit classes, and do not grumble about taking them. Remember: most, if not all, of the best authors were literary critics, philosophers, philologists, and/or delighted in speaking intelligently about the works of others. 

·         Be sure to take classes that will push you as both a creative and academic writer, and do not be so certain that there is a distinct difference between the two. Think critically about what you can use from your Lit classes in your poems, stories, or essays, and do not be afraid to emulate the canonical (and, oftentimes, outdated) writers that you read.

·         Experiment, experiment, experiment. Use the workshop as an opportunity to experiment with voice, structure, genre, and tone, and not just to strut your stuff. This approach will not only take pressure off of you, but it will inspire your peers to take greater risks.

·         Be a kind but honest workshop peer. Workshops are based on a gift-giving economy. You’ll get what you give. Usually.

·         Becka McKay once said, “Your writing has a job to do.” If you aren’t actively working on it, then send it out for publication. Make a game out of rejection. But don’t let all of those files on your computer just sit there, doing nothing.

·         Don’t be afraid to be sentimental. Forget (or, at least challenge) the writing rules that you learned as a high school student and as an undergrad. There are no absolutes in writing. Even clichés can be used well. Just write what delights (or devastates) you.

·         In my opinion, the only thing you want to avoid is writing a piece that sounds like it was written solely for the workshop.

Mikaela von Kursell is an MFA candidate specializing in Fiction. She will officially receive a much-anticipated, though undoubtedly fake, copy of her diploma when she attends her graduation ceremony on Friday, May 2, 2014 . Her thesis, “The Animalcules of Adam: & Other Small Tales,” is a genre-bending short story collection which explores the lives of important historical figures such as Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, the purported father of microbiology, and Robert Cawdrey, the compiler of the first English dictionary. She lives in South Florida with her blind and deaf Cocker Spaniel, Lady, the noblest little animalcule she knows.

Monday, April 21, 2014

What is the Truth of the Matter?

Taped to the refrigerator in my grandmother’s kitchen there is a piece of paper marked with a question:
                                                “What is the truth of the matter?”

I don’t remember not writing, and that’s the problem. My mother—as mothers often do—has given me, over time, historically ambiguous documents revealing that at some point I was a child with a pen and paper and almost illegible handwriting who composed disturbingly dark poetry to appear on lilac-colored construction paper:

     The flawr (sic)
     Ugly and dead
     Faints and rots
     Surftly (sic?) death

I was young then, but I wasn’t wrong. The flower would in fact die (in a surftly way perhaps? Or maybe I meant “surely”—surely death. That sounds right) and rot, and dead flowers are ugly. So perhaps this poem was not a foreshadowing of my maudlin pre-teen prose and soon-to-be angsty adolescence, but just…well…the truth.

 I—and maybe all writers—have a perverse relationship with the idea of truth. As a card-carrying “nonfiction” writer, the truth is something I’m always looking for…but for the other part of me, (the closeted fiction writer who stomps her feet asking when it’s her turn to get a fancy college degree) it is something I’m constantly trying to hide. But the reality is that all writing, regardless of genre, comes from somewhere familiar. Somewhere we have known, deeply and intimately, to the point where we could navigate every inch of it without map or compass, or trace the lines of its silhouette in the darkness.

The only piece of writing advice I would ever give anyone is “write what you know,” because how can you expect to create something that feels real if it’s built on a lie? Listen, I get it. “Fiction” isn’t supposed to be real—but that novel you’ve been working on for god knows how long (you know, the one you write ideas for on cocktail napkins and pocket-sized notebooks?) is just a mess of words on a page if it didn’t come from somewhere real. Somewhere you lingered longer than you should have, where you drank too much or said too little. Somewhere that changed you, or broke you. Somewhere you regret leaving before you knew why you were there in the first place. Somewhere something happened, or someone happened; the first place you fell in love or the last place you said goodbye, before driving or walking or running in the other direction to somewhere new where the whole things starts all over. This amalgamation of somewheres is the framework—the bare bones—of anything worth reading. Do you really think when Thomas Wolfe opened Look Homeward, Angel with “a stone, a leaf; an unfound door. And all of the forgotten faces…” that he didn’t know exactly which faces he was forgetting?  Those were bones, easily covered by the fabricated, malleable tissue of the narrative, smoothed over by each characters’ skin to look whatever way the writer wants them to, different each time. But it is the skeleton that holds the story up, and what endures long after the body rots away. The bones are preserved, like artifacts in a museum—the fragile remains of a reality all too familiar. They are what remind us that everything that happens—every stone and leaf and unfound door—has happened before, but is reborn differently each time…a repackaged retelling of what it means to be human.

And that is the truth of the matter.


Nico Cassanetti graduated from The New School in New York City with a degree in creative writing, and is currently pursuing an MFA in the same. After a brief stint in book publishing at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and ABRAMS books, she remembered that she wanted to be a writer. She has written for Muses & Visionaries Magazine,, and reviewed great literary works on index cards for her staff picks while working at Bookcourt, an independent bookstore in Brooklyn. She currently lives in South Florida (reluctantly).

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Writing Lessons from a Georgia Belle

Tayari Jones whirled into Florida with a fashionable shawl and the mystique of a Georgia belle. Invited by the faculty at the FAU MFA program, she stayed for a week-long session and a reading as the Lawrence Sanders Writer in Residence. She taught for two hours a day in a weeklong class on revision, and so 12 students entered with 12 pieces left for dead in hopes of gleaming and resurrecting something with the assistance of a growing iconic writer of the urban landscape.

Tayari came each day with suggestions from her own honed experience to help us try and salvage what we felt was lost. In the end, the revision she taught was not the editing of syntax or diction that sprouts, gleaming, in focused workshops searching for helpful suggestions. It was her own way of writing that she brought to the table, her emphasis on the life of the character and the importance of placing that at the forefront—before the process of editing begins.

As students, we’ve been honed and hardened to follow the ritualistic workshop since the day we entered. The line-by-line follows the first-read and then the close-read or two to cement your opinions regarding the authors’ intentions and their achievements in the story. This is a symptom of workshops that has been mentioned regularly in different classes since I started at FAU. The chance to workshop with a different set of rules broke a sort of stagnation in the stories. In some cases it was enough to resurrect the pieces. 

There’s also the possibility that the stagnation did not exist and that Tayari simply made the room shine. As the spring semester comes closer to an end I feel that this may be the more likely case. It’s a very different experience to have someone who has found, through failure and success, a place of personal stability that has led to a glowing happiness. There’s something more than editing that happened in that workshop.

Some students knew the writing of others, but we were not all familiar with each other’s styles and habits. Tayari made it a point to practice ‘pointing’ and give each of us the opportunity to be felt and enjoyed by our peers. This is a powerful exercise, but it really only worked when we took the time to look back at what was repeated back to us—our own words echoed with affection—and looked into those words to try and uncover what they held that had captured the admiration of strangers.

As spring comes to an end in Florida and the crocuses bud in Idaho and everyone looks forward to what is to come, there’s something to take and something to give back; it’s important to carry something with you as inevitability looms in the distance. For me, I carry the importance of anatomy, writing is hard work and it took doctor’s millennia to move from the humors of the body to what we know now. We inherit the work of the past and it is important to give homage to that by taking in lessons given from the wisdom of others. It is also important to note who is around you, who we are, and that the people who read this are those that also believe that somewhere within a sentence and a paragraph is something that is waiting to blossom. So it goes in spring. So it goes forever.

Jason Stephens graduated from Boise state in 2011. He joined the MFA program here at Florida Atlantic in the Spring of 2014. He is the son of Jim and Joan, brother of Jenn, Josiah, and Justin, uncle of Hunter, Wyatt, James, Alex, and Scarlett. He rarely misses appointments, regularly exercises, and travels whenever possible.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Revision & Tayari Jones

It was an honor and a pleasure to have been involved with this year’s writer in residence, Tayari Jones. Aside from any reading or writing tips, techniques and etcetera that come along with creative writers and creative writing workshops, Tayari was a delight to be around. Her passion for her craft was (is) electric, and I both saw and felt the buzz and hum pass right around—first the classroom, and then the room where she gave her reading. If I wasn’t disgusted by the use of the word I’d call it palpable.  
Tayari’s focus in our week of workshop was revision. Revision is a funny thing…in that it can let you know that you haven’t come near to completing a piece in the first place, or that you haven’t found your way to the starting line (let alone tied your shoe laces yet). “Reading a story is a spectator sport,” Tayari said, “and you need to get the reader involved.” The reader needs to be there, bleachered, but not sitting—they need to be on their feet, dressed in the appropriate colors, hands cupped around their mouths shouting viciously at the opposing players and chanting with passion for the home team. But first, indeed, they need to know who (or what) to root for before the score even matters…before the dwindling time on the clock brings nervous nails to teeth. One of the first things one must do in revision, then, is make sure a position is posited at the beginning…that a place is staked out where the reader can ground themselves and ready for the oncoming tide, right from the start. Otherwise, they will slowly shuffle to the exits, confused as to why they took those tickets from their friends and made their way to the arena in the first place…heading out early in order to beat the traffic. This seems like such an obvious aspect of one’s story to focus on—the beginning—but surprisingly, it appears to go overlooked more often than one would expect.  
I was tickled pink to listen to a few of my peers’ stories that I had read (and remembered) in past workshops undergoing the revision process as we worked with Tayari, to hear their labor of revision paying off…to see that it is a workable process, one that we seldom focus on in the workshop. This was a prideful feeling. A ‘hey-I-remember-that-story-and-the-scrutiny-that-it-underwent-and-now-it-seems-you-have-your-finger-on-the-pulse-of-it…you’ve-really-got-it-going-now-no-doubt-you’ll-finish-that-story-and-it-will-be-great-you-are-really-great-this-workshop-week-has-been-really-great’ sort of feeling. I was happy to be a part of it.
The MFA program constructs a community, pours the foundation of the buildings and erects the edifices of a group of friends—readers and writers—that one hopes (right?) to count on in the future MFA-less world where a penny shines a bit brighter (unless the lotto is won), to find readers of what’s lately been writ. I am glad to be a part of this at FAU, and I think that offering a chance at sharing such a community with a visiting writer/professor who deals in words, and trades in commereced stories and books—a writer/professor who is only here for a fleeting moment…much more fleeting than the MFA career—allows for an extremely focused set of guidelines, with even less time to waste. It allows for the development of a simultaneously distant and proximate relationship, rushed no doubt by time constraints, that forces the student to take note, to note take; it betters the workshop and bunkers the community. Though I would not trade the professors I have been lucky enough to work with and learn from for any other in the ‘field,’ the experience of encountering a decorated and knowledgeable passerby of the same sport, with words, wisdom and insight all her own, is a priceless one, if you are so lucky to be afforded it. 

Matthew Parker is a human being. This is an enormous pressure and takes continual diligence upon waking to keep it so. There are too many wires and chords and outletted plugs, and far too many screens to caress to get anything done. In the lulls between the contemplation of these anxieties he tries to write writing. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Revising With Tayari Jones: Editing the Soul

     The first things I noticed about Tayari Jones (after sitting down in the lobby of the Embassy Suites, fiddling with my hands and wondering if I was in the best seat possible to see her when she walked in) were her eyes. I don't mean her beauty, but her alertness, her focus, her ever-present I-have-an-answer-to-that look, her continual observing and evaluating of the world around her, a quality that's so necessary to posses in order to be a good writer.
     This is something that I, personally, had almost forgotten. I had recently covered the clear-glass globe of my world with sticky-notes of To-Do Lists that never seemed to get done. I had bogged myself down in the failures of the semi-finished (books to be read, family to call, student papers to grade, stories to edit) and these lists were obstructing my writerly view of the world, along with my own creativity.
     When I drove Tayari to FAU for the first time, I wasn't expecting any gems of wisdom (I was more so concerned with what notch the A/C should be on) and I didn't know I was receiving them until after the workshop entirely. In the car, she told me about how she wakes up around 5am (ouch!) and journals, writing letters to certain people, and prayers for others who likely won't ever see them. This last bit I took as her focusing on her personal, emotional, and mental health. It was extremely refreshing to spend the week with a person and writer who so openly spoke about all aspects of her life, even the centering bits that happen in between the moon and the sun, over a morning cup of coffee.
     This alertness and self-caring warmth was echoed in the first exercise we did in the workshop itself: pointing. It’s my new favorite thing. She gave credit to the person who first initiated this technique, but I was too excited to record it. Tayari would pick three or four people and have them each take turns reading a new chunk of prose they had written. While they’re reading, the rest of the class records phrases or images that struck them, so that they can point them out to the writer. We then go around the room, briefly stating what we liked best about the piece. This seems like a very sugary sweet exercise where writers are merely massaging others’ egos (she did mention, repeatedly, that it was like a nice massage; “Get your massage oils out.”) but here are three practical reasons why I think this exercise is great:

1. Its obvious confidence-boosting qualities can help a writer feel good about what she’s working on, giving her energy to revise it.

2. Since we’re writing awesome phrases down, it reminds us that writing is about the words—the infinite ways there are to string juicy thoughts together! Isn’t that why we got into this in the first place?

3. It pushes us to get more creative and sexy with our language, to try harder. (What if you everything you wrote was to be read during a pointing session?)

     Tayari also pushed us to re-work our pieces by imagining them as endless stories in order to make the choice of where they begin and end, on the page, a significant one. She taught us how to educate ourselves on our minor characters by giving them monologues that will likely never make it into the story, and she taught us if you’re writing based off of a real personal struggle you’ve faced, “If it doesn’t make you cry, then you’re not doing it right.” She reminded us to push ourselves to be unique with such phrases as, “Stop it, that’s generic,” and “Be you as hard as you can.”
     Her workshop was a jolt to my writerly soul, and I’m so grateful to the people in our Creative Writing program who worked to get her here (and those whose workshops push and inspire me every week!), to the Sanders Foundation for funding these opportunities, and to Tayari, for riding with me to FAU that afternoon, in my little hatchback, A/C blasting.

Kim is about to complete her first year in the Fiction MFA program, and is ready to flex her reading and writing muscles in the summer sun. Send her summer reading recommendations at