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.

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