Monday, September 29, 2014

How My MFA Helped Prepare Me to be a Writer

                Back when I was an MFA student at FAU, people outside of my school circles would often express concern and confusion about what I was actually doing in grad school.
                “You’re going to school to be a writer?” They’d ask, “So, why do you need a degree for that? Can’t you just, like, write?”
                I’d explain to them that yeah, I could just write, but that writing was an art, a serious discipline, and that I planned on having an actual career doing it and that my time in grad school was preparing me for that. So many people questioned my choice, however, that I’d sometimes have second thoughts too. I never doubted the fact that grad school was teaching me to be a better writer, but I did sometimes wonder if it truly was preparing me to enter the scary and intimidating world of professional authors. You know, the part of being a writer that’s more than just writing really cool stories.
                Five years out of the MFA program, I can now say that I finally have a definitive answer, and it’s positive. Yes, my MFA really did prepare me for a career as a professional writer, and it did so in a lot of unexpected ways.
                Most importantly, the MFA program instilled in me a sense that writing is a discipline. You have to sit your butt down and write and write a lot and you can’t continually start projects and leave them unfinished, which was a big problem I’d had before college. When you have an assignment due Tuesday night in class you can’t sit around and wait for the muse to magically inspire you. You have to bang it out and come up with an ending or at least an ending place, regardless of your feelings about it. Same goes for writing as a career. Professional writers have assignments due too and editors aren’t interested in your level of divine inspiration. They want you to produce quality writing on time. The MFA program taught me not to be a flake, and now when I have a job to do, I know I can get it done no matter what because I’m relying on skill, experience, structure and honestly, you could even call it willpower.
                Professional writers work with other people constantly: editors, agents, publishers, marketing departments and freelance clients. Most traditionally published writing is the result of a collaborative effort between many other people besides simply the writer, and writers need to be able to listen to someone else’s ideas (and yes, critiques) of their work. Guess what prepared me for this aspect of my writing career? Workshops! Group Projects!  I used to get really nervous before workshop because I never knew what my classmates and professors were going to say about my stories and poems, but after three years of workshopping I grew a thicker hide and learned that criticism of my writing wasn’t a criticism of me. This has helped me enormously in my real-world writing career. I don’t fall apart when an editor wants changes or if something I submitted gets rejected repeatedly. I’ve learned to listen to other people’s visions for my writing and to be open to new ideas.
                I recently began working with a literary agent, which was an exciting but also kind of scary new prospect.  Suddenly, much more was required of me. I was working on timelines, submission packages, proposals, synopses. I was taking notes, researching new topics. I was even asked to discuss (in detail) the work of other authors. I have new assignments almost every night, and at one point I casually remarked that it was like being in grad school all over again (which I totally meant as a good thing because my MFA years were the best time of my life, for real). Then I realized, wow, it was exactly like being in school again because I wasn’t being asked to do a single thing I hadn’t already done at FAU many times before. This was a pretty big revelation for me. My MFA really had prepared me for the life of a professional writer and because of that I’m confident and secure and ready to kick butt in the publishing world with the best of them.

Victoria Fedden graduated from the MFA program in 2009. She is a stay at home mom living in Fort Lauderdale and is the author of the memoirs Amateur Night at the Bubblegum Kittikat and Sun Shower: Magic, Forgiveness and How I Learned to Bloom Where I Was Planted. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, the Sun Sentinel, Real Simple, Chicken Soup for the Soul and the recent anthology My Other Ex: Women's True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Time to Publish

After graduation, I finally did the thing tons of people told me to do: I made a schedule. I realized very quickly I had no time and that I had to make time to write happen. But time to write wasn’t enough. If I wanted to be a writer for real, I needed to make time to publish as well.

I’ve been familiar with the act of publishing work for a long time, and submitted work both before and during my time as an MFA student. I had a lot of success, too, but that success was directly proportional to the amount I actually wrote. Workshops demanded that I write a few pieces a year. That might sound like a lot, but I promise it wasn’t for me, the self-appointed Master of White Space.

After time to write happened, though, I had a pile of unpublished work and no idea what to do with it all. Things got revised and reordered and turned into actual books, but those books were still full of unpublished writing. I counted it all up at the end and there were about 100 polished, publishable pieces, which is the equivalent of one heart attack.

So I solved the problem the way I solve everything—I dove in headfirst with no regard for how it would affect the delicate balance of my already scheduled life by sending out tons of submissions at once to wherever I could think of while I watched the sun set and rise again the next day. It’s important to note here that I have a number of professional responsibilities in addition to writing (see bio below). Needless to say, commitment to those responsibilities suffered because of this approach. I even stopped writing altogether.  

To fix this for real, I returned to that schedule and spent a lot of time figuring out how to squeeze in one last thing. As it turns out, making time to submit one piece of writing each day really works for me. Now I definitely publish more frequently, but something more unexpected happened. I was learning more about places to actually send work, and was able to make suggestions to other writers about what places might be a good fit for them to submit to depending on what they were writing.

Submitting work successfully isn’t haphazardly slapping new information on the same thing over and over; you really need to get to know each market you’re submitting to by reading the stuff inside it. Because all of that daily research was piling up in my notes, I created a website called Time to Publish to not only remind me that submitting work is an important part of my daily routine, but also to keep track of my research in a way that can benefit everyone that cares to look. I’ve met more writers and editors doing this than I can count, which has been amazingly motivating. Hopefully you’ll find a literary journal or independent press featured on the site that will inspire you to submit something as well.


Nicole Oquendo is the Nonfiction Editor of the annual anthology Best of the Net, as well as an Assistant Editor for Sundress Publications and Flaming Giblet Press, and the Managing Editor of The Florida Review. She has sent out 331 submissions in 2014, which has led to 145 rejections and 22 acceptances so far this year, including publications forthcoming or in CutBank, Sundog Lit, and Gulf Stream. Her chapbook some prophets is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press (2015), and her chapbook self is wolf is forthcoming from dancing girl press (2015). You’ll find her posting about a few literary markets each week at

Monday, September 15, 2014

Teaching English Composition

My first experience with teaching happened while I was driving down Alligator Alley late one afternoon. I was giving a very detailed lecture on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, rewording scholar Stephen Price’s Marxist angle on the commentary track to my highly enthralled (oh, and completely imaginary) class of Film Appreciation students. I was trapped in the fantasy caused by a long, lonely drive down a long, boring road, but the passion was real. Real enough for me to mime my points of interest in grand hand gestures that earned looks from every passing minivan. Real enough for to miss my exit. And real enough for it to take me twenty minutes to notice. Some part of me (perhaps the not quite sane part) wanted to teach or, at least, saw myself being able to.  
During my first term as a MFA student at Florida Atlantic University I was surprised at just how many of my fellow classmates were a part of the Graduate Teaching Assistantship (GTA) program. My vision was too tunneled during my undergraduate studies. I was so focused on getting into the MFA program that I was blindsided  upon learning there were other options and possibilities available. You mean I could teach? No way. What would I teach? Oh, English Composition. How is it? Is it really work intensive? Oh, so it’s not so bad? I get an office? Yeah, I understand it’s a shared office but whatever, still cool. Well, maybe, I don’t know, we’ll see, I’ll think about it…
After many conversations with teachers, students, advisors, friends, family, and random strangers whose opinion seemed important during my time of doubt, I decided to apply for a GTA position.
The road to the GTA was not as narrow and straight as Alligator Alley. I was informed late in the Spring of 2014 that I would not receive a GTA. I was disappointed. My delusions of grandeur reverted from Captain my Captain moments back to my old fail safe—my Academy Award Speech for winning best original screenplay.
Questions of self-worth arose. Am I good enough? Do I belong here? Should I leave? Whispers spoken though a cracked confidence.
I spent most of that summer prepping for the upcoming term. I masked the disappointment of a missed opportunity under piles of thesis revision and new work I would need in upcoming workshops.
An email from my program advisor in late July rejuvenated my enthusiasm for both the MFA program and the future I could make in it—I was offered a GTA position. I’m not going to state exactly how excited I was, but it was somewhere between drinking an entire bottle of whiskey and doing complete cartwheels around my neighborhood. Twice.
Initially, I was too excited to be scared. I printed out a copy of the GTA offer letter and drove to my mother’s house. She was a public school teacher for thirty-five years and an adjunct professor at Nova University. She likes to take credit for any ounce of creativity I may process, so I thought she’d enjoy more affirmation. After that, I drove to my employer to put in my resignation. Management was almost as happy for me as I was that I’d finally be able leave behind the insane hours (and equally insane people) of the restaurant business.
I was excited most for that. Never have I been able to focus solely on school. I’ve always had to balance work, studies, and writing, and I’ve worried each area has suffered due to the sacrifices my juggling act has required.  I knew teaching would replace those restaurant hours, but the thought of staying on campus, constantly surrounded by like-minded people doing like-minded things was inspiring.
But I’ve had doubts. I’m too aware of my weaknesses not to. I’m terrible at giving presentations, I often overlook my own textual errors, and sometimes I waver off point and talk about ideas not relevant to anything. Like fishing, for example: I’ve never caught a Redfish before. I really want to. But I won’t eat it. I don’t like fish. But I love steak. So, anyway, you can see why I was concerned. Would my weakness affect my ability to teach and mold the eager minds of my students?
Well, the process is ongoing. It is, after all, only the end of the first four weeks. But those doubts, those fears, the moments of feeling like maybe I’m a fraud are shared. My fellow incoming GTA’s echo my fears, imagined or otherwise. I know my moments of anxiety will be calmed during the next group therapy section, otherwise known as Colloquium. The support offered within the program, from Colloquium, ENC 6700 and the more experienced GTA’s who have willingly offered guidance throughout the process, has made the experience of learning to become a teacher both worthwhile and rewarding.
My students are great, and some days I feel like I’m doing it right, that everything will be okay. Sometimes not so much. In front of my class, my grand hand gestures can cause confused looks from my students, as if my class were filled with twenty-two minivans drivers turning to peer into my sedan. But I just keep driving, thrilled I missed the exit.

Aaron Avis is a MFA student in Creative Non Fiction at Florida Atlantic University. He is currently in his first year of the Graduate Teaching Assistant program offered by the University.

Monday, September 8, 2014


If I told you how many times I've tried to give up studying English, you probably wouldn't believe me. You'd think I hated it. Not true. It just took me a long time to dig up that passion from deep in my subconscious, and draw it out into the open. Accept it.

The first time I tried to quit, I convinced myself I wanted to grow up to be an interpreter for the European Union. I lived in England at the time. I found out the hard way that I hated speaking French in front of my class. So how could I possibly do that in front of complete strangers? And to make a living? That year, I was sixteen, and it was the year I fell into the arms of Raymond Chandler and Edgar Allan Poe. Our love affair lasted another twelve months or so before I convinced myself I couldn’t commit anymore.

A few years passed and I moved to Tampa, Florida, to earn my bachelor's degree. I started out as a French major. What was I thinking? I knew it wasn't going to work out when more of my schedule was spent fueling my Shakespeare obsession than, well, anything else. My interpreting career quickly fell to the wayside.

In early March of this year, I found myself holding an acceptance letter to the MFA program at Florida Atlantic University. Yes, it belonged to me. The shaky hands, those tears wearing holes in the folds of the page, those were mine too.

We’re now on week three of my first semester as a graduate student, and the MFA at FAU has far exceeded my expectations. I finally feel I am where I’m supposed to be. It helps that the program offers funding, so there’s no worrying about when and where my next meal will come from. Maybe I’m still eating Ramen noodles and microwaveable pots of macaroni cheese; maybe this is a personal choice.

The people I’m studying with actually care about what they’re doing. My instructors and mentors are masters of their craft. It’s refreshing. But the biggest change since moving into graduate studies is adjusting to a schedule split between the classes in which I’m a student, and those I am teaching. The opportunity was one I couldn’t refuse: three consecutive years of teaching English, gaining professional experience in the field, and escaping from waiting tables at run-down beachfront diners. When I’m not studying, I’m grading assignments and planning lessons for my forty-four unsuspecting undergrads. There I was, convinced I’d given up on English forever. I’d never be a teacher. And yet, the faces of my students are already haunting my dreams. I suppose that shows how much I care about them. I’ve gotten so used to being part of the sea of drooping eyelids and blank faces, that I can’t quite believe I’m here; I’m on the wrong side of the podium and I think I could get used to it.

Rebecca Jensen graduated from the Honors College at the University of South Florida in 2014. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English (creative writing) with a minor in French. Her writing is mainly creative nonfiction, focusing on the themes of travel and identity. She has worked as fiction editor for the literary magazine Driftwood Press, and is a new member of the Coastlines editing team at FAU.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Writing Place

I still think of summer as inherently Jamaican – or at least, how summer should be: running through the prickly zoysia grass of my childhood home, dodging sprinklers, Devon Stout Ice Cream melting through my fingers. Those first moments before the air-conditioning kicks on in a car that has been left baking in the sun for hours. But I’m too old for that rubbish now, I guess.

Instead, for my internship at a high-end interior design magazine, I spent my summer in a cubicle, in an air-conditioned office – albeit a beautiful one: an office lined with glass doors and post-postmod paintings fresh from Art Basel Miami. An adult summer. But in that cubicle, summer is season-less, placeless. 

Which is ironic, because all I wrote about was place. My writing responsibilities focused on producing shop/destination guides for the magazine’s regional markets. The voice of each piece took on the speech of some upscale Indiana Jones; a woman who spent her summer days wandering through charming neighborhoods and compiling little lux retreats – the perfect place to have Vietnamese coffee in Austin or the absolutely best spot for handmade stationary in D.C. 

This was imaginary, of course. I never had Vietnamese coffee in Austin. I buy my generic stationary in bulk from the Target off Hillsboro. But for these blurbs I pretended. The visuals weren’t hard to capture with the help of accompanying hi-res pictures. But there was something else – some essence expressed in the way these little shop owners and barkeeps spoke to me about their work. There’s the sense that, if they get a chance, they will always be there – in Austin, in Colorado Springs, running their bespoke shop, making things, doing the daily work that’s needed to make a place that will last, that will be a hallmark for their communities. That if, when a customer does move, perhaps for a job in an air-conditioned cubicle far away, they will remember their store – their Vietnamese coffee, their handmade stationary – and feel sick to their stomach, but in a good way. In a way that makes them want to go back home.

This is, of course, what I have always wanted my fiction to do. To make you sick to your stomach. Make you want to go to these fictionalized homelands that, if done right, feel more final that your own.

Sometimes, when I’m back home in Jamaica, lying on my childhood bed, the fan cranked up on high, for some reason I find myself muttering “I want to go home.” This doesn’t make sense, except of course that sometimes the stories we tell about home are better than the real thing.

And sometimes, when I was done for the day, after turning in another copy about a place – detailed and shimmering in its polished fantasy (as much as 300 words can be) – I sat in my parked car and just let the hot air steam around me until I become pleasantly lightheaded. When you close your eyes in the summer heat, sometimes you forget where the hell you are.

Monique McIntosh is a third year MFA student at FAU. She is a fiction short story writer from Jamaica.