Monday, October 27, 2014

On Applying Oneself

So, I graduated from FAUs MFA program in the spring of 2012. That last semester was full of applying to creative writing PhD programs (there arent that many) specializing in creative nonfiction (there are even fewer). After getting rejected from everywhere that first round of applications, I had to do a lot of thinking.

One thing I wish I knew when I was applying to PhD programs is the same thing I had been told about submitting to journals all my writerly lifeknow where the hell youre sending your work. For some reason it didnt transfer over to my frantic lights-on/bar-closing-time pitches to any graduate school that had a program that might be willing to take me. This approach resulted the aforementioned smattering of rejections. After I had time to reflect on my rejections and digest them properly, I actually researched some of these programs (like, actually researched them for the first time) and was surprised to see that the kinds of writing their faculty did and the kinds of writing their alumni produced were nothing like the writing I was doing. This isnt to say that their writing was better or anything quantifiable like that, but it was different. And I guess I wasnt entirely surprised at that, but it helped me get over the idea that the rejections were a matter of not being good enough. This sort of thing isnt a matter of good; its a matter of fit. And I found a place where I fit, explained how I thought I would fit in my application, and saw my first program acceptance the next year. The thing is, there are so few PhD programs out there compared to journals that it might be wholly inaccurate to say theres somewhere you and your work are suited for like you would when talking about journal submissions. There might not be a program that suits your work. And thats fine, but resist the urge to send your experimental hybrid work to a very traditionalist program. And no, I'm not naming names.

The worthwhileness of pursuing the creative writing PhD is, as with everything, a matter of what you want to get out of it. I would say completely worth it in my circumstances, as I would like to get some sort of tenure-track job one day, but as you are reading this and no doubt already laughing, I say well fine, youre right, I probably wont get one of those. But I do get four more years of what my MFA wasa time where someone is always telling me to write, where I have a large writing project to complete, where I can get eyes on my work, and where I am surrounded by talented artists from so many different places. And I know that isnt something you need a PhD program for. You can find a community of writers anywhere you happen to be. But there are some particulars about a PhD program that are valuable to me: the rigor and expectations of a research degree, the requirement to not only produce creative work but also (in my particular program and dissertation) both a critical apparatus and a section on pedagogy, the latter of which being a special focus of the program I find myself in. This will hopefully make me more attractive to some hypothetical hiring committee for a teaching job one day. And my English department is operating under an English Studies model, one where the various sub-disciplines of English (Literature, Composition and Rhetoric, Creative Writing, Pedagogy, and Linguistics) are represented and considered in an interdisciplinary way. Taking a look at creative nonfiction through the lens of a required linguistics seminar I took one semester offered me a somewhat unique perspective on the field.

But I guess Ill find out how unique (or valued) that perspective is when I find myself on the job market in two years. Those are some applications Ill be a little better about researching for.

Mike Shier holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University and is currently in Illinois State Universitys PhD program for the same. Poems from Folie à Deux, a collaborative poetry chapbook manuscript written collaboratively with Nicole Oquendo, have appeared in Menacing Hedge and are forthcoming in Grist. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

From the Archives…

   A memory hit me out of the blue recently, of my high school friend Oscar Fernandez. For a time, Oscar lived on the same street as I did, and for a time we were close.  I had not spoken to, or even thought of, Oscar for years, but it suddenly occurred to me that he was worth writing about. Oscar wanted to be a pilot, and after graduation he had gone to aeronautical school in Florida. When he came home for his first Christmas break – and here’s the story part – he was kidnapped.

     Oscar’s family was Cuban. Though they may have been wealthy in Havana, in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1976, they were not. His father worked as a carpenter; he, his wife, and Oscar lived quietly and apparently harmoniously in a gray clapboard apartment building at the end of our street. As I began writing the story, I remembered that the ransom was set at $60,000, and that a relative was rumored to have some connection with the kidnappers. Oscar was a diabetic, and after a day or two without insulin he fell into a coma; the kidnappers got scared and dumped him on the side of a Dorchester street. When I saw him after he got out of the hospital, he had lost his eyesight and all of his plans for the future, but he had found God. He wanted nothing to do with his old friends, including me.

     When I started, my story was about a young man friend profoundly transformed by calamity. I wanted to consider the importance of being with people you wouldn’t mind spending your last moments with, because as Oscar came to know, the world can end right now.

     A little way into a first draft, I checked the archives of the Boston Globe.  I was astonished to find how much of Oscar’s story I had forgotten over the decades.  The kidnappers had come to the apartment. Someone had called for help; when the police burst into the house they had, by some horrible miscalculation, shot and killed Oscar’s father. As I read my memories returned, of standing on the sidewalk as police cars crowded the street; of cutting Oscar’s senior picture out of my yearbook to give to a reporter, and of the hole that remained; of learning that he and his mother, who quickly moved away, got a big settlement from the Brookline Police.  

     I came into the MFA program planning to write memoir. I’m in my first nonfiction class ever this semester, and I’m finding that wrestling with memory is way more complicated than I expected. Talking and reading about the ambiguities involved in telling ``the truth’’ is enormously helpful as I try to reconstruct past events.

     If I had written Oscar’s story without any research, it would have captured something of my loss and its consequences, but totally misstated the dimensions of his. I didn’t know Oscar’s father well; his death had little impact on me in the long run. But memory changes when missing facts are filled in. Even my forgetfulness adds texture, in retrospect, to our relationship, to his decision to jettison me as a friend. I may have been satisfied with whatever story I ended up with had I not checked that archive, but I’m glad I did. I wonder what else I don’t know I don’t know. 

Hilde Hartnett Goldstein is working towards an MFA in creative nonfiction.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Thesis Process

I am now in my third year of the MFA program at FAU, and during my time here I have realized something definitive about my writing process:  writing will always be painful.  I used to imagine that once I settled into a groove with writing, once I had a place in an MFA program and actually made time to write every day, the act of writing would become easier.  In fact, being fully invested in my writing is still as difficult as ever.  I am hardly alone in this feeling; every writer must battle distractions, procrastination, self-doubt, and the terror of the blank page.  I know I am in good company. I also find that the more agony I go through when writing a piece, the more positive feedback my piece ultimately receives, so I try to work on embracing the pain.
            But my third year has been my most challenging year yet.  During my first two years in the program, it was necessary that I focus on learning how to teach and on the classes I was taking in addition to my own creative writing.  Now that I have finished my coursework and feel more comfortable as a teacher, there is not much left to “distract” me from my primary reason for being here:  the completion of my thesis, a collection of short stories.  It isn’t enough to simply finish my thesis; I feel that it should represent the very best that I can do.  That added pressure, plus the larger amount of unstructured time, has resulted in some writer’s block.
            Setting regular deadlines can be helpful in ensuring that work gets done, but I am realizing that if I want to do more than just complete the work – if I want to do it well – there will be times that I need to set one story aside in order to work on another.  The particular section of my thesis that I’m most inspired to work on can change depending on the day, my mood, or what I happen to be reading.  I’m learning that the more I can recognize this feeling of inspiration and follow it, the quicker I can get past feeling stuck and the less painful the writing process will be.  I think that this approach is one of the advantages of working with a short story collection, which doesn’t require a strict chronology the way a novel might; I have the freedom to shift my focus to whichever story appears most in focus.  The process is less structured and less linear than I thought it would be.  Instead of focusing on accomplishing a specific task, a good day is one where I can simply remain invested and engaged in my work for as long as possible.

Katrina Gersie is an MFA candidate in fiction at FAU.  She works as a GTA and as Editor-in-Chief of Coastlines.  Her thesis is a collection of realist short stories.

Monday, October 6, 2014

I'll Make This Quick

You’re busy – I’m busy, but we’ve both made time for this conversation and no one’s economy of time is solvent enough to always select something over nothing. 

So I was asked “how does one maintain an art practice when unreasonably busy?”
My reactionary answer is that one does not. Cannot. I cannot. But this isn’t necessarily true. My more measured answer is that one does not practice their craft in the same – or even similar –manner when working too much or even working too little.

This distinction seems obvious once articulated: if my pattern of behavior or my space is disturbed, then so will my patterns of behavior in entering into my imaginative spaces.

Though the constant I see in myself as well as in my busy maker-friends is that we select to make something over nothing more often than not; to make something of the ache of inwardness (?) of critical observation (?) of imaginative fits (?) of the simple need to be making (?) – this is what drove us into this situation in the first place.

Here is the oversimplification of the idea: I practice my craft when I’m too busy to practice my craft in the way I was, just a moment ago, because I want (need?) to.

Within this busy machine, the object of the craft or the manner of accessing it may be an oddity and the process will most certainly have an unusual pace, but it’s clearly better than the existential penalties of selecting nothing.

There are also novelties that will likely occur from both the artificial slowness of this time-restricted process as well as from the necessity to invent situational, compartmentalized methods to access the practice.

If we agree for the moment that – in any artistic endeavor – the process is the product, then we as makers would do well to not only pay attention to the specifics of our process as a matter of course, but also seek to disturb our habits of process to gain perspective on the objects we create.

In short: if you write the first draft of that 5,000 word piece of prose over the course of six weeks and in sessions of no more than thirty minutes – that product will be different in significant ways than if you wrote it over the course of two days at a frantic, obsessive pace.

The benefits of this imposed brake upon the process, for me, often results in new methods to access the specific work – mostly because I cheat this restrictive system. I will find ways to return to the work without falling behind in my other, time-consuming obligations. If I can’t steal a thirty minute writing session, I’ll do some light research into concepts or thematic elements I find the product preoccupied with while I eat lunch at my desk. Or I’ll view or take photographs of images that remind me of the world I’m building while I stand in line or move from one obligation to the next. I become obsessed with the craft object not by working on it tirelessly, but because my time economy forces me to move away from the work often and without enough time in-session to reach satisfaction.   

I think I might produce matured products more efficiently when I’m too busy – which is the opposite of what the narrative on art practices suggests.

Thanks for your time and feel free to interrupt me if you’d like to continue this conversation.  

Jake Henson received his MFA from Florida Atlantic University in 2011. His thesis is a multi-modal collection of fiction, creative nonfiction, & visual art. He has continued to work in and experiment with the combination of language with a variety of forms such as digital photography, stencil making, paper sculpture, artist books and screen printing –in an effort to access the reading experience with an authenticity of expression that resonates with audience.  He is happy to be back with the FAU community and is always interested in collaborative projects.