Monday, November 24, 2014


Writers have a unique power that if not used for good can have everlasting consequences. Right now I have you hooked; you keep reading because you want me to tell you what I have to say. This is the power I speak of. You as the reader trust me. You've never met me. I could be an escaped goldfish from a mad scientist’s lab, but you think I’m a good person. You believe I have something important I need to say. You believe I won’t lead you astray. Readers go into a story with blind trust, the instinct to believe what the narrator is saying. This is a noble instinct. Something poetic could be said about the inherent good in people as seen by their immediate need to believe or trust in something or someone they’ve never met. Look at politics. We want to believe politicians all the time. Some of us do.

When a reader encounters an unreliable narrator, there is a fascination with being beguiled or lead to believe a very limited point of view. Perhaps right now you think of an unreliable narrator as a criminal or evil person. However, the truth is that everyone thinks they are the good guys despite what they do or say. Hitler thought he was doing everyone a favor. He was deluded and evil in his methodology and thinking, but the point is that unreliable narrators usually think they are on the right side of history. They honestly believe they are correct. This is what makes them so good at deceiving; they believe, so we then believe. We now have the perfect recipe for crafting an unreliable narrator: the trust of the reader and the narrator’s desire to be right. Stephen King writes that “the trust of the innocent is the liar’s most useful tool.” In this case, the writer creating the narrator is the liar and the innocent is the reader. This is also a limited view of what an unreliable narrator is, so let’s broaden the definition.

One of the most attractive qualities about the use of an unreliable narrator is that they are shape shifters. They come in many different forms. Imagine the Harry Potter novels rewritten through the point of view of a Death Eater or The Catcher in the Rye as told by Holden’s parents. We would see Harry as a vile creature who keeps trying to thwart Voldemort’s plan to bring harmony to the wizarding world, and Holden would just be a whiney child who hates life. Point of view is one of the most important parts of the story. The point of view shapes the lens through which we see the world of the story.

So, should a child be considered an unreliable narrator? Yes, because they have a limited worldview. Holden Caulfield is considered unreliable because he believes the world is out to get him and he hates everyone. In the novel Room by Emma Donoghue, the narrator is a five year-old named Jack who has been locked in one room with his mother for his entire life. His unreliability is unintentional, but he is unreliable nonetheless. Lolita is perhaps the most famous example and uses an unreliable narrator that tries to cloud the immoral and justify his actions. In Gone Girl the reader encounters two conflicting points of view without knowing which to believe. When the trustworthy perspective is eventually revealed, we can still see how the unreliable character feels his or her actions are completely justified. There are also instances of perception being altered by drugs and alcohol. These narrators aren’t intentionally unreliable, but they don’t know better because they are inebriated. This raises a larger question: can any narrator—particularly a first person narrator—be reliable?

Now, you have journeyed with me for almost 700 words and you want to trust what I’ve just told you. Could I have made everything up because I hit a deadline and needed something to write? Could I have copied everything I needed from Wikipedia and passed it along as my own? The truth is, you can’t know. But you want to believe me because why would a narrator lie to you?

Scott Rachesky is a first year MFA fiction candidate at FAU. Aside from singing Carmina Burana in community choir, being a photographer, solving imaginary murders,  and raising Unipegs, he enjoys to write…go figure. His writerly influences include Chuck Palahniuk, Jennifer Egan, Lori Moore, and Joseph Heller. Some people have described his writing style as similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he doesn’t believe those people and thinks they only make the connection because of the shared name of Scott.

Monday, November 17, 2014


For me, the most striking moment during the "Writing and Publishing Your First Book" panel was when Julie Marie Wade talked about her Tupperware boxes of rejections. She said the acceptance letters filled a modest box she could keep on her desk, while the rejections were stacked from floor to ceiling in one of her closets.

I love that image.

Not because I love to think of Julie Marie Wade being rejected (I'm sure I don't have to tell you what a phenomenal writer she is), but because it makes real for me one of the most worrisome/mundane aspects of being a writer. Funny, isn't it? How much terror and despair are both intense and boring, a sharp sting and an unfocused, dazed stare. Rejections. Yes, I have a lot of them. Many, many more than acceptances.

Jaswinder Bolina said something that also stuck with me. He said you have to figure out what success means for you. That when you write to someone else's ideas of success, you betray yourself. And that can never actually be success.

And Jamie Poissant's comments about his manuscript and the rounds it had to make before finally being accepted encouraged me.

Basically, it was a wonderful evening and I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did. It left me thinking about my own work. My own feelings about this stuff.

Look, the thing is, I have these two manuscripts, right? One is a collection of mostly experimental short stories, and one is a hybrid text of poetry and art, and I've been working on them for five and two years respectively. In the meantime, I've also managed to rack up over six pages of Submittable rejections (each page has like 40 submissions). Okay, so eleven of those are acceptances, and something like 10 are listed as "in progress," but still. The vast majority (as vast as is the night sky) are denials.


And! Julie Marie Wade said she gets something like 200 rejections a year. Which, okay, so I'm only talking Submittable, which means I have other rejections/acceptances, but not that many. I need to up my game. Anyway.

These rejections are my virtual closet full of boxes containing the evidence that my work wasn't right for whichever publication I sent it to; that they, in fact, did not want it, and I will tell you this - it's hard not to make the jump to they, in fact, did not want me.

The thing is though - that voice that whispers to you that you're not good enough? That says each rejection is just more proof that you will never be a "real" (whatever that is) writer? That voice is bullshit. It is! It takes years to hone your craft. Our crafts. And we'll see each other struggle, succeed, and fail and fail and fail. It's our job as writers (and especially as a part of a writing community) to find joy for other's successes and sorrow for their failures. This will help us deal with our own rejections and successes. Because success is sweet, but it is a short-lived sweetness, lemme tell you. It's like Juicy Fruit Gum™.

So, listen. Your peers - their success and failures - they cannot diminish you. Or me. Or us. They can only make us better. Each piece, like each writer, its own interconnected ecosystem. I mean, and this is totally Donne, but. Well. Wait. It's worth a reminder. Here is John Donne:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man 
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine 
own were; any man's death diminishes me, 
because I am involved in mankind. 
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Your friends' successes are your own. As are their failures. And that can make a closet full of rejection letters feel more like a wardrobe into a whole other world.

MR Sheffield is an alumna of FAU's Creative Writing MFA program as well as the graduate advisor for English. Her work has been published or is forthcoming from Pank, The Florida Review, Fiction Southeast, and other publications. Email her ( with all your advising questions.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Words Words Words Words!

A friend studying the indigenous people of the Chiapas region in Mexico reports that in the  Tzotzil language there, the word for word is the same as the word for struggle. Hmm.
     What writer doesn’t struggle each day to unearth the good word, the right word, the sculpted or edgy;  tufted or twangling; the flawless gem to take its place in the mosaic we see in our minds?
       We trawl for the perfect verb. Scour horizons for the dead-on noun. Beat our feet on the mud hoping the adjective we’ve been stalking will bubble up from the goo. Bubble, burble, bauble, bosh, scrim, scram, scrum, flapdoodle, flummoxed, umber, ululate. Acres of choices, the misfits, or almost fits so many, the perfect fits, so few.   
            “Word: (n.) …A single distinct conceptual unit of language, comprising inflected and variant forms.”
            “Struggle :( n.) …a determined effort under difficulties…a very difficult task.”
            Difficult indeed.
            Is our hero sizzled, soused, blotto or shickered?
             Did he drink from a flask, a flagon, or a stein?
            Is he an oaf, or a galoot?
            In a 2013 New Yorker piece, the nonfiction stylist John McPhee (In Suspect Terrain; Coming into the Country) describes his system for finding “le mot juste,” that elusive word:    “You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don’t you try to find such a word?”  This is the crux of the struggle: The “better word.”  Scamper, scurry; scuttle, or scud?  McPhee warns against leaning on “the scattershot wad from a thesaurus.” Go to the dictionary, instead, he advises (my own favorite, the Online Etymology Dictionary).
       Indeed, words can be similar, synonymous, meaning “having the same or nearly the same meaning as another word.” The differences, however, can be epic. Each word, no matter how small or remote, comes with its own root system, reaching down to Latin or Old Norse, Middle English or Creole or Old German and more, tangles of associations breathing life into how our word will resonate on the page. “Oaf,” for example (this from the Online Etymology Dictionary), dates from the 17th Century, “originally ‘a changeling; a foolish child left by the fairies’…from a Scandinavian source such as Norwegian alfrr ‘silly person,” in old Norse “elft.” Hence, ‘a misbegotten, deformed idiot.’”
            “Galoot” (also from Online Etymology)  means “‘awkward or boorish man,’ 1812, nautical, ‘raw recruit, green hand,’ apparently originally a sailor’s contemptuous word for soldiers or marines… Dictionary of American Slang proposes galut, Sierra Leone Creole form of galeoto, ‘galley slave.’”
        Is the right-word struggle harder for eco-writers than it is for others? Probably not.  Unless you consider the eco-writer’s need to wrestle with science and the habits of the natural world.  In other words, we have to overthrow the science, replacing it with the poetic. Again, from eco-poet McPhee, in Annals of the Former World:  
            “When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in   snow over the             skeletons of creatures that had lived in the warm clear ocean that India,      moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as twenty thousand feet below the             seafloor, the skeletal remains had turned into rock. His one fact is a treatise in itself on                     the movements of the surface of the earth.”
        Not a jot of science. Just words, boxes drawn around them, dictionaries consulted, and the end, a journalistic flambé.
          William Carlos Williams, in his opus “Paterson,” has the last word on words:
            “It is dangerous to leave written that which is badly written. A chance word, upon paper,             may destroy the world. Watch carefully and erase, while the power is still yours, I say to          myself, for all that is put down, once it escapes, may rot its way into a thousand minds,         the corn becomes a black smut, and all libraries, of necessity, be burned to the ground as        a consequence.”
       Corn becomes a “black smut?”  What is he talking  about …? -- but wait. The second definition of  smut is  “a fungal disease of grains in which parts of the ear change to black powder.”  


Mary Ann Hogan received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from FAU in 2013. She currently teaches writing at Palm Beach State College, Boca Raton campus. She is also nonfiction editor at Little Curlew Press. This blog post was originally published at Little Curlew Press.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Teaching Creative Writing to the Bad Writer You Used to Be

There’s an implicit, underlying question when you sit down to design a creative writing course and ask what undergraduate writers need. The true question: what did I need as an undergraduate writer? But that doesn’t help. 
We only have a semester after all.
            In Rebecca McKay’s “Teaching Creative Writing” course the other day, a few of us were toying with this question: would you ever show a creative writing student what you wrote as an undergraduate?  Even thinking about it now makes me feel cold.  Let me tell you about my undergraduate creative writing; every line of dialogue addressed the individual to whom it was directed, like in a soap opera.
            “John, how are we going to get home?”
            “I’m trying to figure that out, Mary!”
            “But John, we spent all our money on that creative writing course with that underwhelming instructor.”
            “Mary, don’t you think I know that?!”         
            I too indulged in plot-driven adventures of characters who were thin and attractive without ever apparently needing to groom themselves or exercise, a practice indicative of too much time spent reading fan fiction.  I occasionally participated in the overuse of adverbs (though admittedly, the tendency has abated quite thoroughly). I think every MFA student has scars from reading their old writing.  To this day, I can’t write a character description without chanting don’t overdo it, no strange hair or eye color, no similes involving the landscape or the sky.  So needless to say, that writing will stay in the bottom of the box in my garage where it belongs (don’t even think about it, we have a dog).  It can be demoralizing, but it’s also a reminder about how far I’ve come as a writer.
It’s unsettling to recall those days and then imagine teaching a class of 24 writers of similar abilities (or even, shudder, less).  Your old creative writing teachers go from “cool” status all the way up to sainthood.  They endured you when you were still finding your voice, and they even helped out along the way.  They modeled the habits of good writers that you needed to see.  They were articulate and constantly reading, in touch with their writing communities, and seemed to always have the perfect way of summarizing or understanding a troublesome passage or piece. And when their shoes look more like boats, it’s hard to imagine trying to fill them for a class of undergraduates.  I guess, as Becka reminds us, the good part is that they won’t recognize our inadequacies.  They won’t notice that your knowledge of magical realism is sorely lacking, or that you’re really more of a niche writer.  If you can forgive the students their improper conjunctions and be as ardent in helping them as your creative writing teachers were in helping you, that’s all they’ll remember: your passion.

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.