Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Go Tell it On a Mountain: My Two Weeks at the Mont Blanc Workshop.

Picture this: White tipped mountain tops cascading into an evergreen hillside so mammoth that when you look out of the window of the tiny alpine apartment you rented from a Scandinavian expat who currently lives in London, there is no skyline—all you see is green. This is what happens every day, for two weeks, at the Mont Blanc Writing Workshop.

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

            Some people may have been lured in by the fantastical scenery, or the chance to go abroad and be inspired by a foreign culture, or by the ability to spend time with like-minded writers from all over the world. These are all good reasons for a new writer to go to a workshop like Mont Blanc, but my reason was less picturesque—I wanted the chance to work with one of the writers whose work I had only just encountered in the months prior to applying, one who wrote the kind of prose I always wanted to write. For me, it was Alexander Chee.

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

            The first time I encountered Alexander Chee I was reading an essay he wrote for The Paris Review on James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. Chee began with a narrative in which he recounted working as a makeup artists on a gay porn set, recalling a scene wherein it was particularly difficult for the actors to “rise” to the occasion (pun intended). The director turned off the lights and closed the door so the actors could “work it out,” and Chee predicted that what happened in those moments were probably better than anything they actually recorded. He went on to say, “I thought about how something had happened in the dark that we couldn’t see, an excitement that couldn’t be in the film…It seems to me I am always in pursuit of that.” 

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

            It is clear that Chee was talking about sex—but he was also talking about the moments in life we are too scared to reveal. Moments that reveal our flaws, whisper secrets, admit to lies, or publicize truths that have always seemed better left unsaid. As a nonfiction writer, my work has always been an act of recollection—a way to grapple with the past, collecting and re-collecting the moments in my life that have the ability to say something to the world that exists beyond myself. Part of this is the pursuit Chee talks about—timidly feeling around for these moments and memories in the darkness, and dragging them out to immortalize them on the page. So after scraping around for money and expediting my passport renewal, I made my way across the Atlantic to Chamonix, a little town in France—le pays de mon coeur as my grandmother calls it—to find someone who might help me shine a light in the darkest corners of my memory.

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

            I could tell you I accomplished so much work there (which I did), and how my own project began to blossom again after looking at it from outside of the confines of an MFA thesis (which it did), or the relationships I built while I was there with writers I never would have met otherwise (this also happened)—but what good does that do you? Will it inspire you to apply to a residency next summer? Maybe. It is the same shit you hear from everyone who has told you how important these kinds of programs are? Probably. So instead let me tell you what I learned in the two weeks I spent in the foothills of Mont Blanc, and perhaps that will show the value of these kinds of workshops, both for those of you who are thinking of applying, and for myself who was broke for the rest of the summer after taking the risk. After a careful re-reading of my notebook from the workshop, here are the tips I will take with me throughout my writing career:

1.) Keep A Work Journal: One of the best things I learned working with Alexander Chee was to keep a work journal for writing—especially if you are writing a long form piece. Create a new entry after each writing session, ask yourself questions you have about characters, plot or the writing itself, jot down intuitions about the plot, and keep all your outtakes that you don’t think belong. Doing this allows you to come back to your writing the next day (or week, or whatever your rhythm is) and not have the anxiety of a blank page, because you’ve already given yourself a starting place. It also helps you resist the urge to go back and re-read your work over and over again—which, when you are writing a book-length piece, can slow you down immensely.

2.) “If you need to embroider, embroider the edges and not the center:” Alex said this was something Annie Dillard told him in a nonfiction workshop when he was in his MFA. Much of the work the members of our workshop brought to the table fell into the genre of memoir or autobiographical novel (even when some of us believed it wasn’t). He stressed the importance of not embroidering the center, because this is what gives the reader something to feel, see and touch. We can accomplish this by anchoring the stories in very specific things; however, when we begin to embroider we often fill the prose with abstractions, and the longer we stay in the abstract, the greyer the line gets. For me in nonfiction writing, the center is always the “truth”—the memory, the recollection, the stories I’ve be told throughout my life—and the edges are my own imaginings of the world these stories occurred in.

3.) “The writer must survive the writing:”  This is perhaps the sentiment I find myself recalling most after leaving France. Alex said it at one of our first meetings, where we all spoke about what we were writing about and where we stumbled into the area of trauma. As writers, regardless of genre, we often pull inspiration from our own lives and experiences, and oftentimes this involves moments and experiences that are traumatic. We spoke about the trials and tribulations of this kind of work, and that—as writers—it is important to realize when we aren’t ready to take on these experiences on the page. Often in workshop (I’ve seen it most commonly in nonfiction, but I whole-heartedly believe it is true in fiction and poetry as well), we submit something we’re not ready to receive criticism or feedback on, or we begin writing about something we haven’t finished emotionally processing and feel obligated to press forward in order to finish the project. This is putting the writer at risk, not only for the emotional repercussions of revisiting these traumatic experiences, but for not doing justice to the writing—we leave things out we don’t want to remember, or skew them in a way that feels less authentic to avoid dealing with the pain, or we are unable to receive any negative feedback about the work because it feels like our lives are being judged. Maybe this isn’t what Alex meant by his sentiment, but I think that in order to survive the writing, we must also survive the reaction to the writing. If we are not ready to hear those things, it is better to leave some stories untold—at least until we are truly ready to tell them.

4.) "I hope you leave more of yourself than when you came:" This is the wish Alexander Chee has for all of the writers that leave his workshops. At the end of two weeks I left France with thirty new pages (about 15 of which were usable), a recommended reading list that spanned four notebook pages, a copy of Erin Belieu’s Slant Six, a couple blocks of cheese and a group of friends and writers that I still talk to today. I learned about surviving my work, embracing my strengths and accepting my weaknesses as a writer. I learned that inspiration is everywhere—not just in colossal mountain ranges across the ocean, but in people you wouldn’t have met if you hadn’t taken a giant leap outside of your comfort zone. I learned that there are working writers and professors from around the country who are willing to guide and teach you, but also treat you as equals, and as friends. I learned about myself, and remembered why I started writing in the first place, and in that way I did leave more of myself than I was when I arrived. So you got your wish, Mr. Chee, and I hope one day I can help other writers feel that way too. For now, I hope this blog post will help inspire some of you to decide to travel to re-find your writely selves, wherever that may take you. 

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

In addition to going to France and being an MFA in nonfiction, Nico Cassanetti loves corgis more than anyone else you know. She has written editorial pieces for LIFE|STYLE and M&V magazine, and has a prose poem forthcoming in the A3 Review in London this September. If you want to read other stuff by Nico, she made this little website for you: www.nicocassanetti.com.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Welcome to Fall 2015!

Welcome, everyone, to the Fall 2015 semester here at the MFA program at FAU. I'm your friendly English Graduate Advisor, and I want to give you some information before we get into the more interesting blogs this semester.

Speaking of more interesting blogs, if you have something interesting to say, I beseech you to get in touch with me. We're especially interested in blogs on the craft of writing, the publishing class, your writing process, and reviews of reading events.

And what great reading events we have this year! We will have readings from Chantel Acevedo, Russell Banks, Tom Sleigh, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Jay Critchley, David Keplinger, and our very own Susan Mitchell.

But as you know, an MFA program isn't all readings and philosophical discussions. You also need to take classes and, you know, make progress toward your degree. Let me get some of that out of the way. The program is 48 credit hours: 21 credit hours of workshop classes (seven classes), 18 credit hours of literature/theory classes (six classes), ENG 6009: "Principles and Problems of Literary Study" (this is your only specifically required course), and six thesis hours. Take a look at the advising checklist if you're more of a visual sort of person. Heck, while you're clicking around, why not check out our Web site wherein I go into all this advising stuff in more detail? It'll be great fun.

If you're graduating this semester (or next, because, hey, it's good to be prepared), take a look at the thesis guidelines. Remember! After 18 credit hours you must have a Plan of Study on file. See me for help with this - it's what I'm here for.

Well, okay. And speaking of me being here, I won't actually be here the whole semester. As you may or may not know, I'm expecting a kid (a human one!) this Halloween. Don't believe me? Here's a picture.
He's just the cutest, right? What kind of unborn baby is this cute already? Gah.

But, okay, so I'm going to be here until mid-October and then I'm leaving you in the very capable hands of Kelly De Stefano. She'll introduce herself on the blog soon. I will be back to advising next Summer 2016.

So! Welcome or welcome back, as the case may be. I encourage you to attend everything! To host readings (and invite me)! To write and write and then write some more! I hope this is a wonderful semester for all of you.

MR Sheffield, aka Mary Sheffield, aka Mary Ruth Sheffield-Gentry, aka Mars (that's an authentic nickname, guys) is your English Graduate Advisor. She can be reached at Mfa@fau.edu. Email her and make an appointment - you will make her day, I swear. I mean, I know for sure. Well, because I'm she.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Summer Break

So! Your trusty FAU MFA blog is here to let you know that we're on hiatus for the summer. We'll be back in the fall with fantastic posts from your favorite current, former, and future (?!) MFA students.

In the meantime, please use your summer to write and write and write. And write. Right? Write!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Theory and the Thesis

The graduating thesis essay is a bizarre 15 to 20 page netherworld where you must analyze your own writing as a scholar. You’re to treat your thesis like a real, throbbing literary thing: think craft explication, close readings, and, god help you, maybe some genuine Lit Crit.

Just to let you know, this is not a post about writing the thesis essay. Instead, this post is about where theory belongs in fiction.

The best fiction offers something beyond its moving parts, some framework of understanding. The best theory does this too, can possess those crystalline moments, when reading reminds you about the part of yourself you forgot. That second when you have to look away from the page because you can’t stand it anymore, so you stare awkwardly in the air in front of you and freak out your roommate standing in your eyeline.

For me, it was Cuban anthropologist Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s seminal work The Repeating Island. It’s not an easy read, thanks to Benítez-Rojo’s sinuous, ropey prose, weaving through Spenglar, Chaos theory, and memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But there is a moment when he’s trying to articulate the Caribbean’s place in history, where the region becomes in his eyes “a meta-archipelago...[with] neither boundary nor center. The Caribbean flows outwards past the limits of its own sea with a vengeance… [and] may be found on the outskirts of Bombay, near the low and murmuring shores of Gambia, in a Cantonese tavern circa 1850, in an old Bristol Pub.”

At the time of writing, Benítez-Rojo has already defected to the United States, teaching and writing in Amherst. He knew he’ll never be able to return to Cuba. Beyond the brilliant analytics, here in this crystalline moment he’s just an exiled man, desperate for home, and in his desperation sees the Caribbean everywhere.

I read this in Spring 2014. My uncle, who I worshipped, was in and out of the hospital. I’d bring books to his bedside and read. He was Jamaican, part black and white and Chinese, and had one of those faces that people think they recognize. When he went to Peru back in the 80’s during the civil war, locals would come up to him speaking Spanish, thinking he was Peruvian, thinking he was back home.

Decades later, I went to Peru too because of him, and I saw my uncle everywhere. In the bus conductors dangling from moving buses like they do in Jamaica, shouting “sube, sube.” In the vendor trying to sell me traditional caricature masks that she swears they wore to mock the Spanish during colonial times, though I’m confused because they look like Junkanoo costumes.

I read this passage thinking of my uncle, in all the geographic and historical accidents that needed to happen to create him – a phenomenon both global and distinctly Caribbean. And somehow between my uncle and Spenglar and an ugly white hospital room that could be anywhere, I found what I wanted to write about for my thesis. Perhaps for as long as I write.

So I guess this is a guide for writing the thesis essay – in that theory can teach you as much as practice. Theory can articulate for you what you’ve been trying to do all along.

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

Monday, April 27, 2015

Parasitic to Symbiotic: The Power of Form

The MFA faculty at FAU bring in an impressive amount of both renowned and prolific authors for students to engage with; I’ve had the chance to listen to lectures from Tayari Jones, Jo Ann Beard, Richard Ford, and others. One comment that Ford made that resonated with me was: “Anybody who knows me for very long is going to fall out with me.” While he said this with a mixture of seriousness and humor, commenting on his own work and his lack of a writing community, it felt true for me as well.
That fear of a fall out something I’ve dealt with in all social aspects of my life. I assume that I’m going to hurt someone needlessly, so to me emotional distance is protection. However, that attitude is counter to the reason I came to the MFA program here at FAU. I wanted to invest in a community of writers and take risks. Upon receiving tenure, A. Papatya Bucak wrote: “It feels like I ought to do something to deserve it,” and that was a feeling I could relate to early on in the program. A feeling that grew when the University offered me a GTA position, and a feeling that continues to grow with the opportunities I am offered through the English Department and the Creative Writing Director, Dr. Becka Mara McKay.
            Within that desire to both partake in a community and to deserve that community, I have continuously been pushed by my professors to excel. The nudge for success also comes with the support to take more chances, and through this process of escalating demands and adjustments of self-accountability, I see something of my own experience reflected in Papatya’s writing: “It feels like I can try to write something better than what I’ve written before because I can risk failing.” The MFA program offers the opportunity to risk success because no matter what I write, it will be taken seriously, and there is something in that to cherish, something special.
            I’m enrolled in Papatya’s course on the Forms of Prose, and throughout this semester we have been working toward seeing the value in creating obstacles and restrictions to existing forms in order to create growth in our own writing. I’ve always valued form in poetry because of its ability to slip into the subconscious and complicate content.
            However, the forms in prose have been a different experience. Early on in the semester when asked to define what this might mean, I approached it rather literally: “it seems that form is an agreed upon process to mold content with an inherent suggestion to resist the familiar. But, form only works when it’s symbiotic with content.” This explication of form is light and timid. It feels more like an attempt to have something to say rather than an actual definition of the term.
            And this doesn’t surprise me; I fear the fall out with a professor even more than with a peer. I fear losing the chance to be taken seriously by someone I respect. After Richard Ford spoke, a few peers and I walked around in a stupor of amazement at his insight and presence. A professor mentioned annoyance with the fact that we seem to value what incoming authors say more than the professors in the program, even though they say the same things. It seems that somehow from a new voice, knowledge becomes more significant.
That professor was right to question our infatuation, because classes do deliver what we experience from visiting scholars and authors. Richard Ford’s strongest moment was during a contemplation on the serious nature of writing. He said: “Your work is your work. It’s no less important at the beginning to you than it is to me at the end.” That, to me, is a profoundly powerful thing to say to an aspiring writer. It is also a description of what the MFA does for writers here. I love the burden of earnest expectations to not succeed or fail, but to create with no restraint.
At the end of the semester, Papatya asked the class to redefine forms, and looking at my definition, I’ve come to the conclusion that the concept of “forms” might be synonymous with the MFA degree. I wrote: “Forms teach writers to learn the necessary tools that they can abandon. Forms are lessons in rules that subsume the reader’s wants and needs with the author’s intentions through their obstacles and restrictions. Forms are invitations to apprenticeship with no master but accountability.” I latch onto that last line. As much as I want to say it is the drive of the MFA that propels my work, to do so would ignore the reality that the MFA ends.
Last night I was very tired and hanging awake on the lines of a book when my mind woke to a realization. It’s a common one that I have; I see someone in my recent life and remember that we may forget each other, but we will never forget each other’s influence. I am grateful and still surprised that I am here. The conversations that drive my writing community start in the classroom. I know that, I see that in my growth; I want my professors to know.

Jason Stephens is from Boise, Idaho and he joined the MFA at Florida Atlantic University in the Spring of 2014. He published last year his first fiction piece in alice blue review's issue 24.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Freedom of Limitation

“All pieces of writing come with implied or stated limitations that the writer must both fulfill and overcome due to the dual need to satisfy and subvert reader expectations.”
-Papatya Bucak

            Watching my nieces grow into smart, openhearted, creative, beautiful young women has been amazing. When I first started baby-sitting them, I had this idea that I would be their mythical Mary Poppins figure, exposing them to child friendly art, music, and meadows. I would never stifle their ideas, or take their agency away from them. I quickly learned that if you give a child too many choices at too young an age, they begin to melt into a ball of confusion and tears, right there, in front of everyone in the Barnes and Noble Café. I learned that if you make the important choices ahead of time, and limit decisions, it takes the pressure off the child and they get to enjoy themselves; they are free to keep absorbing and interacting with the world around them in beautiful ways (most of the time).

“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.”
- Ernest Hemingway

            This phenomenon applies to adults as well. When working in a chiropractor’s office, I was trained to schedule appointments by giving the patient two options at a time (morning or afternoon? 2:30 or 3:30?) even if the whole day was available. I know, this seems nasty, but if I did make the mistake of saying something like, “Whenever you’d like,” I would be stuck on the phone hearing all of their plans for that day, and their whole life story, about how they have to take their dog to the vet, about how their boyfriend, Ted, has a bladder infection. In a busy office, there wasn’t any time for this. What I’m getting at here is this: limitations can be effective.
            Before taking Professor Papatya Bucak’s Forms of Prose class, I was part of the camp of writers who believe content dictates form. I still believe this is true for particular types of writing, like research papers (there are X points I want to make about this topic so I will write X number of body paragraphs), but I feel so silly for believing it (so whole heartedly) in terms of writing fiction.  What I took away from this class is the important idea that limitations in form can take some of the pressure off of my prose, and me as I’m writing it. If my words are my children, I need to decide on their limitations ahead of time so that they are free to grow and blossom in unexpected ways on the page.

“The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form.”
― Susan Sontag

            This might sound like writerly nonsense, or just plain common sense, and you’re right; it’s both. Have you ever read a book where you think, “Wow, this person just enjoyed writing this?” The pacing is relaxed, the language manicured. I guarantee you this person had her limitations in form in full effect, which allowed her to really enjoy production.
            I guess my second analogy makes it sound like my words are patients in need of an adjustment (okay, sometimes they are) but the important part of the analogy is that if I don’t limit myself, my words can quickly get carried away with themselves, and start giving my reader TMI like some of my previous chiropractic patients.
            I see this happen in rough drafts of fiction (my own included) all the time: flashbacks and character backstories that have nothing to do with the real tension of the story itself, whole scenes and expositions of beautiful prose that ends up being taken out in chunks. This is part of writing, I know, and these chunks we take out can still be useful to us, inform how we write our characters later on. But it can also mean a crap ton of revision and confusion on the writer’s part.

“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”
- Henry David Thoreau

            Yes, there is always some level of confusion and revision, especially when writing novels (and if you were never confused or never revised I’d rather not ever speak to you). But now, I know: you can use limitations in form to limit the confusion, the tears, the tantrums, the bladder infections, and enjoy the process of watching your words grow in contained, yet unexpected ways.

Kim Grabenhorst is an MFA candidate in fiction here at Florida Atlantic University. She’s interested in fiction that explores the individual's relationship with her or his body, and that body's relationship to the world. She lives and writes in West Palm Beach, FL.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Preparing a Thesis: Leveling Up in the MFA

Welcome to an MFA in Creative Writing! PRESS START!

Hello and welcome to the exciting world of creative writing! But first, do you write FICTION, NONFICTION, or POETRY?

You’ve chosen FICTION.

You are a fresh-faced FICTION WRITER starting out in the MFA program. Your current weapons set includes: MAGIC PEN OF IMAGINATION, KEURIG OF ENDURANCE, and A MODERATE AMOUNT OF SELF-DELUSION. You set out into the writerly wilderness on your quest to graduate!

(We’ll fast-forward through the all requisite grinding, leveling up and acquiring party-members. During this period you learn such skills as WORKSHOPPING, TAKING CRITIQUES and STAYING UP ALL NIGHT IN A SUGAR-FUELED CREATIVE FERVOR)

You have reached Level Year 3 of the MFA, your current party members include A COMMUNITY OF WRITING PEERS and A THESIS COMMITTEE. Your current weapons set includes: BLANKET OF PEER SUPPORT, DROPBOX OF NOTES, and A GENERAL IDEA OF YOUR THESIS PROJECT. Your final boss will be THESIS, but before you take on this massive and many-limbed foe, you must defeat these mini-bosses:

1.      THE PROPOSAL: To defeat this monster, you need to decide if you will be writing a NOVEL or a COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES. While the obvious strategy seems to be quick-thinking, do not be rash! If you strike at THE PROPOSAL too soon, you could end up with an unwieldy project that you hate, which only makes THESIS harder to beat. Take your time to think about your strengths and decide what will best play to them.

2.      WRITING THE ACTUAL PROJECT: To take this boss down, not going to lie, will take a lot of time. Sometimes you will get frustrated, you will lose what feels like weeks or months of progress and have to go back to the start. You will get lost in mazes, go in circles and shut the game down and bang your head against a wall. But this is where your weapons and party-members become most useful. Hot Tip: Use THESIS COMMITTEE MEMBER’S special ability: CONSOLE AND ADVISE, and if that does not work, have COMMUNITY OF PEERS cast NETFLIX AND CHEAP WINE.

3.      REVISION: The toughest of the mini-bosses, you must go back over your old progress with your most recently-acquired weapons and abilities and fix past mistakes. It can feel like an endless grind, but with each new draft, your skill level goes up. Trade in that KEURIG OF ENDURANCE for AN ESPRESSO PUMP THAT SHOOTS DIRECTLY INTO YOUR FACE.

You enter the final dungeon, your COMMITTEE MEMBERS have turned against you (not really, but it can sometimes feel that way), and it is time for the final boss: THESIS…DEFENSE?! Wow, what a shocking twist! Yes, throughout all the writing, and re-writing and questing you’ve come to actually care about THESIS, nay even become fiercely protective of it! You use all of your weapons and skill to defend THESIS with all of your might and defeat the final boss (which really wasn’t a boss at all…how deep. This is an artsy videogame). Your THESIS COMMITTEE approves of your strength in battle and you beat the game! Go you!

You unlock MFA DEGREE and can use it to download the DLC expansion pack: Navigating Life after Graduate School.

Megan Hesse is still basking in the achievement of an MFA in Fiction when not struggling at videogames.

Monday, April 6, 2015

MFA BFF: “A circle is round, it has no end, that’s how long I will be your friend”

I have friends: a kind group of girls whose passions (baking, pressing flowers, community organizing) do not stir me. I feel guilt about this, a sense that my inability to be at home with them proves, once and for all, that I am no good. I laugh, I agree, I find reasons to go home early. I have the nagging sense that my true friends are waiting for me, beyond college, unusual women whose ambitions are as big as their past transgressions, whose hair is piled high, dramatic like topiaries at Versailles, and who never, ever say ‘too much information’ when you mention a sex dream you had about your father…. They would see the good in me so I could, too. - Lena Dunham on Friendship, from Not That Kind of Girl

There is a week of orientation seminars before I take my position as a graduate teaching assistant.  On the first day, I sit under a palm tree and eat my lunch alone, studying the “Emerging: A Teacher” manual and shooing away lizards.  During orientation we watch videos, plan exercises, and somehow all of these things leave me feeling more unprepared and scared for what lies ahead.  I can’t sleep that night, so I call my brother and ask him about his time as a TA back in graduate school.  He says he remembers loving teaching, that it was an extremely rewarding experience that enhanced his own studies, and that he often learned from his own students –he barely felt like it was “a job.”  He also recalls the array of misfits he met along the way: his “coworkers,” his “classmates,” his “friends.” 

There is a girl in the front row on the first day with a binder full of pre-planned exercises and the largest purse I’ve ever seen.  She adjusts her glasses and turns around, flashing an endearing smile and asking what I'm studying.  She labels us “nonfiction buddies” and begins asking questions about my personal life and where I got my purse.  She writes about her trials and tribulations, the times she danced to Taylor Swift and tried to find meaning in a sea of orange traffic cones, and she is brave and strong and fearless always in all ways.  We eat lunch together that day, and to this day Risa Shiman and I often share meals together at Chipotle, where we delve much deeper into our nonfictional lives and containers of guacamole –don’t worry, we know the guacamole’s extra.

The new assistant to the Director of the Writing program raises his hand upon being asked for an interesting fact.  “I want to be an Imagineer because I'm obsessed with Disney,” he says, smirking in his colorful top and trendy haircut.  I beeline my gaze to him as I share this love for anything Disney-related.  Scott Rachesky and I have not only met up to hang out in Disney World multiple times, but we share Disney music, Disney facts, and Disney recipes, and we plan on riding the Snow White Mine Train together in May after graduation.  His writing continues to be as surprising and colorful as his tops, and he’s not afraid to be honest, to be himself, to show his Disney side.

A tall, dark and handsome man enters the room late on the last day of orientation.  He slips into a chair wearing a polo shirt and tousles his lush hair as he begins to draw boxes and alien-like figures on a handout.  We have a class together where he asks to borrow a book from me that he never reads, but we do end up going for a walk on the El Rio Trail.  He writes fiction about faraway planets and creatures, and his nonfiction makes me cry not only because it’s true, but because it’s happened to him and he is a true artist with his words.  We’ve continued our urban explorations together, making it all the way to the Flashback Diner just the other week. I still find comfort in Donovan Ortega’s wise words, warm heart, and damn good head of hair.

A girl with a braid and a fantastic, scholarly looking sweater is sitting at the end of the bar at my first Coastlines gathering.  I pull up a chair beside her and listen to her tell stories of her hamster collection, her experience working at a Taco Bell/KFC combo, and the poncho she wore at each and every one of her workshops.  During her final weeks of the graduate program last year, she wandered around campus offering me rides to class because she was bored but didn’t want to leave.  She wanted to linger around the lakes overflowing with ducks, to be close to the place where it had all happened and continues to happen for all of us, whether we know it or not.  At her reading, Mikaela Von Kursell spoke beautifully in her fiction and I wondered why she was friends with me, but felt honored to call her my friend anyway.

I wish I had known all this at orientation.  I wish I had known the amount of comfort and support I would receive throughout my time here and that will hopefully continue when I graduate in a few weeks.  That I would be in a group text where I am offered coffee and advice and funny videos that make my day.  That I would have meaningful sessions with the Palm’s Forest stoop kids: everything from dinner parties to Mario Kart tournaments.  That I would attend academic salons to hear my peers read prose and recite poetry and eat more cheese than I ever thought possible.  That I would meet my idol, Jo Ann Beard, and introduce her in front of all my friends, and that they would all congratulate me on a job well done.  That I would wake up every day excited to see what the MFA had in store, what new opportunity would be presented, or what new member of the program would become my friend.

There are many people I have not mentioned specifically in this final blog post, but everyone in the program, students and faculty included, are integral links in my chain of friendship.  I sympathize with Dunham in her book as I always felt alone as a young writer in the world.  Like her, I had this feeling that my true friends were waiting for me somewhere, perhaps sitting at a table outside the Culture and Society Building smoking a cigarette (although that’s not allowed anymore), or spinning around in their office chair to ask me about my day, or even waiting to sit in an uncomfortable position for three hours to discuss a piece I wrote about Space Mountain, validating it and me, showing their love through their encouragement and care. 

These are my people; the writers of the FAU MFA Program, and I am so glad my friends have waited for me because I’ve certainly been waiting for them.

Brittany Ackerman is graduating this semester with her MFA in nonfiction. She will miss wearing leggings and flannels to workshop, but is excited to expand her horizons and perhaps invest in a pair of jeans. She will visit Disney World instead of walking at graduation, and fully expects Mickey Mouse to hand her a well-earned diploma. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Place in Poetry

There is a website called How a Poem Happens. It interviews various poets on the process behind a specific poem. One of the questions the poets are frequently asked is “What’s American about this poem?”

Their answers range from “John Deere” to “Christianity and violence.”

Whether we directly acknowledge it or not, place is a character we are always engaging with. Its themes become intertwined with the themes of our stories and poems. Place for me is not only a source of inspiration, but an influential force that has shaped the reoccurring themes that have emerged in my writing. By invoking place in our writing, the speaker in our poems can come to embody, contradict or interact with those themes and beliefs we associate with a specific place. It’s sort of like tapping into the energy of that place and harnessing it in our work. By utilizing place, we can heighten elements in our work in a way that doesn’t feel heavy handed. It’s a subtle charge given to the narrative.

Place gives the writer a way in—it allows us to come at things from the side. In Florida Poems, Campbell McGrath uses Florida—its history, its landscape— as a way to cultivate larger themes, such as consumerism and conservationism. Florida acts as a grounding force that enables McGrath to address universal themes without losing his reader.   

Place can also act as an antagonist. It can possess its own agency or echo the poem’s emerging tensions. We can see this particular use of place in Sandy Longhorn’s The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths. Throughout Longhorn’s collection, there is a reoccurring narrative of a girl on the verge of adulthood who attempts to escape but finds herself repeatedly held captive—literally stuck in place.
For example, in “Haunting Tale for Girls Held Captive,” Longhorn writes:

[…] She ran, then,
and her parents followed into the wide,

unblemished swath of green alfalfa.
Raising their arms, they called out a curse
that could never be called back.

With their oath, a bolt of pain transformed
the girl, her bones hardening to branches,
her feet thinning, sinking to deep roots.

Place can also be a way out. It saves me from getting too close, those moments when my writing risks becoming melodramatic or sentimental. It buffers. It can mirror. It gives me space. Place is both permeable and malleable—my intention can move through it, but I can also mold it to serve my intention. Place can say the things that, for whatever reason, my speaker cannot.  

Kathryn McLaughlin is a first-year MFA student in the Poetry Program at FAU. Her interest in the way place informs writing stems from her obsession with Florida.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Palm Beach Poetry Festival – January 2015

     Brenda Shaughnessy’s flight to Fort Lauderdale was delayed by almost four hours. That was four extra hours I had not planned on having. Four more hours of panicking over what it would be like to finally meet her. I had received the call back in early November, the one informing me I would be interning for Brenda’s workshop at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival the following January. I spent those four hours wandering the colorful streets of Delray Beach, discovering the city I would be calling home for the rest of the week.
     Cut to 9pm, and there we were. Brenda and I stood side by side behind my little grey Mazda that I suddenly wished I had made time to clean before her arrival. But poets are people, too. I opened the trunk, pushing aside empty Publix bags and a roll of half-used Christmas wrapping paper, sliding her suitcase inside. I told myself it could have been worse. We clambered into the front seats of my car and began the journey back to Delray. Any worries I had about the fluidity of our conversation quickly dissipated. I had imagined a woman exhausted from travel, but Brenda showed no signs of tiredness. In the first five minutes, I had already created a fresh new reading list in my head from her recommendations. Her enthusiasm transferred into the writing workshop the following morning, and continued relentlessly through the rest of the week.  
     Each morning, I met with fellow interns in the library at the Crest Theater. We would discuss our schedule and duties for the day before heading upstairs to our respective classrooms for workshop. As my workshop began, Brenda gifted the group with snippets of advice and anecdotes from the writer’s world, from the life of a real poet. Her words were nuggets of gold that I transcribed in ink, into my journal, and into my head. You don’t have to know what you’re doing, but something is happening, and that’s poetry. Complexity is irreducible and that’s why poetry exists. After workshop were craft talks leading up to evening readings where I reclined in the back row of the theater’s balcony with the other interns and listened to our poets, our friends read their work.
     The week moved quickly. Already, Wednesday had arrived and we were sat in the Vintage Gymnasium at the gala dinner. The old white building had enchanting string lights draped from the warm wooden beams of its ceiling. The gym was crowded; the floor filled with hundreds of dancing poets. Poets are people, and some of them are dancers. Yes, I saw you, Thomas Lux.
     Of the other faculty poets at the festival, I had studied Patricia Smith’s work during my years as an undergraduate English major at the University of South Florida. It was a pleasure and privilege to hear her craft talk and surprise reading of her spoken word poem, Skinhead. In this moment, everything fell into place for me. This is real life. I’m hanging out with world-famous poets, with the people who have inspired, prompted and still push me to do what I love to do. These are the people who make me want to write. Back in the lounge, I asked Patricia to sign a book for me. My copy of her Teahouse of the Almighty now opens with this:

Rebecca – May the voices in here inspire you to raise your own. – Patricia.

I’m not sure if she knew how much I needed to hear these words, how much they resonate with the kind of writer and person that I am. My one goal for this year ­– a new year’s resolution – is to raise my voice and to have the confidence to throw myself headfirst and completely into the creative world.
     Sunday morning, Brenda hopped back into my car for the trip to the airport, and on to Iowa; from perpetual summer into the depths of winter. Our last forty-five minutes consisted of extending my reading list and learning that magic happens in the first summer between years one and two of the MFA. Her last golden nugget for me was this: write. And keep in touch. 

Rebecca Jensen is a first-year MFA student in nonfiction at Florida Atlantic University. She graduated from the Honors College at the University of South Florida in 2014. She has worked as fiction editor for Driftwood Press, a literary magazine, and is currently nonfiction editor at FAU’s Coastlines. She writes feature articles for Fort Lauderdale’s city magazine, Go Riverwalk, and her creative work appears or is forthcoming in FishFood Literary and Creative Arts Magazine. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Richard Ford on Writing

            Richard Ford referred to us as “young writers” throughout our hour-long discussion in CU 321. The term seemed apropos given the context of an MFA program, but also appropriate given Ford’s age of seventy-one. He spoke with the grizzled confidence of a man who has put in countless writing hours that have produced seven critically acclaimed novels and four short story collections. His best-known work, Independence Day, won the Pen/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1995. He was kind and generous with his advice, an attribute that, for “young writers,” resulted in a small amount of idolization. “His eyes literally sparkled,” said a friend. “When he smiled,” said one of my colleagues, “it looked like a comedic theatre mask.” And perhaps that grin, an angular, thin-lipped joviality that pressed against his cheeks, betrayed a satisfaction with the work he’d accomplished in his career. When describing an ongoing dispute with his editor at Knopf, he claimed that at this point in his life he didn't care if his new book got published. When we pressed him about possible solutions to the problem (his editor, he claimed, “didn't want to edit”), he shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I've written enough books in my life. I don’t need this one.” This statement was, most likely, not entirely truthful—I imagine even Richard Ford longs to see his book in print after writing it—but it’s an interesting thing to explore. It’s a statement that seems to signal a comfort with his legacy. I wondered: what is it like to be a writer in the twilight of a career and have that sort of satisfaction? What does it feel like to look back and feel that you have written enough, that you've said what you wanted to say? What does it take?
            The aspect of writing that Ford seemed most adamant about was the importance of taking the task seriously. He admitted that “marrying well” allowed him to stay at home and write (he suggested we all “marry as well” as he did), but it seems the seriousness with which he approached writing might be what separated him from other authors. He explained that he does not begin to write a word—“not a single word,” he emphasized—until he has done a year of research. This research included detailed notes on narrative structure and character and setting, notes which he said he would study as if he was taking the Bar exam. He was careful to include “thinking” as research, explaining how it was necessary for him to become completely engrossed in his project. The urgency with which he explained his research bolstered his overall message: “take you work seriously,” he told us. “No one else is going to. It’s your work.”
            FAU has had a string of accomplished writers visit us this year: Jo Ann Beard, Phil Klay, Roxane Gay, and now Ford. All of them have spoken about writing with the same dogged determination. Jo Ann Beard explained that she might sit down to write for an eight-hour stretch and not compose a word. Phil Klay spoke about fighting with an editor about a word choice because, “a serious sentence” he said, “contained a syllable count of 3-3-4-3.” “It didn't really matter,” he admitted. “But it mattered to me.” Of course, this isn't the first time we've heard writing discussed in this way. On our own faculty Professor Bucak writes so carefully that she tends to finish just one story a year. Professor McKay wakes up each morning at five and commences to write. Writing hard and meticulously is something that, hopefully, most of us already do. But the MFA provides an atmosphere in which it is easier to take our writing seriously because there is always a deadline approaching. And at the end of that deadline there are peers and professors whose job it is to read our work with careful attention. By virtue of our program, FAU creates an atmosphere in which we are considered serious writers.
            Which is why, after leaving my thesis defense last week, I had a strange mixture of accomplishment and foreboding. It felt wonderful to discuss my work confidently with professors that I have learned under for three years. I did not come into the program with that ability. But at the same time it felt as though I had been dropped from a very high ledge. The final deadline had been met. I passed. And there was no more work to turn in. I was on my own.
            Of course, graduating does not mean that the professional and friendly ties that I've made at FAU are severed, but the end of an MFA does signal a new phase of my development as a writer. I am confident that I will continue to write, but am also wary that the vigor with which I wrote during the MFA will be tempered by life’s complications. I am wary about this because, to a certain extent, I feel the real writing has just begun—the true test lies ahead. The impetus to write hard and long and well must now come solely from within. There is no longer the benefit of artificial deadlines and a community of writers who support my endeavors. It is up to me. And at this moment in my life, the goal is not necessarily to publish eleven books, but I do want to be seventy-one years old and know I have written everything I am capable of writing, to have said what I could say.
            This weekend I was on Highland Beach and saw, probably 100 yards away, a commotion on the shoreline. A crowd of beachgoers gathered and, through the swarm of legs and sea foam, I saw someone performing chest compressions on a motionless body. The tips of the waves flowed up the sand and stopped at the feet of the unconscious man. We all sat in our beach chairs and looked. We were too far away to do anything, but it seemed sacrilegious to smoke a cigarette while I watched someone die. I walked closer to the crowd and asked a woman what had happened. She told me that the man had been caught in the riptide and taken out to sea. Two girls saw him floating beyond the break and swam to retrieve him. “But he’s dead,” she said. “He’s gone.”
            When the paramedics arrived they strapped a machine to his chest, a sort of jacket that performed chest compressions. Lifeguards from Delray came as well, riding down the beach in a four-wheeler. The paramedics lifted the man onto the vehicle and I watched them drive past. One of the paramedics held the man’s limp arm by the wrist, checking for a pulse. The drowned man was old, probably in his seventies: stocky, with a healthy, white beard. When his chest was compressed, his belly shook. And as I watched him being taken away, I couldn't help but wonder if he had said what he wanted to say. I wondered if he had written his books.

Donovan Ortega is graduating this semester with an MFA in fiction.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Detail of Moment/The Moment of Detail

            When I first met Jo Ann Beard, her demeanor surprised me. She was quiet, reserved, and in constant thought. Her speech was deliberate-- you could almost see her thoughts forming as she searched the air for what she wanted to say. During the week I spent with her, she spoke of the importance of trusting the reader, trusting your own mind, and most importantly, the power of moments. She had us read many short pieces of nonfiction that were based on singular moments that retained all their emotional resonance. I thought I understood what she was talking about, but I didn’t fully until a moment during the following week:

As I drive to school, my boyfriend texts me saying that our dog, Sidney, has had a stroke. I press him for details to make sure it's not just an allergy attack, which she's had a few times this past year. But the more he tells me, the more obvious it becomes. I speed down 95 fighting the urge to cry. 16 years old now, we'd rescued her from an abusive home years ago, and we'd always commented that she'd saved her youth for her aged years. That she must have been the runt because she was small enough to be a large teacup, and large enough to be a small miniature. Tears well up in my eyes. Her white fur, her front legs imperfect, bowed out like a bulldog’s. My mom hated the poodle cut, so we always gave her a puppy cut. When she was completely shaved, she looked like Dobby the House Elf, when her hair got too long, she looked like a Muppet. My mom had adopted her when I went away for my first year of college, her empty nest syndrome replacement for me. My mom’s fiancé didn’t like pets, so I'd taken over care of Sid for her final three years. For a while it was she and I, alone in the house. We depended on each other.
My mom moved back home a month before Sidney had her stroke. Jo Ann Beard's ideas were still reverberating loudly in my mind. I wanted to spend my time reading and writing, but my mom interrupted everything. Tensions flared. Emotions frayed. Her passive aggressive, cutting comments needled me. It hadn’t been a week and I already wanted her gone. I resented how she was treating me like a moving service; she undid anything I started in the house, she took over, and she wasn’t sorry about it. Then, Sidney happened:
I come home that night, and my mom is standing in a room she'd re-carpeted during the sudden move. She and my grandma had torn down wallpaper, sanded, and repainted. The walls are now a beach sand color, but the baseboards are still a palm frond green, a remnant from my childhood. The room is otherwise empty. She stands in the dead center, arms crossed, staring into an empty corner. I lean against the doorframe, feeling the vacuum Sidney left behind. My mom eventually turns around and we chat. First about the move, and then the work she'd done on the empty room; anything, really, except Sidney.

Finally, she fills me in. She'd been getting ready when she'd heard Sid’s nails scratch irregularly on the tile. She'd stepped into the hall and saw Sid, her neck contorted back, convulsing on the floor. She picked her up to comfort her, also trying to comfort herself. She explains how she had felt Sid’s tiny body go rigid, her neck stiff and little legs locked. All she could do was stand there, trying to comfort her, crying. When the episode was over, Sid started wailing, unsure of what just happened. This only instigated more sobs from my mom.

Here in the empty room, I listen to my mom, fighting back my own tears. We avoid eye contact. After Sid's seizure, my mom had stayed home, watching her walk crookedly, bumping into everything, falling over. I bite my lower lip and turn my head, looking out into the hall. When she took Sid to the vet, the doctor said she could live a happy life after the stroke, but in his professional opinion, it was time. My mom is crying again. We stand, completely at odds, avoiding each other, watching one another fall apart. She'd stayed the entire time. The vet commented that people usually only stay until their pet is anesthetized. My mom had stayed until Sid was completely gone; she explains to me that she wouldn’t have been able to live with herself if there was any minuscule chance Sid could still sense her presence. This gets me. I can’t hold it back any longer, no amount of chewing my lower lip can stop the deluge. This prompts my mom to keen with me. I grab tissues for both of us. One tug and the box is empty; two tissues are all that is left, and they are both in my hand. My mom and I spend the rest of the night standing in the incomplete room, sobbing into each other’s shoulders.

This moment would have been lost to me, but Jo Ann, still ringing in my mind, enhanced it for me. The details stick out-- there's no way to ignore them. The last two tissues, the incomplete room, the tension between my mom and myself, the remaining green paint from my childhood bedroom. They all add to the moment, are each somehow necessary, and I see that we weren’t only crying over the sudden deterioration of Sidney, but also our deteriorating relationship.

And Jo Ann Beard gave all of this to me.

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, February 23, 2015

A Week at the Writing Spa

            In honor of Jo Ann Beard, I set my kitchen timer for thirty minutes before I sat down to write this—thirty minutes to mirror the thirty-minute writing exercises she gave us in each workshop.
            I went into the workshop thinking this will probably be stressful but hopefully rewarding. I went in wondering how I was going to fit the work of an extra class every day into my already full grad school schedule. And I went in grateful that it was scheduled for the second week of the semester, before writing and grading papers kicked in, grateful that it wasn’t scheduled mid-semester.
            But here I am, mid-semester, and I would be really grateful if someone would bring Jo Ann back. Contrary to being stressful but rewarding, her workshop was stress free and rewarding. Her class became the most stress-free part of my day; it was like stepping into a writing spa. Her yoga-teacher voice only added to the effect.
            It was a no-pressure environment. All writing was done in the last thirty minutes of class. We could then take what we’d written home and clean it up, or not. In the next days workshop, we could share what we had written, or not. And when we did share, we received only positive feedback. The readings she gave us each day were only a few pages long and could be easily squeezed between brushing my teeth and going to bed. Each was one to five pages and each was brilliant, written by such authors as E.B. White, Annie Dillard, and Amy Hempel. We would spend an hour discussing them. And there was more than enough in those short pieces to fill an hour, a reminder that some writers can do more with three pages than others can with twenty-three.
            Then, with the words of those writers still swimming around our brains, we would write for thirty minutes. And I was amazed with how much I could write in thirty minutes. Each day, I produced about two pages double-spaced. The quality varied. Some felt like fully-formed finished pieces, others felt like the start of some longer piece, and others felt like maybe I should start over, like that was just a pre-write. Still, everyone produced at least one brilliant piece. But perhaps the most important thing out of those thirty-minute writing sessions was the knowledge that all I needed was thirty minutes. I didn’t need to block off a four hour stretch of time to write. I only needed to find thirty minutes a day. And thirty minutes a day has lead to more writing than any four-hour block.     

Shari Lefler is an MFA student and recipient of the Presidents Award at Florida Atlantic University. Her focus is on non-fiction, especially travel and family memoir. Since entering the program, she has served as a non-fiction editor for Coastlines Literary Magazine, and Vice President of Graduate Teaching Assistants for the English Graduate Student Society. She has also worked as an editorial intern for digital content at New Beauty Magazine. She is currently organizing an underground group of rebel grammarians to join her fight against overuse of the exclamation point. To become a soldier for the cause, draw a semi-colon on a piece of masking tape and leave it outside your nearest Barnes and Noble. She will find you.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Those Who Can’t Do, Teach.

            That’s the saying, right? I’m appropriating it for this blog not because I don’t think I can write. I can—or I think I can—at least people tell me I can and I write well enough to get into an MFA program, so I will go ahead and say I can.
            Writing is the reason I am here. It is the reason I signed up for the Jo Ann Beard workshop, and all the other workshops that leave me in the bipolar throes of accomplished elation or self-deprecating defeat. But there is another reason I decided to get an MFA—to teach. This, however, I’m still unsure I can do…at least well.
            Taking the Jo Ann Beard workshop seemed like a no brainer—she’s accomplished and brilliant and everything a writer aspires to be—and I assumed the one-week intensive would be invaluable to my writing. What I didn’t expect, however, was that is also proved to be invaluable to my teaching. I am, for lack of a better word, unorthodox in my pedagogical sensibilities (eye-roll all you’d like). I think that the tools and tricks for writing well are not exclusive for creative writing, or academic writing. Let me explain:
            On the third day of workshop, Jo Ann Beard told us about “The Sentence Test.” She says there are four questions we should ask ourselves to know if a sentence is good. (1) Is it grammatical? (2) Is it true? (3) Is it new information? And (4) Is there a surprise in it?—by surprise, she explains, she means was it interesting, did it DO something unexpected. We tried the sentence test out on Christian Wiman’s essay “The Limit” by closing our eyes and randomly putting our finger somewhere on the page, and then reading it aloud and deciding if it fit the criteria to pass.  
            The Sentence Test—it seems so simple, so obvious that—as writers—we should want all our sentences to be doing something, to have weight and purpose and be worthy of all the sentences around it. But what made me keep thinking about it long after the workshop was over was that maybe it wasn’t obvious to those who don’t identify as writers.
            I decided to test my theory, and scrawled the four questions on the board in my College Composition class later that week. I asked them to try it out on the papers I handed back, now covered in my comments with lines crossed out and the word “rep.” written over and over again (ironically). I asked my students to point to a sentence on their papers, read it out loud, and see if it passed—needless to say, many of them didn’t. 
            I explained to them the importance of a good sentence. How much work it should do, the importance of clarity and finding the right word (is it grammatical?). How to state a strong opinion and support it (is it true?). How to avoid repeating yourself to meet a word count because it weakens the argument and instead to give more evidence (is it new information?) And how to find your voice, create and use fresh ideas, or find new ways to be engaging to keep the reader interested (is there a surprise in it?).
            The Jo Ann Beard workshop helped me jumpstart my writing and gave me tools to hone my craft as a writer. But it also helped me hone my new craft—this strange and often stressful craft of teaching. And perhaps in some indirect way I think it also helped my students’ craft as well (I hope). So whether or not I “make it” and one day become accomplished and brilliant and everything an aspiring writer wants to be (God willing)—whether I CAN do that, well, is yet to be determined. But if I can’t—and I hope I can—but if I can’t, maybe I can teach.

Nico Cassanetti is a Second Year MFA student. She originally hails from the greatest city on earth and likes to ride bikes and leave cakes out in the rain.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Lately, I’ve been thinking about my relation to time and space. More specifically, I’m interested in discovering what this means for my writing and for my process in creating new work. Some people need that quiet, empty, clean space to write. No distractions. Some people set aside time specifically to write and only write. But I’ve never been as regimented in my writing as that. Before I moved to Florida from England, I spent years of my life waiting for trains to and from school. In the moments before the train rolled into the station, and then during the train journeys themselves, when I wasn’t reading, I would be writing. From this experience alone, I know that I am able to pick up a pen and write anywhere, no matter how loud or disruptive the atmosphere is. Those train journeys were rarely quiet. The problem I face is not with finding space or finding time, but finding a way to tackle the blank page. The dreaded blank page.

I first encountered Jo Ann Beard’s work during my undergraduate career at the University of South Florida. I was in my first creative nonfiction class, staring at "The Fourth State of Matter." My first reaction was to ask if what I was reading was really true. Not because I doubted Jo Ann, not for a second, but because the quality of each braid of the essay was perfectly intertwined with each of the others in a way I could only dream of being able to master one day. I studied Jo Ann’s work again in my first semester of the MFA here at FAU and again was struck by the seamlessness of her work, not only in "The Fourth State of Matter," but in other essays featured in The Boys of My Youth. I wondered how she did it.

Jo Ann Beard doesn’t revise. Not in the way we would expect, anyway. She told us she revises her work sentence by sentence, word by word, before her ideas move from her mind to the page. The blank page. The draft is the final product, the finished piece, which we see printed in those celebrated magazines and published as books. Each day in our workshop with Jo Ann, she asked us to spend thirty minutes free writing. Each day I left workshop with a piece I could polish and edit and that I have since turned into longer, more thoughtful essays than my initial scribbles. Her key to getting to this stage is not to fear the blank page, the space, the emptiness. The key is to submerge: into the conscious, into the subconscious, into the place where the deepest and truest stories are. Go there and stay there and pull your stories from there. Pour them onto that blank page.

As I drove Jo Ann back to her hotel after class one day, we talked about exercise. She was excited to play tennis the following morning and asked me if I worked out. Not as recently as I would have liked to admit. But writing is exercise too, or so she made me believe. Spending that time submerged in the writing is as straining mentally and emotionally as a good workout is for the body physically. She explained, “The work is that I’ve gone to that place and I’ve used that muscle.”  And after a week of daily workshops, delving deep into the craft and pulling my own stories up from the depths of myself, I felt drained in the best possible way. Like I’d discovered that muscle and not only stretched it, but worked it out. Jo Ann pushed me to do the work, stretch the muscles, find the place, and fearlessly face that blank page. To submerge. 

Rebecca Jensen is a first-year MFA student in nonfiction at Florida Atlantic University. She graduated from the Honors College at the University of South Florida in 2014. She has worked as fiction editor for Driftwood Press, a literary magazine, and is currently nonfiction editor at FAU’s Coastlines. She writes feature articles for Fort Lauderdale’s city magazine, Go Riverwalk, and her creative work appears or is forthcoming in FishFood Literary and Creative Arts Magazine. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Excuse me – do you have the time? My week in the Jo Ann Beard workshop

Every afternoon in workshop, Jo Ann Beard scrawled a prompt on the white board and instructed the class to write for thirty minutes without stopping, even if we had to begin the way she said she sometimes did: me no want to. The phrase came to mind when I thought about writing a blog post about the Jo Ann Beard workshop: me no want to. Not because I didn’t adore every nanosecond of the workshop with every nanofiber of my being – I did. Not because I don’t like writing for this blog – I do. Me no wanted to write this blog post because I felt I didn’t have the time to do it. Thesising, grading, class taking, moving, yadda yadda, I got ninety-nine problems and free time ain’t one.
Then I remembered: amid all this – “all this” being life, I imagine you’re familiar– I found the time to, first of all, attend the Jo Ann Beard workshop for two hours every afternoon for five afternoons. Those were ten hours I probably would have assumed I couldn’t spare had there not been a draw like, say, Jo Ann Beard. Then, in the workshop, we wrote for thirty full minutes – a quarter of each session! Yet somehow, each day, there was time to read and to discuss and to share our work and to learn and to learn and to learn. I learned a lot about craft and a lot about myself as a writer, and I learned also that thirty minutes really isn’t all that long and that I’m not really all that busy – not too busy, at least, to spare a little time to do what I’m here to do: write.
So instead of deleting the email requesting a blog post about the Jo Ann Beard workshop, I set the timer on my phone for thirty minutes, and I wrote this blog post about the Jo Ann Beard workshop. I wrote today, guys! And probably this means I could write every day! It’s just about finding the time, and it turns out the time has been right there all along – it was just hard to see behind the me no want to.

Risa Polansky Shiman is set to graduate from FAU’s MFA program this spring, as soon as she finishes her thesis, which only references Chipotle seven times.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Jo Ann Beard & the Complications of Genre

I admire the sentence that carries its own weight unapologetically. As such, I don’t fully embrace the distinction between non-fiction and fiction, because personal experience is incredibly difficult, maybe impossible, to divorce from. When I heard Jo Ann Beard was visiting, I was excited because her prose and its publication complicate the expectations of genre that I am interested in. When “The Fourth State of Matter” was first published in the New Yorker, it was designated as fiction. Today you can find it in nonfiction anthologies like The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. In 1996, The New Yorker decided that the quality of the prose carried itself beyond the constructed boundary of genre. The piece needed to be read and its context was an afterthought.
The weeklong workshop is a privilege and a wonderful opportunity. The stakes are heightened for all participants, and because we do not have a pre-existing relationship, the workshop itself is fluid, immersive. We focused on reading, reading well, and writing: the act and the craft.
During a Q&A session after her reading, when asked about the extent and content of possible story development, Ms. Beard said, “Anybody who has lived on the planet can imagine deeply anything.” As she continued to discuss the possibilities of a story, she detailed some of her experiences with writing fiction as opposed to non-fiction.
She suggested that fiction, by its very nature, offers more liberty than non-fiction, and that writing fiction allows the author to tell the truth, but does not imply ownership. However, there was the admission that you can’t create, or re-create yourself; that the persona, or character, is a creation outside of the self, although intimately married to that self.
I think it’s an interesting dilemma and will deserve more time to engage—particularly as I move toward my thesis—there is something within the realm of both genres that is appealing. Non-fiction offers itself as unapologetic truth. Fiction doesn’t demand ownership of anything; it allows for the experience to be plainly pictured.
Since I began writing seriously I prized most the experience of the poet. The exploration of craft in poetics engages both the act and the calling as a priori to the beginning of the career. In that way, genre seems to be a highly valuable commodity. I often return to Companion Spider, to read through Clayton Eshleman’s essay titled “Novices.” His calling to the young novice writer, the torch that he offers out to those invested in bearing the burden of craft, is an invitation to a nameless community invested in accepting the burdens of mortality and offering something on paper to a future that will forever outlast the self. For now since it is my choice, I will see it as I want and take on the obligations of genre without bending to its constraints.

Jason Stephens is from Boise, Idaho and he joined the MFA at Florida Atlantic University in the Spring of 2014.