Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Jo Ann Beard Workshop and Whiplash Spoiler Alerts

One of my favorite movies of the year was Whiplash.  Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is an aspiring drummer for Terence Fletcher’s (J.K. Simmons) studio jazz band at the Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in the United States.  The overarching message of the film is that no matter what, an artist is an artist is an artist.  In this case, Neiman is determined to make his dream of becoming a musician come true and prove wrong everyone who doubts him, including friends, family, and his conductor, Fletcher.  Neiman is so resolute that even when involved in a horrific car accident minutes before call time, he flees the scene (not unscathed, as he is covered in blood from head to toe) and not only plays, but ruins the show.  This does not deter him from his dream though, as he eventually goes on to play again and wins over the undying respect of his leader, with one final shot focusing on Fletcher’s smiling eyes.  Brilliant.  Bravo.  Loved it. 

Last Thursday I was on my way to day four of the Jo Ann Beard workshop.  I had some time to spare and decided to stop for coffee and a donut at Starbucks (the old fashioned glazed donut) as Jo Ann had read a piece that had donuts in it and I couldn’t get my mind off the sweet treats.  They were doing some construction over by the bank near the Starbucks and I couldn’t see whether or not I had room to get back on Federal Highway, or if I would have to drive around to another exit.  As I kept my eyes on the exit of the plaza, I failed to see the bright blue Prius behind me and backed into him with an audible crunch.  I pulled back into my spot and examined my car, still unaware that I hit another vehicle, checked my own, and saw a tiny smear of blue paint on the back of my black bumper.

“Are you okay!?” I called out, spinning around to see a man in orange shorts walking out of his car and buttoning up his shirt.  He had a fluffy puff of white hair around his head, glasses, and some type of casual beach loafers.  I instantly felt horrible.  I had ruined this man’s day, ruined my own, and my workshop was starting in twenty minutes. 

Neiman takes a bus to the concert for his big show, and it breaks down.  He runs to a rental car office only fifteen minutes from the venue.  Rushing, he forgets his drum sticks at the rental car office, leaving them on a chair in plain sight.  Neiman realizes this and must get back in his car, retrieve the sticks, and hurry to his show.  Fletcher waits but has an understudy prepped and ready to go on stage.   Minutes fly by and Neiman gets back in the car and books it to the venue.  SMASH.  A truck collides with his vehicle.  He is totally f’ed.  However, he runs out of his car, bloodied and bruised but with his sticks, heads to the concert and insists on playing.  Fletcher kicks him out due to his failure to perform and the two brawl it out.

My guy was a lot nicer.  He shook my hand, understood that I had a life changing workshop to attend, and let me go, as I promised my mom would come as soon as possible and handle all the insurance information.  Luckily my mom was off work that day and was able to come help, for that is a godsend, but I still felt awful and began crying hysterically on the way over to school.  I had texted a few people that I was in an accident and that I was running late for class, but that I was okay, just really upset.  When I got out of my car with four minutes to spare until workshop time, I checked my phone and saw a text from my best friend.  He said, “Your day is like the movie Whiplash.  You get into an accident and you crawl out of the car and you run to your workshop!  Blood on your books, you’re still moving forward.  Still doing what you were born to do.  J.K. Simmons tries to take you down during your reading but no!  You keep moving forward.  Keep pressing on.  All of a sudden a close up on J.K. Simmon’s eyes and you can see he’s smiling.  Smiling because he has done it.  He has found that great writer he had been searching for his entire career.  Brittany Ackerman.”

Fletcher had taunted and tormented the members of his jazz studio and was unrelenting about finding that “great one,” a musician that could make his work worthwhile, all the years spent training one after another, all the name-calling and physical assault.  While Jo Ann Beard did not abuse us or say anything negative all week, Fletcher’s character represents for me anyone who ever has said something negative about my work ethic, my place in the program, my writing.  Neiman continued on despite what anyone said about him, and although Fletcher was a bastard, he did prove his point that “the great ones” will not stop and will always continue to move forward and press on. 

Jo Ann Beard confesses it takes her an unusual amount of time to finish a piece of writing.  She also tells us that it would be “easier for her to dig up the sidewalk with a spoon than to write” because it is truly her opus.  But if I wish to call myself a writer, the real deal, then an impenetrable impetus will propel me forward from all of life’s unfortunate occurrences and I will write write write. 

It often feels as if Fletcher is standing over my writing desk whispering, “What are you doing, man?” (just like in the movie!) in a way that makes me question myself.  But in reality, Jo Ann Beard is sitting beside me, assuring me that “Your piece was magnificent!  How beautiful!”  No matter the positive or negative feedback we receive from others or give to ourselves, the only way we will be successful writers is if we continue to write. 

Yelling “I’ll cue you in!” to Fletcher, Neiman demands to play on stage and commands his position as a drummer. It is in this moment that he becomes one of the greats, student transforming into teacher, roles reversed.  Fletcher watches in awe as Neiman succeeds, and that is what I wish to have for myself- the moment where I amaze and surprise my greatest critic, myself, because I am able to show up and write the damn thing.

Brittany Ackerman is a third year MFA candidate for nonfiction.  If you can't find her frantically typing at Spot Coffee in an ironic t-shirt and an unamused scowl, she is probably at Disney World realizing that it actually IS a "small world after all..."

Friday, January 23, 2015

What Is The Truth of the Matter: Part II

My curiosity about how truth functions in writing is insatiable—so much so that last year I wrote a blog post about it. The blog starts with a question that has plagued me from the moment I first came across it…here is me quoting myself:

“Taped to the refrigerator in my grandmother’s kitchen there is a piece of paper marked with a question:
                                                 What is the truth of the matter?”

The first time I saw it I remember thinking how appropriately deep it was for someone like her. I thought about what it said about her as a person, and about the kinds of people who would ask her about it, or try to answer it, and all the conclusions I could draw about someone who would write a question like that on a piece of paper and tape it to their refrigerator…but in the end the question only led to more questions.
The contemporary literary landscape has created a struggle for the working writer, who is torn between the blurring lines of genre boundaries, and the traditional rules that have been put in place to compartmentalize their forms. Historically, the rules of writing have followed the black and white sensibility that a text must be classified as is either factual or fictional…However, there exists today a debate in the non-fiction community about whether truth and fact are always identical, or if there exists a flexibility somewhere—an emotional truth that can be separated from factual truth.

It is fair to state that both poets and prose writers can reveal absolute truths about the human condition and emotional exploration without the concern that any image, character or action that is presented in their work is or is not a recollection of fact or the authors’ organic fabrication. Conversely, journalists are depended on to report the facts, unadulterated and wholly (though they often don’t), and non-fiction writers—biographers, memoirists, and essayists are under constant scrutiny—waiting, post-publication, to be lambasted by readers for the slightest skew or embellishment. So is it fair to say that these rules must be followed in order to create valid examples of texts in each genre? Are novels based in truth less credible because the author chose not to create an entirely fabricated world? Is the memoirist a fraud for conveying an interpretation of his or her own memory that cannot be corroborated?

I find this rigid divide problematic, both as a reader and a writer. As a reader, I want to believe that the author—regardless of genre or theme—is passionate about his or her work, and this passion—if it is to be believed—must come from a place of authority that should emanate from the work that has been created. This authority would most likely stem from a place of personal experience…of retrospection and recollection of a moment, a feeling, a place that has affected the writer enough for it to become an inspiration for their work.

In 2006, Oprah Winfrey chose James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, as an Oprah’s Book Club selection. Three months later, reports exposed parts of his book as being exaggerated—most notably that his account of his 87day stint in prison was no more than a few hours. In a live, on air interview, Oprah Winfrey chastised Frey for his embellishments, saying "I feel duped, but more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers." It was a literary event great enough to merit a re-evaluation of the terms of memoir writing.
What the New York Times coined as, “The Frey Effect” set off alarm bells for publishers and agents alike, some of which had once encouraged authors to turn novels into hot-selling memoirs. New York Literary Agent Christy Fletcher told the New York Times, ''The decision to take on a memoir was always based on how good is the writing and how good is the story, that's not enough any more.''

If a fact cannot be corroborated on a work that is defined as non-fiction, does the “larger truth” that in offered within the text lose it’s legitimacy as well? In the case of James Frey, the line between aesthetic enhancement and outright fabrication was not toed so much as sprinted over. But would the outrage of his readership been as high if he had said he was in jail for 8 days instead of 87? And would the entire message that comes out of A Million Little Pieces come undone without including the narrative of a three-month stay in prison? The Frey Effect is not a consequence of poor authorship, so much as improper representation. If Oprah’s producers had done fact checking of their own, they would have discovered that Frey had shopped the book out as both a novel and a memoir prior to publication—a clear indication that the book was at least partially fictive. Regardless of who is to blame for the misclassification, the fact that the book had an audience at all is based on what Times book critic Michiko Kakutani calls, ''a case about how much value contemporary culture places on the very idea of truth.''

Our job as writers is not to define truth for our readers, but for ourselves. We must accept the fuzziness of our memories, and acknowledge that our perception of things is as unique and personal as our own genetic code. I wrote once that these truths that writers use in their work are “a repackaged retelling of what it means to be human.” That each individual detail, no matter how unique, is just each writers way of converting their truth into some universal truth…and I again recalled the piece of paper taped to my grandmothers’ refrigerator door.

A few months ago I sent her some pages of my retelling of her life, and the life I was living as I wrote it. Along with the manuscript I attached a note that said, …what is the truth of the matter? She responded, via voicemail, something that will most assuredly make into the next set of pages:

“There is no such thing as truth. My truth is not your truth. The truth is the seed that you put in the ground and it grows. Life has no purpose; life is an experience. What you learn is through experiencing life, your life, and that is what you write. That is the truth. That is life, and you cannot stop it.”

Nico Cassanetti likes to write. She has written for Life|Style Magazine, Muses & Visionaries, Abramsbooks.com, TheFasterTimes.com and reviewed great literary works on index cards for her staff picks while working at an independent bookstore in Brooklyn. She lives in South Florida and should probably quit smoking.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Year I Stopped Writing

When does a writer cease being a writer?

For the last year and a half, I've lived in Portland, Oregon, working as a social media and communications specialist for a small business. I've written more professional copy in the last year than I did in my final year of graduate school in 2013. I also journaled more and read more books in 2014 than any other year of my life (including that one angsty year in sixth grade when I filled an entire Five Star notebook).

Yet, this is the first "complete" piece of creative writing I've written all year. The first piece of writing I've refined, edited, polished, and submitted somewhere to live and be read outside the covers of my journal. The first piece of original writing since my graduate thesis.

Sure, there was that old lyric essay I cleaned up, re-labeled as fiction, and submitted to a handful of journals. I wrote that first draft in 2011. Does editing, re-purposing count as writing? I'm not sure.   

As far as any new, original pieces by Renee Long? Nada. My first year and a half outside the MFA has been dry. But somehow, I don't feel too guilt-ridden about this drought.

I won’t label my experience with the ugly term some writers use (the dreaded “W.B.”). I suppose I’m experiencing heart sickness. Losing my ability (or drive, or desire, or motivation) to write feels like a best friend has left for a distant place with no phone or internet service.

I miss this friend: the days spent at the beach, the nights out dancing, the afternoons cooking and drinking wine together, the long, important talks where you share only the most vulnerable parts of yourself.

Yet I feel this long time apart serves some purpose. It is some crucial, painful experience I have to go through to grow. To thrive without resting on the crutch of my best friend.

One benefit I’ve found from this “long away,” this drought, is I have been fully present in my experiences here in Oregon. I felt the warmth of sweet driftwood on my skin while I watched the sun set behind coastal cliffs. I dove naked beneath an icy, blue lake in the forest of Mount Hood. On my birthday, I saw glittering spouts of gray whales migrating south to Baja for the winter.

For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel an itch to immediately capture these experiences in writing. Until now, of course. To me, the urge to exploit a moment for the sake of art never felt great…and this year, it was a relief for the writer-itch to fade for a while.  

I am still a writer, and I miss my long-distance friend. Sometimes, when I am reading or taking notes, it's like I receive a postcard—a glimpse into her life in the "away," and I am reminded how much I love and crave creative writing—how it fills me.

But those glimpses never replace the act of writing: the peace, the release, the high. The delight of mining a line of poetry or prose from the innermost parts of myself. This is how I see my writing: a best friend spending an extended period of time abroad. Away for the time being.

My friend will return one day. For now, my other close (but not quite as fulfilling) companions—reading and free journaling—keep me company, keep my mind sane. And when my desire to create more returns, when I am ready to write something worthy of jumping out of my journal for other eyes to see, I'll be glad. And we'll slip into old habits of friendship, develop new rituals. Grow. Learn.

I’m not sure what brought on this drought. I imagine it was the drastic life changes that occurred over the past two years: graduating from my MFA program, finding myself outside of a classroom for the first time in 20 years, moving 3,000 miles across the country. Whatever it was, I’m grateful for the respite. I’m grateful to know I am still a writer. I am grateful for the unexpected ways life re-arranges our hearts, and we still somehow survive.

Renee Long is a writer, editor, (sometimes) teacher, and novice yogi living in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing Fiction from FAU. Her work has been published in Rock & Sling and Tiger’s Eye: A Journal of Poetry. She is the blog editor for Ruminate Magazine and has a mild obsession with orca whales.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Why the MFA Program is Like Notting Hill

   When Julia Roberts walks into Hugh Grant’s travel bookshop in the movie Notting Hill, Grant immediately (though, yes, with hesitancy) recognizes who has entered his store. As Roberts traces the spines of books on Turkey and Istanbul, and Grant watches from behind the counter, it’s clear that both Roberts with her straight American teeth and Grant with his small British charm come to represent something of an irresistible exoticism to each other. Roberts is first seen adorned (and disguised) beneath a black beret, black jacket, and dark sunglasses. She/it appears a mystery, but fails to mask her well-known identity. Both she and Grant are alluring without having to be hypnotic. He is charming, funny, and handsome. She is strong, successful, and beautiful. To each other, they represent different but closely related fantasies. To me, they represent how I first envisioned an MFA program.
            During a recent date, I told an academic figure—one whose career is rooted more in administration than teaching—that the writer will always be considered romantic. Though perhaps not romantic in nature, the writer is situated in a dwindling genre of human being. The writer is the lead in a romance movie, thought of sitting by candlelight at his study desk writing about lost love, in Starbucks too busy typing on his Macbook to wipe the tears away from his five o’clock shadow, saturated in romantic ideas in pursuit of an idealized romantic absolution. He is, at the root of everything, invested both in a job that he has been told will probably not make him any money or bring about any fame, and a love interest whom he has been told simply isn’t good enough for him. Yet, he pursues them. He lives and breathes (wait for it) passion.
            When the writer first learns that he can develop his craft within upper-level academia, strolling through the same land as doctors, engineers, and physicists, he latches onto the idea of closing in on the chase of literary success.  Dr. Poet. Master of Prosody. Lord of the Haiku. When Roberts locates herself in the same intimate, dusty world of Grant’s, she has become less of a fantasy and more of a realistic possibility. Grant quickly learns though, after experiencing more of Roberts within her hectic artistic and romantic environments, that the dream of their relationship will inevitably perish underneath their opposing lifestyles. It is, however, while Roberts witnesses the birthday celebration of Grant’s younger sister that she recognizes what she ultimately wants. Against all prohibiting factors, she wants to have, to be more like, and to be loved by Grant.
Not too long after I started the MFA program, I had a different experience. I wanted to remove myself from the twenty other writers who were sitting at the same dinner table and, like me, also questioning the point of acquiring an MFA degree. I looked around the table and interrogated my position. How was this environment going to benefit my writing and development of a writerly identity? I thought a significant, positive thing about enrolling in an MFA was being surrounded by other writers who are desperately and passionately in love with writing, but it seemed many others were also in need of validation that they were still in love with their art.
When Roberts’ boyfriend—a younger Alec Baldwin—travels to the city unannounced, the romance between Grant and Roberts suffers. The reality of Roberts’ American boyfriend interrupts the spontaneous, whimsical relationship at bloom between Roberts and Grant, and this causes us to question the line between fantasy and reality. I felt a similar damage when my writing—which was, for the most part is, and should always be given full attention during time enrolled in an MFA program—fell behind the overwhelming shadows of other “responsibilities.” Yes, many of these responsibilities were related to my development and refinement as a writer, but seemingly for the purpose of fear-driven career preparation and the satisfaction of credit requirements. It took a while, under the overwhelming anxiety of being told that there isn’t a market for poetry anymore beyond tabling at readings and conferences, and that I only have a 5% - 10% chance of landing a solid university teaching position unless I dedicate the next five to six years acquiring a PhD or (by the grace of God) getting a book or two published, to recognize my view of these “responsibilities” as opportunities.
 It has seemed recently as if Baldwin flew in and stood in the way of my romantic perception of what I wanted the MFA (and for that matter, my future) to be—the dedication of three years of my life to my craft. I came to feel that I had instead given up three years I could have more actively spent on my craft outside academia—beyond teaching composition courses, grading first-year papers, and taking theory courses I had little interest in—for a degree that would simply make me eligible for one of the few professions in which a poet is typically found: teaching. Alec, however, is only realistic. He illustrates that romance (and the MFA program) is more layered and complex than one may take it for. He helps us realize that every choice is an opportunity for something better, and that the MFA is going to be whatever one chooses to see it as. Three years of lying naked on a shag rug in front of a fireplace writing prose poems isn’t as romantic if this same hypothetical MFA student isn’t also teaching essay writing to hundreds of college freshmen, studying other forms of writing and communication, and involving himself in the editorial workings of a literary publication or governmental workings of a student organization. If he sees the MFA degree as three years of opportunities to fully dedicate himself to his writing, the writings of others, and the larger literary world, then he might better imagine the future for Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.
I find myself now, in the middle of my MFA career, on the cusp of my thesis—ready but not yet able to transfer my attention back to the romance of being a writer, back to seeing the MFA degree for its fullest potential. I feel as if I am standing, admittedly and confessingly hurting, in front of the once-incredibly idealized romantic notion I had of the MFA, hearing it ask me to love it again. And as it asks—hair flopped, eyes wide, ready to accept me back into its arms—how long I plan on staying, I keep finding myself repeating “indefinitely.”

James White is a second year student in the MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry program. He is excited to graduate from the program with a few manuscripts in tow, with which he will entice a handsome NY businessman-turned-lumberjack named Ethan during a writer's retreat in New Hampshire. James will read his poetry to Ethan as he chops firewood, and the two will die holding hands like the old married couple in Titanic.