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.