Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Accomplishing the Possible: On Writing Good (and Great) Fiction

If there’s anything that I’ve learned this semester (this being my first as an MFA), it’s that there isn’t a formula for good fiction. There is no single aspect of it that’s more important than others. Wonderfully complex characters can suffer if the dialogue is hokey. An intriguing plot can derail if the characters aren’t complex. A distinct voice can risk failure in carrying a piece if there’s not some sort of plot or growth.

I should acknowledge that all of the things I’ve mentioned could work and as creative writers, we should try to figure out how. After all, I think that once we learn all the “rules” for writing good fiction, it’s up to us to try to break them (successfully). But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that most of the fiction that I love often has more than one aspect that makes it strong. It’s finding the right combination that’s the tricky part. But I believe that’s what our workshops are for: targeting the aspects that are working and those that aren’t. How do we make this piece stronger? It’s the question we ask ourselves when we read each other’s work—what we set out to do when we revise.

So maybe this is my long-winded way of saying that feedback and revision are some of the most important aspects of composing good fiction. It often takes stepping away from our work and letting others lay eyes on it to find the direction we need to go next. Finishing a piece isn’t enough. Good fiction comes from thoughtful revision.

But how does one progress from writing good fiction to writing great fiction? This was one of the many questions that Professor Bucak posed to us this semester and to begin trying to answer it, we have to ask ourselves how we define great fiction. Is it simply more successful at doing what good fiction does or does it fulfill a completely different set of criteria? As Professor Bucak pointed out, if great is defined by standing the test of time, does it then imply risk-taking, originality, historical significance, or timeless themes? What is it that separates good contemporary fiction from short stories and novels that hold up over time?

I’m still working out how I would answer these questions, but I think that it’s something that we should all consider as writers as we try to revise our stories. In the end, it comes down to what we want our fiction to do. Do we speak closely to the issues that we are currently encountering or do we want our fiction to still be relevant years from now? Do we want to push boundaries with our writing or do we use traditional or familiar methods?

I realize that I’m posing many questions that I don’t necessarily have the answers to, but I’ve come away from my first graduate fiction workshop with as many questions as things that I’ve learned. As Professor Bucak told us in one of our last workshops, “I feel that you should come out of this class less sure of what makes great fiction than ever. I think that should be a good thing. But you should feel clearer on what you each individually would like to try as writers.” For me, now is the time to try everything. The possibilities seem limitless, which is simultaneously daunting and exciting. But my focus has now shifted away from what is “right” in fiction and towards considering what I want to accomplish as a writer. Towards what is possible.

Madison Garber is originally from Tallahassee, Florida—or South Georgia, according to South Floridians. In 2015, she graduated Summa Cum Laude from Florida State University with a B.A. in Creative Writing. A semi-professional ballerina for 17 years, Madison is now focusing her creative energies on fiction writing as a Master of Fine Arts student at Florida Atlantic University. Madison also hopes to hone her teaching skills as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the university’s Writing Program. She is a movie buff, a part-time introvert, and an Anglophile itching to return to Britain for another (hopefully extended) visit. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Setting: When Yours is Decidedly Not Subtropical

            Immersion in an environment that’s different from the one you intend to write about poses problems. Our program is situated in a subtropical, largely suburban city. Everything from daily attire and automobiles, to weather and flora differs significantly from the region I’m from—New England. Since my writing is predominantly set in New England, summoning it is essential. Memory is seldom enough. Like a painter, I find props and models are often necessary. Though these don’t need to be objects per se. They can be two-dimensionalish (like books and ephemera). Audio and video, either pulled from archives or drawn from the web, also work. And of course there are physical things. I once kept an anchor and some candle molds under my bed and hauled them out when I felt I needed to look at them. But I won’t admit as to whether or not they’re still there.

What I cannot have on hand here in Boca Raton are places themselves. And it’s impractical to travel back and forth during the semester in order to wander the streets of a given town or stroll a snowy beach for instance in hopes of executing some sort of plein air writing. However, I can bolster my memory of my experiences in such places with those aforementioned examples. A YouTube video of a place I know, a place I’ve spent time in, often will allow me to re-inhabit it enough to fold it into my writing. Audio is particularly helpful in summoning New England vernacular which otherwise evaporates at the Connecticut New York border. Though it doesn’t entirely because Florida breathes in people from all over the country each winter. Many of these snowbirds, vacationers, and transplants come from one of the six New England states. Improbably, I’ve had many fascinating conversations with folks not just from New England but from little towns adjacent to my own. The Wimberly library, in its stacks alone, is very well stocked with books that encompass what I look for in regional history and natural sciences. Add to this, the Marvin and Sybil Weiner Spirit of America—13,000 Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Century books and documents that hold their own against the holdings of many prominent northern athenaeums. A big, pleasant surprise. Bookwise off Spanish River Blvd regularly turns up interesting books on New England subjects. I find myself in there more often than I should be.

Of course the temptation to write about Florida is ever-present. And the subject itself is rich, diverse and intriguing. Wherever you find yourself, that environment will cast a bit of an alluring spell. No offense to the Sunshine State, but I doubt I will succumb. 

Rich Saltzberg concentrates in non-fiction at the FAU MFA program. He is a freelance journalist from Martha's Vineyard. His friends and peers consider him a heretic because he no longer drinks caffeinated coffee. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Happy Accident

There were four days before my community creative nonfiction workshop was set to begin when I learned that, due to unforeseen circumstances, I’d be taking on the community fiction workshop as well. At first this seemed like a daunting task. I had all of my lessons already planned out, my readings selected and ready to be photocopied, and they were all centered around—you guessed it—works and craft elements of creative nonfiction. This left me with two major questions I needed to answer in order to ensure that all of my students got out of the workshop what they’d hoped to: 1.) How am I supposed to fit fiction into the mix now with an already packed-to-capacity syllabus? And, 2.) Of all of the combined craft concerns of the two genres, which do I choose to focus on in the eight class meetings we’d have together?

The second question needed to be addressed first. Once I decided how to shift the focus of the class in order to encompass both genres, then I could worry about organizational measures. With six students in the class, that meant I could only afford to dedicate two of the two hour sessions to craft if I wanted to have enough time for all of my students to have two different pieces workshopped—which only seemed fair to me. A crash course in craft concerns was certainly in order, but which craft concerns should take the focus? Well, I would at least have to cover the elements of craft that are integral to both genres. This meant, for me: plot, characterization, setting, dialogue, point of view, and voice. On top of these, I’d have to cover certain elements unique to creative nonfiction as well. And so I chose to add truth and universality to the mix. No creative nonfiction class could be complete without a hearty discussion of the difference between objective and perspectival truth and how to handle weaving through both on the page. Universality, on the other hand, seemed crucial to bring up in order to avoid the awkward possibility of having to workshop 15 pages of Jane Doe’s private diary entries. “Your pieces should appeal to an audience broader than just you and your circle of friends and family,” I made sure to tell them straightaway.

With that, I added a few fiction readings to the list, photocopied them out, and the class had begun. Over the course of the workshop I found the amount of overlap between the two genres (even in terms of truth and universality, believe it or not) to be quite surprising. In fact, teaching the two genres together didn’t seem to muddle the concerns of either in the limited amount of time we had, but, instead, helped to illuminate the concerns of both in fascinating and beneficial ways. They reflected and refracted one another when they needed to, making for a swift understanding of the craft of creative writing overall. The other happy accident of the hybrid workshop was that it gave the students a chance to step outside of their comfort zones—an experience that I would argue is critical to the practice of writing. If I remember correctly, everyone in the class, whether they originally signed up for fiction or nonfiction, wrote one piece in each genre and I had the pleasure of being able to watch their writing improve and their appreciation of reading increase because of it.

Originally from Rochester, New York, Dustin J. DiPaulo is an MFA candidate at FAU. He writes creative nonfiction and music.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Q&A for Swann Summer Funding

Generally speaking, artists aren’t known for their salaries. As grad students pursuing fine arts degrees, we know this well. The proverbial image of a writer typing furiously into the night, bottle of fine whiskey close at hand, should perhaps be replaced by this: me, stunned by a humbling reflection of myself in the darkness of my zero-percent-battery computer screen, eyes baggy and brow furrowed, with a forkful of 99-cent tuna lunch making its way to my mouth.
The good news is, the MFA at FAU has many good funding opportunities for interested parties. Along with teaching assistantships and stipends, the Thomas Burnett Swann Summer Writing Fund is an opportunity for MFA candidates to pitch their summer writing plans for a chance at supporting cash.
As one of last summer’s Swann recipients, I, tuna girl, will now answer the following questions in the hope that you too can benefit from this (truly invaluable) opportunity:
Q: Why did you apply?
TG: $$$. I was yearning for certain writing opportunities but didn’t have the finances to pursue them.
Q: What was the application process like?
TG: Pretty straightforward. The first step was attending an informational meeting, where Dr. McKay outlined the application process. (This was announced by email in the spring, and took place on a Friday afternoon.) Next, we had several weeks to fill out an application form, and submit said form to Dr. McKay, along with a rough budget outline and a summary of our intended summer plans and how they would inform our writing.
Q: What would you have liked to know before applying?
TG: One helpful tip I did know before applying, thanks to a savvy older student, was that you can submit a ‘Plan A’ and a ‘Plan B’ if your first plan may tentatively fail. In my case, my Plan A was to intern with a high-profile, NYC-based publishing house or literary journal (my applications were in but were pending); Plan B was a self-designed ‘Micro-Retreat’ in which I would spend 2-3 days at an Airbnb location in order to ‘get away’ and focus solely on my writing, and gain new story fodder from the new people and environment.
Q: Where did you go?
TG: Asheville, North Carolina, and the Florida Keys. (It’s not New York City, but I wouldn’t change a thing.) The internship in NYC fell through, so Plan B was the plan for me. I was able to stay in Asheville for two nights, and stretch a bit of my cash to Key West (I’d never been, and its resume of writer-residents was too good to pass up).
            Q: How did the trip affect your writing?
            TG: I definitely got what I asked for. One of my Airbnb hosts was so strange (I won’t say which), he’ll probably be muse-worthy for the rest of my life. Both places were eclectic and arts-supportive; in Asheville, I spent an entire morning writing on a back porch with mountain views, which later became a setting for a story. On that same porch, I spent one long, candlelit evening in a rocking chair and watched the bugs flirt with the flames. One tragic moth was engulfed entirely, and the moment brought Annie Dillard's “The Death of a Moth”, which I had recently read, into truer beauty than the first time I read it indoors. In Key West, I rode a scooter around the island to Hemingway’s house, enjoyed the beach once favored by Tennessee Williams, and revised another short story that is probably my best one this year.
            Q: Why should other people apply for funding?
            TG: So you can set intentions for your summer, your growth, and your writing, so you can get money, so you can use the latter to actually fulfill the former, and (thanks to Thomas Burnett) to invest in creating great art.

Natalie Rowland is a second-year MFA student who has upgraded from tuna to quinoa.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Swann Travel Grant: North Dakota, June 2016

If you didn’t guess by my last name already—Jensen is one of the most common Danish family names around—I am part-Scandinavian as the paternal side of my family hails from Denmark. For my first ever Christmas, my dad’s parents sent me a big red book with gold gilt pages. I hadn’t yet left the hospital where I’d been born and they knew I’d be too young to read it for many, many years, but they sent it to me all the same. I still have their postcard note that had been tucked inside. Like the book, it is written in Danish:
Kære lille Rebecca, Du ønskes en rigtig god jul...
We hope that you will soon be big and strong so you can come home to mommy and daddy to read the wonderful stories of Hans Christian Andersen. We hope that one day you will be able to read it for yourself.
I’ve had the book sitting on my shelf at home for years, rarely opening it, rarely taking it down for fear of ruining the spine when I thought there was no way I’d ever be able to read it anyway. The Danish I know is scattered and basic; I can speak a little, but for the longest time I’d been scared to try to read it. And then, I took Dr. Becka McKay’s Translation workshop in the spring of 2016 and I decided, after almost 25 years, that it was time I made a better effort to read the thing myself. With my dad as my co-translator, I worked with the Old Danish to bring the lost stories of my childhood, Andersen’s lesser known tales, into modern English.
As the spring semester came to a close, my interest in translation had only begun to blossom, and I hopped on to a plane from sunny Florida to the great windy plains of North Dakota. Although not a popular vacation destination—especially not for us living in perpetual summer here—I was beyond excited to get out and to see what the Midwest had to offer. I’d been to the Dakotas before, but I’d never considered them as places where I could learn; the times I’d been before were to visit family and only that.
My plane landed in Fargo (yes, like that movie) and I spent the week getting lost in all things Scandinavian. From the early 19th century, many Scandinavian people began to cross over the seas and settle in locations across the Upper Midwest in the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and North and South Dakota. Because of this movement, North Dakota today is still rich in Scandinavian heritage and the state is dotted with centers and sites where tourists and descendants (mainly Norwegian, but Danish, Finnish, Swedish, Icelandic, too) alike can gather to learn of the Nordic history and culture in the area.
Fargo sits on the eastern state line between North Dakota and Minnesota. A skip across the Red River took me to Moorhead, MN, where—conveniently—there is a Scandinavian heritage site, complete with Viking ship and Norwegian stave church. Each and every part of the church and surrounding buildings had been dismantled, numbered and inventoried, shipped from Norway to Minnesota, and reassembled exactly and precisely as they had been originally built in Norway. On just the second day of my trip, I had found a home from home.

            Of course, I wanted more. With a bit of research, I had discovered that my beloved Hans Christian Andersen lives on in North Dakota. A memorial and tribute to him sits with pride of place at the center of a Scandinavian Heritage Center in Minot, ND, only a five-hour drive from Fargo. 
I made the trip with no idea whether the place would live up to my expectations. It seems silly to say it, but my worries vanished when I stepped out of the car and laid eyes on the statue in the middle of the park. Set to the backdrop of an even bigger and more majestic stave church than the one I’d seen previously at the Hjemkomst Center (hjemkomst: homecoming) in Moorhead, beside a replica Danish windmill, a cluster of authentic Norwegian homes, and a Finnish sauna, and flanked by the flags of each of the five Scandinavian countries, Hans Christian Andersen perched with one hand on his hip, the other extended out to hold a little bronze bird. I sidled up to him and had my picture taken sitting on his knee. Later, inside the church, as I looked up at the intricate carvings around the beams in the ceiling, an elderly woman struck a conversation with me in Danish. It was the first Danish I’d spoken in years but it came freely without too much second-guessing myself. It felt natural and, after, I felt giddy and proud of myself for making this happen.

            But none of this would have happened without the help of the Swann Travel Grant. Every summer, MFA students at FAU are offered the opportunity to apply for this scholarship of $500 to travel—anywhere!—to pursue a project that will help/encourage/enlighten/enhance/develop our writing. And every summer only a small number of students apply. The application is simple:
1.      A proposed project/travel plan.  Where do you want to go? Why do you want to go there? How will a trip to this place help you with your writing?
2.      Cost of travel. How will you get there? How much will this cost?
3.      Accommodation plans. Where will you stay? Again, how much will this cost.
Altogether, it was a short summary (mine was maybe 350-400 words) of the intentions of the trip and that’s it. I put mine together over a few days, hit ‘send’ on the email to the department, and waited for their decision.
            The best piece of advice I’ve received since starting the program here at FAU is this: get involved and do anything that seems even slightly interesting to you. If you don’t apply, you won’t know. If I hadn’t taken a small chance on sending in that application for the Swann, I don’t know if I’d still feel the desire and urge to keep translating the big red book whose spine is now creased and whose pages are loved.

Rebecca Jensen is a third-year MFA candidate in nonfiction. She has served as fiction editor for Driftwood Press and as Managing Editor for FAU’s Coastlines. She was recently a nominee for the 2016 AWP Intro Journals Project in nonfiction, and her poetry appears in Eunoia Review, Firefly Magazine, and FishFood Magazine.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Swamp Ape Review: What It Means, How We Got Here, and the Narrative that We Hunt

I’m a nonnative Floridian. Like many of us here in the MFA (and many Florida-dwellers overall), I transplanted in favor of a great writing program, sunny skies, and sandy beaches. Part of that process involves what I think of as Florida initiation moments—key experiences where I learn a true quirk of Florida culture (e.g., the uncanny campus presence of iguanas in place of squirrels, hand-sized banana spiders next to walkways, hurricane season, the known-only-to-locals meaning of just “season,” unpredictable appearances of the word “y’all,” etc.) One such experience was my first encounter with the mythological Swamp Ape. Over a cold glass of beer, an MFA colleague enlightened me with the long-loved mystery of the Swamp Ape—a Florida-dwelling being that sustains an enigmatic and elusive existence in the Florida Everglades.

The myth of the Swamp Ape is what inspired the name of Florida Atlantic University’s first national online literary journal, founded and produced by students in the MFA at FAU. As the Managing Editor, I have the privilege of bringing the Swamp Ape legacy into a new format, and directing its embodiment in our inaugural issue, appearing January 2017.

Needless to say, this year has been a busy one for us. Our challenge was to take a vision for hybrid works (see more on this at our website, www.swampapereview.com), and work it into existence with sweat, potlucks, and a pile of agendas and task calendars. Since January, we’ve been tackling all the practical business of running a journal: creating a temp logo and website, printing marketing materials for our submissions launch at AWP, outreach to artist markets and MFA programs soliciting their very best work, outlining staff responsibilities, reading more than 800 submissions (!), planning a launch party with big-name Skype-in readers… I may be biased (I likely am), but it’s been more fun than I ever imagined.

I’d like to credit the FAU MFA culture for that, as well as the drive we all have to create something new—something strange, exceptional, and alluring. Because we’re committed to our mission statement and niche, our hope is to build a community of artists—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, visual art, and “swamp” artists whose work defies a traditional genre—who are the best in their class and strive to capture that which we can’t explain. We are hunting a narrative as Floridians hunt the Swamp Ape; we want art that unsettles our assumptions of what is possible.

This month, we’re finalizing our decisions about what will be included in our inaugural issue. In upcoming months, we’ll be editing book reviews, hosting and interviewing top talent like Justin Torres, Ira Sukrungruang, Rebecca Makkai, Jennifer Egan, Victoria Fedden (an FAU MFA alumna), Elizabeth Powell, and Jensen Beach (who we also plan to take to the sandier-but-equally-mesmerizing Jensen Beach of the Florida coast).

For those of you who now (appropriately) want to get involved, we have options for you:
·         If you’re an FAU MFA student, attend our weekly meetings.
·         If you’re a writer/artist, watch for our submissions reopening in spring 2017.
·         If you’re attending AWP in February, stop by our table.
·         If you’re in another MFA program, watch your halls for our launch and submissions flyer, coming to a wall near you.
·         If you’re the social sort, follow us on Facebook (/SwampApeReview), Instagram or Twitter (@SwampApeReview).
·         If you’re just curious, check out our website and watch for our first issue at www.SwampApeReview.com.

It’s a good year to be a lit journal at FAU.

Natalie Rowland is an MFA candidate at Florida Atlantic University and the current Managing Editor of Swamp Ape Review (www.swampapereview.com).

Friday, September 2, 2016


Hello, all, and welcome back to the ever-stellar FAU MFA Creative Writing Blog! For this post, I'll be your host (and I promise not to continue rhyming).

Who is this, you ask? Well! I'm the English Graduate Advisor, and I'm here to help you navigate the salty waters of your degree progress. Please don't be shy - email, call, or drop by and ask me any questions you have. I might not know the answer, but I will find out what it is! My detective skills have grown immensely during my tenure as your devoted advisor.

So! What are you in for this coming year? Well, our Sanders Writer-in-Residence this year is, drum roll, please: Justin Torres. He'll be here 3/27-3/31 for the MFA workshop, and will be giving a reading Thursday, 3/30. You'll need to apply for a spot in the workshop - information on this will be sent out later this semester. You can check out an interview with him both here and here, find an editorial he wrote on the Orlando Pulse shootings here, and reviews of his beautiful book, We the Animals, here and here. We are so excited to have him!

We are also hosting several wonderful readings: Ira Sukruangrang on October 13, Victoria Fedden on October 20 (more on this in the next action-packed paragraph), and Jensen Beach and Elizabeth Powell on November 16. All these readings will be held in Live Oak D at 7:00pm. 

Victoria Fedden, an alumna of our Creative Writing MFA Program (!), will be here for the National Day on Writing. You can check out some reviews of her latest book, This is Not My Beautiful Life, here, and here, and you can find an excerpt from the book here. Her author page is here, and it includes a lot of good stuff: hilarious blog posts, writing advice, information on her books, and a reading guide for This is Not My Beautiful Life. We're thrilled to have her!

Our Literary Magazine, Swamp Ape, will be launching January 2017. Get involved with the magazine reading submissions, working on marketing, or however you’d like to participate. Be a literary midwife and help birth this baby!

I want to encourage you to apply to stuff, go to events, and basically do all the things. You might feel busy, but trust me, this is the time in your life to really focus on the reading and writing community that you are a part of! It won’t be forever (I can vouch for that, ha). So while you might feel like you need to do everything else (and binge watch old episodes of Supernatural or whatever), do the writing stuff instead. Apply for Swann funding. Travel. Go to the readings (it bears repeating: go to the readings! These are amazing opportunities for you to learn from and meet writers outside our program). You will get so much out of these experiences. The time goes by so quickly. No lie, apple pie.

Ahem. Okay! Weird endearments notwithstanding, are you nervous about your degree progress, the Plan of Study, the thesis, the thesis defense, graduating, choosing classes, teaching, or anything else? Good! That means you're human. Now come and meet with me.

MR Sheffield, aka Mary Sheffield-Gentry, is an alumna of FAU's MFA Creative Writing Program and your graduate advisor. Her work has been published in Hayden's Ferry Review, Fiction Southeast, The Florida Review, and other publications.

Friday, April 22, 2016

How to MFA Thesis, with Jamie and Nico

            A Haiku for a Thesis

      Each page come spring
      becomes a pile of shit
      after rereading

1. SQUAD GOALS: Picking Your Thesis Committee

So, thesis hours are approaching in a semester or two and it’s time to ask three faculty members to voluntarily commit their time and energy to reading, commenting on (hopefully), and approving (even more hopefully) your manuscript. First things first, you ought to already have some sort of relationship with each faculty member you have in mind (ie. you’ve taken a class with them, remember which New Yorker cartoon they have taped to their office door, and picked up at least two of their dog’s turds).

·         For MFAs, it’s likely you’ll have three writing professors in mind. For example, fiction MFAs may have taken workshops from Prof. Schwartz, Prof. Furman, and Prof. Bucak, while nonfiction and poetry students may be more familiar with Dr. Schmitt, Dr. McKay, and Prof. Mitchell. Some MFAs choose to ask a literature or composition professor (ex. Dr. Berlatsky or Dr. Bradford) to be a part of their committee to seek a balance of perspectives, or perhaps because the student has not taken workshops from three different writing professors. Either way, that option is most definitely available to you.

Nico and I both selected the same committee members: Dr. McKay, Dr. Schmitt, and Prof. Mitchell. We chose them because we had worked with all three of them in multiple classes, and felt like they each could offer unique, valuable, and insightful feedback (and, for Jamie, because they are poets). In thinking beyond the thesis, Becka, Kate, and Susan (breaking out the first names, because we’re, like, tight now) knew both of us well enough to write us recommendation letters (if they were willing to do so, and if we ever needed one), and even agreed to get coffee with us and suggest post-graduation opportunities. But, ultimately, we both saw these women as women who gave, and would continue to give, a damn about our work and futures as broke  grumpy active writers.

·         Etiquette-wise, be sure to request an appointment with each of your prospective committee members and ask them in person to be a part of your MFA journey. Don’t assume they’ll say yes. It’s like proposing to someone. There’s always a chance you’ll hear “Ew. No.”

2. I CAN’T EVEN: How to Figure Out WTF You’re Doing

Though it’s a good idea to know what you want your thesis to be (ie. a novel about a piano-playing dog, a collection of short stories about florists with allergies, a memoir about getting bullied in middle school for having a speech impediment), avoid stifling/cornering yourself.
·         Before your thesis hours formally begin, it’s a good idea to already be writing, knowing that you have plenty of time to be writing anything in any genre, about whatever you’d like. (Pro Tip: Don’t take a class during your final semester. And if you’re being told to take one even though you don’t need one, don’t say Nico and Jamie told you not to take it, because though we’ll have graduated, there’s no escaping the reach of FAU.)
·         Prioritize: Reading and improving your writing practice (and by ‘practice,’ we mean give more care to writing, reading, and/or revising on a regular basis). (Pro Tip: Don’t complain about not having any time to write. You do. Just stop going out to drink and/or watching Netflix. Like, seriously. None of your Facebook friends are buying it—they see your pictures.)
·         Do not be afraid that reading others’ works will cause you to copy theirs (that’s weird, and you know you don’t actually believe that. Imitate? Perhaps. Just don’t plagiarize. Or steal plot ideas. Don’t be dumb, essentially).
o   Jamie: I began thesis hours with about half of my thesis manuscript complete (including many pages of poetry that did not end up being a part of my thesis).
o   Nico: I began thesis hours with only about 45 pages done. But I had probably 15-20 pages of free writes I had done over the summer with Jamie that ultimately I ended up using (at least part of) in my final manuscript.
·         Remember: your thesis is not a portfolio of everything you’ve written during your time at FAU, it’s a focused product. It’s a cohesive Project Runway collection. It’s a herb garden, a flower bed, or a tree farm, not all three. We’re not saying don’t experiment or play with a variety of forms, we’re just saying that a reader ought to be able to read your manuscript and recognize a clear consistency of voice, aka. everything should keep in register.


It’s a good idea that, during this time, you secure a battle buddy. Or bosom buddy. Battle buddy just sounds more fitting. Your battle buddy will be your encouragement, disciplinarian, and shoulder to cry on. In the early stages of thesis writing, he/she will be your café beloved. You can meet to be a sounding board for each other, give each other writing prompts fitting for your respective thesis concepts, offer each other regular feedback and advice, and hold each other accountable for meeting any deadlines both self-given or school- or thesis chair-related. (Pro Tip: The Glades Rd. Starbucks doesn’t have a free table. It just doesn’t. Don’t even try going there to work. Try the Starbucks on Federal, near the Chipotle and Pei Wei.)

·         Choose your battle buddy wisely. You want to surround yourself with students who are as dedicated, efficient, and/or crabby as you are.
o   Jamie: You want someone to thank in your acknowledgements page for ‘sticking by you’ and ‘chauffeuring you to school and back’ (maybe that one is specific to me).
o   Nico: I originally was going to say you want someone who is as motivated and organized as you are, but I don’t know if that’s true. What I do think is important is that your Battle Buddy is a good reader for YOU. Someone who understands your ideas and intentions, and knows your strengths and weaknesses and how to suggest revisions accordingly.
·         If your thesis chair is willing to meet with you and read a draft or two during your first semester of thesis hours, we highly recommend you plan on doing so. It’s unlikely your chair has the time to be able to read four one-hundred-page drafts before they receive your final draft a month before your defense date, but there’s no harm in asking if they’d be open to reading new sections, chapters, pages, etc. during your thesis hours. In fact, they may expect you to do so in order to have a clear idea of where you are, work-wise, emotionally, mentally, in your manuscript-writing process.
·         Don’t rely on your Chair to keep you in check, though. (Pro Tip: There’s also no such thing as “writer’s block.” If you’re not hungry for cereal, then eat an apple. Leave personal essays alone for a day and write a poem. Write a series of haikus. Write an email in iambic pentameter to your parents asking for a small loan. Write.)
·         Give your Chair a timeline you’re hoping to stick to in regards to how much work you’d like to have done by each date, and when you’re going to plan on giving them work for review/feedback (again, if they’re open to doing so).
o   Jamie: I met with Dr. McKay approximately once a month. Because my manuscript was a collection of poems, it was probably a little easier for her to take home and review more regularly than Dr. Schmitt, who chaired Nico’s 150+ memoir manuscript (which ended up being 200+ pages in its form (or, for you Pokémon fans, its final evolution)).


In the beginning of your final semester, Kelly will send an email out about scheduling your defense. Do this as early as possible (Becka will appreciate it) and it will also give you a clear timeline (so you can set up a New Years Eve style countdown clock) of how many days you have left to write, edit, etc.
·         Aim to finish your manuscript before the semester of your defense. Doing so will offer you enough time to make final revisions before you distribute your manuscript to your committee (and time to concentrate on the thesis essay).
·         Get the requirements for your thesis essay from your chair. Each professor may (and often do) have different requirements for the thesis essay and will give you a handy one-sheet of what they want you to focus on. This essay will be distributed along with your manuscript prior to your defense.
·         Be early to your defense. It’s not a bad idea to dress semi-formal—it is, after all, the day you’ll be told whether or not you’re going to graduate.
·         Don’t be afraid to ask your committee questions. Something we didn’t expect was the focus on thesis-specific questions over post-graduation or program-related questions (like “So, where do you see yourself in five years?” and “What have you learned from your time in the program?”).
·         The defense itself will last approximately forty-five to sixty minutes. Your chair will slap your ass at the end and present you with a brownie, complete with lit candle. Not really. Becka McKay will wish you a good life and then remind you of an event next week that she needs you to attend.


Following your defense, you will have a couple of weeks to make any “creative” edits (read: actual writing to make the project more complete), but do know that those edits are optional. Sure, your manuscript will be uploaded to the FAU library, and, sure, there’s a chance some stranger will come across it and judge your lackluster fifth chapter, but don’t sweat the optional stuff. You’ll be too stressed meeting other mandatory deadlines.
·         The deadlines will come in an email from Kelly. (Pro Tip: Read Kelly’s emails carefully. Though she’s a patient and wonderful human being, she’s not sending you thesis-related directions for no reason, or going to invite you to her office to repeat everything in her emails over tea.) For us, we had about a month in between the defense and the final deadline to hand in our thesis to the Graduate College, and that felt too brief.
·         There are Graduate College-affiliated house elves that you can pay to take care of your thesis form process for you, and, after going through the process ourselves, Nico and I wish we had paid someone to go through everything we did (not more than $100 though).
·         If you don’t pay someone, and decide (like we did) that you are more than capable of using the formatting features in Microsoft word…well here’s how that went:
o   You will learn about margins, gutters, section breaks, continuous section breaks, ancient Greek section breaks, interpretive dance section breaks, et al.
o   You will send what you think is a perfectly formatted document to the Grad College and be told it’s wrong.
o   You will fix it, know it’s perfect and be told the GTA printer fucked up the margins and you should go print it somewhere else because that printer hates you as much as you hate having to grade papers this weekend.
·         But formatting isn’t the end:
o   You will learn about bond paper—colors, weights, watermarks, provenances (Pro Tip: Order on Amazon. Keep the box to put your final manuscript it.)
o   You will have to journey to far off lands to procure a very specific black, felt tip pen that will travel with your thesis across campus to be used by everyone who must sign your signature page while collecting millions of bacteria.
o   You will have to make two trips to Dr. Berlatsky’s office to ask for your pen back because he forgot to put it back in the box. He knows what he’s doing.
o   You will learn from this mistake when you go to the Dean’s office and look for the pen before you leave and ask her assistant politely for your pen back.
·         It’s a process that seems more difficult than it really is based on just how many requirements are going to slap you across the face via emails from the Graduate College, English Department, Library, your mom, etc. Keep yourself knowledgeable of future deadlines and you’ll be fine.

Thesis FAQs As Answered By Nico and Jamie
in Mean Girls Quotes

1. What do you do if you’re on a writing streak but are supposed to attend a campus event?

      “I can’t go out. *cough cough*. I’m sick.”

2. How am I going to handle leaving the program when all is said and done?

      “See? That's the thing with you [MFAs]. You think everybody is in love with you when    actually, everybody hates you!”

3. I know my chair said it has to be at least 100 pages, but is there a page limit on thesis manuscripts?

      “The limit does not exist”

4. My Battle Buddy has a mental breakdown in Starbucks because he realizes that the idea for his thesis is bad and the 50 poems he wrote are now useless, what should I say?  

      "Do you wanna go to Taco Bell?”

5. It’s Saturday night and I’ve been locked in my apartment for a month writing. My thesis draft is due on Monday but I just got a notification on Tinder asking me to go out tonight, what do I do?

      “At your age, you're going to have a lot of urges. You're going to want to take off your     clothes, and touch each other. But if you do touch each other, you *will* get chlamydia...   and die.”

6. My thesis chair just told me she wants a draft of my essay NEXT WEEK, what do I do?

      “She’s a life ruiner. She ruins lives.”

7. Help, everyone is annoying and I just want to be left alone but I don’t want to upset anyone’s feelings.

      “Whatever, I’m getting cheese fries.”

8. What do I do if I see one of my professors working at the coffee shop where I’m writing?

       “I love seeing teachers outside of school. It's like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs.”

9. I asked my boyfriend to read my thesis and he said it was too academic and boring, what do I do?

      “I know having a boyfriend might seem like the only thing important to you right now,     but you don't have to dumb yourself down in order for a guy to like you.”

10. What kind of response should I expect after my thesis committee deliberates and calls me back in the room?

      “I just wanted to say that you're all winners. And that I couldn't be happier the school       year is ending.”

Jamie's bio, as written by Nico: Poet and origami enthusiast James White was born a quarter of a century ago in Surrey, England. A quiet, yet precocious child, James learned at a very young age the value of saying a lot in very few words. When James isn't writing poems or teaching, you can find him at home spooning his dog and eating chocolate pie, or in the Decor section of Home Goods perusing items with birds on them. In addition to his not one, not two, but three Pushcart nominations, James has been published in more literary journals and reviews than we have time to mention in an introduction. He is currently working on an upcoming series of poems written on small squares of paper that he intends to fold into origami cranes and hang from a mobile.

Nico's bio, as written by Jamie: Nicole Cassanetti was born on the hood of a banana yellow 1983 Volkswagen Beetle during the Reagan era. Always a quiet creature, she quickly developed her affinity for smoking, napping, and paying for everything with loose change after realizing her dream of becoming a writer. Nico is well-versed in writing about her grandmother, kissing her vampiric boyfriend on shag rugs, and subsequently everything in between. Besides planning on making a career out of teaching creative writing, she claims to answer the call of North Carolina's Blue Ridge mountains, in which she'll take hikes with her stumpy corgi, kiss her now-much-hairier husband on grassy knolls, and call her old pal Jamie to chat about terrible student writing, crippling financial despair, and birds.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Writing Communities of Poetry and Leftover Cake

An occasionally heard complaint from MFA programs is they burden students with so much work that the students are unable to find time for the one thing they unhinged their lives to do – write. At a few weeks into the spring semester, this complaint is far from me.
The irony of my writing life, or really my ability to complete any activity besides online shopping and eating banana bread, is that as my free time grows, my motivation declines in close proportion. I had far too much free time between Christmas and the beginning of this semester. This meant I spent many days telling myself 1 p.m. is a reasonable time to shower, that it’s just fine to wear the same pair of sweatpants for many days in a row, and that spreading peanut butter on a stale piece of cake makes a nutritious breakfast. And I wasn’t writing.
Enter the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. For one week, A-list poets such as Kevin Young, Laure-Anne Bosselaar and Alan Shapiro gave readings, craft talks, and workshop with a group of poets who have taken many plane rides and pressed “pause” on their daily put their lives to learn from these writers. As an intern, I was able to learn from these people in exchange for tasks such as passing out programs and troubleshooting the cell phone issues of the elderly (well just once).
The takeaways from this week are invaluable. Advice ranged from the potential added resonance of repeated words (Thank you, thank you, Mary Szibist) to the potential boons of rethinking simple sentences. This came from Carol Frost, who led the workshop I observed. She asked participants to find as many arrangements as possible of this sentence: Mary swam the river with her red dog.

The river, Mary swam with her red dog.
With her red dog, Mary swam the river.
Mary swam with her red dog in the river.
With her red dog in the river, Mary swam.
Mary, the river with her red dog, swam.
As the order of words shifts, each line changes in meaning and tone.  Now when I write, I fight against my instinct of how a sentence works. More possibilities exist than subject-verb.

More motivational even than these pieces of wisdom was being in the presence of so many people who love language and poetry. It was an intensified version of the community fostered through an MFA program, and I remembered how fortunate I am to be writing out of the cold. I know this is a temporary state, and that one day I’ll find it much easier to ignore the urge to write and eat banana bread instead. But hopefully when I arrive, I’ll find it harder to give in. I hope to carry these writing communities with me. When my peanut-butter-on-cake-persona forgets why I write, why it’s sometimes impossible to write, I can remember the enormous web of people who are struggling with me, and we will still write.

Kathleen Martin, a fist-year MFA student, is a Kansas native and a journalist turned poet. She owns several socks with hedgehogs on them. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Tom Sleigh and Writing without Rules

Because I am in my final semester of grad school, Tom Sleigh is the second and last Sander’s Writer-in-Residence whom I will have the pleasure of taking an additional workshop with as part of the MFA program. After I graduate in May, I will enter a whole new realm of writing — the realm of writing outside the workshop. And Sleigh’s workshop, while still nestled under the umbrella of the workshop and still safely away from the storm of real world writing, provided a good starting point for considering what writing can be outside the workshop setting.

Workshops create their own guidelines for how to achieve that level of writing that members of the literati would consider “good.” In a way, this is a necessary part of teaching writing. How can you help students improve their writing if you can’t point to what is “good” and what is — in the euphemism of the workshop — “weak,” then give those students strategies for taking the “weak” and making it “good”? However, in trying to guide students toward “good” writing, the workshop gives advice that is picked up and parroted by students until by virtue of repetition it becomes a rule, an impermeable boundary.

In Nonfiction workshop, one of the most common rules is that personal essays and memoirs should be written from a place of emotional distance. In theory, this principle allows writers to analyze their lives with clarity and logic. And it gives them the time and context to understand the importance of a life event and clarify that importance for the reader. However, it also leads to a lot of writing about half-remembered events, and a lot of writing that avoids the messiest aspects of human emotion. There are times when writing from that place of immediate emotional turmoil could produce stronger and more engaging work. But because emotional turmoil doesn’t usually produce stronger writing, “emotional distance” has become one of those repeated rules of nonfiction writing, and it is a rule that nearly everyone adheres to.

During Tom Sleigh’s workshop, we were asked to break all of our rules. Sleigh asked us to look at our writing and consider our process — the rules we’ve set for ourselves or heard touted in workshop and adopted — and to do the opposite of what we would normally do. For people who normally write from a place of logic, try writing from a place of emotion. For people who normally write minimalist prose, try writing as a maximalist. If there is a subject you avoid, why? If there is a subject you always return to, find something else. Sleigh’s workshop was a process of undoing what we have done to our writing in previous workshops and remembering that with each piece we write, we must sit down and decide for ourselves what form it will take and what rules will help or hinder the piece — Is this a piece that will benefit from emotional turmoil or emotional distance? Only the writer can decide. Because in writing, there are no rules, only decisions. Every writer has the privilege of deciding what form will benefit her piece, with or without the consensus of the workshop.  

Shari Lefler is an MFA student, focused on Literary Non-Fiction at Florida Atlantic University.  She was born and raised in Boca Raton, FL, where she spends her spare time trying to cuddle with her dog, which spends its spare time trying to escape her grasp.