Monday, February 29, 2016

Tom Sleigh Doesn’t Give a F***, and Neither Should You

A few days before his arrival, I volunteered to give poet and essayist Tom Sleigh a lift to his hotel after our last workshop session. Almost immediately I began to suffer mild anxiety over what it would be like to have a Famous Poet in my car. My friend Renee once drove Kurt Vonnegut to an appearance, and he was cantankerous about the automatic seatbelt in her 90s era car. He didn’t want to wear it, and they back-and-forthed until she finally said, “Look. I’m not really a great driver, and I don’t want to start my fledgling writing career as ‘The Girl Who Killed Kurt Vonnegut’, so put on the seatbelt, please.” He laughed and clicked himself in.

I needn’t have worried. By Friday afternoon, Tom had quietly dazzled us with BTW-I-Was-A-Junkie-When-I-Was-Your-Age stories, with his matter-of-fact stoicism about living with a chronic blood disease, and by dropping unabashedly fluent F-bombs. His ability to quote lines and couplets across five centuries of poetry verges on the astonishing, and man (!), he is friendly with so many Famous Writers that I couldn’t help thinking how much easier it was going to be to win Six Degrees of Separation with Tom Sleigh in my deck.

We spent the week riffing on the relationship between emotions and our work. Tom told us how important and helpful it is for writers to think of ourselves as collaborators with language, to always remember that we cannot control language, and that we are merely the medium through which language passes. He told us that if we want to have a good relationship with ‘the muse’, we should begin to consider the gift of our talent and drive to write as something larger than ourselves. He encouraged us to lose the “workshop mentality,” in which we are compelled to perfect THIS poem, THIS story. We must think of ourselves in the long term, he said – considering each poem or story we write as a part of one long poem or story eases the pressure to achieve an elusive perfection.

We spent two days reading our own work to one another. When Tom said we were amazing and that the time he spent with us was the best part of his three-week stint in South Florida, we believed him.

On our last day, Tom had some final words of advice for us. “All editors are idiots. All editors are morons. That’s got to be your attitude”, he said. “When you send manuscripts out, be immune to the whims of editors. Acceptance and rejection mean nothing. If you can’t be immune, get into another line of work. If you make your ego dependent on the praise of the world, you’re done for. If you win (a contest), it means nothing. If you lose, it means nothing! Do not despair. Do not presume. Win or lose.”

We wrapped up the workshop and Tom signed a few books of his poetry for us, casual-like. He clapped one of the guys into a tight hug, said, Keep in touch. We walked to my car, where he buckled himself in and passed the next twenty minutes acting genuinely interested in what I had to say about growing up on a dairy farm and teaching immigrants in South Florida high schools.

Trina Sutton is working toward her MFA in Fiction at FAU.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Facing Our Dragons: A Week with Tom Sleigh

It is inevitable in writing that, sooner or later, we will come face to face with a dragon. My dragon is often my grandmother’s death; I want to write about her, but nothing I put down on the page feels good enough. I get overwhelmed and it scares me to look the dragon in the eye. It is so much easier to put down my pen and wait for the dragon to curl back into its cave. I’m not ready. Maybe it’s not my story to tell. Perhaps I’ll write about something else.

Tom Sleigh described the writing process to our workshop group as a combination of emotions, thoughts and words. Emotion finds a thought, that thought finds a word. We took out old pieces of things we’d written days, weeks or months earlier and began to revise them, recasting our sentences because that, Tom said, is the joy of writing. The lines we had initially written were stretched and broken and changed until our emotions found the right thoughts and the right words to portray them on the page. And in that workshop, we watched ourselves (and each other) transform.

Eventually, we writers want people to read what we’ve written. Why else would we keep submitting to journals or showing up to workshops? But when we’re faced with material that is overwhelming to us, difficult to write because it’s too personal, too tough to get out and on to the page, sometimes we give up. Sometimes the dragon looms over us, breathing heavily down our necks and we can’t take the heat. Our emotion found the thought—waking the dragon—but the words aren’t there yet.

In our classroom, on the board, Tom draws a dot. “This is you,” he tells us, “and this—” he draws another dot, “is your dragon.” He connects the two dots with one very short line. “Now, you can’t fight a dragon with your bare hands, but if only you had a sword.” Tom draws another dot, redirecting the route from “you” to “sword” to “dragon” making a triangle for us to observe. “Put something between you and the dragon and you’ll get that distance you need to fight it.”

We use language as a disguise. We want the world to know what happened to us but we don’t want the world to see through the experience to find us cowering in a corner afraid of what we might have unleashed. By focusing on individual words and sentences first, building up from there and allowing our material to grow, Tom Sleigh encouraged us not to hide from our material, guiding us to see that it’s not about what you write—it’s about how we move through it. Orchestrating the perception of the reader through manipulation of the line will create the thing so many might refer to as “voice.” Tom, however, calls this “style.”  

Rebecca Jensen is a second-year MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction. Her poetry appears in Eunoia Review, Firefly Magazine and FishFood Magazine, and she is a nominee for the 2016 AWP Intro Journals Project in creative nonfiction. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Tom Sleigh Workshop Series: Part One

My initial reaction, generally—to a place, to a text, to a person—tends to come to me in the form of a simple question, a one word question. I don’t think an example is necessary. Right? Then, after some limited consideration, I expand upon the interrogative in an attempt to better understand my reaction. The question that came to me during the first day of the workshop with Tom Sleigh: What? The expansion: What makes a person seem, at once, so relaxed and so intense?

“I live a split-screen existence,” Tom volunteered. “That’s a boring thing to have to articulate, but it’s an interesting thing to have to live with.”

    What? What is worth doing? Tom, after relaying some of his own experiences, asked us to consider this question in terms of our writing, to approach language in terms of our convictions. I wonder if my writing is something that grows out of or around a sense of responsibility to those with whom I’ve shared my experiences, to the culture that has helped shape my texts. If so, perhaps my writing has to matter to them as much as it matters to me. If not, perhaps still. Perhaps I have an obligation to do more than advertise my own originality. What? What does it mean to write the best piece? To put words to ideas in the catalogue of my experiences. To pull experiences through my catalogue of words to relay ideas. To show my catalogue of ideas as experiences through words. “If you have an obsession,” Tom said to the group, “don’t question it. You thank your lucky stars and move toward it.”
    What? What is worth doing? Tom, after relaying some of his own experiences, asked us to consider this question in terms of our writing, to approach language in terms of our emotions. I wonder if my writing is something that stems from the way I feel about the world around me, my reaction to the culture, to everything apart from and including me. If so, perhaps my writing will intrinsically matter to others. If not, perhaps it never will. Perhaps I have an instinct to write only that which creates meaning for myself, which, perhaps again, is the only way any writer can intentionally create meaning. What? What do I want to write? Stories that put my emotions to ideas through words. Words that put my emotions into stories. Emotions that— Can I interrupt myself by having Tom’s voice interrupt my structure? “You want to write interesting sentences.”


Tom stressed a micro view of work—as opposed to a macro view of the work—in order to, at least while writing, shift the writer’s attention away from the career, the publication, the piece, the page, and toward the sentence, which, if we want it to, if we deem it worthy, can blend our split-screened perceptions or separate them just enough to let us see the world more wholly, to let others see it with us.

Christopher Notarnicola studies creative writing at Florida Atlantic University.