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.