Wednesday, November 29, 2017

There Should Be Voices in Your Head

I asked my characters why they speak to each other the way they do. They said,

“We don’t think about things before we say them.”

I erased a line of exposition from a previous paragraph and told my characters, but I think about everything before I write it down.

“Do you really though?”

I added a note to the margin of a previous page, she wouldn’t really react this way.

“She may not react that way, but she’s certainly thinking about it. We know, we asked her. She whispers instead of shouting when she’s upset and you have her there on that page yelling.”

I erased the line of dialogue and wrote, she whispered his name before she turned her back. She said, “I didn’t know.” As she walked, her dress brushed the floor, emptying the silence.

“Good, that’s good. But couldn’t it always be better?”

I put my hand to my forehead and resisted the urge to bang my temple against the page, so that the words would be imprinted on my cheek in pencil and I could show everyone how hard I’ve been working.

“Don’t think about the function. Think about the lyric. Listen for the music. Picture the sound in your mind, the sentence has to breathe like stars do, right before they fade.”

She whispered his name before she turned her back. She said, “You know I’m bad at conversation. I didn’t know you would be gone in three months.” As she walked, her dress brushed the floor, emptying the silence.

“Good enough,” they said.


I believe I read somewhere that dialogue should read like poetry. Characters do not always need to speak (to the same degree that some physical humans should not always speak). Therefore, when characters do talk, I make sure that their words have significant meaning in that they themselves are telling parts of their own story. Or, I make sure that their words benefit the exposition surrounding them, that the spoken words essentially sound ‘pretty’. At least this is what I try to do. Sometimes dialogue comes more naturally and therefore becomes something I have to cut repetitively in editing due to the fact that a lot of what people say is less important than what they do. I find this to be true for most of my characters as well.

With every line of dialogue I write, I try to pay attention to the line-by-line purpose. As an example, the characters above speak directly to me instead of speaking directly to my character. They are both demanding and specific. I, both as a writer and a character, do not always say anything back. Perhaps this is an exercise in getting purpose down onto the page without all of the excess, flowery language… perhaps I am simply hearing voices. Either way, dialogue, I think, can be a fun way to play with your characters. It can be a useful tool when addressing description, setting and atmosphere. For me personally, it's a really in-depth way to practice getting inside of my characters’ minds. This should make characters unique because no two characters are exactly the same, their voices should sound different as their minds work differently. Unless, of course, you are writing a story that involves two identical minds. In that case, I applaud your approach, question your sanity, and would like to read a copy.

I find that dialogue does not always have to serve a function. Instead, it brings the words on the page to life and sounds more like a rhythm, or lyric. It’s like that last piece to the puzzle, the outer edge or corner that only fits in a certain spot and deserves a lot of practice of placement. 

Emily White is a first-year MFA student currently trying to accomplish the daunting task of completing a story. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

A Dilemma

It was during my time as undergraduate, in my first creative writing course, Intro to Creative Writing, that I learned some topics may be off-limits. Our TA, in an effort to help us come up with a story, told us to “Write what you know.” And that I did. I knocked out a 16-page short story inspired by personal events my family and I at the time were in the process, of well, processing. It was a relatable subject, something that I felt a reader could latch on to. In my effort to make those real circumstances less real and more fictive, I changed the names of every real person involved. To make sure I had a solid, error-free, fiction piece to submit to the workshop, I asked my mother, one of the “characters” who I portray in my story, to proofread my work. She gladly obliged.

Five years later, I am realizing sometimes you can’t always write what you know. But, I still do it. I find it difficult to find that balance of crafting original characters and moments in a work that does not somehow slightly taste of the very real and original people in my life. In the space of those five years as an undergraduate and now graduate, my mother has not volunteered to read a piece of my writing. The two exceptions being poems that do not refernce her. Her issue, which I failed to take into consideration, was not only the personal subject matter of the story but also her representation in it. 

Much of what I know is family. Much of what I write about is family. Within these past two years in the MFA program, I’ve been thinking about how to tackle this dilemna:

As writers, do we have free range to write on all and any transgressions/memories/experiences we are directly or indirectly involved with?
As a writer, is calling yourself a “storyteller” a liable pass to translate these intimate moments to public narrative? By doing this, am I capturing moments or exploiting particular situations and people involved?

I’m not sure entirely how to differentiate this, yet.

Maybe time makes the difference. I often find myself in it, in a scene, but it’s not really a scene, it is my life. Needless to say, I am in that particular moment and I think how the events unfolding around me would make for a great short story. I then go on to conjur up that story still present in the ongoing event. This is problematic in the sense that this is me almost certainly “living to write”.

I think this might be where we can differentiate. Maybe as long as these moments and experiences are organic and not procured by a writer intent on experiencing moments for writing material then it can be okay, no?

As a writer, I don’t want to commit forgery and write a shell of a personality. If I am going to capture those initmacies around me it is my onus to ensure I respect the personalities I am inspired by. But then who says these very real people want themselves replicateed at all? They haven’t signed their experiences and personalities away to me on loan.

By borrowing from reality, I can’t help but think that I am, at times, trivializing these experiences for my gain, for my “art”.

By changing names and avoiding truths does the retelling of these personal moments, whether fiction or nonfiction, become a façade, a plastic rendition of what was?

That sounds a bit pretentious. I’m still trying to work this out, clearly. I write what I know. And I’d like to write more of what I don’t know and have yet to experience. I’d like to write something my mother might not be concerned with. She is, after all, what I know. I’d rather not take what is not mine, but more often than not I am drawn to write what is familiar, what is close. I am still trying to figure this all out, so bear with me.

Janine Shand is a second-year MFA student studying fiction. She dabbles in prose but mainly writes fiction that reads like nonfiction. That is her dilemma.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Dialogue, Character, and Setting

What makes dialogue good? Let me answer with another question: Do you feel like your words, when you say them, are real?

Of course. Once you can answer why that is, you’ll know for sure. Some people say dialogue has to feel real and mimic the way that people would speak normally, but that’s reductive advice. Dialogue should seem as if the characters are saying real things, but they don’t have to say them in real ways. Everyone on this planet speaks a little differently, everyone, and in the worlds you create in fiction, people speak however the hell they want.

However I want? No! Characters will speak the way they want. A good character has their own way of doing things, and even if that way is supposed to seem familiar, it’s their way.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, Sullivan. You make it sound like characters, my characters, have free will. Yes, and a lot of writers will tell you things like, “I don’t even know why, but my character just did it” and you, like me, may feel inclined to think of these people as a little crazy.

So, if I am trying to make a character better, I should give them free will? You don’t just give them free will. You believe. Believe that your characters believe what they do. Think of the driving force of fiction as independent of you.  And keep in mind that a well-written setting will make your reader feel as if they can see, smell, hear, and touch. Maybe taste. Maybe they can imagine it with their other senses. A good setting feels like you want readers to feel. In the best cases, the reader can imagine living there, no matter how bizarre. Science-fiction and fantasy worlds can be so engrossing in this way and it has a lot to do with geography and culture.

Culture? It has to exist in a story. It can be an echo, it can be a central theme, but people have culture. Culture—politics, economics, art, philosophy—shapes characters. It shaped you. It even shapes your writing. Be aware of it. What things does your character do? Can you think of an occupation, or a country, or a religion? Any little feature that you can expand on?

I feel like I’d run the risk of misappropriating some other culture that way, if I set my story somewhere else, or if I tried writing a character who, say, follows a religion I don’t. Good point. Do research. Be reasonable with how much you try to say about a character’s culture. Don’t let it determine your character, but let the setting and all its components play their due part. Be respectful. Have some trustworthy test readers give you feedback. Listen when they tell you things wouldn’t happen a certain way, or things don’t make sense. It’s hard thinking of character backstories sometimes. Now, get down to the nittiest and grittiest of it all. A lot of writers tell you to know your character completely before you even write, but that can choke creativity. I don’t always completely craft the character beforehand, instead letting the setting and plot and even style flesh out the character.

What about letting my character be the driving force behind the setting? Not like a character driven plot but like everything the main character does gives the setting detail. I can see a way or two I could manage that, something a bit more nuanced than a person literally thinking something into reality, but that’s an experiment for you to try. It sounds weird. Weird is good.

We write characters for readers to empathize with, or not, right? So, it’s to keep the reader on their side. But maybe also because their reality means something to them. Believing what they do lets them do what they do with…sanity? The illusion of sanity? Sanity. Yes. Solid identity. Now you’re getting into psychology here. Isn’t psychology different everywhere? What does it depend on?

I don’t understand. People think differently, have different expectations depending on where they live. To use a craft term, the stakes will be different. Water is scarce in a desert, but just as essential to survival. If your character lives in a desert, water is a bigger concern, generates more stress. We live in Florida, the biggest anxiety we have about water is whether or not it’s going to rain.

The point you’re trying to make, if I understand you, is that what’s at stake has to do with a character’s environment. Why didn’t I just say that?

No one can stop you from rambling, is all. What?

Nothing. Hmph.

Jonathan Sullivan owns a tiny giraffe, one zombie chicken, and is a tornado.

Monday, October 23, 2017

These Bodies Are Not Metaphors: On Writing Sexual Assault

            With the now seemingly consistent deluge of harassment, assault, and rape allegations dominating the news cycle, and the subsequent attention fleetingly paid to the tireless activists who have fought to bring awareness and solutions to these issues, it would be willfully foolish to deny the influence any given depiction of rape has in our cultural conversation: pop, personal, or political. Rape, assault and trauma are established pins of all that we consume: literature, art, television. The tropes du jour often use sexual violence as shorthand for the trial-by-fire background story necessary to convincingly build a Strong Character (we see this often in science fiction, fantasy, but it is equally pervasive, albeit quieter, in fiction of most genres). Of course, the most extreme version of this is the Rape/Revenge trope, a holdover from 1970s exploitation films, that has resurfaced in surprising, more complicated ways. Game of Thrones, Jessica Jones, and Mad Max: Fury Road, are successful examples, to name only a recent few.  Whether these depictions occasionally hit the mark of a realistic trauma survivor experience is decidedly beside the point: survivor characters’ rapes often become their entirety.
            When past experiences of sexual trauma are used as passive expository blurbs to fill a half-flat character’s background, they can read as insincere or gimmicky. To remedy this, pop culture has swung massively in an opposing direction that demands rape be depicted as both heinously violent, committed only by the criminally depraved, and that survivors be wrecked so essentially, to their very core, that they are oftentimes incapacitated by fear or infatuated with vengeance. These are, of course, the extreme examples, but they overshadow the thoughtful, nuanced depictions of fully rendered survivor characters in our zeitgeist.
            And, here is where the writer’s dilemma lies. Rape is real; it is pervasive, so this demands that portrayals of assault and harassment be purposeful, intentional. But, depicting it as an exhausting demon with the power to coerce a character’s every action, inflicted by soulless predators, does a disservice to both our characters and the cultural conversation at large. Rape is not a metaphor for other kinds of violence – not global warming, not thought policing, not genocide – it is a violence of its own. Rape is not the stand-in for an interesting background story, like a summer spent campaigning for a third-party candidate or being raised on a farm. So, when we mean to engage with sexual assault as a plot device or a character’s background, we are not simply adding texture to a form ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ archetype. We are building a character that has a full life both before and after their assault. These bodies and places and conflicts might be creations all our own, but choosing to engage with sexual assault means that we must consider the real bodies, the people, that are implicated by our words. We owe them nuanced, researched depictions.

Caitlyn GD is a second year Fiction candidate at FAU. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Voicemail Poems, and Potluck Magazine, among others. She currently lives in South Florida with her loving partner and two indifferent cats. She wants you to know that Die Hard 3 is the best Die Hard.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Keep it Inside: Argument for Silent Character Minds

If observing each other’s thoughts were a normal part of communication, society would have crumbled in its infancy. The food your ancestors stashed away for the winter would be common knowledge and gone, ailment and weakness within families would be public domain and liability, and any ambitions about climbing the social hierarchy would be flushed out and likely suppressed. The status quo would achieve permanent status. Nice for those in charge, but what about you? What about the protagonist of that story you’re writing? Can there be a story, a chance at change, if the actions taken were known before being taken?
            Maybe. But it wouldn’t be very interesting.
            Concealing the interior thoughts, especially of the first-person protagonist leading your tale, is essential in retaining tension and interest in the story. This is not only because mystery=suspense=climatic jibberjabber, but because revealing interior thought of any character pins their limbs to a rubber-lined tray and forces participation in a dissection of the story’s why, almost always too soon. If characters are plot, then the thoughts of those characters run the risk of selling that plot out before it blooms.
            Consider film. Unless done in some kind of humored irony, character voice-over narration is a scarce phenomenon, and is usually only done to ground the observer early in the plot. Outside of this, film relies on setting, events, and acting to advance the plot. Characters don’t borrow the camera and spill their personal beans; they keep those beans canned and act upon them. In fiction, it’s too easy to supply protagonists with access to the reader’s mind and move the plot through that connection, but doing this cheapens the reading experience in the same way an over-zealous Star-Wars fan can ruin the most recent installation by pausing and explaining the subplots underlying what’s happening on the screen.
            How to guard against this is simple: forego the interior. We can’t read each other’s thoughts in life, so we read word choice and tone, body language, and overt concerns. The same practice should be applied to writing fiction. In Chopin’s “Story of an Hour,” the developmental stages of the plot pass inside Louise’s mind. While the reader is given glimpses into her internalization of her husband’s death, these moments are used to explore an unknown rather than establish some static truth of the story, and physical effect comes with those thoughts:
There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearful. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air. 
Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back[.]
There is physical, observable ramification to the thoughts. They are slight and personal, but her state of mind is established in these moments through her body’s expression. Her elocution doesn’t express her feeling, only what she’s experiencing. The reader is made to interpret her response to these thoughts and derive their effect from them, and that is what they want. Silver platters get returned.


Jason Wilson is a third year MFA candidate for fiction at Florida Atlantic University.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Writing within A Community

I had never been in a workshop (or had my pieces workshopped) before I got into the MFA program. Naturally, I entered the program nervous. I didn’t know what to expect or what was expected of me. Besides a few friends and family, my stories didn’t have much of an audience. I didn’t know how my work would be received.

Everyone is protective of the writing they create and I was too. Initially, I struggled to share my work out of fear of it being misunderstood or misinterpreted. That was something I knew I had to learn to work around, and the program helps you do just that. The workshop class is a small group of approachable and focused people whose main objective is to produce good writing. Working with a group like that helps build confidence to share your work in order to make it better. Having other people look at the development of your writing over a period of time generates a variety of perspectives. The workshop group constitutes people from different backgrounds who produce different readings of your text, which I find most helpful. The writer figures out so much of their own writing style when they view their stories/poems from other people’s eyes. For example, having other people workshop my pieces over two semesters helped me discover my strengths and weaknesses and how to use them to my advantage. Something that I wouldn’t be able to see by myself.

I’ve become more aware of my audience now than before. I’ve never written for an American audience and so workshops from time to time facilitate my understanding of the American publishing world: what kind of writing is successful, how to develop a good piece of writing, etc.

One major thing the MFA program has taught me is to love my work while also maintaining a distance from it. Just enough distance to be able to revise and continue working on it after receiving feedback. Revising a story or poem was not my strong point; it often felt like I was cheating on my first draft by altering or editing it. But over the course of my first semester, I realized the importance of going back and revisiting works that I thought might be ready for the world. Editing is still painful; cutting full chunks out is not the easiest thing to do. For that, I’ve made a folder for all the edited portions I take out of certain pieces, in the hope of using them somewhere else.

Writers are always growing in terms of their voice and their writing style, and workshops are a good place to learn and grow.

Meryl D’sa is from India and is pursuing her MFA at FAU with a concentration in fiction. 

Monday, August 28, 2017


My fiancé, an Army sergeant and former police officer, wants one of those $2,000 massage chairs from Brookstone. I’ve yet to walk past the storefront at the mall without losing him to one of the chunky, buzzing machines. He says if he had something like it at home, he’d get more done, as if his body—and his mind, just as tense from work and thoughts of it—were massaged into compliance. “Sure, I’ll load the dishwasher, just give me a few minutes in The Chair.”

No matter our job, we all know the feeling of physical and mental strain—the feeling of oversaturation, or total depletion, which, for me, turns what could be a couple of hours of writing and/or revision into a couple of hours of Netflix and ice cream. “You’re just not in the right state of mind right now to be creating—try tomorrow.” For those of you with children, second jobs, and/or multiple extracurricular positions, duties, hobbies, etc., you may scoff at the essays and articles that attempt to answer the question “How do you write and work?” Despite what you may think, if you want to be a writer, you have the time to find (key word: “find,” because it may not be an easy task).

All I can really offer is some of what I’ve done in the past year as a writer and Visiting Instructor who committed to teaching twelve courses (an overload both semesters, plus two courses over the summer), yet did more writing than I ever had previously. Perhaps it’s the poet in me, but I’ve tried to choreograph a few analogies (perhaps a writer’s habit, or the crutch of an introverted poet) to explain how I balanced work and writing. Friends and peers seem to like the following most:

The tightrope walker crosses the gap between two tall buildings, slowly but surely. He’s holding a long pole for balance, which begins to tilt with his body as both are nudged by gusts of wind. He regains his balance (aligns his center of gravity) by tilting the pole, and thus his weight, into the wind. Without doing so, he knows he’ll fall.

As I balanced my way through a very full teaching schedule, writing became my counterweight to the winds of paper grading, email-answering, citizenship applications and processing, family matters, and job hunts (I was, earlier this summer, ending my Visiting Instructorship), and general mental gust of stress and exhaustion, I’d never felt more compelled to spend my free time clacking away on my laptop. Many days, I didn’t feel like it. Many days, I questioned my writing ‘ability.’ Many days, I imagine writers abandon their laptops/notebooks in claim of experiencing ‘writer’s block.’ But, let me tell you, there’s no such thing as writer’s block.

Whatever you’re trying to work on, and struggling to the point at which you’re only winding yourself up, minimize the tab/turn the page and work on something else. Revisit that poem you wrote last year. Free write what could be the heart of a new personal essay. Make a list of craft essay ideas (aka. permit yourself the writing time to lists or outlines, and not clean paragraphs of prose or profound poetic lines). Eventually, in doing so, you’ll ‘retrain’ your mind as I have done this past year, to let myself create and work on multiple things at once. Isn’t that, in a sense, the artist at his freest? The child squirting ketchup on his toast? Hey, let him try it. If that’s what he wants, look at him go—no resistance, no self-imprisoning to how he may think he ‘should be eating…’

Even though university faculty often receive forgiving schedules, we know our free days are often spent working to some degree, or at least living with work on the mind. While some formidable writers have suggested simpler methods of encouraging themselves away from these mental work ties and into a creative/uninhibited state, like getting drunk or high, I’ve heard few success stories. I have, though, heard many writer friends succeed by making “appointments” for themselves to write (ex. “At 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, I have an appointment with Microsoft Word. I’m going to turn off my cell phone, deactivate the wifi, give the dog a new chew toy, and assign the children to the basement with a VHS tape of The Lion King and the remainders of last year’s mega bag of Halloween candy”). This method, at least, forces you to examine your schedule and note one—but ideally a few—promising block of free time you may have in the week. Be sure to treat it like an appointment—you must ‘go,’ and if you don’t, a fee will incur (calling yourself up to say, “Hey, I’m so sorry, I’ve made time tomorrow—see you then,” is a wonderful response to dipping out on a schedule write-time. If you’re not committed enough to sticking with an idea like this, then you don’t get to complain about not having the time or energy to write. Stop making excuses for yourself. Your passion, talent, and artistic integrity don’t deserve to be overshadowed by your laziness or mediocre/poor treatment of your time.

Buck up, writer. Buck up, teacher, student, human. You are capable of more. Sit with yourself, think deeply about what’s holding you back.

Answer: It’s you. It’s always been you. Find a greater balance. Take another step forward.

Jamie is the author of hiku [pull] (Porkbelly Press, 2016). Winner of an AWP Intro Journals Project award for poetry and four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, his work has been published with Colorado Review, Black Warrior Review, Passages North, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and DIAGRAM, among other journals. Jamie received his MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University, where he was a Lawrence A. Sanders poet fellow and currently teaches as an Instructor. Born in England, and former resident of New Zealand, Jamie is a first-generation Asian-American (officially--he passed his naturalization test and interview this summer!) currently living in West Palm Beach with his partner, John, and their greyhound, Jack. Twitter: @jamesahwhite

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Welcome back!

Hello, all, and welcome to the Fall 2017 semester!

To those of you currently in the MFA program, I hope you will attend the Swamp Ape Review meeting today (8/23, Wednesday) at 6pm in the Amp Lab. Check your email for more information.

Our Off the Page Series is off to a fantastic start this fall with a reading by Carole Maso on Thursday, 10/12, at 7pm in the Majestic Palm room. Ira Sukrungruang is up next with a reading on Thursday, 10/19 at 7pm in the Palmetto Palm room.

Our Lawrence A. Sanders Writer-in-Residence for this year is the talented Paul Lisicky. His workshop for MFA students will run in March of 2018, so be on the lookout for an email on how to apply to attend.

Which brings me to my strongest advice to you this Fall 2017 semester. Whether you are a new student (you might check out this blog) or getting ready to graduate (this one is for you) or somewhere in between (yeah, haha, there's a blog for you too), be sure to show up. That is, attend as many events as you can this year. Commit to participating in events inside and outside of the program. Form a writing group with friends. Come meet with me and discuss your progress in the program. Apply for grants, scholarships, and travel money. Go to AWP (it's in Tampa!). Check out this blog on how to log onto the AWP website (and email, visit, or call me if you have trouble). Apply for travel money here. The sooner you apply, the more likely you'll be able to receive funding (they give funding to students participating in conferences and to students who are simply attending).

I love meeting with you one on one, so please set up a meeting if you haven't yet. Good luck!

MR Sheffield's work has been published in The Florida Review, Black Warrior Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, and other publications. Probably her poetry manuscript is forthcoming from Flaming Giblet Press, but who really knows how these things shake out, amite? Contact her at and/or 561-297-2974.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Justin Torres Workshop: Finding A Sense of Meaning

A part of me was kind of dreading the workload from an extra week’s worth of workshops, though in the same way I was pretty excited to have Justin Torres critique my work and provide some insight into his generative process, as well as his experience of the writing circuit immediately post-MFA.

I needn’t have worried at all. I think the best thing about having visiting writers come to a program is their insight into these aforementioned processes. It was especially cool as Justin made the workshop relaxed, imploring us on the first day to send out predominantly positive feedback

This was an approach I stuck to throughout the week, and it allowed me to gain better insight into genres I am not so well versed in. The work Justin assigned us was also worth reading, so too was the supplementary knowledge he gave us of each piece and its writer.

One thing that Justin repeated a number of times throughout the week was that, especially in short story writing, the scale of the piece is its biggest strength. In using a simple premise, building on it in subtle though varying ways, you can manipulate the scale of your piece, whatever the genre, so that these subtleties become the fundamentals of the piece.

For example, one piece of non-fiction we looked at seemed to be meandering somewhat in terms of narrative. Though when we delved into it in workshop, Justin pointed out these certain moments of subtle nuance, where in fact the piece was building and building in different ways, manipulating its own scale. In doing so it landed at an ending that was unexpected yet earned.

And that was how the workshop, and the writing I produced for it, seemed to me. Due to our working with multiple genres, I produced a piece of non-fiction that drew on the subtle differences between the UK and the US, my life in both countries, and it was based around what Justin referred to as a kind of “lyrical anthropology”.

While the week went by quickly, and became generative and eye-opening for me, it was also great just to hang out with Justin in our workshop group, as we all socialized together; it was while doing so that he gave us all some pretty cool insights into how his career has been formed post MFA.

So it seemed to me that many of the strengths of good writing go hand-in-hand with the same requirements we have as MFAers, but also really as people of the world: subtlety + nuance + an understanding of our own anthropology begins to denote meaning in its many forms.

Originally from Scotland, Adam Sword is an MFA student at Florida Atlantic University, with a concentration in Fiction.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Torres Workshop

This being my first semester in the MFA, I was both excited and surprised to hear that I was accepted into the Justin Torres Workshop. He asked that we prepare a piece of lyric anthropology, which at least for me was a chance to write in an unfamiliar style. The readings he offered provided insightful exposure to this style. My favorite of the readings was "Love Junkies," a lyric essay from Trust, by Alfonso Lingis, a story about a relationship between two prison inmates. Lingis’ style was detailed and honest, while remaining grandiose and perhaps comical. It encouraged me to attempt to capture an aspect of culture in a few pages; and while some students submitted older work, most of us were inspired to generate new material in more experimental forms.

When opening the workshop, Torres recommended that we try to focus our feedback on what was successful in each other’s writing. This echoed a sentiment mentioned by Jennifer Egan, who visited in March, where finding the language of what is successful in a piece and offering critical commentary on why that language is working often proves more helpful than dealing in flaws. Consequently, our feedback to one another was critical but effective.

Torres was approachable, making the workshop feel perhaps less formal and more honest. He was discerning of new of the literary devices we were attempting to build, while also offering strong comments on how to use conventions to our advantage.

In conversation, Torres offered the idea that the workshop space was less about solving all of a story’s problems, and more about exposure to your colleague's work – helping to find solutions for a story as though it were your own. This approach has already helped me provide stronger feedback outside of the workshop. It seems like the takeaway of my time with Justin Torres was not limited to his commentary on my work, but also on my views of what the workshop is meant accomplish. I had a blast, I learned a lot. The week was quick and intense, but I feel fortunate to have been a part of it.

Daniel Graves is a first-year MFA and is on staff at SwampApe Review. His short fiction ranges across a variety of focuses; from religious imagery, to meme culture, to magical realism.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Revising with Optimism: A Week with Justin Torres

            Some things are easy to write. If a character is alone in a room, we know what that means. It is simple to hold in your mind’s eye like so many other easy musings. Of course there is the artful loneliness of melodrama, of which we also have a pretty deep bench of canned images: mascara running, no missed calls, rain on the window in black and white.
            What I struggle with writing is the feeling of effortless symbiosis, psychic synergy. If describing it is difficult, I am even less adept at provoking it: the sense that somehow, written words are just an extension from author to reader.
When I began my MFA I knew that I wanted my writing to become that. I wanted my words to be familiar like an old winter coat but unexpected like the twenty you find in its pocket. I had some pretty damn high demands. Unattainable! Or so I had thought, despite the many, many authors who had done just that for me. They were something special, something born not taught, something above my pay grade.
Justin Torres was the most recent of those authors.
            So, when Torres hosted a weeklong workshop for MFA students this past March, I was bright eyed, pen poised to capture every insight he shared. The greatest lesson I learned from his workshop was: write the fuck out of everything and decide fast how to salvage the good of it.
            He didn’t outright say that, but I’m pretty proud of my approximation.
He had the thirteen of us focus on the best of the writing – from our peers as well as our own. He was a very positive leader in this way, and without the messy insincerity of being too saccharine. Torres had no problem telling us things that needed to be said, but his decision to avoid the ‘tear-you-down-to-build-you-up’ approach of other workshops allowed us more time to focus on what opportunities we had earned but not yet explored.
Aside from his workshop structure, Torres was a brand new set of eyes on what had become to each of us, familiar territory. He was able to bring honest notes, without picking up on our recurring themes or ideations. Torres met us through our writing. We were all three-to-five pages of first draft fury to him. But, with his facilitation, we all salvaged the good of our fever dreams.
Torres’s approach of determined, quick revisions with a reserved optimism is certainly more difficult than it sounds but I truly believe it is the next step, at least for me, to writing that new familiar feeling.

Caitlyn Davidheiser is a first year MFA fiction student at FAU. Her work has previously appeared in Voicemail Poems, Spires, and Killing the Angel among others. She lives in South Florida with her loving husband and her indifferent cat.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Defending Your Thesis

So you’re making your way through the thesis hours, and looming ahead of you is the defense, and then graduation.  Your thesis is pretty much done, or at least going into later drafts, and yet there’s so much more left in this semester.

Take a deep breath.  Now let it out.  This won’t be as hard as it looks.

The thesis defense sounds more dramatic and difficult than it actually is.  If your thesis committee didn’t genuinely believe you were ready for this, you wouldn’t have gotten this far.  This isn’t just because they’re fond of you – it doesn’t reflect particularly well on them if a student makes it to the thesis defense and then doesn’t get through that obstacle.  They’re confident enough in you to stake at least a small part of their reputation on your performance.  Conversely, don’t assume this is something you’ll just blow through with no difficulty whatsoever.  They’ll grill you on your thesis, especially whatever you talk about in your thesis essay and how it relates to the rest of the work.  Study your own thesis essay a bit the night before, and try to consider how you might to elaborate on your points.

Go to the thesis defense, and give yourself plenty of time to arrive (preferably a little early).  Make yourself presentable, but don’t worry too much about dressing up – this is liberal arts academia.  When they send you out while they deliberate in private about your thesis, do something to help keep your mind occupied while you wait.  Browse Facebook.  Put in your headphones and listen to an old favorite song.  You won’t gain much from being alone with your thoughts while your professors decide your future.  And for heaven’s sake, bring the special pen.  Maybe a couple.

Your greatest remaining stumbling block is the bureaucracy.  Find the list of what you have to do to graduate on the English website.  Figure out what you haven’t done yet.  Every few days, check the list again.  Make sure nothing’s sneaking up on you.  Check your email daily.  If it gets stressful, take that deep breath again.  This is no big deal.  You’ve already done all the hard work.  No transmittal memorandum or binding fee has any right to put a stop to you now.

Take some time to enjoy yourself and reflect on how far you’ve come.  Walk around campus like you own the place; don’t hesitate to perfect that alumnus swagger.  Remember that you’re paying FAU (in some form) for services rendered.  You’re here to gain something.  An education, but it’s still something you worked for and are now receiving.  Take one more deep breath.  Now let it out.  Graduation awaits.  

Justin is a fiction student in the MFA program. He is graduating this Spring 2017.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

AWP and Recovering from Imposter Syndrome

            As I slipped the mask of the Swamp Ape over my head, the mild-mannered poet who says “Excuse me” in crowded bars, nervously checked Waze every five feet between the Air BnB and the Washington Convention Center, and smiled at each visitor who asked, “What the hell is a Swamp Ape?” at our book fair table – that person disappeared. For 15 minutes, I swaggered, photo-bombed, entered literary magazine raffles by signing “SWAMP APE” to the small yellow tickets, and sat down to lunch with strangers who tried not to appear startled at my swampish ghillie suit and gorilla mask.

            This is a convenient anecdote, because it also works as a metaphor for the transformative power large groups can have on an internal perspective. I would never don the Swamp Ape costume in my home (or admit it if I did), but with an audience, it seems natural. Similarly, writing alone can feel self-indulgent. If you write as I do, balancing your laptop on your ripped sweatpants at 2 p.m. with a piece of stale cake on the nightstand, you may see yourself from the outside and wonder if you’re delusional. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the hordes of literary magazines publishing work you admire and wonder whether anyone needs your voice.

The imposter syndrome is common and shared. Thousands of writers, who are stereotyped as being highly sensitive, solitary creatures, trekked again this year to AWP to brave crowded terminals where there are never enough free phone chargers, planes where free snacks are no longer complimentary and one can catch a virus from just unbuckling the seatbelt, trains that make too many stops, Ubers, too-small hotels - these writers walked half a mile through the chilly and strange streets of DC to a convention center full of strangers and projectors that fail just before each panel presentation begins.

            But we went anyway. We went because walking by the brick buildings and art galleries of DC reminded us what it’s like to be in the honeymoon phase of a romance with a city. And we went to the mixer because while writers are terrible dancers, the lack of inhibition by the flailers on the dance floor was inspiring. We saw that thousands of other writers also prioritized their writing enough to make the same trek and don a lanyard.

AWP was a reminder that while the fact that so many writers exist means the market is flooded, it also gives us permission to value writing in our own lives as well. It’s both humbling and energizing to realize that writing, while done in isolation, can also take place in a larger community. And so, though I will likely not don the Swamp Ape costume again, when feeling inadequate or foolish, I can put on the metaphorical costume of a writer making the awkward trek to AWP, remember that far away, others are doing the same with their lanyards tucked in drawers, and for a moment, it seems we do this together.

Kathleen Martin is a second-year MFA and is on staff at Swamp Ape Review. Her digital literacy creation, Between Memories (, explores the relationship between memory and memory loss through interviews, surveys, art, and erasure poetry.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Vonnegut’s Advice to “Keep it Simple”

I like long sentences. Growing up, engineering these lengthy grammatical feats was like alchemy to me; again and again I transformed words into corridors, labyrinths, twisting pathways that went on and on and led readers through my convoluted ink-dreams. It was impressive, I thought, and a bit magical, to disorient the audience, to keep them on their toes with twists and sharp-edged, polysyllabic declarations of my genius. As a student of words, I believed every reader was like me, and would hang in the grip of every passing letter, carefully picking their way through each sentence’s turns, all the while remarking to themselves what a rush it was to come across an author who imbued so much life and wisdom into her work. I wanted to show readers how smart I was, how I could make language bow to me and give my writing endless beauty in its sentences with curling tails and never-ending clauses.

When I started studying writing for real, I came across a piece of advice from one of my favorite fiction writers, the wonderful Kurt Vonnegut. In a paper on “How to Write with Style” Vonnegut implores his readers to “keep it simple” when it comes to the way in which they choose to present information - particularly that which is exceedingly profound. In his example, Vonnegut cites William  Shakespeare as well as James Joyce, both of whom he admits had the ability to “put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra,” but, as he highlights, chose not to do so in instances of profound genius. Conversely, he asserts, these expert writers in fact chose to present some of their most profound ideas (his go-to example is Hamlet’s famous, “To be or not to be?” as well as the opening passage of the Judeo-Christian Bible) in relatively simple language. In his article, Vonnegut asserts that simple can be beautiful, as countless canonical authors have demonstrated, time and time again. If they can make the simple work, why can’t we? This is something I ask myself and attempt to employ often in my own work as a writer.

(Reference to “How to Write with Style:

Bio: Kira Geiger is a third year MFA student with a concentration in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has been previously featured in NoiseMedium, FishFood Magazine, and tiny poetry: macropoetics

Friday, March 31, 2017

Viva La Ape: On NOT Draining the Swamp in D.C.

Wear a heavy, latex Planet of the Apes monkey mask swathed in mounds of fake Spanish moss, cumbersome black-and-also-mossy-winter gloves, and a ghillie suit in the name of literature?!?

“Sure, why the hell not?”

That was my response, anyhow, when one of my clever peers in the MFA program suggested this little stunt as a way to call attention to The Swamp Ape Review, FAU’s graduate student run national literary magazine. We were weeks away from launching the inaugural online issue.

I was all about getting into that Swamp Ape costume and traipsing around the AWP literary conference. I knew I could ham it up with strangers and goad them into taking a picture with the Swamp Ape and then hashtag the magazine on social media. I would have done something like this anyhow (like…just in my normal, everyday life) because I’m kind of a freak like that, so I was excited that for my first time ever attending AWP, I would be doing so “in character.” I mean, I am a writer, after all, and, therefore, pretty socially awkward around new people and big crowds.

The conference was in Washington D.C., and since I am a part-part time student (I only take one class at a time) and a full-full time high school teacher (I wish I could only teach one class at a time), I was thrilled that I was going to get to take an out-of-state odyssey with my fellow graduate students and would get to know them on a whole other level.

But back to the Swamp Ape. Let me first say that I had no earthly idea what a ghillie suit was when we were in the initial planning stages for the Swamp Ape appearances at AWP. I had to “Wikipedia” it. According to Wikipedia, a ghillie suit is “a suit traditionally donned by snipers, hunters, and nature photographers to allow them to conceal themselves from enemies or targets.” As a pacifist, this amused me. The online adverts for the suit would have you believe they are “lightweight” and “breathable.” I assure you, they are not. They are stinky, sweaty death suits. The experience of being the Swamp Ape was fun, nonetheless, a great success, even (viva la swamp!).

In addition to being one of the students behind the Swamp Ape, I also had the opportunity to attend panels with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sarah Manguso, and Paul Lisicky (to name a few); I was fortunate enough to have had a conversation with Dave Eggers, a social activist and literary hero of mine for over twenty years; I discovered what wonderfully talented, delightful people my fellow MFA students truly are; I learned invaluable lessons about writing and publishing; and, last but not least, our literary magazine gained a ton of exposure.

AWP is happening all over again in a little under a year, but this time in Florida, the home of the Swamp Ape him/herself. Let the countdown begin!

Brittany Rigdon is a creative non-fiction writer who dabbles in poetry and teaches high school students how to think critically and write creatively. She went to Florida Atlantic University and has an M.A. in American and British Literature; she is currently working on an M.F.A. in creative writing. Brittany has edited and published six annual student writing anthologies for the creative writing students at Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts and is a reader for The Swamp Ape Review. When she’s not attempting to finally publish her own work and not just that of her students, she can be found walking her most adorable chocolate lab— Henry Miller, training for triathlons, or watching a stunning sunrise somewhere in the world

Monday, March 13, 2017

Screw the Audience

Dude, screw the audience.

They mean well. They wait so patiently for you to finish your work, then read it. In some cases, (hi, Internet!) they helpfully point out what they liked about your piece or, most often, what totally sucked, which is very constructive criticism.

One of the biggest issues I have when going into the writing process is that idea of audience. Now, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, I can write through a piece easily because I am confident about my concept, what I want to do with it, and how I can build on it. No, the problem starts when I’m sitting at my laptop and that stupid sticker I plastered near the keyboard of Garfield hugging a nug of weed is winking at me and I’m wracking my brain for ideas that won’t come.

Then the rhetorical questions start.

What can I do that’s different? What can I do that will make people go, wooooow, what a genius, please let me buy your currently nonexistent book immediately (be the first of your friends to give me money!!!!).

It is in these moments, these pre-writing brainstorming sessions where I can’t find anything to say that the naysayers start creeping in. Quit while you’re ahead, they cackle at me. Your audience won’t get the concept anyway.

I think that’s when we need to start ignoring the audience. Oftentimes, we (okay, me) fall into this trap of trying to write something that’s universally appealing or perfect in its first draft. Sometimes we have to accept - again, me - that someone, somewhere is going to hate what you write. That terrible review or rejection is going to happen, probably over and over again, but it should not inhibit the writing process.

Funnily enough, the inspiration for this blog post comes from an essay I read last semester for ENC 6700, a course we take at FAU that focuses on writing methodology and rhetoric. The article, titled “Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience” is focused on helping our students write through any writer’s block that comes up while drafting academic essays by teaching them to, at first, not consider the audience at all. The author, Peter Elbow, found that when students were hung up on how to compose for an academic audience, they couldn’t even begin the writing process. While Elbow was specifically focused on academia, I have run into the same problem myself as a creative writer. Too often, I’m worried about the reception a piece will get even before I’ve started writing the damn thing.

So, how do I move past this idea of audience so I can actually produce the work I want to be writing? I have found that the simplest, and yet hardest, thing to do is just keep going. I take those negative things my imaginary audience is yelling at me and use them as motivation to develop the idea at hand.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. But hey, I’ll take it. And the audience can suck it.

With that being said, please buy my future books!

Mary Mattingly is a fiction candidate in her first year in Florida Atlantic University's MFA program. Originally from the Detroit, Mich. area, she is very bad at writing bios and unsure of how to end this one, whoops, looks like we're done here.

Friday, February 24, 2017

First Things First

One of the first questions the writer of non-fiction needs to decide is how present he or she wants to be within the piece. Is the story better told from the first person point of view, with the author as an active participant? Or would an arm's length, third person approach, be more effective? Each have merit, and there are wonderful examples of both. John McPhee usually writes in the third person. For example, in The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (all 192 pages of it), he used the word “I” twice. Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, wrote entirely in the first person. Both are classics, both successful, both very different. This is one of the beauties of literary non-fiction. 

So which to choose? The answer is partly a function of what kind of story you want to write. Your childhood may be better told in the first person, but if you are writing about the families suffering from water contamination in heavily fracked lands, for example, it may be more effective to place yourself - as a writer - at a distance from the issue.

It might also, though, come down to personal preference. How do you like to write? What do you like to read? Personally, I am not so interested in third person journalistic pieces. Perhaps it’s narcissistic but I like to be in the story, and if I’m not in it, I want to have an opinion about it, and I want to be able to express that opinion clearly. I like to reflect on the things I write about. I try to roll them around in my mouth, taste them, chew them a little, smell them, touch them, and sense their texture. I like to speculate as to their larger meaning.  And I like to express those thoughts on the page. If I could not do this, I would not bother to write.  

Philip Lopate put it well: “I am more interested in the display of consciousness on the page. The reason I read non-fiction is to follow an interesting mind…I’m arguing more for reflective non-fiction where thinking and the play of consciousness is the main actor.” Me too. I want to read writers who lay it out there, who expose themselves and their thoughts and I want to write this way too.

To be able to write nonfiction with the skills of a storyteller is a rare gift and I enjoy reading such work. I wish I could write that way; it’s an art. But I don’t want to immerse myself in the organ transplant industry, or in the history of astronauts, or the business of fracking, just to tell a story. Such topics are fascinating, for sure, but I am more interested in the things that are going on right here, right now, in the small but interesting sphere of the world that I find myself in. And I want to make sense of those things. If I can find a way to make them interesting to others, well, that would be just fine.

The writer Jennifer Bowen Hicks sums it up for me: “When a writer voices the agitations of her will through words, I feel my own blood moving inside my veins, transfused and transformed by the essay’s greatest potential gift: full access to another human’s thinking, feeling, core—that place where our truest feelings and agitations live. In writing, is there any other point?”

Kevin Brolley is a first year MFA student. This is not his first career. The others worked out pretty well, mostly, but the jury is still out on this one.  His long-term ambition is to become the most caffeinated man in America.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Beyond Cute, Loud, Obnoxious, and Innocent: Writing Children as Literary Characters

Some of the most enduring characters in literature are children: Scout, the March sisters, Harry Potter and his friends, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Oliver Twist, Liesel Meminger and Rudy Steiner from The Book Thief leap immediately to mind. Each of these characters is as fully-rendered on the page as any of their adult counterparts.
Filling your stories with children will add an element of complexity and authenticity to your writing. Whether you are writing children as main or secondary characters, considering these few points will help you create realistic, identifiable characters for your readers.

Children’s emotions and personalities are as complex and unique as adults’ are. It helps to remember yourself at the same age as your character. While you certainly didn’t know a lot about the world at large, you knew a lot about your world. You were curious and smart and kind and frightened by things that might seem silly now. You navigated relationships with siblings and friends and teachers and neighbors. You had your own sense of humor, your own varied interests, your own insecurities, your own rich and secret imaginary world. Write these into your child characters.

Children are motivated by goals and desires. One of the elements that separates static characters from dynamic characters is desire. Children long to fit in at school, for a parent to love them, to be given a guinea pig for their birthday, to negotiate more screen time or a later bedtime. Much of their mental and physical energy is consumed by wanting things and figuring out how to get them. In fact, since most children don’t need to worry about careers, mortgages, taxes, and politics, it is possible that the children in your stories are even more defined by their desires than adults are.

Despite their rich inner lives and wonderful brains, children are children. Your readers will have a hard time believing that your eight-year-old protagonist has the experience and emotional intelligence to counsel a drug-addicted parent, or the culinary knowledge to whip up a gourmet meal. If readers don’t tire of precocious children who spout zingy one-liners or use obscure four-syllable words in their dialogue, they will certainly begin waiting for “the twist” that explains why these children are so uncharacteristically wise. Readers will also be suspicious of impeccably well-behaved children. Children are sometimes loud. They are impatient and restless, and they don’t always adhere without complaint to adult agendas.

If you’re having a hard time tapping into your own memories, it can help to consult photographs and videos from your childhood. Observe your own children, or your nieces and nephews, or your students. Children are everywhere, but if you’re living in a retirement community or feel uncomfortably voyeuristic observing children to whom you have no connection, consult the internet. Child development charts like this one can help you determine what a healthy (or unhealthy) 10-year-old might do.
Children under the age of fourteen make up more than a quarter of the world’s population. Include them in the landscape of your own writing.

Trina Sutton is a second year MFA candidate in Fiction. She loves teaching students to be logical and critical thinkers.