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