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.