Monday, July 11, 2016

Summer Writing Update (Spoiler Alert: It's not pretty)

Tonight, I was driving in the car with my mom and I was telling her about the grant I spent all day working on when she stopped me and said—Shouldn’t you be working on your novel?

Don’t you just hate it when moms are right?

The truth is, I’ve given my novel very little love this summer. It pains me to admit it. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been writing. I’ve been writing all kinds of things—poetry, humor pieces, how-to articles, personal essays, flash fiction—but not my novel.

I have a few theories.

One: Plain old procrastination
Two: Appetizer effect (Fill up on appetizers, have little appetite for the main course)
Three: Up a creek (or spring run) without a routine

My summer has been all over the place. I’ve barely been in one place longer than a week. There has been tragedy (personal and national), drama, beauty, wanderings. Also, summer in Florida turns my energy level into that of a slug. (That's another theory I have. It's too hot to think or do anything at all besides submerge my body in a cold spring.)

I met a fellow writer today and when I told him about my struggles, he said – for poetry, we need inspiration. For fiction, we need discipline. And I have faltered, my friends.

I keep going back to last fall when I was able to produce a first draft in a few months. Granted, that seems like the easy part—throwing all of my ideas for scenes and conflict onto the page. Now I’ve got to do the dirty work of taking it all apart and reassembling it so that it makes a compelling story.

There is another lesson here and that is to be more discerning about what writing commitments I choose to uphold. There will always be contest deadlines, grant proposals, and submission periods to uphold, but I don't have to turn work into every single contest, or apply for every single grant, or submit to every single magazine. Especially not if it's taking precedent over a bigger (scarier) project, such as the novel in question.

Anyway, the truth of the matter is that writing will never be easy. It will never be convenient. So I’ll stop my complaining and get to work!

color coding chapters
novel planning

Stay Cool!

Friday, July 1, 2016

What is Education Without Creativity?

This past week, I had the good fortune of teaching creative writing to a group of high school students at our Write Now summer camp. They are a wonderful group of teenagers, and we’ve had a lot of fun exploring fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and comics together.

As I watched them share their writing at the final reading today, I was impressed by their progress and also the sheer courage they demonstrated by sharing their writing with the world.

This week has also made me think about the good fortune that these teenagers have to take part in a program like this one at such a young age. When I was a high school student, I was definitely not encouraged to connect with my writer self, besides writing lab reports, historical arguments and literature analyses.

From second grade to senior year, I was enrolled in a rigorous academic program called International Studies (it becomes IB in junior year). The program is a bilingual curriculum that is partially funded by the French/German/Spanish governments.  It is intended for the children of European diplomats so that their children can follow their country’s curriculum while living abroad.

As a French citizen, I was able to enroll in the French program. For ten years, I took every subject in both French and English. My French teachers were brought over straight from the motherland, and they were not messing around. As an elementary schooler, I can remember crying over the sheer amount homework I had and its level of difficulty. The workload only got more and more intense as we got older. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I was challenged in school. I know that’s not always the case for students in America.

On the other hand, I wish my education had been a bit more balanced. I feel like I missed out on an important aspect of my development throughout my entire academic career (until now) and that is the development of my creative side. Even as a child, there was little encouragement from teachers to explore our creativity, and I believe that’s because our system is focused on the end results. In high school, when everything you do is for the sole purpose of getting into a good college, students’ creative impulses often get pushed to the wayside. These days, funding for the arts is getting slashed more and more each year in favor of more standardized testing, which will only drag us deeper into this mentality of product over process, left brain over right.

Creativity is about meandering, exploring, and making mistakes. It’s about taking a journey, even if you don’t know what the destination will be. Unfortunately, our academic institutions don’t value process as much as they value the final product, and I think that’s doing a serious disservice to our students. How can we become effective problem solvers if we do not know how to be creative? And with the way things are going environmentally, socially and politically, we need as many creative problem solvers as possible.

This experience has made me wonder where I’d be today if I had been encouraged to explore my creative writing sooner… Of course, I’m glad I finally did make it to the party! Always a latecomer, but better late than never!
Happy campers at WRITE NOW reading!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Going into the Storm: Writing as Healing

As many of you may have heard if you follow me on Facebook, my beloved cat passed away this weekend. He went missing on Friday evening, and then was found nearly lifeless on the side of the road several blocks from our neighborhood. This leads me to believe that someone took him (to sell? to keep?) and then lost him. Who knows where they took him and how long he was out, struggling to find his way home. The thought makes my heart hurt.

Shady circumstances aside, my heart is completely broken from the loss of my friend. Regular readers of this blog will remember when I got him back in September, and how head-over-heels in love I was with this little monster. He grew from a scrappy fur ball into a beautiful, full-grown gentleman, and he brought joy to every single person he met.

In the days since his death, I have struggled with waves of sadness and despair, anger and fear. Thankfully, the support and love that I have received from friends and strangers has been enormous. So many people have shared their stories of loving and losing an animal friend, and it has truly touched my heart to know that pets have brought light into the lives of so many.

It has been a ceremony from the moment I heard the news—a constant prayer that I am holding in my heart. A prayer of gratitude, of peace, of love. I have kept a candle lit since the night I came home from the emergency vet clinic, unsure if my friend was going to make it through the night. (He passed on peacefully early the next morning.) I planted a pineapple on his grave and have decorated the fresh dirt with flowers. I sit with him every morning and every evening, like I did when he was still physically with me. I feel his presence.

Curling up in my bed to cry, talking to friends about Rumi, looking at pictures of him being adorably amazing, sitting beside his grave—all of these things have brought me peace in different ways.

Writing about Rumi and our beautiful life together has also helped on this journey of mourning and healing.

When we write, we connect to the deepest part of ourselves. I often turn to pen and paper to help me through hard times. Break-ups, deaths, frustrations, fears—writing about them often helps me get past the superficial stuff and down into the depths where the kernel of truth is hidden. And the truth is never as terrible as we imagine.

Take a house with a tin roof, for example. During a rainstorm, the racket inside the house is insufferably loud. You would think you were experiencing a hurricane, or a monsoon. But if you go outside into the rain, you realize that it’s not as horrendous of a storm as you thought. The rain feels soft on your skin; it cools you down. Getting soaked in the rain, being exposed to the elements you were afraid of, might bring you comfort, or even a revelation.

So, in writing about Rumi, I have been going out into the rain of grief, of sadness, of loneliness. And I am finding so much beauty in the memories of our time together.

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Who knows if what I have written will ever leave my notebook, but that is not the point. Right now, I am not writing for the final product. I am writing for the sake of writing, because I am at a loss of what else to do with my sadness.

One of my favorite writers, Natalie Goldberg, says:

"As writers we live life twice, like a cow that eats its food once and then regurgitates it to chew and digest it again. We have a second chance at biting into our experience and examining it."

I am grateful that writing is giving me the chance to re-live the beauty and joy that Rumi brought into my life. The love we shared was special, and I have been forever changed by my feline friend.

I will leave you with this poem written by Rumi’s namesake.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Get Lit: Storytelling, Live Lit, and The Birth of First Draft

Photo Credit: Brittany Cagle
This week, I am pleased to announce another guest blogger -- my fellow MFA colleague, Jay Thompson! Over the last two years, I have been consistently blown away by Jay's energy and "go get it" spirit. She is full of great ideas, and she's the kind of person who makes anything happen! I will also say that she is the most thoughtful person in our program, never forgetting a single person's birthday and always leaving treatsies in our mailboxes. In addition, she is one of the creators of an awesome lit mag, Weirderary!

With no further ado -- Jay Thompson schools us on Live Lit!


Given that storytelling birthed story writing, I am surprised that more writers aren’t interested in the art form. While I am no storytelling scholar, I know that the earliest recorded stories were shared orally from generation to generation before they made their way onto paper (or, originally, rock). It makes sense; before humans could write, they could talk.

Clearly, storytelling as a practice continues. Families pass down their histories by talking to their children. Employees gather on Mondays and tell the tales of their weekends. Lovers share the stories of their lives in whispers. Still, there is a difference between storytelling as day-to-day communication and storytelling as an art.

Storytelling as an art involves the use of many craft elements utilized in writing. A good story generally builds in tension that reaches a climax and has a satisfying ending. Telling it well on stage requires effort, planning, and practice. While a writer cannot choose the pace at which their reader reads a story, the storyteller has complete control over pacing, tone, voice volume, facial expressions, gestures, etc., all which add to the audience’s interpretation of the story.

Also, storytelling is dynamic while a piece of writing is largely static. Once a written story is published, it does not change. A story told aloud, however, cannot be told in the exact same way twice. This adds a “live” aspect that is not present in traditional readings. Storytelling is like standup comedy in the sense that the storyteller must practice the story over and over, in order for it to, ironically, sound natural, unstilted. At the same time, storytelling is unpredictable. The storyteller might shorten or lengthen sections of the story based on her mood that night or the reaction she is receiving from the audience.

I grew to love “live lit”—literary events that involve something beyond writers reading their work off of a page—while living in Chicago, a live lit and storytelling mecca. The Moth, which is out of NYC but has two monthly events in Chicago, is one of the most well-known storytelling events, and was the first large event at which I told a story. Each event is centered around a theme, and stories must be true and told without any notes. Moth attendees do not know who will read in advance—storytellers are chosen randomly after the event begins—and the audience votes for a winner at the end of the night. (And there is a Moth Story Slam in Miami TONIGHT! June 14th, Olympia Theater, 7PM)

I also particularly enjoyed telling stories at I Shit You Not, a storytelling event dedicated to the always embarrassing and usually funny stories about the bodily functions, and the Depression Hour Open Mic, a now-defunct event where people told their saddest true stories (think standup comedy if the goal was to make the audience cry instead of laugh). (My involvement in Chicago’s live lit scene barely scratched the surface. Check here, here, and here to learn about more events.)

After settling down in Tampa, I was surprised and disappointed to learn that the city lacks a live lit and storytelling scene. In fact, most of the writers I’ve met in Florida are unfamiliar with the term “live lit.” As I searched, I found that Wordier Than Thou put on occasional live lit events in St. Petersburg, and the SunLit Festival hosted yearly live lit events, but there were no monthly live lit events in Tampa.

I'm excited to say that I was a reader at the FIRST First Draft!
My classmates, T.J. Murray, Colleen Kolba, and myself, created First Draft, a reading/storytelling/live lit event, in order to bring more live lit to Tampa. We want Tampa writers and the local general public alike to learn the joys of the art of storytelling. At each event, at least two writers read their written work. Between readings, we incorporate interactive games with the audience and on-the-spot storytelling.  We began First Draft in my apartment and have been holding events at Southern Brewing & Winemaking in Seminole Heights since January of 2016. It meets on the third Thursday of every month and is free to attend. If you’re in the area, please stop by!

If you are interested in live lit but live in an area that does not have a thriving live lit scene, consider starting your own event. It isn’t as difficult as it sounds! Many live lit events have corresponding podcasts (see The Moth, The Narrators) that you can listen to in order to get a feel for how other events are run. Bars, restaurants, and coffee shops are often eager to allow events to run for free on weeknights, since those nights don’t usually draw as many customers. Writers and comedians are always looking for places to read and tell stories, and if you encourage them, your friends will probably be willing to get up on stage, too. Fun for everyone!


And tonight, June 14th, there will be a MOTH STORY SLAM at Miami's historic OLYMPIA THEATER at 7PM! 

Friday, June 3, 2016

Allyson Hoffman is Hooked on Linked Short Stories!

Hello readers! As I've mentioned before, I have a great group of peers in my MFA program at USF. One of them is Allyson Hoffman, a Michigan native and fellow fiction writer. I've been lucky enough to be in a bunch of classes with her and exchange work with her over the last year. She's also involved in everything and is always putting on readings and events! She's awesome. 

Anyway, I'm always so impressed with the breadth of everyone's knowledge in class (especially since I feel like a total fiction newbie), and when I heard Allyson give a presentation about linked short stories, I asked her if she wouldn't mind contributing to the blog! 

With no further ado, a post by this week's guest blogger, Allyson Hoffman! 


As an MFA creative writing student, the getting-to-know-what-the-heck-I-do conversation with family and acquaintances goes something like this:

So youre a writer. What do you write?
So you want to write novels?
Something like that. And then I smile, wondering if I should elaborate more.

I do want to write books, but not necessarily novels, because I want to write books built out of stories, stories that stand alone and can be read alone, but when ordered and packaged together become something bigger. These stories might have different narrators, or might be set in different places, or might take place in different times.

The phrase I use for this is linked short stories, though other folks call them short story cycles or novels in stories. The emphasis, I think, in all of these is the word story.

I had the pleasure of first studying linked short stories in a workshop taught by Dr. Susanna Childress at Hope College. The course was devoted to linked short stories, both reading and writing them. I spent hours crafting my stories, reading and re-reading the assigned texts.

Two years later, Im still obsessed with linked short stories. As a reader, I love how I can peer into the corners of different houses, live the lives of many characters, and see what characters really think about each other. I love events that take place in one story and the consequences that result in other stories. For example, in Jennifer Egans collection A Visit from the Goon Squad, characters make choices as young adults that affect their lives later on. Although this may sound vague, its often difficult to offer examples of this without giving away spoilers!

As a writer, what is most exciting for me is that the links among the stories vary. Some collections are linked by place or by a family. Others are linked by theme, with no overlapping characters at all.
Recently, I gave a class presentation on Lauren Acamporas The Wonder Garden a collection of stories linked by a small suburb of New York City called Old Cranberry. The collection was well-received by critics, but as part of my preparation, I wanted to know how everyday readers felt. I wanted to know how the everyday reader would connect with this kind of book.  On Goodreads and Amazon, the commenters were kind but confused. They did not understand why the book went in so many directions. Some cited frustrations because they wouldnt have picked up the book if they had known it was a series of stories. The consensus was that the writing was good, but the readers would have preferred a novel.

Such comments surprised me. I loved The Wonder Garden. I loved the messiness of the characters, how impossible and stubborn and frustrating they could be. I loved that the final story did not wrap up every thread, how I knew the characters were still beating along in Old Cranberry with their messiness.

So my latest revelationand this really is a revelationis that not every reader wants to read linked short stories. I havent identified why, but I imagine it has something to do with reader expectations. To be fair, none of my favorite collections say linked short stories on the cover or back cover. Some dont even use the word stories at all. Perhaps this is for publishing and marketing purposes. Maybe readers feel more welcoming of a book that doesn't have unfamiliar or literary-sounding language.

I challenge readers who havent picked up a collection of linked short stories before to do so with an open mind, free from expectations. Below is sample of some of my favorites, including one I recently wrote a review for on Happy reading!
  • Olive Kitteridge Elizabeth Strout
  • A Visit From the Goon SquadJennifer Egan
  • DrownJunot Diaz
  • The Things They CarriedTim OBrien
  • Love MedicineLouise Erdrich
  • The Wonder GardenLauren Acampora
  • The Suicide ClubToni Graham
  • Love in TheoryE. J. Levy

Friday, May 27, 2016

Colette Stemple: Art Teacher Extraordinaire!

Ms. Stemple was my IB Photography teacher at Coral Reef, and she ignited in me a love for darkroom photography. My father was a photographer in the Belgian Army and I’ll never forget his excitement when I brought him into our darkroom at school. Even though it had been 30 years since he’d developed photographs, the smells of the different chemicals brought back many fond memories for him, and we made many of our own memories working side by side in the darkroom. That was the kind of teacher she was—opening up the darkroom in the evenings, staying late after school, letting us spend our lunch hour in her classroom. She was constantly pushing us to enter competitions and get our work out into the world. I’ll never forget her infectious enthusiasm towards her students and our creative pursuits—and that enthusiasm continues to this day. 

 Over the years, Ms. Stemple and I have kept in touch. After retiring from the Florida public schools, where she started three different art programs (the commercial art program at the International Fine Arts College, and the magnet art programs at Southwood Middle School and Coral Reef High School), she moved to Austin, Texas to be near her children and grandchildren. Around this time, several of my good friends also moved to Austin, so I’ve been lucky enough to visit this liberal Texas oasis several times over the years. I always make a point to spend a few days with Ms. Stemple, catching up with my friend, and each time, I am more and more amazed by this woman. To me, she was just my photo teacher, but to the rest of the world, she was a great artist.

During this last visit, I learned that she received an Olympic medal for creating glass windows that were showcased during the 1980 Olympic games in Lake, Placid, NY. She also created a book of photography with her students after Hurricane Andrew called “The Eye of the Storm through the Eye of the Child”, which was presented to President Clinton. I found out that she won many scholarships to study art abroad, including at the Villa Schiffanoia in Florence, and she was the VP of an art company. I took this opportunity to ask her a few questions about her mentors and her work as an art educator. Here’s a peek into our conversation…

Olympic medal!

Ms. Stemple meeting President Clinton

Original Abstract by Ms. Stemple!
How did you get interested in art?

In grade school, the art teacher came and the regular teacher left. She used to draw something on the board and whoever copied it best got the best grade. But I just started drawing everything in sight. And this teacher let me do whatever I wanted to do, which gave me a lot of confidence. She could have squelched me, but she encouraged my creativity instead. That’s the best thing a teacher can do. Creativity is what makes a person unique.

Who are some of your favorite teachers?

Ranulph Bye (transparent watercolor), Dolya Goutman (oil painting, drawing), Leonard Nelson (printmaking, drawing), Hoffman (photography), John Hanlen (painting, drawing), George Sklar (heavy-duty drawing). In Florence, Sister Giotto Moots was very encouraging. Steven Posen from Yale said all my abstracts were ugly, but I knew they were true. If they were ugly, that was the way he perceived it. Does anyone really do ugly on purpose? When he found out I was married and going to have babies, he wouldn’t talk to me. He said I wasn’t an artist anymore.
Portrait of Ms. Stemple by fellow artist

What mediums have you taught?

I’ve taught photography, sculpture, encaustic wax emulsion, ink drawing, oil, watercolor, drawing, furniture design. It’s hard to say what I haven’t taught. I don’t care what you give me. Put me on the beach and I’ll play with the sand.

You’ve taught at colleges and art schools. You designed the curriculum for the art programs at both Southwood Middle and Coral Reef High School, and you taught at each for 15 years. How do you feel about your work as an educator?

I never took an education course in my life by choice. I never wanted to be a teacher. I never had a garden, never wanted to grow anything. Teaching was planting a seed and watching it grow. What a heady experience. I got hooked. I’d been written up on interior design in NY Magazine. I’d done art for commissions. I had plans to run my own business. But the joy of watching my students far exceeded any joy I ever experienced marketing my own work. I found out I loved teaching. I really believed—if you can’t do it, teach it. Then I found out there’s a vocation called teaching. I fell in love with my students. My greatest joy are my kids – my own and my students.

The teaching doesn’t stop. These days, she does artwork with her grandkids and teaches painting in the community. She spent a morning teaching me a few watercolor techniques while I was in town. It was hard!!!! I have so much respect for that art form now! And I continue to feel so lucky to have such a passionate, patient, and encouraging teacher as Ms. Stemple in my life! 


Original Artwork by Colette Stemple

Monday, May 16, 2016

MFA Year Two Recap

My writing studio at the Art Farm
Hi friends. Since my last post, I’ve finished my second year of graduate school so I thought this would be a good time to recap the past year of my master’s in creative writing.

This time last year, I was heading off to my first artist residency at the Art Farm in Nebraska. In a few days, I’ll be joining some of my Art Farm friends on a farm in eastern Texas to recreate the magic! During my residency last summer, I spent delicious day after delicious day writing, the hours interrupted only by a passing bunny rabbit or thunderstorm. I breathed life into old pieces and conjured up new ones; I am happy to report that all of the writing I did at the Art Farm has found homes in various literary journals and online magazines. But I’m jumping the gun! 

When the fall semester started, I went full speed into submitting my work. This was a new world for me, but I was lucky enough to have an insider’s perspective by working as an editor at Saw Palm, USF’s Florida literature and art journal. Regardless, I dealt with months and months of nonstop rejection, but I used these “failures” as ammunition to keep going. I quickly learned that rejection is a huge part of a writer’s life, and the sooner we learn to deal with it, the better.

Eventually, I got my first acceptance in late October from The Normal School. Needless to say, I was psyched.  A few other acceptances followed, and my first pieces were officially published in early December on The Toast and Lunch Ticket.

All the while, I was enrolled in my first fiction class where I started the project that was to become my thesis. Of course, you might remember that I came into this program as a creative nonfiction writer, so this switch was a confusing but exciting decision. Regardless, I still write plenty of nonfiction, but I decided that I’d rather work on a novel for my thesis than a book-length memoir project. (At the end of October, I attended the NonfictioNOW Conference in Flagstaff and met tons of awesome writers!)

Over the course of the fall semester, I wrote a first draft of my novel and received great feedback from my professor and peers. In the winter, I turned an excerpt from the novel into a short story called “Mango Season” and sent it to a few places.

Oh, and let me not forget that I taught my first creative writing class in the fall. My students were delightful and we had a great time exploring fiction, nonfiction, and poetry together!

Okay, so I had a busy fall semester. The spring semester was no different. I went back to teaching composition, and I registered for four awesome classes: Comics (or graphic narrative), another Fiction Workshop, Craft of Creative Nonfiction (Reading the Lives of Others), and Environmental Literature.
Saw Palm's 10th Anniversary Issue!
[Also, I set some SMART goals in December to keep me on track. More on that later.]

I tried my hand at comics for the first time—and loved it. I set aside my novel and wrote a few short stories for my fiction class (and we properly inducted into the official fiction writer’s club). I read tons of amazing (and sometimes frustrating) books for my CNF and Enviro Lit class. Meanwhile, I was still sending work out like crazy, getting lots of rejections and a few more acceptances. I begin to shift my focus away from literary magazines and started sending work to more mainstream publications. I landed several freelance writing gigs for corporate and governmental organizations. I wrapped up a year-long memoir project with a private client. I gave my first reading in NYC and saw my name in print for the first time! (First in the Reader's Write section of The Sun and then in the Tahoma Literary Review). 

Towards the end of the semester, things started to pick up even more. I was awarded USF’s Anspaugh Fiction award for my story “Mango Season.” I embraced painting and made a full-length comic/children’s book. Then, I had an article published in The Washington Post that was then picked up by The Sydney Morning Herald—completely unbeknownst to me! I was driving somewhere in Alabama when I received a phone call from a strange number. It was a radio station in Sydney and they wanted to interview me on-air about my article. I had no idea what they were talking about, and they explained that my piece about not having wi-fi at my house had been featured in The Sydney Morning Herald that day. Of course, I was more than happy to talk to them about my internet-free lifestyle. J

Now, the semester is over and I’ve returned to my restless ways. I’m on a road trip around the south, visiting friends and family in Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. In the midst of my trip, I got some super exciting news. My short story, “Mango Season,” was awarded the Charles Johnson Fiction Award by Crab Orchard Review! I am over the moon, and more than ready to get back to work on my novel—as soon as I get back home from my travels!

All in all, it’s been a productive and exciting year with lots of "firsts". I’ve done lots of writing, reading, editing, freelancing, workshopping, submitting, pitching, published, drawing, and dreaming. I’m so grateful for the support I’ve received from my family and friends, as well as from my awesome writing community at the University of South Florida! Although I don’t want my MFA to end, I’m excited to see what this last year holds.