Friday, August 26, 2016

YEAR THREE WOE IS ME!

Lately, I’ve been joking around that my best friend is in Bali and my boyfriend’s on a sailboat in Sardinia—and here I am, stuck in school.

It wasn’t until the third or fourth time I said it that I realized how ridiculous I was being. I may not be gallivanting around Bali or the Mediterranean, but I am just as privileged as they are!


This week marks the beginning of the end—the first week of my last year in the MFA program. And it’s gotten me thinking about my dumb, beautiful luck at being “stuck” in school.

First of all, being a student, where our main purpose is to LEARN, is one of the most privileged existences available to a human. Thankfully, my mother has always made me understand the value of my education; she taught me to never take it for granted because I was one of the lucky girls on this planet who had access to something so precious. But after being in so many (great) schools all my life, I often forget my privilege, as we – the privileged – so often do.


So not only am I a STUDENT, which we’ve established is a position of great privilege, but I’m a GRADUATE STUDENT! This means I’m essentially being PAID to explore my own intellectual and creative curiosities! Unlike undergrad, which sometimes feels perfunctory because it has somehow become a prerequisite for life in America, graduate school is icing on the cake. We come here because we want to, not because we have to.

And to top it off, not only am I a GRADUATE STUDENT, but I’m an MFA STUDENT in CREATIVE WRITING. This means that I have the glorious luck of spending three unfettered years working on my own writing pursuits—and having awesome writers around who are paid to give a damn about it! (My professors.) Not to mention, I have the privilege of being surrounded by many inspiring and hard-working writers who create beautiful, artful, heart-opening stories.
So yes, woe is me, the poor MFA student…

Privilege is power, and as the saying goes, with power comes great responsibility. I am constantly asking myself - Am I’m doing enough? Could I be doing more? Could I use my time more wisely? How else could I get even more out of this experience?



It certainly wouldn’t hurt the world if we all started our day by acknowledging our privilege. Imagine all that we could accomplish if we moved forward with gratitude and appreciation for our place, our power, and our possibilities. 





Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Fifty Shades of Rejection

Yesterday, I received a form rejection, an acceptance (yay!) and a good rejection. Only in this business is there such a thing as a good rejection and a bad rejection.

Now, what is a good rejection, you might ask?

A good rejection is the kind where the editors tell you they were close to publishing your piece (so close) but chose not to in the end. Although this may seem like a cruel thing to say, a good rejection usually comes with some suggestions on how to improve your piece, as well as an invitation to re-submit this piece (or another one).

Oftentimes, a bad rejection can also be an open invite to try again, although I have gotten my share of flat "no" responses. [One of my favorites: "Unfortunately this piece is missing the new or surprising element that would qualify it as an “untold” story." I guess honesty is the best policy?]

Also, a nice rejection doesn't necessarily mean anything, either. Usually, it's unlikely that the editor who sent you the nice rejection will be the one to read your piece the next time around. I've gotten sweet rejections full of praise from a magazine, and then re-submitted two or three more times -- only to get a form rejection each time! 


The trick is to stay resilient--and organized. Sometimes, I get a good rejection with tips on how to improve an essay, but the message might get buried in my inbox, soon to be forgotten and therefore forfeiting my second chance at a publication with this journal. 

Either way, any rejection--good or bad--is an opportunity to improve. Whether the editors give you feedback or not, rejection is a chance to re-see your piece and polish it up even more. A professor once told me that some of the short stories that appeared in his collection took years--YEARS--to be accepted. And every time he got a rejection, he went back to the drawing board, finding ways to make his story even stronger. 




Publication allows for a dialogue between writers and our audience, and rejection is simply a part of that conversation. Rather than letting rejections steam roll us, let's use them to our advantage!

Happy writing!

PS I've got a new publication in Kudzu House's Summer Solstice Issue! Check it out--it's my first published piece of fiction!

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

Jessica_Jan16
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!

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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!

NEXT UP - JUNE 16!

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! 


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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?
Fiction. 
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 newpages.com. 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