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Friday, October 31, 2014

"You, too, can win the Pulitzer Prize."

This Monday, I had the good fortune of hearing Gilbert King speak about his circuitous writing career and his tenacious research process. Author of Pulitzer-prize winning "Devil in the Grove" and "The Execution of Willie Francis," he was once a slacker student here at USF. While working on his English degree here, he rarely went to class, preferring to spend hours reading in the library instead. It was in our very library that he fell in love with stories. Unfortunately, he left two math credits short and never graduated with his intended English degree.

After moving to New York, he worked as a freelance photographer and as the assistant to the president at Scribner publishing. While working on photographs for a coffee-table book about golf antiques, the writer dropped out and the publisher asked King if he'd do the writing. He agreed. After finishing the project, he started getting more writing jobs, including ghostwriting books for "celebrities who wanted to go on talk shows about their books but didn't actually want to write them." He said the main reason that he kept getting jobs was because he didn't make spelling mistakes and he met his deadlines. He was reliable and low-maintenance, two gold stars in the publishing world.

It was while working on a crime encyclopedia that he came cross the story of Willie Francis, a young in Louisiana who was electrocuted in the electric chair but survived; as it turned out, the prison guard was drunk and he did not set up the chair properly. King was curious about the story so he went down to Louisiana to learn more. After doing years of research, he wrote "The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South."

The Groveland Boys 
During his research, he kept returning to the work of Thurgood Marshall. He decided to look into other cases that Marshall worked on. While looking through old files, he found letters to Thurgood Marshall from his lawyers working on a case down in Florida. "We're getting death threats everyday," they wrote. This is how King first learned about the Groveland boys and the rape charges against them. Again, he followed his nose and he was rewarded. What he found was an important part of American history that has somehow been forgotten, a true crime story. As he looked deeper into the intricacies of the case, he kept asking himself, "How come people don't know about this? How is this not a part of our American consciousness?"

Thurgood Marshall
He dug through FBI files and filed Freedom of Information Acts. He pleaded for NAACP records and interviewed people. (Several people involved in this case are still alive today! It was not so long ago that racism was rampant here in Florida, just a few hours from where I live...) He did his homework and wrote "Devil in the Grove." The book was rejected by 35 publishers. “I was really shouting into an ocean,” he said. But he kept fighting for his story because he believed it needed to be told.

It was finally picked up by Harper Collins, but as the publishers had predicted, the book sales were not great. "People don't want to remember this kind of stuff," they told him; it doesn't fit in with America's perception of itself. A few days after the publishers decided to "remainder" the book (meaning they were going to stop printing it and destroy the remaining copies or sell them to him at a discount), "Devil in the Grove" was awarded a Pulitzer Prize! Sales have since increased and Lionsgate recently bought the movie rights for the story.

"You have to follow what you love," he told the crowd, "and I love crime." He considers himself a storyteller before writer, and he believes that all that reading back during his undergraduate years at USF drummed the rhythm of stories into his head.

He also said that ghostwriting helped him tremendously as a writer. “I don’t believe writing is natural,” he said. “I think you always get better. Just keep getting better.” Like our teacher Heather tells us all the time, "just the act of sitting and writing is important. Like Malcolm Gladwell says, you have to put in our 10,000 hours."

                                  A story is never what you think it is. You gotta stick to the facts.                                                                                              
                                                                                                        -Gilbert King

Friday, October 24, 2014

Making Space

We're over halfway through with the semester. This is the time when shit gets crazy. Everything is due all at once, papers need to be graded, the reading load is as insane as always, and the weather is that perfect mix of sunshine and sweet breeze.  

But still, somehow, it's important to find time for quiet moments of introspection, moments where we make space for truth to seep in.

I had a breakthrough last weekend. A few, even. My roommate was out of town and the thought of being home alone all weekend was frightening at first. But something about the chill in the air got me to my senses. 

First, I drove over to Home Depot and bought the makings for a garden paradise: wood for a raised bed, a few seedlings, a shovel, and several plants with tags that read "low light." I had already spent way too much money at the USF Plant Sale the weekend prior, where I bought three different kinds of banana trees, a sweet almond bush, a variety of tomato seedlings, and salad seed packets for good measure. 

Now I had my shovel; I was ready to go. I got to work digging holes in the backyard and distributing horse manure from a local farm (my roommate has a horse so I have an compost connection!). When the trees were planted and the seedlings were watered, I got to work arranging my indoor plants. I’ve never really owned houseplants, or at least not since college when I needed something to perk up my dreary dorm room in the dead of winter. Although my life is not as dreary as it was then, my life is certainly not as plant-ful as it has been in the recent past. So I have conceded to the fact that I am just in a place in my life where I need a plant on my desk. And in the bathroom and on the kitchen counter. 

The next morning, a fellow writer and I headed to the beach for some sun and sea healing. While we sank our toes into the sand and soaked in the rays, we talked about – you guessed it – writing. She’s in her second year in the program so I picked her brain. I have basically been asking anyone who will speak to me about his or her writing process, mainly because I feel so at odds with my own. 

She told me that she has several writing spaces set up around her home, places that she has almost turned into sanctuaries, safe havens where she can do the hard work of facing the blank page. I thought about my own home, a safe haven in the making, and I realized my problem: there isn’t a single space where I want to sit down for a long time. I thought about my desk - a blank white closet door sitting on stools. My original intention was to use it as a writing table, but it had quickly turned into a receptacle for abandoned papers and random flotsam. Just thinking about it made me anxious. 

When I got home, I resolved to make my desk into a creative space – a space where I wanted to spend time. I hauled out the big computer that was dominating one side of the desk and moved my stack of magazines into the bathroom. I cleared away the wreckage and restored my desk to its original –blank- state.
I placed two potted plants on the windowsill in front of the desk, and sat down with nothing but a notebook, a pen, and a cup of tea. And I wrote. 

And I didn't get up.

Home sweet desk!

My roommate has her kitties... 

and I've got my plants!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Author Spotlight: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

This weekend, I got to go on a BIG KID FIELD TRIP with my awesome Literature of Place class. In light of reading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlins' The Yearling and William Bartram's 18th century Travels, we traveled north on I-75 to a few notable places south of Gainesville.

Our first stop was Cross Creek, the tiny hamlet where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote her Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Yearling, along with tons of short stories, several novels, and a memoir named after her town. She even published a cookbook, Cross Creek Cookery!

You might remember watching the movie based on The Yearling starring Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman. Whether you liked it or not (I remember loving it as a kid!), you should definitely pick up the book. It's beautifully written and thoroughly researched. Rawlings based it on a real family she knew who lived in that area and had a pet deer. I loved her descriptions of Florida's subtle beauty in its springs and forest, and in the wildlife that make these places their home.

The family that Rawlings wrote about in The Yearling lived further east, closer to Volusia and Lake George. But still, she did most of her writing sitting at the table on her front porch, overlooking an orange grove. Her constant companions were the chicken and geese who roamed the land.

What I would give to have such a gorgeous writing space! And check out those chairs, made from original deer hide! (All of the furniture in her house is original, donated to the state park by her second husband, Norton Baskin.)

I'm happiest when I'm outdoors. Which means, when I've got my writer hat on, I'm happiest when I am writing outdoors - or as close to the out-of-doors as possible. So a sun-drenched space like this one, with a view of the trees and the sky and the forest, is my ideal workspace. Unfortunately, my current home does not have a screened in porch, and my office is in a dungeon. Sooooooooo... I'll have to wait for that sweet writing porch. One day!

Rawlings was known for being independent and strong-willed - she needed to be to live on her own in a wild place like Cross Creek! She loved solitude and spent many weeks on her own, writing and being in nature. She wrote about feeling "vibrations" from the land and, if you read The Yearling, you'll understand the depths of her relationship to the natural world. 

Although she could be reclusive at times, she was a great cook and loved hosting people at her home. Zora Neale Hurston and Ernest Hemingway were just a few of her famous friends who spent time at Cross Creek. She even said that she got "as much satisfaction from preparing a perfect dinner for a few good friends as from turning out a perfect paragraph in my writing." I was fascinated by all the mementos of her homesteading lifestyle, from cast iron pans and ancient coffee cans to an ice cabinet. Writing and living close to the land -- what else can you ask for??

Rawlings' book Cross Creek was a memoir of sorts, in which she wrote about life in the backcountry of central Florida and the neighbors who shared this world with her. I haven't read it yet, but I plan to! As a writer of creative nonfiction, it's important to read different examples of memoir and see how it has evolved over time. Unfortunately, Cross Creek got her in a bit of trouble with a  good friend who did not appreciate the way that Rawlings described her in the book. The friend sued her for invasion of privacy, and although Rawlings was only ordered to pay $1 in damages, the long court proceedings took a lot out of her. After the incident, she didn't spend as much time at Cross Creek anymore, favoring her New York home instead, and she never wrote about Cross Creek again.

Either way, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is a great example of a strong woman, and a talented and dedicated writer. I admire her fierce spirit, and I hope I get to live and write in such a beautiful place myself one day.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Readers are the Reason

This week was my first workshop in my Creative Nonfiction class. I turned in a draft of a piece that I am writing about my childhood home in Miami. I knew there were issues with it, and I was nervous handing it in, but I was so ready to have readers.

Having readers has been the missing link for me as a writer. It's why I started this blog, actually. It's also a big reason why I decided to join an MFA program (people - professors and peers - are forced to read your stuff!!). I've been writing for many years, but my words have mostly stayed on the pages of my notebooks or in Word documents. I've had a few things published around the internet (here and here and here) but nothing substantial. More on that later.

Anyway, back to my readers. In our workshops, after we turn in our 12 pages, our classmates have a week to sit with our story, read and re-read, and finally, compose a letter to us. The letter has three parts: first, they tell us what the story is about (very helpful to hear what others perceive your story to be about), then they tell us what we did really well (close observation, pacing, scene, etc), and lastly, they tell us where they were confused and what parts of the story weren't exactly working for them.

Getting "mail" this week from my eight lovely classmates felt like Christmas morning. But before getting the letters, the class spent about half an hour giving me feedback on my twelve pages. The writer getting the feedback isn't allowed to speak; we're only allowed to take notes furiously as people give suggestions, and blush profusely when we're given compliments. It's a magical half hour, and you leave with a burning desire to run to your writing desk immediately and get to work.

Our teacher has recently given us the analogy of the clothesline. A story is like a clothesline; it's a cord holding lots of different articles of clothing. Your clothesline has to be taut, because otherwise, your clothes will touch the ground and get dirty. And to make things even more interesting, your reader should never see the clothesline. It needs to be there, but it's invisible.

I have no problem writing scenes and reflections and moments - the clothes in this scenario. It's the stringing them up on the line that I have trouble with. My classmates recognized this, and helped me think about ways to tighten the clothesline. I know that I have a lot of work ahead of me before this piece is shiny and ready to go out into the world, but  it was very gratifying to have others see the potential in my writing.

Reading the letters after class, I was overjoyed to learn that several of my classmates had connected to my story.  Some of them even cried while reading, which is, weirdly enough, maybe the best compliment I've ever gotten as a writer.  

This is what it's all about!, I thought. This is why I write!

It's about sharing and it's about connecting. It's about finding that essence that lies within all of us and speaking to it. It's not easy, but I hope I get to try for a long, long time.

Last weekend, I went to Miami to get my family/friend fix. Here's a picture of me attempting to do homework at the beach.

Happy weekend!

Friday, October 3, 2014

From Farm to Desktop

October is here - my favorite month of the year! And although I'm missing out on decorative gourd season and leaf peepin' back in New England, Florida does have some positive fall attributes. For one thing, carambolas are back in season (then again, when are they not in season??).

Starfruit to Heaven
And unlike New England, where farmers are putting their fields to bed for the winter, we're only just getting started down here in Zone 9

Farmers hard at work at Sweetwater Organic Farm where I volunteer once a week... 

You may not know this about me, dear readers, but I used to be an organic vegetable farmer. Yes, once upon a time, in the great state of Massachusetts, I hoed innumerable acres of squash and harvested too many tons of green beans. 

But let me back up just a bit. How did I come to be a grower (and lover!) of vegetables, you might ask? As an environmental studies major, I learned all about the atrocities that are happening to our planet, and I asked myself - what can I do? Eating food is the main way that we interact with our environment on a daily basis, and so I thought that food might be a good place to start. So I began to learn more about organic farming practices, closed-loop permaculture systems, and school gardening. I spent the last few years of undergrad chasing chickens and experimenting with vegetables I had never heard of before like kohlrabi (which literally look like aliens). I worked as a counselor at farm camp and ran after-school garden clubs for urban youth. I was hooked. After graduation, I spent a season on an educational farm in Martha's Vineyard, a season on small vegetable farm in western Mass, and another season on a permaculture farm in Homestead, FL. Many of my good friends dedicate their lives to growing food in a good way. And yet, here I am, sitting at a desk rather than working the fields.

So why am I here, at an MFA program for creative writing?

Well, when I wanted to learn how to grow vegetables, I went to workshops, talked to farmers, and worked on farms. When I decided to get serious about writing, I knew I needed an apprenticeship, mentors, an immersion. 

It hasn't been an easy transition, from farmer to writer. For one thing, I don't get to eat the fruits of my labor. I've gone from working on something tangible and real to working with abstractions like words, sentences, stories. Sometimes, when I'm hunched over my laptop for hours writing the same paragraph over and over again, I wonder - how is this important? I'm not feeding anyone! 

But, in order to be on this path, I have to believe that stories can change the world - that they do provide sustenance in some way. We need bread to live, but we need roses, too.