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Monday, August 31, 2015

Literary Magazines: A Report from the Trenches

This year, I have the good fortune to work as the Nonfiction and Arts Editor for USF's journal, Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art. It's the 10th anniversary of the journal, and we are celebrating with a special Cuba issue. Being of Cuban descent on my mother's side, I am super excited about working on this edition. I get the privilege of speaking to Cuban writers and artists, and reviewing tons of amazing work about la isla bonita.

This experience has also showed me the other side of literary journals. A big part of being a writer is - obviously - getting your work published, and I have only recently delved into this big, scary world.

I have mentioned before that having readers has been the missing link in my writing practice. Of course, I won't get readers if I don't send my work out. So, I've finally started to send some of my babies out into the world. And yet, submitting work comes with the caveat of rejection. You can count on it.  I'm pretty sure writers are the only people who talk about rejection like it's a good thing. "I got the best rejection," you'll hear someone say when they received a personalized message from an editor. The way I see it, rejection means you're trying!

Anyway, back to Saw Palm. Being on the other side of the table gives me the insiders' perspective on this harrowing process. Editors get a ton of work thrown at them; but now I know firsthand what annoys editors, and how to make their job easier. It basically goes like this:

  • Don't get creative with your cover letter. Leave the creativity for the work itself.  
  • Follow the rules. If the journal specifies a word or page count, stick to it. Otherwise, you're making their job easy and they'll just toss it.
  • Don't bother the editors when you haven't heard from them in a week. It may take months for them to make a decision. Be patient. And meanwhile, keep sending your work out!
  • Did I mention to keep sending your work out?
So there's my report from the trenches. Please check out my interview with much-loved Miami Herald columnist, Ana Veciana-Suarez. I'll be sure to keep you updated as we move forward with the publication of our 10th edition of Saw Palm! 

Please click HERE to submit your work!

Please click HERE to submit your work! 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Crafting a Creative Writing Class

Dear readers, another semester is upon us! And like every semester, this one comes with its own set of challenges and surprises. 

At USF, second year is a special time in every creative writing student’s life. This is the time that we get to TEACH creative writing. Before this, I taught three classes of composition, and I am grateful for the experience. But I was also grateful for the syllabus that was handed to me and the formula I was given to follow. I never had any formal pedagogical training before coming here, so I was happy for the hand-holding.

Well, the hand-holding is over. On Tuesday, I will stand before a roomful of students who have signed up for Creative Writing 2100, Narration and Description. I was given suggestions about which textbooks to use and a few sample syllabi, but for the most part, I’m flying this plane.

At first, I didn’t realize that I was the pilot. I modified the sample syllabus that I was given and sent it along to my professor. [Thankfully, we will also be taking a class on Teaching Creative Writing, but that starts at the same time as our own classes begin. It will be a great help as the semester progresses, but for now, we’re on our own.]

My professor sent back her comments. Nice syllabus, she wrote. But what do you really want to teach these students? I hadn’t really thought about it. I was just going to teach them what I was supposed to teach them.

At a bar the other night, I met a woman who had just finished her undergrad at USF. When I told her I’d be teaching Narration and Description, her face blossomed into a smile. “That class changed my life,” she yelled across the table, making herself heard in the loud bar.

Whoa. The possibility of changing lives had never occurred to me. Later on, I was speaking to a friend on the phone, another woman fresh out of undergrad.

“My freshman writing class opened up my whole world,” she said. “It changed the way I see the world around me, and my place in it.”

All of a sudden, I had a whole new vision of what I was doing in that classroom. Yes, my job was to get them to think critically about literature and explore different forms and techniques of creative writing. But, this was also an opportunity to expose them to ideas and worldviews they may never have considered before.

I threw my old syllabus out. Whereas before, planning the class seemed like drudgery, now I was on fire, constantly adding ideas to my list of activities, assignments, readings, and field trips. This has given me the opportunity to think back to all the things – poems, books, photos, places, and people – that influenced me at that age and brainstorm ways that I can bring those experiences into my classroom.

Do you have any books, movies, poems, photographs – ANYTHING – that truly moved you as a young adult? I am open to all of your ideas! 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Wild Art of Journal Keeping

I've been reading several articles recently about keeping a journal - those who do, those who don't, and the surprising benefits of writing about one's life. As a writer of nonfiction, I am often embarrassed to admit that I spend a fair amount of time writing about myself. Well, not necessarily my SELF but different aspects of my life experiences.

My first diary entry! Jan 17, 1994
I have been writing about my life since as far back as I can remember. My childhood bedroom has a shelf full of journals dating back to 1994, when my mother gifted me my first diary at age 7. My first entry stated the name of my best friend at the time as well as a current crush (Jose with blue "ese"). I also noted my five-year-old sister's boyfriend's name  and a piece of hard news: the Northridge earthquake in L.A.

Since then, my journal entries have waxed and waned. Some journals have dates that skip months, even years. Other notebooks, often when I'm traveling, are thick with scratchy pen ink and mementos, and span just a few weeks. Depending on my life circumstances, entries might be long, drawn out soliloquies about life and love. Or, an entry might be a bullet point list of flowers I've learned to identify or a snippet of conversation overheard at the deli counter.

My journal might never be a completely accurate account of every detail about my life, but if  nothing else, it serves to jog my reflective capabilities. What did I do today? What was significant about my waking, or non-waking, hours? (I keep my journal beside my bed to jot down my dreams first thing in the morning.)

Another reason why I continue to scribble in my journal every night before bed is because it keeps me writing. Even if I'm dead tired, I can still manage to squeeze out a few lines about my day. Usually, what starts as a quick list might turn into a deeper exploration of my friendship with a garden snake, or a growing attachment to my daily bike commute. Later, when I'm writing for "real," I often find myself pawing the pages of my journal, looking for certain passages or reflections. As a memoirist, these notebooks become my primary research later on. Still, when I am writing in my journal today, I can never know what moment might be gold to be in a few years time. Interestingly, it is often the most mundane moments that are most significant.

In Robert Olen Butler's book about writing fiction, From Where You Dream, he writes about using your journal as another way to practice the elements of fiction writing; write in scene, use all the senses, incorporate dialogue. This is another great way that journal writing can inform our "real" writing.

Do you keep a journal? Do you keep a hard notebook or documents filed away on your laptop? Do you write every day or only when something great or terrible happens? Tell me about your journal keeping life!

A small sampling of my journal collection