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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fighting the FOMO

FOMO: The disease that's sweeping the nation!

Fear Of Missing Out, or FOMO, as it's known among millennials, is the phenomenon of always feeling like you are missing out on an important social event, even if you are already attending one. This phenomenon stems from our generation's constant access to social media that reminds us that many people are doing way cooler things than you all the time. Even marketing campaigns have latched on!

I've heard that some people have never been afflicted by this tragic disease; unfortunately, I have always been one to fall prey to its clutches. Even before social media - ever since forever! - I've wanted to be in the middle of the action. I have been known to triple or quadruple book myself in one night, racing around town to attend happy hours, writing groups, birthday parties, dance classes, ETC.  Hey, I guess you could call me an extrovert? It's mildly possible.

Since starting graduate school, I have noticed my terrible case of FOMO wane. First of all, I am no longer living in Miami, a city where I know too many people and have too many hobbies. Besides a few literary events and some salsa socials once in a while, there is not much going on in my world here in Tampa. Second of all, school kind of takes everything out of you. Not having internet at my house also helps. With these factors combined, I am well on my way to a life of writerly hermitude!

But I think the change has been even more important than all that. It hasn't been a fight against FOMO so much as it has been a redirecting of its energy. Rather than fearing what I am missing in the outside world, I find myself fearing what I am missing out on at my writing desk. The more I get connected to my writing projects, the harder it is to abandon them for some party or happy hour.

Anyone who has tried their hand at writing can tell you that writing takes time. So, so, so much time. And so,  I have become protective of the little time that I have. Rather than going to every social event that comes along, I pick and choose more carefully now.

Like I have learned with writing in general, the hardest part is getting started. The trick is to get yourself to the desk, to the page, so that you can fall in love with your work all over again. Starting a new project can take some adjusting, but once it has sunk its teeth into you, it's hard to tear yourself away! Next thing you know, I'll be turning down travel opportunities to stay home and write. HA! We'll see about that...

Monday, September 14, 2015

My Secret Love Affair

Friends, I have a confession. I am having a love affair,.... with fiction.

I know, I know – I came into the MFA program as a nonfiction writer. Memoir is the house where I live, where I feel comfortable enough to put me feet up on the coffee table. On the other hand, fiction has always been that funky next door neighbor’s house where I wanna hang out but I’m not cool enough to get invited.

“I don’t know how to lie,” I’d say when people asked me why I wrote nonfiction. I was certain that I wasn’t creative enough to make stuff up.

Last semester, I took a class that focused on Zora Neale Hurston’s work. We all know her most popular book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, but in this class, I was introduced to a wide range of her writing. We each got the chance to choose a book that wasn’t being taught in the class and present it to our peers. I chose Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston’s autobiography. Reading this book, I was amazed by the striking similarities between the characters in Hurston’s novels and the real people that were a part of her life. In Jonah’s Gourd Vine, she didn’t even bother to change the name of the main character, John, who was a thinly-veiled portrait of her own father.

Maybe memoir and fiction weren't as different as I thought!

I have had this epiphany before, when I read Isabelle Allende’s memoir, Paula. Being familiar with her fiction, I was floored by the way her stories mirrored the trajectory of her own life. But this time, something clicked for me. It’s as if I realized that a doorway had been open to me all along, but I had never dared to step through it.

Excited about the possibilities of autobiographical fiction, my professor let me try my hand at it for my final project. While writing, I found myself slipping into the first person “I” over and over again; my nonfiction hat was still firmly fixed on my head. At one point, I remember discussing the piece with my professor. She made a suggestion to change something about one of the characters, giving them an illness or a different job. I looked at her in surprise. “But, but – ”,  I started to say and she stopped me. “It’s okay if it didn’t really happen that way, Carmella,” she said.

This semester, I am taking a fiction workshop and I have officially delved into the genre. I’m making shit up left and right – and it feels great!

Well, it felt great at first. And then I had a freak out. I’m not a fiction writer, I’m a memoirist! What will I do! I need to choose one for my thesis and quick! I found myself talking in “should” – I should do my thesis in creative nonfiction because of x,y, and z. I decided to call up a previous graduate from my program, Melissa Carroll. She was a nonfiction student who dabbled in poetry and fiction with much success (she also published this lovely anthology about yoga!). She said for her it wasn’t a hard choice to stay with nonfiction, but she could hear in my voice where my heart lay: fiction.

“It doesn’t mean that all you can ever write is fiction forever and ever. After graduate school, you’re just a creative writer, plain and simple.” This made me feel better. I don't want to be pigeon-holed into one genre! “But listen," she continued. “You’re going to be living-eating-sleeping with this thesis for the next two years. So you better have a massive crush on it.”

My fiction affair turns out to be a good thing! I’m still getting used to the idea of defecting to the fiction camp, but hopefully, my writing career will be long and full of forays into all the genres! Most of the modern writers I love have their pens in all the pots…. But more on genre-crossing another time!

In other news, I am having a second [not-so-secret] secret love affair. 
With a kitten named Rumi.

"You didn't need your desk, did you?"
"I like books, too"

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Reverent Art of Teaching

General duties of a student: pull everything out of your teacher. 
Pull everything out of your fellow students.

General duties of a teacher: pull everything out of your students.

As you may have heard (I’ve been shouting it from the mountaintops), I’m teaching creative writing this semester. The class I’m teaching is an overview of the genres and a chance for undergrads to dip their toes into the endless well that is “creative writing.” Two weeks in and I am brimming with gratitude, happiness, and a bit of apprehension, too.

First of all, it’s a huge honor to be teaching creative writing as a graduate student. I recognize that not many MFA students have this opportunity and I am definitely going to try my best to do right by my students. It’s a far cry from teaching composition, where I was handed a syllabus, content, and projects to fulfill. I was grateful for the hand-holding, though, since I had little experience with the topic before teaching it. Now, it is up to me to write the syllabus, provide readings, plan assignments and decide on a grading rubric. No biggie, right?

Thankfully, I have the good fortune of taking a creative writing practicum in conjunction with teaching my class. This means that I get to bounce ideas off my classmates on a weekly basis (who are also teaching creative writing for the first time) and learn different ways to foster a creative environment for my students to grow, explore, and flourish. Did I mention that one of the most wonderful professors I’ve ever had is teaching it? So very exciting. On a less exciting note, all of us teachers will be filmed twice this semester for learning purposes. My professors says that athletes figured out a long time ago that studying footage of their games helps them get better, so why not writing teachers?

And then, there’s the part about actually being in the classroom, reading and writing alongside some pretty special students. My practicum professor says we must always approach the students with reverence. This hit home for me last Tuesday when they turned in their first piece of creative writing. Sitting at my desk at home, reading through the essays and poems, I was struck by the sheer bravery of my students. Creating by definition means making something that did not exist before. Therefore, being creative means you must accept the unknown and give in to the process. Tapping into this part of yourself requires a willingness to be vulnerable, which is not always an easy thing to do.

I was moved to read my students’ work. It is clear that they put time and effort into their writing, and their creative courage blew me away.  But also, I am honored to be given this role as educator to cultivate and nourish their beautiful creative spirit. I recognize now what a super special position I’m in to bear witness to creativity, and I also recognize that with this gift comes responsibility.
As I delve deeper into the creative process, I am beginning to understand it as a marriage between mystery and discipline. One must be brave enough to jump into the unknown, but also wise enough to trust the free-fall.