Do Your Homework: Considering Teaching as a Career Path

I love teaching. I’ve been teaching at universities since my second year in UCF’s Creative Writing MFA program, a total of nine years. I’ve taught creative writing, English composition, professional writing, and other courses. I have taught in the classroom and online, and I’ve taught at two universities (including UCF).

Many people go from the MFA program into teaching. There are several reasons for this, and the most common reason is that there are more opportunities to teach as a grad student than there are opportunities for other roles. Teaching is not for everybody. The following are tips for choosing where to teach.

Do Your Research
This means reading the school’s website, looking up the instructors and professors, and taking a tour of campus. Find out what the culture is like. Will you fit in? What is the age of the typical student you might have in class? Are you comfortable teaching that age group?

Learn the Department’s Expectations
If you know anyone who works at the school, ask them about their experiences, positive and negative. What’s a typical day like for them? How many hours do they spend teaching and on other activities in a week? Do they grade in the evenings and on weekends? During which days and hours are they expected to answer email?

If you don’t know someone who works there, ask about expectations during an interview. What is a typical course load? Will you be teaching a variety of classes or multiple sections of one subject? What are the opportunities for advancement in the department? What are the policies on teaching at other universities? How many office hours do you need to hold per week? What are the expectations of your activities during office hours (are you expected to meet with students, grade, discuss pedagogy with colleagues, etc.)?

Also, ask what you’re expected to do aside from teaching. Are you expected to serve on and lead committees? Will you lead a student organization, plan events, manage a journal, or fundraise? Are you going to advise students, and, if so, how many students?

Last, what about research and publishing? If you are expected to do research, write, and publish, what’s the target? Are you provided with time to do that, or does this work happen when you’re at home? This is where you might want to consider how separate you want your writing career to be from your teaching career.

The MFA program taught me how to write while doing other things. In addition to taking the “Teaching Creative Writing” course, I earned a graduate certificate offered to TAs out of the faculty development department, and I attended workshops in teaching composition that were offered by the English Department. I took advantage of having a mentor, and, frankly, I now wish I had worked more closely with my mentor. If you have this opportunity, take it. Ask many questions.

I also recommend Coursera courses, which may be audited or paid for. Plenty of conferences focus on pedagogy, from AWP to FCEA and CCCC. The trick is to actually attend the panels and meet people, not just schmooze at the bar. Continuing education is a big part of staying current and motivated.

Last, you are not necessarily an expert on teaching because you’ve been a student for twenty years. Most of us are more focused on what we’re learning rather than on how the teachers are teaching. I took my most effective professors’ techniques and tried to adopt them in my own classes. This was a good start, but I learned from student feedback that I needed to incorporate assignment sheets, handouts, presentations, and activities that appealed to multiple learning styles. If the students get confused, try to figure out what you can do next time (or in the next class session) to lessen that confusion. During one of my first classes, I don’t think I ever used an assignment sheet–I wrote everything on the board. This wasn’t helpful for students who were visual learners. Nowadays, don’t be surprised if students take photos of the board rather than taking notes.

How many words per day can you handle? Reading student work, writing comments on it, reading for pleasure, reading for research, and doing your own writing can be draining. If you want to focus on a discipline other than writing for your teaching career, you may want to get certified in a different subject area. I had a mentor who said she could only process so many words in a day. What’s your limit? Will you have the energy to write?

The takeaway: Choose your career wisely. If you are teaching in grad school as an opportunity to earn money and gain experience, consider carefully if this is something you want to do or something you think you should do. Weigh your options. Explore various career paths. I didn’t realize how much I wanted to teach until I sat through an interview for something else. Now, don’t let one bad day scare you off, of course. Just remember that teaching isn’t for everyone, and it’s not the only option available to someone with an MFA.

I have found teaching to be rewarding. It was a natural path for me. Consider what will nurture you and your talent and if you’ll have the time and energy to write, which is probably what you want to do most after graduating with your MFA to begin with.

catherine-carson-photo

Catherine Carson graduated from UCF’s MFA program in 2007. She teaches writing in Winter Park, Florida. Her nonfiction and poetry has been published in Fantastic Floridas (Burrow Press), Gravel, and Referentials Magazine and has been featured in the podcast The Drunken Odyssey with John King. You can also catch her reading at There Will Be Words in Orlando. When she’s not teaching her three cats to high-five, she’s knitting.

Hey Kids, Comics

Maybe not comics exactly. People will always debate what to call the medium. Some purists insist on “comic books” while those more focused on the high art aspect of it prefer “graphic narrative.” And yet these differing terms all boil down to the same thing, for the most part: words and pictures arranged in such a way to create a story.

I first tried working with the medium a few years ago and honestly had no idea what I was doing. There were no real style guides and the script excerpts I found online were drastically different between authors. It wasn’t like being cast into the deep end, it was more being in a tube of semi-opaque liquid. There were clear limits everywhere and only a vague idea of how to move around. But that aspect is kind of the fun part, jumping into the unknown, trying out a medium that I’ve only read in the past.

When I said “medium” that wasn’t a misstep. Comics are their own medium of storytelling that can cover just as many genres and subject matters as the written word and film. Comics do have a great deal of little nuances and hurdles to jump through before coming out the other side with a completed narrative piece. I’m here to show you those odd things that come about when trying to write comics. The art aspect is something you’ll have to ask actual artists about. Art’s different, it’s difficult. Here’s what happened when I just tried some basic paneling:

1.png

Yeah, that’s supposed to be a couple people looking through a hole in their floors at each other.

Moving on.

Comic script writing is inherently different from writing film scripts or straight narratives, the main difference being that there is no set structure for comic scripts. They only need to contain roughly three elements: panel descriptions, captions, and dialogue. From there you can basically go nuts with how you want to structure them so long as they’re readable and an artist can understand what the material is supposed to mean. Here’s an example of that, an excerpt from a script I wrote a few years ago:

2

It’s fairly straight-forward, how it’s supposed to look on the page. And this is what the final product looked like:

3.png

And most of those elements from the script are still present in the final art. Which brings me to one of the major points of writing comics for scripts: you are, more or less, writing half the script for an audience of one. Panel descriptions are made almost exclusively for the artist to interpret and work with, they give your words a physical presence on the page. Being straight-forward with these descriptions and not using them as an area to dump narrative information becomes crucial. What do you want to include in these panel descriptions? Almost anything relevant to the visual aspect of the work. How does someone look, what are they currently doing, what other key visual information needs to be present in the panel, where is everyone in this situation? The main theme with traditional narrative works is to always show and not tell, but you’re going to have to quell that voice for a while because descriptions in comic writing are entirely telling. You tell in the script so the finished product can do the work of showing instead.

But here’s one of those odd elements about writing comic scripts: communicating with artists. If, like me, you can barely manage stick figures on a good day, you will be working with an artist to make this script become an actual graphic narrative. Keeping that in mind, these panel descriptions become the basis for the entire story. If they’re muddled in some way that is unclear to the artist, then the story is likely going to feel the same to the reader as well. It’s something I’ve seen a great deal in following comic writers and artists online for years now: always respect your artist.

Storytelling in comics is two-fold, you do have the panel descriptions and the art that can be made from them. And then there’s the rest of the words that the audience actually sees: the dialogue and the captions. Even here there is still a debate on what the latter should encompass. Do you use those little caption boxes for a narrative voice, some unseen narrator telling the reader when and where they are, telling them that suddenly someone somewhere is committing a crime? Or are they used more for something more internal, perhaps the character’s inner dialogue in lieu of the more iconic thought bubble? This is completely up to the writer and the story they wish to tell. For example, here’s a bit of script with a focus on captions:

4.png

And now the finished product:

5

The captions boxes here do provide a similar function to the thought bubble, they’re almost out of the story, as though the character is reflecting on the moment from a point in the future. And that’s what fit that part of this particular story. Maybe that dialogue in the eighth panel could have been a thought bubble and the caption boxes were narration from somewhere else in time, it all depends on the kind of story that you want to come through.

Dialogue in comics is the main vehicle for communicating within these pages. But dialogue in comics is something that does have a great deal of overlap with dialogue in other forms. It comes with similar questions as in any medium: does it advance the plot, does it advance the character, what does it reveal about the world that can’t be accomplished elsewhere?

Dialogue is tricky in any medium, it involves understanding the characters and learning how they actually talk to give them a more unique personality. Although this is lessened slightly with comics, as you can physically see who is speaking, the quality of the dialogue must be as close to stellar as you can manage. Those little speech bubbles are going to be your main connection with the reader, they don’t see the panel descriptions and the work you put into them, so you have to be prepared to put even more work into crafting dialogue for your characters. Because here dialogue plays a dual role of advancing plot and characters, typically at the same time.

There are exceptions to everything I’ve just mentioned. There are some comics that omit dialogue completely, there are others that do include full paragraphs of narration within the pages, there are some that eschew the caption box completely and have the unseen narrator’s words floating on the page. That’s what makes comics such a fun medium to work with now, the fact that none of these rules ever need to apply to how you personally write your script. It’s one of the reasons I tried writing comics after so many years embroiled with traditional writing. It’s a kind of release, thinking about all of the possibilities of working with words and pictures as opposed to looking over lines and lines of text. Some of the most exciting comics being released don’t follow any of those guidelines I mentioned and yet some do.  All of it, as always, comes down to the story that you want to tell. Although I’ve glazed over and brought up some of the basic aspects of writing in this weird graphic medium, I do hope that you’ll at least give it a try sometime. You don’t need capes, you don’t need spaceships, you don’t need dragons, or you could need all of them. The most important thing to do with comics is to just jump in.

6

Drew Barth is a first year MFA candidate at UCF. He received his degree in Creative Writing at UCF as well. When not worrying about writing he’s either baking or playing with his cat. He wonders if he’s ever going to leave Florida.

I Write and I Sport: Confessions of a Writer/Athlete

Typically, the identities “author” and “writer” do not intersect with that of “athlete.” Sure, you can google a list of famous writers who played sports and come up with a list of the greats: Kerouac, Fitzgerald, Nobokov, Orwell, and even Tolkien. For the most part, however, not many jocks write and not many writers play sports.

When someone says “writer,” most people call up visions of beanie wearing, notebook carrying, messenger bag slinging boys and girls, noses tucked into books and heads in the clouds. They enjoy their coffee houses and their laptops and their words. Even when you try to deconstruct that image, to push past the stereotype, you get combinations of hipster and teacher or sweet and punk or purple-haired, pull-no-punches, reserved, video-gamer/writer. Athlete usually ends up at the bottom of the list.

This seems funny to me because sports and writing actually share a lot of qualities. But more on that later.

In high school, we’re separated into cliques based on interests. The jocks go one way, the nerds the other. Right? Even in the contemporary age of “smart is the new sexy,” someone still draws a line between brain and brawn. This line continues into college and the world at large. While we may toe, straddle, or even cross it, that boundary always exists.

With writing, that line may almost be worse. In the contemporary age, we are looking for writers who push and who challenge the norm. We want the voice and the narrative that has never been heard. We want whispers to become battle cries. Those are the stories that interest us—that interest me. Who wants to hear the stories that gets shouted at them every day? Who wants to read about a voice that everyone knows?

Full disclosure: I was a jock. I am a jock. I still own my high school letterman’s jacket, although I no longer wear it. I played varsity ball all through undergrad, and, even in graduate school, I have managed to find more ways to continue to play on some sort of organized squad. I love my sport. But I also love to write.

These two subjects may not seem to have a lot in common, but there are a lot of ways in which they overlap.

Motivation. Who hasn’t been in a workshop or at a writer’s conference where this magic word comes up? Some people wait for the muse. Others set word goals. Others still force themselves to produce every day no matter how good or how ugly. I’m not saying there is one right way. There’s not. But the motivation to write eerily resembles to that often-tossed word in sports terminology: drive. A fairly vague word, but it boils down to the stubbornness to continue even when you’re busy and tired and dear God you just want more than twenty-four hours in a day. Sound familiar?   

Self-Discipline. Not too far from motivation, but I would argue that these are different terms, both in writing and sports. The motivated writer and athlete wants to improve. They possess that magical quality drive and probably even the more double-edged word, potential. The disciplined writer and athlete follows through. They hold themselves accountable for their actions. They make a plan or routine and stick with it. Did you go to the gym today? Did you submit to journals? Did you write at least 200 words? Did you edit that story finished in an inspired frenzy at 2:00 am? Without the discipline to follow through, potential is never actualized.

Training. Athletes train. Duh. No one argues that. Sure there are different levels of natural ability, but no one progresses to “the next level” (whether that be professional or collegiate or even high school junior varsity) without training. You have to condition your body, train your muscles, to be prepared to step out on the court or field or mat or whatever. Writing is the same. Like muscles, you need to challenge and stretch that writer’s brain to prepare it for that lyrical poem or epic short story. My creative classes (both undergrad and grad) included restrictive assignments. By that I mean assignments designed for students to focus on one craft element without worrying too much about the consequences. These exercises allow students to break down the writing process itself, become aware of it, and then improve it. In case you were wondering, the same process occurs when learning specific skill sets in sports.

Community. One reason I am at UCF today is the community of writers here—this group of thirty-five or so people who understand me, who get excited at fantabulous sentence, who spend their free time talking about dialogue and diction. They are there to celebrate my victories just as I celebrate theirs. Translation: they are my team. I’m sure this is not the first time the “team” analogy has come up in the writing world. A team works together to achieve a common goal (like improving one’s writing or getting published or getting into PhD program). Sometimes they can get annoying (I get it: I need to work on my characters…can we please talk about something else now?), but you love them anyway because they just want you to put your best work forward.

Currently, I’m in a class on hybrid forms. First class of the semester, Professor Thaxton looked at each of us and claimed that we are hybrids. That’s the best way to describe how I feel about my writer/sport self. I operate with two modes, two personas: writer me and athlete me. Sometimes they get along and sometimes they don’t. And sometimes they intersect and become just me.

That, on some level, is how all writers operate. They must balance different aspects of their lives and themselves as they make their way in the literary world.

 

leahLeah Washburn is a first year MFA candidate at UCF originally from Jefferson City, MO. She received her BA in English-Creative Writing from Rhodes College in Memphis. She is the managing editor and GTA for The Florida Review. And although she wishes she has a time turner, she still finds time to watch movies and play volleyball with her friends.

Making the Most out of a Writer’s Conference

Last year was my first AWP. I read plenty of blog posts going into AWP on what to expect and “How to Have a Successful AWP,” but I discovered that the breadth of options available to conference goers was wider than I expected. Even though I had a great time, attended some fantastic panels, bought a lot of books, discovered a bunch of journals, and made some new friends, I ended up leaving AWP 2016 feeling like it was a trial run for AWP 2017.

My biggest regret for AWP 2016 was that I didn’t go to any of the PhD program booths. At the time, I was a first year MFA student toying with the idea of applying to programs, but I hadn’t even at the time had a real discussion with my wife about whether I would be applying. Sure, I stopped by a few booths and grabbed a few pamphlets and said the minimum amount of words to whomever was at the booth in order to scurry away without seeming crazy. Yet even if I would have stuck around and chatted a bit more, I didn’t even know the sorts of questions that I should be asking. Ultimately, I decided applying about a month after AWP, which meant that I now was left to slog through all the different programs via their own websites. If you are on the fence, even if you’re leaning towards not getting a PhD, here are some of the questions that I wished I would have asked.

  • What makes your program stand out?
  • Does your school have a literary magazine, and if so, are PhD students involved?
  • Is your program a strictly a creative writing program or an interdisciplinary program with a creative dissertation?
  • What are you looking for in an applicant?
  • How many years does your program typically take to complete?

These are not the only questions that I would ask now that I have gone through the process of applying. However, asking some of those basic questions would have saved me hours, perhaps even days, of research over the summer when I finally committed.

Plenty of people have written about how people should feel okay skipping panels in order to make friends, scope out the book fair, see the local sights, etc. Yet last year I went to panels. So many panels. I skipped meals to go to panels. There are two things that I wished I would have done. First, I wished I would have walked out of a few of them after a few minutes when it was clear that the panel wasn’t what I was expecting for whatever reason. Some panels weren’t what was advertised and others were unorganized and still others had panelists that used the opportunity to deliver an off-topic manifesto. I watched others around me walk out, but I didn’t want to be rude or miss the small nugget of information that drew me in. What I discovered after sitting through so many panels was that usually I knew in the first five minutes if I’d get anything out of the panel. Ultimately, there is just too much going on at the conference to sit through a lackluster panel in hopes that somehow it’ll magically get better. Sometimes I stuck around because the panel was sparsely attended, and with every other attendee that bailed, I felt like it made me feel increasingly obligated to stay. However, there wasn’t going to be a test on the information. The panelists weren’t memorizing my face. No one was going to track me down amongst the other 12,000 attendees to call me out for walking out. Sure panelists want to have a full room, but your time is too valuable to waste on information you already know or don’t care about. You’re better off heading to the book fair, attending a new panel, grabbing a bite to eat, meeting up with a friend, or even just heading to the hotel room for some down-time.

The other thing that I think is worth mentioning about panels is that even if it may seem boring, it is worth going to panels that pertain to your career goals. Despite having teaching experience, a Master’s in the Arts of Teaching, and having taken Teaching Creative Writing, I really wished I would have attended more panels on creative writing pedagogy. A panel on the use of rubrics in creative writing isn’t quite as exciting as something like “the politics of mixed media,” but ultimately making better rubrics will serve me better in both the short and long term. This is not to say to not go to those highly specialized panels that you’ll only get at a conference as big as AWP; however, I think it is worth really considering your personal career aspirations—whether it be education, publishing, or elsewhere—and attending some practical professional developmental panels instead of always being lured away.

Perhaps my biggest regret is that I wish I would have spent more time at the Florida Review table. My thought process was that I had paid money and flown across Florida to California, so I should spend most of my time wandering about instead of stuck at a table. I tried to occasionally stop by the table in order to keep company with whomever was signed up for the hour. However, what I ended up discovering was that I found it so much easier to meet new people when I was manning a table instead of dropping by other lit mags tables. I’m naturally introverted, so talking to a staffer (or even worse, an editor) for a lit mag that I admire keeps me up at night as I think about the response I should have said. Yet, when I have a role, I find it so much easier to interact. It’s why I’m a talkative teacher but a quiet student. It’s why I am confident performing on a stage but find it hard to talk to the cashier at Publix. At least for my personality type, having a task and people coming to me makes it easier to meet people. After answering a few questions about the Florida Review, it was easier for me to ask people where they are from and what genre they write in. It still feels counterintuitive, but I had more success networking while at the Florida Review table than all the time spent wandering to other tables, waiting for my “in.”

I don’t think that there is necessarily a wrong way to attend a large conference. However, my trial-run last year has me all the more excited for AWP in DC next month.

brendan-pic
Brendan Stephens is a second year MFA fiction student. His work has been in Into the Void magazine, Black Fox Literary Magazine, the Little Patuxent Review, and elsewhere. Currently he teaches Introduction to Creative Writing and previously has taught at the secondary level. He made business cards for AWP 2017 and feels weird about the prospect of saying, “Here’s my card.”

Happy Birthday PARCELS and Welcome 2017!

mfa-friends-2

What better way to start off the 2017 PARCELS than with a celebration? Not only did the January reading mark the 5 year birthday of the series, but it also featured Alli Martin, a recent graduate. And for a reading that began before the semester, the turnout was a crowd and a half.

leah

First year Leah Washburn opened with a short fiction piece about an upcoming high school reunion, a gathering of old friends, and an unhappy marriage. Leah’s story asks “do you have it all”, and the main character is left wondering this as the story ends.

mike

Following her was Mike Leavitt, another first year, who shared a recently written story about an Orlando airport, a tourist, and a pessimist. (Need I say more?). Although Mike included a few good zingers, his piece ended on a surprisingly sentimental note given the POV character.

jamie

Before moving on to the evening’s final reader, program leader Terry Thaxton dragged faculty member David James Poissant onto the stage. As one of PARCELS founding faculty members, she recognized his hard work and dedication to the project along with the work of the students Brian Crimmins, Kirsten Holt, and Leslie Salas.

alli

Then Alli Martin took her turn with mic. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Alli missed the celebratory Graduate Reading that took place last December. She read the first chapter of her thesis work, a steampunk novel that she used to comment on class, race, sexism, ethnicity, and even colonialism. Through Eve’s curious and determined eyes, she introduced the audience to a world of gears and train whistles.

The evening was a great success and we look forward to many more PARCELS to come. Once again, we’d like to thank our host, the Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts, for providing us with such a welcoming place. We’d also like to thank all who came and we hope to see you again at our next reading on February 5th.

Welcome Back to the Spring 2017 Semester

Welcome back, MFA students and Orlando literary community!

The spring semester is upon us. Below, students can find the spring class schedule. We’ve also listed our spring UCF literary events. Don’t forget, we’ve got a handy event calendar.

Look out for event invites on Facebook, and don’t be afraid to email us if you have any questions. Students, be diligent in checking your UCF Knights email for updates to dates, times, and locations for events, as well as other vital information.

Good luck in your writing endeavors and readings. We look forward to seeing you!

Spring 2017 Classes

Tuesdays
6:00pm-7:15pm Advanced Workshop: Poetry
7:30pm-10:15pm Studies in Nonfiction
7:30pm-10:15pm Teaching College Literature

Wednesdays
6:00pm-7:15pm Form and Theory in Creative Writing
6:00pm-7:15pm Contemporary Movements in LCT Theory
7:30pm-10:15pm Issues in Literary Theory

Thursdays
6:00pm-7:15pm Advanced Workshop: Poetry
7:30pm-9:00pm Studies in LCT Theory
7:30-10:15pm Advanced Workshop: Fiction

Web
Rhetorical Theory
Technical Editing
English Grammar and Usage

Spring 2017 Events
Some events are still in the process of finalizing times and locations. Make sure you check the event calendar for updates to dates, times, and locations for events.

GWA Readings & Workshops
Jan 8 PARCELS: MFAs in Progress
Jan 11 Second Semester Orientation for First Years with Terry Thaxton
Jan 18 Lit Mags and Publishing with Jamie Poissant
Jan 25 Crafting Thesis (and other) Proposals with Lisa Roney
Feb 5 PARCELS: MFAs in Progress
Mar 5 PARCELS: MFAs in Progress
Apr 5 Spring GWA Reading: Brad Watson
Apr 9 PARCELS: MFAs in Progress

Conferences
Feb 8–Feb 11 AWP Writers Conference
TBD May ACA Writers Retreat

Cypress Dome Society presents
Feb 28 Writers in the Sun: Rigoberto Gonzalez
Apr 20 Alumni reading: Jaroslav Kalfař

Don’t forget to check out other local literary events. Check out our page for the Orlando Literary Community or keep an eye on our event calendar.

Advice for Approaching Your Thesis

Advice for Approaching Your Thesis

The Fall semester is ending, and before you know it, it will be Spring. Besides the inevitable readings and writing your classes will require, sooner or later you’ll have to work on your thesis. It’s a big undertaking, and it can certainly become intimidating, but don’t let fear keep you from making strides in your work. Whether you’re worried about finding your thesis director or presenting your thesis, students Alli Martin, Brendan Stephens, Jonathan Phin, and Rebecca Cobb have the answers.

What to Write/Proposal

“The first challenge of a thesis is deciding what to write.  From my experience dashing through a novel in two years, I highly recommend the route of a collection—unless you can spare an extra semester or have a developed idea for a novel.  A novel is difficult to move through the thesis process.  Chapters need to be workshopped, and of course your thesis director needs to read your work as you go through the year, meaning you may be “polishing” chapters too early.  Without a complete first draft, workshopping a novel is a frustrating experience of cycling back to chapters out of order without the ending written, or—once you’ve written the ending—scrapping eight chapters to start over again (true story).

For a two-year MFA program, it’s much easier to work through a collection.  Some writers may not know what the “theme” of their collection will be, or know how to write the thesis proposal since they’re just random stories.  But writers tend to be drawn to common themes during certain periods of their life, so even if you think your stories “don’t fit together,” they probably do just because you wrote them during your MFA at UCF.  So if you start thinking about what you’ve written during your first semester and which topics, characters, or motifs are recurring, you’ve taken your first step to writing your thesis proposal.” – Alli Martin

Meet with Your Prospective Thesis Director

“Have meetings with as many instructors as you can. If you know the professor from a class, schedule a meeting to talk about what work they enjoy and what they look for in a thesis candidate. If you haven’t taken a class with them, most professors are excited to get to know new students, talk about writing, and address the same questions you’d ask of a professor you have worked with before.” – Brendan Stephens

Choosing a Director

“If you haven’t had a class with a potential thesis director, schedule an appointment and talk to them.  I didn’t know my thesis director.  I actually scheduled an appointment with her to discuss another class she was teaching the following fall, but as we talked I realized she was not only interested in my genre but understood my influences and would be a perfect match for the novel I was working on.  Meet the professors, talk to them about the writers and stories you admire, and find someone who would complement your style or help you develop in a specific way.  Don’t be afraid to meet any professor you want!” – Alli Martin

Thesis Reading List

“I know it’s easy to list fifty books you’ve already read.  I had no trouble coming up with fifty books I’d read and felt like I could say influenced my writing—DO NOT CHEAT YOURSELF LIKE THAT.  Plan to read at least twenty books specifically chosen to augment your thesis work.  And don’t just choose books in your genre!  What’s your setting?  Is your story historic?  Are you writing about an experience or point of view outside of your own?  Grab some nonfiction books on the topic you’re writing about and do some research.  Some of the best details in my novel came out of the books I read on Victorian society and building automatons—because I’d done my homework.” – Alli Martin

Write Whenever You Can

“The most important thing is to get that first draft out. Don’t be afraid to write something that isn’t your best work. You can always polish it later. You may think you have tons of time to get that thesis out, but you never know when life is going to happen. Take advantage of the free time you have.” – Rebecca Cobb

Writing Your Thesis

“MAKE A REVISION SCHEDULE!  Share that schedule with your thesis director.  Consider sharing it with friends who will hold you accountable.  Don’t let time slip away from you.  Work on your thesis a little each week.  If you want your thesis to really develop and be the best work you’ve written yet, give time and make it a priority.” – Alli Martin  

Plan Ahead

“In my second semester of the program, I realized twenty minutes before class that my short story was due for workshop. Having absolutely nothing to turn in, I submitted a piece that was written merely for entertainment and my eyes only. Needless to say, all I could think was, ‘Do I want to be the biggest joke in the program?’ or ‘Do I want to fail my workshop?’ So, I decided to be a joke. I’d at least have something to laugh about later.

Ever since then, I have been a stickler about dates. As you begin thinking about your thesis, I recommend creating a checklist with all of your due dates. People go into the last semester thinking they’ll have loads of time writing and revising, and really, what you’re mainly going to be doing is jumping through the University’s bureaucratic hoops like a circus animal. Organize, plan ahead, and you’ll be just fine. And trust your thesis director. If they don’t feel you are ready for the defense, you’re not.”  -Jonathan Phin

Paperwork/Deadlines

“Look up the deadlines as soon as they’re available and write them (1) on your calendar and (2) on a list where you can see them.  Know the deadlines for filing your intent to graduate, defending your thesis, submitting your thesis for format review, turning in your paperwork, submitting the final thesis, and every other deadline related to graduation.  Keep on top of all of them.  You are the only one responsible for whether or not you graduate, so know the deadlines and perform tasks early.  You have no idea what could happen (seriously), so handle things early to not miss deadlines.” – Alli Martin

Thesis Defense

“Take a deep breath.  If you’re defending your thesis you will pass.  Let me say that again: if your thesis director lets you schedule your defense, you are going to pass (pending revisions, in some cases, but most likely, you’ll pass).  Now that you know you’re going to pass, doesn’t that take some of the weight off things?  The defense is still a serious event—you’re going to have to read part of your work aloud and professors are going to ask you questions about your writing process, choices you made, further revisions, and the books and writers that helped you develop your thesis—but you are literally the only person who knows the correct answers to those questions.  There’s no wrong answer.  If you craft your thesis to the best of your ability and do all your thesis reading, if you prepare yourself by paying attention in workshop and developing your analytical skills, you will have prepared yourself for your thesis defense.

I absolutely recommend putting together a presentation (multimedia optional) to guide the conversation or to cover an aspect that you’d like the committee to consider.  I did a significant amount of research and used many real-world references for my steampunk cities and devices, so I prepared a presentation to highlight my research work.  Having a presentation also meant there was part of my thesis defense one hundred percent in my control.  A committee member might ask a question about the presentation, but the content of that presentation was something I could control and prepare for.” – Alli Martin

Final Parcels of 2016

The mellow, blue stage-lighting illuminated the stage where a lone stool sat, hoisting four bottles of water for the four talented writers showcasing their latest creative work. The mood was set, and the largest crowd we’ve had all semester sipped their cocktails as  Parcels, the UCF MFA graduate student/faculty reading series, was underway for the last time this Fall semester.

Second-year Rebecca Cobb started the event by reading two original flash fiction pieces, one of which was recently revised in workshop. After the reading, Rebecca said, “Reading these stories in front of a crowd helped me realize what revisions would work best for these stories. I know what direction they need to go now.”

15039493_10211932896144930_5357695362730272725_o

Matt Mercer, first-year nonfiction candidate, decided to read three of his poems. His work was raw, unapologetic, and boldhe eroticized the antichrist for crying out loud.  After, Matt said “I enjoyed everyone’s reading very much and it was fun meeting new people and talking to others that I have met, but only know at a professional level. I liked how the setting was more relaxed than classes and people opened up on stage and off. It was perfect because I’ve never read outside of class or to a few friends at a time. I buzzed, anxious, excited, and nervous before (and after).”

15068944_10211932896184931_2293420144115649698_o

Ryan Skaryd, second-year nonfiction writer, was supposed to read, but, in recognition of Pride Week, he decided to read as Nova Jean (get it?)  instead. As always, his work made us laugh with that quirky yet brutally honest voice present in all of his nonfiction. “My mom and grandmother were there to see me read,” said Ryan after the event. “And I’m happy they were able to see the unity that’s prevalent in the MFA program. Everyone was super supportive.”

15016421_10211932896904949_3467527525671711644_o

Finally, Laurie Uttich, UCF faculty member, closed the evening by reading three pieces that blur the lines between poetry and prose. Each piece had been written during the previous week, expressing her reaction to and attitude toward the recent presidential election. Her selections were beautiful and moving, eliciting sniffles and sobs from all of us.

15068503_10211932896944950_355993689852021543_o

Our December Parcels has been replaced by the Graduate Reading, which will be at Writer’s Atelier on December 10th at 7:30 p.m.. Hear our newest graduates read from their completed theses and join us in celebrating their accomplishment. Parcels will return during the Spring 2017 semester.

Now we would like to end this post once again thanking our host, the Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts in Winter Park, for going out of their way to provide such a splendid and welcoming place to hold Parcels. We’ve said it many times, but between the lighting, the stage, the staff, and the venue itself, we are truly grateful for the kindness shown to us.

Student Spotlight: Ryan Skaryd

Name one author or book that has significantly influenced your writing. What about the writing influenced you?

Cheryl Strayed influenced me most as an undergraduate at UCF—from her outlook on life itself to the badassery in her prose. Of course, Wild was a game changer for her career, but she also ran an advice column on The Rumpus called “Dear Sugar.” Her not-as-popular book, Tiny Beautiful Things (which is also the name of her most popular piece ever published on the website) is a compilation of advice essays. I remember reading this book during a time when I was conflicted on whether or not to pursue fiction or nonfiction. After taking workshops and classes in both genres, I felt myself stuck as a writer. The advice in her book, as cliché as this is about to get, really did change my outlook of not only my prose, but of myself as a writer. I thought that if she can take her everyday, seemingly mundane life and turn it into beautifully written work of nonfiction, then I could give it a shot, too.

What style or form are you interested in as a writer? Why?

I am drawn to nonfiction because of its blurriness regarding genre. Hybridity is something that pushes me as an artist, and I am constantly thinking of how to tie in multiple genres to my voice. I love Autobiography of My Hungers by Rigoberto González. In this book, González presents short, flash chapters that are intertwined with poems that reflect some aspect regarding his past or content in the book. I find myself writing poems and then, after some time, I realize that those poems are really meant to be essays. And the other way around, too. One critique I often have in my workshop is that I focus a lot on image and scene, and I find myself taking this commentary and running with it. If I have a piece with strong imagery, I can easily turn it into a poem and see how it feels. This freedom is what I love about alternative forms and it allows for some play during the writing process.

What is your writing routine? Do you do anything quirky or weird during your writing process? 

I have one hard-and-fast rule when it comes to writing: I have to be alone. Whether that is locking myself in my room for hours on end or sitting at Starbucks in the back corner, facing away from the door. I find I do my best writing in a solitary environment, usually in a colder setting, with a drink nearby, my phone set to “Do Not Disturb,” and an instrumental playlist from Spotify blasting. Spotify has changed my life. I used to believe that nothing could be better than Pandora. But then, I tried Spotify, and I looked through the countless playlists for focus and writing, and I never went back.

Where does your idea begin? With a place/setting? A person/character? An event/scene? An emotion?  An image? What about this helps you write?

My writing is usually about things I don’t quite understand. Being a primarily nonfiction writer, I find myself questioning things from my past and write to discover what it all meant, why it happened, and how has it affected who I am now, as the author writing the piece. Usually, these ideas are sparked by specific events from my life, and then I will write pure description of everything I remember. Later, I go in with the details (i.e. how might the others around me felt at the time, why I reacted that way, what traces do I see in my life now from those important moments, why did I write about it and why can I not stop thinking about it, etc.). The more I write, the more I realize that I want to be a writer with questions, not answers. And perhaps, from my writing, those who read  my work will examine their own lives and do the same.

What book or collection have you read recently?  What did you learn from it?

I’ve been reading New American Stories edited by Ben Marcus. This anthology of short stories has opened my mind to what fiction has to offer. I want to have a grasp and understanding of all genres by the time I finish with the MFA, so I make sure to include some fiction on my reading list. All of the stories are beautiful, strange, complicated, and tonally engaging. Ben Marcus writes the following in the introduction, which beautifully sums up the power of a story, and I have no choice but to share it here:

“Language is a drug, but a short story cannot be smoked. You can’t inject it. Stories don’t come bottled as cream. You cannot have a story massaged into you by a bearish old man. You have to stare down a story until it wobbles, yields, then catapults into your face. But as squirrely as they are to capture, stories are the ideal deranger. If they are well made, and you submit to them, they go in clean. Stories deliver their chemical disruption without the ashy hangover, the blacking out, the poison. They trigger pleasure, fear, fascination, love, confusion, desire, repulsion. Drugs get flushed from our systems, but not the best stories. Once they take hold, you couldn’t scrape them out with a knife. While working on this book, I started thinking of it as a medicine chest, filled with beguiling, volatile material, designed by the most gifted technicians. The potent story writers, to me, are the ones who deploy language as a kind of contraband, pumping it into us until we collapse on the floor, writhing, overwhelmed with feeling.”

I love this quote because it goes below the surface, and even the craft, of writing. Marcus talks about “power,” a word that I keep referring to because it is so prominent in the collection. The stories really do stick with you long after you close the book. It makes me want to write better and dig deeper with my prose, even on a line level, and explore the possibilities of how writing can allow the reader to challenge themselves and their notions of what stories do.

Can we find you in the world of social media and do you have an author website?

Instagram: @ryanohrama
15102322_10154319783013218_1128228209_oRyan Skaryd is a second year MFA candidate in nonfiction. His poetry has recently appeared in Ink in Thirds and he hopes to continue publishing across genres. When he is not writing, you can find him running, drinking too much coffee, drinking too little water, and buying too many books.

 

Writing When You’re Running on Empty: Depression During the MFA

Last time I sat at my computer and whipped up a post for the ol’ UCF MFA blog, I had just returned from AWP, the biggest conference in the creative writing field. If you take a peek back at my blog post, you’ll see that I had a great time. I met Roxane Gay, spent a night out dancing in crowds of strangers, and left with free lit mags and overflowing inspiration. But what you can’t see in my post is the jet lag from crossing four time zones on the way home and, what it triggered, the most intense depressive episode I’ve ever had the misfortune of experiencing. The episode lasted all spring and throughout most of the summer, a special treat on top of my usual anxiety, and a major block to finishing the first draft of my thesis. You, dear reader, may feel a familiar sinking in the stomach as you read this introduction, because as it turns out, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, followed swiftly by depression. The silver lining is you’re not alone.

Depression still reaches its ghostly fingers into my day to day life, and physical manifestations of my anxiety wait, twitching, only a cup of coffee away. But I’ve developed a few strategies for making it through when I’m running on empty.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. I have no idea how to make the Big Sad go away, and I if I did, I would be writing a very different blog post. Instead, here are some ways to work around your slumps. What works for me may not work for you. We all have different cocktails of mental, physical, and other personal issues. However, I’ve consulted with a few other MFA students and included their tips and tricks in an effort to cover as much of the experiential continuum as possible. Their help got me through some of my worst days. Thanks pals. 

Another Disclaimer: See a therapist.
You know what I just said about not needing to apply all of my advice? This is an exception. Everyone, every single person, needs to see a therapist at some point in their lives. If you are feeling anxious or depressed, now is the time. UCF offers a free counseling service through CAPS. Take advantage of it, or see a community counselor. Also, it is my personal belief that you should never tell your therapist you’re a writer unless you want to hear, “I knew we would get along! I’m a screenwriter. Have you ever read The Artist’s Way?” But then again, maybe I’ve just had weird therapists. You’ll have to let me know.

All right, let’s dig in.

Control the controllables.

You can’t decide when your brain is going to slide into a slump, so do what you can to make things easy for yourself when it does. Here are the boring but necessary steps you can take to help out your future self.

  1. Make a schedule.

Does scheduling mean taking up bullet journaling and using color coordinated Staedtler pens? No, but it can. Personally, I like to keep my to-do list in a physical notebook and my assignments documented in my phone’s calendar. I set alarms for a day ahead so I’m never surprised. You know yourself. Use the tools that work for you, and don’t waste time finding the perfect leather-bound planner. A plain spiral notebook will do.

Why is this important? Because when you’re too sad to care, you’re not going to remember what’s coming up next. Having all your upcoming events and deadlines will ensure you don’t miss any absolute essentials, like the deadline for papers or final portfolios.

  1. Plan your writing time.

One of my peers shows up to his writing desk every day at 8:30 a.m. and writes for a certain amount of hours. My schedule is too erratic for that kind of consistency during the semester, but over the summer I reserved the same study room in the library 7 days a week, showed up, pounded out 500 words, and then went home to do whatever I wanted for the rest of the day. That habit got me through a 25,000 word thesis draft, and by the end of the summer, I voluntarily stayed to finish 1,000 or even 2,000 word days. Successfully finishing a task every day helped me slowly rebuild the confidence depression had violently evacuated from my brain.

  1. Go to bed early and consistently.

If you feel like garbage the next morning, you will not want to write. Jet lag triggered my depressive episode, so I knew that throwing my sleep schedule off balance would only make it worse.

  1. Use the Pomodoro method.

This thing is a lifesaver. 25 minutes working, 5 minutes taking a break. Repeat 4 times with the last break extended to 15 minutes.

When working: No Twitter, no Facebook, no texting, no Pokémon Go, no calls from you mother, no Snapchat, no YouTube, no email, no Old Navy sales, no nothing. Put your computer and phone on airplane mode if you must. Just you, the page (screen), and your little fingers tap tap tapping away. When taking a break: Go pee, Snapchat your misery, talk a walk around the library floor or your apartment, or go outside for a brief glimpse of the sun. Isn’t she beautiful? Drink water.

Like I said, this method radically changed my productivity. I used http://www.marinaratimer.com/ to power through, and before I knew it, I was done for the day.

Find (some) motivation.

  1. If you can, stay curious.

Why did you start the program in the first place? What did you want to write? Who inspired you? Instead of thinking “I am here for the MFA,” think, “I am here at the MFA to work on what I really care about–a zombie space opera.”

In his Ted Talk, Dan Pink talks about why incentive-based work (“After 1,000 more words, I’m going to have a pepperoni pizza!”) actually doesn’t produce the same quality result as autonomous, curiosity-based work. I don’t necessarily recommend watching the entire Ted talk. Pink is In Love With Capitalism and Afraid of Touchy-Feelies, and seems like the kind of guy who would snort at creative writing. Read through the transcript or take my word for it: If you can connect with your own personal desire, rather than just thinking about the class deadline, you’ll get a lot more work done.

I like to watch my favorite movie, The Tree of Life, when I’ve forgotten why I’m trying to bring something new into the world. When writing, I alternate between Enya and Nicki Minaj playlists, depending on the kind of energy I’m lacking. Lame? Maybe. But those are my favorite things. Other students like to watch Ted Talks, read aloud their poetry, listen to beautiful/calming/inspiring music, and meditate.

What lifts you up? What makes the world real to you again? What makes you ball your hands into fists or stand up straight? Get out of your head and reconnect with the potential of your art form.

  1. If you can’t, plan goals and set up rewards.

When I was at the lowest of lows, I wasn’t even thinking about my writerly goals and aspirations. I was laying on my bed wondering why anyone tries anything at all if we all die and the sun is going to destroy the Earth sooner rather than later. What I could get behind? Ordering in my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, playing bootlegged Pokémon games on my laptop, buying new pen sets, and watching new movies with my roommate. I’m not saying you can’t give yourself treats anyway, but save up what you really want as rewards for achieving your goals.

I used an app called Habitica all summer. As you complete your to-do list, you earn bonuses and can collect little animal friends, which, with more successful completions, turn into steeds for riding. It’s cute, and somehow games can pull you into productivity when your inner muse is hibernating. Similar apps and programs are available for both your phone and your computer, so it might be worth it to Google around and see what you like.

Do what you can for yourself, then let yourself off the hook.

Most resources on dealing with depression will list a few major suggestions:

  • Exercise
  • Stay connected with others
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Go outside

Obviously, when you’re depressed, it’s hard to do the above. In fact, I didn’t do any of it, except for walking to the library and talking to my roommate. (Does Subway count as healthy eating?) The only antidepressive measure I actively pursued was dragging myself to therapy.

So if you can do some light exercise and eat vegetables, please do. Maybe you’re really good at picking up your room or taking relaxing baths or reading for fun or cooking delicious and healthy meals for yourself. I’m really good at drinking water (due to another health problem, but hey, it counts). Capitalize on your awesome habits, then let yourself off the hook. Play a game, read a book, and don’t chastise yourself for not attending 7 a.m. spin class.

Final Thoughts

Brendan Stephens, a friend and fellow MFAer, summed up what helped me most. He said, “The main thing that I discovered is to just be honest with your partner, family, and friends.” He’s right. Once the people who love you know you’re feeling down, they can give you the support you need while you search for your own best coping mechanisms.

You’re only human, dude. Your writing aspirations might be Herculean, but sometimes you have to take it slow and take it easy. Hopefully the tips I’ve drawn from my own experiences can help you push through to get what you need done, but if you feel like you’re going to fall apart, go ahead and take a break. It’s worth it. And that blank page isn’t going anywhere.

allie-and-connorAllie Arend is a second-year MFA candidate in Fiction at the University of Central Florida. She also works as Graduate Assistant and Editor for UCF’s Office of Prestigious Awards. Her work is forthcoming in Rust + Moth. She loves a little dog named Connor.