Managing Depression in an MFA Program

For writers, there’s this persistent myth that depression and mental illness go hand and hand with creativity. And who can blame them for believing?  Whether it be Tolstoy, Dickens, Hemingway or Plath—many of the great creatives appeared to have mood disorders, often ending their lives with either a bang or a whimper. Even contemporaries such as Wallace arouse the faulty assumption that in order to be wildly creative, you must also suffer from some mental illness.  For many, the affectionate trope of the pained writer whose mental health becomes a fount for ingenious inspiration is a concrete truth that will not tremble, even when critics argue for the contrary.  Because of this, it is unfortunate that many creatives, especially writers, choose to withhold help for their depression since they may view their suffering as an anchor to their creative muse, like some form of asceticism or self-flagellation.  

This is false though. While it may be true that writers are more likely to suffer from depression than the rest of the population, depression doesn’t offer anything intrinsically good or better for their writing. In fact, depression offers quite the opposite—it turns off the creativity—and the ability or desire to do anything else for that matter: Like get out of bed, put on clothes, not think of yourself in depreciatory terms—much less write. And, writers want to write. Or, at least, we say we do.   

For writers, it can lead to a real occupational hazard with far too many contributing factors: Too much isolation and introspection.  Not enough nutrition, exercise, sunlight, sleep, financial and professional certainty. Multiply all that with the popular belief that drugs (yes, prescription too) and alcohol promote imagination, and you’re doing some dangerous algebra with your depression and your life.

From experience, I live with my clinical depression.  We’ve had an abusive relationship fraught with a history of hard drug use and alcohol abuse.  Eleven years ago, come November, I attempted to end my life by taking all the pills in my medicine cabinet. And, yes, there were plenty of pills and more than enough of the right ones.  In all that time, I came up with a lot of ideas to write, but never got a word down. Trust me, there is no transcendent perception that can be tapped from the tree of misery and despair. So why is it some creatives believe that depression is something ‘good’ for them?  

Short answer: Depression lies.

It deceives you into a liminal space of dejection and binds you there for hours, days, sometimes weeks or worse.  It doesn’t just make you feel miserable.  It makes you have no energy so you can’t get your head afloat.  Writing, like all things, takes energy.  And, when you’re depressed, you can’t write.  Or read.  Or do the day’s work.  Or make decisions (even if it’s what to watch on Netflix).  Under depression’s hypnotic spell, all actions are hopeless.  Like an invisible louse, it sucks the brave out of you—the courage to do anything, especially write.  Then, when depression has you there— in that desolate space— it starts creeping other thoughts into your ear. Whispers of what other people think about you. How you think about yourself. How things would be so much better if you weren’t around anymore…

Nowadays I’m several years clean, happily married to someone other than my depression, and attending the MFA program at UCF for Fiction.  I still have depression.  It’s never going to go away.  

Recently, a friend asked me a question: How can you be successful in a demanding MFA program when you also have depression?  

It’s a good question. Any day I can wake up unable to write.  Unable to go to class. Unable to do anything.  Having depression and joining an MFA program for writing doesn’t sound like a winning combination.

Another short answer: You have to manage it best you can and find what works for you.  

For me, the lighter ‘despair days’ (as I call them) just mean that I’m not going to go out and have fun with friends, which gives me more reason to stay in and write—though it’s definitely difficult to focus.  It’s the nature of depression.  Here are some ways that I manage my depression while in my MFA program.  If you deal with depression yourself, hopefully my experiences help you in some way.

 

  • Physical Activity

 

I supplement my writing and reading time with physical activity, such as gardening or taking walks with my wife.  This–along with volunteering in my local community weekly–keeps me active, out of the house, and focused on external factors so that I don’t become too internalized with my depression.  I suggest finding something physical that fits best for you. Something that you’re genuinely interested in and sticking with it (or at least trying it out for a time). Also, I would strive to find a physical activity that gets you out of your house or apartment.  Playing video games is great for relieving stress but may also end up enhancing your depression in the long run if you’re spending so much time on the couch.  An eighty-hour gaming binge on the new Final Fantasy may not be the best thing for your mental health in the long run (or your writing).  

 

  • Support System

 

You need people. And, no matter what your depression tells you (remember: depression lies), there are people in your life who love and care about you.  My support system includes my wife (the most encouraging and understanding human being on the planet), our cat, and another handful of friends, family, and even teachers at the university.  These are the people I’ve picked out that I can actively talk with about my depression and what I’m experiencing. They are amazing listeners. The great trick about talking through your depression is that it can help pull you out of that terrible liminal space, even if it is for a short time.  It’s important to find the right people. Unfortunately, not everyone is properly equipped to empathize with you. Your experience with depression is unique, so you should surround yourself with the best people to help you manage it.  Just remember: you may also be someone’s support system, too.  Listen.

 

  • Counseling

 

I’m a believer in professional counseling.  However, counseling can be expensive and may not be covered under insurance.  Furthermore, perhaps you’ve heard or experienced horror stories involving people who should never have gone into the mental health profession (I know I have).  Therefore, finding the right counselor can seem like a daunting task, one that your depression will likely tell you is not worth it.

Yet, as a university student, universities typically supply counseling services on campus.  Also, by contacting your insurance company, they’ll be able to provide for you a list of counselors in your area who will accept your insurance and are taking clients.  Plus, even if a counselor doesn’t take insurance, many are willing to work on a floating scale based on your income and are willing to work with you. You just need to contact them.

Counseling can be an necessary supplement to help you manage your overall relationship with your depression.  Think about it as working with a trained professional who is equipped to observe you from the outside when all you can see is the inside.  Because of that unique position, they may be able to offer advice, insights, and management techniques which you had not considered before.  And, the better equipped you are to identify your depression, the better you may be to manage it—even during the especially bad despair days.  Just remember, counselors are kind of a special form a support system.  Find one that works for you.  If the first person you go to doesn’t—find someone else.

 

  • Save Money

 

Depression loves stressors and, for many people, money is a massive one.  For writers—especially MFA students who may not have a steady income—the lurking doom of a sudden emergency which requires a large sum of money looms just around the corner.  Although not a full solution, it helps to save money.  Go to your bank and set up a separate checking or savings account and every week put ten, fifteen, or whatever you can away.  Do this regularly and don’t touch it.  When an event does happen—a car accident, family emergency, something terrible—you’ll hopefully have a little nest egg put away to mitigate some, most, or all of your loss.  We put away money weekly into a few different “rainy day” accounts.  Although if you have depression, even a drizzle can feel like a downpour.  Save whatever you can.

 

  • Medication

 

Although I don’t take medication currently, I have in the past.  I won’t speak on this too much, but I recommend that if your management techniques are not helping with your depression then please consult a professional as soon as possible.  It may be the case you need medication and there’s nothing wrong with that.  From experience, most medications will have some side effects and it’s important to communicate with your doctor regarding them, especially if you’re having an adverse reaction.  

Please, please, please do not self-medicate through drugs and alcohol or whatever your pseudo-doctor friend has pills for.  By doing this you will only make your depression worse, though it may dull or numb the ache for a while.  You will not write well like this and you will ultimately kill your talent—potentially even killing yourself.  Again, do not self-medicate.

Though there are several more management techniques out there, these are a few of mine that I use or have used to quell my depression.  

I hope that, if you have depression or another mental illness yourself, you post a comment with how you manage your daily life.  Also, if you are looking at joining an MFA program, please know that it is possible and that your best self, not your depressed self, is your creative self.

If, however, you are thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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Justin Brozanski is an MFA Candidate for Fiction at the University of Central Florida. He loves collecting books regardless of his wife’s chagrin of having to continually buy more bookcases. When he’s not immersed in reading or writing, he can be found volunteering, teaching, and watching old episodes of Frasier. He also adores playing with his fluffy white cat and sneaking midnight snacks.

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So You’re Thinking of Moving to Orlando?

A lot has been said recently about how Florida, and more specifically Orlando, isn’t a good place for millennials to live. As a born and raised Floridian, I’m here to throw down the gauntlet. No seriously, meet me at Medieval Times, I know a guy.

Do people move down to Florida to retire? Sure! But like any other state and any other city, if you care to do research, you’re bound to find something that suits your lifestyle. That is the purpose of this week’s blog, to give you a taste of what can be found here, what we can offer, but mostly, why we stay.

I’d like to address the go-to rebuttal for anyone who has done research and read some of the other articles I’ve mentioned. Yes: There is an overabundance of low paying jobs  due to the large amount of theme parks and entertainment driven venues in Orlando. Yes: It drives down our average pay and is an ongoing issue for us. Yes: Livable pay is hard to find anywhere in our once great nation.

To me, this is a non-issue. Clearly, if you are thinking about moving here you either-

A: Have been offered a job and it must be good if you’re willing to move.

B: You are considering moving here for school and won’t get a high-paying job regardless of what town you’re in until you finish your degree.

C: You’re madly in love and would follow your partner anywhere so none of these issues matter.

But in all seriousness, if you don’t think you can find a good paying job, don’t move before you do! Affordability of living expenses is a nationwide issue and I’d rather not dive down the rabbit hole of income inequality.

The Orlando Scene:

From here we’ll move into a section-by-section breakdown of the variety of things you can find in Orlando. We have many different crowds, venues, and activities, a lot of which you can only find here and in our surrounding cities. As this blog is home for the MFA in Creative Writing at UCF, we will start accordingly.

Our Literary Community:

Orlando is slowly becoming a powerhouse for the literary arts and boasts what I consider to be one of the most versatile communities for writers you can find anywhere in the nation. Throughout the year, you can attend monthly readings from a variety of groups, as well as some workshops and the occasional book fair. No matter your interest, you will find a home.

Burrow Press: Burrow Press is a nonprofit, independent publisher based in Orlando, FL committed to publishing the best contemporary literature by new and established authors, as well as fostering literary community in Orlando and Florida. They print books, run an online journal, and host a free, quarterly reading with their reading series, Functionally Literate. Burrow Press also works closely with its sister program, with Page15, to provide Orlando youth with professional instruction in the fields of writing, editing, and publishing.

The Kerouac Project: In short, The Kerouac Project was founded as a tribute to Jack Kerouac and works as a haven for up-and-coming writers. The project offers four residency slots a year to writers of any background and age. All that is required is to live in the house, work on your writing project, and attend two events, a potluck dinner and a reading at the end of your stay. Not to mention utilities are paid for and you are given a $1,000 stipendstiped for food.

The Drunken Odyssey: The Drunken Odyssey is a podcast with John King and was begun as a forum to discuss all aspects of the writing process, in a variety of genres, to foster a greater sense of community among writers.

As if running a literary podcast weren’t enough, John King can be found at any given reading event in town, hosting workshops, reading some of his latest work, or supporting local writers.

There Will Be Words: Hosted by J. Bradley, There Will Be Words has been named Orlando’s Best Literary Reading Series by the readers of the Orlando Weekly in 2013 and 2015., There Will Be Words produces a somewhat quarterly reading series called Saturday Night Special which combines prose, and poets, and a sporadic poetry slam called There Will Be Verse. The location of these shows rotates. and proceeds generated from our shows go back to our featured writers.

Writers of Central Florida or Thereabouts: Writers of Central Florida or Thereabouts is a passionate group that welcomes writers from any genre, profession, and background. They hold readings once a month.

Loose Lips: Hosted monthly by Tod Caviness, Loose Lips is a spoken word event at which Orlando writers interpret news headlines of the past month in poetry and prose.

Various Open Mic: There is no shortage of venues to read your work in an open mic setting. These are constantly changing but a few honorable mentions: The Milk Bar, Lil Indies, Stardust Video & Coffee, Dandelion Café, and Austin’s Coffee.

Music Scene:

House of Blues: The House of Blues is dedicated to educating and celebrating the history of Southern Culture and African American artistic contributions to music and art.

Hard Rock: Orlando is lucky to have a Hard Rock, which hosts anything from the most popular musicians to WWE events.

Amway Center: Home to the Orlando Magic, the Amway Center is also used as a venue for concerts, shows, and job fairs.

The Open Mic Scene: You can find an open mic in Orlando literally any night of the week if you know what’s good. Thankfully, you do, though I’m sure there’s even more than this. *Locations and times are subject to change*

Sundays: Aloma Bowl 7-10 / Muldoon’s Saloon 9:30-12:30

Mondays: West End Trading Co. 8:30 -12:30 / The Breezeway 6-9 / Sanford Brewing Co. 6-10

Tuesdays: The Falcon 8-12 / Dandelion Communitea 8-11 / The Spot 8-11

Wednesdays: Celery City Craft: 5:30-10 / Piper’s Bar & Grill 8-12

Thursdays: Little Fish Huge Pond 9-10 / Rogue Pun 8-11 / Fish On Fire 8-11 / Meridian Hookah 9:30-12 / Barley & Vine 9-12 / Thirsty Whale Too 9-12

Fridays: Shovelhead Lounge 9-12 / The Healthy Buddha Two 7-12

Comedy Scene:

Blue Man Group, Improv Comedy Club, Sak Comedy Lab, Bonkerz Comedy Club, Mama’s Comedy Show, and all the open mic’s that make space for stand-up comics.

Outdoor Scene:

Devil’s Den Spring: This underground spring inside a dry cave has been home to many extinct animal fossils dating back to the Pleistocene Age. Open to snorkelers and divers.

Get Up and Go Kayaking: Kayak in natural springs in crystal-clear kayaks and crystal-clear waters.

Central Florida Skydiving: Having personally been, this dive is in Titusville and overlooks Florida’s awesome coast. It offers one of the highest jumps in the world at 18,000 feet.

Wekiwa Springs: These beautiful springs offer a glimpse of what Central Florida looked like when the Timucuan Indians fished and hunted these lands. Here you can relax in a natural setting, enjoy a picnic, or take a swim in the cool spring. Thirteen miles of trails also provide opportunities for hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding. Canoes and kayaks are also available for rent and there are even options for camping.

Honorable Mentions:

Weeki Wachee Springs, Crystal River, Ginnie Springs, Ichetucknee Springs, Rainbow Springs, Kelly Park Rock Springs, Blue Springs, Silver Springs, DeLeon Springs, Three Sisters Springs, Alexander Springs, Daytona Beach, Sand Key Park, Honeymoon Island, Siesta Beach…

Food Scene:

I really believe Orlando rivals some of the top cities when it comes to locally run eats. Below is my personal, must visit selection of the best food Orlando offers, in no particular order.

Beth’s Burger Bar: Do yourself a favor.

Hawkers: Asian street fare served tapas style.

Rocco’s Tacos: A guacamole station where they make it in front of your table.

Pho 88: Some of the best Vietnamese noodles you’ll ever have.

Ethos Vegan Kitchen: They even prepare special Thanksgiving dinners.

Mynt: My favorite Indian Restaurant in Orlando.

The Ravenous Pig: For anniversaries. The menu changes with the seasons.

Pig Floys: Urban Barbakoa. What goes better with BBQ than rice, beans, and fried yuca?

Domu: For the Raman lovers.

Dragonfly: Best sushi in Orlando.

Las Palmas: Because of the Colombian in me.

Honorable mentions: Bentos Café, Takco Cheena, Inka Grill, Bosphorus, Viet Thai Café, Nona Sushi, Hotto Potto, Gringos Locos, Sapporo Ramen, Ayothaya Thai, Oh Que Bueno, and Publix.

What more do you want:

These are all reasons I love Orlando. What is not mentioned here are all our theme parks (big and small), dinner shows, clubs, beaches, rodeo shows, hot air balloons rides, airboat rides, and so much more. There simply isn’t enough room in one blog post to list everything. The question is, if all of this doesn’t make Orlando a great place to live, what does?

Will pic

 

Will Rincon is an MFA Candidate in Fiction at the University of Central Florida, where he reads slush as an intern for The Florida Review. His work can be found in 30 North and Rum Punch Press. He recommends watching Battlestar Gallactica (2004) if you haven’t already done so.

My Journey to Journeys – Writing in the Greater Orlando Community

I sat in a Starbucks parking lot, finishing up my breakfast as I set my GPS to Journeys Academy in Sanford, specifying “avoid highways.” Bagel in belly, I started up 17/92, from my new home in Orlando to the school. From time to time, I glanced over at the strip mall substitutes for mile markers along the road.  I compulsively lifted an empty, Urban Decay-stained Starbucks cup to my lips, but no latte dregs manifested to fill the monotony of the suburban street.

I scanned through the radio frequencies, eventually settling on the local classic rock station, which to my dismay, seemed a lot more into hair metal than the Beatles. I turned up the Mötley Crüe song and sang along anyway to take my mind off my nerves. I’d never taught writing before, my previous experience working with youth had been with the 3-11 set, and I’d pretty much been a saint in high school. I felt totally unqualified to be leading two creative writing classes a week at an alternative secondary school. The following week, I’d begin teaching with a fellow student, an undergraduate poetry student also enrolled in UCF’s Literary Arts Partnership, but this first day was all on me.

Largely unfamiliar with Central Florida roads, I’d given myself plenty of time to get there. I wound up with plenty of time to wait before class. As I pulled into the parking lot of the strip mall that housed the school, I was greeted with a little reminder of the suburban Philly town I’d left a few weeks before, in August 2016 – a Wawa convenience store. I grabbed a hoagie and ate it as I reviewed my lesson plan.

Seeing a school in a strip mall was strange to me, but I was relieved that there was such ample parking. Having attended a Quaker high school with acres of land in Pennsylvania, the tall fence around the school was stranger still, but as I walked through the gate, I admired the pictures of Albert Einstein and Maya Angelou along the building’s walls, which I would learn were the result of a mural-painting class a local artist had led for Journeys.

I went into my first class and led the students in an icebreaker – our names and our favorite sandwiches. “My name is Sienna and I like cheese hoagies from Wawa,” I said, and my year of teaching at Journeys had started.

Being primarily a non-fiction writer, I often had the students compose personal essays. With prompts about their favorite forms of entertainment, their career goals, and their heroes, students often found themselves writing about the scholastic sports or performing arts programs they’d left behind when they were asked to leave their old schools. Particularly gripped by one student’s recollection of playing in a homecoming game, I came up with one of my favorite lessons. We watched videos about sports and entertainment journalism. The students and I then wrote short articles on our favorite athletes or celebrities. In another lesson that spanned two weeks the students wrote the opening scenes of films. Their scenes covered all sorts of topics – life in a small town, pursuing a sports career, the political climate in late 2016. I then typed the scripts into Final Draft and returned them to the students with the proper formatting. I wished we had more than two weeks for screenwriting – I wanted to see how the stories would end!

My teaching partner and I would write alongside the students (and often the Journeys instructors would also join in). My partner’s poetry lessons marked the first time in about ten years that I sat down to write a poem. After weeks of encouraging students to read their work, regardless of any doubts they had about it, I found myself hesitant to share my own – their poems frequently seemed far superior to my word salad. One day, I found myself leading a poetry lesson on my own at the last minute. I showed them an example of spoken word from Youtube, read them a prompt that I hadn’t written, and looked at them expectantly as their pencils hovered above their notebooks. They were blanking, and so was I. I quickly improvised an activity in which we pointed out different objects in the classroom, and what they might symbolize to different people. From there, we wrote poems about school, and everyone was eager to read their piece aloud. The next week after another poetry unit, my teaching partner commented that my poetry took on a “cool narrative quality,” so apparently I was finding a way to fuse poetry and nonfiction. Poetry is still my weakest genre, but I’m now in the mindset to give it another shot.

The nature of an alternative school is that students are always coming and going, but we observed students taking more creative risks in their writing in whatever length of time we spent with them. On our last day in May as we snacked on Doritos and discussed what we’d taken away from the experience, a sophomore in high school remarked that our lessons had made her excited about writing for the first time. Her teacher commented that sophomore year was so focused on standardized testing that our lessons were the only way the students got exposure to creative writing. I realize now how lucky I am to have a community of writers at UCF, and am equally grateful for the past writing opportunities that have led me here.

 

Sienna pic

Sienna Golden Malik is a 2nd year Creative Nonfiction student at UCF. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Writing, Environmental Studies, and Spanish at Washington University in St.Louis. When she is not writing essays or screenplays, she can be found shopping for records, wandering around EPCOT, or cooking vegetarian junk food.

 

Back to the Other Side of the Desk: The MFA from a Teacher’s Perspective

Two months into my first year of teaching, I realized that my students didn’t know how to write.

When I assigned them a six-page biographical research paper, I expected the adolescent groans to which I was accustomed. I expected them to drag their feet, attempt to bargain their way out of the assignment, and then, eventually, get it done. But my students – seniors in high school, some of them about to go to college – didn’t know how to write an essay. They stared at blank Word documents, cursors blinking, unsure of what an introduction was even supposed to say. We’d created source cards and outlines, written and revised their thesis statements, but now that it was time to write something, they were stuck.

In their 2012 article, Liane Roberston, Kara Taczak, and Kathleen Blake Yancey wrote about acknowledging students’ prior knowledge – or lack thereof – in the first-year writing classroom. This absence of prior knowledge is mainly in “key writing concepts and non-fiction texts that serve as models” and comes from students leaving a literature based high school classroom and entering a writing focused college course (4).

Teachers spend so much time in high school English classrooms correcting local issues – fixing spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors, policing MLA formatting, making sure a thesis is present and transitions accounted for – that we don’t have time (or energy) to address the global issues. We’re too busy checking off the list of things the paper needs to include, red-penning missing commas and passive voice, to pay much attention to the content and the meaning of the students’ work.

In writing centers, we do the opposite. Our practices focus on prioritizing within a session, focusing first on the global issues that affect meaning and then addressing local errors if there’s time remaining. The most common thing writers say they want to work on in a session is their “grammar and flow.” As tutors, we’re often left trying to interpret what “flow” means and attempting to sway the writer into focusing on understanding and meeting the purpose of their assignment instead of fixing the plural they accidentally made possessive in paragraph three.

That students are so focused on small errors isn’t their fault. The curriculum in my English IV College Prep classroom centered around three workbooks – one on vocabulary, one on grammar and punctuation, and one on reading comprehension. They worked through these books, learning the definition of illicit, combining independent and dependent clauses, and sifting through the writing of others for the answers to questions they did not care about.

At the end of it, the curriculum asked them to write an essay.

The way that we teach writing in public school classrooms is worse than ineffective, it’s damaging the authorial development of our students. Robtertson, Taczak, and Yancey wrote that our current curriculum focus teaches students to “[define] success in writing as creating a text that is grammatically correct without reference to its rhetorical effectiveness” (3). Unsurprisingly, the first-year students I encounter in the University Writing Center (UWC) define their writing struggles by the overused commas and misused semicolons they’re used to seeing circled in their papers. They want their writing to be “good,” but often have no concept of what “good” means within the context of their class, their genre, or even their own style. So, they fall back on what a “good” paper was in high school: something free of errors.

When I look at the writing that’s brought to me in the UWC, I see these errors. But when I read through an essay, I stifle the teacher-urge to circle, strike, or insert, because what I also see is students putting “I think” or “I believe” in front of every claim they make because they don’t trust their own authority. Students who drop quotes without explanation and think their conclusion’s sole purpose is to restate their thesis. I see students that still don’t know how to write.

There was no question as to whether I would accept when UCF’s MFA program offered me admission. I was excited about all of the opportunities for growth and community UCF’s program had to offer. But as the school year wound down, I realized I had a new reason to attend that I didn’t have when I was filling out my application.

In the few weeks that I’ve been a student in UCF’s MFA program, I have looked at my experiences in this program through two different lenses: both as a writer and as a teacher of writing. In my fiction workshop, I’ve learned how to improve my own writing and feedback process, and I’ve rethought the way we typically do peer review in a high school classroom. Hearing the extent of feedback my MFA peers provide has changed the way I read my peers’ pieces and comment on them. I’ve become more thoughtful, reading through each story multiple times, and more direct, trusting in my own authority when commenting and giving suggestions. High school students are capable of being this thoughtful, but not enough teachers ask them to be.

In my Theory and Practice of Tutoring Writing course, I think about revelations like this and bring them to the attention of my fellow tutors. Through discussions of the class’ readings and experiences in the UWC, I’ve learned more about being a better tutor and have re-thought the way I teach writing altogether. Seeing what prior knowledge is absent from the writers I tutor has given me insight into what I need to be emphasizing in my own classroom, and the readings we’ve done for class have helped me figure out how to accomplish that.

I have many, many more weeks of study in this program, and many, many more miles to go as a writer and a teacher. Knowing that my time here will go beyond my writing and into my classroom has made me open my eyes a little wider to all that is being offered here at UCF. The continued study of writing is imperative to improving the instruction of it, and I aim to be continuously learning so that I may continuously do right by my writing and my students.

 

Kara Delemeester is a current MFA candidate at UCF with a focus in fiction. She holds undergraduate degrees in both Writing and Secondary English Education from The University of Tampa. In the future she plans to live in Florida always and make a career out of getting high school students to appreciate the art of writing. In the meantime, she can be found making pancakes, reading Michael Chabon, and taking care of her cat.

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The Power of Knowledge: The Question of Mystery, Understanding, and the Nature of Wonder in Writing

 

Does examining a thing closely ruin it?

I have wrestled with this question in my mind for nearly a year. What first seemed a simple answer, if a subjective one, has spiraled out of control. I argue with myself, holding grand debates in the car or the shower as I assume both sides and advocate faithfully for one or the other, channeling (in my head, anyway) equal parts Cicero and Atticus Finch, but even so I can’t conclusively settle the matter. Even as I sit down to write this, I am not convinced that I have come to a satisfactory conclusion. So bear with me as I attempt to examine my thoughts on the matter (to assay them, if you will), and we’ll try to tease this out a bit.

The question arose in a fiction writing class. We were examining a short story (Ethan Canin’s “Emperor of the Air”), looking at the craft elements and moves it was making, and one of my classmates said, “I love this story, but we’re ruining it” —the implication being that by looking at it as analytically as we were, by dissecting it in an attempt to understand what made it work, we were robbing ourselves of our ability to enjoy the story for its own sake. I remember that the statement gave me considerable pause, even in the moment, because I had always thought that understanding a thing made it better, made one’s appreciation if it more fine-tuned and layered. That there might be other schools of thought had never even occurred to me.

So I spoke to my classmate, and eventually others in my writerly peer group, about their thoughts on the matter—and while it was enlightening, to be sure, it didn’t result in any sort of consensus or majority on the issue of knowledge versus wonder; it seemed, rather, to be a matter of taste.

And so here I am, still trying to figure out the answer to the question, or whether there even is one.

Let’s start with a quote. Good blog posts have quotes in them, right?


“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.”

Albert Einstein

What this sentiment looks toward, I think, is the preservation of one’s sense of wonder (ostensibly at the natural world or the physical universe, given the quote’s provenance). It’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? Faced with an increased understanding of the universe, there are those for whom its mysterious and grandiose nature becomes somehow more mundane, less wondrous, and others for whom such understanding does not diminish their childlike excitement at its still incomprehensible size and complexity.

In my aforementioned informal, inexhaustive, and thoroughly unscientific survey of writers in my immediate vicinity, I found that this seems to hold pretty uniformly true: one either thinks that knowing how a thing—in this case, a piece of writing—works ruins one’s ability to enjoy it as much, or one thinks that the knowing increases that enjoyment. I’ll take a moment to look at both sides while using another, more concrete example: a stage illusion.

In the late nineties and early aughts, there were a bunch of shows that purported to reveal the secrets of stage magic (like this one). A masked magician would come on stage, perform a trick, and then would break it down, show its individual mechanisms, and demonstrate how it was done. The shows attracted outrage from many magicians of the time, which only fueled their controversial appeal. So how might such a show affect your enjoyment of stage magic?

Knowing is Bad

You’ve always loved the “saw the lady in half” trick. You look forward to it in every magic show, and you’re always disappointed when the magician doesn’t perform it. You know in the back of your mind that it’s just an illusion, but that doesn’t matter to you; for a moment, when you watch it, you can almost let yourself believe that magic is real.

Then you see the TV special, and the spell is broken. It turns out—spoiler alert—that the lady curls up in the top half of the box, sticks some fake legs out the bottom, and that’s all there is to it. What once, when shrouded in mystery, seemed wondrous to you, now seems banal; the gold filigree has flaked off and turned out to be just a shiny, chintzy lacquer all along. Not only is the Emperor not wearing any clothes, but he’s not even really an Emperor, just some weird nudist with delusions of grandeur and a way with words. Your favorite trick isn’t merely ruined, but you feel like you’ve lost something else: a part of yourself you can never quite regain.

Knowing is Good

You love the same trick as your friend, above, for the same reasons. As they do, you’re aware that it’s just an illusion, but that doesn’t get in the way of your enjoyment.

You see the special, and all is revealed—the contortions of the assistant, the protruding prosthetic pseudopods, etc. —but, unlike your friend, this doesn’t bother you much. After all, you already knew it wasn’t really magic; and, when you watch the trick performed again, you can see all the little moments, the painstakingly choreographed combinations of misdirection and athleticism that create this delicate illusion for the audience.

Now, when you see the trick in the future, you will be part audience member, part co-conspirator. If the magician can perform the trick well enough that even you can’t spot the transitions, the tiny flaws that only you (and anyone else who watched the TV special, you suppose, but this is your hypothetical future, so none of them will be there) know to look for, then that magician is skilled indeed. You will delight in the audience’s amazement, can even share in it. You can give the magician a nod at the end of their show, as they take their bows; you can believe they see you in the crowd, make eye contact, and the two of you share a special moment of understanding between insiders. They will nod back, and the moment will be complete.

So what?

If you’re still with me, you’re beginning to see my conundrum. Both perspectives are valid. So who cares?

I think it comes back to the idea of wonder. In any kind of creative endeavor, a sense of wonder is essential if you want to create work that lasts. It doesn’t have to be flashy, but if there is nothing in a work of art that can enrapture, that can make a reader sit back for a moment and say, “Wow,” then the odds of it having a long-lasting impact are rather low. Human beings hunger for things to be amazed by, whether they be gods or magic or just stories we tell each other over and over again—stories that get at the heart of what it means to be human. If a work of art can’t capture that spirit, if only a little bit, then it won’t stick.

It’s important, therefore, to know which side of the Line of Mystery™ you stand on when you set out to write. If too much knowledge of a thing ruins the wonder, ruins the sense of discovery—for you or for your readers—then I say don’t think too much about it; forge ahead, and fix whatever problems you may run into after the fact. If the knowledge doesn’t ruin it, then feel free to get further into the weeds earlier—so long as you don’t get so off-track that you forget to create the thing at all. But above all, do not compromise the wonder or the joy of discovery of your art (if only for your own sake).

And maybe there’s a third option, as well. Or more than one. Binaries and other strict dualities are too limiting (and practically gauche in academic circles, at this point), and very little in any kind of art is so simple as a True/False question, or even your standard multiple choice. Art is fill-in-the-blank, or free response—hell, trying to talk about this one thing turned into an essay question. Point is, maybe the knowing of a thing, how much you can discover about the mystery while maintaining the wonder, isn’t nearly so uncomplicated.

This brings me back to the Einstein quote. Despite the fact that it sets up one of the oh-so-passé binaries, despite not taking a definitive position, it’s still weirdly inspiring. Either nothing is miraculous, or everything is. That Einstein was a pretty smart guy, and said some pretty smart things.

Only Einstein probably never said it (item #6).

I know, right? Those of you who already knew that, who have been shaking your head at my ignorance this whole time, are likely feeling vindicated. Those of you who, like me, had no idea (until I decided to fact-check it for this post) are likely experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance.

So my question to you becomes this: is the sentiment less worthy if it’s not from Einstein? Is the maintenance of wonder less important, even if it wasn’t advocated by the person whose name is now synonymous with genius? Does knowing this about the quote ruin it?

I don’t think it does, necessarily—of course, I told you earlier that I generally wouldn’t. But there are other schools of thought.

Perhaps I’ve been going about this all wrong. Maybe the point isn’t to figure out which perspective is correct; rather, it may be that the point is just what I’ve already suggested: to figure out which outlook applies to you, or whether you’re even somewhere in the middle—or somewhere else entirely—so you can move forward with your work without inadvertently compromising the wonder that keeps you (and your readers) coming back again and again. After all, more self-knowledge is always good, right?

…right?

 

Mike Photo

Mike W. Leavitt is an MFA Candidate in Fiction at the University of Central Florida, where he often writes about things that make people sad. A hopeless academic and an inveterate nerd, Mike realized he wanted to study creative writing during his time in the United States Marine Corps, while scribbling a story in a notebook from inside a bulletproof truck in the middle of the Afghan desert. He graduated with a BA in English from UCF in 2015, and hopes to graduate with his MFA in the Spring of 2018. In the meantime, he currently—precariously—balances his writing and his studies, teaching creative writing students of his own, and chasing after a hyperactive toddler at home.”

 

 

 

Why Writers Should Be on Twitter

New and old writers are discovering social media is a must-have for the modern-day author’s lifestyle. Some of us have adapted to the art of interacting online as part of everyday life. For the rest of us, the idea is daunting and, at times, feels like it has a massive learning curve. With a plethora of choices such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and so on, it can leave an author asking which one to pick. At the end of the day, whether you publish traditionally, take the indie author hybrid route, or self-publish, you need a social media presence.

We are in the age of technology which drastically changes how the book industry works. With these changes, we, the modern writer, get to talk to our readers, see their responses, and at times, this transparency can be both scary and intimidating.

Agents and publishers want to know who we are and often seek out our social media sites, even if we are pitching our debut novel. They want to put a face to the name and story, something that has only happened in the modern era. Many of the recent bestselling authors have been active on social media for at least a year, making their names more familiar to fellow writers and potential agents, including Pintip Dunn and Brenda Drake. Twitter is one of the best ways to build an online community and keep in touch with fellow writers you encounter at workshops and conventions.

A lot of times social media provides authors opportunities for interviews, offers to write articles, or contact information for agents looking for a piece. The best way to weed out these opportunities is with Twitter. You want your social media presence to be actively working on several aspects of your career, no matter if you are still polishing that first manuscript or seeking an opportunity to sell the next book or even planning to switch between self-publishing and traditional platforms.

ALL WRITERS SHOULD HAVE A TWITTER ACCOUNT.

Besides the value of connecting to agents and improving your understanding of the traditional publishing route, Twitter is a hub of information. Despite the 140 limited characters on posts, there are ways to search for advice from a wide range of people in the industry with tags such as #wiritingtip, #querytips, #AskAgent, #AskEditor, #PubTip, #WriterTip, and many more. You can find a more complete list broken out into different sections over at the Aerogramme Writers website (www.aerogrammestudio.com/2013/03/12/100-twitter-hashtags-every-writer-should-know). Diving into these allow you to not only find advice, but reveal tons of ways to get your own tweets seen by the right folks in the industry. Having a saved list or getting familiar with hashtags can and will help you cater Twitter to your needs and wants, such as building a dream agent lists or tracking authors who inspire you.

Another useful hashtag is #TenQueries which is a great way to see how queries are being canned and which are being requested. The hashtag challenges agents to weed through ten of their queries and how they fair, or why they didn’t pass. This has become method for agents to show transparency in their own pipelines and give insightful advice from their agent’s point of view. It’s a great way to see if the query or first pages were the stopping point, in others work and sometimes in your own. If you are wondering what happens to the slush pile, #SlushWorks is filled with stories of both sides, agents and writers, connecting, and even agents backing up and grabbing work from their slush piles. These hashtags help writers see inside another part of the publishing industry, especially what the desk of an agent looks like.

There is a large, active community of agents on Twitter who host amazing events to get writers connected more directly. Brenda Drake was recently in Orlando with her fellow authors and friends Pintip Dunn, Darcy Woods and Jen Malone. It was a great opportunity for local writers and authors to geek out, meet someone who has influenced the writing industry, and ask questions. Drake has been running a Twitter-based event called Pitch Wars for over six years (www.brenda-drake.com/pitch-wars). Drake started this cornerstone well before landing herself an agent and pushing out her debut novel. She is a great example of how connecting and being active in the online writing community can increase your visibility. There are several other events throughout the year inspired by Brenda’s Pitch Wars and #PitMad, including the holiday season event #Pitchmas.

If you are still not sure about joining Twitter, you can at least use their search for the ever growing “Manuscript Wishlist” by using “#MSWL” to get the inside scoop on agents’ desires. This can assist you to tailor your current manuscript to match specific agents or be more aware of what is trending. There are also agent-based events where agents are invited to post their Wishlist, and it has spurred a, Manuscript Wish List, where writers can discover agents who are super active in the online community (manuscriptwishlist.com). Some of these agent wishes are not only about story ideas, but the type of writer or author the agent is hoping to find and add to their lineup.

Another fun activity for writers and authors is sharing quotes or snippets of their current work or upcoming novels. It’s a chance to pull out some hashtags to draw readers, agents, and fellow writers into your profile and other websites so you can gain visibility. A lot of times, being active in this way can develop relationships with those established in the industry, which can provide a valuable resource. As the tweets roll out, each connecting to one another, you can relish in a wave of new followers, retweets and the occasional comment . To help your audience to follow along, add a book cover, image, and/or link in the beginning and end of the session. This provides a fast and friendly way for the visitors to find the start and read it through later one, make a purchase, or retweet the parts they liked best.

The best part about Twitter is the fact you can connect it to most other social media sites. This means that if you are active here, the posts are duplicated automatically on other sites like Facebook. Twitter also provides the ability to allow you to use other social media platforms, including blog sites like WordPress, to auto-posted on Twitter. It’s a great tool to hit all your platforms and never have to lift a finger or remember to post the same information on two or more sites. In the end, explore the information and discover how you can use twitter to fit your needs. As an author and writer, but I cannot express enough that Twitter is a great starting point if you are building a social media presence.

 

ValerieValerie Willis is the author of The Cedric Series, a high-rated Paranormal Fantasy Romance Series featuring an anti-hero dragged away from the revenge he seeks on his maker by love and the onset of a larger threat. Valerie’s work is inspired by a melting pot of mythology, folklores, history, topped off with a healthy dose of foreshadowing. She is a local instructor for Writer’s Atelier and mentor for several writers in the Central Florida area.

You can find Valerie on Twitter (@Valerie_Willis) or check out her work at www.WillisAuthor.com. 

 

 

Welcome Back to the Fall 2017 Semester

Welcome to all the MFA students new and old, past and present. Another prodigious and productive year is upon us. May your reading be wide, your writing on point, and your workshops constructive.

To help you make the most of your year, the Fall 2017 Class schedule and UCF literary events are listed below. Make sure you check the blog calendar and your UCF Knights email for updates to dates, times, and locations for events.

 

Fall 2017 Classes

Mondays @ 7:30PM, CRW 6025.0002 Advanced Graduate Workshop–Poetry and Nonfiction, Terry Thaxton

Tuesdays @ 7:30PM, CRW 5946C SL in Creative Writing , Laurie Uttich

Tuesdays and Thursdays @ 6:00PM, CRW 6976 Scholarship & Publication Method, Jamie Poissant

Wednesdays @ 7:30PM, CRW 6025.0001 Advanced Graduate Workshop–Fiction, Cecilia Milanes

 
Events

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

 

Social Events

Welcome Back BBQ: September 9th, 2017

GWA’s Holiday Party: TBA

 

GWA Readings & Workshops

PARCELS Readings: Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts

September 10th Parcel’s: MFAs in Progress

October 8th Parcel’s: MFAs in Progress

September 10 Parcel’s: MFAs in Progress

November 12th Parcel’s: MFAs in Progress

January 14th Parcel’s: MFAs in Progress

February 11th Parcel’s: MFAs in Progress

March 11th Parcel’s: MFAs in Progress

April 8th Parcel’s: MFAs in Progress

 

Workshops

TBA

 

Conferences

Fall

Other Words Conference, Tampa, FL, October 12-14, 2017

Sanibel Writers Conference, Sanibel Island, FL, November 2-5, 2017

Spring

Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, Tampa, FL, March 7-10, 2018

 

Cypress Dome Society presents

Readings and Events TBA

 

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.

Agency Life: Confessions of a Copywriter

Graduating with an MFA is both terrifying and exciting. The second it’s over, you marvel at how quickly the last two or three years went by. My past and prospective professional pursuits have never exactly hinged on a graduate degree. I got my start right out of college with a hokey copywriting job that wasn’t much more than an assembly line of fake job advertisements. Fast forward and you’ll find that my career has had many faces: human resources coordinator for almost 500 employees, marketing strategy manager for a startup company with tons of potential, and freelance writer with work published on too many indiscriminate topics. Gone are the days of my perennial neurosis about whether an MFA was worth it.

In the past, I’ve authored topics on staying sane in creative writing workshops and cracking open the science behind publishing poetry. Now, I’d like to share my experiences thus far as an agency writer. Before relocating to North Carolina, I thought writing for agencies was the stuff of folklore – especially in the heyday of Mad Men. Agencies were hard to come by in Orlando, so I thought they were these mythical establishments where creative minds would sit around long tables to brainstorm ideas for taking their accounts to unthinkable heights. Well, I’m no Peggy Olsen and agencies certainly aren’t as lavish as Sterling Cooper suggests. However, working for an agency allows you to collaborate with clients most people/creatives  could never have dreamed of.

After packing all our belongings, pets, and memories, we traveled for a total of 24 hours to see a home in Durham (that we rented blindly through an online database) for the first time. My partner was without employment but on the hunt, and I traded my cushy, full-time position at the startup for a contractual agreement with a lighter schedule so I could make time for freelance writing. Those first couple months were scary, to say the least. Those first couple months in our new home should have been liberating – we were finally free from the Florida heat, lackluster housing options, and minimal career opportunities. Truthfully, those first couple months felt suffocating. Playing catch-up after depleting our life savings limited our abilities to explore our new environment at first. Adding insult to injury, freelance clients weren’t willing to pay what I thought I was worth. After readying my resume, compiling a perfunctory portfolio, and sending out a few applications, I finally got a call back for something worthwhile – a copywriting role for an SEO services agency.

The recruitment process took just a few weeks before my start date was scheduled and the paperwork was drawn up. I was shuttled to my office, trained for a few hours by a supervisor (who, ironically, worked from Florida), and left alone to start writing for clients I’d never met.

Here are some questions I asked myself in accepting a writing role that intimidated me:

  • Am I writing too slow?
  • Am I making silly grammatical mistakes?
  • Am I saying this in the clearest way?
  • Am I writing relevant content?
  • Am I making a difference?

There’s a trend to these questions, and I wonder if you spotted it. Why am I apologizing before I’ve even begun? Reputations often take weeks, months, or, even, years to form. But agencies are often fast-paced. For instance, clients I work for choose from a select number of monthly content updates when they enlist our services. Content updates are  the physical act of writing content to appear on the products or product categories of e-commerce websites. I’ve done the math and I write between 3,500 and 7,000 words per day. During grad school, I struggled to fill a 1,000-word essay with useful information. Without those grueling grad experiences, I’m not sure that I could push through six- to ten-hour sessions of writing for a sole client.

Part of my transformation in prolificacy was finding a loose content equation to stick to. So, I began many of my introductions, transitions, and conclusions in a comparable way to encapsulate all the good SEO habits of content without using too many buzzwords. “Google is God” is a phrase I like to employ, because every website in existence is crawled by bots to discover new or updated pages that need to be indexed for their records. If you produce content that’s too rich in keywords, your webpage will suffer consequently because you are “stuffing.” My agency does everything in its power to keep client websites at the top of search listings, and I play an integral part in that task. Some projects require me to rein in my impulses to digitally vomit beautiful words, while others require some seriously backbreaking effort to create a completely unique branding voice.

After one month on the job, I began telecommuting. Working from home is a slippery slope if you lack the focus. Luckily, you can train yourself to work productively and treat your home office as you would any other professional space. Wake up early. Shower. Get dressed in something other than a romper or yoga pants. Eat breakfast. Drink coffee. Refill. Refill. Refill. Take lunch. Tune out for a little while. Check back in. Get back to work until the clock strikes and you’re free to play with dogs, hike, restore furniture, binge-watch favorite television shows, send poetry submissions, and search for new freelance opportunities to expand your portfolio.

There’s a fine-lined whirlwind about an agency that you can lose yourself to if you’re not being careful. Me? I start any new role at arm’s length. I’m not married to my work. I’m married to my partner, the four-legged things that nap at my feet, and the few friendships to which I lay claim. Am I responsible for pulling my weight and keeping our home in livable conditions? Yes. Do I love what I do? Not every day. We all grow up with this funny idea that we’ve reached the pinnacle of happiness and meaning when we love what we do professionally. With a little bit of age and fair bit of upset, I’ve found that this funny idea is flawed. I hope that any writer can relate to the notion of growing up somewhat clueless. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I stretched all my creative passions as far as they could go in pursuit of being the ultimate Renaissance woman. With a paying writing job and two degrees under my belt, I’m still a little clueless and that’s okay.

So far, the agency life has taught me a lot about myself and my work ethic. I’m much more prone to distraction than I originally thought. I also realize that I’d prefer to communicate with clients directly and develop a marketing strategy as a collaborative effort. Agency life is not glamorous, but it’s a worthwhile experience. They say that everyone should work in a restaurant at least once. I say that every writer should work at the whim of a paying client at least once. As for the pursuit of happiness, I suggest that you sit down with yourself, spend some time together, and brainstorm ways in which you can make money while expanding your competencies. We aren’t created and molded to plateau. Make the most of your time. Spend it on people and employers that know your worth and are willing to invest in you.

 

 

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Brianne Manning holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Central Florida and currently works as a copywriter in North Carolina. Her poetry has been published in over a dozen literary journals throughout the U.S., the U.K., and Ireland. Her photography has been published in The Sun magazine and by Vintage Books.

Slumpin, Funkin, and C-Blockin: Those Things Your Writing Does and Tidbits to Get Past Them

I knew this guy named Bryan. Let’s just say for the sake of imagination, his last name was Skarrd.

Bryan Skarrd was the Regina George of Everytown U.S.A. University’s MFA program, but if Regina George actually did things to earn the popularity besides just being popular, a hand model, etc. Like if Regina earned her fleeting fame in high school by contributing exceedingly to her given realm of study or even being head cheerleader. Not just riding on top of random people and wondering about a person’s alleged crack addictions.

So Bryan, right? Anything you ask, guy chugs it out. He’s good with terms and verbs. He turns phrases pretty well; his pieces always contain some a little somethin’-somethin’ you wouldn’t tell your parents about or a little somethin’-somethin’ you shouldn’t tell the cops about — a little spice for everyone to enjoy; there’s variation in sentences; there’s variation in sentences; he plays with genres and everybody loves his writer’s voice; he knows how to pace us out in his stories for a long haul or a short sprint; and everyone’s teared up over one of his characters at least once. Everybody’s hating on him. Dude never seems to falter, and he always has another idea. Other students stay trying to find dank inspiration, and he seems like he’s giving that high-grade away for free.

He’s at an open mic night. Everyone’s sipping on the verbs being laid down. Nodding to rhythms and flows. He performs and sees this guy. Of course the guy sees him, and they vibe on each other.

“I like the way you use your words, sir. You really know your way around it,” the cute guy says.

Bryan hits him with a thank-you and a “I like your verbs too.”

So, of course and on course with the night, that cute guy suggests they trade some verbs and other words and lay some lines down all night long. Bryan agrees and they make haste to his apartment to put the paper to the pen, and that might not be a euphemism.

#

But, the next morning, that cute guy scurried off in a bit of a hurry. He told Bryan it wasn’t his fault. It happens to plenty of his writer friends. The sheet of paper in Bryan’s bedroom looks startlingly blank. Just a mark by the pen where someone tried to put it to paper, but nothing came up.

#

No one ever saw Bryan Skarrd after that open mic night. Last I heard, he dropped the program. and that anytime someone put a paper in front of him, all he could tell them was, “It just won’t come up.”

The dread every wordsmith, phrase-turner, copy-writer and writing major: writer’s block. Slump. No-word funk, only junk. It comes on randomly, without provocation and certainly without relent. No indication as to when its visit is spent. Much like that ex that we have who flits through our lives with social media comments and random texts.

Experts say seven out of ten writers suffer from “Slumpin’, Funkin’, and Creative-Blockin’” (C-Blockin, for the sake of abbreviation). They say two out of remaining three are liars. The last one is Stephen King. Whether it’s an inability to put the pen to the paper, a fault in your star character or plot, or maybe a failure to launch, everyone has been and will be there.

My goal is to impart small tidbits to help any wandering writer looking to mine some inspiration for their craft.

It’s almost like we’re mining…craft, no?

Okay, I’ll stop.

This post is an effort, if not to best it, to at least produce in the midst of whatever writer’s block may befall you. For what is creativity other than sparks and lights in the darkness of mundane, murky and bland.

Photos

Dust off the old photo albums; dip into the decrepit hard drives; charge the brick phones and scour through outdated facebook, myspace, imgur and photobucket albums.

I’ve found this first method helpful when I’m feeling my Creative Nonfiction Fantasy, and it’s a pretty simple method at that. Going through old albums is a focused way of walking down memory lane. One of the problems with sitting down and trying to “come up with something” for a personal essay or the like is trying to force creativity. In doing this, we set ourselves up for failure in multiple ways. Creativity relies, in some part, on emotion– something rather difficult to direct or force. However, you can nudge and guide it. Prompt or spur its growth.

When going through old photos, I always find myself remembering something or someone I’d forgotten. A day I thought I’d never forget suddenly comes to mind, a memory of a friendship or lost love is illuminated in an awkward flash. Something like an emotional and memory-based “Aha!” moment happens and I feel an urge to capture this rebirth of nostalgia and feeling.

Favorite Lines, Quotes from Songs and Works

Personally, I have a few that I love. Most of mine come from Rap or Alternative Rock I’m a sucker for turning a phrase. But it can be any genre of any literary medium. Here’s an example:

In their song, “The New National Anthem”, band Pierce The Veil has a line at the beginning of their first bridge, in the midst of a beautiful display harmonizing, that goes: “Somebody’s supposed to fall in love. But nobody even even calls.”

This line has painted such a forlorn image and feeling in my soul for years. It speaks of yearning and hopes unfairly dashed, for me. I sat down one day and mulled over my love for the line, and for the song overall. The line began to spark the idea for a fiction and poetry piece.

I often use rap lyrics, because when it’s good (and it often is), it’s poetry set to music. For example:

In his track “No Make-Up (Her Evils)”, current God-MC, Kendrick Lamar, spits the line: “Of prettiness of wittiness, the colors on her skin tone. Her complexion in a direction I’ve outgrown.” This line sparked my interest and helped me mine and tackle my own experiences to produce a spoken word and flash fiction piece.

When lines pique your interest, when you can’t help but remember them on repeat, there’s something in the line you can work with. It’s not an act of consciously looking for lines to like, they come across you naturally all the time. The same applies for texts (religious texts are honestly great for creative inspiration in terms of sentence quality, structure and etc.) Just throw some of your favorite songs on a playlist, your favorite records on a record player, some of your diehard dog-eared books on the bed and think about what gives you that warm shiggle in the midst of your all time favorites.

Collage Essay

I’ve used this method in different ways after learning about it from an amazing professor. A favorite of mine, the collage essay breathes life into old material: a collage of pieces used in a way to make a cohesive whole.

For this, it’s best to print out copies of your old work. These can be incomplete works that have hit the dreaded wall. They can be small pieces you want to flesh out; pieces for revision and editing, anything substantial really.

From here, I read sections and highlight the different themes or common threads I notice. In this method, it’s good to use old pieces. Usually enough time has passed to fall out of your honeymoon, “everything is fine with my piece” phase. There’s typically a more critical eye, which is useful for trimming fat and more accurately tracing themes ‘n threads. After doing that, I cut the sections up however I want to at the time (there’s no “right way” as long as it works for you). And then lining the sections in ways that help you tell a new or better story. You will often find that sections from separate pieces line up and create potential for new ideas or pieces. Sometimes rearranging a solitary piece in this method can help you visualize the sections of the piece differently.

Break Up The Scenery

Of all my methods, I feel this next one is the most “Well duh Malcolm, of course” one, (but you’d be surprised how WRONG many of you are still probably using it.)

Yeah yeah, I got it. Break up the scenery. Don’t always write at home. It’s simple and really, kinda “duh”, but you can still take this a step further. This push against always writing in the comfort of your home is a good way to cut off distractions, focus on the writing and utilize white noise. But, what  if you did this for the exact opposite reason? To draw in the white noise, take in the distractions and experience where you were. That’s what this next method is for.

It can be anywhere really, the only requirement is that it be a place that you don’t normally frequent. A restaurant, a new venue, a bar, worship service, community event, what-have-you.

By going somewhere you don’t normally, you allow yourself to take in new people and settings, igniting new thoughts or connecting old memories. A graduate professor of mine utilized this in her Hybrid class to cultivate ideas to a stellar extent. I can attest to this method fervently.

Write what you saw, heard, felt, smelled. All the senses and some of that intuition stuff we have are yours to sift with. I’ve found this helpful in trying to overcome a block in larger projects. It ties in using the age old method of taking your mind off a problem to solve it.

Pull From Other Genres

I think I take back my last statement of a method being the most “duh” of them all. I think that goes to this one.

To be frank, if you aren’t using or writing in genre’s, at least playing with them somewhat like you would those kids from other blocks, then I’ve got to throw trace amounts of shade your way. If you aren’t dabbling around a bit–to quote Childish Gambino:“Yeah you got some silverware, but really are you eatin’ though?”

Are you eating though? If all you use is the spoon of fiction, you’ll have the malleable and variety of flavors it provides like ice cream, but the fork of non-fiction and knife of poetry are all waiting to the side, if we’re to stretch the metaphor further.

Writing in other genres opens the mind to a difference in telling stories. It lends to a possible blending of styles and formats. A poet might come to the personal essay with a lyrical perspective that allows them to more accurately capture a moment in prose style, than the concise structure they may feel allowed by poetry. An essayist can utilize the use of supposed omnipotence and bend the rules of truth and fiction in their work with a fiction eye.

Ours is a time in the writing world where hybridity and experimental form are making their way to the forefront. And for good reason as they open up the possibility of what we can do as writers, what a story can be, etc.

Soapbox aside, playing with different genres broadens the writer-view, scope and perspective. It’s being able to look at the chessboard from the side, maybe adding a few shogi pieces and changing the game when things aren’t lining up.

Saved Lines (Popcorn Lines)

This last method is really just a compilation of the other methods in different parts. I threw it in because it’s not really my own personal method, but it’s kinda my own personal method:

  • I take some of those favorite quotes from artists and writers I have and throw them in a jewelry box or something small like that.
  • I add in a few of the couple-line memories I wrote down from going down memory lane via Myspace albums.
  • Take a few individual sentences and lines from larger projects I liked. (These lines that really worked in a piece that really didn’t, overall.)
  • Add in some lines from incompletely spoken word pieces and poetry attempts, because genre don’t phase me.
  • Let it stew for a while (days, weeks, months, years, centuries, eons, whatever)

After mixing them all together, it’s just a matter of picking out random pieces and putting them together if you like a couple, or being sparked by the power of a line you’d previously forgotten. I’ve used compilations of my saved popcorn lines to make spoken words, poetry pieces and even used them to try my hand at a collection of flash pieces.

So get out there. Go write stuff. Give your Slumpin, Funkin, C-Blockin friend the middle finger, or your trigger finger. Maybe even your ring finger, whichever floats your proverbial boat.

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Malcolm Kelly is a current MFA Candidate who specializes in being necessarily vulgar and unnecessarily extra. When not working or playing with words, he can be summoned by pouring out a bottle of homemade sangria in tribute. Or, you can find him crashing Open Mic nights and possibly badgering bakeries and baristas for free baked goods.

Querying: It’s Dangerous To Go Alone

While MFA programs deal primarily with the craft of writing, at some point all writers have to deal with the business of writing. One of those business steps is getting an agent. This summer I started querying my first novel. The querying process can be overwhelming and frustrating, so I’m here to share my experience and the resources that helped me navigate the process.

Preparing Yourself

Before you start looking up agents there are four things you need to prepare:

  1. a complete and polished manuscript
  2. a perfect first fifty pages
  3. a one to two page synopsis
  4. a query letter

Obviously, before you start querying a novel, you need to have the complete, polished manuscript. It needs to be agent-ready the day you send out your query letters. I received a request for the full manuscript the day after I started sending out queries. No more time for copyediting if I wanted to get the manuscript into the agent’s hands.

All agents will want a query letter, but many are also looking for sample pages of the novel. The number of sample pages varies dramatically—I had to submit anywhere between three and fifty pages. Because fifty appears to be the maximum requested, it’s a good idea to give extra attention to those pages and eradicate any typos or wonko language.

Some agents specify a one-page synopsis, but others are more flexible (others may not want a synopsis at all). The synopsis should cover the entire plot of the book (even the ending) and should be entertaining. They don’t want a laundry list of events; rather, the synopsis should relate the main arc of the story and include some voice to make it a proper introduction to your novel.

The query letter is a whole craft unto its own. In brief, it should cover the stats (genre, title, and word count), the hook and/or comparative titles, a short blurb, and a brief author bio. It helps to have a little personalization as well, something that indicates that you’ve done the research and can say why this agent would want this book. The query letter is covered in detail in many different places. I would recommend NY Book Editor’s article How to Write a Darn Good Query Letter to learn more about writing queries.

One More Thing To Prepare

A pitch is a one-sentence enticement for your novel. It should highlight the main character, motivation, and a crisis. You’ll need a pitch if you’re planning to go to a conference or want to participate in a Twitter pitch party. I recommend learning more about pitches since they can be another path to finding your perfect agent. They can even help you in the query process, as the pitch can be part of your query letter or give you another tool in your arsenal. After requesting a full on my manuscript, one agent asked me to summarize the story in a sentence. If I had already prepared a pitch, this would have been a simple task.

Researching Agents

Once you have your materials together, the next big step is researching agents and figuring out who to query.

Query Tracker is a wonderful resource for figuring out who represents your genre and generating a list of agents. In addition to searching for agents by genre, you can easily see who is currently open to queries and filter by query method. Query Tracker only lists reputable agents, so it’s also a good litmus test for finding agents who have a proven track record of making sales.

An agent profile on Query Tracker includes links to their agency website, email, Twitter, and other places to help you research them. The information I found most helpful in deciding whether to query an agent was their bio or submission guidelines, their current clients, and their Manuscript Wishlist. All of this information goes toward making sure you find an agent who not only represents your genre, but who matches your view of the publishing industry. Personally, I prioritize agents who accept electronic submissions or who are active on Twitter because I find electronic communication and a social media presence important parts of modern publishing.

Manuscript Wishlist is another website that is extremely helpful for researching agents and personalizing query letters. Not all agents listed on Query Tracker have a MSWL profile, but many do. A good MSWL profile not only lists the genres an agent represents but has more details about their dream manuscripts—“fantasy from non-traditional eras”; “historical fiction set in the Middle Ages”; “badass, competent female protagonists.” This information can let you know if this agent is not only right for you, but is looking for exactly what you’ve written.

Don’t discount looking up the agents of your favorite authors and authors who write similar stories to yours. I expected to get a “no” from most of these agents (and was not disappointed), but one of them liked my concept enough to pass my query to another agent in her company—and that agent requested the full manuscript! As long as your query is professional and follows the submission guidelines, you should submit. Don’t let intimidation stand in your way.

Sending Queries

I’ve read and heard recommendations to send queries in batches of no more than ten. The first batch is partly to test your query. If you don’t get at least one request for a partial or full manuscript, consider revising your query. If you get anything higher than a 10% request rate, send more queries when you’re ready.

The “when you’re ready” part is key because once I had prepared ten queries, I needed a break. I put about a month between my first two batches, but two to three weeks would have been preferable to keep responses rolling in more steadily. After you hear back from about half of your first round (or after you get one or two requests), start prepping that next batch of query letters. You will need to continue querying even if your eventual agent requests your manuscript on the first round.

Be aware that some agents have a “no response = no” policy or they can take over two months to respond. This can make it difficult to query if you’re waiting on responses. To ensure you get responses to your first batch of queries, spread out your queries among agents who have a variety of response times and policies. (And remember, never close a query until at least two months have passed, or the expected response time listed on the agency website. Response times and policies are nearly always listed on the website.)

Tracking Queries

While you can keep your own spreadsheet of the day you sent your query, when you expect a response, and what that response eventually is, I highly recommend using Query Tracker. Once you select the agents you want to query, Query Tracker lets you cultivate a list of those agents and then track when you sent your query and their response. While you can use Query Tracker for free, I recommend paying for a yearlong membership. It’s only $25 and gives access to powerful query tools, including the ability to prioritize queries and see an agent’s timeline.

The timeline lets you see when other writers have submitted, when they received a response, and what that response was. You can also see about where you fall in an agent’s queue. I found that while I was trying oh so very hard to be patient, checking Query Tracker once per day to see if agents had made progress on their queues was helpful for keeping myself focused and keeping my worry in check. (Although when I was next in the queue, sometimes that heightened the anxiety.)

Another cool thing about Query Tracker is that while most agencies list their expected response times, using the timeline allows you to see how quickly agents are currently responding. One agency listed a 4-week response time, but I could tell by Query Tracker that a specific agent was responding within a week of recent queries. It made it an easy decision to move that agent up in my priority list because I knew I’d get a response quickly. (And I did!)

Getting Requests

When you get a request for your manuscript, first freak out and celebrate. Then send your manuscript as quickly as humanly possible (while still writing a polite, typo-less response to the request). If you thought an agent responding to your query letter took forever, buckle up for the Patience Carousel—you know, the ride that moves slowly and in circles? A novel, or even a partial (which often sits at that magic length of fifty pages), takes time to read and evaluate, especially when you consider that taking on new clients is a tertiary part of an agent’s job.

You tried being patient and it was taking too long? I know, I know. I’ve read that it is impolite to nudge an agent about a requested manuscript too soon. “Too soon” varies, but generally six months is seen as an appropriate time to nudge an agent and find out if no response means that they’re passing on your novel (some agents list two months as their expected response time, so check the agency website to see if they list response times for submissions). Another reason to nudge—and the best reason, I’d say—is if you have an offer from another agent. This is the reason you keep sending queries even after those first requests. Once someone makes an offer of representation, nudge every agent you have queried and tell them you have an offer, especially if they are agents you would really like to work with. This gives them an opportunity to look over your query and manuscript and get back to you quickly. I haven’t had the pleasure of doing this yet, but here’s hoping!

Finding Support

While the support of friends and family are great, I highly recommend the support of a friend who has been through the querying process or who understands the publishing culture and knows about agents. My mom teared up the first time I told her I had a full manuscript request and—while that was great—it was even better when I texted my friend-in-the-know.  She knew who the agent was and responded positively about him. Even better: when I texted her about a rejection, she replied, “I don’t like her anyway.” Laughter is also good support.

A friend-in-the-know can also recommend other agents to query, or provide feedback on your pitch, query letter, or synopsis. Querying can be a rough road, and it is filled with rejection, so planning how to support yourself is key to finishing the quest.

Summary: Take This

There’s a lot more to querying than can be covered in a single blog post, but hopefully this gives you an idea of what to expect and where to find additional information and start your research. Don’t be afraid to ask writers about how they found their agent or what the relationship is like. Writers love telling stories and the agent search is just another story.

Good luck querying!

 

11018943_10205275475260725_4011872638109292908_nAlli Martin is a writer and freelance editor from Orlando, FL. She specializes in science fiction and alternate history. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from UCF. Her work can be found in Dreams of Steam II: Brass and Bolts from Dark Oak Press (2011). More of her work is available at allimartin.com. Follow her on Twitter @selfwinding.