Reflections of a First-Year MFA Student

I don’t think anyone anticipates that an MFA program, or graduate school in general, will be easy. Your professors will expect more of everything from you—time, work, effort—than your undergraduate professors did. The workload will be heavier and more intensive. There will be more stress and less sleep. You will either learn to meal prep or you will become very familiar with community microwaves and campus eateries. There will be an elevator that is undeniably scarier and shakier than the rest, and it will most likely be the one you have to use most frequently. Parking, as always, will be a nightmare.

But what you can’t anticipate, and what no one prepared me for, is how graduate school makes you feel. So, as a dutiful elder, I hope to impart my musings, however wise they may or may not be, upon those who will follow.

Plan Ahead and Take it Day by Day

There is no syllabus day, no free space on the bingo card. You dive right into coursework, and then you slowly make your way to land and collapse on the shore at the end of finals week. So, my first piece of advice is to figure out how to plan.

Invest in one of those really nice planners they have at office supply stores, the ones with calendars and meal charts and goal setting guides. Or buy a cheap planner from Target or Walmart or the Dollar Store and make that thing work for you. Find a calendar app for your phone or computer that does all the thinking and reminding. Figure out what works best for you and do the heck out of it. For me, it’s bullet journaling. I buy a grid-lined or dotted Moleskine and create my own planner at the start of every semester. I draw out monthly and weekly calendars, color in my class schedule, and make a special page just for all of the semester’s due dates. Mapping everything out like this allows me to schedule the rest of my life in a way that leaves room for the work I need to do. I know when I need to front-load my homework during the week so that I can go out of town for the weekend, and I also know what weekends I can’t make big plans because there’s a looming deadline. Knowing what’s coming for you allows you to brace for impact, but it also shows you where there’s room to breathe.

Though it is important to consider the bigger picture when planning your semester, as you enter a new week, you also have to learn to take things day-by-day. I have days when I have the morning off to run errands and get homework done, but I also have days when I’m on campus from 10am until 10pm. What I had to realize, was that you’re not always going to be as productive as you think you should be. There will be days where you get ahead of everything, and there will be days where you fall behind. Don’t allow yourself to fall too far, but also don’t beat yourself up over going to bed as soon as you get home from class. Be as productive as you can be today. There is always tomorrow.

Allow Yourself Small Joys

Along the same vein of taking things day by day—take the time to do something you enjoy.

My busiest day of the week is also the same day my favorite podcast releases a new episode. On those days, I take my hour and a half lunch break, leave the building I spend most of my time in, and eat lunch on a bench in the sun while I listen to my podcast and watch people walk by. When I’ve had to spend an entire day inside an office or a classroom, sitting outside and doing something that involves no cognitive effort on my part recharges me just enough to make it through the rest of the week.

Find a nice spot on campus, read a book that’s not for class, watch an episode of a show you’ve always loved or have been meaning to try. Give yourself something nice. It is absolutely and totally necessary.

Making Time for the Thing

One would assume that being in an MFA program for Creative Writing means one would have time to write. One would be wrong. Between coursework—assigned reading, academic writing, feedback giving—and whatever it is you’re doing to keep the lights on, the time you have to write is often the time during which you are most exhausted.

So, I will tell you the thing every writer says that every writer hates hearing—make the time.

For me, this means scribbling down notes in my phone whenever a thought comes to me. Writing a story in pieces during lunch breaks, the few minutes I have in the morning before work, and the few minutes I have at night before I fall asleep. Designating a few hours over weekends to get something on the page, even if it’s not good. And then, of course, I have to make the time to revise.

If you won’t find the time now—when you’re reading extensively about the craft, when you’re surrounded by professionals in the field who are willing to help, when you’re amongst a creative community who is doing the same thing you came here to do—then when will you?

You Belong Here

From day one of my first year as an MFA student, I was scared that someone was going to find out that I wasn’t good enough. I stressed over every word I wrote, every email I sent, every thought I spoke aloud. If there was a conversation happening that I couldn’t understand, a concept being discussed that I’d never heard of, I felt anxious—why didn’t I know that? Why do they know that? How did I even get in here?

Upon conducting some informal research, I have concluded that everyone in graduate school has Imposter Syndrome. We’re all worried that, one day, we’ll say the wrong thing, and everyone will realize that we aren’t supposed to be here.

If you’ve been admitted into a graduate program, I am here to tell you: You are supposed to be here. You deserve to be here. You belong here. Other people read your work and said, This person can do the thing. So, you’re here to do the thing. Buy yourself a planner. Learn to read more than one book at a time. Join some sort of caffeine-related rewards program.

Welcome to the MFA.

Kara Pic 2

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.

Advertisements

Writing as a Healing Process

Driving from my parents house I see a neighbor jogging. He is the father of a childhood friend of my brother. At the sight of him, my thoughts flee. I’m suddenly transported away from my car, and I find myself standing above my brother. He rests in his casket, and his hair is slicked back in a way it had never been before. It takes a moment before I realize I am swerving dangerously close to a mailbox.

When situations like the above driving debacle occur, I have the urge to go to my moleskin, or my keyboard, and document my thoughts. But document them with a twist—fiction. Then I feel like a cliche, or worse, a pretend cliche (thinking about myself as a writer and writing about being sad).

See, there is the general assumption that creativity is linked with mental illness. There is the trope of the depressed genius who is destroyed in a brilliant suicide. And there are one too many iconic writers who have taken their own lives. However, I don’t think the act of writing itself could have ever been the final factor that led to their suicides. Perhaps writing may lead to isolation, unnatural hours, rejection, and self doubt—and these things may make life suck a little bit more than usual—but I think the truth is that writing attracts a wide range of people, many of whom have major mental illnesses. Maybe those drawn to writing are more prone to depression, but regardless if this is true, it can’t be ignored that writing can certainly be therapeutic.

We have a need to get things off our chest, and when speaking about a personal issue seems impossible, writing is an option that is always available and potentially more powerful than conversation. It has been used in therapy since the late 80s. Writing is without a doubt an excellent tool to gain introspection and to reconcile the past. When my brother died, my first calm reaction was to begin to write about it. At the time, the wounds were too fresh. I wasn’t capable of writing much that could be deemed good. But the process of writing is just as, or possibly more, important than the product. Just documenting my thoughts was enough.

Beyond exploratory self expression there is another reason why writing, contrary to some belief, is something that can mitigate depression. In the MFA program at UCF, students find themselves immersed in a community with other writers where they are not only engaged in each other’s work, but each other’s lives. In class we are constantly involved in discussion, and we grow to know each other more intimately than other academic programs. Furthermore, beyond the University, Orlando boasts an even greater literary community (see Will Rincón’s Blog post). This community transforms writing from a supposedly solitary pursuit into one that is largely social. Good literary writing can only exist if communities like the one in Orlando flourish. Therefore, just by the nature of the beast, writing becomes a social endeavor which can sustain a healing environment for writers with past traumas. For some students, this may be the most important aspect of writing and obtaining an MFA, and we should all—both students and professors alike—be well aware of it.

I had the opportunity to read a short nonfiction piece surrounding my brother’s death at PARCELS (an event where MFA students perform in progress work alongside professors and alumni). It was a piece that, while writing and performing, brought me to places of deep sorrow. However, I think it was one of the strongest things I’ve ever written. It leads me to wonder about writers’ potentials and about great work that can only be obtained by probing the dark places we fear. I’m left hungering to be pushed further to explore these areas. However, this is precarious situation that must be met with safeguards for students.

In one of our recent discussions, in a class tailored to walk students through the intricate industry of literary writing, we spoke about the responsibility professors have in protecting their students from material that could trigger past trauma. It was brought up that perhaps certain subjects, such as rape, violence, etc., should be off the table—at least for introductory courses. I myself get very anxious whenever we enter a realm that could lead to censorship. In the discussion, I think it was largely agreed that protections for students lie in the hands of a good professor. I like to think of this ideal professor much like a philosopher king in Platonic thought. It would be a professor who doesn’t discourage subjects, but guides them intelligently and artfully. One who pushes students to face troubling subjects and understand them. Of course if a subject is too raw for anyone to enter, they should not be forced to participate. I would never make a blanket statement that all students should be forced to do any one thing. However, in writing courses, especially ones in the MFA, students should be led to write about their greatest fears, their greatest traumas. What better way is there to develop narratives that work to help individuals (both audience and writer) overcome traumatic pasts.

Additionally, when protecting students, it would be an error to sweepingly take entire subjects off the table in writing classes. To do so would be to censor every student in an effort to protect few. And it is the few, those who have experienced intense past trauma, who need to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of writing most. For example, it wouldn’t be moral for a professor to tell all students they aren’t allowed to write about sexual abuse if a victim of sexual abuse could benefit from delving into their thoughts about it. Instead, it would be advantageous to all if addressing the subject was encouraged, along with other powerful issues, in a careful way.

There is trauma that exists that will take years of healing before it can be managed, and I am not naive to this. But educators and those who are part of a writing community should understand that thinking, writing, and discussing a subject is part of the healing process. Additionally, addressing intense subjects is obviously going to be difficult, but this means that we should be especially careful to not view any deep sensitivity surrounding a particular issue as a sign that exploration of that subject should cease. Personally, I will always reject any form of censorship regarding disability and suicide. To tiptoe around the themes and subjects that are most unsettling is to draw power away from writing. Not only do writers needs to explore these issues for themselves, but they need to do so for their readers. Ultimately, that is our job.

pic_tom

Tom Sokolowski is a MFA candidate with a focus in fiction. He has worked as a teacher and a military police soldier in the army national guard, and is currently a high school tutor. He spends his free time reading Noam Chomsky and watching related YouTube videos, listening to Isaac Brock and other indie music, enjoying well made drinks, and hanging out with his girlfriend, Jenna.

On the Baring of Souls: Vulnerability in Workshops

I’m sure that the vulnerability accompanying workshop is nothing new to veteran writers, but as a first-year student in the MFA program that utilizes workshop as a main form of pedagogy, it’s kind of a big deal. For most of my life I’ve written in isolation as a compulsion, and was comforted by reassuring myself that no one would ever read what I’d written (at least not on purpose). So, I poured out my every insecurity, rage, and angst into my keyboard, without ever worrying that the quality of it would be judged. To judge the quality would be to judge me, I thought. These are my deepest, darkest secrets, my feelings, me on this paper. How can I hand it over to someone and have them red-line it as though it were some impersonal Cosmo article? No sir. I will stick with my self-indulgent private compulsion, thank you.

Fast forward to last year. I’d finally discovered that writing wasn’t a hobby or passing fancy, it was something I’d been doing for decades and still did regularly – whether I liked it or not. Whenever someone asked me what my passion was, a little voice in my brain would always whisper, “you are a writer,” even though for most of my life I would respond by snapping, “THAT’S NOT A JOB,” but I digress on my former ignorance in that regard. Eventually, I learned better and finally allowed myself to actually fill the inevitable role of writer in all aspects of my life. This, however, meant opening myself up to my peers and allowing them to read my closely guarded personal confessions. Granted, my life isn’t that shocking nor my writing that bad, but these were still things I’d never shared with anyone, things that I placed a carefully curated façade in front of to hide.

I found that most other MFA students had had at least some form of workshop experience, either in their undergraduate degree or through other programs. I’d gotten my undergraduate degree in Humanities (intentionally steering clear of any creatively writing focused curriculum because I was – you guessed it – scared of showing my crazy) and only had maybe one or two very informal workshops in which I was reserved and conservative in what I shared. I was absolutely terrified of a real, grown-up writing workshop, but I also wasn’t about to take this program that I’d worked so hard to get into by half measures. So, I decided to go ahead and put my soul on to the paper and throw it into the communal kiln. I went to my first workshop fully expecting people to tell me that I was a crazy mess (WHO COULDN’T WRITE) and resolved to spend the evening afterwards crying. Okay I didn’t expect that exactly, but in the movie in my mind I did. You get the idea – it was nerve-wracking!

To my relief, people glazed right over my crazy dysfunctional content and went straight to what mattered – the writing. That’s not to say that the content was completely disregarded. It was noted, but no one judged me for it. In fact, almost everyone was downright supportive. And since I’d purposefully scheduled my workshop for later in the semester so I could watch the class’s responses to other manuscripts before mine, I noticed that other students were making themselves just as vulnerable as I was. People are actually interested in helping each other with the candor of the content – they see it and respect it, sure, but more importantly, they want to help make it better. They recognize that other students are baring their souls despite the scariness that comes with it and want to help them craft their writing into something that respects the gravity and vulnerability being offered.

Again, this is all probably common knowledge for experienced writers, but for me (and possibly other first year students), this is revelatory. Putting yourself out there after years of isolation is scary – terrifying even (i.e., correct use of em dashes? Probably not). But I think one of the most important aspects of a good MFA program is that it’s intent on creating an environment that is safe, constructive, and focused on the craft rather than fixing the writer’s issues or passing judgement on their perceived state of mind. I’ve found that this program in particular is FIERCE in making sure that students aren’t condescended to for their content, which makes me feel that much safer – and more grateful. I don’t think that had I come into the program by half measures that I would be getting as much out of it as I am – fear has thus far not improved my writing, so if it’s all or nothing, go ahead and take it all. I can always fix it in editing.

erica

Erica Rudnick Macalintal is an MFA candidate for Nonfiction at the University of Central Florida. She is also completing a graduate certificate in professional writing. Interests outside of writing include husband Ken, dog Esteban, and general acclimation to life on Planet Earth.

 

 

Poetry Can Be Taught—Are You Up for the Challenge?

To call a piece of art poetry is one of the greatest compliments you can pay. That sonata is poetry. That sentence is poetry. Your face is poetry. The very word “poetry,” in my opinion, is poetry.

Yet despite the word’s everyday use, the genre it represents is often misunderstood. For a majority of people, poetry is elusive and unteachable. It’s an enigma, a niche art. At worst, a dead genre.

A recent MFA graduate was sharing a story about a student she taught. He wrote an essay stating that poetry was obsolete, that no one wrote it anymore. Regardless of how many times she rebutted him, he kept this statement in every draft. That’s how certain he was. To him, poetry was Latin. You don’t speak Latin with your friends or use it contribute a contemporary conversation. You learn it to translate ancient texts.

In this student’s mind, people like me are wasting our time by taking poetry classes. And frankly, that’s okay. His misconceptions about poetry are most likely born from the fact that he doesn’t know—or doesn’t want to know—anything about poetry. He doesn’t write poetry, and he probably hasn’t read any poets aside from a few dead white men he was forced to read in high school. If someone like him tells me I’m devoting myself to a dead genre, I shrug and agree to disagree.

What really concerns me are the potential poets who don’t believe that poetry can be taught. During my undergraduate career, I encountered so many people who absolutely loved poetry, who even wrote poetry, and yet refused to ever take a poetry class or workshop. I worry because I was almost one of them.

At six, I wrote my first poems on a Microsoft Creative Writer page, each in brightly-colored, too-large fonts, and all of them completely terrible. As a teenager, I ventured back into poetry, this time in the form of old-fashioned ballads that I inserted into my fantasy novels. I didn’t dare try contemporary poetry. It was like computer code to me. I appreciate its value and admire those who write it and understand it, but I haven’t the faintest clue how they do it. So, when I decided to pursue creative writing in college, I planned to admire poetry from afar.

When I found myself in my first poetry workshop, I was convinced I would spend the entire semester failing. Failing to decipher meaning from the poems we read. Failing to write the type of poems they’d want in a college creative writing course. I was shocked and amazed when, a few weeks into the course, everything started to click. That course did what I didn’t think was possible—it taught me poetry. Suddenly, free verse wasn’t a jumble of words scattered haphazardly across a page. I learned how line breaks can add emphasis, affect pacing, and contribute to tone. I learned the different effects of short stanzas vs. long stanzas and symmetrical stanzas vs. jagged stanzas. I learned that a poet doesn’t begin a poem with this intricate, perfected, God-given idea in their head. Poetry is about finding the small moments in our lives, holding them in our hands, tracing our fingers over their curves and edges, testing their joints until they pop open like oysters to reveal greater truths inside. You don’t begin a poem knowing where it takes you. You follow the poem, listen to it, refine it until it leads you somewhere. It takes time and patience and—yes, I’ll say it—faith.

After each class, I felt as though my professor was handing me another key and another and another until I could walk up to the wall of poetry and unlock its many drawers. With every poetry class I take, I can feel another key slip onto my belt.

I wrote poems. Contemporary, free verse poems. I read poetry books. Contemporary, free verse poetry books. And I liked it. I loved it. I became a poet. But none of that would have ever happened if I had listened to that little voice that told me poetry can’t be taught and never taken that class.

It is easy to look at poetry from the outside and decide that you just don’t have what it takes. Poetry challenges us to look at the world in a different way, and that feeling can be intimidating at first. But other art forms offer that same challenge. I believe the problem with poetry is that it is an art form we perceive to be less learnable. Many people, like myself, do not realize there actually are ways to learn poetry, that there are basic guidelines and insights that can make poetry click for you. Despite poetry’s diversity of style and form, there are still common elements—like lineation, imagery, concrete detail. By learning how these elements work and how to use them, we can begin to understand and access poetry.  

Another reason why many people doubt that poetry can be taught is that they say poetry is subjective. And yes, this is largely true. But subjectivity doesn’t mean that something can’t be taught. If anything, it means there is more freedom in the learning process. While common elements exist in all good poems, there isn’t just one right way “to poetry.” There is room for so many different poetic styles and voices.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that the “poetry-is-subjective” argument can often be a front. Too often, subjectivity takes the form of the poet who responds to every critique by saying: “Well, you just don’t get it.” And yes, some people will not get your vision. Others will. We all have different tastes and inclinations, and that’s why you choose who influences you carefully. But assuming that everyone who finds something to improve in your piece is simply incapable of seeing your creative vision is artistically limiting.

Like any art form, poetry is personal. Receiving criticism is hard, especially on a piece you have poured your heart and soul into. But the moment we let our insecurities turn into defensive, knee-jerk reactions against any criticism, that’s the moment we stop evolving as writers. Workshops are so important to the development of a writer because they challenge us not to give into that tendency. I would even go so far as to argue that the greatest writers are born from workshop-like experiences. We need people to challenge us, humble us, break us down and lift us up. And maybe poets need it more than most. Because there is that assumption that most people can’t understand poetry, it can be too easy to fall into that trap of rejecting constructive criticism as someone not “getting it.” But people can get poetry, and it is the guidance of poetry teachers, as well as peers, that can help make sure that they will.

Emma Reinhardt photo

Emma Reinhardt is a first-year MFA candidate for Poetry at the University of Central Florida.  She edits for UCF’s Office of Prestigious Awards and serves as the graduate advisor for The Cypress Dome literary magazine.  When she is not writing poems about nature, childhood, or heartbreak, she can be found playing board games, pounding out Broadway songs on the piano, or snuggling her parents’ pit bull.

How to Get Started As a Freelance Writer

Working as a journalist has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life—and has significantly affected my fiction writing. As a reporter, I have interviewed Syrian refugees, photographed protests at the Supreme Court, interviewed Congressmen, and met with local business owners to hear their stories. Journalism at its core is about slowing down and practicing the art of observation, taking note of the people around us, and translating what they say into a compelling story.

So how do you get started as a journalist? If you’re interested in an MFA program and you want to gain extra publication experience, taking up freelance assignments (or working as a staff reporter) is an excellent way to grow as a writer. You’ll gain publication credentials, increase your online exposure, and practice distilling the important information down to what really matters.

Here are a few tips from my own experience.

Have a professional website

Even if you’re just starting to look at graduate school, having a professional website is an excellent way to gain necessary exposure as a freelance writer. Yes, it’s helpful to have a blog, but if you’re hoping to land paid freelance gigs, you should absolutely have an online portfolio showing samples of your work.

There are some incredible resources out there for building your own website. My favorite options are WordPress, Wix, or Squarespace.

My professional website is like a glorified CV. I have a tab for academics, which includes a list of conference presentations, academic papers, and awards. I have a tab for creative writing where I include work I’m querying and catalog my fiction and creative nonfiction publications. Then I have my journalism portfolio, which includes a link to every article I have ever published. On the one hand, this is to help me keep track of my own work, so I don’t forget where my articles have appeared. But it also helps future employers. In addition to my resume and clip samples, I always send a link to my website and inform employers that they can access my full portfolio online.

Decide what you want to write — and study the field!

Writing lifestyle pieces is very different than academic articles or hard news or features or editorials or self-help. Know what you want to write. And the answer can be all of the above. (Side note: most publications don’t run editorials unless you’re an established commentator with a credible platform.)

If you want to write news articles, you should be reading and watching the news daily. If you’re interested in national news, you should follow the Associated Press, Politico, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. If you’re interested in local news, subscribe to your city newspaper. You should also learn how to write in AP style. It’s a requirement for most news publications.

If you want to write features or life style pieces, read the popular blogs and local magazines that include the topics you want to write about. The best way to break into these categories—if you don’t already have a platform that makes you a qualified and credible voice on a subject—is to develop a “beat.” A beat refers to the field or genre of stories that you cover. A news beat, for example, could be healthcare, education policy, the environment, or local elections. If you’re a lifestyle or popular culture writer, you might be interested in covering fashion, music events, restaurants, film reviews, cooking etc. So decide what interests you, research the subject matter, and start writing!

You can’t write good fiction or poetry or nonfiction if you never read. The same is true for journalism. Study the form.

Get training

I learned how to write like a journalist by attending a summer boot camp called The World Journalism Institute (which is free for accepted students!) with WORLD Magazine in Asheville, North Carolina. While there, I learned how to write news stories, profiles, obituaries, how to conduct interviews, and cut my own radio segments. I would never have been able to work professionally as a reporter had I not received this necessary training. And after this program, WORLD hired me as a reporter for the summer and placed me for a few weeks with the Washington, D.C. bureau where I covered breaking news like healthcare reform, Senate votes, and landmark Supreme Court cases. I was twenty years old and brand new to journalism, but thanks to their training, I learned to hold my own. With proper instruction, you can, too—no matter your background.

Here are some resources:

Poynter: Poynter offers webinars and courses on journalism and working with a digital audience. They also have regular lists with internships and job opportunities. (They’re also based in St. Petersburg, Florida.)

Thomson Reuters Foundation Courses:  These courses combine face-to-face teaching with online material to help you grow as a journalist in any field.

WJI: You can check out the World Journalism Institute, which focuses on equipping Christian journalists to work in newsrooms around the country.

The Art And Craft of Feature Writing: This book by William Blundell (a writer for The Wall Street Journal) is an excellent resource for anyone interested in writing feature stories.

The Life Story Interview: Check out online resources that offer helpful tips, like how to conduct interviews.

Start for Free

I get a lot of questions about how I got started as a journalist. The simple answer is that I began by writing for any outlet that would accept me, whether or not I got paid. The online exposure was payment enough. Additionally, I could put all of those published articles in my online portfolio, which increased my credibility when I began applying for future jobs. When you’re starting as a freelance writer, try to say “yes” to any article you are assigned. The more you write, the more freedom you’ll eventually have to write articles of your choice.

Start Local

Yes, we all want to write for the big leagues. But start in your network. Is there a local magazine or newspaper you can work for? Pitch an article or ask to pick up an assignment. If you’re still in school, consider writing for your university’s paper or working as an editor. It’s a great way to boost your portfolio while still a college student. I wrote for the Opinion section of my student newspaper before working as Editor-in-Chief in my senior year. This provided invaluable experience, since I oversaw the entire publication process and participated in several articles with our Spotlight (investigative) team.

Compile your favorite “clips”

Whenever you apply for a steady journalism job or a freelance position, the employer will ask to see “clips,” or published pieces in your portfolio. In the world of freelance writing, your work is your resume. Ideally, you want to have different styles to show your diverse range as a writer.

Over time, your portfolio should demonstrate that you are responsible and can report within a deadline, that you are comfortable with interviewing, and that you have a strong grip on language and effective narrative methods. As you gain journalism experience, I recommend including the following in your clips (as you have them):

  • A feature/profile or interview
  • Two-three hard news stories
  • A review (film, book review, play review — anything!)
  • A personal essay or more creative piece

Do not send in more than five or six pieces, as you don’t want to overwhelm a future employer. And of course, always submit what they request in their guidelines.

Over time, you can start to make good money as a freelance writer. And if you work hard and build your portfolio, you can land work in larger publications. Working as a freelance writer is an incredible experience—and since it’s part time, it allows ample flexibility to work on graduate studies. As you become more experienced, you can even apply for a freelance business license and get steady business as an independent contractor.

So best of luck, writers. Keep sending out your work!

A list of recommended places to submit your writing:

News:

The Orlando Sentinel

Slate Magazine

Salon

The Nation

 

Lifestyle:

Orlando Magazine

Verily

Acculturated

The Odyssey

 

Comedy:

Buzzfeed

Cracked

Writer’s Digest

 

Travel:

Wanderlust

Travel + Leisure

Great Escape Publishing

 

IMG_1500


Ciera Horton McElroy is a first year MFA candidate for fiction at the University of Central Florida. She’s worked as a journalist, editor, and photographer, and currently works as a writer for Sony Pictures Entertainment. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post and is forthcoming from The Chattahoochee Review and Lumina. When she’s not at her desk, she enjoys painting and running. Fun fact: Ciera is a huge Beatles fan—and once met Ringo Starr in L.A. a caption

 

 

Flirting with Romance

I read a lot of romance, but I never put a lot of critical thought into how romance novels are constructed, how I would write one, or even the elements of a romance. Sadly, reading good work does not mean that you can produce it. My oversight predictably resulted in some frantic research after writing a romantic subplot that was dull, forced, awkward, and conflictless. I thought I would share the fruits of my research with the MFA blog.

Romance novels are a specialized type of fiction that is more character-based than plot-based. Most plot-based fiction follows a loose structure of inciting incident, rising tension with setbacks, climax, and then falling tension. But that doesn’t necessarily fit a romance, where the emphasis is on the relationship rather than the plot. Romance writers have developed a specialized structure. It goes something like this: pre-meeting, meeting, deepening interest, complications, dark times, and climax followed by falling tension. An explicit understanding of romance novel structure is quite useful when pacing and structuring a subplot. Any of these moments can be drawn out and emphasized, particularly the deepening interest phase and the dark times. Pride and Prejudice ends at the moment the characters get together. In more modern work, getting together may happen quickly and then most of the novel is spent in the ups and downs of the early relationship.

You could injure yourself on all the hooks a romance novel needs. There needs to be something unique and compelling about the main character, the romantic interest, and the story, whether it’s in the plot, prose, or setting. There’s also usually something about the main character and romantic interest that makes them fit each other in a way no one else could.

I’ve personally struggled to put physical attraction on the page. Every romance has to convey physical attraction, even the ones with a temperature close to absolute zero. The lessons learned:

  • It can be present immediately, grow slowly, or take the character by surprise halfway through the plot.
  • Don’t conflate description with attraction. “She was beautiful” or “he had curly black hair” might do something for the character, but not the reader.
  • Attraction needn’t be visual. It could be in their body language, the way the person speaks, or an action that reflects the character (reading books is hot, says the MFA student).
  • Instead of writing attraction to the lips or eyes or chest, focus on other, less obvious parts of the body. Consider using the hands, fingers, adorable ears, back, or neck to convey attraction.
  • As far as writing sex, the main advice I found (from high temperature romance and erotica writers) is that there should be a point to it, and it should move the story forward somehow.

The conflict is the reason why the characters can’t be together right away. This is another element of romance where having the backstage workings laid out is helpful. Romantic conflict can be external, internal, or hybrid. It is often due to external circumstances, otherwise known as “they like each other, but can’t be together because…” External conflict needs to have high stakes. If she fails to buy his house, she loses her job. If he sells the house, he’s homeless. In internal conflict, one or both characters don’t initially like the other person. But if a character truly has every reason to dislike someone, immediately leaping into a romance may be difficult to pull off believably. The “getting to know you” stage will be elongated in this type of romance to make room for character development. That said, Pride and Prejudice was fairly popular, so it can be done. Hybrid conflict begins with a misconception by one character about the other which gradually gets cleared up. This must be distinct from a miscommunication, because any problem that could be solved in twelve seconds of conversation is not compelling or capable of supporting a novel.

As we wind down to the end, it seemed appropriate to talk about a genre convention of romance: the happy ending. It seemed worth including here because every single blog post I read, even ones on unrelated romance topics, referenced it. It’s worth noting that “happy” might be slightly misleading. Conditions needn’t be perfect, but if a writer spends 200+ pages building romantic tension and implying that these characters will get together, they damn well better be together in the end. The reader trusts the writer to follow through on their promises. It’s a massive breach of trust to break this contract. Many romance writers even use the happy ending as a way of defining the genre, rather than as a convention. As in, if you don’t have a happy ending, you don’t have a romance.

I’m primarily a fantasy writer, but I believe that a basic understanding of the romance genre and its romantic elements is invaluable to any writer. I will certainly incorporate these lessons from romance in future writing. I hope blog readers also benefit from this work.

color headshot

Katherine Ervin is a first year Fiction MFA student. She twice attended the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers, and served as a 1st tier judge for the Raw Dog Screaming Press Reader’s Choice Awards. She also enjoys gardening in her spare time.

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 by 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 a 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.

Justin Pic

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.

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.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset