Stepping Outside My Comfort Zone

Almost every MFA program in the country offers fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. During the dreaded season of applications, we are accepted into schools under the pretense that our focus in the program will be the genre we applied in. And it makes sense. We submit our strongest work in our applications, so why not continue on that track?

Entering UCF as a fiction student I thought, “This is me. This is my niche.” I didn’t want to take nonfiction or poetry courses and skew my focus. I wanted to be a novelist. I wanted to be on the bestsellers list and write extraordinary short stories, gaining not just fortune but recognition for my work. I dreamed a dream I think many of us dream when entering an MFA program.

A large part of why I didn’t want to write nonfiction or poetry stemmed from my issues growing up. I had always been a jack-of-all-trades. Whether it was music and dance, art or theater, I managed to be quite good, but never great. However, I was great at something, and that is the lesson I should have been paying attention to. Growing up, I played baseball competitively. As a pitcher my freshman year of highschool, I had three variations of a fastball clocking in at 94 MPH. But I hadn’t started out as a pitcher. I began in the outfield, running and building strength in my legs and knowing how important it was for me to be able to throw that baseball with accuracy from the fence to home plate if necessary (our team’s cutoffs were never reliable at six-seven years old).

Over time, I moved to the infield. I became a third baseman. I needed to react quick and throw hard. Ground balls, line drives, and sky-high fly balls, I needed to know every single basic mechanic we learn when beginning the sport. And then–finally–I transitioned into the pitcher I was supposed to be. So what does this have to do with fiction, nonfiction, and poetry? Everything.

When I entered the program with the monogram “fiction” stamped on my forehead, I feared I’d never grow if my focus shifted between the genres. My fear had essentially paralyzed me. I had forgotten how branching out and learning new mechanics could lead to promising and unknown talents. After I unintentionally signed up for a nonfiction course believing it to be fiction, I grew to love the genre. I then began purposely signing up for nonfiction, and just this semester, poetry courses. Interestingly enough, I know for a fact and from the comments of others in workshop that my fiction has improved dramatically from my first semester in the program. And I have a great fiction faculty to thank for that. But I also must attribute part of my success to the study of nonfiction and poetry. Through nonfiction, I learned the balance between showing and telling, between truth and the true emotion behind the words on the page. With poetry, my writing shifted from the abstract to living in the world of concrete imagery; I had a better understanding of word economy and I gained confidence in creating sentences that had rhythm, beats, and fluidity that had been missing from my writing.

In my heart, I’ll always be a fiction writer looking forward to picking up a copy of BASS every year. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun and explore different positions, or in the world of writing, genres.  

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Jonathan Phin is a second year MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida. He received his Bachelors of Arts in English at the University of South Florida. He is the GWA treasurer and has previously worked as an intern editor for The Florida Review.

 

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