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.

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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.

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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.

Writer Spotlight: Bishnupriya Chowdhuri

Instead of a regular blog post this week, we invite you to check out our Writer Spotlight. Here, we ask one of our MFA friends questions concerning their career, craft, and quirks. For this edition, we chatted with Bishnupriya Chowdhuri about her writing, what brought her to the MFA, and her future aspirations.

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

Before I joined the program, writing used to be a thing that would happen like seasonal blooms. I wrote sporadically, spontaneously between long periods of void. Writing is how I deal with the dark stuff of life and the universe. So, people who know me through my words only would take me as forever depressed (which thankfully is not completely true)! I find happiness too distracting and bright. I burn full and fast when I am happy.

All that changed in the past year. I have learned to practice words (one grain at a time) rather than wait for it to happen. It was not an easy transition but it has been the most productive year writing-wise so I guess the pain is all worth it.

If you could be mentored by any writer who would you choose and why?

There are just too many of them! Whenever I read anything great, I wish I could learn how it is done. And there are just too much great literature and great creators behind them. Garcia Marquez, Ateen Bandopadhyay, Jibanananda Das, Toni Morrison, Arundhati Roy…I wish…

Among the novelists, my love affair with Rushdie’s work has been going on for at least a decade. I fell for his stories before I understood his language or saw the full brilliance of his narratives. I wish I could learn from him that grand magic of creating stories that can draw people the way rivers pull rocks and icebergs—that mystery of flow.

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

Most of my characters are emigrants from the land of memories. I see myself going back to my childhood often. Also, I am a vivid dreamer. I write about my town, the people that I grew up being around. I am my most recurred subject not because I am a narcissist (well maybe because that too) but because I think I will lie best among the truths.

What are you currently working on?

I am planning a series of art books and a book of stories for my daughter. One of the books is going to be about the trees and flowers of my childhood. The flowers that she might never see because of the world is changing too much too fast. In my head it is to be about huge flower paintings and hand written tales of stealing flowers, shaking bowers and tending gardens.

What made you want to get an MFA? What made you choose UCF?

Because of this thing that I call “the novel that must not be written” that lives inside me. It is the reason I could never slide peacefully into the sarees, rooms, and bangles of my most uneventful womanhood. It kept me pushing to words, from words to paints, and from paints to kitchen as I flew from one country to the other. Because of it, all my writings feel like chasing.

Also because I felt sleepy in the group of married Bengali women in the USA.

Because I wanted to meet people who do literature the way I do or who are undone by words the way I am.  Because, here I could actually say “azure tastes delicate on my tongue” out loud and it would make perfect sense.

I think I was most drawn by the variety of genres taught at UCF. I really needed the freedom to walk across forms to create while I mastered storytelling. I was led to the right place.

What class has been the most beneficial to your MFA?

Coming from a very different academic and cultural background, the classes were an entirely new experience to me. Working at the craft of writing in an academic environment was hard but immensely helpful. I am grateful for the exposure it gave me to American Literature, teaching art as a subject and most of all the push into writing. Prof. Thaxton’s workshop on Hybrid Forms has been one of the most exciting learning experiences, and Dr. Poissant’s writing workshop was one of the best.

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

I have just started a blog. But it is still under construction (which is a very slow construction, too). I hope to keep it alive and growing even if that means writing bizarre pickle recipes. But hey, never you underestimate a girl’s kitchen! A kitchen is where we store our histories and mysteries of heart-warming fish stews and, of course, pickles.

Here is my blog.

What do you plan on doing after the MFA?

I want to work with art-book publishing in India. I want to create picture books for kids and adults. I also enjoy translation (English to Bengali) quite a bit. I would like to find some project involving translation.

On the crazier side of things, I’d like to learn French (to read Baudelaire and Flaubert in their own language) and open a café-library-art studio in my home town.

 

IMG_9130Bishnupriya Chowdhuri paints, dances and dreams of rooftops and festivals. She enjoys reading old letters and writing new ones. Bishnu is currently reading  with her daughter and reading the world through her, and looking at the blueness of the sky like she is looking at it for the first time.

 

Not Only Teaching

When pursuing an English major, the standard career choice is teaching, whether it’s teaching creative writing, literature, composition, and so on. However, I’m sure more than a few of us are sick of being asked what we want to do, especially when the question goes along the lines of “You’re an English major? What are you going to do? Teach?” While these kinds of questions make it seem like the only option an English major has is to teach, the reality is that our opportunities are numerous. Often to the point of intimidation. So if you’d like to pursue an English degree, but aren’t enthused about teaching, have no fear. There are tons of options for you.

Lawyer/Paralegal

One of the most common things you’ll hear about law school is the benefit of an English degree. We English majors know how to analyze, research, write papers, effectively communicate, and read critically. Sure, we’ll have tons of catching up in regards to understanding law, but we have the assignments covered.

Technical Writing/Editing

A career in technical writing/editing is open to many majors, and English is one of them. Technical writers create various documents that convey technical information into a more easily understood text. Add in some knowledge of the product, and we English majors are match made in heaven.

Literary Journal Editing

Knowledge in what makes for skilled writing is important in literary journals, and English majors are all about it. In addition, English majors have access to classes and internships with their school’s literary journal, providing hands on experience for your every editing career desire.

Advertising/Marketing

Advertising/Marketing as a career is all about communications, something we English majors excel in. Just like with law, the ability to write effectively and speak clearly gives English majors a head start.

Politics

The same attributes we discussed in the law section applies to politics as well. In addition, if we chose our reading list right, we spend a huge chunk of our days reading from a variety of authors, cultures, and experiences. That kind of time results in empathy and tolerance for others. And having a strong understanding of the English language, both written and oral, certainly can’t hurt either.

But for those who unapologetically love to teach, there’s more than that position down the road. For those looking for a personal challenge, try teaching in a different state or overseas. There are tons of organizations out there that welcome college graduates, especially those with English majors. Among these include Teach for America and the Fulbright.

Teach for America

Teach for America places students in high-need areas and low income schools. When applying, all you need is your resume, academic information, and a personal statement. Those chosen are given training and are helped with their move. Requirements vary by location, but most locations chose their teachers on GPA, major, and course prerequisites.

ETA Fulbright

The Fulbright aims to better relations between countries by sending out Fulbright grantees to teach their native language and develop understanding of their country. There are tons of options on what kind of grant you pursue, but the English Teaching Assistant (ETA) is perfect for those who dream of nothing else but teaching. Depending on the country, the ETA welcomes a variety of majors, but because of our extensive knowledge in all things English, we have a bit of a step up in countries actively searching for degrees in English. Better yet, some ETAs are preferably given out to those who have an interest in teaching.

And remember, this is just a few of the jobs you can pursue. So whether you’re feeling down about your career options or simply want a change of pace, never let anyone tell you you’re meant to live a cookie cutter existence. Choose your own adventure.

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Rebecca Cobb is a second year MFA student studying fiction at the University of Central Florida. She can be found frantically trying to finish her thesis while simultaneously searching the job market.

 

Interview with sinkhole

This week we interviewed the editors of sinkhole magazine, created by UCF MFA alumni Eric Fershtman, Madison Bernath, Brendon Barnes, Allison Pinkerton, Sean Ironman, Nickalus Rupert, and Rachel Kolman. Join us as we discuss what it’s like to run a magazine, the type of work sinkhole accepts, and the obstacles they have met along the way.

Why did you start sinkhole?

Eric: Well so, for me, sinkhole is (or will be, eventually) a vehicle for that weird magical combo of empathy and rationality that’s defined our country’s very best moments. That’s a fancy way of saying that I got really, really tired, over the course of the 2016 election, of the increasingly partisan coverage and the ways that coverage affected the conversations I was having with people, in person and on social media. I wrote a lot about the rhetoric of the campaign, actually, and the ways it confirmed the sorts of ideological differences that led to worldviews that don’t really seem to overlap anywhere. Terry Barr, one of our first contributors, wrote in his essay that “being friends only with those who think like you politically is the road to sterility, to the wasteland, the anti-Bethlehem,” and I think to great degree this is what happened and is still happening – most of the commentary & analysis that followed the news, the essays & podcasts & TV programs which theoretically were supposed to help us average folks digest what was happening, really mostly just pandered to confirmation biases. sinkhole, I’m hoping, can be a space where we can explore, in meaningful ways, not just our differences, but the things which bring us together.

Madison: I worked on literary magazines that weren’t my own for a few years, and I remember passing on pieces that I connected with because they didn’t fit the magazine’s style. I wanted to be part of something where I could publish work that spoke to me. Of course, I was lazy about it. But Eric wasn’t. Two or three years ago, during a retreat at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, I heard him talk to Sean (our design editor) about starting a magazine. It was an off-to-the-side conversation, and I was a little annoyed I wasn’t a part of it.  So to curb my wrath, when Eric did start the magazine, he asked me to help. Or maybe he was desperate.

Sean: I think Eric missed us and wanted to work with us.

Eric: That’s true! The real dream is to go for a Full House type thing and all just live together and go on wacky adventures.

 

Why the name?

Madison: That’s all Eric. I’m pretty sure it has to do with an essay he wrote in which he said a sinkhole was nothing, and our friend Dianne, a writer with a geology degree, corrected him. A sinkhole is most certainly something. And so something came from nothing. Also, Florida.

Eric: So I looked this up because I couldn’t quite recall what I wrote in that essay. Turns out I had this incredibly pretentious metaphor in there about sinkholes as “collapse, absence, unknowable things” and Dianne (this is Dianne Richardson, another UCF MFA alum) essentially stuck a nail in my balloon – she said “Look, Eric, there’s tons of things we know about sinkholes.” Which she then went ahead and started listing a few of those things off. I’ve since written other essays that talk about sinkholes or use them as metaphors – for whatever reason, the image is just sort of stuck in my head.

 

What is your vision for the magazine?

Madison: We’re inspired by publications that slow down the flow of the world. That don’t just look at what happened, but ask why it happened. I’m an avid reader of lit mags, but I also subscribe to The New Yorker, and devour just about every article before the week ends. I know Eric has a similar soft spot for The Atlantic. I suppose that’s why sinkhole is this odd mashup of literary journal and literary journalism. We take submissions of flash prose and poetry as one-third of our content. The other two-thirds is comprised of our capital and culture sections. These tend to be longish essays, with a very present author, enhanced by research or experience (or in the best cases, both).

Eric: I guess I sort of jumped the gun and answered this question above, but the idea is to create a place for exploring ideas, for empathetic reasoning, for a kind of rigorous, Socratic open-mindedness. I like that phrase that Madison used, “slow down the flow of the world.” We’re hoping the content in our capital bucket interrogates long-held political beliefs and values, and we’re hoping the content in our culture bucket finds interesting, meaningful intersections between the art, books, movies, music, etc. that we create and consume and the times and places in which we live. We’re hoping the stories and poems that we publish challenge us to look at the world in new ways. We’ve got really big ambitions, but I think that’s okay.

Brendon: My goal is for us to find a handful of different ways to become a staple food in your media diet. Like, “Wow, looks like the president is being impeached. I gotta open up sinkhole on my phone right and see what they’re saying about it. Oh, look at that. There’s two longforms on the impeachment, some incredibly prescient poetry that kind of vibes with this moment, and a new podcast on that and some other stuff, too? Where do I live? What time is this?” You know. Something like that.

Madison: To add to that, I think we’re hoping to facilitate conversation. If someone reads a piece in sinkhole, and has their own opinion on that issue, we’d like them to send us their take. We’d love to incorporate voices from across the spectrum that speak to each other, even if they don’t agree.

Eric: Oh yeah, absolutely to media staple and conversation-facilitating. Madison mentioned above that one of the publications I tend to really admire is The Atlantic – well, a big reason why is because of this “Notes” page they’ve got, literally it’s headlined NOTES, with the subhead “First drafts, conversations, stories in progress”. Writers post drafts of what they’re working on and ask readers to weigh in, or to have conversations about the subject matter, etc. I’d love to try something like this down the line.

Do you accept work from UCF students?

Madison: Yes! Give those academic papers some voice (for real, throw yourself in there) and send them over. And, of course, we’d love to see your flash and poetry.

Rachel: Also, after interacting with a lot of current students, I know y’all have great opinions on things beyond politics (i.e. film, podcasts, TV, comics). We want those thoughts, too.

Madison: I agree with Rachel. There are stories to be found in pop culture—even Eric can wax philosophical on Taylor Swift. In fact, he has.

Eric: Many times.

 

Do you have contests?/Do you plan to have contests?

Madison: We don’t have contests, but you’re giving me ideas.

Nick: I’m certainly in favor of the idea.

 

What type of work do you look for?/ What work do you feature?

Madison: As far as the capital section goes, we’re looking for the story in a non-story. We recently published a piece on the estate tax. Tax law isn’t something most people get excited about it, but Eric Farr thought estate taxes were misunderstood. He did a heck of a lot of research, mixed it with personal experience (he practiced law in the past), and made a damn good argument in favor of the estate tax. He made tax law interesting. I like pieces like that. A piece that turns the smooth rock on its side to expose the ridges.

Eric: I think I’d agree with this. I never quite understood the debate over the estate tax until Eric framed it in terms of a much bigger debate we’re having about income inequality. Nor did I ever really think too hard about the psychology of ultrarunners.  I think we’re looking for work, to keep harping on this point, that explores something, that finds its way to an answer (or more questions), rather than beginning with the answer and then arguing for it.

Allie: I read with my heart more than I read with my head, I think. I have to feel emotionally connected to a character to feel engaged in a story. (This doesn’t mean, though, that I have to like characters, or that I have to see myself in them. Please don’t flood our submissions queue with stories about young women writers.) I guess this means that the characters should be multilayered and surprising, just like real people. I’ll put a story down if the voice doesn’t feel honest, because an authentic voice affects every other element of the story – conflict, pacing, place, and dialogue. Brendon gave me great advice on dialogue once: Characters should talk around the conflict, not about the conflict (I’m paraphrasing.) I’m irked when I read stories with dialogue that’s really expositional. I think one way to get around the expositional dialogue problem is to follow this other great piece of writing advice I got once: You should let your characters keep their secrets for as long as possible.

Eric: Voice is a powerful thing, I’d agree – I think that’s why podcasts, e.g., are sort of exploding right now, and it’s why, I’d argue, George Saunders has become so popular. I’d maybe push back a little bit, though, on the heart vs. head thing, and ask: do they need to be separated? Do we need to read with one or the other? At least for me, coming to understand that everything we do and say and think emerges from this weird combination of emotional and cognitive intelligence – it’s helped a lot when I look at and try and digest ideas I don’t necessarily agree with on first pass.

Allie: Good point, Eric. If I don’t agree with someone politically, I won’t necessarily reject their work. One of the cool things about fiction and poetry is that they can connect people who have disparate beliefs.

Brendon: Ultimately, there will be points of overlap in subject matter between sinkhole and other magazines like ours. That’s fine. When I’m interested in a book, for example, I’m going to seek out 5-6 reviews of that book because I want to find a reviewer whose voice appeals to me. So hopefully it comes through, in our magazine, that we’re always trying to find voices that are original. That’s my goal when I’m editing anything: how can I make you sound like the clearest version of you?

Rachel: In terms of culture pieces, I love when universal truths are explored in a piece of pop culture that we’re all consuming. I like when a writer asks bigger questions of how our entertainment reflects our subconscious anxieties of the world. I also like obscure pop culture references, or anything really surprising and funny. Heck, do what Eater did, and give me your definitive ranking of the best chicken nuggets. I’d read that.

Brendon: I agree with Rachel, and I think we want to have conversations in that zone around culture that a lot of people are consuming. But, to take TV or film as an example, that monoculture is kind of crumbling at the edges, right? Like, yes, Game of Thrones is still a water cooler show, but there are people who ride just as hard for shows that are only available on Amazon Prime, or on Crackle, or for YouTube series, etc. So, hopefully, we’ll be able to balance conversations about the worldbeater shows with conversations about things like streaming exclusives or shows that are doing something formally interesting. And to step away from TV, I am a big fan of the hot take on a not-hot topic, i.e. Rachel’s chicken nuggets ranking.

Nick: For fiction, I’m reading for an encounter with the unfamiliar, and by “unfamiliar,” I don’t necessarily mean stories about interstellar robotic crabs riding around in quark-powered spacecraft. That said, if you can pull off a heartfelt story about robotic crabs, then that’s okay, too. What I’m really hoping for, though is that the story will remind me about the strangeness of the world and the people who inhabit it. There’s a very delicate balance to strike here–lean too hard on lofty conceptual ideas and quirkiness and you risk pushing the story’s emotive weight off the table. My all-time favorite stories make me forget all about the craft “truisms” that I’ve spent the last seventeen years learning. These stories cultivate a certain story-level “magic” that’s difficult to account for. For my money, writers like Lauren Groff, Rebecca Curtis, and Brad Watson are a great place to start for analyzing story-level magic. Obviously there are many, many more amazing writers who also pull off this trick.  

Allie: I really like what you said, Nick, about the “unfamiliar.” I’m down with that. Also, I love Lauren Groff and Rebecca Curtis. Anthony Marra does wonderful work, too.

 

What is it like to run a magazine?

Madison: Most days, I’m just really tired. I work three jobs, and when I get home, there’s barely enough time to sleep five hours (which, approaching 30, means way more to me than it did a few years ago). But it’s worth it, because I’m putting something out in the world that I (here comes the cheese) believe in. I hope that someone reads a piece in sinkhole that lingers. We live in a polarized time, and I’m really not trying to get anyone to change their mind. I’m just trying to get them to think a little longer, to dig a little deeper, to follow that hole in the ground to a series of caves. The pieces that we publish do that for me. I sleep a happy few hours hoping they do that for our readers, too.

Eric: I look it as like this weird little democratic space – we have conversations about what we do and don’t want to include, about our goals and values, about our long-term projects. I think we’re still very much in this kind of start-up phase, where everything feels possible and everything we do is essentially a step forward. Also: I hope Madison gets more sleep soon.

Sean: Eh, it’s a job.

Nick: My role on sinkhole is minimal compared to the head editors, but I can speak to what it’s like trying to complete a PhD program while teaching, working on Mississippi Review, and working on sinkhole: imagine flying at 30,000 feet, when someone abruptly hands you a burlap sack and kicks you out the door of the plane. During freefall, you open your sack to find it filled with silkworms. You have no choice but to use the silk worms to weave yourself a parachute before you hit ground.

Brendon: First off, that’s beautiful, Rupert. For me, the challenge comes from choosing to carve new routines into my life to give time to reading and editing and writing new culture stories. Jamie Poissant advised me to try to give the best part of your day, and your mind, to what you’re creating. So, some days that’s the few hours before work. And some days that’s the middle of the night. And some days you’re just kind of immobilized until Nick Rupert drops a burlap silkworm metaphor on you, and then you’re inspired enough to keep at it.

Allie: I think that’s one of the great things about our little community – we can weave each other’s parachutes during freefall. Writers and editors need to support each other, and hopefully sinkhole provides a great online space for that. It’s wonderful to have this opportunity to work with my “tribe” and to share what we love with everyone.

Nick: It’s a pretty great “tribe”!

Rachel: I don’t know about y’all, but our Facebook video editorial meeting was hella fun. I’m glad to be connected with this group of people; I admire the heck out of them.

Nick: Stay tuned for our summer issue, when Rachel Kolman and I go head-to-head on on the subject of HBO’s Westworld!

Rachel: Nick, I can’t wait.

 

What obstacles have you met?

Madison: Money! Seriously, though. We want to pay our contributors what they deserve. Unfortunately, we have no Medici.

Eric: Agreed – we’ve got, let’s just call it a very limited budget, and we’ve had to make some difficult decisions, already, on where that money goes. And also: submissions! We received tons before launch, but the flow has sort of dropped off a cliff since then, for whatever reason. We’ve got some things in the works – interviews, blogs, solicited content – but we’d really love to see some new work in our inboxes.

Nick: Unfortunately, our cultural moment is kind of difficult for the written word. Literary writing has an increasingly difficult time attracting monetary value. Fortunately, there will always be readers who enjoy narrative writing. Also fortunately, sinkhole publishes a great deal of material on culture, and that’s something that will continue to interest people.

Sean: Planning. It’s really no different than writing, or any major project. You write 20, 30, 40 drafts of something over the course of a few years and then call it done. With a publication, you really need to think out every little thing–much of it before the publication launches. For example, with an online journal, you need to think through submissions, platform, design, site structure. This all seems like, “Well, of course you do.” But, in each of those areas, there are a hundred other questions that need answers. You can’t just start a website one day and there you go. I don’t even really bother with day-to-day operations. I’m thinking of how this will all work next year.

Eric: Yup, that’s a great point. We’ve already run into a few issues that would keep us from scaling up smoothly if the opportunity arose. There’ve already been moments where someone’s mentioned something and I’ve had to admit, you know, shit, I never even thought of that. Sean’s trying to get us on a smoother path. We don’t want to overplan (because then we’re inflexible if things change), but we also don’t want to just sort of constantly be reacting to things as they come along. Flexible planning is, I think, what we’re aiming for.

 

Are you hoping to have an in-print journal or do you intend to stay online?

Madison: We’re going to stay online. It used to be the case that without a print component, you couldn’t be taken seriously, but now there are so many respected magazines that are all or mostly online (Brevity, Paper Darts, TriQuarterly, etc.) that the stigma is largely lost. Online, our audience is expanded, and we don’t have the overhead of a print magazine. It just makes sense for us.

Eric: Ya, I think at this point a print magazine is mostly just a status symbol.

Allie: An online publication seems perfect for flash, I think – you can read a whole story in one sitting, before Facebook lures you away to click on the latest panda video. I’m way more interested in reading something short online, and I hope our readers are, too!

Nick: I tend to agree with Allie – flash and the online format make a good synergistic relationship.

Sean: Who actually reads print journals? Really. If you take out the audience of those working on the journal and those submitting to the journal, what audience is there? For some of the leading journals in the field, sure, they have readers. But, I think with a journal starting up these days, it’s all about online. It’s difficult to thrive if you don’t try to reach new audience members. Online also enables us to respond quicker to what’s happening in the news.

Nick: This whole “online vs. print” debate seems like a false crisis to me. I like print journals and online journals, and I don’t really see any need to devalue one or the other. For the most part, I still prefer to read from a page, especially if we’re talking about a longer piece of text. That said, as I mentioned elsewhere, I still think online journals are great, too.

Rachel: I think there’s the potential for a greater intimacy or connection with the reader when it’s online. We’re all in this together, sharing our thoughts in the same digital space.

 

Be sure to check them out at sinkholemag.com.

Also check out their instagramtwitter, and facebook.

 

FINAL sinkhole logo with face_postcard

Crossing Genres

I’ve got a confession to make. Last semester I had an affair. Looking back, I can see how it happened. When we met in my workshop we just clicked.

There were long nights getting to know one another over glasses of wine.

There were moments I couldn’t stop myself from talking about our time together, even when I saw my friends’ eyes glazing over.

There were times I would fall asleep, my face nuzzled inside the oh so soft caresses of my new friend’s papery folds.

Before I go any farther (and this gets any more uncomfortable for everybody), I should stop and explain that this was a literary infidelity. Yes, my friends. The homewrecker was nonfiction and I was hooked. A genre adulterer with the most voracious of appetites.

I came to the University of Central Florida’s MFA program in a committed (and blissful) relationship with fiction. If you asked me what I wanted to write, I would have answered, “The Great American Novel, of course!” (Whatever that is anymore…) But last semester my concentration broke when I took my first nonfiction workshop. I no longer had that singular focus as I was tempted by the siren’s call of reality. How I perceive reality anyway.

As I spent more time getting acquainted with the work of talented writers in my workshop and the incredible work of nonfiction writers like Jo Ann Beard (If you haven’t read The Fourth State of Matter stop reading this article and Google it immediately. It is transcendent) and Joan Didion, I began feeling less and less guilty for the tryst. The lines had blurred. My overly simplistic definitions for the two genres had crumbled. Real or imaginary? Fact or fiction? The boundaries are too neat. And great art is rarely neat.

This realization opened up a literary limbo for me, encouraging an exploration of a genre that had previously intimidated. Telling the truth incurs so much responsibility and, much of the time, a frightening, vulnerable honesty. Memoir especially seemed formidable. The idea of laying out my deepest, darkest secrets for the world to see made me want to simultaneously cringe and run for fictional cover.

However, I took the plunge. And I’m so glad I did. It turns out the uncomfortable part of the nonfiction process only lasted a little while…and I’m still reaping the benefits of stepping out of my comfort zone.

Benefit 1: A Stronger Writing Community

Everything seems scarier in the dark. But, letting your deepest darkest secrets out in the light will be less terrifying than you think. One of the biggest hurdles I faced when sitting down to write a short memoir was a fear of judgement—the idea that somewhere out there someone would read my story and realize what my inner critic has known since I wrote my first story when I was eight…

I suck.

And I don’t just suck. Because this is nonfiction, I suck EPICALLY on a personal level. Opening up to complete strangers with this idea in the back of your head, baring your most vulnerable perceptions of reality, is terror beyond compare. And I am a fiction writer—a genre in which, even though I talk about highly personal things much of the time, I’m able to distance myself. It’s not real, right?

Nonfiction scares me. Shit gets real. However, once I got over the initial hurdle of passing out the memoir to my workshop group, I found that their reactions were much less hostile than the horror stories haunting my dreams. In fact, some people kindly told me they identified with my story and its themes. It’s funny, but opening up about my authentic self in my writing actually did the opposite of what I expected. Instead of ostracism, I found my memoir helped me create a support system for my fiction through friendships with those in my writing community. Brene Brown, a researcher on vulnerability, says it best: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.” Show your authentic self in your writing and you will find your “tribe,” the ones who understand you and your work best.

Benefit 2: Writing my memoir helped me not only clarify themes in my fiction, but also clarify the themes in my own life.

I know there are plenty of people who disagree with the idea that writing should be therapy. And the truth is, I somewhat agree with that. No one wants to read word vomit about your past break up and a large part of the writing process is publication–sharing your work with an audience. However, I think the main problem in the above sentence is the term “word vomit” not the personal subject matter. If a writer wants to create a well-written piece about how a break up affected them, I don’t see the problem there. In fact, I see this protest as one rooted in the “traditional” (sometimes even misogynistic) approach to literary prose. There can be merit in more emotional and personal expressions. The prevailing of certain emotions and stories as “weak” or “not serious” can be a huge impediment to some kick-ass art. Even your sentimental emotions, experiences, or stories, can be mined for material.

The truth is, sitting down and writing about an important time in my life helped me, and my work, in tremendous ways. The comments I received during my workshop gave me insights that I didn’t even realize myself. And since my real life often pervades my fiction, this clarity made its way into several stories I am currently working on for my thesis and other publications.

Benefit 3: Freedom!

The best thing about my foray into nonfiction was the freedom I felt when I sat down at my desk and just wrote. I wasn’t thinking about genre. I wasn’t thinking labels. I wasn’t thinking about boxes. I just allowed myself to write what I wanted. It felt so good telling my inner critic to chill the hell out. Try writing without the labels. Experiment. I promise you won’t regret it.

It turns out when we embrace things that are different and outside of our comfort zone—even when the differences make them “scary” or intimidating–the world turns out to be a more creative, more connected place.

Take that tradition.

Bio:

heather picHeather Orlando is a first year MFA student at the University of Central Florida with a (non?) fiction concentration. She likes blurred lines, hybrid genre (and cars!), and impossible sudoku.  She has worked with publications such as National Geographic and TV Guide Magazine, but is currently teaching creative writing to middle schoolers because she apparently likes punishment (another topic for another time perhaps). You can check out her work at www.whocaresaboutanoxfordcomma.wordpress.com and on instagram @talesofkale.

Faculty Spotlight: Ephraim Scott Sommers

Instead of a regular blog post this week, we invite you to check out our Faculty Spotlight. Here, we ask one of our MFA faculty members questions concerning their career, craft, and quirks.

For this edition, we chatted with Dr. Ephraim Scott Sommers about his writing and future works. Author of The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire, Ephraim is a recent and welcome addition to UCF’s graduate faculty, as well as a talented singer, songwriter, and poet.

 

Where can we find your work?

My first book, The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire, is out this month from Tebot Bach Press, and you can order a signed copy of that here: www.ephraimscottsommers.com/contact.

Or you can get a copy from my press directly here: www.tebotbach.org.

What inspired you to become a writer?

I came to poetry by way of music. I grew up listening to my mother singing in church and my father singing in rock bands at festivals. As a singer-songwriter myself in addition to being a poet, I’ve always been moved by the sound of words as much as I’ve been moved by their meaning, by music’s ability to literally move the bodies of the people in the room, and by poetry’s ability to move people emotionally and imaginatively. When I watch a wonderful poet like Ilya Kaminsky read/sing, there is a way in which I like to float around in the scene the words on the page are creating as much as I enjoy floating around in the sonic quality of the words as Ilya sings them. Maybe that space he creates is somehow outside of time and outside of body, and that’s why it’s so alluring? I’m still uncertain, but I write poems and songs because I want to spend as much time in that space as possible.

How does teaching influence your writing process?

At all times, in a poem, in my teaching, and in my life, I seek to be a constant engine of energy. I want to keep the students engaged just as I want to keep the reader bounding actively through a poem. At the same time, UCF creative writing students are brilliant, diverse, energetic, and fierce, and I so hope I am influencing them in their writing lives half as much as they are inspiring mine.

In addition, on my reading list, I try to teach mostly work by People of Color, work by writers from the LGBTQ community, and work by women all published in the last five years. These are the writers that are pushing the art forward in the most interesting ways. Their work pushes students and myself to be at the forefront both in our art and in our thinking about the world and our place in it.

If you could only share one piece of writing advice to our readers, what would it be?

Writing, if you are serious about doing it well, is not a hobby. It is a nine-to-five job, and you must treat it that way. My father worked as a big-rig auto mechanic six days a week for about forty years. He was never able to wake up and say, “I’m not feeling inspired to change truck tires today. I think I’ll watch Netflix.” If he did, my family wouldn’t have been able to eat. The same goes for my mother who worked six days a week as a small business owner and three nights a week as an accountant on the side. In the same way, as a writer, you have to get up and go to work whether or not you “feel” like it. My parents worked damn hard so that I could pursue higher education, and I’m doing them a disservice if I don’t push myself to be better at my craft the same way they did. I guess what I’m saying is this: find a way to stay diligent and motivated.

What has been your favorite piece you’ve read in the last month?

I’ll list a few. Karankawa by Iliana Rocha. Energy Corridor by Glenn Shaheen. One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist by Dustin M. Hoffman. On Not Screaming by Eloisa Amezcua. Two-Headed Boy by Kai Carlson-Wee and Anders Carlson-Wee. Recombinant by Ching-In Chen. Not on the Last Day, But on the Very Last by Justin Boening. All the Proud Fathers by Dan Mancilla. The New Testament by Jericho Brown. The Dead Wrestler Elegies by W. Todd Kaneko. Island Folks by Dustin Hyman. And my good buddy Franklin KR Cline, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, is working on a polyphonic audio poem that is going to blow some minds when it’s released. I can’t wait!

What projects are you currently working on?

When asked this question, I often side with Bob Dylan who said, “When you tell somebody your hopes and dreams, you better make sure they love you like a brother or your dreams and hopes probably won’t come true.” The idea, I think, as I interpret it, is that if you speak a piece of art to life too soon (as in, before its finished, when it’s still a dream), you run the risk of killing it. What I am working on currently isn’t really ready for the light yet.

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

Author Website: www.ephraimscottsommers.com

Musician Website: www.reverbnation.com/ephraimscottsommers               

Facebook: www.facebook.com/ephraim.sommers

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ephraim_sommers

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ephraim_sommers

Who do you trust to read your work before submitting?

Dustin Hyman, Franklin KR Cline, Glenn Shaheen, Nancy Eimers, Ann Reilly, and Michael Marberry are people I trust and refer to when I feel that a poem isn’t certain about what it wants to be yet, or if I’m taking a new risk in a poem that for some reason isn’t paying off, or a poem deals with a subject matter I don’t know enough about. My blind spots are vast and deep, and I need good friends/critics to slap me in the face when I’m acting like a fool. Rachel Kincaid, a writer and activist from the LGBTQ community always reminds me, “We don’t need allies, we need accomplices!” Writing aside, I need people in my life like Rachel and the people I’ve listed above because they inspire me to be a better human than I am.

If you could be anywhere in the world and write, where would it be?

My perfect writing space would be a library full of poetry books and jazz/soul/funk records with a 24-hour, all-you-can eat buffet in the center. There would certainly be dancing. There would certainly be an open mic event like the one we’ve recently started monthly at the campus bookstore on Wednesdays at UCF with the Cypress Dome Society.

What writer would you want to chat with (alive or dead)?

I would love to take shots of vodka with the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and the Russian writer Nadezhda Mandelstam, Osip’s wife. Because Osip was an enemy of the state under the Stalin regime and was constantly on the run, he never wrote any of his poems down. He composed by memory and memorized them all. That the poems survived for us to read today is a testament to the strength of Nadezhda, who also memorized his poems and later wrote them all down from memory for the world to read. Perhaps she is the real hero in this story? Despite he and his wife’s terrifying situation (Osip was killed in a labor camp), Osip found a way to be joyful in his poems. While it should be noted that fascism killed a brilliant poet, I still believe kindness and joy are the best weapons we have against fascism as long as you pair them with direct action that makes a lot of noise.

Bio Photo.jpgA singer-songwriter and poet from Atascadero, California, Ephraim Scott Sommers is the author of The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire (February 2017), winner of the 2016 Patricia Bibby First Book Award from Tebot Bach Press. Recent poems have been published in Beloit Poetry Journal, Cream City Review, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. Ephraim currently lectures full time on the graduate creative writing faculty at University of Central Florida and lives with his fiancé in Orlando.

 

Let’s Get Weird

Last year, I had the opportunity to sit down with the poets Nickole Brown and Jessica Jacobs for an interview. They drove from Asheville to Orlando that same day, and I was apprehensive at first, wondering if the hours of driving would drain their energy. I was most likely projecting, knowing it would be hard for myself to go from road trip to interview to giving a reading without a nap and/or coffee. I was instantly relieved by their charm, humor, and smiles that never seemed to fade. In the interview, we talked about lineation, influences, what it was like to be married to another poet, hobbies outside of writing, and their future of writing. When I asked about the details in their work–the visceral descriptions that left me nodding and smiling while still reading–Nickole told me that she liked to think about the exactness of words, in metaphor, and how best images were the ones that the reader had never thought of before—the striking, the odd, the weird.

The next week, I was fortunate enough to attend the Sanibel Island Writers Conference, where Nickole gave a lecture on poetry. The description of the class was vague, and I was not sure what to expect. She quickly introduced herself, and then reached into her heavy canvas tote bag and pulled out an apple. “What is this?” she asked.

We all smiled, looked around, and a few people gave her the answer.

“I could argue that the apple is the most overlooked object in the world,” she said. “We grow up knowing that ‘a’ is for apple. Some maybe knew the apple from a religious background. But we don’t ever consider the apple—actually look at it and see it.” Nickole wrote an unfamiliar word on the worn chalkboard behind her. Ostranenie. She told the group that it was a Russian term that referred to defamiliarization with something common. “So, today,” she said, “that’s what we’ll be doing with the apple.”

We were still unsure. At least I was. She started handing out apples to each of us. She handed me an apple and told me how happy she was to see me again.

For the next hour and a half, we examined our own apples with every sense. “See the apple,” she said. “See it like you’ve never seen one before.” We started with sight, and I realized quickly that this was harder than I originally thought. Just sitting there made us all force ourselves to pick on things we had never actively thought about before. Eventually, I started jotting notes: stems like candle wicks, small spots on the skin like a connect the dots puzzle, turning it in my hand like a doorknob. I looked around and, after the initial confusion, everyone was writing.

Nickole told us that this technique separates the good and bad writing. Making writing weird makes the reader stop and consider the image, rather than simply reading by. She challenged us to make our writing original and use images in our own work that might be odd or different than what the reader might expect. I took this concept with me back to my own writing and, since I became aware of it, I cannot stop looking for the “weird” in the everyday. Along with this, I see more of this concept in the books I read.

Recently, in my fiction workshop, we read “Last Days of the Dog-Men” by Brad Watson. The following line, found in the story titled “The Retreat,” describes a dog eating a rabbit: “She trotted back into the living room and lay down in front of the fire with the rabbit under her front paws and began to eat it almost delicately, sniffing it and licking it as if it were her pup and she were eating it almost lovingly in maternal wonder.” I read this line a few times because of the accuracy and the peculiarity. As weird as it is to think about a dog eating an animal in a motherly, nurturing way, the image makes us stop and appreciate the action in a way we wouldn’t have before.

The concept of ostranenie allowed me to slow down, to imagine the details and objects as if I were experiencing them for the first time. I encourage my fellow artists to try this. Sit with something for an hour and force yourself to write as much as you can. Forcing yourself to touch something or hear something or taste something like it is the first time generates new ideas and more interesting work. Write until it hurts. Go see the weird the world has to offer.
15102322_10154319783013218_1128228209_oRyan Skaryd is a second year MFA candidate in nonfiction. His poetry has recently appeared in Ink in Thirds and he hopes to continue publishing across genres. When he is not writing, you can find him running, drinking too much coffee, drinking too little water, and buying too many books.

Do Your Homework: Considering Teaching as a Career Path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey Kids, Comics

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

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

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

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

Moving on.

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

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

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

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

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

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And now the finished product:

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

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

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

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

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