Those Who Can’t Do, Teach: What I Learned From My Week With Jo Ann Beard

That’s the saying, right? I’m appropriating it for this blog not because I don’t think I can write. I can—or I think I can—at least people tell me I can and I write well enough to get into an MFA program, so I will go ahead and say I can.

Writing is the reason I am here. It is the reason I signed up for the Jo Ann Beard workshop, and all the other workshops that leave me in the bipolar throes of accomplished elation or self-deprecating defeat. But there is another reason I decided to get an MFA—to teach. This, however, I’m still unsure I can do…at least well.

Beard-jo-annTaking the Jo Ann Beard workshop seemed like a no brainer—she’s accomplished and brilliant and everything a writer aspires to be—and I assumed the one-week intensive would be invaluable to my writing. What I didn’t expect, however, was that is also proved to be invaluable to my teaching. I am, for lack of a better word, unorthodox in my pedagogical sensibilities (eye-roll all you’d like). I think that the tools and tricks for writing well are not exclusive for creative writing, or academic writing. Let me explain:

On the third day of workshop, Jo Ann Beard told us about “The Sentence Test.” She says there are four questions we should ask ourselves to know if a sentence is good. (1) Is it grammatical? (2) Is it true? (3) Is it new information? And (4) Is there a surprise in it?—by surprise, she explains, she means was it interesting, did it DO something unexpected. We tried the sentence test out on Christian Wiman’s essay “The Limit” by closing our eyes and randomly putting our finger somewhere on the page, and then reading it aloud and deciding if it fit the criteria to pass.

The Sentence Test—it seems so simple, so obvious that—as writers—we should want all our sentences to be doing something, to have weight and purpose and be worthy of all the sentences around it. But what made me keep thinking about it long after the workshop was over was that maybe it wasn’t obvious to those who don’t identify as writers.

I decided to test my theory, and scrawled the four questions on the board in my College Composition class later that week. I asked them to try it out on the papers I handed back, now covered in my comments with lines crossed out and the word “rep.” written over and over again (ironically). I asked my students to point to a sentence on their papers, read it out loud, and see if it passed—needless to say, many of them didn’t.

I explained to them the importance of a good sentence. How much work it should do, the importance of clarity and finding the right word (is it grammatical?). How to state a strong opinion and support it (is it true?). How to avoid repeating yourself to meet a word count because it weakens the argument and instead to give more evidence (is it new information?) And how to find your voice, create and use fresh ideas, or find new ways to be engaging to keep the reader interested (is there a surprise in it?).

The Jo Ann Beard workshop helped me jumpstart my writing and gave me tools to hone my craft as a writer. But it also helped me hone my new craft—this strange and often stressful craft of teaching. And perhaps in some indirect way I think it also helped my students’ craft as well (I hope). So whether or not I “make it” and one day become accomplished and brilliant and everything an aspiring writer wants to be (God willing)—whether I CAN do that, well, is yet to be determined. But if I can’t—and I hope I can—but if I can’t, maybe I can teach.

 

This post was originally published on Florida Atlantic University’s MFA Blog 

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Interdisciplinary Meow-sings

1. The flight was five and a half hours from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale, after connecting from Portland, OR. My boyfriend was upgraded to business class, where he was unable to take his cat. So, in a middle seat near the back of the plane, I shuffled his cat and the carrier underneath the seat in front of me. She was asleep, but knowing my luck her tranquilizers were about to wear off. Immediately after takeoff, I heard the strung-out misery song. One snarled yawn, a wide reach for a sound held deep in her throat. Her claws started to scratch at the fabric of her kitty jail; a prisoner on her way to Florida. Florida, where everything will try to kill us all at least once. I slipped my feet out of my shoes and prodded the carrier like a mom trying to comfort her impatient child. Shut up. Two more stores and I’ll get you your damn Dippin’ Dots.

“Sorry about her,” I said to the young woman to my right.

“How is she doing? I haven’t heard anything so far.”

The woman leaned over and peered into the darkness at my feet.

“She’s crying.”

“What’s her name?”

“Pitts, or Pumpernickle.”

“You don’t know? Is that really your cat?”

The woman wrapped her hand around my arm and grinned. Are you hitting on me? As a gay man, I find being hit on by a woman is like being hit on by a cousin; flattering but directionless. Sometimes they seem like the girl next door (Joanna/Chloe/Stacey) you grew up playing with whose brother with the big arms you fancied. Stacey, let’s hang out—will your brother be around? How is he doing? Oh, he broke up with his girlfriend? Does he still need a writing tutor? I’m free now.

The worst part about flying is the lack of room to stretch your legs. Standing up in the aisle is a death wish, since Minnie the flight attendant has no shame taking you down with her drink cart. Aladdin, mermaid, Aladdin, mermaid, Aladdin—flexed, mermaid—pointed. I pointed and flexed my feet in the little space I had. When you point your feet, send the stretch out from between your big toe and second toe. Look how pretty and long your legs are! Don’t worry, the cramps subside in a couple of years. Ballerinas/ballerinos are known to have the ugliest feet from continuous distortion and wear. Behind the pointe shoes are callouses and blisters (some of which possibly filled with blood, but note: they burst quickly and completely if continuously turned on as I learned first-hand). Blood, sweat, and tears. Literally. And a few quick farts backstage.

writing-catPoets have similar characteristics and their own unique wounds, but not on their feet. The marks are deep in the throat, and it is the act of writing that opens our mouths for relief—to release the achy sound of a cat whose tranquilizers are wearing off. Don’t lie, you know that when you read that girl’s poetry from that one poetry class you took in undergrad all you heard was meow, meow, meow, meow, hiss, barf. The amateur poet tends to try to cure heartbreak with their writing, singing their misery song and expecting the twenty other students in their poetry class to eat it up like hot cakes. Mmm, your tears really help your words shine on the page, Paul. I enjoy your first line about missing your mother’s womb.

No mark is similar. No sound is the same. This separates writers from each other. The writer must understand himself and his unique marks and remedies to communicate and write well.

2. At the front of the plane, my boyfriend was asleep in business class underneath two blankets, four packaged meals, and a mini bottle of Grey Goose. I had enough. Pitts was fully awake.

“Honey?” I shook his shoulder. “Honey, where are the tranquilizers? Pitts is awake.” Nothing. “Honey, the plane is on fire.” Ugh.

The plane ride was nothing new; moving is in my blood. Boca Raton, Florida only lengthens the list: Surrey, England; Auckland, New Zealand; Holland, Michigan; Annapolis, Maryland; Galesburg, Illinois; Portland, Oregon. As an undergraduate at Knox College, I majored in Creative Writing and minored in Dance Studies. I self-designed three courses to pair the two studies: one on choreographic composition influenced by text, another on text influenced by dance and movement, and the third on the advanced choreographic study of a dance work that I created and was to present at ACDF—the American College Dance Festival—as well as the annual faculty dance concert. First and foremost I researched MFA in Creative Writing programs that motivate interdisciplinary study, eventually applying to twelve.

My time spent studying the similarities between choreographing movement to writing has affected my eye for products, like student papers, that exemplify facets of formal technicality with regard to grammar and rhetoric, and conscious textual musicality. Pieces of text, whatever the size, should flow from one to the next like measures of music. Text relies on rhythm and tempo to sound a certain way on the page. The shifts in these rhythms—a period, an exclamation, a pause—can be translated into physical shifts of movement: a leap, a turn, a run, a fall, (a bruise, a trip to the E.R., a career change, arthritis, a slow dance-less death.)

But can you teach someone rhythm? I’m sure everyone has questioned whether his or her mother, father, or sibling has rhythm after watching them dance, flailing or bobbing like a buoy on turbulent waters. A writer needs some sense of rhythm. Text carries as much movement as dance, and it is obvious when student papers have breath—a life, movement. The student writer must first temporarily abandon the formal “perfection” of technical voice in order to investigate how to access a new level of essay writing. I believe students should come to a place of comfort in their writing to temporarily stray from correctness and investigate how the way they naturally communicate is different from the rules and regulations of standard collegiate rhetoric and composition. With this play of language, the student is able to better understand how he might appropriately implement a personal style into his college papers. Without personal style, the author lacks character or identity—stuck following rules that may be holding them captive to the need to please a scholar of English.

If only Pitts felt the need to please me. After we landed she still didn’t let up, far from lacking character or identity in her traveling attitude. She was probably scared, like an FYC student feeling trapped in the flight of their first semester. Let me out! My goal is to influence my students to want to develop consciousness of textual musicality when at a place of comfort in their writing skills. This place may not be reached during first-year writing courses, and most ‘academic’ writers will argue it need not be reached at any point in a student’s writing career. My time spent dancing and choreographing has clearly influenced this aspect of my teaching, though. Writing students need to be let out of this feeling of entrapment once in a while.

 Jamie White is a first year MFA in Poetry student. He does not like blueberries, touching bathroom door handles, or questions in his students’ essays. Some mistake him for fellow student Scott Rachesky—they are indeed two separate people. Jamie intends on becoming a professor of English post-graduation from FAU, and has made amends with his boyfriend’s cat.

What Is The Truth Of The Matter?: Part II

My curiosity about how truth functions in writing is insatiable—so much so that last year I wrote a blog post about it. The blog starts with a question that has plagued me from the moment I first came across it…here is me quoting myself:

“Taped to the refrigerator in my grandmother’s kitchen there is a piece of paper marked with a question:
What is the truth of the matter?”

The first time I saw it I remember thinking how appropriately deep it was for someone like her. I thought about what it said about her as a person, and about the kinds of people who would ask her about it, or try to answer it, and all the conclusions I could draw about someone who would write a question like that on a piece of paper and tape it to their refrigerator…but in the end the question only led to more questions.

The contemporary literary landscape has created a struggle for the working writer, who is torn between the blurring lines of genre boundaries, and the traditional rules that have been put in place to compartmentalize their forms. Historically, the rules of writing have followed the black and white sensibility that a text must be classified as is either factual or fictional…However, there exists today a debate in the non-fiction community about whether truth and fact are always identical, or if there exists a flexibility somewhere—an emotional truth that can be separated from factual truth.

It is fair to state that both poets and prose writers can reveal absolute truths about the human condition and emotional exploration without the concern that any image, character or action that is presented in their work is or is not a recollection of fact or the authors’ organic fabrication. Conversely, journalists are depended on to report the facts, unadulterated and wholly (though they often don’t), and non-fiction writers—biographers, memoirists, and essayists are under constant scrutiny—waiting, post-publication, to be lambasted by readers for the slightest skew or embellishment. So is it fair to say that these rules must be followed in order to create valid examples of texts in each genre? Are novels based in truth less credible because the author chose not to create an entirely fabricated world? Is the memoirist a fraud for conveying an interpretation of his or her own memory that cannot be corroborated?

I find this rigid divide problematic, both as a reader and a writer. As a reader, I want to believe that the author—regardless of genre or theme—is passionate about his or her work, and this passion—if it is to be believed—must come from a place of authority that should emanate from the work that has been created. This authority would most likely stem from a place of personal experience…of retrospection and recollection of a moment, a feeling, a place that has affected the writer enough for it to become an inspiration for their work.

41g7XXSr2OLIn 2006, Oprah Winfrey chose James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, as an Oprah’s Book Club selection. Three months later, reports exposed parts of his book as being exaggerated—most notably that his account of his 87day stint in prison was no more than a few hours. In a live, on air interview, Oprah Winfrey chastised Frey for his embellishments, saying “I feel duped, but more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.” It was a literary event great enough to merit a re-evaluation of the terms of memoir writing.

What the New York Times coined as, “The Frey Effect” set off alarm bells for publishers and agents alike, some of which had once encouraged authors to turn novels into hot-selling memoirs. New York Literary Agent Christy Fletcher told the New York Times, ”The decision to take on a memoir was always based on how good is the writing and how good is the story, that’s not enough any more.”

If a fact cannot be corroborated on a work that is defined as non-fiction, does the “larger truth” that in offered within the text lose it’s legitimacy as well? In the case of James Frey, the line between aesthetic enhancement and outright fabrication was not toed so much as sprinted over. But would the outrage of his readership been as high if he had said he was in jail for 8 days instead of 87? And would the entire message that comes out of A Million Little Pieces come undone without including the narrative of a three-month stay in prison? The Frey Effect is not a consequence of poor authorship, so much as improper representation. If Oprah’s producers had done fact checking of their own, they would have discovered that Frey had shopped the book out as both a novel and a memoir prior to publication—a clear indication that the book was at least partially fictive. Regardless of who is to blame for the misclassification, the fact that the book had an audience at all is based on what Times book critic Michiko Kakutani calls, ”a case about how much value contemporary culture places on the very idea of truth.”

Our job as writers is not to define truth for our readers, but for ourselves. We must accept the fuzziness of our memories, and acknowledge that our perception of things is as unique and personal as our own genetic code. I wrote once that these truths that writers use in their work are “a repackaged retelling of what it means to be human.” That each individual detail, no matter how unique, is just each writers way of converting their truth into some universal truth…and I again recalled the piece of paper taped to my grandmothers’ refrigerator door.

A few months ago I sent her some pages of my retelling of her life, and the life I was living as I wrote it. Along with the manuscript I attached a note that said, …what is the truth of the matter? She responded, via voicemail, something that will most assuredly make into the next set of pages:

“There is no such thing as truth. My truth is not your truth. The truth is the seed that you put in the ground and it grows. Life has no purpose; life is an experience. What you learn is through experiencing life, your life, and that is what you write. That is the truth. That is life, and you cannot stop it.”

 

This post was originally published on Florida Atlantic University’s MFA Blog 

Why the FAU MFA Program is like Notting Hill

When Julia Roberts walks into Hugh Grant’s travel bookshop in the movie Notting Hill, Grant immediately (though, yes, with hesitancy) recognizes who has entered his store. As Roberts traces the spines of books on Turkey and Istanbul, and Grant watches from behind the counter, it’s clear that both Roberts with her straight American teeth and Grant with his small British charm come to represent something of an irresistible exoticism to each other. Roberts is first seen adorned (and disguised) beneath a black beret, black jacket, and dark sunglasses. She/it appears a mystery, but fails to mask her well-known identity. Both she and Grant are alluring without having to be hypnotic. He is charming, funny, and handsome. She is strong, successful, and beautiful. To each other, they represent different but closely related fantasies. To me, they represent how I first envisioned an MFA program.

juliatravelshop
During a recent date, I told an academic figure—one whose career is rooted more in administration than teaching—that the writer will always be considered romantic. Though perhaps not romantic in nature, the writer is situated in a dwindling genre of human being. The writer is the lead in a romance movie, thought of sitting by candlelight at his study desk writing about lost love, in Starbucks too busy typing on his Macbook to wipe the tears away from his five o’clock shadow, saturated in romantic ideas in pursuit of an idealized romantic absolution. He is, at the root of everything, invested both in a job that he has been told will probably not make him any money or bring about any fame, and a love interest whom he has been told simply isn’t good enough for him. Yet, he pursues them. He lives and breathes (wait for it) passion.

When the writer first learns that he can develop his craft within upper-level academia, strolling through the same land as doctors, engineers, and physicists, he latches onto the idea of closing in on the chase of literary success. Dr. Poet. Master of Prosody. Lord of the Haiku. When Roberts locates herself in the same intimate, dusty world of Grant’s, she has become less of a fantasy and more of a realistic possibility. Grant quickly learns though, after experiencing more of Roberts within her hectic artistic and romantic environments, that the dream of their relationship will inevitably perish underneath their opposing lifestyles. It is, however, while Roberts witnesses the birthday celebration of Grant’s younger sister that she recognizes what she ultimately wants. Against all prohibiting factors, she wants to have, to be more like, and to be loved by Grant.

Not too long after I started the MFA program, I had a different experience. I wanted to remove myself from the twenty other writers who were sitting at the same dinner table and, like me, also questioning the point of acquiring an MFA degree. I looked around the table and interrogated my position. How was this environment going to benefit my writing and development of a writerly identity? I thought a significant, positive thing about enrolling in an MFA was being surrounded by other writers who are desperately and passionately in love with writing, but it seemed many others were also in need of validation that they were still in love with their art.
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When Roberts’ boyfriend—a younger Alec Baldwin—travels to the city unannounced, the romance between Grant and Roberts suffers. The reality of Roberts’ American boyfriend interrupts the spontaneous, whimsical relationship at bloom between Roberts and Grant, and this causes us to question the line between fantasy and reality. I felt a similar damage when my writing—which was, for the most part is, and should always be given full attention during time enrolled in an MFA program—fell behind the overwhelming shadows of other “responsibilities.” Yes, many of these responsibilities were related to my development and refinement as a writer, but seemingly for the purpose of fear-driven career preparation and the satisfaction of credit requirements. It took a while, under the overwhelming anxiety of being told that there isn’t a market for poetry anymore beyond tabling at readings and conferences, and that I only have a 5% – 10% chance of landing a solid university teaching position unless I dedicate the next five to six years acquiring a PhD or (by the grace of God) getting a book or two published, to recognize my view of these “responsibilities” as opportunities.

It has seemed recently as if Baldwin flew in and stood in the way of my romantic perception of what I wanted the MFA (and for that matter, my future) to be—the dedication of three years of my life to my craft. I came to feel that I had instead given up three years I could have more actively spent on my craft outside academia—beyond teaching composition courses, grading first-year papers, and taking theory courses I had little interest in—for a degree that would simply make me eligible for one of the few professions in which a poet is typically found: teaching. Alec, however, is only realistic. He illustrates that romance (and the MFA program) is more layered and complex than one may take it for. He helps us realize that every choice is an opportunity for something better, and that the MFA is going to be whatever one chooses to see it as. Three years of lying naked on a shag rug in front of a fireplace writing prose poems isn’t as romantic if this same hypothetical MFA student isn’t also teaching essay writing to hundreds of college freshmen, studying other forms of writing and communication, and involving himself in the editorial workings of a literary publication or governmental workings of a student organization. If he sees the MFA degree as three years of opportunities to fully dedicate himself to his writing, the writings of others, and the larger literary world, then he might better imagine the future for Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.

I find myself now, in the middle of my MFA career, on the cusp of my thesis—ready but not yet able to transfer my attention back to the romance of being a writer, back to seeing the MFA degree for its fullest potential. I feel as if I am standing, admittedly and confessingly hurting, in front of the once-incredibly idealized romantic notion I had of the MFA, hearing it ask me to love it again. And as it asks—hair flopped, eyes wide, ready to accept me back into its arms—how long I plan on staying, I keep finding myself repeating “indefinitely.”

James White is a second year student in the MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry program. He is excited to graduate from the program with a few manuscripts in tow, with which he will entice a handsome NY businessman-turned-lumberjack named Ethan during a writer’s retreat in New Hampshire. James will read his poetry to Ethan as he chops firewood, and the two will die holding hands like the old married couple in Titanic.

WHAT IS THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER?

Taped to the refrigerator in my grandmother’s kitchen there is a piece of paper marked with a question:
                      “What is the truth of the matter?”

I don’t remember not writing, and that’s the problem. My mother—as mothers often do—has given me, over time, historically ambiguous documents revealing that at some point I was a child with a pen and paper and almost illegible handwriting who composed disturbingly dark poetry to appear on lilac-colored construction paper:

6bb66-nico
The flawr (sic)
Ugly and dead
Faints and rots
Surftly (sic?) death
  I was young then, but I wasn’t wrong. The flower would in fact die (in a surftly way perhaps? Or maybe I meant “surely”—surely death. That sounds right) and rot, and dead flowers are ugly. So perhaps this poem was not a foreshadowing of my maudlin pre-teen prose and soon-to-be angsty adolescence, but just…well…the truth.

 I—and maybe all writers—have a perverse relationship with the idea of truth. As a card-carrying “nonfiction” writer, the truth is something I’m always looking for…but for the other part of me, (the closeted fiction writer who stomps her feet asking when it’s her turn to get a fancy college degree) it is something I’m constantly trying to hide. But the reality is that all writing, regardless of genre, comes from somewhere familiar. Somewhere we have known, deeply and intimately, to the point where we could navigate every inch of it without map or compass, or trace the lines of its silhouette in the darkness.

The only piece of writing advice I would ever give anyone is “write what you know,” because how can you expect to create something that feels real if it’s built on a lie? Listen, I get it. “Fiction” isn’t supposed to be real—but that novel you’ve been working on for god knows how long (you know, the one you write ideas for on cocktail napkins and pocket-sized notebooks?) is just a mess of words on a page if it didn’t come from somewhere real. Somewhere you lingered longer than you should have, where you drank too much or said too little. Somewhere that changed you, or broke you. Somewhere you regret leaving before you knew why you were there in the first place. Somewhere something happened, or someone happened; the first place you fell in love or the last place you said goodbye, before driving or walking or running in the other direction to somewhere new where the whole things starts all over. This amalgamation of somewheres is the framework—the bare bones—of anything worth reading. Do you really think when Thomas Wolfe opened Look Homeward, Angel with “a stone, a leaf; an unfound door. And all of the forgotten faces…” that he didn’t know exactly which faces he was forgetting?  Those were bones, easily covered by the fabricated, malleable tissue of the narrative, smoothed over by each characters’ skin to look whatever way the writer wants them to, different each time. But it is the skeleton that holds the story up, and what endures long after the body rots away. The bones are preserved, like artifacts in a museum—the fragile remains of a reality all too familiar. They are what remind us that everything that happens—every stone and leaf and unfound door—has happened before, but is reborn differently each time…a repackaged retelling of what it means to be human.

And that is the truth of the matter.

Nico Cassanetti graduated from The New School in New York City with a degree in creative writing, and is currently pursuing an MFA in the same. After a brief stint in book publishing at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and ABRAMS books, she remembered that she wanted to be a writer. She has written for Muses & Visionaries Magazine, Abramsbooks.com, TheFasterTimes.com and reviewed great literary works on index cards for her staff picks while working at Bookcourt, an independent bookstore in Brooklyn. She currently lives in South Florida (reluctantly).