Friday, April 6, 2012

MFA Thesis Survival Tips

Photo: wolfgangphoto
Lately things have been quiet over here at Grout as each of us is struggling through various stages of the thesis process. Yep, the MFA thesis: that wonderful and terrifying time when you are suddenly set loose from coursework, ready to begin unleashing your brilliant project on the world. You've been inspired by memoirs and lyric essays and strange, experimental books and you have a grand dream of exactly what your own book could be.

Then, if you're like me, you start the earnest work of thesis and panic sets in. All the parts that fit so elegantly in your mind now appear to be clumsily hacked together. Suddenly you don't have an amazing book. You don't have any book at all, only a mess of hundreds of disconnected pages. But luckily over the last month I've stumbled across a few strategies are are helping me continue to work. Not to spontaneously produce some brilliant manuscript, but to slowly keep writing, producing sentences then paragraphs that are imperfect but satisfying.

And so in case these tips might be useful to your thesis or similar project, here are my top survival tactics:

1. Find your people
Being part of a thesis group is critical. Determine what kind of group is helpful for your process: a critique group that will push you to hone exactly what you are saying, or maybe an inspiration and writing group, where you meet with others, come up with prompts and just write like mad.

I've found that I need a group to simply support, encourage, and hold me accountable. In my thesis group, we discuss our struggles and successes, cheer each other on, and read a few pages aloud. In particular, the act of reading work aloud reminds me to continue writing in order to communicate and connect, keeping me motivated from week to week.

2. Your thesis might not be a book
In this lovely essay on the Brevity blog, Tabitha Blankenbiller recounts her journey from an ambitious undergraduate to a more thoughtful writer as she worked on her MFA thesis:

I stopped stretching on my tiptoes for a narrative that would fill 265 pages and moved to personal essays. This allowed me to zero in on structure, on picking words with care, to be theatrical in doses and precise in droves. I told stories, moments, snippets well, instead of a long journey poorly.
She warns of the dangers of talking about your thesis as if it were a book and the value of keeping the work private until it is ready for critique:

Imagination is precious and ideas are fleeting. Even if it seems obsessive or superstitious or pathological to squirrel my work away, I’m finding the peace to draft more than worth the antisocial tendencies not sharing my early work produces.

3. Fail, but fail better
I often re-read Zadie Smith's essay, Fail Better to remind myself that writing is constantly an act of failure. Our work is never quite what we hope or imagine it could be, but we need to continue struggling to fail better and to be awake to language and meaning:
... in each of my novels somebody "rummages in their purse" for something because I was too lazy and thoughtless and unawake to separate "purse" from its old, persistent friend "rummage". To rummage through a purse is to sleepwalk through a sentence - a small enough betrayal of self, but a betrayal all the same. To speak personally, the very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life. But it is easy to admit that a sentence makes you wince; less easy to confront the fact that for many writers there will be paragraphs, whole characters, whole books through which one sleepwalks and for which "inauthentic" is truly the correct term.

4. Go on a poetry diet
After a recent reading by poets Deborah Keenan, Jim Moore, and Christopher Howell, I resolved to go on a poetry diet, taking a break from essays and memoirs. I have spent the last several years studying structures and strategies of nonfiction books, but now that I'm immersed in my own thesis, I simply need to trust that these forms are embedded in my instincts. When I read nonfiction books right now, I'm too easily tempted to drop my current ideas and embrace the form of the book I'm reading.

But poetry, especially brief poems, help me find a stillness, to remember my appreciation for language and imagery. The act of reading becomes precise and focused as I absorb how an arc can be honed through just a few lines. Poems like this one that Deborah Keenan opened the reading with in honor of Adrienne Rich:

Sunday in Inwood Park
the picnic eaten
the chicken bones scattered
for the fox we'll never see
the children playing in caves
My death is folded in my pocket
like a nylon raincoat
What sunlight is it
that leaves the rocks so cold?
- Adrienne Rich 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Why So Serious?

When I finished my last graduate class last semester, I had my mom take a picture of me surrounded by all the books I read during my two and a half years in the program.  Most were nonfiction and most of those were memoirs.  The books covered topics such as blindness, racism, mental illness, genetic disorders, poverty, abuse, sexuality, substance abuse and addiction, adoption, lying, death, and neglect. There was a book about bullying and divorce, another about sex and the color blue. Each book had a different structure, tone, and tempo, and each one succeeded in causing me to feel something: anger, hurt, relief. But, although some of them handled moments of levity with as much deftness as they tackled tougher topics, not one made me laugh out loud. In fact, the only book I remember causing me to snort when I read it was a book for my spy novel class, and even then I felt like laughing was somehow illicit in graduate school.  Dirty.  Less valuable than writing about tragedy. Humor, it seems, has no business in “literary” writing; in the words of Rodney Dangerfield it “get[s] no respect.  But, as much as I appreciate debating the finer points of truthfulness in CNF and exploring the musicality of the lyric essay, I can’t help but feel as though part of the discussion is missing, particularly surrounding well-written, genuinely funny nonfiction.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Fifteen False or True Starts

Guest blog post from Tanya Paperny in response to the recent discussion regarding truth, lyric essays, and John D'Agata:

Fifteen False or True Starts

1.) Holy shit, you just blew my mind. These were the only words I managed to scribble in my pocket-sized black Moleskine. I couldn't come up with any other way to respond to the reading I'd just heard other than to indicate complete and total mind-blown-ded-ness. I just had to surrender and listen.

2.) When Amy Leach read "Memorandum" at the recent “In Praise of the Essay” symposium, I’d been taking notes all day with the expectation that I'd write some sort of straightforward review of the event. I figured the day's panels, lectures, and readings would reinforce the distinctions between fiction, nonfiction, the essay, journalism, and other forms. But then Leach read, and I was stunned. Who was she? Was she being presented to us as an essayist? And what were these works she read? Were they essays? She read two more wildly imaginative pieces, "Sail On, My Little Honey Bee" and "Comfortless." Her un-categorizable writing seemed to take a fantasy, a day dream, a digression, and write it to its charmingly logical extreme. Her pieces used these absurd and hilarious similes: like a potato that experienced one terrible, and many average, concussions; like a frozen mouse; like walruses; like birds wading or figs rumbling or the muttering of mathematicians; like a taxidermied antelope; like the trajectory of sea ducks. I wasn't sure how any of this could be categorized as an essay because it all seemed so inventive. But then again, it was loaded with facts. I didn't know you were allowed to do this, lyrical wanderings disguised as essays.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Some thoughts on the political art of CNF and John D'Agata

Photo: andrefromont

Creating a work of creative nonfiction is a political act, a form of resistance. In writing we sift through experience, ideas, and factual information to discover the real story, one that rejects the easily available cultural narratives.

When writers like James Frey or Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea) lie about major events, they not only betray readers, but also this call, or purpose, of CNF. Rather than engaging in the hard work of discovering their own authentic story, they change facts in order to fit into pre-packaged narratives: Frey as that individual who can overcome any obstacle entirely on his own; Mortenson as a benevolent Westerner who selflessly helps poor villagers in foreign lands.


So where does the current blowup over John D'Agata and his problem with facts fall within this background of truth and lies in CNF scandals?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Confessions of a Research Addict

I admit it. I’m a research junkie. 
            I love sifting through articles and books for buried treasure, those golden nuggets that somehow amplify and deepen what I’m trying to write about. It's almost scary how easily I can delve for hours into a book or cyberspace, trying to unearth information about whatever happens to pique my interest at that moment. It's a dangerous addiction. I can lose myself in it, and come out feeling light-headed and slightly nauseated, as if I’ve eaten a dozen jelly donuts and have nothing to show for it but a box full of crumbs. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

An Interview with Carmen Giménez Smith

Barrie Jean Borich recently interviewed Carmen Giménez Smith about Bring Down the Little Birds: On Mothering, Art, Work, and Everything Else, her lyric memoir which received a 2011 American Book Award.


Do you consider this book a lyric essay? Why or why not, and if yes, what do you mean by the term “lyric” in relation to prose?

Giménez Smith

I do consider it a lyric essay, and as I write more and more nonfiction, I realize that this form is the one I'm best suited for. I like the associative jumps and the compression this form requires. It's a more peripatetic form too, and these are the ways the form is lyric, although I also think it's interesting to consider the terms of subjectivity after Montaigne, which is the way I most like to frame the notion of lyric: how does this form privilege the speaker's subjectivity as opposed to more conventional nonfiction?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reading Tips for the Microphone-shy

Photo: +fatman+

Sarah recently posted here on Grout about the benefits of reading one's work for an audience. Like Sarah, I find reading my work aloud for other to be incredibly helpful to my writing process. But unlike Sarah, I utterly dread public speaking and just thinking about reading my own writing for an audience can give me a near panic attack.

However, over time I've discovered a few things that have helped me reign in those panic freak-outs. I'm still not, and probably never will be, one of those dynamic speakers that can enthrall and audience, but at least I don't entirely dread getting up on a stage any more. So for the benefit of all you other microphone-shy writers, here are my top survival tips for giving readings:

1. Become a kinky librarian

OK, so you don’t actually need to become a librarian or be all that kinky, but imagining yourself as another character can do wonders to calm your nerves. And yes, my character happens to be a kinky librarian.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Reading and Writing and...

I come from a long line of storytellers.  This probably drew me to writing, the natural progression from orating to authorship.  Most of the things I write now have begun as stories I tell at parties.  I feel very fortunate that public speaking doesn’t make me want to hide in the nearest crack in the floorboards and I sympathize with people for whom public speaking ranks scarier than death on their list of biggest fears. (A large part of the population feels this way, it seems; Jerry Seinfeld once quipped that most people at a funeral would rather be in the casket than standing at the podium giving the eulogy.)  At first glance, writing appears to be a remote activity, one that allows the author to express his or her thoughts without having to leave the comforts of the couch.  Passive.  Safe.
But reading work aloud makes writing less of a lonely endeavor and more of a collective experience, a connection between the writer/reader and the audience/listener.  As someone who has participated in dozens of readings, I have discovered several benefits of reading one’s work aloud, and I encourage anyone who considers herself serious about writing to participate in at least one reading this year.  Why?