How To MFA Thesis with Jamie and Nico

How to MFA Thesis, with Jamie and Nico

            A Haiku for a Thesis

Each page come spring

becomes a pile of shit

after rereading

FIVE STEPS TO YOUR LAST SEMESTER OF GRAD SCHOOL

  1. SQUAD GOALS: Picking Your Thesis Committee

So, thesis hours are approaching in a semester or two and it’s time to ask three faculty members to voluntarily commit their time and energy to reading, commenting on (hopefully), and approving (even more hopefully) your manuscript. First things first, you ought to already have some sort of relationship with each faculty member you have in mind (ie. you’ve taken a class with them, remember which New Yorker cartoon they have taped to their office door, and picked up at least two of their dog’s turds).

  • For MFAs, it’s likely you’ll have three writing professors in mind. For example, fiction MFAs may have taken workshops from Prof. Schwartz, Prof. Furman, and Prof. Bucak, while nonfiction and poetry students may be more familiar with Dr. Schmitt, Dr. McKay, and Prof. Mitchell. Some MFAs choose to ask a literature or composition professor (ex. Dr. Berlatsky or Dr. Bradford) to be a part of their committee to seek a balance of perspectives, or perhaps because the student has not taken workshops from three different writing professors. Either way, that option is most definitely available to you.

Nico and I both selected the same committee members: Dr. McKay, Dr. Schmitt, and Prof. Mitchell. We chose them because we had worked with all three of them in multiple classes, and felt like they each could offer unique, valuable, and insightful feedback (and, for Jamie, because they are poets). In thinking beyond the thesis, Becka, Kate, and Susan (breaking out the first names, because we’re, like, tight now) knew both of us well enough to write us recommendation letters (if they were willing to do so, and if we ever needed one), and even agreed to get coffee with us and suggest post-graduation opportunities. But, ultimately, we both saw these women as women who gave, and would continue to give, a damn about our work and futures as broke  grumpy active writers.

  • Etiquette-wise, be sure to request an appointment with each of your prospective committee members and ask them in person to be a part of your MFA journey. Don’t assume they’ll say yes. It’s like proposing to someone. There’s always a chance you’ll hear “Ew. No.”
  1. I CAN’T EVEN: How to Figure Out WTF You’re Doing

Though it’s a good idea to know what you want your thesis to be (ie. a novel about a piano-playing dog, a collection of short stories about florists with allergies, a memoir about getting bullied in middle school for having a speech impediment), avoid stifling/cornering yourself.

  • Before your thesis hours formally begin, it’s a good idea to already be writing, knowing that you have plenty of time to be writing anything in any genre, about whatever you’d like. (Pro Tip: Don’t take a class during your final semester. And if you’re being told to take one even though you don’t need one, don’t say Nico and Jamie told you not to take it, because though we’ll have graduated, there’s no escaping the reach of FAU.)
  • Prioritize: Reading and improving your writing practice (and by ‘practice,’ we mean give more care to writing, reading, and/or revising on a regular basis). (Pro Tip:Don’t complain about not having any time to write. You do. Just stop going out to drink and/or watching Netflix. Like, seriously. None of your Facebook friends are buying it—they see your pictures.)
  • Do not be afraid that reading others’ works will cause you to copy theirs (that’s weird, and you know you don’t actually believe that. Imitate? Perhaps. Just don’t plagiarize. Or steal plot ideas. Don’t be dumb, essentially).

o   Jamie: I began thesis hours with about half of my thesis manuscript complete (including many pages of poetry that did not end up being a part of my thesis).

o   Nico: I began thesis hours with only about 45 pages done. But I had probably 15-20 pages of free writes I had done over the summer with Jamie that ultimately I ended up using (at least part of) in my final manuscript.

  • Remember: your thesis is not a portfolio of everything you’ve written during your time at FAU, it’s a focused product. It’s a cohesive Project Runway collection. It’s a herb garden, a flower bed, or a tree farm, not all three. We’re not saying don’t experiment or play with a variety of forms, we’re just saying that a reader ought to be able to read your manuscript and recognize a clear consistency of voice, aka. everything should keep in register.
  1. BROS BEFORE PROSE (Or Poetry)

It’s a good idea that, during this time, you secure a battle buddy. Or bosom buddy. Battle buddy just sounds more fitting. Your battle buddy will be your encouragement, disciplinarian, and shoulder to cry on. In the early stages of thesis writing, he/she will be your café beloved. You can meet to be a sounding board for each other, give each other writing prompts fitting for your respective thesis concepts, offer each other regular feedback and advice, and hold each other accountable for meeting any deadlines both self-given or school- or thesis chair-related. (Pro Tip: The Glades Rd. Starbucks doesn’t have a free table. It just doesn’t. Don’t even try going there to work. Try the Starbucks on Federal, near the Chipotle and Pei Wei.)

  • Choose your battle buddy wisely. You want to surround yourself with students who are as dedicated, efficient, and/or crabby as you are.

o   Jamie: You want someone to thank in your acknowledgements page for ‘sticking by you’ and ‘chauffeuring you to school and back’ (maybe that one is specific to me).

o   Nico: I originally was going to say you want someone who is as motivated and organized as you are, but I don’t know if that’s true. What I do think is important is that your Battle Buddy is a good reader for YOU. Someone who understands your ideas and intentions, and knows your strengths and weaknesses and how to suggest revisions accordingly.

  • If your thesis chair is willing to meet with you and read a draft or two during your first semester of thesis hours, we highly recommend you plan on doing so. It’s unlikely your chair has the time to be able to read four one-hundred-page drafts before they receive your final draft a month before your defense date, but there’s no harm in asking if they’d be open to reading new sections, chapters, pages, etc. during your thesis hours. In fact, they may expect you to do so in order to have a clear idea of where you are, work-wise, emotionally, mentally, in your manuscript-writing process.
  • Don’t rely on your Chair to keep you in check, though. (Pro Tip: There’s also no such thing as “writer’s block.” If you’re not hungry for cereal, then eat an apple. Leave personal essays alone for a day and write a poem. Write a series of haikus. Write an email in iambic pentameter to your parents asking for a small loan. Write.)
  • Give your Chair a timeline you’re hoping to stick to in regards to how much work you’d like to have done by each date, and when you’re going to plan on giving them work for review/feedback (again, if they’re open to doing so).

o   Jamie: I met with Dr. McKay approximately once a month. Because my manuscript was a collection of poems, it was probably a little easier for her to take home and review more regularly than Dr. Schmitt, who chaired Nico’s 150+ memoir manuscript (which ended up being 200+ pages in its form (or, for you Pokémon fans, its final evolution)).

  1. THE FINAL COUNTDOWN: The Defense

In the beginning of your final semester, Kelly will send an email out about scheduling your defense. Do this as early as possible (Becka will appreciate it) and it will also give you a clear timeline (so you can set up a New Years Eve style countdown clock) of how many days you have left to write, edit, etc.

  • Aim to finish your manuscript before the semester of your defense. Doing so will offer you enough time to make final revisions before you distribute your manuscript to your committee (and time to concentrate on the thesis essay).
  • Get the requirements for your thesis essay from your chair. Each professor may (and often do) have different requirements for the thesis essay and will give you a handy one-sheet of what they want you to focus on. This essay will be distributed along with your manuscript prior to your defense.
  • Be early to your defense. It’s not a bad idea to dress semi-formal—it is, after all, the day you’ll be told whether or not you’re going to graduate.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your committee questions. Something we didn’t expect was the focus on thesis-specific questions over post-graduation or program-related questions (like “So, where do you see yourself in five years?” and “What have you learned from your time in the program?”).
  • The defense itself will last approximately forty-five to sixty minutes. Your chair will slap your ass at the end and present you with a brownie, complete with lit candle. Not really. Becka McKay will wish you a good life and then remind you of an event next week that she needs you to attend.
  1. THE KAFKAESQUE NIGHTMARE OF RED TAPE THAT WILL LEAVE YOU FEELING LIKE A SHELL OF YOUR FORMER SELF AND YOUR NEW HATRED FOR THE SADISTIC FUCKS WHO CREATED MICROSOFT WORD: Post-defense Formatting and Busy Work

Following your defense, you will have a couple of weeks to make any “creative” edits (read: actual writing to make the project more complete), but do know that those edits are optional. Sure, your manuscript will be uploaded to the FAU library, and, sure, there’s a chance some stranger will come across it and judge your lackluster fifth chapter, but don’t sweat the optional stuff. You’ll be too stressed meeting other mandatory deadlines.

  • The deadlines will come in an email from Kelly. (Pro Tip: Read Kelly’s emails carefully. Though she’s a patient and wonderful human being, she’s not sending you thesis-related directions for no reason, or going to invite you to her office to repeat everything in her emails over tea.) For us, we had about a month in between the defense and the final deadline to hand in our thesis to the Graduate College, and that felt too brief.
  • There are Graduate College-affiliated house elves that you can pay to take care of your thesis form process for you, and, after going through the process ourselves, Nico and I wish we had paid someone to go through everything we did (not more than $100 though).
  • If you don’t pay someone, and decide (like we did) that you are more than capable of using the formatting features in Microsoft word…well here’s how that went:

o   You will learn about margins, gutters, section breaks, continuous section breaks, ancient Greek section breaks, interpretive dance section breaks, et al.

o   You will send what you think is a perfectly formatted document to the Grad College and be told it’s wrong.

o   You will fix it, know it’s perfect and be told the GTA printer fucked up the margins and you should go print it somewhere else because that printer hates you as much as you hate having to grade papers this weekend.

  • But formatting isn’t the end:

o   You will learn about bond paper—colors, weights, watermarks, provenances (Pro Tip: Order on Amazon. Keep the box to put your final manuscript it.)

o   You will have to journey to far off lands to procure a very specific black, felt tip pen that will travel with your thesis across campus to be used by everyone who must sign your signature page while collecting millions of bacteria.

o   You will have to make two trips to Dr. Berlatsky’s office to ask for your pen back because he forgot to put it back in the box. He knows what he’s doing.

o   You will learn from this mistake when you go to the Dean’s office and look for the pen before you leave and ask her assistant politely for your pen back.

  • It’s a process that seems more difficult than it really is based on just how many requirements are going to slap you across the face via emails from the Graduate College, English Department, Library, your mom, etc. Keep yourself knowledgeable of future deadlines and you’ll be fine.

Thesis FAQs As Answered By Nico and Jamie

in Mean Girls Quotes

  1. What do you do if you’re on a writing streak but are supposed to attend a campus event?

“I can’t go out. *cough cough*. I’m sick.”

  1. How am I going to handle leaving the program when all is said and done?

      “See? That’s the thing with you [MFAs]. You think everybody is in love with you when    actually, everybody hates you!”

  1. I know my chair said it has to be at least 100 pages, but is there a page limit on thesis manuscripts?

      “The limit does not exist”

     

  1. My Battle Buddy has a mental breakdown in Starbucks because he realizes that the idea for his thesis is bad and the 50 poems he wrote are now useless, what should I say?  

      “Do you wanna go to Taco Bell?”

  1. It’s Saturday night and I’ve been locked in my apartment for a month writing. My thesis draft is due on Monday but I just got a notification on Tinder asking me to go out tonight, what do I do?

      “At your age, you’re going to have a lot of urges. You’re going to want to take off your     clothes, and touch each other. But if you do touch each other, you *will* get chlamydia…   and die.”

  1. My thesis chair just told me she wants a draft of my essay NEXT WEEK, what do I do?

“She’s a life ruiner. She ruins lives.”

  1. Help, everyone is annoying and I just want to be left alone but I don’t want to upset anyone’s feelings.

“Whatever, I’m getting cheese fries.”

  1. What do I do if I see one of my professors working at the coffee shop where I’m writing?

“I love seeing teachers outside of school. It’s like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs.”

  1. I asked my boyfriend to read my thesis and he said it was too academic and boring, what do I do?

“I know having a boyfriend might seem like the only thing important to you right now,     but you don’t have to dumb yourself down in order for a guy to like you.”

  1. What kind of response should I expect after my thesis committee deliberates and calls me back in the room?

      “I just wanted to say that you’re all winners. And that I couldn’t be happier the school       year is ending.”


Jamie’s bio, as written by Nico: Poet and origami enthusiast James White was born a quarter of a century ago in Surrey, England. A quiet, yet precocious child, James learned at a very young age the value of saying a lot in very few words. When James isn’t writing poems or teaching, you can find him at home spooning his dog and eating chocolate pie, or in the Decor section of Home Goods perusing items with birds on them. In addition to his not one, not two, but three Pushcart nominations, James has been published in more literary journals and reviews than we have time to mention in an introduction. He is currently working on an upcoming series of poems written on small squares of paper that he intends to fold into origami cranes and hang from a mobile.

Nico’s bio, as written by Jamie: Nicole Cassanetti was born on the hood of a banana yellow 1983 Volkswagen Beetle during the Reagan era. Always a quiet creature, she quickly developed her affinity for smoking, napping, and paying for everything with loose change after realizing her dream of becoming a writer. Nico is well-versed in writing about her grandmother, kissing her vampiric boyfriend on shag rugs, and subsequently everything in between. Besides planning on making a career out of teaching creative writing, she claims to answer the call of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge mountains, in which she’ll take hikes with her stumpy corgi, kiss her now-much-hairier husband on grassy knolls, and call her old pal Jamie to chat about terrible student writing, crippling financial despair, and birds.

Go Tell it On a Mountain: My Two Weeks at the Mont Blanc Workshop

Picture this:

mont blanc

White tipped mountain tops cascading into an evergreen hillside so mammoth that when you look out of the window of the tiny alpine apartment you rented from a Scandinavian expat who currently lives in London, there is no skyline—all you see is green. This is what happens every day, for two weeks, at the Mont Blanc Writing Workshop.

 

Some people may have been lured in by the fantastical scenery, or the chance to go abroad and be inspired by a foreign culture, or by the ability to spend time with like-minded writers from all over the world. These are all good reasons for a new writer to go to a workshop like Mont Blanc, but my reason was less picturesque—I wanted the chance to work with one of the writers whose work I had only just encountered in the months prior to applying, one who wrote the kind of prose I always wanted to write. For me, it was Alexander Chee.

 

group from france

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

The first time I encountered Alexander Chee I was reading an essay he wrote for The Paris Review on James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. Chee began with a narrative in which he recounted working as a makeup artists on a gay porn set, recalling a scene wherein it was particularly difficult for the actors to “rise” to the occasion (pun intended). The director turned off the lights and closed the door so the actors could “work it out,” and Chee predicted that what happened in those moments were probably better than anything they actually recorded. He went on to say, “I thought about how something had happened in the dark that we couldn’t see, an excitement that couldn’t be in the film…It seems to me I am always in pursuit of that.”

gruope scolaire

It is clear that Chee was talking about sex—but he was also talking about the moments in life we are too scared to reveal. Moments that reveal our flaws, whisper secrets, admit to lies, or publicize truths that have always seemed better left unsaid. As a nonfiction writer, my work has always been an act of recollection—a way to grapple with the past, collecting and re-collecting the moments in my life that have the ability to say something to the world that exists beyond myself. Part of this is the pursuit Chee talks about—timidly feeling around for these moments and memories in the darkness, and dragging them out to immortalize them on the page. So after scraping around for money and expediting my passport renewal, I made my way across the Atlantic to Chamonix, a little town in France—le pays de mon coeur as my grandmother calls it—to find someone who might help me shine a light in the darkest corners of my memory.

photo credit: Michael Dahlie

 I could tell you I accomplished so much work there (which I did), and how my own project began to blossom again after looking at it from outside of the confines of an MFA thesis (which it did), or the relationships I built while I was there with writers I never would have met otherwise (this also happened)—but what good does that do you? Will it inspire you to apply to a residency next summer? Maybe. It is the same shit you hear from everyone who has told you how important these kinds of programs are? Probably. So instead let me tell you what I learned in the two weeks I spent in the foothills of Mont Blanc, and perhaps that will show the value of these kinds of workshops, both for those of you who are thinking of applying, and for myself who was broke for the rest of the summer after taking the risk. After a careful re-reading of my notebook from the workshop, here are the tips I will take with me throughout my writing career:

1.) Keep A Work Journal: One of the best things I learned working with Alexander Chee was to keep a work journal for writing—especially if you are writing a long form piece. Create a new entry after each writing session, ask yourself questions you have about characters, plot or the writing itself, jot down intuitions about the plot, and keep all your outtakes that you don’t think belong. Doing this allows you to come back to your writing the next day (or week, or whatever your rhythm is) and not have the anxiety of a blank page, because you’ve already given yourself a starting place. It also helps you resist the urge to go back and re-read your work over and over again—which, when you are writing a book-length piece, can slow you down immensely.

2.) “If you need to embroider, embroider the edges and not the center:” Alex said this was something Annie Dillard told him in a nonfiction workshop when he was in his MFA. Much of the work the members of our workshop brought to the table fell into the genre of memoir or autobiographical novel (even when some of us believed it wasn’t). He stressed the importance of not embroidering the center, because this is what gives the reader something to feel, see and touch. We can accomplish this by anchoring the stories in very specific things; however, when we begin to embroider we often fill the prose with abstractions, and the longer we stay in the abstract, the greyer the line gets. For me in nonfiction writing, the center is always the “truth”—the memory, the recollection, the stories I’ve be told throughout my life—and the edges are my own imaginings of the world these stories occurred in.

3.) “The writer must survive the writing:”  This is perhaps the sentiment I find myself recalling most after leaving France. Alex said it at one of our first meetings, where we all spoke about what we were writing about and where we stumbled into the area of trauma. As writers, regardless of genre, we often pull inspiration from our own lives and experiences, and oftentimes this involves moments and experiences that are traumatic. We spoke about the trials and tribulations of this kind of work, and that—as writers—it is important to realize when we aren’t ready to take on these experiences on the page. Often in workshop (I’ve seen it most commonly in nonfiction, but I whole-heartedly believe it is true in fiction and poetry as well), we submit something we’re not ready to receive criticism or feedback on, or we begin writing about something we haven’t finished emotionally processing and feel obligated to press forward in order to finish the project. This is putting the writer at risk, not only for the emotional repercussions of revisiting these traumatic experiences, but for not doing justice to the writing—we leave things out we don’t want to remember, or skew them in a way that feels less authentic to avoid dealing with the pain, or we are unable to receive any negative feedback about the work because it feels like our lives are being judged. Maybe this isn’t what Alex meant by his sentiment, but I think that in order to survive the writing, we must also survive the reaction to the writing. If we are not ready to hear those things, it is better to leave some stories untold—at least until we are truly ready to tell them.

4.) “I hope you leave more of yourself than when you came:” This is the wish Alexander Chee has for all of the writers that leave his workshops. At the end of two weeks I left France with thirty new pages (about 15 of which were usable), a recommended reading list that spanned four notebook pages, a copy of Erin Belieu’s Slant Six, a couple blocks of cheese and a group of friends and writers that I still talk to today. I learned about surviving my work, embracing my strengths and accepting my weaknesses as a writer. I learned that inspiration is everywhere—not just in colossal mountain ranges across the ocean, but in people you wouldn’t have met if you hadn’t taken a giant leap outside of your comfort zone. I learned that there are working writers and professors from around the country who are willing to guide and teach you, but also treat you as equals, and as friends. I learned about myself, and remembered why I started writing in the first place, and in that way I did leave more of myself than I was when I arrived. So you got your wish, Mr. Chee, and I hope one day I can help other writers feel that way too. For now, I hope this blog post will help inspire some of you to decide to travel to re-find your writely selves, wherever that may take you.

french peoplephoto credit: Michael Dahlie

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

Those Who Can’t Do, Teach

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.

Taking 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 

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.

In 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 

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:

Translation:

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.

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