TIPS FROM THE MFA PIT – PART 11

Once again another edition of real-life writing in a real-life MFA program. As we’re approaching the end of the semester, I’m giving some advice to a mentee in genre writing, who’s address the topic of writing humor, among other things, like reentering the world after lockdown…

I think we’re all suffering from Spring Fever in all in variant forms. Down here in Jersey, every branch and stem burst out in buds this week, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching my husband drool and drip from every exposed orifice. Plus Monday, I had my first COVID-19 shot. I must admit, I was a little nervous (never enough not to get it), but I’ve had very little side effects beyond some arm soreness from the injection site, and feeling a bit draggy the next day. I go back in three weeks for my second and hopefully, will be equally lucky  that time. It’s going to be weird to not have to be on-guard constantly, and the world seems to be growing a bit wider every day. Makes one wonder how we’ll be reflecting on – as well as writing about –  this past year in the years to come.

Speaking of reporting, Carl Hiaasen recently retired from his long-time position as columnist and report at the Miami Herald. His final column bemoaned the sorry state of journalism, and as much as I love his writing, I couldn’t bring myself to read it, so depressed as I am at the decline of local news. My first two years as an undergrad were spent as a journalism major, and although I’ve always saw reporters as something mythic, I could force myself, at that tender age, to be pushy enough to actually become one (I don’t think I’d have a problem with it now). In any event, Carl Hiaasen is equally adept at writing pathos as he is comedy, but what I really admire about him is the wonderful way he writes dialogue. The man’s a master at it, and if you take away anything from his writing, it’s how he can push the plot along with it. And yes, he’s funny, laugh out loud sometimes, and as preposterous as his plots can be, he somehow makes them believable with the seamless way he weaves reality into it. Florida, it seems, is his first love, and he never strays far from it.

Funny you should mention funny! Humor is DEFINITELY harder to write than serious. We can always summon up feelings of sympathy or danger or even love, but making something laugh is probably the hardest thing out there. So take it as a great compliment if someone says you’re funny. If you weren’t, they most likely wouldn’t mention it at all. Actually making someone laugh is like inducing an involuntary reaction. It’s a talent and if you have it, by all means, indulge it!

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Who’s funny? Am I? Sometimes I am when I try to , and other times I am when I’m not. It’s all subjective, but one thing it can’t be is forced. If it is it just comes out pathetic, and there’s nothing funny about that!

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yeah, it’s hemingway, but it’s also ken burns

I was always charmed by the legendary story Papa Hemingway created on a bet, the most succinct yet heartbreaking flash fiction of all time, told in just six simple words:

For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

What tragedy! What pathos! But then I found out it was complete bullshit, as the story behind the story couldn’t be substantiated. Still, it was a good tale on both sides, and a good choice of carefully chosen words, and if he didn’t create it then someone else surely did. Moreover, it’s an excellent example of Getting Right to the Point. In a literary sense, that was definitely something Ernest Hemingway was an ace at

There’s certain labels you hang on Hemingway when you think of the man or the myth: adventurer, serious drinker, womanizer, the ultimate in toxic masculinity. I’ve had a hard time thinking about the way he dealt with women, Martha Gelhorn, especially, and the way he portrayed some of his female characters. Still, I’ve always respected the parsimonious way he writes, no flowery Faulkner, he. Just straight-to-the-heart or jackhammer prose. I’ve tried to emulate it it though fail often. Doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying.

Or miss the new miniseries by Ken Burns on PBS starting next week: Hemingway: The Man. The Myth. The Writer Revealed. I‘m always interested in a writer’s process, as it helps me understand my own. Also because I can use all the help I can get.

I AM OLD ENOUGH TO REMEMBER

I am old enough to remember when you could pick up the newspaper want ads and see jobs listed as HELP WANTED – WOMEN and HELP WANTED – MEN. I am old enough to have been fired from a job because the owner wanted a “fresher, more-attractive face” up at the front counter, while the backroom boys made twice what that woman did. I am old enough to remember being passed over for promotion, even though the man who got the job had less experience and education than I did. And even today, with the profession I’m in, we’re paid half as what we should be paid, and is it any accident that we’re mostly women.

Today is Equal Pay Day 2021, and according to the National Committee on Pay Equity, “This date symbolizes how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year.” Why is it, that over a hundred years after women attained the right to vote, that we’re still struggling over basic issues of fairness, when we make up 50.8 percent of the population?

SPRING PEEPERS

As I sit here, just coming off of another synchronous online class, my husband walks in with a handful of these lovely blue flowers that just busted through the yard outside. Crocuses — or is it croci? — is what they are, one of the first harbingers of spring, and that perhaps things won’t always stay as shitty as they are now. It’s March 10, and last week we were still shoving aside the snow that collected near our walks and driveways, and now it’s 62 degrees outside. Today, between classes, I ate my lunch out on the deck (standing up, my picnic table still encased in plastic). The sun’s out, daylight savings time comes back this weekend, I have a vaccine appointment scheduled (for May, but at least it’s a date), and a new book to finish. Are things looking up? Those flowers seem to think so. Maybe they’re onto something.

Housatonic Book Awards ARE NOW OPEN FOR SUBMISSIONS

The 2021 Housatonic Book Awards are now open for Submissions!

The submission deadline is Sunday, June 13, 2021.

We accept submissions in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young adult/middle grade. All books must have been published in 2020.

Please Note: We are only accepting electronic payments. No checks will be accepted. To submit, click here.

After paying the submission, please email an electronic copy (.pdf) of the book to lawlor033@wcsu.edu. If you wish to submit a hardcopy of your book, you may send it to:

Western Connecticut State University

MFA in Creative and Professional Writing

ATTN: Housatonic Book Award

Department of Writing, Linguistics, and Creative Process

Higgins Hall #219

181 White Street

Danbury, CT 06810

 

Teaching Online Blows

I’ve been teaching college courses online for about ten years now. I started back when there was no Zoom-like interactions, just course modules, dropboxes, and discussion boards. The closest you got to live interaction was email, and the selling point was you could attend college in your pajamas, and at any hour of the day or night. But that was a choice you consciously made, because it was mostly made out of convenience. Not so now.

This semester, I’m teaching what’s known as synchronous  classes, live classes with students as mostly avatars, staring back at my computer screen. Since so many classes are being taught online at once, each class can only handle four student cameras at a time. Mostly, staring at those avatars, I feel like I’m talking to myself, and there’s no way of knowing how many students are paying attention to me at once. I try to be engaging, asking for responses, and we do have live class discussions over the readings, short stories, poetry and such, led by student Discussion Leaders, but it’s a poor, poor substitute. By the quality of their assignments, and the constant barrage of emails, and requests for office visits (also virtual), I know that for many students, I’m not getting through.

Why? Because teaching online is NO substitute for classroom interaction. Students, whether in preschool or college, need face-to-face interaction, and the give-and-take that only a live instructor can give to disseminate information. Yes, if you’re highly motivated, online learning is a wonderful alternative. But there’s more to any educational institution than just coursework, and I can go on for hours just what those things are. But in order to get students back into the classroom, which is what everyone wants, we need to get instructors — ALL instructors — vaccinated. There’s an old story, that if a plane is going down,  and a mother, with a baby, has access to only one oxygen mask, who gets it, the mother or the baby. The first instinct of the mother would be to put the mask on the baby. But who will care for the baby if the baby dies? So the logical answer is  to save the mother, as the baby can’t fend for itself.

The same for the instructors as believe me, no one wants to be back on campus more than we do. Children are the least likely to fall ill if they catch the virus, and college students, if they do, we most likely shrug it off. Not so with the instructors who are more often than not older and more vulnerable. If we value our children’s education as much as we say we do, then please give equal value to the people who spend their lives teaching them who are now at risk. Vaccinate all educators now.

TIPS FROM THE MFA PIT – PART 10

Hey, folks! I know it’s been a l-o-n-g time since I wrote under this banner, but it’s a new semester, and I’ve a brand new crop of students. For those not familiar with this feature of the blog, I’m a mentor in an MFA in Creative Writing program, and what follows here is actual advice given to an actual student under my tutelage. (How lucky can you get!) We were discussing some early writers of the Mystery genre, starting with Edgar Allen Poe and his “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which then segued into Sherlock Holmes, and some observations about genre fiction in general…

Regarding your reading this week: I’m sure that the genre Poe, if not invented, perfected, seems to modern readers a bit trite. But what eventually become cliché does so because it works. Imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery. Last week I talked about the similarities in particular genres that eventually morph into expectations in them. With mysteries, there’s a crime, a body, clues, and the eventual unraveling. With mysteries, as least in what we’re examining here, we see “sidekicks,” at least with Dupin and Holmes. They’re not only assistants but sounding boards, a physical as well as literary device to work their theories out loud. A twist on this, at least from my perspective, is the TV detective, Columbo. He used the perpetrators themselves as his assistants, always demanding “…one more thing” of them to solve the crime. Either way you want to work it, perhaps it’s a technique the protagonist uses instead of deep POV as he works out the crime.

Writing evolves, and as does story form. What seems stiff now was fluid then. Jane Austen’s dialogue, even though a master of story form, seems rigid to modern readers. Where Dupin used what amounts to soliloquies to get his plot points out, she employed The Letter, to me the most annoying form of info dump. But back then the form was new. Since, it’s been used with annoying frequency, especially in YA fiction (but then everythings new when you’re that young!). My favorite technique, which I use in my own writing, is to dispense information on a need-to-know basis, like dropping breadcrumbs on a trail, very much apropos in the mystery genre.

Valuable advice, indeed!

Why we love those bad, bad boys Revisited

marlon7

Yes, another revisit. I’ve been busy! I promise, I’ll have a new entry next week! But this is for all you romance writers out there.

We’ve all read about them. Those incorrigible, gorgeous rakes who don’t give a damn about stealing your company, raiding your trust fund, double-crossing the best friend or breaking your heart. He’s the one with the best lines even though they slice to the quick, telegraphed from a mouth crooking sardonic and eyes that flash and burn. He’s always the snappiest dresser with the shiniest shoes and the most expensive jewelry, more often bought with your line of credit. If he gets in a fight he wins without mussing a hair, and that slight nick high on his cheekbone only makes him more dashing. His voice is smooth as silk and it rumbles through you like an electric charge, as he’s talking you out of your clothes and everything in your wallet. He’s on everyone’s A List, is invited to all the best parties, frequents the finest restaurants and clubs, and is only seen with the most beautiful woman. He has the tightest abs and the broadest shoulders, is tall and lean and impossibly gorgeous. He’s the consummate lover but he’ll never fall in love, yet he’s what every woman wants and what every man wants to be. In film he’s Gordon Gekko the ruthless arbitrageur of Wall Street, in romance, he’s the pitiless rake, Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, in Lisa Kleypas’ wonderful novel, The Devil In Winter. And for all their cunningly manipulative ways, we are unabashedly drawn to them like magnets to metal filings. We worship them, adore them, envy them, lust after them. Only to be cut down and debased and betrayed over and over again. So why in the world are we continually drawn to this bad, bad boys?

Because oh…how we love to see them fall!

And when they do, it’s usually spectacular, a crash and burn of epic proportions. But then we get to witness the most marvelous thing– their redemption–and what a fascinating thing that is, watching these fascinating creatures evolve, scrabbling their way back to the top–and to us. It’s a precipitous climb, full of switchbacks and reversals, but when they finally learn their lesson, we get to wallow in their devotion, their bad, bad ways making them oh-so-good exactly where we need them.

Romance writing is all about the resolution of conflict between two protagonists so love can bloom, and there’s nothing like a rake whose odds are so out of favor, it almost seems impossible he’ll ever end up redeemed. But it also  makes the most compelling reading. Give me a good old bad boy any day, as they’re the most challenging and certainly the most fun. Because as everyone knows, that’s all we girls really wanna have anyway.

Seriously Snark

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