Tag Archives: writing advice

First Annual Graduate Student Choice Reading Brings Alexandra Kleeman to Miami University

“She was truly happy for the first time in her life, and it felt just like living in a small room painted all white…”

So begins Alexandra Kleeman’s Jellyfish, the short story she read this past Thursday to a crowd of people in the Miami University Bookstore.

“I was actually so excited to meet Alexandra Kleeman this morning that I spilled coffee all over myself,” confessed Darren Thompson, a second-year graduate MFA student at Miami, when he introduced her. “Alexandra can write anything. If she wrote a phone book, I would read it and ask her to sign it.”

Alexandra Kleeman at her reading in Shriver Center Bookstore.

For what was both the first annual Miami Creative Writing Residential Graduate Student Choice Reading and the last creative writing event of the Spring 2017 semester, NYC-based writer Alexandra Kleeman chose to read her most recent short story, Jellyfish. As one short story in a trio that examines a character named Karen at three different stages in her life, Jellyfish explores the nuances of character.

“In a lot of short stories you follow a character and get attached to that character, and then that character has sort of a transformative experience at then end… and you never see them again,” Kleeman explained. “But I think that human lives are shaped a little bit differently… We have a lot of partial epiphanies that don’t actually change the way that we live in the world, that don’t take, but sometimes the accumulation of them causes character shift.”

Jellyfish describes Karen at a midpoint in her life: she is on vacation at an idyllic beach resort, and she and her boyfriend have just gotten engaged, but she isn’t happy. In the Q&A session after her reading, Kleeman explained that much of her inspiration for the story came from the concept of “people being unhappy in a place designed to make them happy.”

Jellyfish is also swimming with literal jellyfish, which Kleeman said played a major role in shaping the story. In the story, the jellyfish that fill the oceans around the beach resort act as a sort of a visual trigger for Karen’s anxieties, uncertainty, and fear.

“I’m really fascinated by ways in which our emotions are affectedly poetically,” Kleeman explained. “We can logic and we can rationalize, but the things that we see shift us at a level that isn’t mentally accessible.”

As Darren Thompson explained in his introduction, Kleeman’s writing—most notably, her debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine—often contains elements of the absurd, “a terrain Alexandra navigates with enviable grace.” You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (Harper, 2015), which addressed themes of consumerism, body image, and identity, garnered much critical acclaim. Her second book, Intimations (Harper, 2016) is a collection of short stories which explore life in all of its stages and also frequently incorporates elements of the absurd.

Kleeman, 31, lives and writes in New York City, where she received a MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. Her fiction has been featured in The New Yorker, Paris Review, BOMB, Guernica, HENRY, Gulf Coast, Conjunctions, Zoetrope: All-Story, and DIAGRAM. Her non-fiction writing has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, The Guardian, Tin House, The New Republic, Vogue, and n+1, among others. Kleeman has received numerous scholarships and grants for her work from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Santa Fe Art Institute, Bread Loaf, ArtFarm Nebraska, and from institutions such as the University of Colorado, University of California, Berkeley, Brown University, Harvard University, and Columbia University.  She is also the winner of the 2016 Bard Fiction Prize.

The reading was sponsored by Miami’s Creative Writing Program.

Sarah Lehman
Professional Writing and Media and Culture, ’19
English Department Ambassador

Spotlight on erica lewis

Lewis

I stopped erica lewis (author of multiple books, curator of the John Oates House reading series, and a fine arts publicist who will visit Miami this Wednesday) with some questions about her process, recommendations, and life soundtrack. (Read Lewis’s daryl hall is my boyfriend (2015), murmur in the inventory (2013), and new poems from the forthcoming mary wants to be a superwoman.)

  1. What’s your process like?

It’s very organic. It’s structured, but only in the sense that once I think about doing a project, once I work the logistics out in my head, realize how the poems need to move from point a to b to c, then I can start writing them. They are structured before they are even written. When I write the pieces, I write them in order, so I basically write a poetry book straight through from beginning to end; it’s not a poem here and a poem there and then piece things together. It helps to keep the individual poems working with each other and advancing the story I want to tell. It keeps the whole book moving.  I used to be more rigid and create all sorts of rules for projects, constraints that didn’t let me really deviate from what I was doing or explore other things I wanted to do in the work. Those books were very very different than what I’m doing now with the box set trilogy.

 

  1. What are some influences on your work, and how have they manifested in your writing?

Visual art, music, history – they all influence my work in both content and style. If you read through the box set trilogy books, you’ll find references. If you look beyond the literal influences, you can see it in the language and visual formatting of a page, or the way a poem flows, how the language works with the visual and the lyrical. It’s all interwoven. And then, of course, you have to know your lineage in order to put it all together. The writers who came before you, you have to learn the craft of what they were doing before you can mess around with it and flip it and make it your own and create something new.

 

  1. What would you tell your undergrad self about the literary world that you know now?

The people that love your writing and get your work and champion and support you are not necessarily the people in your immediate surroundings. Sometimes you have to find your people. You have to go outside of your immediate community to be accepted and supported. If you stay within the confines of what one writing community is doing or offering you then you are limiting the potential of your work. Find your people.

 

  1. Do you have any literature or poetry recommendations?

Read everything.

 

  1. If your life had a soundtrack, which song would you pick for it?

Ha ha, my life does have a soundtrack. The “box set” trilogy uses the music of Hall and Oates, Stevie wonder, and Diana Ross. It takes the concept of sound tracking your life and explores songs as memories and triggers. Now, if I had to pick one artist right now, I couldn’t. One song, I couldn’t. And that says something about all of the music that makes up our lives, all of the people, energy, influences, art that makes us whole beings. That soundtrack should never stop.

Brie Moore
Editor-in-Chief of the Creative Writing Department Blog and English Department Ambassador
Creative Writing and Biology ’18

Miami CW’s First Event of 2016: Darrin Doyle

This past Monday evening, the Creative Writing Program kicked off this semester’s reading series with author Darrin Doyle. His most recent book, titled The Dark Will End the Dark (published in February 2015), is a collection of short stories that explore the human body and reason. Miami University professor Dr. Joseph Bates introduced Doyle; the two have been friends since they were in graduate school at University of Cincinnati together.

“You can just imagine what it was like to have these suckers coming at you in a workshop,” joked Bates, referring to Doyle’s work, which can often turn dark and disturbing.

Doyle first read a short story from Dark, entitled “Foot,” followed by a few different stories he is currently working on, entitled “Dangling Joe,” “Party Town,” “Possibilities and Considerations,” and “Perfect Sandwich.” “We always ask our students to share what they’re working on, so I think it’s only fair we do the same,” explained Doyle, who is currently a professor at Central Michigan University.

Author Darrin Doyle sits with and signs books for Miami University students after the reading.

Author Darrin Doyle sits with and signs books for Miami University students after the reading.

The pieces that Doyle read all explored different themes. “Foot” is a grisly fable-like tale of a mother’s devotion to her child. “Dangling Joe” is a satire of American society and media, while “Party Town” might resonate deeply with certain residents of Oxford. “Possibilities and Considerations” is an experiment in format that gives a wry, and at some times satirical, insight into life. “Perfect Sandwich” is the story of a man’s desperation to be good enough.

The audience, engaged and enthusiastic throughout the entirety of the reading, supplied no shortage of questions for Doyle, asking about his strategy for writing, influences for different works, and advice on writing a novel. “I’ve written, in the last year, about 23 of these short stories,” said Doyle, referring to his as-of-yet-unpublished works. “It’s weird when you start noticing [recurring] themes.”

When asked what his influences were while writing The Dark Will End the Dark, Doyle said, “Franz Kafka and Flannery O’Connor are two of my biggest influences. Their characters might have a physical ailment, [but] their souls are grotesque… Fairy tales, folk tales, and fables have always had their hold on me… I like the feeling of the surreal that’s grounded in reality.”

As for advice on writing, Doyle says, “It’s great when you’re inspired by an idea… but then you’ve got to sit down and write. One sentence leads to another, and hopefully you surprise yourself a bit.”

Can’t Go Over It: Dismantling the Writing Wall

Creative Writing MA student Katy Shay talks the writing life and about how to beat the writer’s wall.

In my life as a writer I’ve encountered “the wall” several times. By the wall I refer to that feeling you get as a writer where you suddenly cannot write and you cannot believe that you were ever able to write anything. The wall is also known as a block, but runs deeper, as it isn’t simply “I can’t think of anything to write.” The wall, to me, feels like a physical impossibility, not just creatively and mentally, to write. Sometimes the circumstances of life and death can erect the walls and sometimes it seems that they just build themselves. Like you were out running your errands or working and when you came home to write: BAM! Who put this up?

Whenever I hit the wall I get freaked out and feel like I’m never going to write again. Then I start having thoughts about being a fraud, wondering if I was any good to begin with, or falling into a pit of self-loathing about my inability to create/write/do something other than stare at the wall dumbly.

As someone who’s encountered this, I’ve tried to figure out solutions for it. There are a few ways to get around a wall: up, under, around (for walls do not circle the earth). The best and most badass advice is Patti Smith’s who says, “When you hit a wall, just kick it in.” It is extremely good advice; however, it hasn’t always worked for me. I think this is because some sort of anxiety or depression often accompanies the wall brought on by wintertime and eighteen-month-long election cycles and general ennui.

The wall hits me, usually, before I have to start a new project. Sometimes starting projects can fill me with existential dread and so this dread reinforces the wall, making it un-kickable. What I’ve found works best, for me, in these times is to try dismantle the wall. I look at it and ask, what are the bricks are made of? What holds them together? Eventually the bricks begin to loosen and I can switch them around. Instead of trying to move past the wall I attempt to manipulate it, move it, test it and see what’s in there.

So what does this look like in terms of writing? Usually at this point of wall-induced frustration I’ll just sit down and free write, maybe considering the questions above, maybe just writing the word “butts” over and over again (there are some free writes that I’ve done that easily could be turned into Tina Belcher erotic friend-fiction). The point of this is to free myself of the expectation that everything needs to come out perfectly and be immediately a work of great brilliance and genius. Usually I’ll perform this free-writing/reflecting on the block/putting whatever nonsense happens in my brain down on the page a few times in a week (if the wall comes up around a deadline I rapid-fire this process). Once the week is over, I’ll look at what I’ve written down. I handwrite so I usually type up what I’ve written. Then I take it, cut it up, put it through filters, and play around with writing the same sentence five different ways. Generally the finished project is garbage, sometimes it’s decent, and occasionally it’s good. The finished project is less important than the process. By meditating on how the wall got there, taking down the power of expectation, and manipulating the very words the wall is made of I remind myself that I am fully capable of the real work of writing: asking and answering to the self.

The process reminds me of how I write, how I actually get the work of writing done. I am sure your process looks different. Maybe you type at the computer and never edit or always edit or always write with a glass of wine. Honoring and reminding yourself of your process brings the ability to create back into your life. It begins to dismantle the wall.

A Visit from Alissa Quart

Just a week after Beth Harrison’s visit, we were graced by another New York-based writer, Alissa Quart. Last month, Miami University Press published Quart’s first book of poetry, Monetized. In celebration of her book’s publication, Quart paid us a whirlwind visit here in Oxford. You’d never guess it, but Monetized is her first book of poetry. However, it’s only the most recent addition to her list of commendable accomplishments. Quart is an Emmy-nominated multimedia producer, the author of three non-fiction books, a co-editor of a journalism non-profit called Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and a revered journalist, professor, and poet.

During her visit to campus, Quart agreed to attend an informal lunch with students. Because her work is so versatile, students from a variety of majors showed up to meet her and chat over Chinese take out. The students took advantage of the opportunity to pick her brain, and got a free lesson on how to write a hard-hitting piece of journalism. When asked how she manages to juggle so many projects at once, Quart said the key to staying motivated is having a lot to say. She feels an obligation to give voices to those who might not otherwise be heard, and that’s what keeps her chugging along.

Although her work as a poet is secondary to her other professional undertakings at the moment, Quart was a poet first. She was a bit of a poetry whiz as a kid, and she won poetry contests while in grade school. Poetry used to be her “thing.” But, being as multi-talented as she is, Quart was drawn to other artistic pursuits after entering college. Now, she says she writes poetry to help her make sense of her emotions. Much of her journalistic work focuses on topics like economic hardship, parenting, mental illness, and urban living. As you can imagine, there are ugly sides to all of these topics. Quart says that much of the poetry in Monetized evolved from notes that she’d scribble down while working on other projects. Poetry allows her to vent when she’s feeling the feels.

Quart is a commanding public speaker, and she oozed confidence when reading from Monetized. The audience was mesmerized. She read to a full house at the Miami University Bookstore.

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To say that Alissa Quart is busy would be a massive understatement. You’d have a hard time convincing us that she even has time to sleep. We were so pleased to have her here and grateful for the time she devoted to us. If you want to know what all the fuss is about, you can order a copy of Monetized by clicking here.