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Final Residency—Final day

It’s a day of lasts for me. My last seminar, Rick Moody and Susan Minot discussing John Cheever (although I have to say that I’m finding a lot of Cheever to be a bit of a mixed bag, with more duds than successes to my mind, but I did rather enjoy the convoluted storytelling of “The Day the Pig Fell in the Well”).

Then my last lunch of beige food, albeit a bit less beige than previously.

And then finally the hooding ceremony and I’m now not just a writer, but a master of the fine art of writing (creatively). Plus I apparently now own this groovy outfit:


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Final Residency—Days 7 & 8

Day 7

The morning opened with Rick Chase’s seminar. He began with a bit of “buddhist” meditation. I use quotes and lowercase since I’m not entirely sure if that’s how he views it, although the mindfulness of it does seem very much in that vein. He expanded from this into some poetic writing exercises.

Our first afternoon seminar consisted of Marcus Wicker and Ian Stansel talking about how to break out of the slush pile. Perhaps the most helpful part of this was learning what Stansel saw too much of in the fiction queue: first-person stories. Merely by writing in the third-person, a story can stand out. It kind of sucks for me since the vast majority of my short fiction is in the first person.

The second afternoon seminar was Leslie Jamison talking about going beyond the self in memoir, focusing on Joan Didion’s “The White Album” in articulating her point.

The evening reading was Ian Stansel reading from Everybody’s Irish and Leslie Jamison reading from The Empathy Exams.

Day 8

Rick Moody

We began with more open time for those of us in our final residency. I got a bunch of writing done before lunch. The afternoon began with the last of the graduating student seminars. I heard Kathy Lockwood-Fleming give an excellent talk on characterization in memoir, Jared Silvia discussing revision techniques and Shane Hinton on the work of Daniil Kharms.

TheIMG 0588 second afternoon seminar was another rerun, this time Enid Shomer revisiting a topic that she lectured on back in my first residency.

The evening reading was Rick Moody and Susan Minot. Moody read one story from Demonology and an excerpt from his upcoming novel. Minot read from Thirty Girls, her novel about the atrocities of Joseph Kony’s army in Uganda.

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Final Residency—Days 5 and 6

Monday was another short day. After lunch we had Mikhail Iossel giving a seminar on close reading, which was a repeat of a seminar from an earlier residency. 

Then we had the final round of readings from the graduates. I really enjoyed the stories from Jared Silvia and Benjamin Tier, although all were good.

The evening reading was Carmen Gimenez Smith reading from her poetry. We’ll have her for a seminar tomorrow afternoon.

Tuesday opened with a fiction workshop with Jeff Parker, looking at “Difficult Fiction” we examined stories by Lydia Davis, Etgar Keret and Daniil Kharms, taking them apart to see how they worked and then trying to wriIMG 0549te something emulating the technique. I ended up taking a divergent path from something that Keret wrote in “Fatso” to do something which didn’t really meet the parameters of the exercise, but which I think might be usable somehow.

The afternoon began with the first round of graduating student seminars. In addition to my own seminar, I attended seminars from Christina Boussias on revision andIMG 0552 Kari Fuhrman on multiple plots in the novel. 

This was followed by a seminar from Carmen Gimenez Smith on documentary poetry which has inspired me to consider actually tackling the Chicago Sonnets project I’ve been thinking about for the past few years.

The evening readings were Marcus Wicker reading from his poems and UT MFA alum Nathan Deuel reading from his book, Friday Was the Bomb.

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Final Residency—Day 4

The day began with a seminar led by Benjamin Percy and his deep voice of doom. He spoke a bit about genre “barriers” remarking, “So much of what AWP is about is taxonomy… Rather than genre barricades, perhaps we should distinguish literature on the basis of ‘good’ and ‘not good’.”

The afternoon was composed of a visit to Ybor City with a discussion about the history of Ybor and the mingling of the immigrant communities which formed its core from Gary Mornino. No evening reading, leaving me time to catch up on some reading and writing time.


Final Residency—Day 3

We began the day with another fiction workshop, this time led by Jessica Anthony, who answered the question of how do we compete with all the multitudinous inputs of contemporary life? Her answer: Surrealism!

We did a few surrealist exercises: First was the two minute conversation: Two Jason Ockert eople speak to each other for two minutes continuously on two different subjects simultaneously (“Victoria’s Secret” and “frogs”). Dialog ends up being nonsense, but entertaining because of the juxtaposition. 

Anthony pointed out that when people speak, we’re getting not only the spoken dialog, but the entirety of their subconscious as well.

The next exercise had us paired and one partner wrote five questions, the other five answers, without consultation. This creates a dialog, again nonsensical but with occasionally surprising emergences of meaning.

Language has multiple layers of meanings. Surrealism raises questions rather than answering questions.

Benjamin Percy

The seminar du jour was Jason Ockert on digression and how a digression can serve to develop the story in surprising ways.

Afterwords was round two of student readings, including myself. My selections were two short stories, “Le Pont des Arts” and “Thy Neighbour’s Goods” both of which, but especially the latter, will well-received.

Evening readings were Jason Ockert and Benjamin Percy. Percy is an amazing reader with a scary intense deep voice, well-suited for reading from his werewolf novel, Red Moon.

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Final residency—Days 1 and 2

Day 1

In a near-replay of last January’s travel difficulties, I arrived at the hotel at 4a. Despite a mere three hours of sleep, I managed to make it to the opening session on time and even have a bit of prep time in the morning.

After the initial orientation, we had a breakdown by cohort with those of us in our final residency learning about life after the MFA from Erica Dawson and Jessica Anthony. 

Our first seminar of the day was David Kirby talking about book reviewing. He views this as a great opportunity for writers since, “Nobody wants to do book reviews.” He advises using clips of previous reviews as a means to work your way up the food chain from indie publications to paid reviewing. The latter doesn’t necessarily pay a lot, but $350–600 for a review is typical.

David Kirby

He went on to look at structural aspects of book reviews using a few reviews he had written for The New York Times and The Washington Post to illustrate his points.

The reading for the day took place early and featured Kirby and his wife Barbara Hamby each reading from their poetry.

We then adjourned to the hotel for the pool party and barbecue. There was a threat of lightning storms so the barbecue ended up being burgers and hot dogs served from steam trays in the hotel ballroom. The rain held off so we ended up mostly standing around near the pool although some of our number had brought their suits and actually entered the pool.

Day 2

Kevin Moffet

The day opened with a genre workshop from Josip Novakovich. Those of us in our final term had some open time while the others had their small group workshops. 

After lunch, Barbara Hamby talked about writing across genres, although like so many people, the question of how do you know whether something is a poem or a story was not really answered satisfactorily.

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We then had the first round of graduate student readings (I’m on tomorrow), some mighty fine stuff there.

The evening readings were Kevin Moffett and Tony D’Souza. Kevin had a reading consisting of three monologues from The Silent History and he employed MFA students Kat Grilli and Benjamin Tier to perform two of them. Their theatrics actually made for some of the better readings and I look forward to hearing them read their own work later in the residency.

Tony read from an article he recently published about his last trip to Côte d’Ivoire.

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Residency day 9

And the last day of my penultimate residency. One of these kind of open days. A morning residency with Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin which, it turns out, was not so much about collaboration (although they did talk about writing The Tilted World towards the end of their time and more about writing very short pieces. 

Then a workshop, lunch, nap and the big event for the day, the first-ever hooding ceremony for our MFA grads. (As an aside, I’m not loving that term “hooding”, the images it conjures up being either the KKK or Abu Ghraib.) Great to see the first group get their degrees and hear a little about their theses. 

January 2014 Graduates of the UT MFA Program

And then the traditional closing party which included the announcement of the winner of the fifth-ever Tampa Bay Hotel/Plant Hall Beautiful-Weird-Cool-Spooky Old Place Writing Contest. Turns out it was me.

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Residency day 8

We’re in the final stretch on the residency. Our morning residency was Hal Hartley talking nominally about dialogue but as much talking about how his writing process builds on the standard three-act 64-scene screenplay format but then is willing to move beyond that.

After workshop and lunch, we then had a panel on “Literary Professionalism,” and then the semi-annual book arts seminar, at which I did get a chance to see a couple things I’ve not done before (as opposed to the preceding three), with marbling paper and a different sewing pattern for multi-signature books that doesn’t use ribbons or cords.

The evening reading was Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin who read their work separately before joining together to read their recent novel written in collaboration, The Tilted World.

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Residency day 7

We began with a fiction workshop on revision from Corinna Vallianatos. She began with her top ten on revision, with the #1 position comprised of suggestions from the class:

10. Put your classmates’ response letters away. Read them, but don’t keep them handy.

9. Be impatient. Be impatient with your own preciousness. Revision is like waking up with a hangover. You need to have the cold clear gaze of the morning after when looking at your work.

8. Be deliberate. Try to determine exactly what’s supposed to happen in the scene and what it’s supposed to do so it does something unique for the story. 

7. Secure the point of view. Make sure that POV changes are done with intentionality.

6. Sharpen description. Whenever we go to a new place, spend at least one or two sentences describing the place. Keep describing, keep showing, never let up on the showing. Describe everyone in your story, no matter how briefly. Give everyone at least one sentence of description, ideally before they start speaking. Avoid generic description. Show what’s unique or distinctive about a character. Description is a conduit for depicting character.

5. Tighten and sharpen language. Choose an arbitrary goal to trim x words from a story to remove needless words: direction words, redundancies. “he nodded his head” to “he nodded”. If the adverb doesn’t enlarge the verb then get rid of it. Make verbs as active as possible, nouns as specific and precice as possible. Pick a tense, stay in the tense.

4. Be aware of your own tendencies. Know your work better than anyone else. Watch for the unusual words or sentence constructions, crutch descriptions. Vary sentence structures and word choice.

3. Dialogue. Dialogue needs to move the story forward and/or characterize. Look for places where dialogue can be sharpened or excised.

2. Read it out loud. Nothing makes problems more obvious than reading it out loud. It can be interesting to hear your words in someone else’s mouth. “Computer can read it out loud for you if you don’t have a friend” —Steven Paul Lansky

1. Suggestions from class: Know when to stop • Have no bias • Be willing to retype the whole work • Keep your original draft • Remember the small details • Cut up the chapter or story and then rearrange to re-envision the work • Let the text rest • Let a trusted reader comment on it

This was followed by a writing exercise on writing beyond the story:

Have the main character of the story you’re thinking of do the following exercises—as if he/she has his/her own notebook. Try, as much as your sense of decorum allows, to pretend that your character is writing the following, not you:

• Write a diary entry for the time of the story

• Write a diary entry for the time preceding the story

• Write a letter to someone who isn’t in the story about what’s happening in the story

• Write a letter to someone in the story.

Or you might explore places in the story that you haven’t either dramatized or summarized:

• What events happened before the beginning of the story? Before page one? Try writing a scene that comes before the first scene in your story.

• Write past the ending. Write an additional page past where you felt the story’s end was. This allows you (the writer) to understand the ramifications of the events that have already happened.


The rest of the morning was a mentee workshop then after lunch we had the last of the student seminars. I had Resa Albohor writing about leaving the stream of consciousness without drowning and Dan Cox on teaching creative writing in prisons.

Our evening “reading” was a screening of Hal Hartley’s Meanwhile followed by a question and answer session. The star of the film, D. J. Mendel bears a striking resemblance to our own Cully Perlman. He does at least now have an alternative nickname to “Heisenberg.”

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Residency day 6

Our morning seminar was Jason Ockert on writing idiosyncratic characters. How does one go about moving a reader? Balance between writing familiar and IMG 0275 distinctive. That which is relatable and that which is somehow unfamiliar. Who cares about idiosyncratic characters? For Ockert it’s rudimentary. He has a terrible memory: the great thing about literature is the stuff he can’t forget. Distinctive things are easiest to remember.

He gave us a writing exercise: Cards with phobias on them from which we were to write a character without necessarily employing the name of the phobia directly. On the whiteboard, Ockert summarized his talk as:

1. Good writing is capable of moving the reader

2. Write what will be remembered

3. The writer should concern him/herself with writing that is both familiar and distinctive.

4. Character quirks exist everywhere because we live in a weird fucking world.

5. Treat your strange characters with kindness. 

We continued with workshops and then I attended student seminars from Nicholas Halley and Ryan McConkey. Our final seminar of the day was a rerun of Enid Shomer’s seminar from last January.

The evening’s readings were Erica Dawson and Alan Michael Parker.

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