Introducing Shelley Evans, New MFA faculty member at Fairfield!

Shelley Evans began teaching for us as a guest faculty member in Summer 2015, and we are thrilled to welcome her to our regular faculty in the Fairfield Low-Residency MFA. She showed an amazing movie she wrote about the true story of a transgender teen’s murder, “A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Arajo Story,” and we were wowed. Shelley teaches screenwriting in our MFA program and has also launched an innovative multi-genre workshop on storytelling with our co-director Bill Patrick.

Shelley Evans has written teleplays for ABC, CBS, Showtime, USA Network and Lifetime TelevisionScreen shot 2016-02-25 at 10.42.48 AM. Her produced scripts have starred, among others, Anne Heche, Sam Shepard, Josh Brolin, James Caan, Jacqueline Bisset, Candice Bergen and Mercedes Ruehl. She has taught writing at Harvard Extension School, Boston University, New York University, and Boston College and is a member of the Writer’s Guild of America.

I asked Shelley a few questions about her writing process, and here are her thoughtful responses.

What part of your own writing process is essential to your teaching? What have you learned from writing that you feel is always important to share with students?

I was an extremely good student, which in many ways is terrible for writing. I spent my entire education learning how to follow rules– of conformity, punctuation, structure and rhetoric. Not surprisingly, my desire to write, which was strong in childhood, slowly waned. Some time after college I read Silences, by Tillie Olsen, which is about all the ways that we (especially women, and poor people, and people without resources) lose our voices. I was working as a secretary at the time, and I would sit in the stairwell during my lunch hour reading Silences and crying. It had never occurred to me that writers are made, not born, or that anybody with the dream of writing had a right to pursue it. Having had that revelation, I started writing and was almost immediately paralyzed. I was pretty adept at identifying bad writing, intimidated by good writing and completely without strategies for invention. My brother, who is an artist, once expressed amazement at that– the first thing he learned in art school was how to play. Many writers, perhaps with better imagination or more courage, develop those habits instinctively. I had to start from scratch, teaching myself how to brainstorm, to build and rebuild stories, to fail and to dream. Cultivating those habits has been time-consuming and often frustrating– how could I have spent so much time in school and learned so little? Much of my work as a teacher is devoted to exposing the gears and pulleys that drive the creative process: it really can be as simple as setting a timer for twenty minutes and writing without censoring yourself, or studying a great novel (or movie) to identify its major dramatic turning points. When I was young, there was a great silence around creativity, and a shared assumption that only certain people were creative. My mission is to open the trunk and share the toys, so that anybody who wants to play can join.

 What have you been working on in the past few months, and what’s your current challenge as far as the writing goes?

Last spring, for the first time in my life, I took a writing job for the sole purpose of making money and I worked on that project until just before Christmas. The process was both strange and liberating. In the beginning I struggled to make the writing matter, pushing back against network demands that seemed unreasonable and sometimes misguided. I told myself that I was fighting for the good of the script, but at a certain point I realized I was actually fighting for my ego. I couldn’t bear to be involved in a project I didn’t feel proud of. At that point I finally let go and started thinking of myself as a story engineer, brought in to save a collapsing bridge, rather than an artist. As a result, the experience got much easier. But it left me unsettled– is it possible to write for hire without hurting our own work? Does our internal compass get too damaged in the process? In the world of streaming media, where the demand for content is growing, the answer to that question seems extremely important. We might be able to make a living as writers, but at what cost?

Can you share a story about sharing your work with readers/viewers that helps keep you going?

I started working in television because it’s a popular medium that reaches a large audience. I hoped I would have a chance to influence our collective cultural conversation. That turns out to be harder than I thought. But some time ago I worked on a script about a transgender teen named Gwen Araujo. It was a heartbreaking story with a surprisingly uplifting message about a family that supported a child against overwhelming external odds. I am constantly grateful for that project, both because it gave me the opportunity to meet Gwen’s amazing, courageous family and because so many people have told me they were moved by their story.

 

Adriana Páramo, new Fairfield MFA Faculty!

 

flaming cliffs 3
Adriana Páramo

Adriana Páramo came to the Fairfield low-residency MFA Faculty this past winter 2016 residency as a guest writer, and after that we decided we had to have her on the faculty. Lucky for us, she accepted, and we are thrilled to welcome her.

A cultural anthropologist, writer and women’s rights advocate, Páramo is the author of Looking for Esperanza:  The Story of a Mother, a Child Lost, and Why They Matter to Us, winner of the 2011 Benu Press Social Justice and Equity Award in Creative Nonfiction. Páramo immersed herself in the world of undocumented women toiling in the Florida fields to explore the story of an immigrant mother who walked the desert from Mexico to the U.S.  Páramo is also the author of a memoir, My Mother’s Funeral, in which she recreates her Colombian mother’s life in order to understand her own.

Info on Adriana’s books here!

I asked Adriana a few questions about her work-in-progress, her teaching, and the writing life:

What part of your own writing process is essential to your teaching? What have you learned from writing that you feel is always important to share with students?

I write about things that matter to me, things that make me feel like I have my fingers on the pulse of life. Writing about what’s dear to my heart—women, social justice and travel—gives my writing a very personal meaning. I think it’s important that you write about things that matter to you, because when you do, there is no dithering about your voice, your writing has “heart,” and you are more likely to arouse emotion (empathy or otherwise).

Of course this comes with a challenge: Once you decide that you want to write about the loss of a beloved one, or disease, or complex relationships, or your pet, you need to control the narrative in a way that’s compelling without being melodramatic, a narrative laden with sentiment without being sentimental.

What have you been working on in the past few months, and what’s your current challenge as far as the writing goes?

I’m working on multicultural notions of female virginity and the symbolic value of the hymen. It sounds high-brow, but it’s not. What I want to do is a vast, multicultural exploration of how women lose their virginities in their cultures, the intrinsic value of their hymen and the taboos surrounding women’s “first times.”

The challenge is to turn, what I fully expect to be, anthropological research and field work data into a soft narrative that’s appealing, compelling, marketable and fresh.

Can you share a story about sharing your work with readers/viewers that helps keep you going?

I was the special guest at a 250-women gathering here in Doha, Qatar, where I currently live. The women were warm, receptive, and patiently lined up to have my books autographed. So far so good, right? After the meeting I was approached by a lovely Egyptian woman who invited me to speak at the book club to which she belonged. I accepted the invitation and two weeks later I had the opportunity to sit and chat with the book club members: two very aggressive South Africans who couldn’t understand why I had wasted so much time looking for an “illegal” woman and who vehemently refused to call her “undocumented” after I explained the difference; an English woman who was puzzled by the fact that the undocumented women returned to Mexico after all their tragic border crossings into the USA. When I told her that they had gone back to visit their children, she said: couldn’t they just bring their children over for holidays? They have Disney and Universal Studios in Florida. There was also a shy American woman, who looked mortified but made no contributions to the meeting and the Egyptian hostess, who kept bringing snacks to the table whenever the conversation got heated, which was pretty much the whole time.

Long story short, they weren’t sympathetic to the women I wrote about. They perceived me as a good doer with too much free time on my hands and showed little respect for my writing. I had the option to stand up and leave, but I decided to stay and learn what’s like to have your work smeared and stepped on. And I’m glad I did.

I learned that as a social writer I need to be extremely humble. No matter how dear the cause is to my heart, or how much passion I pour onto the page, there will always be those who don’t care about what I write, why I write it, or the lives of the people involved in the process.

But then again, I compare these five women in the book club to the 250 in the auditorium and I know I can use my words to convey a message, I know I can do it. That keeps me going.

If you’re interested in studying with Adriana, please check out the Fairfield MFA program for more information!

Non-Standardized Testing

Sometimes there are no outcomes, no scaffolded learning objectives. Or they are secret and cannot be named. Or they can be named but the methods for tracking the outcomes have not been invented yet and should not be invented.

I had a conversation with a K-12 teacher last week in which she admitted that she had been aghast to find that the creative prompt side of her students’ writing notebooks was sparsely filled at the end of the year. She’s devoted to creative exploration and had to admit that so much more of her students’ notebooks were filled with explanations for how to access and complete the ten (10!) standardized tests they’d been required to take during the school year.

As a college teacher, I don’t have the pressure of standardized testing (yet), but I understand the drift away from pockets of free-form creative activity, even as a creative writing professor. I have so many goals and logistics for big assignments toward the end of my semester that my lesson plans become overly full. I forget that students sometimes mention that the 5-minute “free writes” we do at the beginning of class are the most important. I also lose sight of activities that don’t “go” somewhere, that don’t build toward a massive portfolio or a learning objective (these are some educational buzzwords it’s impossible to avoid).

IMG_5717I’m not against outcomes and objectives and goals. They help us to think big, sometimes, and to plan. But part of my job is to add to that list the objective and the goal and the space to play on the page with the goal of saving the wisp of the soul where no outcome has to be attained. Or where a new hidden goal can be discovered. That’s writing, after all, and the arts—discovering what you didn’t know was there.

I promised the teachers I met with in a Connecticut Writing Project seminar organized by Bryan Crandall that I’d list some of my favorite writing prompts, the kinds of sentences you can throw out to a classroom in the first five minutes, the prompts that don’t have to go anywhere, or that can go somewhere private, where no one is tracking your performance on a test or a spreadsheet. Because we need to preserve that space for ourselves and our students as a place for gaining sustenance for all the outcomes and productions and measurements, a place for the soul to breathe. And I committed to those teachers that I would try to do better, to do the writing prompts every class with my students instead of skipping them when the agenda seemed too packed.

The prompts themselves can be so simple. I think, after years of teaching creative writing, that it’s the prompt combined with the space to dream without a goal that is most important for students.

  1. What is your favorite word? What does it rhyme with? Use those 4 words in a paragraph or a poem.
  2. I wish ….
  3. Permission to imagine: Your mom, as you imagine her at the age you are now. “I imagine….” What would she be doing at this time in an average day?
  4. Write your five imaginary lives.
  5. Looking back, I could never understand…
  6. I am often right about…., I am often wrong about…
  7. I once …., Now I…
  8. Describe the kitchen in a place you grew up.
  9. What is a personal or family object that reflects or represents history?
  10. Write a personal reaction to a world event.
  11. Describe a big event at home.
  12. What were your quirks or obsessions as a young child? What were your favorite things?
  13. Write about a substance that cures an ailment.
  14. Recreate the scene on the day your driver’s license photo was taken.
  15. Describe what you’re wearing: just the facts, but with extreme detail.
  16. Make a list of the specific nouns you’ve encountered so far today.
  17. Go on a rant about an obsession or pet peeve. (This is my favorite)
  18. What kind of food or drink are you? What kind of candy?
  19. Do a portrait of a person. Then describe in detail an object that they hold dear to them.
  20. Describe someone you have a difficult relationship with. Then describe them doing something that they love to do.
  21. Describe how someone close to you would see you.
  22. Describe the last time you saw someone.
  23. Who helped pull you through a rough time?
  24. Compare yourself to a character in a work of fiction.
  25. Describe your weekend. Describe the biggest challenge of this past weekend. Describe the happiest moment.
  26. Describe a place you felt at peace without using the word “peace” or “peaceful,” or a place you felt safe without using the word “safe.”
  27. Start, “But I would not trade it for the world.”
  28. Describe an object. Now describe how it would see you.
  29. Describe the environment inside your head right now. If it were a setting and we could see it, what would it look like?
  30. Write down a list of things you’d like to ask someone if you could.
  31. Who in your life would you research and why?
  32. Do a 5-minute autobiography using only nouns. Now do one using only verbs.
  33. Write about what you do when you’re angry in the present day, including behaviors, concrete details.
  34. Write about “a day in the life of you.”
  35. How would your friends and family describe you?
  36. Write about a time in which you spoke exactly what you wanted to say.
  37. What are you good at? What are your secret areas of expertise?
  38. Write memories of breakfasts.
  39. Come up with a metaphor for today. For yesterday. For the best day.
  40. What would you write if you weren’t afraid?
  41. What I don’t understand is….

The best thing, I think, is when you ask students to come up with their own prompts as an assignment. Have them write prompts on index cards and then you can pick one to start the day, and you can keep the cards for future classes.

Essay Assignment: A Lyric Collaborative Map of Campus

I like playing with web tools for creative writing, but I’ve been slower about adopting these assignments for classes. In December 2014, I attended a three-day “Digital Humanities” workshop where faculty from the Fairfield U. English Department got to brainstorm ways to integrate digital tools into our courses. One of my colleagues, Shannon Kelley, had spoken during a meeting that fall about an effort to get students to collaborate in populating a map of London within the field of Shakespeare scholarship.I’ve also long admired Dinty W. Moore’s fantastic and playful map essay “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge.” Check it out. I love that these familiar platforms for information can be turned into art.

An image of Dinty W. Moore's "Mr. Plimpton's Revenge"; click on picture to go to the essay.
An image of Dinty W. Moore’s “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge”; click on picture to go to the essay.

Mapping…. Hmmmmm….After mulling over the possibilities, I assigned my students in ENW 206: Intro to Creative Nonfiction a collaborative map assignment. I decided to do a map of our campus. I created a Google Map using My Maps, which has diverged from the navigation Google Map into a very complicated and powerful web-based thing. (More on the how-to of the map-making below).

The Assignment

Here’s the  Google Map essay assignment with the directions I gave my students.

This flash nonfiction assignment will be to create a polished description of a location on campus.

1) First, choose a location on campus. Go to that location and spend at least 20 minutes there with a notebook. Write about what you see, feel, and think, then craft a lyric description of this location. Take one or more photos.

2) Post the essay on your blog with one or more photos.

3) Find the location you chose on our Google Map. Make a location, then insert a hyperlink of your published post and embed it into the Google Map along with your description. If this is too complicated, don’t worry. We will spend a portion of a class session linking locations for these entries on a Google Map. Each will be linked to the map.

Here’s how to do the linking:

  1. Go to this link: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zw_0nsn2JN_w.kg4YFJl90itQ
  2. You have been invited to edit the map, which means you should be able to put a location in the layer titled “Class Project.”
  3. To add a location, first click on the little symbol that looks like an inverted droplet.
  4. Click anywhere on the map. A “new location” will appear.
  5. Title the location. Cut and paste your essay into the box.
  6. Click on the “photo” icon and paste in the link to your blog entry. (I’m not sure if that part will work but we’ll see)
  7. Click “save.”
  8. Drag the icon to mark your location. If you need to see the map in more detail, click the + sign in the lower right hand corner to zoom in.
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This is a photo of my office; I started the map with a “sample” essay of my entry along with one of my photos.

Setting Up the Map

To make a map for my students, I set a default view to my campus, which took some playing around with. Then I invited my students to edit via email; to do that, I clicked on the “Share” button that appears when you are creating a map in Edit mode. When students accept the invitation to edit the map, they have to then click on “edit” to be able to make changes and create their entry.

To add photos, you have to click on the camera, but then the only images the Map program accepts are those from internet links. I have my students do individual blogs for my class, so they uploaded their photos and draft essays to a blog entry first. If you upload a photo in WordPress, you can click on the photo to get a unique URL that you then paste in after you click the camera. This allows for multiple photos!

It appears that the “caption” for each entry is about 500 words, so students with longer entries then pasted a link at the bottom of their entry to their blog so a visitor could read the full essay.

The Lyric Essay Map of Fairfield University

And… here is the finished product! You can click on each of the locations to see each students’ mini-lyric essay along with photos they took of their location. I am so happy with this moody, specific portrait of campus.

 

 

Shadow Syllabus

  1. IMG_3738I’ll tell you exactly how to get an A, but you’ll have a hard time hearing me.
  2. I could hardly hear my own professors when I was in college over the din and roar of my own fear.
  3. Those who aim for A’s don’t get as many A’s as those who abandon the quest for A’s and seek knowledge or at least curiosity.
  4. I had bookmarked a citation for that fact, and now I can’t find it anywhere.
  5. The only way to seek knowledge is to open your hands and let your opinions drop, but that requires even more fear.
  6. The goals and outcomes I am required to put on my syllabus make me depressed; they are the illusion of controlling what cannot be controlled.
  7. I end up changing everything halfway through the semester anyway because the plan on paper is never what the living class ends up being about.
  8. I desperately needed A’s when I was in college because I didn’t know what else I was besides an A.
  9. Our flaws make us human; steer toward yours. I steer toward mine. That won’t always be rewarded in “the real world.”
  10. “The real world” isn’t the real world.
  11. I realize that I, as the authority figure in this room, might trigger all kinds of authority issues you have. Welcome to work and the rest of your life.
  12. I have a problem with authority figures myself, but I’ve learned how to work with it. Watch my cues.
  13. I think I have more to teach you about navigation than about commas, although I’m good at commas.
  14. This is about commas, but it is also about pauses and breaths and ways to find moments of rest in the blur of life’s machinery.
  15. I hope we can make eye contact.
  16. One of you who is filled with hate for this class right now will end up loving it by the end.
  17. One of you who I believe to be unteachable and filled with hate for me will end up being my favorite.
  18. One of you will drive me to distraction and there’s nothing I can do about it.
  19. Later I will examine the reason you drive me to distraction and be ashamed and then try to figure out my own limitations.
  20. There will always be limitations, and without my students I wouldn’t see them as easily.
  21. Sometimes I will be annoyed, sarcastic, rushed, or sad; often this is because you are not doing the readings or trying to bullshit me.
  22. Students are surprised by this fact: I really really really want you to learn. Like, that’s my THING. Really really a lot.
  23. I love teaching because it is hard.
  24. Someone in this classroom will be responsible for annoying the hell out of you this semester, and it won’t be me.
  25. Maybe it will be me. Sometimes it is, but often it is not.
  26. I won’t hold it against you unless you treat me with disrespect.
  27. You should rethink how you treat the people who bring you food at McDonald’s, if you are this person, as well as how you treat your teachers.
  28. I hope you are able to drop the pose of being a professional person and just settle for being a person.
  29. Everyone sees you texting. It’s awkward, every time, for everyone in the room.
  30. Secret: I’ve texted in meetings when I shouldn’t have and I regret it.
  31. Secret: I get nervous before each class because I want to do well.
  32. Secret: when I over-plan my lessons, less learning happens.
  33. Secret: I have to plan first and THEN abandon the plan while still remembering its outline.
  34. Secret: It’s hard to figure out whether to be a cop or a third-grade teacher. I have to be both. I want to be Willie Wonka. That’s the ticket. Unpredictable, not always nice, high standards, and sometimes candy.
  35. What looks like candy can be dangerous.
  36. Secret: Every single one of your professors and teachers has been at a point of crisis in their lives where they had no idea what the fuck to do.
  37. Come talk to me in my office hours, but not to spin some thin line of bullshit, because believe it or not, I can see through it like a windowpane.
  38. Some of you will lose this piece of paper because you’ve had other people to smooth out your papers and empty your backpack for as long as you can remember, but that all ends here. There’s no one to empty your backpack. That’s why college is great and scary.
  39. Maybe there’s never been anyone to empty your backpack. If there hasn’t been, you will have a harder time feeling entitled to come talk to me or ask for help.
  40. I want you, especially, to come talk to me.
  41. You can swear in my classroom.
  42. Welcome. Welcome to this strange box with chairs in it. I hope you laugh and surprise yourself.

-by Sonya Huber

(I’m so happy teachers like this and want to use; it’s fine if you edit a version to take out the swearing if you’re using it with students! All the best, Sonya)

Edit: Here’s a Shadow Syllabus for your use.

The “Free” Workshop as a Substitute for a Reading?

I didn’t mean to fill my schedule up like this, but it looks like I’ll be reading or teaching at a bunch of places this spring, including four libraries and one conference in Connecticut, a panel on memoir at AWP in Seattle and at a reading for Daniel Nester’s Incredible Sestina Anthology, and River Teeth Nonfiction Conference in Ohio. The complete list of events is here along with all the details.

photo (18)Which Brings Me to a Few Thoughts on Events…

One thing I have learned this winter as I scheduled some of these visits is that it seems to be much easier to get a gig at a library offering your services to teach a free or low-cost craft class than it is to propose a reading to a place that you have no prior relationship.

To back up a few years…When my first book came out, my “tour” consisted of me calling independent bookstores and a few bigger bookstores in towns where I had other events or couches to crash on. It wasn’t big. But even as a not-big tour, it was small. (Oh that lonely Barnes & Noble in Mankato, MN, where I talked with one World-War II aircraft enthusiast for an hour and sold zero books.) That’s par for the course for touring, but now I’m thinking I went about it wrong. My second book, for reasons having to do with personal life and childcare, got no tour to speak of. The middle child….

Anyway, this winter as part of my job with the Fairfield University Low-Residency MFA Program, I quickly scheduled five events at Connecticut libraries, which surprised me because I’d never had that much luck scheduling anything before anywhere. There was frankly more demand than I could meet. The difference? I just offered a workshop instead of a reading. But how much difference is there?

These contacts were initially sent out because of promotional work the Fairfield University MFA is doing in Connecticut, but they were “cold” emails sent to libraries offering our services as faculty. We quickly learned that memoir and creative nonfiction are hot topics with library patrons, so I followed up and offered short workshops on the craft of writing, depending on what the librarians thought would be most interesting to their audiences.

This required almost no saleswomanship at all on my part (which is good, because I don’t have any). It also didn’t require proving that I had a new book out (I don’t.)

One question I have is whether this is low-balling my services as a teacher in the hopes of selling book and/or getting local contacts. To mitigate this, I made a limit (and had to stick to it): I said I’d do an hour “intro” talk or workshop, but I wouldn’t agree to come back unless there was a regular payment attached for teaching.

In the end, I wonder if this ends up being any different than a reading for a little-known author. For a hometown event, it’s best to do a reading, of course. But when I visited the library in Haddam, CT, this fall, a place I knew not a soul, I had an engaged but small workshop which took an hour, most of which was Q& A from the audience on craft and “getting started” questions. In response, I talked extensively about my own writing and experience, and I read a teeny bit from my books. I got a small stipend from the library to cover mileage. And I sold three books, which is not a ton, but if you’re a little-known writer, you know that that’s better than many readings.

Plus, there’s the idea that you’re giving attendees both something they can use and giving them a taste of your own work–so, a double win.

If you’re thinking about doing this in your own area, it’s key to clear in advance if you’re allowed to sell books.

This wasn’t an idea I would have come up with on my own, but I’d love  to hear if anyone else has had good experiences with the “workshop as reading” idea at library or community centers.

P.S.– Wanted to share with you that I’ve had a few pieces published recently online:

Picking Up,” Full Grown People, Jan. 6, 2014. This is adapted from the manuscript I’m working on now.

The Final Bakesale,” As It Ought To Be, Dec. 29, 2014.

And… I think that’s it for now. And there will be an ebook of mine coming out shortly from SheBooks, which is publishing a lot of great work by women as stand-alone ebooks. Pretty exciting.

Teaching the Exploratory Essay

We want to know when essays first entered your life, which essays really speak to you, and how you as a teacher and a writer work with essays, for yourself and with your students. The essay–as you might know if you're interested in the form–is many things to many people. We (Ioanna Opidee and Sonya Huber) have been meeting for months to talk about the exploratory essay, which is what we're calling the Montaigne-influenced “wandering” mode in nonfiction writing. Wandering, yes, but also some pointed journeying. We believe the essay is a mutable form, maybe a mode more than a form, and we see “essaying” in many kinds of writing, and even in fiction and poetry. We have taught the traditional “persuasive” essay in our composition classes, and we have recently both been trying to teach the more “wandering” mode. At the same time, we think there's room in the essay for straight talk, and even for re-imagining and re-seeing what actually persuades or connects with a reader. We're especially interested in persuasion now, as the federal guidelines for teaching nonfiction in the Common Core State Standards Initiative will affect how so many students in K-12 public schools encounter the essay. Currently, we have a chapter on this topic appearing in a forthcoming anthology and an NCTE panel on the topic in November. Our larger project is a book in which we take on how we might teach the skills that lead to essaying, and how we might communicate the value of essaying in concrete terms, lined up with curriculum standards, for a wider audience, a way of bringing together essaying expertise in the literary community with the needs of public schools and everyone who teaches writing. We are interested in hearing from writers who love the essay form and teachers who teach the essay form. Take our survey to tell us all about it. Thank you!