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Coral Gables Catalog

The city beautiful. The coconut tree is gone. There are fresh tree stumps everywhere. The thick glass panel of my porch door cracked during Irma. I listened to the wind pressing against it, spreading the shatter out in thick lines. With my remaining phone battery, I took photos of 3 spread tarot readings and PMed them to my friends. This is how I learned to do tarot, siphoning the small amount of electricity out of my hand.

What does it mean to be in the present moment? Do you love the humidity, the way the air weighs hot and heavy? I haven’t been back to the beach yet. I live in Coral Gables, walk everywhere, past post-deco houses with backyards that open to an ocean channel.

Who wouldn’t love to visit the Vizcaya Gardens, with its made-up name, its stone mermaid colossus where the ship would dock, deposit James Deering, the agricultural millionaire, its owner.

The royal poinciana growing in my neighbor’s yard was stripped of its orange leaves and I don’t know if they’ll come back. The trees laid dead in the street for months. When the storm came, we were all buried in trees, ancient banyans tipped over and blocking entire streets.

I’m sorry we killed the mangrove tree. I’m sorry for all of it. I went for a walk in the lightning storm, contemplating the probability I’d be struck. The street flooded with bright pink and yellow flower petals. They swam into my shoes and around my shins. I don’t remember what I was doing out there.

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The Tax Bill and Graduate Students: What We Know as of December 2, 2017

I wish this post didn’t need to be written, but unfortunately, it’s a tumultuous time with regard to the future of funding for graduate students, including those pursuing an MFA.

As many of you know, earlier this week, Republicans in the House passed a comprehensive tax bill, and last night, Republicans in the Senate passed a similar comprehensive tax bill in a 51-49 vote. The Senate and the House will now have to reconcile the differences in the two bills before creating a unified bill to pass on to President Trump, who will undoubtedly sign it into law.

So how does this pertain to graduate students? Well, we’re not sure yet. The reason for this is because of a key difference between the tax bill passed by the House and that passed by the Senate. The provisions in the tax overhaul passed by the House would be detrimental for any graduate students in the United States receiving a tuition remission as part of their financial package (this is the case with most if not all funded MFA programs). According to the tax bill passed in the House, the tuition remission received would be considered taxable income, so if you were attending a university where you were earning a stipend of, say, $15,000 and the theoretical cost of tuition for the university would be $40,000/year, then rather than just paying taxes on the $15,000 (currently the case), you would pay taxes on the combined stipend and tuition remission, or $55,000, even though you’re never actually seeing that money from your remission. As I wrote about in my previous post, MFA stipends are already difficult enough to try to live on, even at their highest quantities, and paying taxes on $55,000 rather than $15,000 would make doing an MFA untenable for the vast majority of students.

Of lesser concern but still relevant is that the House bill eliminates student loan debt write-offs, which would affect students who either have loans from college or take out loans during graduate school to supplement the stipend. Another aspect to consider (one that will almost definitely make it into the final bill) is that the healthcare mandate imposed by the Affordable Care Act will be eliminated, with projections predicting that 13 million people will lose healthcare coverage. If taxation of the tuition remission is somehow avoided (discussed in the paragraph below), this would make graduate schools offering free or cheap health insurance even more attractive to prospective students.

The only positive is that the Senate bill did not contain a provision for the taxation of tuition waivers, which means it is currently unclear whether the House measure will be in the final version of the bill. One difficulty is that we don’t have insight as to why the Senate bill didn’t contain this provision–is it enough Republican senators are against the provision such that they would fight its inclusion in the final bill? Or was the omission purely incidental such that the final bill will cater to the desires of the Republicans in the House? We won’t have an answer to this question until information about the final bill is released, so all we can do at the moment is both cross our fingers and put pressure on Senate Republicans to refuse to include that aspect of the House bill.

And if the provision in the House bill does pass? The immediate consequences would be that graduate school (MFA’s, MA’s, and PhD’s alike) would become unaffordable for most students once the provision was put into effect. The hope would be that universities offering graduate programs would find some loophole to avoid the tuition waiver tax, but it’s unclear how feasible this would be and/or how long it would take for universities to put changes into effect.

So hang tight. Put pressure on middle-of-the-road Republicans in the Senate. Once the details of the final tax bill are complete, we’ll have more of an idea as to what we’re up against. Also, I am not an expert in this arena, so if anyone has any useful additional information, please feel free to comment.

On Goal Setting

When we were young, Pops’ promised my older brother and me that we’d go somewhere new as a family every year—if we had the money. With enough savings we could take a trip to the motherland (the Philippines) or a trip to Canada; maybe we’d even go across America in an RV. We thought we could go anywhere Pops would dream up, and we ate every word of it—but there was never enough money to do any of these things or the time.

There was always another overtime shift available to help pay off an overdue medical bill or credit card payment. We spent money as fast as we tried saving it. There was never enough of anything. That’s part of the beauty of growing up in the working, immigrant, poor: you’re always hopeful for shit to get better—if it doesn’t come, it doesn’t matter; what matters is that dream for a better existence, once.

All we thought about was money, work, and ways to make money in the future so we could live like the superstars we saw on the television. I was young then, like twelve or fourteen or some shit, and I started to figure out ways I could make money without having to ask Pops, anything to avoid him worrying about some long overdue bill. I’d steal from the cafeteria to save lunch money, sneak into packed theatres when the usher wasn’t looking and started to look for work as soon as I could.

Still, the three of us never really went anywhere.

#

During the past summer I wrote my MFA Years application with the following goals:

  1. Work on my essay writing
  2. Document my first year at Alabama as best as I can
  3. Keep to my deadlines

It is now the tail end of November, and my October essay is over a month late. The original article in mind was going to be a dialogue about Filipino history month. It came up short and half-written. A Filipino American who can’t write a small essay on Filipinos and Filipino culture in relation to creative writing and MFA programs. Ancestors be proud.

I’m finding it harder to write about myself. I’m writing on my own, submitting short works to magazines (and getting rejected by said magazines), working a part-time tutoring gig, and reading Filipino literature/science fiction/and short stories when I’m not reading a novel or two for classes. The days mold together. My nights are devoted to talking to Kalyse on the phone, one thousand miles away.

#

It’s one in the morning central time, and in New York City, my partner Kalyse talks about her latest show. She’s working on a musical that’s coming to Broadway—one way or another. The question is when. In-between that waiting period she’ll have worked as a director for a small theater on a black musical she created, a possible project with an opera, two or three shows she’ll assist on, and many observations and other theatre things that promote black theatre and wrap around my head. She’s barely 30.

I’m happy for her, and I say that I can’t wait to see her soon during the break. When she asks me about how things are in the MFA and what I’m working on, a slew of things come out.

A Filipino American story. A Filipino American science fiction story. A trope mash up. A story about veterans of color. A western. A story about a Get Out like scenario. A story about race. A story about family. A story about postcolonialism. A story about colonialism. A story about America. A story about. A story about. A story about.

I told her these things, every day something new and plotted out or half-written. She listens for a while, reflects on all of them and then asks if we could watch a film. We watch a Korean movie where the woman is a highly successful person in an artistic career she’s strived for since childhood while her husband works a stable income desk job. He seems happy. It sparks an idea for a story, but I forgot to write it down.

#

A tacked sheet of printer paper hangs on my basement wall next to the staircase leading up to the first floor.  It lists out the following goals for my FALL 2017 semester:

  1. Finish three of the short stories you wrote at Clarion West and send them out for submission
  2. Lose 15 lbs
  3. Re-do and finish that first novel you wrote before Thanksgiving
  4. Write five, new, short stories for critique

I’ve only managed to complete one of these things (the first one) and just two out of three stories. The novel has been pushed to Christmas break. The losing weight scenario is a no go.

I didn’t have such a hard time balancing writing with real life/work responsibilities before entering the MFA program, but I’ve been having a hard time adjusting my writing with school/work/life. The goals I set at the beginning of this semester could be manageable, with the right mindset, but acclimating to a new environment is what I forgot to factor in.

For every personal goal, you set, think about the workload you’ll have in the coming months. Look at the syllabus:

  • How many papers will you have in the class?
  • How much material will you have to read a week (most classes are a book a week. Sometimes a book a week plus supplementary reading material)
  • How much free time will you be allowed to hang out with your cohort, friends, significant other, events, whatever, without it getting in the way of your writing?

The difficulties I’ve had to keep up with my goals for this semester are a factor of over planning and not factoring in personal downtime. Too much personal downtime (free of writing) can be detrimental, while too little can be just as harmful. Balance (whatever’s reasonable for you) is important.

In planning for next semester, although I’ll be taking more courses than the usual three class workload, I’ll factor in less time working on my projects and more time reading and spending time on travel to see my partner and AWP in March. The only personal project I’ll be working on, in conjunction with my Clarion West style one story a week workshop class for next semester, will be my novel.

Overloading yourself can be dangerous, as I learned this past September when I woke up at three in the morning and my roommate drove me to the hospital for a cardiac arrest. I’ll explain in a moment…

 

Mark Galarrita is a McNair Fellow at the University of Alabama MFA Fiction Program. He is a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop and received his B.A. from Marymount Manhattan College. His work has appeared in Bull Magazine and the Kelsey Review. He has also written for the “The Aethera Campaign Setting: a Pathfinder Compatible RPG” and narrative scripts for Global Gamer Jam events. Follow him on Twitter @MarkGalarrita or on his website.

My MFA People Pleasing Problem

In my September post, I wrote lofty goals for my MFA program at Seton Hill University. Those ideals still ring true, but when it came down to declaring my genre specialty, I choked.

Okay, I didn’t literally choke, but I did waffle back and forth on the type of novel I wanted to write.

The MFA program at Seton Hill is unique in that it focuses on genre fiction. The typical genres are: science fiction, romance, historical, young adult, and horror. However, my thesis novel doesn’t fall into any of those categories. It’s more of a women’s fiction with romantic elements. Depending on how my story develops, it may be set in the past. So that would make it a historical too.

Sigh.

So what did I do when given the opportunity to name my genre? I picked romance. Why? Because everyone else was writing romance.

Sigh.

I didn’t get a warm and fuzzy when I sent in my paperwork to declare my thesis specialty. In fact, 48 hours after I had sent in my choice, I received a list of the other students’ genre choices. Guess what some folks were writing? Women’s fiction.

I immediately changed my choice to women’s fiction with romantic elements.

Ever since I started writing with the aim of selling my work, I’ve had to battle this inner pressure to appease the market and to write something that would sell. When faced with the option of writing for myself in a MFA program, I still battled that instinct.

I’m hoping that as I continue through each semester at Seton Hill, I’ll feel more and more free as a writer to simply write from my heart. That’s part of the reason why I applied for the program in the first place. I wanted to be in a supportive artistic environment.

I think this is part of my MFA journey: learning to take artistic risks, learning to step outside of the established norms, and not caring about what other writers are doing. At least that’s my writerly hope.

 

Filling The Tank

Image: David Wright

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this Joss Whedon quote: “The last piece of advice on that level is fill the tanks, fill the tanks, fill the tanks. Constantly watch things and things you don’t [normally watch]. Step outside your viewing zone, your reading zone. It’s all fodder but if you only take from one thing then it’ll show.”

He’s talking about movies, but when I read this a couple of years ago it really resonated with me in terms of my writing practice. Back then I was in a pretty intense corporate job that involved lots of late nights, weekend work and business travel, so what I thought ‘filling the tank’ meant was making the time for creative consumption: reading books, watching movies, going to plays. It was about taking myself out of the spreadsheets and presentations that dominated my days and feeding my creative mind. Back then, all I wanted was more time to do this.

3 months into my MFA program, I have all the time I could possibly want. I take 3 classes, I have no teaching load, and I’m sticking to the discipline of waking up at 7am and working an 8 hour day. I loved the first month and a half — I threw myself into reading and writing intensely, and at one point was managing to read a novel and write a short story every week. But about a month ago, my productivity vanished. Sitting in front of my laptop at 8am I found myself procrastinating on social media (I usually use the Freedom app to block my internet, but more and more I wasn’t switching it on in the mornings). I started to dread writing, so I turned to what had always worked for me in the past: reading. But terrifyingly, picking up a book inspired the same sense of dread and fatigue that writing was causing. I had never felt this way before. For my entire life, reading had always been my escape, my joy, my rejuvenation. It was how I filled my tank.

Thus commenced several weeks of existential angst. Maybe I didn’t want to be a writer? Maybe I couldn’t write except with the daytime pressure of a full time job? Maybe I was not the introvert that I thought I was, and *shock and horror* actually needed human contact on a daily basis? I found myself missing my corporate job, particularly the more mundane aspects of it. Suddenly, and I am not joking, I felt an overwhelming urge to do some admin. Like a tax return, or someone’s end of year accounts. Commence existential angst.

After much hair-pulling I figured out that:

  1. Reading and writing had always been my escape, passion, and hobby. Now it is my full time job, and because I am a boring person who doesn’t really have other interests, it means I no longer have an escape / passion / hobby.
  2. I never quite realised it, but my unrelated finance job WAS filling my tank, in some weird background way. Or at least it allowed me the space to not think about creative stuff, which paradoxically allowed my ideas to breathe, grow and take root over time. Now that I’m spending 100% of my time reading and writing and thinking about writing, I no longer have that space.

I can’t say I’ve solved this problem yet, but for now I’m just trying to get out of the house more, to spend time taking walks, going to lectures on non-creative topics, and maybe attending classes in programming or visual art. Filling the tank no longer means movies and books, not fiction, at least. I’m reading more non-fiction and watching more documentaries. I’m spending time talking to my husband about data science. I’m looking at volunteer opportunities for the spring.

When I got here, it was such a dream come true that I binged on the creative life. It worked for a while but I guess in a way I burnt out. It makes sense though; people have told me that that’s part of what an MFA is about: figuring out how to live your writing life. I thought I had it figured out because my routine was so structured for the past 3 years before coming here. But that was a very specific routine for a very specific type of life, that in many ways wasn’t sustainable over the long term. I’m hoping I’ll find a better way now.

Surviving Grad School & the “Me too” Campaign & Weinstein & Literally Everything Else

Image Credit: torbakhopper

cw: sexual assault

After the countless hours I spent last year on sexual assault prevention techniques and safe/consensual sex seminars, I felt confident in my victimhood. For me, fighting against the systemic powers that reinforce toxic masculinity has changed the way I see my place in it all. From being a struggling, suicidal victim of sexual assault in my undergraduate years to my time as a workshop leader in “Writing Survival,” I have gotten to know myself as someone who is healing through helping. That is, until this year, until my first semester in graduate school.

At first, I was sure that most of my stress was coming from the twenty-five-page paper or the in-class discussions where I always feel like a prick, or even living so far from East Tennessee, but it became a bit more apparent over time that maybe I wasn’t only reacting to natural stressors. I found myself—and still do regularly—falling into deep depressions for weeks at a time, holding onto what little reality I could, usually in the form of watching multiple seasons of television shows or getting drunk enough to dance. This isn’t my depression. After years of practice, I know my depression, and this is not it.

Because of this, I started to examine my coping mechanisms. They’re the ones I’ve taught myself out of preservation, the ones I fine-tuned to allow me to use my trauma as a survival skill for others. They’re not fit for re-living trauma, only moving past it. So, when the “Me Too” campaign began and Weinstein was outted and Jeffrey Tambor and god the list goes on and on, I didn’t realize I wasn’t able to withstand this type of re-visiting or re-writing of my own trauma. My first semester of graduate school, where I’m supposed to learn new study skills and new ways to interpret literature, is fogged by a haunted maze of triggers.

This is getting too intense for me. Here’s a list of things I’ve been thinking about:

  • I have far fewer intense emotions when I’m well-fed, but I also have far fewer intense emotions when I fit into my pants.
  • The first two months of graduate school should have killed me but didn’t.
  • I wonder what it was like to be in graduate school the last time there was a public sex scandal.
  • Was it like this with the Bill Clinton scandal?
  • What would happen if Johnny Depp was accused of abusing Amber Heard NOW?
  • My cat bit me and ran away and I yelled “we’re not done here,” so I think it’s time to stop being single.
  • I never thought I would be tired of drinking, but I am.
  • What does it mean for me to develop coping skills to manage my reaction to everyday conversations about sexual assault?
  • Isn’t this conversation what I wanted? Didn’t I want people to talk about it?

In a world where the president’s name is bleeped out in TV shows and the word “rape” is used and misused more than ever, how do survivors of sexual assault continue to be part of the conversation? I wonder how many people have felt how I feel: alone with a trauma I’ve become unfamiliar with because so much time has passed, scared to engage with anything outside my most confined comfort zones. I’m re-writing my identity as a survivor. I’m learning to let every day hit me as hard as possible, and I’m learning to stand back up. It’s trial and error, really.

There is something I’ve realized, though: I did it. With just a few pages left to write of my seminar paper and projects coming together and students who make showing up for work enjoyable, I can say that, at the bare minimum, I did it.

Your MFA is a Team Sport

Photo credit: Eric Wong, Basketball Hoop

I’ve always been a highly competitive person.

At five years old, I started figure skating. Adorned with pink sequins and doing my best bunny hops and swizzles to the tune of Captain Kangeroo, my mom had to teach me that it was not okay to cheer when my competitors fell down. Actually, that was generally frowned upon.

A little older but still bloodthirsty, I played basketball in a youth league at my local YMCA. During the pre-game prayer, I spent more time sizing up the other team than asking Jesus for a safe game and flawless layups. Not gifted with any kind of decent dribbling skills, I relied on my height and strength to play. I gave defense my all… often to the point that I fouled out for throwing too many elbows. After the ref blew the whistle the fifth time, I gave my dad an enthusiastic thumbs up to celebrate my removal from the game while he looked at his brutish daughter with mild horror.

I’ve spent my entire adulthood showing horses. In the height of show season, I wouldn’t get home from work until 10pm at night, because I spent my after hours carefully trotting serpentines and practicing the art of finding the perfect distance to a single oxer from a forward canter.

And really, I’ve never been any good at these sports that I’ve been so competitive at. I have no natural talent for figure skating, basketball or riding horses. But when I set my mind to something, I want to be the best that I can. Writing is no different.

I am no prodigy. My tiny little bit of fleeting success with words has come with the expense of countless hours reading, writing bad short stories, and even blogging. I’m not naturally good at this, but I practice and I decided to go to school for it because I want to be the best. With that mentality, I walked into my first day of classes at UCR, looked around the room and told myself that I would work the hardest, write the most and be the best.

And that was so, so stupid.

It was stupid for a lot of reasons. The first is obvious – writing is subjective. My favorite book isn’t going to be your favorite book. I will never be an amazing writer when it comes to telling the stories of indigenous people or composing a well-researched essay on the struggles of the stock market. Maybe if there was another memoir writing, animal loving widow in her young thirties in my cohort… maybe I could try to be the best out of that sampling. But even then, we all have a different story to tell and a different way to tell it. Looking back, I can’t believe I even told myself that I needed to be the best… it’s a little hard to admit.

Perhaps the bigger reason it’s stupid to walk into an MFA program attempting literary world domination is that all the writers in a program share success. What is good for the school is good for you as a writer. When one of UCR’s alum gets a great book review, or someone in my genre has published more than me — it’s not a negative. Having successful peers means that you’re getting to work with amazing writers who have as much to teach you as the professors themselves. The more accolades we collect, the more prestigious our program grows within the literary community. That is good news for me as a writer, because I’m part of that program.

Writing alone in a silo might be an individual sport, but being in a MFA program means I’m on a team now. At workshop, I need to pass the ball more than I need to block rebounds. Fouling out doesn’t show I’m tough. It shows I’m unable to get the most out of this experience.

Slowly, I’m trying to quell my competitive nature. I still work hard at craft to make up from my lack of natural talent, but I’m not focused on beating anyone out anymore. When I see a contest I want to enter, I share it with my peers instead of keeping it to myself. When someone writes a piece I’m jealous I didn’t think of, I praise them instead of picking it apart to find flaws in an attempt to raise my self esteem.

Because I think inside of every flashy, successful writer, there might be someone who feels like they aren’t naturally talented and has worked very, very hard to make it. In an MFA program, if we lean on each other and work together on the journey, there’s no way to lose.

Free Writing Sample Review for Trans*/GNC/POC Fiction Writers!

Image Credit: Bruce Guenter

The below service is not affiliated with/being conducted by The MFA Years. We were asked to advertise it on our website and we’re happy to do so as it’s an incredibly generous offer! The readers are current MFA fiction students. Please read ALL of the guidelines before sending in your sample.

A few current MFA students (1st year fiction writers at programs offering full-funding to all admitted students) are offering free, informal review of fiction writing samples for writers applying to MFA programs this winter.  We want to support a greater diversity of voices and perspectives in our classes and that involves making the MFA application process more accessible!

What we’re offering:

  • One of us (we are all queer and/or POC-identified) will read your sample of under 30 pages and then schedule a 40-minute phone chat with you to share our comments/discuss. We don’t have capacity to write letters of response to your piece(s) but you can ask us about specific lines/wording/whatever you want when we talk on the phone!
  • Comments will be based on our experiences as successful applicants (most of us were accepted at multiple schools) as well as our experiences so far in our MFA programs and workshops. We are not professional reviewers and we do not have any connections to admissions at our schools or anywhere else. We are just another set of eyes, people who got admitted to MFA’s based on our writing samples who want to offer a different perspective on your work! We envision that this may be particularly helpful for writers who are not currently involved in creative writing programs or writing scenes and are looking for another writer to talk with about their work.
  • Our feedback will be based on the content of the sample, not its layout. This is not an offer for copy-editing or formatting help (though please feel free to bring these issues up in your phone call if you’d like).
  • Confidentiality: we won’t share anything about your sample with anyone else for any reason.

To participate, you must be:

  • applying to MFA programs this winter as a fiction writer
  • self-identified as a writer that is trans*, gender non-conforming, a person of color, or indigenous
  • prepared to submit a writing sample to us that is neatly formatted (double-spaced, numbered pages, 12 pt font) and under 30 pages. Submitting only part of your writing sample (for example, just one story) is also great.

To participate, send us an email to MFAappreview@gmail.com with a few sentences about yourself and the piece you want reviewed attached as a word doc or PDF. If you’d like, include your biggest deadline and a question about your manuscript you’d like us to consider as we read. Turn around time will generally be a week or two, but we’ll do our best to be quicker if our schedules allow. We know your apps are probably due soon but we’ve also got a few deadlines! We’re offering this service on a first-come, first-serve basis, and if we’re already at capacity we’ll respond letting you know we’ve reached our limit. (Any other fiction MFA’s who’d like to get involved with reviewing writing samples, please email us as well!)

We look forward to hearing from you, and best of luck on your applications! Much love y fuerza from your neighborhood MFA-ers focused on getting those fully-funded offers to a greater diversity of voices!

Get in, get money,

MFA App Review