French Fry MFA
And getting on your “dark and twisty—”
by Leonora Desar
I am a failure. A charlatan. I call myself a writer, but I spend most of my time on Twitter, drafting tweets (and this is on a good day). I had some success a few years ago, but now I am overly self-conscious. I wish that I were writing more. I wish that I could stop comparing myself to not only other people, but who I used to be, writer-wise.
Yes, this is histrionic, which is a synonym for melodramatic, and which I am using because I am sick of saying melodramatic (which I say often, usually in reference to myself).
Dear Thesaurus Girl,
I get it. I do. If you’re on Twitter, then you probably saw my poll, or you missed it for better tweets.
By “innovating ways to do #2,” I meant ways to not be writing. These could include: cleaning the house, mopping the floor, organizing old writing, doing math problems—all things I do or consider doing when faced with my own words, or their lack.
Unfortunately, Twitter capped my character-count, so this might have been confusing.
Anyway, my point is that most of my time is spent in the non-writing zone, and it looks like this is true for most. In fact, most of the time one is thinking about writing. I say this counts. You are not procrastinating—you are percolating or marinating. You are steadying or prepping or preluding—or other -ing words that don’t exist, but are nonetheless true.
This may sound like a load of bullshit. And it is, to some extent. But to another extent it’s cow shit, which is a kinder cousin to bullshit, and actually makes sense. In 2018, I started grad school. I was supposed to be writing stories but instead spent most of my time panicking, watching Grey’s Anatomy, and wishing that I was Cristina Yang. I wanted to be fearless. I wanted to “dance it out.” I wanted to be “dark and twisty” but in a way that translated into prose, versus in stomach aches and heart palpitations and inopportune farts.
And I thought. I thought mostly of all the stories I wasn’t writing. I even started a piece: “Stories I’m Not Writing,” which quickly joined the ranks of “Stories Leonora Isn’t Finishing.” I wanted to write about an internship I had in high school, when my life was falling apart, but I wanted it to be funny and not histrionic. And I didn’t want to use the word “histrionic,” but casual language that was deceptively effortless. I wanted Alex Karev from Grey’s to read it and think, man, where have you been all my life, girl?
But I wasn’t Cristina Yang. I was Meredith Grey, before she becomes a badass surgeon. And my peers were Cristina, leaving me in the dust. I thought of that scene where Cristina says, Mer, I’m a better surgeon than you, these are just the facts; you made certain choices (parenting). I didn’t. Bad on you.*
*Loose paraphrase: getting this quote right would involve me rewatching the episode, which would suck me down the Mer/Cristina hole, which would necessitate me watching all the episodes, which would mean I would never write again—ever.
Also: I don’t even have kids. I’m just a dog mom. What was my excuse?
In my second semester of grad school, I decided to go part-time, which was my sneaky way of not taking a writing workshop. Instead, I took a workshop with Kathy Fish, which under normal circumstances would have been intimidating—because everything is intimidating to me—but after my MFA experience was, if not easy breezy, “dark and twisty” lite. (It was awesome, once I stopped being such a weirdo.)
And thus began “French Fry MFA.”
French Fry MFA (n): an accredited free program (or mostly free) that involves eating a lot of junk food, drinking an excess amount of coffee, not being under the scrutiny of peers, and, most of all, writing in glittered notebooks (between pee breaks from aforementioned coffee).
Here, I must credit Al Kratz, the Webmaster of this column who doesn’t want to be credited but will be credited anyway. One day I was writing Al:
Me: I want to start my own MFA: sitting at the diner and eating French fries.
Al: Rock on French Fry MFA!
And “French Fry MFA” was born.
It was during this era that I finally wrote “Minor Key,” my fictionalized story about the internship. It happened one night after having dinner with a friend, where copious food items were consumed. It poured out of me, like a cliché. I handwrote it. Then I worried I wouldn’t be able to read it, so I rewrote it, in worse handwriting.
My favorite part—the part where I introduce the minor key—that happy-sad-tender-heartbreak inside music notes; that feeling like you want to cry and break but might have an orgasm doing it; that feeling of loss and faith and hope, all snarled into one, got cut. I cut it. It’s floating somewhere in the ether. It surprised me, being the kernel that started all the trouble in the first place. I guess this would go back to that old adage, kill your darlings. But this column is not about that. It’s not my triumph story. It’s not even about all those stories of mine that are still floating out there, in the ether, unwritten, as I marinate on them.
It’s about you. And French Fry MFA.
A French Fry MFA of One’s Own
The French Fry Curriculum
Unfortunately, we are living in strange times. Setting up camp right now in a diner would not be practical or wise, so we are going to do the next best thing.
French Fry MFA🍟, phase one!:
In the style of the diner, freestyle your writing space. I’m thinking checker tablecloth, salt and pepper shakers. I’m thinking 80s music—because it’s the perennial 80s at the diner. I’m thinking Surly Waiter, like the one who wanted to know why my ass was firmly implanted in a booth, always, in the back. Insert some kids who run around, annoying you, because this is a sign that the writing is going well—when the universe distracts you by sending you annoying kids. You can either dress your husband up as Surly Waiter and ask your kids to run around and scream, but, lacking these, you can print them from the Internet.
Annoying kids (now we are getting into full-on Cristina Yang mode)
Hang Surly Waiter above your desk. Brew some coffee. If you’re like me and can no longer drink coffee for medical reasons or reasons of insanity, I’m sorry. Print out a cup of compensatory coffee and place it by your side. (Bonuses to fake coffee: it doesn’t spill.)
The spirit of French Fry MFA is one of comradery, love, and self-acceptance, even hubris. To this end, any naysayers shall be silenced. No shenanigans will be allowed (or those literary mean girls in your workshop). Please print the following and stick it next to Surly Waiter guy.
Literary Mean Girls, post-Foucault reading (where they really wished they were watching Grey’s Anatomy)
Phase two🍟 🍟: Pretend you are in rehab—writing rehab. And in rehab, we block the outside world. You said that you once enjoyed success, Thesaurus Girl, but are now plagued by self-consciousness, a sense of competitiveness, and the ghost of your former self. I would like to tell you to delete Twitter, but you probably won’t listen. Twitter is the worst. When COVID hit, one of my professors swore that no one is writing right now. How could they be! No one is writing now! But then tell me, who are all of the people writing novels, getting book deals, and publishing like mfs? The people on Twitter, that’s who.
Delete them. If you can’t see them, they don’t exist.
The same goes for your former self. Stop reading your old stuff. I mean it. Put that shit away.
I recently embarked on one of my many procrastination projects: I was to go through everything on my laptop, organize it. A Dewey decimal system may have been involved. But I quickly discovered this: my old writing is ridiculously, hopelessly, bad. It boggled me. I was reviewing stuff from 2017, when my writing was supposedly at peak. It may not have been at the level of Cristina Yang or Alex Karev droolability, but it was close. Or so I thought. It turns out the stuff that I was publishing must have been written when aliens invaded Brooklyn. Me.
If you must review old writing, quarantine your published work. Pretend that it’s infected (it might be). Only open folders with titles such as: “Don’t open this I mean it” or “I hate myself I want to die” or “I suck so hard.”
The bad writing will comfort you. It means you haven’t lost your gift, or your inner Cristina Yang.
Phase three🍟 🍟 🍟: I am now going to draw on a metaphor that seems improbable, given my lack of athleticism and sloth. The gym. I once read an article that advised that the out-of-shape (me!) not frequent the gym, not on the first day. Just get dressed, it said. Put on your running shoes, it said. Make that Alex Karev fantasy playlist, it said (*this might be a loose-ish paraphrase).
Then, instead of going to the gym, wake up. That’s all you have to do. Don’t hit snooze. Don’t curse out your alarm and Benjamin Franklin for discovering electricity, or the other Benjamin (Abrams) for inventing the alarm clock.
Get up at the time you normally would if you were going to the gym. Get dressed, lace those sneakers, imagine Alex Karev, and sit at the kitchen table.
If you are slothful, like me, in either the literary or physical fitness sense, approach both like deactivating a time bomb. In other words, with care. Fight your weekend warrior. If you were out of shape, physically, you wouldn’t sign up for that triathlon. Likewise, if you are burnt on writing, forsake the literary version of the triathlon, the novel.
Wake up. Get dressed. Print out Surly Waiter (and Karev). Fire up your laptop, or sharpen a few pencils. Blow some dust off your notepad. Invest in some glittered notebooks (no, I don’t work for Rite Aid, but these really are the cat’s pajamas).
Stare at the blank page.
Don’t write. Not a word. Don’t you dare.
In fact, consider doing this for awhile. It’s not inaction, just as thinking about writing is not inaction. You are cleansing your palate. You’re healing shin splints, the microfractures incurred from writing stress. If you’re burnt on writing, heal, just as you would from any other injury.
Repeat with me, IT’S OKAY TO TAKE A BREAK.
In 8th grade, my science teacher showed us a model of the atom. What I remember is how far apart the electrons were from where the action was: the nucleus. A quick Google search revealed that everything—everything—this notebook, this pen, this hand holding it, this brain thinking about it, your brain, reading it, your body, mine—is comprised mostly of empty space. Dark matter.
Why should writing be so different?
In literary terms, dark matter = marination time. If you take a closer look, that time isn’t empty. Not completely. Just as atoms are not really empty, but are composed of fizzy, sparky things like quantum fields.
Let’s take a closer look:
When I wrote “Minor Key,” dark matter was pivotal. Thinking not only helped: it was crucial. To an extent, the piece was already written in my head; it wanted to come out, like a pregnancy that had come full-term. By not writing, you are salvaging your mojo. Think of it as being knocked up, but with ideas or with the prelude to those ideas. Feed them with the equivalent of prenatal vitamins: good books, good TV, language. Don’t stress about not writing.
You are writing: you just don’t know it yet.
Phase four 🍟 🍟 🍟 🍟: write a sentence. That’s it! One, solid sentence. Or an unsolid one. You can cheat syntactically, a word that I hoped I was making up, but is really a real word—plus a trick I am stealing from Chris DeWan, my former workshop teacher. Use semi-colons; commas, em dashes—, ellipses () () () to elongate it, but after five minutes you’re done. How will you know this? After five minutes, waiter Jeeves will say:
He is your equivalent of a timer. I suggest, to prep for this, making your own cartoon bubble.
Each day, dial up your writing time by two. Two minutes. This is what I do for Dolby. Dolby is my cocker spaniel. He recently had surgery. He’s not a drug addict, but like Amy Winehouse, he hates rehab. I say, Dolby, we are going out now, and he says, no, no, no.
By dialing up Dolby’s walking time, I acclimate him. Whether you are cocker spaniel or human, you can acclimate to torture by gradually amping up a little more.
Torture not your thing? How about some writing prompts?
From the desk of French Fry MFA
Play a game of writing telephone:
This means I start a story and then you start a story and then someone else continues that little story. This way things can go terribly wrong, and not one person takes the blame. It’s all your fault, equally.
Or, write in a different genre:
If you’re a fiction writer, find someone to interview. This will keep the pressure low; you don’t have to make it up, you just have to make it interesting. Or better yet. Don’t make it interesting. Think, I am going to make this as uninteresting as possible.
Or, if you write nonfiction, lie. Tell everything exactly as it is and make just one thing up. This can work for fiction writers too.
Try writing a poem. Realize this is probably going to come out terrible (poetry is hard). I should know—when I wrote poetry, people threw things. The point, the only point, is doing something different. Write a song lyric. A limerick. A rap. Go to an open mic comedy night (on Doom Zoom). This will make you realize that there are worse things in this world than writing. Write a sonnet, or a bedtime story, or draw yourself as a stick figure. What would you look like? What would your hecklers look like? Write an ad for hemorrhoid cream. Imagine this is your only purpose in life: to make this hemorrhoid cream a viable product.
Write (and draw) a cartoon. Back in my French Fry MFA days, at the diner, waiters would ask: Are you an artist?
Me: Why would you ask that?
Waiters: What is that fine specimen then in your notebook?
Me: Oh, that! That silly thing!
OK, maybe the convo wasn’t quite that. It was more like, are you going to drink all the coffee and use all the toilet water, or what? We have a shortage, here. But it wasn’t about the dialogue. It was about the writing. The writing I didn’t realize was taking place. I thought, this is not writing. This here is a stick figure. Then I tricked myself. I found myself adding words. Then words became sentences (ones I wouldn’t be able to read later). Sentences became paragraphs (that didn’t make any sense).
Write something that makes no sense.
Write a jingle. An infomercial. A paraphrase of your fifth-grade report card. Cliff Notes to the novel you aren’t writing (with footnotes) (and indexes). Draw a molecule (or download a photo from the Internet) and insert your own personal dark matter.
Write your own biography, written from the POV of a snarky academic in the future.
The acknowledgments to a book you haven’t written yet (because we can dream).
Write the most raunchy, purple prosey fan fiction for Grey’s Anatomy.
Write a script for the episode that never was, when Alex Karev realized he was in the wrong timeline, the one where he ditches Jo and shacks up with his ex, Izzie, and comes back to the right timeline (and stays on the show!).
A story in the form of a scavenger hunt. Or a hangman’s game. A story disguised as a game of tic-tac-toe or porn. (Or just porn, undisguised, provided there is a “narrative arc.” 😉 )
Write a letter to your former self, the one who thinks she’s the bomb but doesn’t realize she’s writing a lot of crap. A letter to who you are right now.
Put it in the mail. Send it.
Open it weeks or even months later, when you’ve forgotten what you’ve written, to make the content feel brand new. This is the equivalent of the Drawer. It’s a great editing tool, and precludes cheating or editing before you’re really ready: that is, unless you bribe the postal service—give me my letter, now. Or if you save a copy. Write by hand, in messy, terrible, ridiculous handwriting.
Do this every week for a year. Write yourself a letter, read it, write back. Send each letter via mail. By the end of the year you’ll have a book: Letters to myself.
PS: OK, the not saving copies thing is making me
a little very nervous. Take photos of your letters, do not open them! Put them in a password-protected folder (that only someone else knows the password to) or get Surly Waiter to guard them, under penalty of death.
PPS: Yes, I may still be a loser. I may have written these letters to myself, the first from “Thesaurus Girl” and this one. Yes, I may be tempted to argue that this creates an envelope pattern, which is a fancy way of saying that I ended up right back where I started, auto-letter writing in this case—versus a trip down Loser Lane.
And even if it is a trip down Loser Lane, don’t blame me. Blame you. I gave you my email. In case you missed it, it’s firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s email@example.com. Pretend I am writing in Sharpie on your arm, or slipping it into your locker, or skywriting it in cursive, or in secret, invisible blue ink.
Leonora Desar is a French fry aficionado, diner dreamer, and former coffee connoisseur. She is also shocked that she spelled “connoisseur” correctly on try one—wait, there it goes in red. She is grateful for spellcheck, her family, the flash monsters!!!, all those episodes of Grey’s, and the journals which have published her. Some of these include: Yemassee, Booth, No Contact, The Cincinnati Review, and Columbia Journal, where she was chosen as a finalist by Ottessa Moshfegh. She is secretary of the “Dark and Twisty” club.