This past July I was at Vermont College of Fine Arts for the Summer 2011 MFA in Writing for Children residency. As I drove up the hill that leads to the campus I had this feeling of coming home. This was a huge difference from the first trip up the hill when I was twisting my hands and wondering what I was getting myself into. Now that I've been in the program for a year, I can say that entering the program was one of the best decisions I've ever made.
I think one of the best things about VCFA is that during the semester you are working one-one-one with your adviser. It's not like taking a creative writing class or a workshop where the teacher is giving a broad lesson to try to help as many of the students as possible. Your adviser is tailoring the work and her or his instructions directly to your work and your needs. Also, you work with a different adviser every semester, so each semester you are getting new insights. My first two advisers were quite different in personality and outlook, and I felt that working with them both was like being given two halves of a puzzle. It's also probably good practice for working with editors.
The advisers truly care, too. This residency I walked in not clear on what my critical thesis topic was going to be. My first two advisers each spent time helping me with ways I could possibly structure various topics or how to narrow them down (though they both told me that I shouldn't finalize any ideas before meeting my "new" adviser). It made me feel warm, though, knowing that even though I wasn't officially their students anymore, they still felt compelled to help me going forward. In fact, this kind of camaraderie extends past the advisers and onto the students also. You spend most of the time with the people of your class. Several of the Secret Gardeners (that's our class name) spent time with me going through ideas and trying to make them work. In case you're wondering, I did end up with a topic I feel passionate about, and I'm going to be turning in the first draft to my new adviser on Monday.
The residency should be called "Boot Camp for Writers." The days are long and filled with faculty and graduate lectures; workshops; faculty, graduate, and student readings; and meetings with your advisers. Many VCFAers joke that when they return home they still look for the pink schedule to see when lunch time is. I think the system works, though. It jump starts your muse. By the end of the ten days my fingers are itching for my keyboard. I'm yearning to write. If I need another jump start later in the semester I can always download one of the lectures from our bookstore website (one of the perks of being a VCFA student or alumni). This time around I was also in the library doing research or reading critical theses in College Hall. Yet I also made time for going to the Skinny Pancake in town with friends and chatting with my roommate over a cup of coffee in our room.
I'll admit that I've warmed up to the dormitories. They have improved them a bit. Also, the weather this July was much cooler. We actually had some gorgeous days--big blue sky, cool breeze, and enough sun to make your skin feel toasty. It is the east, so there was a bit of humidity, too, but the temperature remained in the 70's and 80's the weeks we were there.
The big question, though, is if my writing has improved. Undoubtedly, I feel more confident as I tackle novels. If I look at my work before the program and compare it to what I've done since then there's a definite change for the better in my later work. One of the things to consider if you're thinking about the program is that you aren't going to VCFA to book doctor the novel you are currently working on--you're here to get the tools you need to write and edit any novel. I think some people feel a little worried that they might not finish a novel while at VCFA. It isn't really the point. Sure, the advisers could edit your work, and you would finish the two years with a publishable manuscript. But then would you be able to write another novel without their help? I worked on a brand new project last semester and was glad that I did. It was a contemporary middle grade, and something quite different from what I had worked on in the past. I plan on continuing that project this semester. I would feel cheated, though, if I only worked on one project while at VCFA.
After the ten days were up, I was back on the plane and heading home. The hardest part of being at VCFA was being away from my husband that entire time. I was excited to see him again. I will admit, though, that I also felt a bit wary of returning to a world where writing isn't the highest priority (where you have to balance your writing life with your day job, television, laundry, and cooking). But I knew that I had a new adviser to work with, and new goals to achieve. When the plane touched down in LAX, I knew I was home. Again.
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