I've just returned from my first residency at the Vermont College MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults in Montpelier, VT. This is what they call a 'low-residency' program meaning that students spend 10 days on campus at the start of each semester and those days are packed chock full of lectures, writing workshops and reading.
I wasn't at all sure about dorm life. It's been quite some time since I lived in a dorm and I didn't see the point. But the program coordinator told me it was and important aspect of developing a sense of community so I acquiesced. My vacations in New England have been spent largely at Rockywold-Deephaven Camps in New Hampshire where we stay in a rustic cabin overlooking a pristine lake and all meals are served in a family dining room. When my mentor told me the accommodations were humble, I figured I’d be fine.
But humble and rustic are not precisely the same thing and my mentors description was much more apt for the convent-like space which was to be my home for ten days. The desk lacked drawer pulls and the bed was easily older than me, and considerably more worn. Indeed, a new classmate stood in the doorway, surveying the space and dubbed it ‘Joseph Pilates prison cell’. That gave me hope, maybe my stark space would allow me to access creativity to create something new.
The real genius in the humble dorm was twofold. It pushed all of us together through the shared experience of living in unfamiliar and not altogether comfortable surroundings. And it encouraged us to attend as many lectures and readings as possible where we could sit in an air-conditioned room and have our minds cracked open to possibilities.
The lectures, too many to mention, offered up perspectives on various aspects of the craft of writing – they were informative, motivating and often amusing. The workshops, in which each student’s work is critiqued for an hour, illuminated for me areas for improvement while also highlighting what I do well. Readings allowed me to hear new work from faculty and completed work by graduating students. I was at once inspired and daunted.
A highlight for me was Holly Black’s talk on world-building during which she guided us through her process for creating a logical and believable world for her newest book White Cat. (Great book, btw.) A big fan of her work, I was thrilled just to see her but I walked away with solid information on how to proceed with my own work.
The unexpected gift was in the friendships I developed over the course of ten days. I went off to VCFA prepared to learn to become a better writer. An island of sorts, ready to work and learn and not seeing the need for friendships or community. But I left there feeling connected and supported in ways that I didn’t know I needed.
Here in my own home, back to my real life, I’m considering the pile of work I’ll be sending my faculty advisor each month and I know that I’m no island. And I’m glad for the new connections I’ve made as I embark on this two-year odyssey of writing, researching and – dare I say it? – self-discovery.
Time to start typing.