Note: Many writing friends have asked to hear about my MFA journey, so I’ll be posting about it regularly. To read Part 1, go here.
My first six-month semester at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) started with a ten-day residency in snowy Montpelier, including dorm life with a roommate who was wonderfully matched to my habits, cafeteria food that I did not have to make or clean up (thankfully), and lovely welcoming traditions designed to help me make the most of my residency. It was a jam-packed schedule of inspiring and insightful lectures by faculty and graduates, readings by everyone, nuts-and-bolts workshops, and so much more.
During the residency, they have a saying: “What happens at VCFA, stays at VCFA.” It’s a time to focus on craft rather than Instagram posts and Tweets. So what is it like? It’s mind-bogglingly busy. I could barely text my family, or remember where to be next. It’s event after event with generous, enthusiastic writers in rooms that are steeped with creative energy. It’s a marathon of insights and laughter with people who love writing for children as much as I do.
For me, winter feels like a great time to start an MFA. To borrow from Persephone imagery, the seeds are resting under the snow in preparation for spring, and my ideas are gestating too, ready for the deep exploration of writing craft that will bring them new life.
So how does the program work? I’ve created my own independent study plan for this semester, with the help of my wonderful faculty advisor, Liz Garton Scanlon, author of numerous books for children, including the Caldecott-honored picture book All the World, illustrated by Marla Frazee.
Here’s what my study plan includes:
I’ll have an ongoing discussion with my faculty advisor about my writing practice and process, including drafting, revisions, frustrations, and successes.
My focus this semester is on writing picture books. I’m stretching my writing muscles to try a totally new genre, which is scary and fun because I have a LOT of picture books to write over the next six months.
I’m particularly excited about this writing because I’ll be able to both write and revise manuscripts, based on feedback. I’m fascinated by the revision process, since so much of our craft lies in that stage.
This will include an annotated bibliography of all the books I read, so that I’m reading with an eye on writing craft (i.e., what works and how I can use these techniques in my writing).
I’ll be writing monthly critical essays on topics that relate directly to my writing craft. These are not papers on literary analysis, but on craft analysis.
To tell the truth, the critical work didn’t appeal to me when I was first considering this program. I wanted to focus on my creative work. I wasn’t an academic. But after I wrote a critical essay for my application, I began to understand its value. I wrote about establishing multiple point-of-view characters (using Caroline Pignat’s wonderful young-adult novel Shooter), since I’m currently writing a novel with three points of view. As I wrote my first draft, I kept thinking about my essay, and I feel it helped me hone my various points of view. I can just imagine how much my craft will improve as I incorporate more analysis into my writing practice. I’m already a convert.
As part of the Picture Book Intensive semester, I’ll also be interacting with four other writers at various stages of the program in an online forum, where we’ll critique one another’s work and share insights from reading and analyzing books. I’ve been workshopping with these students during residency, and we’re already a tight-knit group. I trust their insights, and I love their enthusiasm.
Back at home now, I’m diving into work and trying not to worry about the crazy amount of writing I’m aiming to accomplish between now and mid-June. Hopefully, I can get my sea legs quickly and balance all I want to accomplish. Then I’ll head back to Vermont for my second-semester residency in July, which I’m already looking forward to.