What I Do When I’m Not at Residency

“So what do you do when you’re not at residency?” I get asked this a lot. There seems to be a charming idea ffloating* around out there that I’ll go and do “writerly things” twice a year for a couple of years and then be handed my Masters of Fine Arts in Writing diploma. Among my circle, I am entirely to blame for this misconception. This is because I get excited and talktoofast.

Here are the bare bones:

  • There are four six-month semesters
  • Each semester I work one-on-one with an advisor to develop a curriculum 
  • Each semester I turn in five packets to that advisor—packets comprised of Ffiction, critical essays, and a letter discussing material read. (At least for the fffirst* two semesters; for semesters three and four there are critical and creative theses involved, but we won’t worry our pretty heads about that just yet.)
  • With each packet, the advisor sends back copious notes on what worked and what didn't, and generally (one hopes) encourages better writing, better study.

So that’s what I’m doing now, and it’s (a) a lot of work and (b) fantastic. I just love digging into this stuff.

It's better to have too many examples marked than not enough!

It's better to have too many examples marked than not enough!

On Thursday I put Packet #1 in the hands of the good people at the USPS. It contained:

  • Twenty-one pages (I think—I dare not look now unless I see a glaring error) of fffiction*: one complete story that I’d been working on for awhile, one partial fresh one, with questions about my handling of time (the narrative jumps around a bit, which is tricky)
  • A six-page essay on Lorrie Moore’s handling of emotion in Birds of America. Have you written essays since college? I haven’t, and this was a bit of an ordeal reminding me of way-back-when with those introductory comments and thesis statements and clear points with transitions between them all. Egads.
  • A letter to my advisor, of course, discussing craft essays I read and a few other concerns about the packet. I wrote the letter at the end of a really long day, which means the letter is probably goofy. Oh well.

(We writers are a neurotic bunch, aren’t we? I do love us so.)

I’ve given myself a couple of days’ break, and then I’m launching into the next packet. I’m focused on short stories now, and so that’s probably what I’ll read for this packet. I’ve got Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City on hand, and I’m thinking Claire Vaye Watkins’s Battleborn, too. I’ll likely hear back from my advisor sometime next week (my packet go hung up in that crazy snow storm) and then it’ll be Revision City, after I lick my wounds.

This is all a huge challenge, but a fun one. The biggest challenge is fffitting* this into the rest of my life: friends, the all-important and valued day-job, house chores/bill paying/grocery shopping/cooking.

Wouldn’t trade it for the world.

*What's with the double f's? For some reason some, but not all, were just disappearing as I wrote them! What the f? 

Residency I: The Finish

I’m home in my own comfortable bed, with my own great coffee (made just how I like it), and one of those terrific English muffins from Model Bakery waiting for me to toast it. (This is true: the English muffin exists for my pleasure!) There is no ticking radiator, no noisy dormitory neighbors, no shared bathrooms or showers. The temperatures are in the 40s, and I can feel my skin soaking up the moisture in the air from all the glorious rain California has been getting.

But already I miss VCFA. I miss the stirring ideas. I miss being among lovely, slightly neurotic people who totally get this thing we’re all trying to do in the quiet hours each day. And this was perhaps the best part: meeting people who are also detailed observers of the world who, like me, may live in their heads just a tad too much. 

Now the regular world has returned with a rush, with all its responsibilities and troubles, and I will need to do what all writers must do: practice my craft at a furious pace around a rigorous day job. I’m apprehensive but I have had so much terrific support and enthusiasm from friends that I am confident I can do this.

“This” is a series of five packets that will be sent to my advisor, David Jauss, over the next five months. The first packet is due January 23 to include: a critical paper on an aspect of craft in one of the books I read, 20-25 pages new creative work, and a detailed cover letter. January 23, if you look at your calendars, is practically tomorrow, so I’m jumping on this today: writing and reading like the wind—among the more mundane things like unpacking and doing laundry.

The debate about MFA programs has been so heated, so vitriolic, that for many years I doubted whether it was the right thing to do. Even as I flew to Vermont just over 10 days ago, I wasn’t sure. What if VCFA, despite its great reputation, turned out to be one of those vanity programs accepting anyone with deep pockets or a good loan? I needn’t have worried: I’m impressed by the rigor of the program, the dedication of the faculty, the organization and communication from the staff, and—not least—the students’ effort and talent.

It’s tempting to say I should have done this long ago (and in fact I think those very words have crossed my lips) but earlier times are not necessarily better times, and I wouldn’t be part of the excellent Winter 2018 Cohort.

College Hall, aka VCFA's most photographed building.

College Hall, aka VCFA's most photographed building.

Residency I: The Start

Right now I’m looking out my dorm window on a properly snowy Vermont scene. All my fervent wishing for snow became a reality last night, and my new Sorel snow boots and merino layer aren’t unnecessary splurges after all. 

Yesterday was a blur. While a redeye flight may sound good in theory (I can spend a whole day packing and then just sleep on the plane!), I didn’t take into account an uncomfortable seat and turbulence. I think I would have to be under anesthesia not to wake during turbulence. When I opened the window shade and discovered light, I couldn’t go back to sleep. New York City was coming, and I’d never seen New York, from the air or ground. So, yeah, I netted about three hours of sleep.

Have you also noticed how when you’re flying everything at a distance looks perfect and problem-free? As we were coming in to land at the Burlington airport, everything looked especially charming. This is also applies to me right now: at a distance you can’t see the terrific bags I have under my eyes!

By the time I arrived at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, I buzzed with fatigue. I heard weird sentences falling out of my mouth and kept referencing my exhaustion in a way Miss Manners wouldn’t approve.

But so far, each person I’ve met is warm and interesting and as anxiety-ridden as I am (if I may boldly read between the lines). That’s one of the best things about being here: these are my people. We’re each other’s people. All introverts, all wanting to focus on our art.

Today we’re orienting, meeting faculty, attending the first faculty reading, and signing up for student readings—which I’m determined to do, for practice’s sake, even though I’ll have to read a selection from my workshopped piece. 

So this is both an auspicious end to the year and start to 2016. No promises that I’ll be able to duck back in for an update before the residency ends, but I sure hope to.

College Hall, Vermont College of Fine Arts

College Hall, Vermont College of Fine Arts

The Self-Critique

I reviewed my workshop piece Wednesday night with a critical eye and for awhile after I couldn’t go to sleep for the keen embarrassment. There are faults with storyline and whathaveyou, but the thing that got to me most was that the story is too aware of itself, if that makes sense. It’s only too clear to me that the edits I made in earlier drafts, which did improve the piece overall, also provided the temptation to tweak text. Not necessarily a bad thing, except I think I overtweaked. The piece is too “just so.”

Also possible: I’m too aware of the story and that four months’ downtime isn’t enough.

Oh, the humanity. Oh, the writing life.

Introvert City!

Safari 9 and Squarespace aren’t playing nicely together, which means my last three (!) blog posts have crashed (gone, poof!) mid-post. Each time I’d written far enough (and was tired enough) that I didn’t want to try to recreate the scintillating prose. 

T-minus six days until I fly out to Vermont for my first residency. I’m excited and a little nervous. Excited because who wouldn’t be excited to apply intense focus to the thing she enjoys most? I’m nervous because I’m intensely introverted—not particularly shy (though there’s some of that) but just requiring vast amounts of quiet and solitude. I like people, but then after liking people, I need to burrow away and reorient myself to the world. And here comes 10 solid days of new people and new ideas. Doesn’t it sound harrowing?

I haven’t looked at my workshop piece since August. I’m nearly done reviewing my workshop’s work, and then I’ll look at my manuscript. After that much downtime, the problems will likely glare at me from the page. Writing certainly doesn’t come easy—I’m embarrassed to say what draft my workshop ms is—but it sure is fun trying, isn’t it? Working with words and ideas, the human form—mind, body, soul—on the page. 

Wish me all kinds of luck.

Love the Life You've Got

These last few days I've been reading faculty teaching philosophies and reviewing the residency lecture descriptions. I want to work with all the faculty and attend all the lectures! I've also dived into my workshop packet: 10 short stories from 10 people thrown together by fate/VCFA. I've read four; six to go--well, five, if you don't count my story. (I haven't read it in awhile, though, and so I will read it again with fresh eyes--and probably horror.) 

So far the Vermont forecast doesn't seem that cold at all. I'm here to tell you, Northeast, that you can thank me and all my coat and wool sock buying. Just like washing the car ensures rain, stocking up on winter staples brings balmy weather. You're welcome. 

I'm running up against a challenge that will probably plague me the rest of my life: the practice of separating art from life--and I mean in the practical sense (as mentioned in my previous post). How to go from managing all the projects and stresses at work, to managing the projects and stresses at home, to creating the brain space to allow creativity. Is it any wonder that so many of our artists have turned to substances for help? Tonight, before my glass of Sauvignon Blanc, I dipped into the Meditation Minis Podcast. And you know what? It helped separate today's stress from the learning and writing I plan to do this evening, no overindulging required. This will definitely become part of my daily habit.

I still can't help but idealize the kind of life where Things Are Easier. In this life, I drive a better car; work is predictable and I am able to focus on one problem at a time; I work maybe three days a week and focus the rest of the time on creative endeavors; my house is spotless. These things aren't going to happen, are they? (Oh, sure, the car--once that's a priority or this one dies.)

Life, right? Gotta love the one you've got.

And here's an image of Dalen, Norway from the Library of Congress. There can't be any stress here. I even looked it up on Google maps.

And here's an image of Dalen, Norway from the Library of Congress. There can't be any stress here. I even looked it up on Google maps.

MFA Hesitancies

It’s not as if I woke up one day and decided I would do this: spend money and time, peel myself away from the track laid before me. I admire people who know their minds and make decisions, firm and quick. They don’t seem to have doubts or second thoughts and for that reason they are, to me, superhuman.

But a funny thing has happened this year—my year of choosing one path and then rather dramatically course-correcting: over and over people have said how impressed they are that I changed my mind and followed my heart, come what may. So maybe we all have these little superhuman abilities when something really important is at stake.

I don’t mean to say it was easy—not at all. And I felt a good amount of embarrassment, too. Did I seem as chicken-sans-head as I felt? The thing I’ve found is that if you believe in yourself, other people—the people who matter—will believe in you, too. Good friends want to be excited for you, and they want to see you do that thing that you’ve always wanted to do.

I feel exceptionally good about the decision I’ve made, but there are a few things about the MFA that I hope I can manage in the next two years:

  1. Balancing full-time work and the MFA program - I know others have done it and have managed their families besides. Surely I can, too—especially without kiddos or significant other. However, the creative space flourishes when the mind is at its best, least cluttered, most rested. At the end of a long workday, the day’s quota of problem-solving and problems-yet-to-solve can really drown everything else out. I’m not sure how to manage this, but I’m practicing leaving work at work. (If you’ve succeeded at this, please share your tips in the comments!)
  2. Writing and writing well - I love it, but can I do it regularly and despite all other commitments for two years? Time and determination will tell.
  3. Money - One’s money is one’s business, but I will say that this is an investment for me. I’m not expecting it to pay out in terms of ever achieving a New York Times Bestseller placement (if only!) but I do hope to learn, stretch, and eventually publish. To me, that’s worth it—but the cost and cost management is a stressor.
  4. Workshop - Honestly, this is the least of my worries at the moment. I have a pretty thick skin, thanks to age and experience, though I may feel more vulnerable in just a few weeks. Every participant, I’m sure, wants to Not Suck. We want constructive feedback, including criticism, but we don’t want to appear foolish. Oh, humanity!
  5. The residencies - I’m looking forward to them, but as someone who has fully embraced her introversion*, days packed with lectures, readings, workshops, and all manner of socialization sound exhausting. The bright light on the horizon? I received a note last week that I’ve been awarded a single room in the dormitory for this upcoming residency. (Yes, most participants share a double.) I’m so relieved! There is a chance of survival after all.

If you are currently at an MFA program, low-res or not, or if you are entertaining the idea or if you’ve graduated (ages ago or just a few months ago), I’d love to connect.

And for anyone at any point in the writing/MFA journey, I recommend The Postmasters Podcast.

View of Corridor, David Scott Mitchell's Residence, c. 1907 - State Library of New South Wales

View of Corridor, David Scott Mitchell's Residence, c. 1907 - State Library of New South Wales

*Most people cannot believe I’m an introvert. I’m not particularly shy; I like people well enough. But after socializing I need copious time to recharge. I have three days after the January residency before I go back to work. Think it’ll be enough?

Why I Decided to Get My MFA in Fiction

On a trip to Scottsdale with my then-boyfriend a few years ago we visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. It was a weekday in February, which meant we were the youngest on the tour. When the guide asked the group where we all were visiting from, we said, “Napa Valley!” There was, I swear, an audible gasp. One lady said, “No …!” as if this could not possibly be true. And we said, well, yes. Envy on every face.

Napa Valley is the place of vacations for those who can afford it. It’s a place of fine food, beautiful California wines, impeccable wineries … And I can’t disregard the complaint that this place has become a playground for the rich. In a sense, it really has.

For those of us who live and work here, sure, we do enjoy the beautiful scenery, and we do splurge on great meals and wines when we can. There are bocce leagues and farmer’s markets and local events that emphasize the unique community this is. But like anywhere, work is work, and life is life. Just because one lives in a vacation spot doesn’t mean that they are as carefree as those on vacation. 

I moved back to the valley in 2002, fresh from a two-year stint teaching English in Prague and needing a steady paycheck and a life away from family. I was quite young then and not sure what shape my life would take. I imagined, vaguely, a husband and children but, as it turned out, had trouble falling in love, and when I did fall in love, invariably it wouldn’t work out. 

Never mind, then, I lived life. Enjoyed friends and restaurants and wines. I read and wrote when I could with no real goal in mind.

The Napa Earthquake

The 2014 Napa earthquake quite literally shook me out of my complacency: I had to get out. My condo wouldn’t stand up to another temblor and neither could I. Plus, Napa was limited to food and wine—it was all anyone cared about—and I wanted more. There was little diversity and stifling connectedness. My friends were getting married and their lives were moving in other directions. I had to move.

I researched cities with no known fault lines. I researched companies in those cities. I brainstormed inroads. 

I decided in April to pursue a MA-TESOL at Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS). It was located in Monterey, not exactly an earthquake-free zone, but I could risk it for two years. I’d taught English, after all, and I imagined myself abroad—perhaps in Eastern Europe—working for a company managing their English-language communications. I gave notice at work; I prepared my condo for sale.

Fast forward through many unplanned events: ankle surgery and subsequent recovery, flooded garage and repairs, conversations with friends who were so proud of me, following my dream and all. 

And I realized that I wasn’t following my dream. My dream is to write, write, write until I get better. Until I die, really. 

The Fiction MFA

I wrote to MIIS, where I had been offered a dean’s fellowship, and said I wouldn’t be attending after all (to the tune of my $750 deposit) and applied to four low-residency MFA programs with plenty of hope but no expectations. I was accepted immediately at two schools; denied (after much waiting and fingernail biting) at two others—which in the end was a relief. Two acceptances proved enough of a decision.

There’s a lot of debate out there about whether the MFA is “worth it”—and it’s a debate that will probably continue to the end of time. I imagine it’s probably a good step up in value from my English undergrad degree—which is to say monetarily not much. (Though I would argue that my career trajectory owes a lot to my ability to write and edit, this blog notwithstanding.) Language, literature, humanity recorded, “pen is mightier than the sword” stuff—this is all extremely important to me, and I cannot change it, much like I can’t change my height or obnoxiously large shoe size. I crave learning and improving. I crave literature, and I want to create it, if I can. And so, yes, to me the MFA is very much worth it.

So I will be at Vermont College of Fine Arts soon for the winter residency. I’ve got my boots ready! Just need a good coat and a couple of solid sweaters. Stay tuned. I plan to blog the experience here.