I ended my blog last week with a dubious yes, having agreed to teach in a brand new, first-of-its-kind MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. The program was at Vermont College in Montpelier, Vermont. It was to be a low-residency program, meaning that faculty and students would spend ten or eleven days on campus twice a year attending workshops, lectures, readings and that the rest of the work–the actual writing and then the critique of the writing–would be done by correspondence. Each faculty member would work with five students. (This was fifteen years ago, so the exchange would be by mail.)
As I’ve already said, I was skeptical. Graduate programs are expensive. What would the students get for their money? And what did children’s writers need with degrees, anyway? No editor would care what kind of degree a writer might have. They would care only about the manuscript that being presented.
Nonetheless, I decided to give it a try. I was supporting myself by this time with my writing and part-time teaching in my local community, and this would be a new opportunity and a steady if small income. Besides, who doesn’t want to see beautiful Vermont?
Two years later when we graduated our first class—a degree requires four semesters and five residencies—my skepticism moved on with that first class. For twenty years I had been teaching adults who wanted to write for children, and I had never seen students’ work grow the way it did—and still does—in that program. Part of the reason for our success, I came to believe, was simply the kind of commitment and determination folks bring to an MFA program. They have to really want to be there. Part of it is that they are required to spend a minimum of twenty-five hours, writing and reading, every week. And part of it, I’m sure, is that everyone works with four different mentors, so everyone gets to hear four different perspectives or sometimes the same thing said four different ways.
Prior to beginning to teach with the Vermont College of Fine Arts, as we came to be known, I had worked with many students, some over many years. I would meet them in classes at some sponsoring institution—the University of Minnesota or The Loft Literary Center for instance—then, if I saw promise, I’d invite them into an ongoing workshop in my home. After months and years, I began to see my strengths become my students’ strengths and, I realized, my blind spots as a writer became theirs, too. And there was nothing either they or I could do about my blind spots. At VCFA the talents of the faculty range widely, and listening to one another, respecting one another, we all grew. We couldn’t help growing, faculty as well as students, just from the proximity to all those ideas, all those different ways of approaching our work, all that creativity.
It is a great way of teaching, a great way of learning and what a privilege it was for me to be part of the first program of its kind in the country. (In the world, actually.) I retired three years ago, but my heart never let go. As one of the program’s founding faculty and the first Faculty Chair, I am hardly unbiased, but I’m convinced that the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts is as good as they come.
And in this changing world of juvenile publishing, the need for exactly such a program turned out to be much greater than I ever could have dreamed.