I have recently returned from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier where I received an honorary MFA in Writing. I’m not sure what one does with such a thing, but receiving it was a profound honor.
From the time I was very young I knew I wanted to write stories. What kind of stories I didn’t know, just stories. One day in college I happened to write a single paragraph for a creative writing assignment, a paragraph that was never shown to the professor because it didn’t fulfill the assignment. I wrote about being three years old and standing on a sunny sidewalk in my backyard, then stepping off the walk into the cool, tickling grass. Just that. But there was something about recreating that moment that made me know this was what I was meant to do. This. Write about childhood, all phases of it. Write from inside the consciousness of a child.
Not that I began doing it then. That single paragraph remained in my heart long after the paper on which it was typed disappeared, but it remained only as possibility, not as the beginning of something I was bound to do.
Soon I married and entered into a world of teaching, first as a graduate assistant in a university, then in a public high school. After that came a world of babies and all the responsibilities of being a clergy wife. In those years writing was something I did in the cracks of time . . . poems, letters, journal entries. Nothing intended for publication. Nothing ready for publication.
Then came the day when I learned about the MFA in Writing available at the University of Iowa, a long-revered program. Oh, how I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to write! I needed to write! But I didn’t know how to begin. Surely an MFA program would teach me.
We were living in Hannibal, Missouri, at the time, just close enough to the University of Iowa to make the dream seem possible, too far away for it to work. And I grieved, frustrated over what was being withheld from me. How could something I so wanted and needed be so right and so untouchable at the same time?
And then one day I set my frustration and my grief aside. “Marion,” I said, “if you’ll spend the amount of time writing that you are thinking of spending driving back and forth to Iowa City, you just might accomplish something.”
And so I sat down and began writing, not sure what I was doing but determined to do it anyway. And eventually I did accomplish something.
In fact, I accomplished enough that one day the phone rang in my Minnesota home and a voice asked if I would like to teach in a low-residency MFA program in Vermont, a program focused entirely on Writing for Children and Young Adults.
I was amazed at the invitation . . . and dubious about the idea.
After all, I had learned this craft on my own. Wouldn’t everyone else be better off following my path?
But I loved teaching. I had been teaching adults who wanted to write for kids for many years. And I could always change my mind after a semester or two, couldn’t I?
I said yes, a tentative, skeptical yes, and I headed off to Vermont for the first time.