Tag Archives: MFA in writing for children and young adults

VCFA: A Place that Grows Children’s Writers

Credit: Vermont College of Fine Arts

Credit: Vermont College of Fine Arts

Interested in moving your career as a writer for children and young adults forward?  Would you like to learn amidst the lush mountains of Vermont?  Or as part of a sojourn in Bath, England?   And then return home carrying a mentor in your pocket and all the support of an MFA program into your daily life?

The Master of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts can offer you just that.

Why an MFA program you might ask?  Can’t I learn to write on my own?

You can.  My generation of writers had no other option, so we did.  But I’ll confess that I just might have considered selling my children—the more difficult child anyway—to have had a chance to learn under the guidance of established writers who knew the field I was attempting so blindly to stumble into.

A disclaimer.  I’m not speaking without prejudice.  I am retired now, but I was one of the founding faculty and the first Faculty Chair of the VCFA MFA-WCYA program.  We were the first such program in the country.  In the world, actually.  And we—I still consider myself part of VCFA, despite having moved on to a less student-packet-driven existence—remain the most prestigious.

It’s a four-semester, five-residency program.  The twice-a-year residencies are filled—and filled is an understatement–with workshops and lectures and readings and one-on-one sessions with mentors . . . and lots of talk and bonding with fellow writers on the same trajectory.

The members of our faculty are outstanding writers in the field.  Our alumni are pulling down major awards.  They are also teaching and using their expertise to benefit the world such as the Young Writers Network created by alumna Katie Bayerl.  This group is focused on supporting young writers in underserved areas with workshops offered by VCFA alumni in collaboration with other local centers.

And studying abroad?  Students can now opt to spend one residency in Bath, England, studying with program faculty who travel with them and with students and faculty of the Bath Spa MA in Writing for Young People.  Talk about a working vacation!  I can imagine nothing more satisfying.

Established writers join the program to move their careers forward or to have support in trying a new track . . . and perhaps also to have the credentials to teach on the college level.  Talented beginners get their feet on the ground through the intensive two years of study and work.

Graduate programs cost, but scholarships are available as are student loans.

There is no guarantee, of course, that an MFA will get you published.  (I used to teach for a well-known correspondence course in children’s writing that took practically all comers and “guaranteed” publication by the end of the student’s time in the program.  When I challenged the contention the answer was, “Well, a letter to the editor, perhaps.)  And no one at VCFA is going to make that kind of spurious promise.

In fact, if you come into the program, you will be encouraged to put aside all questions of marketing and publication and to concentrate on producing the best writing you are capable of, the writing only you are capable of.  But then, if there is any magic that can open the door to a publishing contract, that’s it.

Some of our students have gone on to contracts with advances far beyond anything I have ever dreamed.  Others have worked their hearts out during the program and after and still not published.  Those are the chances you take when you set off to be a writer by any route.

But students who go through the MFA-WCYA program come away with a much deeper knowledge of their own strengths and of the field they love and with a support system that will be theirs for the rest of their lives.  That support system alone changes lives.

Writing is such an isolated and isolating activity.  Having others who know the same isolation, the same frustrations, and who know, too, when your manuscript is good and what you might do to make it better . . . that is richness beyond measure!

As I said, I’m retired now, but VCFA remains part of my heart.  It’s the only community in the world where I ever felt completely and absolutely at home.

Vermont College of Fine Arts might be your home, too.

On Writer’s Block

Writer's BlockI’ve never believed in writer’s block. That isn’t to say I’ve never had times when I couldn’t think of the next thing I wanted to write or those when I found myself becalmed in the midst of a project I had entered on a friendly breeze. What I haven’t believed in isn’t the reality but the too-neat phrase, writer’s block. As though we writers are subject to peculiar impediments that don’t visit more ordinary folk.

The concept is so universally known that when I used to visit schools I sometimes had nine-year-olds ask me whether I’d ever had writer’s block. They said the words with solemnity as though they were asking if I’d ever had cancer.

The problem with speaking of writer’s block is that by giving it a name—and who is more prone to naming than writers?—we give it an authority it doesn’t deserve. Sometimes ideas are slow to come. Sometimes a brain needs to lie fallow, to wait for warmth and light. Sometimes an idea that seemed thrilling, unique, filled with promise arrives stillborn … or worse, it dies after months and months of work. And when that happens, we need to grieve for a while—not too long, not too long—and then go looking for another idea or for a way to resuscitate the old one. Calling such a moment writer’s block only gives an excuse to stop, to turn off the source of ideas entirely.

The most difficult transition for me has always been the weeks that follow the completion of a major manuscript, the kind that has occupied my heart and head for months, maybe years. I used, each time I finished a novel, to say to anyone near enough to listen, “Well, I guess I’ll never write again.” Once I even made that statement as part of a lecture, startling my audience. But those who knew me better learned to disregard my doom. Once my partner said, “Yes, you said that after your last book,” and I was amazed. I was certain I had never before in my life been in so dark a place. And realizing that I had, had not only been there but recovered, helped me to move forward again.

One of the great advantages of MFA programs such as the Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts where I once taught is that they give you time and space to discover what work is yours to write. Which topics bring you to life? Which forms are best suited to your skills, your attention span, your understanding of the world? The way any writer breaks into the field, gets published, gets noticed is not by mimicking the success of other writers. It is by writing the book that lives in your soul, the book that no one else could have written. It is by taking time to discover what small part of the world is yours to own, to translate for others. And when you find those stories, writer’s block is unlikely.

The other thing to know, though, is that no unique story will remain yours for all time. You will need—we all need—to find a new uniqueness in yourself as you live and change. I have known writers who had lively careers writing middle-grade novels when their own children were passing through those years. When their children moved on, their inspiration did too.

I started out writing primarily fiction for upper elementary, early teens. I wrote for and out of that time of life because those years had been uniquely difficult for me, uniquely painful. I had a lot to say, a lot of healing to do on the page. But as I grew older, it wasn’t just that the middle schoolers around me changed—which they did in some ways—but that my own passion for those hard years dimmed. And I began to explore other forms, other ages. I could easily have fallen into writer’s block, and if I’d been willing to name my discomfort so officially, my career might, indeed, have been over as I used to predict between projects.

But I am, always, a writer. That’s how I know myself. That’s why I get up in the morning. To write. And so I searched out other niches, not just other kinds of work I might publish but other places in myself that invited exploration. Because that’s the secret of the next project … and the next … and the next. Knowing the changing stories that lie in my own heart.

It’s the secret of defeating writer’s block, too!

More Writers Needing Writers

vcfaFrom time to time I find I need to mention the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I mention it because, though I no longer teach there, the program is very dear to my heart and because I’m convinced it’s the best of its kind in the country. Well, in the world if we want to cast that wide a net.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll add that I was one of the founding faculty and the first Faculty Chair as well as a longtime teacher at VCFA, so I’m not exactly unbiased.

Not everyone can commit to the rigor and expense of graduate work, and I don’t want to hold an MFA degree up as the only way in. It isn’t. Most of the faculty who teach at VCFA arrived at their publishing careers without any academic training in writing whatsoever. We simply learned by doing. But it is, for many of the participants, the best possible short-cut to writing success.

And it is something else. Apart from teaching writers how to produce truly professional work, VCFA connects writers with other writers.

Most students leave the program with lifelong bonds in place, bonds with people who share the same language, the same vision, the same world, and that is probably as valuable as the two intensive years of working with mentors. To reinforce those bonds, VCFA students each summer set up a mini rez, a brief residency on campus while the regular residency is in session, where they can hear inspiring talks from other writers, meet with editors and agents, and most important of all, reestablish their bonds with one another.

I am including here a response to my last blog about my own experience of reconnecting with my fellow writers. This by Jane LeGrow, a graduate of VCFA’s low residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. It says it all:

Your post is timely; I just returned from the Alumni Mini Residency at VCFA.

Although I look forward to reconnecting with my VCFA friends each year, I was feeling ambivalent about going in the days before the trip. I’d been trying for months to finish my current YA novel in advance of the Mini Rez, but my work life has recently exploded and gotten in the way of my writing. It’s a temporary situation (I hope) but very frustrating and stressful. I began to think, “what’s the point of going? Everyone’s going to ask what I’m working on and I’m tired of trying to explain why I’m not done yet.” I didn’t have a finished manuscript, I didn’t have a pitch prepared for the agents and editors, I didn’t even have a reading prepared.

But I gave myself a pass to just go and listen. And my writer friends surprised and delighted me yet again with their sympathy and encouragement and almost magical ability to rejuvenate my shriveled little soul. These are my people and they reminded me that I’m not alone and that what I’m trying to do is not only possible, but vitally important.

We talked about our writing dilemmas; they took seriously my concerns about how to make the sentient squirrels in my story ‘work.’ And I wound up participating much more than I expected and even connecting with a bunch of new writer friends.

By Sunday I found myself wishing I didn’t have to go home. On the drive home a verse from Mike O’Connor’s wonderful translation of Chia Tao kept running through my head: “When I find you again it will be in mountains/ this morning I lose you once more to farewell.”

I’ll see you next year, my beloved writer tribe.

And I’ll conclude by saying, may every writer out there have such a tribe.

Write to Publish . . . or Write to Write?

Book-TitleA couple of weeks ago I shared a twelve-year-old writer’s request for help publishing her novels.  I asked for responses to pass on to the young writer and have shared those here, too.  Today let’s bring the topic back to ourselves, the grown-up writers out there longing for, needing publication.

Of course writers need to be published, because we need to share our work.  It’s as hard for most of us to write in a closet as it would be to play a violin in one.  But there are many ways of sharing, and that is the gift of today’s wide-ranging publication opportunities.  We can even share by handing a manuscript around to family and friends, electronically or on paper.

But when most people talk about publishing, handing a manuscript around is not what they’re talking about.  They are talking about selling.  They may even be talking about earning a living as a writer. 

It has long struck me that writing is the only artistic field where the world seems to assume that anyone who practices it must surely be a professional.  If you play the piano, no one asks you when you were last on a concert stage.  If you paint, your friends probably don’t expect your work to be on display in museums.  But if you write, everyone asks, “Have you been published?”

It’s as though publication is the only goal.  It’s also as though having a broad public audience for our words is the only justification for writing at all.

When I taught at Vermont College of Fine Arts, we repeatedly–and understandably–found ourselves working with students in the MFA in Writing program who were desperate to publish.  And the first lesson we had to teach those who came filled to the brim with such a need was to put aside the desperation, to put aside even the thought of publication, to concentrate simply and wholly on the work.  Only when they could do that–truly do it–could they begin to grow as writers.

That’s an attitude even a publishing writer must carry with her through her career.  We all need to learn that it’s the process that matters!  Everything else, even publication–in some ways, particularly publication–is secondary to the writing itself.

And that’s the good news.  Why?  Because publication is hard.  Even self-publishing takes stamina as well as funds.  Publishing is also sporadic even in the most fertile career.  If it comes at all, it comes only at irregular intervals.  And the satisfactions that attend a book’s birth are short lived. 

Writing, on the other hand, is something we can wake to every single morning.  The process will feed us, enrich us, satisfy the deepest and most hidden of our needs.  Curiously enough, if we are writing truly, writing can satisfy even those needs we don’t know how to name.  And it does all that with or without publication.

I know if you are standing on the other side of your first major publication, these words must seem hackneyed, even insensitive.  Sure!  Tell the homeless man how much he should enjoy the fresh outdoor air!  And I’ll admit that, if I had read what I’m saying now back in the days when I was longing for publication, I would have been unimpressed.  The truth is, I probably would have been pissed.

But my words remain true, nonetheless.  Writing is its own reward.

It is an act that blesses itself.

However successful our careers may be–or not–that’s something we would all do well to remember.

Is Remembering Enough?

YouthEvery time I happen across a children’s television program where adult actors are pretending to be children I am grateful that those of us who write for young people are permitted to appear in the world in our adult clothes. We are even allowed to grow old! 

What we must do, however, to make the leap from our own world to those we serve is to remember what most adults prefer to forget … our own childhoods. 

It’s understandable that few adults want to retain a deep knowledge of their own young selves. Dependence, vulnerability, unfulfilled longing are painful to relive. But while we who write for young people are commending ourselves for our ability to stay connected with those places in ourselves, perhaps we should pause to ask a crucial question. Is remembering enough? 

Is the most intimate knowledge of our own childhood selves sufficient to create a connection with today’s young readers? Especially if it’s been a long time since we ourselves were young? Or is it possible that childhood itself has changed so profoundly that we are at risk of losing our ability to reach our audience? And when I say we, I mean mostly me  … and those other writers out there who are no longer young.

There are, of course, fundamental facts about childhood that don’t change with an evolving culture. Or they change so slowly as to feel constant. And the younger the child we are writing for, the easier it is to find a reliable empathy from our own experience. Very young children are connected primarily with families, and families have a certain sturdy consistency.

But smart phones and the Internet and video games and whatever the next innovation might be do, in fact, alter the experience of childhood. And the revolving landscape of movie actors, slang, and junk food has always been a plague for writers to sort through as they try to make their stories feel current without risking their being almost instantly out of date once they are published. Styles of parenting change. Schools do, too. And the world that seems to be tumbling around us at an ever accelerating rate impacts children as much, if not more, than it impacts us. But how? How do they experience their future as they witness the disaster our climate is sliding into? I came to consciousness during World War II, but that was a war that we all assumed would end one day … and it did. Or seemed to. What is it like to be born into an unending landscape of war? 

RuntOne solution, of course, to staying contemporary with our young people is to write about a future that lies beyond their reach and ours. Many do that these days. Writing historical fiction is another way to avoid missteps in portraying today. That’s what I’m doing in Blue-Eyed Wolf, the young-adult novel I’m working on now. Another solution for me is to write in an old-fashioned, classic tone set in no particular time as I did in Little Dog, Lost. Animal stories with almost no human characters such as Runt work, too. All those kinds of stories are mostly time safe.

I grow more aware every year, though, of the maneuvering I have to do to stay fresh, to stay in territory where I have authority, to stay publishable. And I’m aware, too, that I can no longer bring the boundless energy to my work that I see younger writers all around me bringing to theirs. 

But that last—all that young energy coming up behind me—brings with it a wholly agreeable surprise. I once was out there pushing the boundaries of the field I entered with such passion and such love. Now I settle back into the flow, knowing writers all around me are pushing the boundaries still, that their work is robust and daring and filled with a whole new passion and love. And those enthusiastic, hard working, young writers bless my work by keeping our field alive.

Norma Fox Mazer taught in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts with me. And she said to me one day, “You realize, don’t you, that we’re grooming our own replacements.” We laughed because, of course, it was true. 

What better way to experience just a hint of immortality?