Tag Archives: Vermont College of Fine Arts

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.

LoonSong

LoonSong facilityThe autumn air, the stillness of the water, the cry of the loon. If you long for time away from your daily grind, for days nestled in a quiet spot with beautiful views and inspirational people, a time to write and think, dream and learn, come join us at LoonSong!

Be part of our inaugural retreat for children’s authors who are serious about their writing. Come listen to award-winning writers talk about their process; hear what’s happening in the children’s book market and network with people who can help you grow your career; join in discussions about craft and business; participate in informal critique groups; take time for yourself and your writing. All among the towering pines and graceful birches along the shores of Elbow Lake.

This retreat is for you! A rich smorgasbord. Select the options that meet your needs—lectures, small workshops, consultations—or retreat to your beautiful lodgings to write and dream.  Connect with an editor, an agent, marketers. Enjoy pontoon rides on the lake with your fellow writers. Gather around bonfires.

Check out the schedule and sign up today. LoonSong will give you what you need: time, expertise, and inspiration.

The place, Elbow Lake Lodge in the pristine Boundary Waters area of northern Minnesota. The nearest town is Cook. Commercial shuttle service to Duluth is available from the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport and LoonSong offers a shuttle from Duluth where you can begin to meet your fellow participants. Or you can arrive in your own car.

(I know when I’m considering travel to out-of-the-way places, before I can begin to dream I need to set aside any anxiety about getting there. We’ll take care of you!)

The faculty are writers Katherine Paterson, William Alexander, Kathi Appelt, Kekla Magoon, and me (Marion Dane Bauer).

Steve and Vicki Palmquist of Winding Oak will present on marketing and provide individual marketing consultations.

Rubin Pfeffer is our agent. (He happens to be my agent and he’s extraordinary.)  You can pitch your work to him in an individual session.

And now we can announce that we have an editor on board, Yolanda Scott, Editorial Director at Charlesbridge. As well as hearing her speak and having both Yolanda and Rubin present at readings, ten lucky folks to be chosen at random can have an individual consult with this exceptional editor. (Check the LoonSong website for details)

LoonSong is a collaboration with Vermont College of Fine Arts, so if you are interested in gathering information about the oldest and most prestigious MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults in the country, that will be available, too. All the writing faculty are connected with VCFA, Katherine on the Board of Trustees, the rest of us current or former faculty. And the retreat is designed by Debby Dahl Edwardson and Jane Buchanan, VCFA grads, and by me.

LoonSongLoonSong will be a boutique experience, intimate, nurturing, relaxing, inspiring. And there are a few spots still open.

Sign up and come join us, September 8th through the 12th, 2016. This will be the first of what we hope will be a long and rich tradition.

I would love to see you there!

 

 

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!

Keeping a Long Career Alive

Little Dog, LostThe first time I did it, it was a challenge. I’d never thought of doing it before. In fact, when my MFA students at Vermont College of Fine Arts wanted to do it, I confess that I discouraged them.

I’m talking about novels in verse, often called poetry novels. Poetry novels, I used to tell my students, are usually neither. They aren’t poetry and they don’t work as novels.

But then I did it. I wrote one. And I had to eat all my old reservations. My verse novel was called Little Dog, Lost.

I wrote Little Dog, Lost in verse—I eschew the word poetry, because what I was doing was certainly not that—for a very special reason. I wanted to write a story that would be accessible to developing readers, and I didn’t want to work in the short sentences usually required. I had written in those short sentences many times with a series of books for Random House Stepping Stones: The Blue Ghost; The Red Ghost; The Green Ghost; The Golden Ghost; The Secret of the Painted House; The Very Little Princess and its prequel, The Very Little Princess, Rose’s Story.

Marion Dane Bauer books It is entirely possible to write in short, accessible sentences and still to maintain rhythm and flow. I did it in those Stepping Stones books. But after a while, I itched to write with my own more natural flow. And the best way I could think of to do that and still give young readers bite-sized pieces was to write in verse. The white space on the page would make every line feel more accessible, no matter the length of the sentence it was part of.

So I tried it.

And surprised myself. I started out tentatively, uncertainly—was I truly writing verse or was I just breaking my prose into ragged lines?—but I soon fell in love with this new way of bringing a story to the page. Writing in verse naturally condensed my language, made it tighter and more powerful, too. And the lines looked so pretty on the page. I discovered that I liked white space, too.

I also found it more difficult to pull in backstory, so my story became more about the present moment. Which changed its nature. (This lack of comprehensive back story used to be one of my objections to verse novels.) But I began to see the change as good. Different from, rather than worse than.

I loved writing Little Dog, Lost. So much so, that I decided to do it again. Not a sequel with the same characters but another animal book in the same style. And Little Cat’s Luck was born.

Little Cat's LuckThis time I fell into the verse the way I had once fallen into prose writing, as the most natural way in the world to write. It felt like the way my story needed to find its way to the page. Rather quickly, though, I found myself wanting not only to do what I had done before, to write a story in verse, but to play with that verse. To see what else the form could accomplish. And so I played until I stumbled into concrete poetry.

When a golden leaf fell in my cat’s world, the words

f
e
l
l,

too.

And I was off and running, learning something new.

Little Cat’s Luck is out now, another verse novel by Marion Dane Bauer, who now appreciates verse novels, and another example of an old writer learning new tricks.

little cat's luckThis time, at least, I don’t have the embarrassment of having denigrated concrete verse before I discovered it for myself. And it’s reminded me to keep my door open to ideas that are new to me. It’s the best way I know to keep a long career alive.

I wonder what I can discover next.

The Hazard of Too Much, Too Soon

do overEvery writer, no matter how brilliant, needs editing. First she needs her own intense editing process, and then she needs an informed and objective eye to see beyond her own, too-close-in vision.

That statement is so obvious as to hardly be worth saying. There is, however, a more complex question to raise about this editing process. At what point is criticism of any kind, self-criticism or criticism from an outsider, useful?

I was one of the founding faculty and the first Faculty Chair for Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Though I’m retired now, I am still passionate about that program. The intense, critical, supportive process generated the most amazing growth I had ever seen in the participating writers’ work. Nonetheless, I was aware every step of the way that MFA programs—writers’ workshops, too, for that matter—come with a built-in hazard. Sometimes writers get too much input too soon.

When I taught at VCFA, I never knew how to get around that too-much too-soon problem. If I let my students submit their manuscripts in packet after packet and handed out nothing more than “good work, keep going,” their energy would probably remain high, but they certainly weren’t getting what they were paying for. They needed my editorial insight, the critical as well as the laudatory. But a question always remained that was sometimes difficult to answer. At what point is it productive for a writer to begin to question a manuscript? How can she edit—or receive edits—as she works without slowing or even stopping her momentum? Obviously, the answer varies from writer to writer and manuscript to manuscript.

I once mentored a writer independently who lost the novel she had brought to me because I kept sending her back to the beginning to try to set a solid foundation. I was right. Her foundation wasn’t solid. But I realize now that getting it that way probably wasn’t what she needed to be doing at that stage. After she had set the novel aside in frustration, I realized that she might have discovered that foundation if she had simply kept writing until she’d discovered what the novel was supposed to be about. I’d mentored her into oblivion.

One of the pieces of advice most often given to developing writers is this: Don’t take out your editor-brain too soon. Start out by throwing the words at the page, galloping through a first draft, ignoring all matters of grammar, spelling, punctuation. Don’t ask any question that will slow you down. Only after you have a rich mishmash of words on the page, should you begin asking questions about your story, deal with matters of punctuation, grammar, spelling, style, allow yourself or anyone else to offer suggestions.

That is, no doubt, good advice for some, especially for writers whose editor voice seems primarily to say, “Stop! You can’t do this! You’re not good enough, smart enough, anything enough to do what you are attempting here.” Then you probably need to blast your way past that voice with a torrent of words. It is not, however, good advice for me. My editor-brain works with me, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. I write, go back over what I have written to edit and then move forward. Every time I sit down I go back to revise as a way of building momentum to move on. Because I work with my own editor-brain fully engaged, if I lose my footing along the way, I know it, and then, even in the midst of my first draft, an outside editor is enormously helpful.

Does that mean writing workshops and MFA programs are a bad idea for some? No, I think they are one of the best ideas out there for developing writers. It does mean, though, that receiving criticism, our own or a fellow writer’s or a mentor’s, always requires a balancing act. We have to critique the critique, and that is never more true than when a manuscript is still in a fluid state.

If we’re sharing our work at a workshop or working with a teacher, we need to establish an understanding with ourselves and those outside editors: How much momentum will I lose if I stop to revise now? Am I setting a stronger foundation by going back to revise or merely avoiding writing my way into unknown material?

No one can recognize the problem of too much too soon except we writers ourselves, and that’s true whether the advice comes from our own brain or from another.