Tag Archives: MFA in writing for children and young adults

Learning to Write, Then and Now

When I first mentioned the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts in this blog, I said that when I was invited to teach there I was skeptical. I had learned how to write without any such program. I had come to be published without even a meaningful creative writing class or a mentor. 

As a University student, I took a couple of creative writing classes, but they gave me little except an excuse to use homework time to write, which was itself a blessing. My instructors were middle-aged men who sat hunched over their desks glowering at us, always bored, often hung over. The primary insight I took away from those classes was that my writing was “too female,” too focused on small domestic moments of importance only to those of my gender. I don’t want even to imagine the critique I would have received had a dared then to write something intended for young people. 

But I did learn to write and I learned the way people have for centuries . . . by doing it. I didn’t even have the privilege of contact with other writers. At the point I began taking my writing seriously, I was living in Hannibal, Missouri. In Hannibal we had Mark Twain Fried Chicken and the Mark Twain Roofing Company, but if there were folks in town other than me who were spending their days putting words on paper to get to the end of a story I never met them.  Thus, having no one to consult, I journeyed back and forth to the library with armloads of books . . . and then I sat down to write every day.

So my first thought when asked to teach was that if I learned that way why shouldn’t everyone else do the same?

But the truth is that the world of juvenile publishing has changed profoundly in the nearly forty years I have been part of it. When my first novel came out in 1976, editors routinely invested in the careers of new authors. They would take on work that was half formed, even work that might never be fully formed, because they detected something elusive called promise and they wanted that author to belong to them when she began to producing the kind of work that would make the world sit up and take notice. And so they made a commitment to a manuscript and to a writer in the same sweep of the pen, and for us writers, it was a bit like being indentured servants and enrolling in an MFA program, all in one.     

Few editors I know today have the freedom to make such a leap of faith to take on a manuscript—and its author—for the sake of its promise, not because it is already a finely tuned piece. And even if they dare make such a leap from time to time, the loyalty system has broken down on both sides. Authors rarely feel obligated to remain with a single house and few editors feel obligated to stay with their authors, nurturing and sustaining them throughout their careers. I have heard an editor say “I can’t take on a manuscript that isn’t already 90% there the day it crosses my desk.” And that statement was made at least fifteen years ago. I’d guess the percentage of “thereness” required has gone up since then. 95%? 100?

And that’s where MFA programs come in. Writers come into these programs because they show “promise.” And they work with seasoned authors who know how to edit, to guide, to encourage.  Student writers don’t learn simply to polish one manuscript but to understand the process behind their own work so they can grow through their time in the program and keep growing after. 

The learning, the stretching, the refining process works. In the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a program I still boast about despite having retired from the faculty three years ago, many of our alumni are publishing. But beyond simply publishing, our graduates’ books have been New York Times best sellers, have won the PRINTZ and been shortlisted for the National Book Award, have been nominees for the YALSA best fiction for young adults, won the John Steptoe New Talent Award (one of the Coretta Scott King awards) and have received too many more awards to name here. The program I started off with so cautiously is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary, and I couldn’t be more proud.

VCFA MFA 15th Anniversary

This is a cake! in honor of the MFA’s 15th anniversary.

So . . . you want to write for young people? You can still learn by reading and by sitting down to write every day. Many have learned that way before you. But if you want to accelerate your learning and become part of a writing community that will stay with you long beyond your years as a student, you couldn’t do better than Vermont College of Fine Arts.

A Great Way to Teach, a Great Way to Learn

Vermont College of Fine ArtsI 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.