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.
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.