Tag Archives: MFA

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!

To Save Yourself

The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.
     —Sherwood Anderson to his son

writingLast week I talked about some of the financial realities of being a writer, and this week I’m turning the coin to its other side. I want to talk about why we write, why any of us comes to art of any kind.

When I was teaching in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, we would, from time to time, have students show up who were desperate to publish. I don’t mean just that they hoped to publish. Everyone came in hoping, of course. But I mean they had set a goal for themselves and it was the only thing they could see. By the end of their two-year program they had to have a contract in hand.

Thus they didn’t approach their work by examining their hearts, asking what they wanted, needed to write. They asked instead what was selling out there, what the market wanted, and they were convinced if they could only find the secret answer, they would succeed.

Their passionate search reminded me of the times I’ve had an aspiring writer come up to me and say something like, “Well, you wrote about [fill in the blank]. That must be what editors are wanting now. I’m going to write about that.”

No point in explaining that even if my book was published because of its topic (which was probably not the case) and even if the topic did happen to be in just then (which probably wasn’t the case, either), by the time they could get their book written and delivered to a publisher any currently in topic would surely be on its way out. I never say it because it would sound like “This is my turf, stay off it.” But it is the truth.

And there is a deeper truth. Choosing to write a story—or paint a picture—because that’s what we think someone will want to buy, can be the most direct route to failure.

I used to say to my students whose desperation was showing, “I know it’s hard, but put aside all thought of publication. Your job while you are here is to find out who you are, what stories are yours to write. It’s only in that search that you can have any hope of success.”

Good advice, if I do say so myself, but what does it mean and how can any of us do that?

Sherwood Anderson didn’t say to his son, “The object of art is to make a living.” He said, “The object of art … is to save yourself.”

But save ourselves how?

We begin, in my experience, by mining our own energy. We latch onto story ideas because there is something about an idea that draws more ideas the way a magnet pulls in iron filings. I never ask myself why a particular idea appeals to me. I simply take note of the buzz that it generates in my brain once it lodges there.

Looking at the reason behind that excitement would be a buzz killer. If I did that, my story would get too small. I’d end up looking only at myself, and my energy would dribble away.

When my son died, about eight years ago, I was writing early readers for Random House Stepping Stone. And so, despite what was happening in my life, I rummaged around for an idea for my next book. I found one in my own childhood fantasies about my dolls. I decided to write about a china doll that comes to life. The animated doll looks into her dollhouse mirror and finds herself so perfect that she must surely be a princess. She also decides that the flesh-and-blood, far-from-perfect human girl hovering over her must be meant to be her servant. Why not? And my story took off from there.

Very Little PrincessThat’s where it started, but not where it went. A new element showed up between my childhood fantasies of animate dolls and the writing of my story. I discovered that the girl’s tear brought the doll to life. And ultimately that tear turned The Very Little Princess into a story about mortality. What else could I write about at such a time?

I didn’t stop to notice until the story lay before me, completed, that I was writing about my son’s death. But I let my grief into the story because my grief was the substance I had to work out of just then. And that’s what made The Very Little Princess mine, a story only I could write.

I never asked what the market might want. I didn’t even ask what the editor I was working with wanted. I simply wrote to save myself without knowing that was what I was doing. (And then, incidentally, I rewrote to satisfy the editor, who found herself surprised by what she received. But I rewrote keeping the heart of my grief as the energetic core of the story.)

The story that matters, always, is the one that saves us, the one only I—only you—can write. And curiously enough, that also usually turns out to be the story we have the best chance of selling.

Wealthy, Connected or Supported?

money bagA discussion has been going on the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators site as to whether it’s necessary these days to be wealthy, connected or supported to launch a career writing children’s books.

The discussion has made me smile the way limited-to-now visions always make us old folks smile. The truth is, being subsidized in one way or another has always been necessary. Well, necessary is too strong a word, but it has always helped a whole lot.

Forty plus years ago when I came into the field, the majority of us writing or trying to write children’s books were married women. I would guess that’s still true. The difference is that in the 50’s and 60’s being married usually meant leaving employment to care for husband, home and children. I taught during the early years of my marriage, supporting my husband through his undergraduate degree and then through seminary. After that I settled in to being a mommy and, not without significant demands, a clergy wife.

When my youngest child entered first grade, I decided instead of writing in the cracks of time to treat my writing as my work. And in addition to setting a schedule and doing it, I also stepped away from many of the traditional roles clergy wives filled at the time. It helped that we moved to a new community soon after I started writing fulltime, one where the congregation had no idea that I could run a church school or even cook. And when I left the marriage years later, I could thank the husband I left behind for the established career I took with me.

So yes, the majority of children’s writers when I came into the field were “kept” women. And if that’s less true now that is mostly because even married women these days rarely have the privilege of staying home to pursue a career that may never pay.

As one of the founding faculty and the first Faculty Chair for the Vermont College Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program, I watched our students, many of whom went through the program on borrowed money, emerge into a post-graduate world. A few—a very few—found fabulous contracts and overwhelming success. Some graduated and years later still haven’t published. Many others have found occasional success, a book published here or there, but probably haven’t earned enough to cancel out their student loans. A fair number have also found adjunct teaching positions because of their MFA, but few enter such a program with teaching as their primary dream.

A low-residency program such as VCFA has an advantage over any ivory tower. Students do the work of the program while continuing to manage the rest of their lives … nine to five jobs, parenthood, community obligations, etc., etc. Exactly as working writers must do every day.

And that’s the reality. Few writers, male or female, can “give up the day job.” Even after they are publishing. They couldn’t when I began writing, and they can’t today. I am fortunate enough to be able to support myself with this good work, but to do so I have spent years cobbling together multiple sources of income: part-time teaching and lecturing in addition to the writing. And even that combination provided income sufficient to sustain me only after fifteen years of writing fulltime plus a Newbery Honor award.

Beyond that, I have taken on many projects simply because they were offered and I knew I could do them. That’s why I have almost one hundred books out there. The cobbling applies even to my writing itself.

The news about writers’ income is not good these days. The publishing industry is in profound transition, and no one knows what we are transitioning into. In addition, more books are published every day, which means my book, your book may hardly be noticed … even if it is really, really fine.

So … give up writing and get a job pumping gas? (Whoops! Those don’t exist any longer either.) No. Just be realistic. If you came into writing for the money, you are probably never going to see enough of it to justify the long, long days you’ll be putting in. If you came into writing because you love doing it, because you don’t seem to have any choice but to do it … well, then there’s your reward.

And the fact that you can be paid something for the privilege of this profound play is a gift!

Only One Rule

one ruleA reader of last week’s blog delivered an impassioned lecture on never saying “every writer” or “always,” something that I have long taken care not to do. When I was a very young teacher teaching high school, I taught passionately according to the way I would have wanted to be taught. And I had a very good system . . . for me and for those students who learned as I did.

It was only years later that it occurred to me that my teaching style had probably served a small portion of my students very well, a majority of them partially, and a few of them not at all.

The more years I spent as a writing teacher the more I understood that different people come to their work differently, which is part of what I was saying last week. Some throw words at the page, as many and as fast as they can, then return later to discover what they really want to say. Some work, as I do, putting the words down with thought and care, polishing with each step forward. And I had a student once who created an entire novel in her head, each word, each comma, and then, when it came time to write it down, did so without ever changing a thing.

When I talk about writing, about the how-tos of writing, I always try to acknowledge those differences. Sometimes it’s hard not to say simply “This is the way to do it” when the truth is it’s the way I do it. But if we follow the path of acknowledging individual differences too far, we end up in the world of “writing can’t be taught,” an old axiom that serves only those who want to seem to belong to a very exclusive club.

Vermont College of Fine ArtsWriting can be taught, mostly through doing it and having competent readers let you know what serves them and what does not. That, more than any other way of teaching, is what makes MFA programs such as the one I used to teach in at the Vermont College of Fine Arts so powerful. Students have ongoing relationships with and receive one-on-one critiques both from professionals and from their peers. But while this personal touch is powerful, there are also craft techniques to understand, and learning those does much to clarify a writer’s journey.

Teaching writing for forty years did much to improve my own writing. When teaching, I had to be able to say not just, “This doesn’t work” but why it didn’t work and what might be needed instead. As I listened to myself explaining basic principles of craft, I came to understand them better myself. Hundreds of times I talked about weaving indirect thought through the narration to keep the reader close to the perceiving character, and as I did I grew more aware of inhabiting my own perceiving character.

For twenty years I was in a relationship with a partner who used to accompany me from time to time when I lectured. She wasn’t a writer, but when I grew frustrated enough with the manuscript I was working on to bring up my struggle as dinner conversation, she would sometimes say, “Wouldn’t you tell a student . . .” And she would say exactly what she had heard me say to my fellow writers and what I, myself, needed to hear at that moment. Yes, there are concepts to learn about craft, and while last week I didn’t use the word “always” or say they applied to “every writer,” I certainly implied as much.

Each scene needs to move your story forward.

Leaner writing is stronger writing.

But now I’ll add something else:

All such statements are true . . . until they aren’t.

I know of only one rule that is always true.

You have to make whatever you are doing on the page work for your reader.