Tag Archives: Vermont College of Fine Arts

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.

On Being an Old Lady

sparrowI love being an old lady. I love the gifts age brings every single day.

This is what rising to an old-lady day looks like: I am first up, and I motion our two little dogs into action. They tumble down the stairs ahead of me, eager for a brief encounter with the back yard, then breakfast. And while they are rejoicing in their own routine, I slip into mine: emptying the dishwasher, straightening the house, making coffee and carrying it to my partner, showering.

I smooth my quilt across my bed, my hand lingering over its russets and burnished golds and forest greens. I acquired the quilt when I returned to Vermont for my dear friend Norma Fox Mazer’s memorial service. I had recently retired from teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a privilege Norma and I had shared, and I chose the quilt to honor my years of teaching at VCFA and, of course, Norma herself. Each morning I unfold it remembering both. I remember with sadness that they are no longer part of my days and with the deepest gratitude that they are still part of me.

Then I take the dogs for a brisk if often interrupted walk.

Back home, I make breakfast, usually a veggie omelet, fruit with a sprinkle of granola, a tall mug of green tea. I gather my book of Daily Wisdom, 365 Buddhist Inspirations and another of Mary Oliver’s poems and my breakfast, and step out to sit on the patio in front of our house. (That is still true as I’m writing, but that part of the routine will, no doubt, have altered by the time you are reading. November in Minnesota is rarely a time for enjoying breakfast on the patio.)

And then I sit and eat slowly and watch the play of the breeze in the tall ornamental grasses at the edge of the patio and the play of life beyond. I live in the city, but our yard is deep and we have made it into a haven for small life. (“A paradise for rodents” an organic farmer friend said with some amusement.)

A chipmunk skitters beneath my chair, finding me as safe a fixture as the patio furniture. A black squirrel pauses, three feet away, and regards me with a quiet solemnity that almost belies the jerk and jitter with which she will resume her morning. A rabbit has managed to squeeze beneath a fence meant to protect a struggling bush and is enjoying a quiet breakfast. Chickadees, nuthatches, warblers, robins, blue jays, crows and more gather to the feast my partner spreads for them. Occasionally a red-tailed hawk appears at the very top of the ash tree, and everyone else vanishes.

As I watch all this, my day’s work gathers in my mind. As I watched this morning, this piece gathered.

I open my daily reading. Sometimes the day’s offering is so wise that I can only read it, set it aside and let my bemusement pass for wisdom: “A man named Lita Shiyu asked Yangshan, ‘May I hear the principle of attaining mind?’ Yangshan said, ‘If you want to attain mind, then there’s no mind that can be attained. It is this unattainable mind that is known as truth.’” (from Zen’s Chinese Heritage)

Sometimes I am deeply taught: “Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to yourself. You may not be perfect, but you are all you’ve got to work with. The process of becoming who you will be begins with the total acceptance of who you are.” (Bhante Henepola Gunaranta, Mindfulness in Plain English)

Then I turn to Mary Oliver. Perhaps one day I will graduate to another poet, but she teaches me so deeply—about writing, about this life I am living—that I feel no inclination to move beyond the home she makes for my spirit each day.

Mary Oliver says, “Watch, now, how I start the day / in happiness, in kindness.” (Why I Wake Early, new poems by Mary Oliver)

I do watch. And I am touched by joy.

For those reading this who can think only of the scramble and clutter of your own mornings—children to be fed and groomed and herded off to school; a job, even a beloved job, demanding deadlines; too many tasks lined up and waiting—I hold up my morning as a promise of good to come.

Our society does little to honor age, but you and I can honor it. We can honor, and when we arrive at that good place, we can enjoy.

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.