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VCFA: The First Residency

It's been about two and a half weeks since I got home from Vermont. Here's a little bit about my experience and what I learned. 

The short version is that it was amazing. Before I got there, I had no idea the level of talent or the selectivity of the program. The faculty is outstanding, and the student writing was of a much higher level than I'd imagined. 

The longer version: to recap, I've started a low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Here's how it works: you start off with a ten-day residency on campus in Montpelier. Amidst lectures and workshops and readings and hijinks and bonding, you're assigned an advisor for the coming semester. You meet with her/him and create an outline of what you want to study for the next six months. Once home, you work your tail off and turn in "packets" to your advisor roughly once per month--five per semester. Each packet for a first semester student includes:

  • two short critical essays, either on a writer's body of work or an element of craft;
  • 20-40 pages of new creative work (short stories, the beginning of a novel, etc.);
  • an annotated bibliography of books you've read that month, including a minimum of ten novel-length books (that means reading a minimum of fifty books per semester);
  • and a detailed cover letter to your advisor explaining your process and experience over the course of the month.

In subsequent semesters, the amount of work remains about the same, but it breaks down somewhat differently.

Your advisor receives your packet on the appointed date, takes a few days to review it carefully, then sends you feedback and guidelines for the following packet. Lather, rinse, repeat. After the fifth packet is turned in, you start getting ready for the next residency. And so it goes. I have four more residencies: July, January; July, January. The fifth one will be my graduate residency in January 2018, which doesn't sound that far away. 

What the above outline doesn't tell you is how much fun the program is. Yes, it's a ton of work. But it's the kind of work a person like me geeks out on. For the nearly two weeks I was on campus, I got to talk about books and writing with people who were just as enthusiastic about them as I am. Everyone is so kind AND smart AND funny AND talented. It really does feel like Hogwarts or Brakebills or Chalet School

A few of many highlights:

The readings, especially those by our class. There are about 24 of us, and everyone who read something impressed me. Not just the published people, like Brendan or Kim or Shellie or Melanie (who were all outstanding), but people whose names you don't know yet. But you will. 

My workshop, led by Uma Krishnaswami and Nova Ren Suma, two of the wisest, kindest, most modest yet insightful writers I've ever met. The workshops mix in students from all semester levels; there were about ten of us meeting every other day or so for a couple of hours with Nova and Uma. I never wanted it to end. Again, a ton of talent and potential were displayed in each student's work, and the critiques were among the most encouraging, most incisive, and most thoughtful I've ever experienced. 

Getting assigned Uma as my advisor! I'm SO THRILLED. She's incredible.

When Nova found out her book The Walls Around Us had been nominated for an Edgar--on a workshop break. She just gasped and held her phone out to us. We promptly squealed. It was awesome.

School traditions and pride and togetherness they build. The themed parties, the "name reveal" by the third semesters, the epic poem, the walking soccer, graduation itself...the playfulness both helped leaven the serious work that was going on and energized us all. 

The library and its resources. The chief librarian looks like the Vermont version of Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka, and my classmates and I were just as wowed by library orientation as we would have been in a chocolate factory. "It's like Christmas morning," breathed one of my friends as we went through all of the services available to us online. Yep, pretty much. 

Tim Wynne-Jones graciously signing my tattered, well-loved copies of his picture books. 

Alan Cumyn's lecture on learning narrative structure and voice from story songs--which he sang.

A spontaneous, heady, bionically nerdy dinner discussion about Pratchett as departed genius, Lovecraft and Card as fallen prophets, sonata-allegro form, harmonics, resonance, and hamburgers with a couple of other students and National Book Award-winner (and faculty member) Will Alexander. (The faculty just come and randomly sit with you in the cafeteria and strike up discussions. It's kind of amazing.)

My roommate, Melanie: fun, considerate, interesting, tolerant. Thanks, Mel. So glad we got roommate married for the next two years!

Tom Birdseye's freewheeling lecture on out-of-the-box research. 

Lunch with just our class and Kirby Larson. (Challenge: trying not to sound like Chris Farley when asking her questions.)

Tim's on-site interview with M.T. Anderson discussing his brilliant new book, Symphony for the City of the Dead; meeting Anderson afterward.

Word games and impromptu music in the Wine Pit (one of the dorm lounges).

All the knitters (myself included) stitching away through every lecture and reading.

My new friends. My friend Julie had told me what a close-knit group the VCFA faculty, students, and alumni are, but it's hard to believe until you experience it. 

I know I'm just beginning, but already I enthusiastically recommend this program to any writer. Soon, I'll be as vocal an evangelist as Julie. I just turned in my first packet yesterday, which was a great feeling. Stay tuned for more Vermont adventures!

Reader Comments (1)

LOVE hearing about your VCFA experiences! Soaking it all up vicariously!

February 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnnette

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