By Carol Brendler
I’m a third-semester student in the Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Although the school is in Montpelier, students work from home for the better part of the two-year program, attending 11-day intensive residencies on campus twice a year. The following is my journal from the residency this past July, a taste of what a typical “rez” is like.
Sunday, July 15th, 2007
I arrive for my third-semester residency! My luggage does not. But what with reconnecting with my classmates and meeting new students, I don’t mind. My suitcase appears way before our first lecturer speaks, visiting writer Susan Cooper. Yeah, that Susan Cooper.
Monday, July 16th
We begin our mornings with breakfast in the cafeteria, where students from the New England Culinary Institute prepare meals for us. It’s an adventure, the cafeteria is; the NECI students experiment with all kinds of, well, interesting dishes. The cookies they bake, however, are unsurpassed. Faculty lectures are scheduled for today, and our own Sharon Darrow reads from her work in the evening. I look forward to the first of the residency’s six “workshops” or group critiquing sessions, which starts this afternoon. With two faculty members leading small groups of talented Vermont College students, discussions of each piece are enormously insightful. I like workshop time almost as much as a NECI cookie.
Tuesday, July 17th
We’re treated to more great lectures today, including the first of the lectures the graduating class must give to fulfill the requirements for the degree. At night, we meet in the dorm’s lounge for socializing. It’s amazing where everybody’s from: England, France, Indonesia, even Iowa. Some of the students are fresh out of undergraduate programs, but most of us are . . . more mature. Some are published, some not, but we all have the same desire: to create good stories for kids. What could be better? Yes, I did say dorm, by the way. Most of us stay on campus during the residency, near the cookies.
Wednesday, July 18th
We begin interviewing advisers to decide whom we wish to work with for the coming semester. As a third-semester, I need to select at least three possible advisers, so I visit each faculty meeting place with that in mind. I’m putting down Tim Wynne-Jones for one, because I think he would be the perfect adviser for what I’m working on: my critical thesis and a middle-grade novel. Since Tim’s taking next semester off, it’s my last chance to work with him before graduating. I’m crossing my fingers. But any of my three choices will be great, and I look forward to Friday morning when the adviser assignments will be posted.
Thursday, July 19th
Teresa Owens Smith from Glenview (yay, Illinois!) gives her lecture today on crafting emotions in our work. Teresa is a trained psychologist, which lends a unique perspective to her topic. I take scads of notes and can’t wait to use some of her ideas in my writing. I sit in on student poetry readings in the evening, and it strikes me again just how much talent is gathered here in Montpelier. I am so lucky to be part of it.
Friday, July 20th
The adviser assignments are posted. I get Tim for this semester! I’ll be meeting with him soon to talk about what I want to work on this semester and what his expectations will be. Vermont College hosts visitors tonight for a special reading: Norma Fox Mazer and Ellen Wittlinger. Wow, what a day! And what a night: A bunch of us walk down the hill to one of the independent bookstores at midnight to mingle with other Muggles and pick up our Harry Potter books. Will we get any sleep tonight?
Saturday, July 21st
Harry accompanies me everywhere today. I’m hoping I can fit in some reading between lectures. But we’re awfully busy; it’s the Vermont College program’s 10th anniversary celebration! Speaking and reading are children’s literature expert Anita Silvey, National Book Award winner and former Vermont College faculty member M.T. Anderson, author and editor David Levithan, and National Book Award runner-up and former Vermont College student Martine Leavitt. This is the sort of day that makes being part of this program so amazing.
Sunday, July 22nd
We have more lectures and readings scheduled today, including a faculty panel on “process” featuring Cynthia Leitich Smith and Tim Wynne-Jones. We have our second-to-last workshop, and I realize I’ve learned scads from the faculty and fellow students in just these few days. Winners of scholarship awards read from their work at night, and then we head down the hill to Ben & Jerry’s to celebrate with some locally made ice cream.
Monday, July 23rd
Still more lectures and readings today, but we’re not as fresh as we were a week ago. Realizing this, Sharon Darrow gives us a hands-on workshop format instead of a lecture. We do some visualization and writing exercises that give me an understanding of how Sharon writes so poetically. Truly an “ah-ha!” experience. Tonight is pizza with my class and discussion of a book we all read before the “rez.”
Tuesday, July 24th
Last day. I don’t want to go home, yet at the same time I’m homesick. Teresa and her class shine onstage during the graduation ceremony. A bagpipes-and-ukulele combo plays the graduates onto the stage, where they receive their Master’s hoods and diplomas. Families and fellow students cheer from the seats. These grads are not the same writers as they were when they first arrived in Montpelier two years ago. I know this because in just one year in this program, my own writing has completely transformed. Later, as I cram all my dirty clothes into my suitcase and nibble on my final NECI cookie, I can only imagine what the next year holds for me.
Carol Brendler lives in Mokena. Want to learn more about the MFAWC-YA program at Vermont College of Fine Art? E-mail Carol at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, check out this article about Vermont College written by her classmate Erik Talkin: www.inkbyte.com/c_Erik_Talkin/060928-MFA/