The First Residency

College Hall, where many of our lectures take place.

College Hall, where many of our lectures take place.

This morning, at the final VCFA MFA in WCYA faculty lecture, Tom Birdseye named the two factors that push a person to write: a plan and a deadline. And it’s true. These last almost-two weeks have filled me with information, inspiration, and determination. I have finally experienced my first MFA residency and never cried once, not even on linen day. I’m proud of that, because if I were going to cry at any point in the residency it would have happened after my piece, the first twenty-five pages of AND THE BLACKBIRDS MOCK, was workshopped several days ago.

It’s not that anyone was unkind. My workshop leaders, Martine Leavitt and Shelley Tanaka, are kind, wonderful women who lead thorough and lively workshops. Martine told us on the first of six two-hour workshop sessions that seeing what DOES work in a peer’s piece is just as important as seeing what doesn’t. My lovely workshop group and leaders found issues and strengths in BLACKBIRD that I never saw, and I am so grateful for that. I’m also grateful that, in the end, I the writer choose what to keep and what to let fall to the grass.

So I didn’t cry, but today I came close when I realized that I’m saying goodbye to this exhilarating place for six months. The VCFA class of July 2014 receive their diplomas in an hour. Our last workshop happened this morning, and in it Martine gave us a washer tied to a string and told us to focus on it, to will it to move back and forth, side to side, in a circle. I’m not sure how—an optical illusion? The pulse moving through the thumb? Willpower?—but mine did what I willed it to do.

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When we were finished staring at our little washers-on-a-string, Martine told us that early in her writing life, someone told her to always remember that she is a writer. She told us the same thing: we are writers. I, Laura, am a writer, and if I focus on that truth when I feel my most inadequate, I will write.

Shelley told us that she, like Martine, does the washer-on-a-string exercise sometimes to remind herself that she is a writer, and therein lies the beautiful essence of the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults: the faculty, all published and successful authors, struggle like we do with writing though their writer’s toolboxes are heavier than ours. They fight distractions and emotions and push through criticism and emerge alive on the other side. They are people—thoughtful, caring, and brilliant people who never stop encouraging their students.

As I embark on my first six months of graduate school with a semester plan and five deadlines, a bunch of half-formed tools in my toolbox, and thirty-odd new writer friends to laugh and cry with, I will dangle the string from my thumb and first finger and tell myself the everlasting truth: I am writer, no matter what.

The first two books for my first packet bibliography. The one on the left is by a VCFA alum!

The first two of ten books: I’m reading these tonight and all the way home tomorrow for my first packet bibliography. The one on the left is by a VCFA alum!

Laura

P.S. Because of that plan and those deadlines, I won’t be able to write on this blog as much as I would like to. You may have noticed that already. I plan to post once a month, if not more often, so please stay with me, and thank you for reading!

And here are some photos from my time here in Vermont:

Found these while on a run yesterday morning.

Found these while on a run yesterday morning.

Another scene from that same trail run.

Another scene from that same trail run.

Green beauty.

Green beauty.

 

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A Rambling Recap of the Last Week and a Half

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Two Fridays ago, Nickel Creek’s music soared through my ear buds’ wires as I knelt on the carpet to polish the small wood table perched in between our recliners. I tried not to think about my hazy future, about the way neither Louis nor I knew if we’d been accepted to grad school and it was already almost May. And then my iPhone stopped playing Nickel Creek and started jangling its regular ringtone. Montpelier, Vermont, read the screen. Ice trickled into my legs. I frantically clicked the answer button and fumbled with the earphones.

“Hello? Hello? I’m sorry, I was cleaning my house and I have earphones in because I was listening to music…can you hear me?”

A woman’s voice. “Yes, I can hear you, that’s fine.”

“Okay. Hi, this is Laura,” I said, my heart galloping against my ribs.

“Hi Laura, this is the program director from the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.”

 

MFA programs don’t call a person to tell them they’ve been rejected. When the program director told me the faculty enjoyed my manuscript and essays and that they were pleased to accept me into the program, I very unsophisticatedly squealed into the phone. I had applied to the program, a low-residency MFA, on a last-minute intuition two days before the deadline, which meant I’d had to write a personal essay and a critical essay in one weekend—and I rarely do things last-minute, so I did my best and hoped it would be enough but knew it probably wouldn’t be. I was rejected to six programs in creative writing MFAs, which I now see I should not have applied to anyway. I write fiction middle grade and young adult literature, though I love penning nonfiction essays as well. The program at VCFA fits me perfectly, and my first residency is in July.

That same day, my husband and I learned we needed to move to Loma Linda, California, and that we’d be living there for at least two years, if not longer. Thus began the search for somewhere to live, and we had specifications: reasonable rent, a yard for my German Shepherd dog, Bella, who has lived with my parents since I left for college, and, if we could make it happen, a few more square feet of space. For three days, we found nothing. Condos and apartment complexes and mobile homes and regular home rentals are afraid of dogs who don’t spend their days yapping through houses, riding in handbags, or licking their owners’ faces. They are afraid, especially, of German Shepherds. Bella is calm, well trained, and good with people, but she is also cautious and protective.

Just when I lost hope of ever getting to have my own dog live with us and be our first baby, I found a landlord who loved German Shepherds and whose home had a gated yard. The rent was reasonable, there was a one-car garage, two bathrooms and bedrooms, and…glory of glories…a dishwasher. And this sweet woman offered to install a washer and dryer in the laundry room for us. We jumped on this God-sent opportunity and packed our things the next day (Wednesday of last week). We moved all of the packed boxes on Thursday, and my parents arrived on Thursday night because, a few months ago, my mom and I signed up for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) SoCal Chapter Retreat at a vineyard resort in Temecula, and it happened this weekend.

On Friday, my mom and I unpacked boxes and shopped for house decorations. My mom has the perfect eye for tasteful decorations, and we found this wonderful shelf at Target to make up for the kitchen’s lack of storage space.

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My dad and Louis took a U-Haul to the cottage and loaded our furniture and brought it to our new home, and after helping them arrange most of it my mom and I took quick showers and headed to the first day of our writer’s retreat, during which we got to eat refreshments and chat with editors from Bloomsbury Children’s Books and Farrar Straus Giroux. The next day we participated in roundtable sessions with the editors (editors from Henry Holt and Greenwillow HarperCollins also came to the event), listened to Lin Oliver (SCBWI’s co-founder and executive director) share her wisdom on writing for middle grade readers, had a lovely mother-daughter lunch at the Vineyard Rose Restaurant, absorbed editor talks on how to improve our work, and so much more.

We commuted an hour from Loma Linda to Temecula for each day of the retreat, and shortly after we returned home from the second day, our kitchen sink clogged and Bella got herself sprayed by a skunk. These two events happened almost simultaneously. And since it was dark and the skunk smell smelled really weird and un-skunky for a little while, I put my hand right on Bella’s damp face and smelled my hand, which smelled like mashed vegetation mixed with skunk. I probably held skunk liquid right in my own face, because today we’re pretty sure it was a skunk. We had no hydrogen peroxide and were ready for bed, so I rinsed her with baking soda and shampoo and water and hoped for the best.

The next day my mom and I attended the retreat’s last day, and we arrived at the vineyards early enough to stroll, enjoy the hot air balloons hovering over the rows of vines, and take a ‘vineyard selfie.’

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We said goodbye to the wonderful writers and editors and event hosts at noon and promised ourselves we would return next year, and then we met our men at an Indian restaurant for lunch. Now my mom’s on her way to pick up my Chinese sister Wendy from the airport (she was a foreign-exchange student a few years ago, but she’s family to us), and my dad’s staying here until Tuesday. He and Louis are getting Louis’s new lawn-care equipment set up, and other things are falling into place: the washer and dryer come next week, the Internet people arrive on Tuesday, the landlady’s calling the plumber about the sink tomorrow, and I bought hydrogen peroxide and washed my stinker with it, baking soda, and dish soap. I pretended we were just playing with the hose, but she thinks I spent too much time just scrubbing her skin. She’s ignoring me in this picture and pining for the world beyond the little black barrier (a.k.a. skunkland).

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My life has become busy again, a different, delightfully tiring busy. I go to Arizona this week to see Wendy and more of my mom (yay!) and get to hang out with my dad on the drive there. I’m glad I came to accept the slow, unsure pace of life that came before this, because now the madness is marching right along with me on its back, and I love it. I love it. I’m grateful for my husband and parents, because together the four of us have made moving quick and almost easy. I’m thankful everything has fallen into place—it won’t always be this way, and I am going to enjoy every moment.

 

Laura