the first residency

Thank you to everyone who’s asked what it was like going to my first residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I think it’s taken so long for me to write this post because, in addition to catching up with life and not getting behind on my work, I was a little too close to it all until today. It was a lot to get my head around, as the saying goes. The words of advice we most often heard were, “Pace yourselves. You can’t do it all.”

Monday, 12/28/09: First semester students arrive. I would be staying in a dorm, Dewey Hall. In my packet is the final schedule for the residency, something I would never want to be without for the next 10 days. The first meeting takes place after supper. First semester students of all ages (lots right out of college) appear to be choosing the low-residency format because it more closely resembles the life of a writer, and it allows for a life outside of school. Students are here to study fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction.

Tuesday, 12/29/09: Orientation continues with, among other things, visits to the library and getting our picture made for our student ID. Finally, the first substantive event, a faculty reading at 8:00 pm.

Wednesday, 12/30/09: No water in the entire town of Montpelier. A water main burst. Thank goodness I took a shower last night. First lecture at 10:00 by Ellen Lesser on the State of the Story. Students interview faculty at 11:15 to figure out who to request for an adviser. Takes place in a large room where each writer/teacher has a little spot and the students move about asking questions or listening. Think speed dating. First semester students choose eight, any of whom I’d be happy with. Workshops start after lunch, always two hours plus. Two writers/teachers with 12 students, a nice mix of all five classes (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and Graduates). Faculty readings. Student readings (I’m first!).

Thursday, New Year’s Eve: Yes, it’s true. I did ask why: lots of faculty and students have other jobs so VCFA tries to make use of all holidays. More lectures, readings, and workshops. A lecture by Natasha Saje on ways to evaluate literary texts. An auction to celebrate the new year.

Friday, New Year’s Day: I do attend the 9:00 am lecture by Robert Vivian on the wonder of the sentence. (I’m responsible for recording it!) In fact, this is a day full of lectures. No speaking required by students. A lecture by Laurie Alberts on 4 choices re time: real time, slow it down, speed it up, compress it. Adviser forms due today. More readings. The list of advisers and their assigned students is posted on the Noble bulletin board.

Saturday, 1/2/10: More lectures. Our first meeting with our advisers. This is a group meeting with the adviser and all his or her advisees. We receive the dates our packets will be due, what the packets will contain, and how to send them. Mine are due every four weeks by mail and should contain a letter/summary of my work over the four-week period, approximately 30 pages of fiction, and a 2-3 page critical analysis of some aspect of craft (just one of these, I think.) Workshops. A lecture by Larry Sutin on how we end up reading what we do in a lifetime. More readings.

Sunday, 1/3/10: Lectures and readings. David Jauss gives a lecture on abstractions (they are a short cut that asks the reader to do the hard part). My meeting with my adviser. We work on a reading list for the semester.

Monday, 1/4/10: Workshops, lectures, talks, and readings. A talent show.

Tuesday, 1/5/10: Lectures, talks, and readings. Jess Row gives a lecture on the fiction writer’s vocabulary (to be continued next residency). Meeting with Hunger Mountain editor, Miciah Bay Gault.

Wednesday, 1/6/10: Workshops and readings. Last lecture of the residency by Phyllis Barber (and last at VCFA for her-she’s retiring) on the craft of writing. Most lectures are not just good but outstanding, and I learn something from each one. This program is so the right thing for me to be doing.

Thursday, 1/7/10: Last workshop, last reading, and graduation. Lecture evaluations and semester study plans must be turned in before we leave.

Friday, 1/8/10: Travel day. My shuttle picks me up at 3:30 am(!) for a 6:00 am flight out of Burlington.

[you might also be interested in the second residency]

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26 thoughts on “the first residency

  1. Sounds stimulating but exhausting. Thanks for the details as I’ve wondered how a non-residency program would work. Nice pictures too.

    Are the 30 pages of fiction an excerpt from a WIP or an additional project assigned by your advisor?


  2. The 30 pages are what I’m working on and not an additional project. At the moment, I’m revising two stories.

    Also, each adviser’s requirements might be slightly different. For example, some send work back and forth exclusively by email. Some will take no more than a certain number of pages for any reason. Some want 2 critical analyses in each packet.


  3. Thanks, Cynthia, for sharing your experience. I was so curious about what a low residency program would be like and how learning would differ from workshops. I want to go! I hope you’ll keep posting so I can enjoy vicariously. And maybe learn a bit too.


  4. Thank you for sharing all this. It sounds overwhelming. I better understand your “filled up & emptied out* post now.

    It does sound like you will benefit greatly from this experience and I’m happy for you.


  5. It sounds like heaven. But colder. I’d love to do what you’re doing. Though I wonder if I could handle dorm living at my age. Especially when the questions that come to mind are about bathrooms and privacy.


  6. Wow, this sounds intense but amazing. Good for you for seeking out the right thing and doing it! The lectures are so tempting – I, of course, am drawn to the “how we end up reading what we do in a lifetime” idea. Predictable! 🙂


  7. Loved the photo of your “office.” Just the essentials: laptop and coffee pot on the desk, empty bottle of wine in the trash can.


  8. I’ve taken a class with Larry Sutin in my program at Hamline, and he’s fantastic. He makes it comfortable and thought-provoking to tackle tough subjects. He made us all work very hard, but I loved his class. The program sounds great. I hope you get everything you’re looking for out of it!


  9. It WAS heaven, Darrelyn, and it turns out, I love snow!

    You don’t have to stay in the dorm, but they encourage it. And I thought okay, I should welcome a new experience…and also if it’s too bad, I can move to a hotel room. It turns out I got a single room, which I requested but they couldn’t guarantee. And the bathrooms, which I had been dreading the most, were not that bad.

    And I’m glad I stayed in the dorms this first semester at least. It was so much easier to meet people.

    So send in your application and we can room together this summer!


  10. That IS predictable, Emily, especially given your recent post on all the different times in your life that you’ve read Mrs. Dalloway.

    I hope to do a post in the near future on how I’ve ended up reading what I’ve read so far. I wish I’d kept a list!


  11. That’s right–just the essentials. You should have seen my “fridge”–the sill between the storm window and the regular window. And everybody thinks I’m so high maintenance.

    Good job noticing the empty wine bottle!


  12. Barb, I have to confess I’d never heard of him before, but that’s exactly the way he treated the subject of how we end up reading what we do in a lifetime–in a comfortable and thought-provoking manner. He’s a dynamic speaker.

    And of interest with regard to my upcoming post on reading like a writer, during the lecture he said, “When I read, I’m reading a craft essay, a strategy unfolding on the page.”


  13. Cynthia, Great report back from the low-res MFA program. I will direct my students to this post, because a lot of them wonder what a low residency program is like. I’m also jealous that you got to hear David Jauss. I’ve been a fan of his writing craft essays for years. Cheers, Kim


  14. Thanks, Kim. I had lunch on that first Tuesday with David Jauss and enjoyed getting to know him after also reading his essays in The Writer’s Chronicle. As you might imagine, his lecture on abstractions was very helpful.

    Sometime in February I will do a post on what we do in between residencies.


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