How We Spend Our Days: David Jauss

Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” At this time in 2010, I … Continue reading

the next writer in the series: october 1, 2014

In  The Writing Life, Annie Dillard wrote, I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we … Continue reading

from the airport

I am mid-journey.

On my way home from Montpelier, Vermont and the successful completion of  a two-year low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. This last residency went by so fast–it’s hard to believe it’s over.

Both my lecture and reading were on January 1st. And graduation was yesterday.

This morning, breakfast at the Skinny Pancake. Then a drive to Burlington and a flight to JFK. Now waiting to board a flight to Atlanta. Then I’ll have an hour and a half drive to Columbus.

As many of you know, I love traveling and airports. Today, especially, it’s nice to have all these hours in transit to mark the transition.

on my way

I am at this minute high in the sky on my way to Vermont for my fourth residency, about to begin my last semester at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. How fast the time has gone.

And I have loved every second of it–the residencies, the packets, the advisers, the community of writers.

In the spring of 2009 I decided to pursue my MFA in Writing because I seemed so close to something but not quite reaching it. I thought an MFA program might provide the missing ingredient.

Some people need the requirements of deadlines to sit down at their desks. Not me. I adore sitting at my desk to write. Others are looking for a community of writers. I was already in a writing group. Some people want feedback, but my writing group exchanges manuscripts four times a year. Some people just want to make writing a priority. It already was for me.

Still, I have received something that has made pursuing my MFA in Writing invaluable.

Immersion is the only way I know to describe it. An absolute dunking in all things writing all the time. Not just feedback four times a year but feedback every four weeks. Not just writing but writing about writing. And not just that but having a packet due so that even when life was full of other things and even when I was writing, I couldn’t just write–I had to produce thirty pages in three days because the other days of the month had been full of other things, which meant staying down under longer than ever before.

Last semester I wrote the best pages I’ve ever written. And I knew it.

Did I mention confidence? Pursuing my MFA in Writing at VCFA has given me confidence.

I’ll return to campus one more time in December to give a forty-five minute lecture, a reading, and to graduate.

the third residency

Already the third of five has come and gone…

Time’s a goon, right?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010: As usual, the 3:oo general meeting kicks the residency off. At 3:15 we each meet with our class. This is my critical thesis semester–5000 words. (And the reason I’m so b e h i n d with e v e r y t h i n g is I’ve been writing it.) At 4:30, the first lecture: “Story, Image, Idea” from Clint McCown: the story should be told from as far along the action as possible/find the poem in your character’s story/If you want to send a message, use Western Union. Dinner at Positive Pie, then the student reading sign-up, and a faculty reading.

Thursday, December 30, 2010: Staying at Betsy’s Bed and Breakfast this year, which means gloriously delicious pancakes! At 10:00, the third in a series of lectures on “A Fiction Writer’s Vocabulary” from Jess Row: we make it to IRONY. At 1:15, the first workshop with faculty Abby Frucht and Clint McCown.

Friday, New Year’s Eve: my semester review with Dave Jauss at 8:00 am. Ellen Lesser‘s lecture on “Redemption in End-Times America”: “Will we have created something before it all gets swept away? It won’t save the world, but it could be our own sweet chariot.” 1:15 workshops. More lectures and readings. Then an auction and champagne…

Saturday, 1-1-11: Happy New Year! At 10:15, student lecture on exposition, a panel, then another student lecture by Heather Sharfeddin on what happy endings have done to us…more lectures and readings. Our choices of advisors due to the office by 3:00. Advisors posted around 7:00 pm. Connie May Fowler, it is!!!

Sunday, January 2, 2011: Connie’s lecture at 8:45 on uncovering the good and evil in all of us. Cool exercise where we each wrote a “good” thing we had done on a white index card and a “bad” thing we had done on a pastel index card. The cards were put in two separate hats. Then we drew one from each hat and wrote about a character who had done both. At 10:00: Advisor Group Meeting. Lectures. 2:15 workshop.

Monday, January 3, 2011: 8:45 panel on publishing. At 1:15, Doug Glover‘s “A History of Western Philosophy in 45 Minutes.” Really. And he almost did it. At 2:30 Joshilyn Jackson talked about various ways to begin a novel. More lectures and readings. My meeting with Connie. Barry Lopez at 7:00 pm.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011: 8:45 workshop. Early-ugh. At 11:15 Rich Farrell’s great lecture on emotion with a close look at Lorrie Moore’s “Dance in America.” At 4:45, Abby Frucht spoke on book reviews. “Join the NBCC!”

Wednesday, January 5, 2011: 8:45: Barry Lopez lecture on authority. Lectures. Readings.

Thursday, Janurary 6, 2011: Informal Talk with author and graduate Lisa Carey. Workshop. Gary Lawrence’s great lecture, “To Link or Not to Link? Is That the Question?” with a focus on Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine.

Friday, January 7, 2011: 8:45 Informal Talk with the wonderful poet Lynn Emanuel. I first heard Lynn read in 1999 at the Napa Valley Writer’s Workshop. Then the last workshop. The last lecture. The last reading. Graduation. Celebration. At 5:00, three of us head out of Montpelier in the sleet and snow with our destination Hartford, Connecticut. You know the rest of the story

words overflown by stars

Words Overflown by Stars, edited by David Jauss, is the craft book from the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program. I started it about this time last year and just finished it a few weeks ago. 432 pages of craft essays–a text book with the feel of a novel–the first half on prose and the second half on poetry. I highly recommend it, and here are some of the highlights:

In “Before We Get Started,” Bret Lott writes about the importance of the little words.

Ellen Lesser’s essay, “The Girl I Was, The Woman I Have Become,” is full of examples of reminiscent narrators, as well as an excellent analysis of “the point in time from which the story gets told.”

I’ve already written a bit about David Jauss‘s essay “From Long Shots to X-Rays” on distance and point of view in fiction. I’ve probably read this essay five times. (It’s also in his craft book, Alone With All That Could Happen.)

“In this essay I will attempt to present a more accurate conception of point of view by closely examining the actual practice of authors and explaining how they use point of view to manipulate the degree of emotional, intellectual, and moral distance between a character and a reader.”

Diane Lefer writes about “Breaking the ‘Rules’ of Story Structure.” Regarding the so-called rule that a main character must undergo change, she writes: “In spite of conflict, confrontation and crisis, people often don’t, can’t, or won’t change.”

In “Notes on Novel Structure,” Douglas Glover breaks the novel into six major structures: point of view, plot, novel thought, subplot, theme, and image patterning. The key to plot is “to develop a consistent resistance, the force pushing against the achievement of the concrete desire.”

Laurie Alberts writes in “Showing AND Telling”:

Herein lies the distinction: We don’t resent a bossy, judgmental narrator who is original in his or her observations and who draws us into the tale through vivid, significant detail. We do resent a summarizing narrator who either over generalizes or takes away the mystery, the act of discovery for us.

If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between personal essay and memoir, Sue William Silverman answers this question and more in her essay on the subgenres of Creative Nonfiction.

Despite the fact that I’m not a poet, I just love what Mark Doty writes about metaphor in  “Souls on Ice”:

But I’ve learned to trust that part of my imagination that gropes forward, feeling its way toward what it needs; to watch for the signs of fascination… that indicates there’s something I need to attend to. Sometimes it seems to me as if metaphor were the advance guard of the mind…

I will leave you with a quote from François Camoin‘s essay on “The Textures of Fiction”: “Writing is best done by those of us who don’t know precisely what we mean…”

back in vermont again

It’s difficult to believe it’s been six months, but here I am again and this time, no snow on the ground. Green grass, blue skies, and flowers blooming. 60 degrees right now with a projected high of 66.

I arrived Monday afternoon and we started right in with a lecture by David Jauss on how to know when you’re done with a piece of writing. Connie May Fowler, a new faculty member, read Monday evening from her new novel, How Clarissa Burden Learned To Fly. She read a scene that included the point of view of a fly. And yesterday a fascinating lecture by Doug Glover on symbols and image patterns–more on that later.

In fact, more on everything later. Off to another lecture…

what it is like

Yesterday I mailed my fourth packet to my adviser. Every four weeks I complete one. That’s how most low-residency MFA programs work. Packets. Plus the twice-a-year residencies. I wrote a post in January about my first residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Let me also say that there’s no reason to ask for more time with a packet because in four weeks, you’ll have to send another one. The clock is ticking as the mailbox door swings shut.

This is not to say I don’t take a few days off each time–to catch up on email and blog posts and comments–and life. I do.

Advisers differ on what they want in the packets. This semester my adviser, Diane Lefer, asks for:

  • a letter (yes, a real letter) that describes what you’ve been writing and reading for the last four weeks (we create a bibliography during the residency) and anything that’s going on in your writing life; and
  • 2 critical essays, each one approximately 3 pages long, discussing some aspect of writing using the books you read for this time period; and
  • approximately 30 pages of writing, new work or revisions or some of each.

A friend I was talking to the other day said her adviser wanted one critical essay (3-5 pages) plus one new story and one revision of a story.

Diane is great about getting back to me, usually a detailed email within 2 days, and I’ll receive my work back a couple of days after that.

So yes, I really am in school. One more packet left for this semester. Then I’ll receive a stack of manuscripts to read for the workshop at the residency that will begin June 28–8 weeks from Monday.

Bookmark and Share

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]

Bookmark and Share

filled up & emptied out

I lie down and get back up only minutes later. I close my eyes and then open them. I’m filled up and emptied out at the same time. Exhausted and yet energized.

I’m on my way home from Vermont College of Fine Arts after 8 days of a residency full of lectures on the wonder of the sentence and the state of the story. Readings of poems, stories, and creative nonfiction. New faces and new words. And more books and ideas and craft than I had when I arrived.

It was a winter wonder land.

Bookmark and Share

a new book bag

As some of you know, French was my first passion. The summers after seventh, eighth, and ninth grades I spent seven to nine weeks in Ferrisburg, Vermont at Ecole Champlain, a French camp on Lake Champlain. I just loved it.

While I was there, I had the opportunity to visit Middlebury College. I decided that’s where I would go to school. And I would live in their dorm Le Chateau and speak French all the time.

When I was a junior in high school, I spent a weekend skiing in North Carolina–in blue jeans. I froze. I decided I could not possibly go to school any farther north than North Carolina. I found a school as much like Middlebury as I could in North Carolina–Davidson College. That’s where I went, and I loved every second of it.

Nevertheless, I have always kind of regretted that I wimped out on my dream.

Tomorrow, with a different dream, I’m finally heading into a Vermont winter. I have snow boots, a down jacket, a hat, a scarf, gloves, and a new book bag. I’m going back to school–to Vermont College for my MFA in Writing.

Bookmark and Share