Final MFA Residency – The Last Days

Today was my graduation, my final day of being a Lesley graduate student. But let me backtrack a bit for the days leading up to it.

Thursday night, I read the first chapter of Speaksong, my middle-grade fantasy novel, for my graduate reading. My hands shook, and I stumbled on a sentence, but I’ve been practicing this, so I read it carefully, and I think clearly. My aunt, grandmother, and sister came up for the reading, which absolutely thrilled me. I think everything went well. I got hugs from Susan, Tony and David (the three greatest teachers I could ever know), and went out for drinks with my husband, Lesley peeps, and an undergrad friend.

Friday was my seminar (cutting out the narrative distance between the reader and your third person point of view character). I had been worried that I would fall short of the minimum time limit, but between questions asked by the students and the writing exercise I coasted right in on 45 minutes. After that was Rachel Davis’s (my residency twin) seminar, which focused on how you can characterize your setting.

Then came today, graduation. In the morning we went to Sharon Chan’s seminar on showing your character’s emotion. Then was a publishing panel with a group of editors, followed by breakout sessions where some of the editors looked over the first pages of people’s work. I went to the session with Liz Bicknell from Candlewick Press, and she gave me some good notes on Speaksong. Following this were the last readings, which included both Rachel and Sharon. Both were so fantastic.

Finally came the graduation. Pam Petro gave the faculty speech, but the real show was Jodi Sh. Doff’s student speech. Jodi’s speech was funny, and touching, and was the greatest sendoff we could get.

Afterwards was the usual reception. Tired as I was (still am) I stayed for a while, talking to friends and mentors. I kept dry-eyed through the final goodbyes, until Rachel Davis gave me a wonderful, unexpected gift: a piece of art commissioned from an ex-MFA student we both know, based off a scene in my first chapter. I fell apart. I love her so much. I miss this already.

I have some retrospective things to say about the program in general, but I’ll save that for later. Now it’s time to rest, soak it all in, and remind myself that it’s real.


Last Residency: Day 3

Today I sat in on Jacqueline Davies’ seminar, Chiaroscuro. This seminar focused on the interplay of light and dark in children’s literature, and she had some picture books that both worked very well, but also that didn’t quite handle the balance just right. The big focus was at the end with Peter Pan, which is a great example of a children’s book that both light and dark in an uncomfortable but also wonderful way.

My good friend Rachel arrived today, so my residency group finally started feeling complete. Tomorrow is the start of graduating seminars (not mine, yet). I plan on going to one about finding your story through revision, since that is, basically, what I’m doing with my work right now. Then my husband will arrive, and time for my reading… wish me luck.

Final MFA Residency: Day 1

So technically residency started Friday, so this is day 4, but I just got here this morning, so it’s day 1 for me.

I don’t have anything I’m required to do until Thursday, but I decided to come today so I could spend time with my Lesley friends (the ones that are here, at least) and relax with the group. After checking in to the inn I did some seminar crashing, stopping in on Pamela Petro’s Indoor/Outdoor Writing seminar on place. I had taken this one before, but for some reason much of it fled my mind, so I was glad for the chance to take it again. I got plenty of inspiration, and may even get an essay out of it.

For the afternoon all of my friends were busy with their workshop, so I spent time with local friends and their brand-new kitten! (I think they poor caffeine in his food, he didn’t stop moving for one second the whole time.) I made it back in time for the readings: Erin Belieu, the new and hilarious poetry faculty, and Laurie Foos, from fiction. There was also a short word from a woman from Gemma Open Door, a publisher who publishes books meant to promote adult literacy — basically, short, easier-to-read, but still fantastic novels. Five people connected with Lesley have been published through Gemma, so it was interesting to see what many of our peers are doing.

Later I went to part of an awesome open mike session at a small music lounge with some other Lesley people, since another MFA peep was singing. This kind of thing is a bit out of my comfort zone, so I stated off uncomfortable, but she was amazing, as were the other people who sang and played, and I’m thrilled I did it.

MFA Semester 4 – Days 8 and 9

The last couple days are always hard for me to get written up on time. That’s when the exhaustion starts to really grip at me, and also scrabbling to spend every minute with the people I’m going to miss. (It also doesn’t help that Lesley turned off the internet.)


Friday began again with more graduating student seminars. I went to Alissa Butterworth’s about absent characters (characters who aren’t present due to death, divorce, simply not being around, who are silent, etc.) and the techniques you can use to make them just as vivid. Afterword I went to Elizabeth Gitten’s on writing a synopsis for your story. This was something I actually did have confused, and it’s good to see how it’s supposed to be done, in the case that I’m ever called on to do it.

We had finished our small group workshop, so I had the afternoon free. Part of it was used very wisely to go out with Tony Abbott and some other students before the graduate student readings began. These went on both before and after dinner, and they were so fantastic. One of the plays had men crying… (so unfair, something that sad when I’m that tired.) Later I hung out with some friends, including someone who is graduating. I kept making myself stay up, but eventually I went to bed…

…and woke up to start the next day. I woke up early to pack the car, and Rachel and I got breakfast elsewhere since they don’t serve real breakfast on the weekends. Then we had to go to our thesis meeting with Steven Cramer, where he tried to clarify just what, exactly, is expected of us. We were also told when we had to file our intent to graduate, which I was thankful for since the auto-emails from Lesley kept scaring the crap out of me. We nominated our graduating speakers, and while nothing’s official it’s looking like it will be Jodi for the students. I made sure to nominate Tony for our faculty speaker, but we’ll see what happens when people actually vote.

Then, more graduating seminars: Brenda Bickham had one on secondary characters, something I’ve had a few problems with in the past. Then I went to Cate Johnson’s seminar on how to write a teenage voice. We went over what’s involved in a teenage voice, and examined how some author’s pull it off. We then did a writing exercise with it, which I really liked.

After lunch I went to the first foot forward agent session, where we read a page of our manuscript. I had read to this same woman last time (there was no new person to pick from) and I was thrilled to find out she recognized my story when I read it. It was great to get some real pinpointed advice on the page, and I can already see how I can fix most of those problems. There was plenty of extra time, so we were able to ask her questions about the industry and the author/agent relationship — like, for example, it doesn’t actually matter how close you live to your agent since almost everything takes place over the phone.

The final graduate readings happened after that (there were a lot of students graduating this time) and once again, there was some amazing stuff. I chose to leave after that, before graduation, and somehow managed to find almost all the friends and mentors I wanted to say goodbye to, including the elusive David Elliott. Now I’m home, and I’m tired, and nervous, and I miss everyone there so much, but I’m ready to get started.

MFA Semester 4 Day 7

Early this morning (okay, 9 o’clock, leave me alone I stay up late) we had the adaptation seminar with Jami Brandli. I wasn’t terribly excited for this seminar since I didn’t see how it exactly applied to my writing. While I still don’t think it will have a huge affect on what I write, I really enjoyed it — we learned what should go into a play or movie adaptation, and how it’s brought about. We also had the chance to bring up really terrible adaptations, something I always love complaining about, so that was a bonus. (Oh,A Ring of Endless Lightmovie…)

After that, the graduating seminars began. I went to one on using meditation and mindfulness with writing. Mindfulness is something I’ve been interesting lately, as evidenced by all those Thich Nhat Han books I own. I liked seeing how that could be applied to my writing life, and I’m motivated to work the whole meditation thing into my day.

After that was lunch, then small group! A Fiction genre student joined our group for this. When I first heard of the set up I was a little uncomfortable; his own work was the opposite of fantasy, and while everyone at Lesley seems open to and excited about the different genres there’s the stigma in parts of the actual real world that writing for children isn’t as challenging or important, so I was initially out of my comfort zone. It was great. He gave excellent comments, and while he kept apologizing for not being familiar with the genre and what’s generally accepted, he noticed things that slipped right by my attention that I should have noted as problems from the beginning. The other Writing for Young People person in our group gave me great comments as well; these are things I think I can carry through the whole piece, which will be great when I go back to edit for my first submission to Tony.

The last two days are coming up, where I basically coast through graduate seminars and bonus sessions. Everything’s been great — I’ve learned so much — and I’m going to miss everyone all over again.

MFA Semester 4 – Day 6

This morning Jacqueline Davies ran her seminar on unreliable narrators. Though I have no desire to write my own unreliable narrator story (when asked who was interested, I kept my hand firmly on the desk) I really love reading these types of stories. Jackie did a great job of picking out scenes from the huge number of books we were asked to look at that showed how authors can use techniques to make their narrators unreliable, and how they twist the words and the reactions of other characters so that the readers become suspicious of their credibility.

At lunch I got to sit down with my last mentor, Susan Goodman, and have a good chat. We also looked at a picture book manuscript that I had wanted to work on this semester, but between my main creative work and the insanity that is the craft essay, I didn’t get through anything more than one edit. We compared notes on what should be taken out, and Susan and I brainstormed over what could possible change or happen about the plot. This was something she didn’t have to do, and I’m so grateful that she chose to take a section out of her day for it.

After lunch was large group workshop again, and I finally went. This no longer frightens me to my core like it used to, and I don’t think it’s because the questions are any less pointed — everyone had great comments and wonderful ideas (which I WILL steal) — so it must mean that I’ve grown some extra layer of skin. It was really productive, and helped me see things I hadn’t even realized were issues, always frustrating and fantastic at the same time. These ladies were great, and I’m sad to see most of them go as we scatter into small groups tomorrow.

MFA Semester 4 – Day 5

This was Tuesday, which meant a shortened day and a lack of responsibility.  We started off with mentor meetings to figure out what we’re doing for the semester. Tony helped me figure out what to do for my graduating seminar (in order to graduate I have to impart knowledge of some sort). It was an idea I had considered a little, since its my craft essay over again, but he had a few ideas of how to actually run a seminar on it, which spurred more of my own ideas… I think I have a game plan forming. We talked a little about what we’ll do for my thesis, which will still be the novel I’ve worked on all this time, Speaksong. We both agree that we’re going to get this as polished up as human possible over the four submissions. To start I’m going to send him the whole thing so he can see what it looks like, and then we’ll figure out where all the problems lie.

This was elective seminar day, and I chose to go to the one on the writer/editor relationship. I know very little about the business side of this writing thing, and I think it’s really useful to just have some sort of understanding of what to expect if someone ever does decide “Hey, maybe I’ll publish this lady’s book.” For example, I now know to expect some sort of massive revision request (whether or not that actually happens, I should expect it).

The day was done with that, so I went out with some ladies to eat Mexican food and watch Brave. A wonderful end to the day.

MFA Semester 4 – Day 3

First thing today was a seminar for every Writing for Young People student on writing picture books from Pat Collins. After the picture book IS I took two semesters ago, picture books have become a medium I really want to pursue, so this was particularly interesting to me. But, though most people in this genre don’t write picture books, everyone got really involved. It was great to see Pat’s thumbnails and book dummies, and to hear the stories of how you simply CAN NOT choose your artist, and how that can work out both for good and for bad. Many of the books for this seminar had been suggested to me by Beth Glass in my IS, but I never got all of them. After hearing Pat’s strong recommendations for Picture This! and Writing Picture Books, though, I think I’ll have to go grab those.

Directly after this was the Fraud Police Seminar from William Lychack. This seminar focused on our self-doubt and the elements of our life, both exterior and interior, that try to prevent us from getting our writing done. It sounded like a potentially horrifying and depressing seminar, but it was actually really amazing. Self doubt never goes away, distractions surround us like wolves, and we will never get rid of the voices (both real and imagined) that belittle our work and tell us that we’re not good enough, we’re too selfish, too presumptuous, everyone is better than us anyway… We have to keep chugging, keep writing. We work hard to say what we have to, because it is worth saying.

After lunch was the first round of workshops with Jacqueline Davies’ students. As usual there was some really great work here, and I was glad to finally be in a large group where I was able to see a picture book / early reader manuscript. I wish there were more picture book writers in this genre (I realize I contribute to the stack of novels) because I think that would have helped me figure out how to do one for myself sooner. And of course the other stories were great to read — I love everyone in my genre so much, they are all so good. I hope my comments are as helpful to them as I thought they were when I wrote them down.

I’ve begun to notice, I’ve had a much easier time getting past my shyness and participating than I have in the past, and that has already reaped the benefits of potential work, less awkward conversations with faculty, and, I believe, new friends. May the awkward shyness continue to seep away…

MFA Semester 4: Day 1

Yesterday I once again drove in a little too early, around 2 pm, and appeared to beat basically everyone here. I got the key to my dorm room, which has AC, but not its own little parking lot. So, I had to drag my suitcase and too-many bags down the street in 100 degrees, sweating like a pig and almost giving myself heat stroke.

Despite the heat, I was antsy, and kept wandering from building to building even though i probably should have just napped.  Eventually we met the new students, and after some general questions/answers we split apart and got to sit with the new Writing for Young People students — they seem fantastic.

At the reception I got to see more of my wonderful Lesley friends (though thanks to thunderstorms and subsequent delayed flights, my dear friend Rachel didn’t arrive until quite late). At the reading my last mentor Susan Goodman read part of her new picture book about dogs, and gave a cautionary tale of the many things that can go wrong when your book is on its way to getting published. Afterword I remembered to tell her how much my 8-year-old cousin loved her books about poop and pee, and that she needs to write more books about bodily functions so I can be the awesome cousin.

I talked to Tony Abbott, my old and now current adviser, a few times today, too, and he mentioned that all the added scenes in my large and small group submissions surprised him — in a good way! I still dread the hour of focused attention on me, but I can’t wait to hear what his opinion is.

Off to Lesley Tomorrow…

Tomorrow I head back down to Cambridge for the start of my fourth and final semester as a Lesley MFA student. I’m so excited to see everyone again, though a part of me is very depressed that I’m not going to be doing this twice a year for the rest of my life.

The manuscripts are read and critiqued, the readings have been gone through (mostly, I guess) my bags are packed (I’ve got the wine!)… I’m ready for this.

I’ll do my darnedest to keep a daily account of the week, if for nothing else than to help me remember everything.