Archive for the ‘the rez’ Category

Well, that’s that. The 2011 Summer Residency for the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults is over. Though I know a few stragglers are still in Montpelier with family or are preparing to embark on vacations, everyone else was well on their way before the 10 AM check-out time.

After yesterday’s graduation we fellow Graduate Assistants went down the hill into town and ate crepes at The Skinny Pancake, an eatery most worthy. We had talked of getting an order of poutine for the table to share but in the end it was a good thing we didn’t, our stuffed sweet and savory crepes were good enough. It was the second time we ate out as a group, though we also shared plenty of other meals in the cafeteria, and I think by the end we gelled as a group the way the individual classes do. I would go back and do it all over with dp, Catherine, Christopher, and Pam in a heartbeat.

As these residencies continue I find there are fewer and fewer recognizable faces from when I was in the program, and a whole lot of new faces. The “kids” I met as First Semesters last year were now officially in the middle of the program and it was interesting to see how they’d sort of “mellowed” into things. I think that its impossible to go through the program and not be changed, while still finding your creative spirit and zeal invigorated in the process. It was great to be able to “check in” with them and not feel so much like I was returning to a school full of strangers. Of course, no one remains a stranger in a small program like tis fr long, but still. Then again, the class that will graduate in January of 2012 were the incoming class during my graduating residency of 2010, which means that if I return next summer I will encounter the entire generation of five classes that entered after I left the program. How odd! It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long!

The current graduating class – all of them really, but this one is fresh in mind – is full of brilliant writers who I cannot imagine won’t find their way onto bookshelves and e-readers in short time. Godspeed, you League of Extraordinary Cheese Sandwiches! May your bready exteriors remain fresh and your cheesy souls remain creamy and smooth.

As usual after returning from VCFA I am both exhausted and supercharged. I’m ready to tear back into my writing with zeal but I’m also dying to take a massive nap and get some laundry down. After 11 days in a bubble I have read last Sunday’s paper and scanned some headlines on line just to make sure I didn’t miss any major news. Women’s soccer lost in a shoot-out after overtime, and Rupert Murdoch’s “news” organization is full of the same type of unsavory and immoral characters they promote into office. That about covers it, I think.

All of which to say that I am unprepared to deliver an original story from The New Grimmoire today. Tomorrow perhaps, or Saturday at the latest. I still don’t know if I’ll be pushing off Poetry Friday into the weekend as well. All I know is that, like a vacation, I need a break from the break. One day of re-entry and then tomorrow, day one, 8 AM, lasers.



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res/write 3

Another day in workshop, another writing exercise.  This is an oldie-but-goodie.  You get a random slip of paper with two characters and a subject and have to convey the information entirely in dialog.  Since the point was to read these aloud and let everyone guess who and what is going on I’ll let you read the dialog first and then tell you what my slips of paper said.

“Let’s try a different approach, Kit.  We’re descending at a rate of two metres a minute…”

“Got it.  Two metres.”

“But we’ll need to fire retrorockets to slow our descent when we’re half a kilometre above the landing pad…”

“Fire rockets… one half kilometre…”

“So, since we’re currently twenty minutes from landing…”

“Wait.  Twenty minutes?  How far away is that, Mr. Teague?”

“Right.  That’s what I want you to calculate.”

“But that’s… six feet per minute, sixty seconds for every six feet, sixty seconds for every six feet, so, one foot every… ONE FOOT EVERY TEN SECONDS!”

“Calm down, Kit, calm down.”

“We have to fire retrorockets NOW!  We’re going to plow right into Mars at… wait… ten seconds times five thousand two hundred eighty feet… divide by–no!  Multiply by six.  But it’s approximately half that, so multiply by three…”

In kilometres, Kit.  Remember?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Teague, but we’re about to die and I just can’t think in metric conversions under those conditions.”

So, did you guess:

Kid and a math teacher
Going to Mars?

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res/write #2

Today was my day for workshop, and for the first time I wasn’t nervous about it.  They were a pair of short stories and I didn’t really feel I had a handle on the short story.  I still don’t, though I do feel a lot better about them after hearing everyone’s thoughts.

Today’s writing assignments in workshop didn’t exactly spring from anything specific in my stories, but they were a nice reminder about the idea of point-of-view.  The three connected exercises were adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s book Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. We were first asked to write a short first-person narrative describing an accident.  In the second, we were to tell the same story from the point-of-view of a friend of the narrator in the first exercise.  The third version was to be from the viewpoint of an outside witness.  It went something like this:

You know that crusty old fart next door, Mister Higgins?  Well, I broke his window.  We were out in the street playing baseball with Rudy and Mark and some little kids and I shot a line drive right into his living room window.  Only it didn’t go through the window because of the screen.  The ball just sort of hung there like a fly caught in a spider web while all the glass flew into his house.  I ran home to hide before he could see me – we all scattered – and I tripped on my front stairs, which was how I broke my arm.  Then Mom was crying and yelling at the same time for me not having my shoelaces tied, while Dad and Mister Higgins yelled at each other about who was gonna pay for his broken window ’cause Dad got Mister Higgins to admit that he didn’t actually see who did it…

So did you hear about Jake?  Yeah, he broke his arm, but did you hear how?  No, no, not just the fall, it was because he he’d just broke Old Man Higgins’ window with a baseball.  Or a softball, he didn’t say.  The thing is… the thing is, he didn’t get caught because his dad asked Old Man Higgins to say who he saw hit the ball into the window but he said he didn’t exactly see Jake hit it… Yeah, I know, his dad probably knew Jake did it but they had to take him to the hospital and there wasn’t anything Higgins could do about it.  He probably went home and cackled about the whole thing, like somehow Jake’s broken arm was worth a broken window…

I didn’t realize anything was going on until I heard the Melbak kid screaming bloody murder.  Before I could even get out of my La-Z-Boy to check out what was going on I head two kids running through the back alley like they were on fire.  I peeped out the bathroom window and saw that boy Jake was holding his arm close to his body and his forearm was practically purple from bruise.  I wasn’t surprised when he came home from the hospital later with his arm in a cast.  But that Sam Higgins, he was there when that boy was screaming, flapping his arms like a scrawny chicken, yelling something about some broken window.  I couldn’t make too much sense of it beyond Sam not looking so pleased that the Melbak’s were more interested in taking care of their kid than listen to anything he had to say.  That old man’s always making such a nuisence of himself, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t his fault that boy Jake got his arm broke…

It ain’t Updike, but then I’d be a little put-of if I could be compared to Updike.  Maybe.  Only a little.

The thing is, this sort of opened up a door to an older story I read at my first residency back in January of 2008, a three-part YA novel with three unreliable narrators.  I’d been stalled out because I didn’t feel like I knew enough to really capture three different voices and was sort of hoping that somewhere along the line while I was here at VCFA that I’d get a tool for my writer’s toolbox that would help me bring it in from its rough-hewn state.  These exercises gave me a finger plane, something to really hone it smooth.  That story isn’t on the horizon, but I’m happy to have a better idea about what to do with it once I get the chance.

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Today we had our first workshop meeting.  Ours is one of the small groups – six people and one advisor as opposed to ten or twelve people and two advisors.  Our faculty advisor is Tim Wynne-Jones.  And because it is a smaller group we have more time to spend not only discussing workshop pieces but also exploring specific craft issues.

Which means writing exercises.

I have this fear of in-class writing exercises because I immediately get my hackles raised at having to perform on cue.  Irrationally, perhaps – I am a writer after all, I should be able to write simple exercises, right? – I immediately fear I will get the assignment wrong.  Or worse, because I think while I write (and I write slowly) that I won’t finish in time and somehow be seen as less of a writer.  Plus everyone else in the group is brilliant and I’m a charlatan.  At least that’s how it feels.

But today after the discussion of one my fellow workshopper’s pieces we did a couple short exercises – Tim calls them writing games – that didn’t leave me feeling quite so dumbstruck.  I am not saying these are brilliant examples of writing in general, or of my own writing, but that I walked away feeling like maybe I can write on command without breaking out in a sweat and fearing my writer’s card will be taken away.

First we were asked to write a scene that contained a character named Teri, a kitchen, and dealing with aftermath of a date… without actually talking about the date directly.

Teri entered the kitchen without turning on the light.  She removed a glass from the cabinet – the old French tumbler with the chip at the base that she couldn’t help running her finger over.  She ran the tap a bit before filling the glass then turned and leaned against the sink while taking slow, deliberate sips.  She shifted her weight from hip to hip while kicking off her shoes.  Her eyes adjusted to the dark as shades of color began to appear around her.  The dishtowels looked dingy in the shadowy moonlight.  The loaf of bread she had hastily placed atop the refrigerator earlier leaned anxiously toward the edge, ready to fall.  The fruit in the bowl on the counter had somehow deflated while she was out.

Teri took one final sip and wiped away the evening from her lips.

The word anxious is highlighted because originally I had written eagerly, crossed it out, then added it back.  I like the idea that amid all this dour post-date imagery there was something threatening to take some sort of action.  Tim spotted it immediately and I held fast to it during the workshop but realized now that anxiety in a loaf of bread seemed better.  I could be wrong, I often am.

Students of Tim’s, or of VCFA in general, will probably recognize this as an objective correlative assignment.

Next, we looked at adjectives.  No, rather, we didn’t look at them.  It was a quicky, a scene set outside using no adjectives.  No other rules.  Go.

The crows dropped from the trees all at once and alighted on the playground.  They flapped and cawed and danced around the body lying face-down in the center of the basketball court.  First one, then several crows approached the body, tilting their heads for a better view.  A car backfired and the sound sent the crows back to the trees where they waited until it was once again safe to investigate what had happened to their friend.

Okay, I have no idea where the hell that came from.  I half thought I would make the body a fallen scarecrow, but then the basketball court didn’t make sense.  Then I started thinking about crows thinking of a human as a friend and what they expected of him.  Next thing I knew, I was thinking more than writing.  That happens.

So, again, not great writing, but some things I thought interesting.  Thought I’d share.

My piece gets workshopped on Tuesday.  I’m not nervous at all.  Not yet at least.

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The incoming class is already starting to filter in, their first official meeting is tonight.  The faculty is already there.  The rest of us will be filtering in as well, arriving in time for orientation just after lunch tomorrow. Time again for that thing we call “the res,” or simply “res,”

The Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults bi-annual residency!

So part of me wants to promise to keep regular updates, but I know that’s contingent on any number of factors.  Last time I managed to snag a solo room, so I was able to stay up late at night writing and blogging without worrying about keeping anyone else awake.  Single rooms are incredibly rare, but still, one can hope.

I suppose I could try and Tweet.  But that’s not what I feel like doing in the brief moments between faculty lectures and studetn lectures and all the other good stuff scheduled for the coming scant two weeks.  But all of that is still to come because, as of this moment, I am still maing lists of everything I need to do, and some last minute packing, and everything else I need to wedge into the day before a nice mellow pizza and movie night with my Suze before leaving early tomorrow morning.

It’s a little like camp, where you can’t wait to see the people you haven’t seen since the last time you were at camp.  It’s like summer camp but all the activities are indoor, because if we added outdoor activites we’d end up there for a month instead of two weeks.  It’s a summer camp with a graduation and a prom attached.  It’s a writer’s retreat, and a battery recharge, and a reunion with community, and dorms with cafeteria food.

And I am a little excited.  But not so you’d notice.

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For a century now we’ve been running this great experiment called adolescence.  With the rise of theories on social development, we’ve come to refine the compartmentalization of childhood into such neat little slices of experience and expectation that I’m wondering if maybe it isn’t time to step back and ask ourselves if we’re doing right by the adolescents in our midst or if we aren’t doing more damage than good.

And for once, instead of my usual rants against education, I’m going to pose this question to writers of Young Adult fiction.

Time was, we used to have a ceremony for children as they reached puberty and called them adults.  We’d send them on walkabouts, or give them bar (or bat) mitzvahs, administer confirmations, hold sunrise ceremonies… whatever name they are given, many cultures seemed to have in place a ritual recognition separating childhood from adulthood with nothing in between.

And for many decades we did not have a Young Adult fiction category for the same reason.  At one point a child was no longer expected to need coddling literature and it was time for them to venture out into the world and learn from the “adult” side of the library.

Since then it seems we’ve created a sort of limbo where people we call teenagers or “young adults” are permitted to exist in a protective cocoon that, presumably, exists to allow for a smoother transition into adulthood.  In this protective envelope we find teens yearning for the experiences of adulthood but disinterested in the responsibilities of same.  We let them drive cars, but they are still carried under an adult’s insurance coverage and responsibility.  We let them have jobs but don’t require they share any of the expenses that adult wage earners are beholden to.

And come graduation from high school there is another four years for them to remain fully out of adulthood, and even then we find many returning home to the roost.

My charge today is to ask: how much does YA literature foster a retardation of maturity?

I know there is the thorny issue of deciding whether fiction reflects or mirrors a culture, and whether it should.  This is the uneasy territory  find myself considering over and over.  Should my stories mirror those experiences most teens are having, or should they, somehow, suggest that there is more to life than grades and proms and dating and shopping and dueling with adults?  I look at the teen characters I create, and their stories, and I wonder “Are you nothing more than the result of too many freedoms and not enough responsibilities?”

I wonder if adolescences has created a class of entitlement.

And I wonder if YA literature can do anything about it.

In prepping for my pending residency at school (this weekend!) I am finding I wish I had more time to read.  I want more time not only to digest the required reading but to delve further into the issues these books bring up.  I want to brush up on my Bettleheim and explore Erik Erikson.  I want to read and know more about why we think, as a culture, adolescence as a classification is such a good thing.

I have a full six months between now and graduation from school, between this moment and the one where I have to lecture on something substantive within the field of children’s literature.  I have more ideas and more questions than can be answered, much less expounded on, in a half year’s time.  I feel like I’m about to be told I can go into the world and build jet planes having only worked on plastic models.

This is it.  There is no “adolescence” for me as a writer.  My ritual is on the horizon.

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Have a good semester.

Will I see you at breakfast?

When does your shuttle come?

I already miss you…

For the stragglers among us — and I am among the stragglers simply because I got a short nap in after dinner — the pull to call it a night and do our last minute packing is in defiance of our refusal to let go.  We admit how hard it is on our families and loved ones to lose us from our lives for so long, and I can’t help imagine that first time a lunar orbiter circled the moon and communication went dark.  There was no reason the astronauts wouldn’t complete the orbit unaffected, and yet those moments where communication was completely blocked left mission control back on earth worried about the safe return of the mission.  Here we are, emerging from the dark side of our moon, our residency concluded, our command bases anxiously looking forward to our safe returns and complete debriefings.

We have called this environment many things, including a retreat, a place to recharge our creative batteries, and a hothouse.  Like a hothouse, we grow quickly under artificial conditions and the fruits of our labors are larger than normal.  We live together and eat together and work together, and when the time comes we scatter back to our non-hothouse worlds and attempt to make sense of it all.

Emerging from the dark side, artificially accelerated… these attempts to explain the process and environment always seem to fail.  And it the end, much like a party we don’t wish to leave, it’s yet another bittersweet moment that we will treasure and process and store away for future use in our writing.  Twenty-four hours from now we will either be home or well on our way that direction.


It’s that thing we talk about the entire time we’re here.  About what we do at home, what we will do at home, what’s awaiting us at home, what we’re looking forward to at home.  No matter how much “important” work we do here at the residency, no matter how focused we are, no matter what, we are always mindful of home. A hothouse is not a home, neither is a lunar capsule isolated from all contact with the rest of the world.

There’s work to do, and for that we must go home.

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