It’s been six months since my recap of my first semester in my MFA program, so I thought I’d do an update on the second semester, which I just finished. I am a student in Vermont College of Fine Arts’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults low-residency program. I started last July (read my account of that first residency here on the blog), and I’m about to embark on the residency that will kick off my third semester in July.
Part 1: This Semester in 10 Photos
This was fun to put together for last semester’s recap, so I’m bringing it back! Here are 10 photos that epitomized this semester.
Photo #1: The semester started with a change… I chopped my hair off! Before this it was shoulder length and black, but I wanted to grow in my natural blonde and needed a new look. It was quite cold to have no hair in the middle of winter, but I came to love hats. Of course, I can’t go two weeks without changing my hair, so I promptly dyed it purple. Having a pixie cut definitely helped me get in character for writing Always Never, my Peter Pan retelling. I’m currently growing it out.
Photo #2: Here you see Jon Snow sitting by They All Saw a Cat, a picture book written and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel. I read this picture book for my first packet, and it totally launched me on a new critical journey. They All Saw a Cat got me interested in surrealist and avant-garde children’s literature, which ended up being a big theme in my critical thesis. Before this, I had never written about picture books critically and was nervous about it. But this brilliant book changed everything, and I knew I had to dive in and try.
Photo #3: And here we have a photo of that critical essay (CE), the long one in the first packet: “‘Ceci n’est pas une essai critique’: Subverting Perception and Questioning Realism in Children’s Literature.” I felt like I really hit my stride with this topic. I only intended to write a shorter CE on the topic, but once I got going, the ideas wouldn’t stop. Admittedly, it feels a little “out there” for a CE topic—basically, I’m arguing that there’s no one true reality—but I’m excited to work on it in the third semester as it’s a theme I’m passionate about in my own writing.
Photo #4: For the first time in a while, I ordered a bunch of new tea from Premium Steap, my favorite local tea distributor. I wrote out in my (unheated) office a lot this winter, often making a full pot to linger over when I was writing.
Photo #5: Introducing the Packet Board! Starting with my second packet, I began writing down the possibilities for packet materials and my schedule to complete everything on time. This was a lot of fun and it saved countless sheets of paper, as I tend to sketch these things out in notebooks and chew through pages. The white board is much greener, and I enjoyed playing with the different color markers.
Photo #6: Writing poetry was exhilarating, baffling, fun, and very rewarding. Crafting each poem felt like taking jigsaw puzzle pieces out of reality and assembling in something coherent, a little self-contained work that I hoped would pack punch. All of my poems rhymed, and I experimented with some new forms (the limerick, the elegy, alphabet poems). Something about poetry revived me and my enthusiasm for writing this semester. Amidst a larger depression, I found that poetry pushed me more than any other form I’d written thus far. Plus, while I was middling about with several different works-in-progress, I felt a strong sense of completion with each poem I wrote. Some of these poems went through drafts and drafts and drafts across hours and hours and hours of work, chewing through pencil erasers and blank sheets of paper with a hunger to match my passion for poetry. I’d say I spent more time drafting, tweaking, revising, and finalizing my poems than any other creative work I did. You can see in this picture that I’m working on drafting “The Lexlog,” a three-page poem I consider my proudest achievement this semester, while having a burrito bowl at Chipotle. I am a Starbucks addict, with my local Starbucks being my preferred office space, but sometimes you need to branch out. And eat! Because poetry takes a ton of brain power, and you need to nourish yourself.
Photo #7: My mother and I are members of the Brandywine River Museum and Conservancy and usually go to each exhibit. This spring, we attended an exhibit of art collected by Richard M. Scaife, a benefactor of the museum. I took a photograph of this quote from Scaife on the wall outside the exhibit entrance because I loved the message: “Beautiful art—paintings, music or literature— can transform our moods, lighten our hearts, make us think or change our minds, inspire us to be creative or live better lives.” Since starting my MFA program, I’m beginning to think about what it means to be a writer in the sense that you are an artist creating art for the world. That means it’s essential to connect with other artists and take in other art outside your medium. One of my close friends is a professional potter and teaching artist, and our conversations always invigorate me. I’ve also become more active in film culture this past year as a member of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. And I’m slowly beginning to bring music back in my life more as a well of creative inspiration—music can often make me manic, so I try to stay away from it. Two great recent books I read this semester that address the creator’s life are Art Matters by Neil Gaiman (which I reviewed here on the blog) and Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad by Austin Kleon.
Photo #8: A discussion of this semester wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that I published my two debut romance novellas, Our Perfect Fantasy and Our Perfect Secret! Here I am the day Our Perfect Fantasy went live, showing it to you on my Kindle screen.
Both of these sweet and clean romance novellas are in my “Political Passions” series. Our Perfect Fantasy has its origins years in the making. I first began Our Perfect Fantasy as a YA novel and in fact submitted the opening chapter as my writing sample for VCFA. Now, two years later, I heavily revised and updated the story, aging up the characters as “new adults” in their mid-twenties. I now know what it’s like to stick with a manuscript you shove in a drawer and keep going with it, which means gutting a lot (if not all) of your previous material. “Killing your darlings,” as we like to say in writing.
Publishing these two novellas was a total hypomanic-induced whirlwind. I really don’t like the spring, mainly because it makes my moods go up and down really fast with the changing circadian rhythms. Seasonal affective means many people with bipolar see hypomania and mania spike in the spring and summer, which can be very productive, as the 44,000 words I wrote in three weeks between these two novels shows, but those elevated moods can be dangerous, too. In some ways, dealing with the fallout of mania and hypomania is even more destructive than depression. You overcommit yourself, burn out, spend a bunch of money you don’t have, and can slip into mania or psychosis if you’re not treated early enough. So while I’m so happy to have published those books, I also have the perspective to say I wish I could have taken that creative burst and spread it throughout the semester. Not long after my crash down from hypomania, I had my fourth packet due and was creatively exhausted from all the work I did on my romance novellas. Plus my cognitive impairment was horrible, my brain a fog. I’m glad I have those novellas, as they are, if nothing else, two pieces of writing I’m proud of (and selling…), and fortunately my hypomania wasn’t too bad, but this is the life of a being a bipolar creative, for better or worse.
Photo #9: My advisor, An Na, focused a lot of her feedback on challenging me to better balance exposition with scene work. One of the coolest things about writing Our Perfect Fantasy and Our Perfect Secret was I could immediately see how my time in the MFA program is helping me improve as a writer. I had Na’s feedback from my work in the back of my mind, and I constantly asked myself, “Can I show this rather than tell this?” I got to play around with exposition a lot, especially in dialogue. For my final packet, Na wanted me to write a long critical essay on exposition and dialogue. Since I’m working on a middle grade fantasy novel, I decided to use Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as my mentor text, addressing the different ways that J.K. Rowling used dialogue to introduce the magical world to Harry and to readers. I still haven’t done a total Harry Potter reread, but I feel it’s coming. It’s such an important work of children’s literature, and now that I’m writing middle grade fantasy, I should revisit this classic that broke open children’s literature. Here you can see me writing in the book, which felt like sacrilege.
Photo #10: Here we are! I posted this victory status just moments after turning in Semester 2 Packet 4. I’m officially halfway through the program, which is a scary but thrilling thought. Can it get any better? I bet!
Part 2: What I Produced
I did a lot of writing this semester, generating more creative work than last semester for sure. Our new packet guidelines said we could submit anywhere from 25-50 creative pages each packet. Last semester, I struggled to meet the minimum for some packets. This time, I used almost every creative page possible. Between the four packets, I used 189 out of 200 available pages. (Caveat: poetry pages count double.) I think this reflects an increasing comfort with writing new material. For the first three packets at least, I definitely did not struggle with creative output.
Here’s a breakdown of my creative work:
—The Whole Truth about Half House: I wrote and revised the first four chapters of this middle grade fantasy. I definitely plan to continue working on this project either this upcoming semester or in my final semester. I think it’ll be dependent on who my advisor is for those semesters, meaning if they work in middle grade or not.
—The Epic Link Between Boom and Blink: I wrote the first seven chapters in this middle grade novel about two cats. I also finished an outline for the rest of the book, so I can pick this one up again some day.
—Always Never: I worked on the opening chapters in this YA Peter Pan retelling. I’m not sure I’ll be working on this one in this upcoming semester, but I might turn it into a short story as I have an idea to create a collection of retellings as short stories.
—Pen and Pulse: I crafted the first 21 pages of this YA novel in verse. I definitely want to continue working on this project next semester and have already started drafting more of it before residency.
—Trust Your Story: I got to revise the opening of this YA contemporary epistolary novel.
—Poetry: I rediscovered my love of poetry this semester and began two themed poetry collections. I wrote or revised 20 new poems over the course of the semester. The first is a series of children’s verse poems called “The Limerick Lyrics” and the second is a collection of fractured nursery rhymes I’m calling “Brother Goose’s Crimey Rhymeys.”
And as for the critical side of things… this semester I…
—Read 52 books – a mix of picture books, poetry, early readers, chapter books, middle grade, and YA.
—Wrote 2 long critical essays on the topics of a) perception and surrealism, and b) dialogue and exposition
—Generated 4 shorter critical essays on retellings, power dynamics, subversive poetic techniques, and more.
—Created a critical thesis proposal ready to go for my third semester advisor
Part 3: How I Grew
This semester, I saw a ton of growth.
Revision was never a great skill of mine going into the semester, and thanks to Na all but telling me that revision was not optional, I worked through my blocks and revised Always Never and The Whole Truth about Half House. Interestingly, these revisions looked very different. Whereas Always Never was tweaked and expanded (one of Na’s main suggestions was to take the time to build out the world), The Whole Truth about Half House was a top-to-bottom gutting. I think I only kept one single sentence from the first 29 pages in the 17-page revision. Revising “The Lexlog” was also helpful. After the creative rush of finishing the poem, I stepped away from it. When I came back, I was able to get more perspective on what needed more explanation and how I could make the language work on the line level to reinforce the action, characterization, and theme.
Poetry has always been my first love in writing, but I lacked the courage to just go all out and write and revise a bunch of new material. This semester, I felt more confident just going for it. I not only wrote children’s verse, but a young adult verse novel, too. I learned this semester that poetry is a true passion of mine, that I might want to do a poetry creative thesis (or a novel-in-verse creative thesis), and I absolutely want to encourage myself to write more in this genre as it satisfies me and brings me joy in a way nothing else has so far.
Middle grade intimidated me in the first semester. I felt like, since I had a crappy childhood, how could I write books for kids without being morbid? I think this semester, I really dove into middle grade and challenged myself to stop letting my past police what I could and couldn’t write. Maybe I could write anything! Maybe I couldn’t. But I needed to try. Between Boom and Blink and Half House, I feel my middle grade voice strengthening. I really hope to keep working on these projects, especially Half House, in the time I have left at VCFA.
Plotting and storytelling have always been my greatest weaknesses. I’m definitely more of a “pantser.” But this semester, I started to think about writing more deeply. What am I really doing? What do I really want to achieve? I think I’ve found my answer: above all, I want to tell good stories. I felt that way after seeing The Shawshank Redemption for the first time this year. Knowing it’s a Stephen King adaptation, I was just blown away thinking about what it would be like to train myself to think about stories in the same way King does, or other expert storytellers (novelists, yes, but including screenwriters and poets, too). I want to be a storyteller first, writer second, and to help myself on that path, I’ve been reading more great craft books on storytelling (Story Genius and Save the Cat! Writes a Novel). And in fact, I plotted and stuck to outlines for each of my romance novellas, the first time I’ve ever seen an outline through to the end. I used a hybrid plot template I created based on Save the Cat! Writes a Novel and Romancing the Beat so I’d be hitting my storytelling marks. Importantly, I did not let myself deviate from the outline even when I wanted to, so I could see the full effect of sticking to your story. After that experience, I think I’m a converted plotter! In any case, I do know that if there’s one big skill I want to come out VCFA having mastered, it’s storytelling inside and out.
These are just a few ways I’ve grown, and I know from first semester that you’ll often find your writing improved months if not years after the fact. One thing I have learned is creative and craft go hand in hand, and their influence is often an echo. Writing my romance novellas, I felt the lessons from my first semester on microlevel writing techniques come through, plus I saw Na’s exposition-and-scene mentoring radically improve my writing. I might not always see how I’ve grown from each and every piece, but I do know that I am growing. It’s true what they say: going to VCFA WCYA will teach you what you might take ten years on your own to learn. And I can’t wait to go to residency in a few weeks and begin a new semester and new chapter in my writing journey.