Last month I traveled to central Pennsylvania to take part in the winter residency of Vermont College of Fine Arts. I graduated from VCFA’s low residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults in summer 2012 and returned three times in 2014 and 2015 to help out as a graduate assistant. I’ve also taken part in VCFA-sponsored community programs, including a two-session writing workshop for middle school students in Brooklyn.
For those unfamiliar with low-residency writing programs, they’re alternatives to full-time MFA programs that appeal to people who have other jobs (such as teachers and librarians) or who can’t move to wherever the MFA program is located. Many in-person programs, such as the oldest and best-known one at the University of Iowa, allow students to support themselves at a basic level through teaching undergraduate writing classes. The low-residency programs don’t have that option, but they’re a lot less expensive and more flexible. With a move to online education with the COVID-19 pandemic, online programs with twice a year residencies (either in-person or with an online option) look like the wave of the future. Having established itself as a prestigious and well-run program long before 2020, VCFA was able to transition seamlessly to this new reality.
A bigger problem, though, had to do with VCFA’s campus in Montpelier, Vermont, which fell into disuse with the pandemic. The old buildings were crumbling and expensive to maintain. The college’s board of directors decided to sell the campus, minus the College Hall administration building, and lease space from other colleges and universities during their vacations. They chose Colorado College for the summer residency and Susquehanna University for the winter residency.
Hence my trip to Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, home to the Susquehanna University campus. I was invited there to deliver the Darrow Lecture, meant to honor an alumnx of the VCFA WCYA program who had recently won an award or otherwise made a noteworthy achievement. It is named for Sharon Darrow, a VCFA graduate of the Writing program who helped to found the WCYA program in 1999. Other Darrow lecturers have included Julie Berry, Ibi Zoboi (who now teaches in the program), Jenn Bailey (whose books about autistic child Henry just won another Schneider Family Award from the American Library Association), and Melanie Jacobsen. My invite was due to Torch winning the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature, so my lecture focused on this novel about three misfit teens facing down a police state in communist Czechoslovakia after their mutual best friend’s fatal act of protest against the Soviet invasion and occupation of their country.
I never worked on Torch at VCFA, but it still has a connection to my time there. My third semester advisor, Sarah Ellis, wouldn’t let me choose my own reading but had an assigned list that included many unfamiliar books with multiple and omniscient points of view. At the time, I kind of resented not being able to read only middle grade and YA novels with the popular first person present tense narrative, because I was hoping to develop my voice. Yet I became captivated by two of those novels — Hilary McKay’s Saffy’s Angel and Sonya Hartnett’s The Midnight Zoo — particularly by the idea that the separate narrators’ fates were so intertwined that they became one narrator: a collective protagonist.
In my lecture, I talked about how I didn’t feel then that I had the writing skill to pull off a multiple point of view/collective protagonist narrative. Nor did I have the right project for that approach. (I strongly believe that the nature of the story dictates its narrative form, whether a multiple POV, a verse novel, and so on.) But I was obsessed, and in my lecture, I explored the reasons for my obsession.
Basically, it came down to my need to belong. It meant a lot to me to give that lecture at a VCFA residency because VCFA was the first place where I really felt I belonged as a writer. Being at the winter residency at Susquehanna University brought back that feeling: seeing my first-semester advisor An Na and meeting the new faculty, hanging out with Jenn Bailey who’s now the head of the graduate assistants, and getting to know the amazing students who are continuing the program’s tradition of excellence and service to the writing community. I danced at the party, which I did not DJ this time — though I admired the SU radio station that brought back memories of my years as a world music DJ at WRPI. When I returned to New York, I eagerly signed up for the VCFA Ambassadors Program, to spread the word about what the college has to offer to writers for kids and teens.
Please get in touch if you have questions about the VCFA low-residency MFA programs and if they’re right for you. I’m obviously biased — if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably figured it out — but I’m also honest. Being on the autism spectrum does that. We tend to speak our mind without any idea of what our audience will think. For instance, in my lecture, I revealed that I’d failed out of another graduate program years earlier and said nothing about it on my application. They didn’t ask. I didn’t tell.
I will say, however, that the structure of the low-residency program with its well-established online component, is particularly suited to neurodivergent students who may have trouble fitting into a full-time residency program, as I did in my former graduate school experience. It’s a large part of why I could say that at VCFA, I really believed that for the first time, I belonged.