How do you explain a moment when you’ve experienced magic?
Several friends and family members have asked me to describe my first residency in my MFA in Writing program, and I have no easy answer. You try describing the experience of spending nearly two weeks with people who like you aspire to be the best writers they can be.
Magic was definitely in play, but explainable magic. I cut myself off from newspapers, television and social media. I spent all of my time in three buildings — my dorm with cafeteria, a lecture hall, and a classroom building — following a rigid schedule that accounted for my every waking minute. I engaged in conversation solely with other students and faculty.
Isolation has long been used with great effectiveness by churches, rehab clinics, terrorists, and cults. It creates a bonding experience with your fellow participants, one that is shockingly disorienting when it ends.
I’ve been away from Vermont for a few days now, back in sync with my life. I’m savoring the afterglow of the residency, but can’t help but wonder how I’ll keep hold of that magic when I’ve experienced my last residency two summers from now.
The key, it seems, is to find a way to create that level of creative connection and intimacy in your daily life. Isolation may have sparked that Vermont magic. But that element wasn’t the source of our magic.
The magic’s wellspring was trust.
We students ranged in age from 22 to 72. We came from all across the U.S. and other parts of the world, including Europe and the Middle East. We wrote poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. But we all had in common a passionate, heartfelt commitment to improving ourselves as artists.
That common commitment was evident by our very appearance at the residency, and that shared knowledge facilitated our taking emotional risks. By the first full day, many of us first-semester students were on our own initiative practicing reading our works aloud to each other, rehearsing for when we’d be in front of even more students and faculty. We cheered while offering practical criticism. We had formed an ad hoc workshop, mirroring the formal ones we participated in as part of the residency.
Over cafeteria trays by day and Vermont microbrew beers by night we shared our dreams, our ambitions, what we hoped to create with our new wisdom, the creative lives we hoped to shape for ourselves. We shared our fears, our doubts, both in conversation and in our own writings we shared at our readings.
I can’t speak for my classmates, but it’s safe to say it has been a very, very long time since I’ve allowed myself to be so vulnerable. It was liberating, and led to many positive results, including a fantastic last night in town in which some of us took turns butchering pop tunes at a local karaoke bar. (I mangled Brian Setzer’s “Stray Cat Strut” and Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.”)
There’s a reason we rarely expose ourselves so fully to others. It’s simply not advisable. The opportunity for pain, for victimization, is quite high. But as I prepare for my latest meeting with a local writer’s group, I know that trustful sharing doesn’t have to happen only in an MFA isolation tank. It can happen with other creatives in your social circle, whether in person or through social media. It can happen with your spouse, your sister, your son.
The major task I’m working on with my faculty adviser this semester is learning how to reveal myself in my writing. As I’ve written here, it’s hard to suppress the journalist in me and tell my own stories with the same level of detail I tell the stories of others. But I feel I already received a head start on that creative-writing growth by revealing myself to my MFA peers.
I am determined to find ways to create that level of intimate trust in my broader life, away from the safe bubble of trust I found in Montpelier, Vermont.
Do you have people in your life with whom you can share the ups and downs of your creative path?
43 thoughts on “Sharing Without Fear”
I LOVE this post, Patrick. First, let me say how much you and my friend Shelby are giving me the itch to attend an MFA program … but second, let me say that I’m so happy for you. Sounds like the program is a wonderful fit already. It is SO important to find those creative connections so that you CAN share and be vulnerable. I’ve been lucky enough to have two very wonderful critique partners – and now have also met wonderful like-minded individuals through Twitter – who share the same passion. It’s very invigorating, inspiring and just good for creativity. Good luck on revealing yourself in your writing. I think you took your first step in this post!
Hi Melissa! It becomes easier to share when I get great feedback like this. I’ve gathered from your blog that you have some supportive creative-minded individuals in your circle, which is fantastic.
I’m thrilled with my new MFA adventure, but I can’t understate the adjustments I’m going to have to make the next two years, professionally and personally, to make it happen. On that front I’m very grateful to the support my family is providing me.
This cracked me up: “There’s a reason we rarely expose ourselves so fully to others. It’s simply not advisable.” True enough.
At the same time, I think many of us learned to hide because of the responses we got from other children when we were kids — brutal, status-seeking mockery and insults by people with very little compassion.
It wasn’t safe to reveal yourself then, but with a benevolent adult who understands the power their response holds, it can be safe. The trick is knowing who those people are.
It’s really a remarkable goal you have, to reveal yourself more in your writing. I need to reveal myself more with the people closest to me. Somehow it’s easier to share with cyberfriends I may never meet than with the people in the room with me.
Hi Sue! Yes, my understated wit at work there.
You’re really on to something with your observation of children. I think it’s not just a lack of compassion, it is envy. When a child (or anyone, frankly) sees a peer accomplish something they don’t feel capable of, one response is to tear the person down to what they perceive is their level.
And yes, the trick is discerning who is safe to share with. It was easier at the MFA because we came in with a default that it was safe, but still, you can’t underestimate the sheer number of consecutive hours we all spent on top of each other, an incoming class of 34 students. In some respects it was like spending weeks ore even months with folks in our normal realm.
Patrick, I’m glad you liked your program and I agree with you about the magic. When I am at the trade shows and other events for my industry (which is very groovy and touchy-feely) it is a very special time. Fiber Arts people seem to want to find commonalities and connections with each other. I wonder if there is a phenomenon like that among writers. And I always get better access to my own creative forces when I spend time with other creative people, no matter their specialty. IDEAS are so exciting! Also, I have been craving isolation, so I envy you that experience.
I think there is that phenomenon among writers, I’ve experienced it at AWP, which is an annual conference for creative writers and writing programs. And yes, you’ve really hit on something with the boost to your own creativity when surrounded by others. My photo caption above refers to late-night writing sessions. We’re not actually required to write during residency, we submit our writing in advance, but the energy there compelled me to write, most every night.
What a lovely post. I am very much missing the magic, although it hasn’t quite dissipated from my mind/soul yet. Hopefully it never will. Ugh, I graduated too soon. : )
In terms of us meeting you graduated too soon, yes. 🙂 But I’m envious of your full experience of VCFA. Hold on to that magic, today, tomorrow, forever, Angela.
Patrick, this was insanely good to read. I’m one of the people who’s been eagerly waiting for your news and it was as good, if not better, than I anticipated.
This post swelled me with so much inspiration (as well as amusement from your touches of humor) I don’t think I can do it justice with a mere comment. I just want to say that I’m so heartfelt glad for everything you got from your residency, and I know your readers will benefit even more than we already have (eg., the privilege of reading your short story, The Clear Monkey).
You’re as supportive as my new classmates! 🙂
Thank you for your kind words on my creative writing and your belief readers of my writing will benefit from my sharing. And most of all, thank you for your encouragement via Twitter to post about this residency. There will be more to come, but they’ll be more craft-focused, passing on some of the things I learned in lectures and workshop.
Patrick, honestly, you’re not hard to believe in. 🙂 And you do so much to help creative people, you deserve some in return.
The follow-up posts sharing some of what you’ve learned sound awesome too. A win-win for everyone.
Patrick, thankyou for sharing this article with us! I have taken down a few notes to help me with the trusting and sharing process as well. It sounds like you had a very magical time with your peers in Vermont! Would love to hear more about your experiences while you are on this creative journey…it helps others who love to write as well 🙂
I’m glad you found it of value! The MFA is a big part of my new “artist’s road,” so its role in my creative journey will resurface here at times. As I told Milli above, it will appear soon in the form of more craft-focused posts on lessons I learned on creative writing.
Hi Patrick, welcome back! So interesting that you should write about this … I posted a (short) blog in the wee hours of the morning touching on being vulnerable (though not as directly as this) and awoke this morning thinking I would love to write more in depth about similar topics yet how risky that is to do when you are putting it out there for public consumption. Not that that realization usually stops me … unless I put it off too long. Then the idea and the excitement about it fades into the routine doingness of daily life. (This idea in jeopardy of doing so, as my day is packed and I have to get started NOW, can’t wait!)
Thanks for leading the charge in exploring the edges of safety, vunerability and what works as a writer! Oh, and to answer your question, yet … I have someone who is very supportive with whom I can share ideas. I don’t always avail myself of their support and wisdom (the whole “I can manage” or “they are busy, I don’t want to impose” conversation) … and I know it is there if I need it. 🙂
Hey Amy, glad to be back! Yours is one of the blogs I need to catch up on, part of my to-do list for the next week. I look forward to seeing your post on vulnerability, but in my mind you already took the big step a few years ago when you finally took ownership of your identity as an artist and went back to art school. You’re one of the inspirations for me doing what I’m doing now.
It is hard to find those people that can allow for your vulnerability in an open and accepting way but also help you grow as an artist. I think many people in the arts have struggled with exactly that experience while trialing different people in that particular role. I know I struggle with that myself and also in trying to create such an environment in my classroom with young artists. So glad the experience was positive for you!
I’m not surprised you focus on that with your students, kudos. On Sunday I dropped my daughter off at a pre-college summer art program. The college seems to have done a good job in creating an environment similar to my MFA in terms of support and encouragement from the top as well as facilitating a support network among the students. It is hard to find people like that, great when educators can help.
Hey Patrick, Loved reading about your MFA experience. Those residencies are magical, especially if you have the luck to get to a program where you can share your vulnerabilities. Glad you found that place! I’m still in touch with several people from my program, even though this year marks the 10-year anniversary of starting it. And I just reconnected with an old pal from that time this morning. Very cool. Charlotte
It’s great to learn of your continued connection to Spalding. One of the graduate assistants I met had graduated 17 years ago, but said she felt right at home. She had been invited because she has remained good friends with one of the faculty members who was her instructor back then.
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Patrick, this post took me back to my own grad school days! I started my MFA after being a full-time reporter for…how many years, now I can’t remember. I was the one used to asking the questions, putting others on the spot. So being in workshops where fellow writers questioned my creative choices, critiqued my characters and stories was terrifying. But it was a lot of fun. Most of us became good friends, and we continue to help and support each other, even as our lives have moved in very different directions. You’re right about the magic; between writers, I think, much of it lies in trust.
And oh. Now that I’m reminiscing. In my first year at the AFI, the class before us welcomed us with a night of Karaoke. I botched “You’re The One That I Want” from Grease. Yikes.
Thanks for visiting and for this comment. WE do have pretty similar life paths, and it’s great to hear you share my insights. As for the workshop, it was mind-blowing to have all those great writers offering me substantive feedback for 55 straight minutes without me speaking (they have a “gag rule” that keeps writers from pushing back and redirecting the conversation). It was amazing, phenomenal, and it turns out, exhausting; afterward I slipped out of a lecture and fell asleep in my dorm room.
I don’t know about you, but I think one thing I bring to workshop and the MFA as a journalist is a tough skin; there is nothing anyone can say to me that will be more blunt than a news editor on deadline!
Patrick, once again, you are an inspiration. Thanks for sharing this deeply personal experience with the world and allowing us to learn from it, as well.
I’m blushing, warm praise from a writer of sublime and beautiful prose. Thanks, Jessica!
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Sounds like it was a great experience Patrick. The right combination of conditions and people can be magical. Sometimes even if we cannot physically return to the exact experience, when we are creating, we can mentally return to such a time and re-conjure the magic.
Hi David. You’re absolutely right about holding on to the magic in our minds.
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