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?