MFA Nugget: Pacing Yourself

MONTPELIER, VERMONT: I just took a nap.

Those five words may not seem particularly significant or profound, but they form a sentence I don’t often type. I tend to crash daily around 3:00 pm (the time of day Robert Goulet messes with my stuff), but I’ve learned to put my creative projects aside at that time and take care of busywork: correspondence, bills, organizing.

The snow-covered quad.

But here at my MFA residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, I hit the wall. The 1 pm faculty reading–featuring many of my favorite writers here–was riveting. The lecture afterward by a graduating student was both fact-filled and moving. But once those events ended, I crossed the snow-covered quad, made my way up my dormitory’s concrete steps, threw my book bag and coat onto the floor against the pale-blue cinderblock wall of my room, and dove into the too-short bed.

A VCFA residency lasts ten full days. The first lectures begin at 8:45 am. Events continue throughout the day. Most days feature a two-hour workshop in which we critique each other’s writings. Faculty readings occur almost every night at 7 pm. Student readings start most nights around 8:45 pm; one reading I participated in Tuesday night began a little after 10 pm.

And of course we’re all college students, even me, a middle-aged husband and father. That means late nights of socializing. Some things have changed for me vs. college a quarter-century ago. Instead of talking about chicks, I’m talking about the use of metaphor. Instead of shotgunning Pabst Blue Ribbon, I’m sipping Maker’s Mark. And instead of playing “Quarters,” I’m enjoying Scrabble.

The scene of the crime.

VCFA knows it’s easy to burn out at this pace. They warn us–in the student handbook, in a pre-residency email, at orientation–to move at a reasonable pace. Sure, we say. But if you’re a mother of a 10-year-old boy, do you take him to a candy store, tell him he can spend as much time there as he’d like and eat as much as he wants with no worry about paying for anything, but just make sure you don’t eat so much you get sick to your stomach?

We’re not 10-year-olds. We’re adults. But the temptation of the offerings here at VCFA are no different than the licorice and malted-milk balls in front of that imagined boy. Still, I can resist when my body demands it. I have found myself slowing down. Yesterday afternoon I skipped a lecture I was intent on hearing. Last night I skipped the faculty reading. And I took that nap.

I’m awake now, alert and refreshed. I’m writing this post, and will schedule it to post tomorrow morning, the same time my other posts have gone live. And I’m listening to some music, to help pump me with energy. Let me add a detail I swear is true: Moments ago when I put my music player on “shuffle” and hit play, the first song that came up was The Beatles’ “I’m So Tired.”

It wasn’t true. I’m not tired, not at this moment. But if I don’t continue to pace myself, it will be again. So between now and Sunday, when I take the Amtrak Vermonter back to Washington, D.C., I’ll give myself permission to skip another lecture, blow off another reading, and take another nap.

Artists of all types must balance their art with many other parts of life. Are you careful to pace yourself?

ABOUT THIS SERIES: As promised, I am posting occasional “nuggets” of wisdom I am acquiring here at my second residency in the MFA for Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Previous posts include “Illuminating Your Story,” “A Window on Your Narrator,” “Creativity and Wasting Time,” “New Year’s Tradition,” “Storytelling vs. Fragmentation,” “Reading Your Work Aloud,” “Revision vs. Re-Vision,” and “Dialogue as Action.”

18 thoughts on “MFA Nugget: Pacing Yourself

  1. OMG, that is so funny about Robert Goulet! So are you eating enough nuts, Patrick? Maybe you need nuts, not a nap.

    I am loving living vicariously through you during this residency. When I think about how nowadays you can get your college degree online, it saddens me that people might miss out on the campus craziness. Wonderful times of intellectual and social stimulation. Please have an extra swig of scotch tonight for me!

    Of course, your point in this post is very true. It’s so easy to get swept up in projects that are very stimulating and push yourself too hard. For you, there’s an endpoint, but if someone is working on an ongoing creative project, pacing becomes all the more important.


    1. Hi Sue! I’m glad you’re experiencing the residency with me. And yes, I did an online master’s program for two semesters in a different subject a couple of years ago, and left it for several reasons, but in part because it lacked those moments of in-person connections.

      I haven’t had any nuts, I’m afraid, but I’ve had bacon at six breakfasts here. Four times out of six the worker has honored my request for a third strip. Yes, I’m keeping track. 🙂

      I’ve finished off the Maker’s Mark, I’m afraid. I might mooch some scotch off a classmate (one has Jack Daniels, another classy bourbon), but I do have a bit of Bombay Sapphire gin left. I’ve told myself if I have a small glass straight, it’s like the ultimate dry martini. Of course, I miss the olives.


  2. LOL, I think it would be fun to re-experience college life as an adult. Thanks for a taste of your experience. Maybe one day I will be able to do this, but have to get my kids through college first. Sigh.

    What I wonder is, did you get enough helpful information and tools to add to your writing? Did you accomplish what you set out to do?

    Have a blessed and Happy New Year.


    1. Hi Heather! That’s an excellent question. I think if you are solely focused on basic craft, a low-residency program isn’t really for you, because you’re not in class week after week. But if you are looking to grow more broadly as a writer–not just “do this, do that” but immersion in all aspects of writing and literature–it’s perfect. It’s hard to articulate, really. A key part of the low-residency is the monthly packets, original writing and literary criticism that is then dissected by an advisor. I grew more as a writer from that last semester than just the residency. But the residency, I feel, is essential to not just be a better writer but a more engaged member of the writing community, open to all sorts of perspectives and new ways of thinking. Wow, looking at this comment, it’s clear I need to improve as a writer articulating low-residency programs! 🙂


      1. Thank you for replying. I may consider this in a year or so. I just finished a ten-week course with a local author. She gave us writing prompts, and they were focused toward what we were doing in our manuscript. The prompts helped to improve the content of my MS. I would love to find a way to be more engaged int he writing community. Hoping your day is blessed.


  3. Re: the schedule, don’t forget the late-night gab sessions which I’m sure you’re partaking in also! How well I remember the exhaustion that residencies brought on. All that marvelous information in your head and no time to process it. I’m loving experiencing your residency with you, Patrick. And I’m jealous of the snow!


    1. That’s where the whiskey comes in!

      The snow is pretty, but I’m pretty sick of having to wear snow boots all the time. I’m looking forward to a second summer residency, where I get to wear sandals.


    1. Absolutely right on process. I had a panic attack yesterday, I left my notebook behind in the library. It had ALL of my notes from the residency. Last semester I revisited my residency notes constantly. Fortunately, Connie May Fowler (an instructor mentioned in a previous post) found it and returned it to me. Her novels often feature spirits, angel-like if you will. I told her she was my angel.


      1. Angela, you’re too much! I brought you up twice yesterday, once at lunch and again in town over drinks last night, with folks who were in our workshop. I told them all about your new journalism career, and they were thrilled for you!


  4. Thomas Edison apparently rarely sleep a full night, but took regular “cat naps”… I saw in my Creativity Workshops – in ideation sleep is a “2 fer” you get to work and sleep – the brain in always processing whether consciously or sub…dream state or full awake…

    Enjoy Vermont!


    1. Fantastic! This is the second time this residency I’ve been told something I did was done by Einstein, and like the first post (“wasting time”) it ties in with using the subconscious. This may be the last time in my life I find any connection between myself and Einstein!

      Thanks for the good wishes, JoAnn. Residency is just wrapping up, it’s been fantastic.


  5. Pingback: MFA Nugget: In Defense of Excessive Detail and Sentimental Disclosures « The Artist's Road

  6. Pingback: MFA Nugget: A Word from our Readers « The Artist's Road

  7. Pingback: 4 Rewards from Creative Writing Immersion | Write to Done

Chime in!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s