MFA Nugget: Help! I Can’t Take Any More Literary Training!

On July 4th, 2012, I left the campus of the Vermont College of Fine Arts and visited America.

I hadn’t planned to do this. I had just finished having lunch with one of my favorite faculty members when, walking back to my dorm room, I realized I was done. Or, should I say, full. I had taken in all of the knowledge, all of the insights, all of the social interaction this vessel was able to hold.

I needed to leave.

Fortunately I had my car. Yes, I had driven the 550 miles from Alexandria, Virginia. I like driving. Don’t forget I spun an automobile’s digital odometer nearly 6,000 times on my cross-country U.S. road trip. Those trips had followed a set itinerary, however. What I really love to do is drive with no sense of where I may find myself.

What says 4th of July in America more than a shiny red fire truck and American flags mounted to power-line poles? Okay, maybe fireworks.

I found my way to a state highway pointing north out of Montpelier. I soon learned it was a classic “blue highway” that William Least Heat-Moon would love. It had everything you could want. A winding, two-lane road with few shoulders. Tall trees. Porch-lined homes. Aging barns. Pastures hosting grazing cows, horses, and goats (but never more than one species in any given patch of grass). Yellow, diamond-shaped signs warning of crossings of tractors, snowmobiles, and moose, all of which lied because none of those dangerous objects in fact crossed my path, only a skitterish chipmunk who stopped on the solid yellow center line to shoot me the evil eye before continuing to the other side.

Writers like to tell us that the real America is dead, but the Americans still living there would likely take issue with that. You can see them–you can see us–just by getting off the interstate.

The reservoir just north of Montpelier. I know, I know, it doesn’t look very crowded. But in my state of mind, one other person was “crowded.”

I stopped briefly at a boat landing on a small reservoir a few miles north of town, but there were too many swimmers and picnickers. I wasn’t ready for company. As I took pictures with my cell phone, I noticed that the little bars that indicate signal strength had been replaced with a small white “x.” Having left Montpelier, I had left the land of cell-phone reception as well.

I passed through a handful of small towns. Well, I passed through scatterings of homes and auto-repair garages flanked with signs declaring them towns. Then all signs of civilization were behind me. It was nothing but asphalt, trees, and the ever-present possibility of a crossing moose.

Thank you, boulder, for providing a place for my rump, and for not telling me to “go deeper” with my prose.

I have on many occasions taken off in my car with no idea where I’ll end up, and I always end up someplace. This time, I ended up at a lovely spot called Lake Elmore. The lake is fairly modest in size, but had drawn a decent holiday crowd to its small beach. I found a large boulder protruding from the water’s edge about three hundred yards away from the bathers and enjoyed a moment of solitude. I was alone, except for a Harley rider who had pulled over and occupied a separate boulder a few yards away. He never once asked me to include more metaphor in my prose.

The Elmore Store sign says it is open 364 days a year. It doesn’t say which day it closes, but I can testify that it is open on July 4th.

As tranquil as it was to watch the mild wakes produced by distant motorboats wash up below my feet, I couldn’t sit too long. I have been sitting for a week now. But I was too tired for a hike. For want of something better to do, I found my way to the Elmore Store. It is like many “blue highway” retail establishments. It doubles as a post office, and sells cold beer and soda under the unseeing eyes of a mounted stag’s head. But the store had some local color as well, such as the tie-dye-wearing woman at the checkout counter and the glass-covered wheel of slice-yourself-cheese near the register.

Are you kidding me? At that price, I had to go for the double.

I bought a double-scoop ice cream cone from a pre-teen girl, also in tie-dye. She smiled shyly as she pressed the strawberry-cheesecake and black-cherry flavored ice cream into a cake cone. The freezer had been left open recently, she said in apology, as the ice cream almost immediately began to succumb to gravity, dripping down my left hand.

No, the day has not grown hazy. You are experiencing a multi-media work, digital photography and ice cream residue.

I returned to the lake, desperately trying to get the ice cream into my mouth and away from my shirt. I mostly succeeded. I then took a few more photos, not realizing my sticky hands had obscured the camera lens. I had inadvertently invented an Instagram-style method of producing impressionistic (read “blurry”) photos.

I didn’t need to return just yet. All that was ahead of me back at VCFA was a softball game, a barbeque, and a talent show. I would be singing in the show, but that wasn’t for hours yet. But I was ready to return now. It made no sense metaphorically, but sitting by the water had produced room in my mental bucket. Filling myself with a not-quite-frozen dairy treat had created room for more knowledge.

I headed back on the same road, seeing the same cows, horses, and goats, and missing the same tractors, snowmobiles and moose. I could survive for two more days.

22 thoughts on “MFA Nugget: Help! I Can’t Take Any More Literary Training!

  1. I love this! And “No, the day has not grown hazy. You are experiencing a multi-media work, digital photography and ice cream residue.” literally made me laugh out loud. Thank you for the amusing start to my (late start) day! πŸ™‚


  2. I can only imagine how intense the work is considering the short time you actually have to spend with your professors, so taking a break and letting your mind drift was an excellent strategy. I’m sure the ice cream played an essential part in helping you get your mind ready to learn again. πŸ™‚


  3. pjreece

    You tried to escape “literature” but you couldn’t. You found yourself the protagonist in a classic story of escape. It’s right up there with Papillon and The Great Escape. What happened next, Patrick? I know — the moose finally got you. And you were rescued by that biker, whom you subtley introduced as a potential antagonist but then he shows up as your guardian angel. Very clever. And the metaphor of the boulder! Come on, Patrick, you’re not really that impermeable, no, you’re more like the little girl with the sloppy ice cream… leaving the freezer door open… I know, that’s a metaphor for your heart, right? It’s melting, melting…the father you go into the heart of the country. Man, this is so cool. I bet the biker and you team up to rob from the rich and give to the poor, or something. I’m sure you can do better than that. Anyway, you can never escape, can you? You can only arrive deeper into the dark heart of who you are. Fantastic, Patrick, fantastic.


    1. Agh! You’re hurting my head!

      OK, if we’re going the fiction route, I think the country store is actually a front for a gun-smuggling operation, and the freezer isn’t fully cold because they store guns in there. The shy pre-teen is ready to pop me if need be.


  4. our hero – btw i ask for 2 scoops, on a good cone (sugar?) and put upside down in a cup and “could I have a small spoon please,” and it works wonders. alas, alack, can’t do that often


    1. I would have loved a sugar cone (or waffle cone!) but they only had the cake kind. Nostalgic, in a way. I should have thought of a cup, but it wouldn’t have made as good a story! πŸ™‚


  5. Melissa Marsh

    Last weekend, I told my husband I needed to get out of town. Not for the night or the day – but just an hour or so. We left the city and drove out to the country and my soul just soaked it all in. Being in one spot for too long, pouring over our manuscripts or whatever it is we’re writing, can completely drain us of creativity. We need to refill the well, and it sounds like that’s exactly what you did. Love the pictures and the travel essay.


  6. How cool that you ‘escaped’ and got to explore rural life beyond Montpelier. Yay, you went off the grid for a few hours! I noticed in your narrative you were holding the dripping ice cream cone in your left hand, so I’m assuming you’re a ‘southpaw’ like me πŸ™‚

    Thanks for such an entertaining read, Patrick. Enjoyed the extra pictures too and, of course, your usual amusing captions.


    1. Thanks, Carole Jane!

      Well, you’re creative, which fits the southpaw profile. A disproportionate number of artists are found in their ranks.

      I’m told I was ambidextrous before I hit school, using whatever hand was nearest an object. Then I shifted at school, when everything was geared for right-handed kids, from scissors to writing in ink across a page. I only started favoring the right when it was easier to do so. I find that when I do something for the first time, I often do it leftie–I still do all rifle and shotgun shooting leftie because as a kid at summer camp, I picked up a gun that way, and the instructor said, “Ah, you’re left-handed,” and taught me that style–but I don’t feel forced when doing something right-handed. I get your reaction a lot, though, because when holding something I tend to use either hand. So there you have it!


  7. Ah, metaphor, it follows one everywhere! (PJReece’s comment made me chuckle). Thank you for taking us on this little road trip. There’s only so much learnin’ one can absorb. Sounds like a breather was in order.


  8. I can well understand how you might be a bit exhausted, what with the demands of the residency and all the wonderful blogging you’ve been doing! Don’t have any cleverness to add to all the witty comments, but I enjoyed going along for the ride.


  9. Pingback: MFA Nugget: An Entire MFA in Writing Residency in One Post « The Artist's Road

  10. Pingback: MFA Nugget: Identifying A Nagging Sense of Anxiety | The Artist's Road

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