Get Ready for Another MFA Brain Dump

As I wrap up my third semester in my MFA in Writing program with the Vermont College of Fine Arts, I am beginning to prep for my next residency. Longtime readers of The Artist’s Road will know that means another spate of MFA Nuggets. Each day during my 10-day residencies, I post nuggets I’ve learned that day. It allows you to experience an MFA residency along with me.

Ah, Montpelier in winter. Some of my friends will be at VCFA’s Puerto Rico residency this winter instead. What the heck was I thinking in not signing up for that one?

To whet your appetite, I’ve chosen to highlight four such posts below. The first two are from the summer 2012 residency, the other two from last winter. Keep in mind that, thanks to the amazing readers of The Artist’s Road, the comments field on these posts often contains great insights and contributions beyond my original post.


This post featured wisdom from VCFA instructors Nance Van Winckel and Abby Frucht. Here’s an excerpt, summing up Van Winckel’s lecture:

Dialogue “needs to be interesting in and of itself,” she said. Getting there can take many revisions, and there are many means to add interest. She noted the standard lessons on dialogue–it can advance plot, develop characters, and convey mood or key information. But she noted other things that speak to her (my pun, not hers) in dialogue.

She likes it when characters don’t stay on track, because in dialogue characters have their own agendas. This “disjunction” can spark with life. She likes it when a writer drops a profound insight or inner-dialogue reveal smack in the middle of a dialogue discourse. She likes it when the dialogue implies much that is not being said.


This post was based on a lecture by VCFA instructor Doug Glover, and addressed how writing can become far more compelling when the reader is lifted from a straightforward timeline. Here is a passage from the middle of that post:

In our workshop the other day, someone commented that it was interesting how someone’s memoir excerpt moved around in time, but that it was hard for her to know where she was in time at any given point. Our workshop co-leader, Patrick Madden, said this is easily fixed with short, transition phrases. I don’t recall his examples, but think “Five years earlier,” or “The following Tuesday.” In other words, his advice meshed perfectly with Glover’s lecture three days later. (Ah, I’m framing them in time.) One student said you could also try to show time through cues such as what season it is via weather or some such subtle literary technique. Madden shrugged and said, “I prefer the direct approach.”

I should note that in the Annie Dillard passage provided by Glover, she begins with direct ques as per Madden, then folds in an artistic approach: “It was sunny one evening last summer at Tinker Creek; the sun was low in the sky, upstream.” She first tells us it was evening, then shows us with the sun’s placement.


This interactive lecture from VCFA instructors Connie May Fowler and Patrick Madden featured insights on how the creative process works, some of which may not seem intuitive but all of which are true. Here are a couple:

Idleness breeds creativity: “It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top,” Virginia Woolf tells us. Connie–an accomplished novelist (I loved How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly) and memoirist (When Katie Wakes is stunning)–quoted Woolf and other creatives to emphasize that creative sparks need space to breathe. We simply can’t chain ourselves to our keyboard or camera or easel and expect greatness….

Embrace idle moments: Those moments can come in the shower or while driving to work, Patrick said. Patrick–an accomplished personal essayist who in his collection Quotidiana won me over when expressing the creative spark he received from Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”–said Gabriel Garcia Marquez conceived of the method he would use in writing One Hundred Years of Solitude while trapped behind the wheel of his Opel on a family vacation. (I love that Patrick is into Rush but disappointed when he shared that he didn’t know Opel was a make of car; I wonder if he knows that my favorite Rush song, “Red Barchetta,” details a specific model of car, a sexy Fiat?)


Some of the lectures at residencies are by visiting authors. This one was by memoirist Patricia Hampl, discussing her approach to revising her work:

The idea that we need to “fix” our prose suggests it is broken, Patricia said, calling that mind-set both “mean-spirited and false.”

“Don’t think first draft,” she told us. “Think generating. And don’t think fix it, stupid. Think re-vision.”

My next residency begins just after Christmas. I’ll receive soon my schedule of lectures, workshops and readings, and will provide a teaser of what readers might expect with this residency’s nuggets.

13 thoughts on “Get Ready for Another MFA Brain Dump

    1. PJ, that means a lot to me. And I really value the feedback and back-and-forth you consistently provide in the comment fields of those posts. As I mentioned above, part of their value is in what the commenters contribute.


  1. Thank you, Patrick. These nuggets are worth their weight in gold (pun intended). I love that you’re willing to share with us. I loved re-visting the dialogue piece and the post about time. And THIS resonated so, so much with me: “Creative sparks need space to breathe.” Yes! They do. Thanks for sharing, again. Between you and my critique partner, Shelby (a VCFA grad), I’ve learned so much and am so thankful. Am bookmarking this post!


    1. Wow, Melissa, what a great comment! Thank you for the encouragement. it’s not always easy doing those posts every day, especially as I get deeper into the residency. It’s helpful to know they’re valued.


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