MFA Nugget: A 24-Hour Low-Residency Story Arc

MONTPELIER, VERMONT — This is a tale of defiance, betrayal, and surrender.

  • DEFIANCE. I refuse to do it. The graduating student lecturer, greeting sleepy students at the start of the day here at our MFA residency, instructs us to write. Her prompt? To write about something that is painful in our past. I am here at this lecture to learn about use of the senses in writing; why have me write something before she has imparted her wisdom? I have never liked writing prompts, someone else framing my story before I even begin. Then she lectures, and I learn things. She concludes by instructing us to write again, this time folding in senses. I watch my fellow students scribbling in their notebooks or on the back of the instructor’s handout. And I start scribbling as well. My defiance now is pitted against own prejudice toward this practice. I can follow a prompt as well as the next person, I tell myself. I start. And then it flows, the way writing instructors always say it will. And I am angry when the lecturer tells us it is time to stop.
  • BETRAYAL. What I have written in that prompt haunts me throughout the day. In those idle moments between lectures and readings–and, I will confess, at times during lectures and readings–it returns to me, calling me. It is still not done, that piece of writing. It asks to be completed. But there is no time. The Vermont College of Fine Arts only has us on campus for ten-day stretches twice each year. The schedule–that omnipresent multi-page pink handout–books us from 7:30 in the morning until 10 at night. You will have to wait, I tell the incomplete piece of writing. If you prove yourself worthy of being continued, I will address you when I return to my writing life after residency. This is not a writing retreat; I am here to learn how to write. I will not betray the pink sheet.
  • SURRENDER. I can control my conscious mind, but our subconscious literally has a mind of its own. I awaken the next morning with a knocking; no, a pounding. The incomplete essay has hidden in my mental recesses while I slept, and now it is demanding out. It doesn’t care that to meet its request will require me to be unfaithful to VCFA’s carefully scripted schedule. I get up, put on my glasses, pick up the pink packet, turn to the day’s schedule, and see two morning lectures awaiting me before a mandatory meeting. Those lectures are considered optional, to the extent anything here is. I head to my small desk, and surrender to the prose waiting to be typed.

19 thoughts on “MFA Nugget: A 24-Hour Low-Residency Story Arc

  1. madiebeartri

    Speaking of surrendering, my brain likes to formulate stories when I am sleeping. I do my best writing at 3am when the house is dark and quiet. My bed alarm goes off at 5am, my husband is not happy when I am not there to turn it off. LOL!


  2. This residency is starting to sound like trial by fire. Everything`s burning, smouldering, skies roiling, some kind of fuse burning. All the more during the hour of the wolf.


  3. Crikey, I love your approach to prompts. I too dislike them but yes, under certain conditions they can be blissful. Then the fact that your piece calls you, that it awakens you demanding out strummed my own writerly pain. In fact I wrote a post about one such essay that took sleep for ransom. Fortunately that very essay later found publication. I dig your tight arc here too.



    1. Hi Nichole, thank you for your comment and for your links. You are most certainly right that the essay took control of you, not even listening when you pointed out that you aren’t yet supporting yourself by writing essays like her! And the essay itself was beautiful, charting as it did your transition from resistance to covering to embrace. I’m glad you liked this post.


  4. I resisted prompts for years because I felt they lead me in ways I didn’t want to go. Then I realized that’s often the point of writing, to explore those unseen places. Prompts can be incredibly helpful, especially for new writers or those who aren’t sure what to write. And they can also just fall flat.


  5. I love the structure of the defiance-betrayal-surrender story arc! A formula with which I am intimately familiar in my own life. Also glad to see writing prompts being redeemed, LOL. Bad prompts are bad prompts and over-reliance on prompts to avoid finding what you really have to say is not good. But a stimulating prompt can work magic.


    1. Thanks, Sue! I can’t really say if this was a good prompt or not. It was pretty broad, after all. To be honest, I really think it was me being pissy that everyone else was scribbling and I was just sitting there. But so be it!


      1. Michele K.

        I think I would have been right there next to you being pissy, Patrick. Glad that when you overcame the aversion it paid off for you. I feel a little too much like I am back in school with that lined examination book in front of me, essay questions waiting for me to write down what the teacher wants me to say instead of what I have to say. Shudder, shudder!

        When I CHOOSE to respond to a prompt, especially when it is broad, that is, quite literally, a different story. I uncovered the plot line and characters for a book series doing just that! …and I’m afraid that responding to the above prompt, I would have turned teenager again, and written the response from the future, harkening back to the lecture and how painful it was to respond to such a ridiculous prompt–a petty revenge to be sure! 🙂


  6. Hey, Patrick – Got to this thru a link on erika dreyfus’s website. What a terrific piece of writing in its own right! I love the way using a new form (a gloss on the stages of the short story – i think) released a ton of connected writing. Really terrific! (BTW – I totally sympathized with the “betrayal” section…)


    1. Hi Paul,

      Glad to have you here! You’re experiencing your own residency here, but feel free to check out the other posts; I’m blogging daily. Thanks for the positive feedback, and for pointing out that Erika linked to me, I didn’t know that! Very cool.



  7. Oh, how I know this feeling, Patrick. It sometimes calls me at 3 am. I like prompts/”free” writing for this very reason — they bypass my conscious mind and get me down into the meat and potatoes.


  8. Pingback: MFA Nugget: An Entire Residency in One Tasty Bite | The Artist's Road

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