MFA Nugget: What I Learned at My Fourth Residency

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA — So I’m back home from my MFA in Writing residency with the Vermont College of Fine Arts. My car is covered in that opaque sludge that comes from splashbacks of snow and road salt, but I’m going to leave it that way for a few days as a reminder of where I’ve been.

I learned a lot about writing craft at the residency, some of which I’ve shared on this blog. But I want to take a moment to reflect on other lessons learned:

  • There are a lot of really good writers out there. My favorite part of residency is the nightly student readings, where first through fourth semester students can sign up for a five-minute slot. Scheduling demands (okay, Washington Redskins games) caused me to miss two nights, but I think those might have been the first two I’ve missed my entire time at VCFA. I am continually stunned at the power and beauty of the poetry and prose of my fellow classmates.
  • The power of residency immersion has its limits. This was the first semester I lived off campus, in a motel about 10 minutes away. As a result, I spent a fair amount of time off campus, and not in quaint downtown Montpelier–which is like the set of It’s a Wonderful Life’s Bedford Falls–but in Berlin and Barre, where real people live and work. I found my daily drives back and forth to be a nice contemplative practice, helping me prepare in the morning and decompress in the evening. I also liked spending time in restaurants and bars with people who didn’t give a $#!+ about whether I write my memoir in present or past tense.
  • I want to give my graduation lecture and student reading early in the residency. I graduate next semester, and I will be giving a 45-minute lecture and a 20-minute reading. Audiences dwindle at these events as the residency wears on, and alertness level wanes as well. If I’m going to be presenting, I’d like an engaged audience. Of course, if I decide either is going to be awful, then I hope for a slot just before graduation.
  • Writers don’t like to organize things. My classmates know that in my day job I run a lot of projects. So they turned to me when we learned someone had to organize our own graduation. To their credit, many expressed heartfelt appreciation for my willingness to take it on. Yes, I have a few things on my plate already. But I demonstrated to my classmates a great trick of project management–delegation. Now every aspect of graduation has a project manager and volunteers; I just need to make sure everyone stays on task. 🙂
  • I can never live in Vermont. This was my second winter residency, and both times I left in a funk. I was diagnosed years ago with Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I have a portable light box that I use each morning during the winter, and it usually does the trick in my mid-Atlantic home. But in Vermont–where the days are shortened by mountains and the winter sun hides behind clouds full of snow–I find the light isn’t enough. I’m glad I don’t have any winter residencies left.

I’m sure there are more lessons I learned, but I think these will stick with me for awhile, longer than the sludge on my car. Thanks for joining me on this learning adventure!

10 thoughts on “MFA Nugget: What I Learned at My Fourth Residency

  1. Do you mean people wash their cars where you live???!!!! It’s damp and cloudy here today, Patrick, I envy you your sun, and your final summer residency to look forward to. I also envy you your clean car.


  2. Patrick, I asked to give my lecture and reading early, and I’m SO glad I did. Lecture on day 4 and reading on day 6, and then the pressure was off. Except, of course, for that sojourn in the woods before dawn on Friday. But, that’s another shovel of snow. Early is definitely the way to go. Sorry your workshop ended badly. I think people are exhausted, testy, and ready to go home those last few days, and that’s a recipe for snarky workshopping.


    1. Hi Cheryl! Congrats on your MFA! We’ll see if Rachel gives me some early slots. Thanks for your kind words on the workshop; I think it wasn’t so much snarky as it was everyone feeling they didn’t need to be as cautious; there was a lot of baudy humor and other shenanigans just before I was workshopped.


      1. Anonymous

        It sounds like you decoded the workshop issue. Drama and other issues pervaded two of the five I participated in at VCFA. I hope your last semester goes well. And, good luck with finishing the memoir!
        I look forward to reading it!


  3. So jealous of you right now Patrick! It’s been a dream of mine to see Vermont since I was a small child. Now add writing to the equation &….voila~! You have a little piece of an artists paradise. It’s a shame you couldn’t go during fall which I’ve heard from a friend who visits family there, is spectacular. Glad you made it back safe and with a head full of new knowledge. Is there any reason better for a trip out of town?


    1. You know, I visited Vermont for the first time in the summer of 2010 on my cross-country road trip, when I interviewed a printmaker in southern Vermont and an illustrator/storyteller in Middlebury. A year later I was back, in Montpelier, at my first MFA residency. I do love the summers there! And yes, I’d love someday to be there in the fall and see the foliage.

      And yes, my head is full to overflowing, and that is a good thing! 🙂


  4. Pingback: A Creative Writer Braves the Inauguration | The Artist's Road

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