I just spent a lovely weekend in Montpelier, VT for the VCFA Children’s Writing MFA mini-residency. Did I mention it was beautiful? No? Here’s a shot of their cute little capital building (“cute” and “little” are perfect adjectives for Montpelier, the smallest state capital and the only one without a McDonald’s, as six different residents, yes, six, told me):
Isn’t it gorgeous? We had a relaxing weekend of hanging out on the veranda at the Inn at Montpelier, mingling with the locals, meeting current VCFA students and alumna/ae, listening to readings and pitches, and otherwise drinking in the creativity of this little hideaway town.
One thing that struck me about the program is how dedicated the students and faculty are. (Hanging out at the Saturday BBQ were Walter Dean Myers, Tom Wynne-Jones, Coe Booth, M.T. Anderson, and more…what an amazing roster of talent!) But I did notice something that bugs me about MFA programs, and about establishing a writing habit in general. This is something I saw much more in my MFA program, and I don’t know to what extent it exists at VCFA, yet this weekend did get me thinking…
A lot of alumni coming back to Vermont felt liberated, as if they could think, breathe, create again. For them, their time at the program was such a richly creative time, and one where they were pushed by their advisers and classmates to really put in the work and get some writing done. Apparently, some of them stopped writing or wrote less or felt less driven after graduating.
The same thing tends to happen to people who can only write between 6 and 8 a.m., or people who can only use a certain computer, or people who can only go to such and such coffee shop, or sit in this one seat, or wear those pajama pants. Having writing habits and a writing ritual and ideal circumstances for creative work…that’s all good and fine. In fact, having these habits and requirements is much better than having no writing practice at all.
But there’s also a hidden danger. What happens when you leave the MFA program? When your seat is taken? When the dog eats your pajama pants? I know perfectly wonderful writers who have been driven into a serious block when their (self-created, mind) requirements aren’t being met. Which brings me to the idea of creativity as this fleeting thing, and my disdain for the idea of writers having some temperamental muse.
No. Here’s what you do: you sit down and you write. First, you pay attention to what your mind is saying are your requirements (this mug of coffee, that chair, these pants). But what’s more important is that you establish a daily practice of writing. When something goes wrong and your coffee shop closes because they’re resurfacing their floor, you don’t go into a creative tailspin…you go home or go to the library or sit outside and you keep writing. When you graduate from the MFA program, you don’t go into a creative funk, you rally your former peers into a new critique group and you keep going. (VCFA people: please know I’m not talking about you…if anything, I’m thinking so much more about my own MFA experience!)
When you start showing up for work without these obstacles (self-created, again) weighing you down, without a checklist for the Ideal Creative Environment that the world must meet before you can write, that “muse” (your work ethic, actually) will start showing up, too. You will, in effect, train yourself to show up creatively every time you show up physically to the page.
Just write. Write when it’s easy. Write when you don’t wanna (I didn’t wanna blog yesterday, so this entry is a day late…we can’t all be perfect). Write when it’s raining. Write when everyone else on the freaking planet is at a picnic and you can’t go because you know you have to write. Don’t rely on that program or those pajamas or this coffee shop. Rely only on yourself. Practice discipline.
Always evaluate your writing habits and try to determine whether they’re helping you in the long term or hindering you. Keep an eye on what you think you need and what you really need. Rally yourself. And when yourself is feeling cranky, rally a community around you. (May you all be blessed enough to create the kind of peer group that they have at the VCFA, truly an awesome thing to behold!)
The writing life isn’t a simple thing, but the good thing is humans can be taught, and creativity can be trained to flow, as long as you make yourself available to it and focus your work ethic.
Speaking of which, here was my community for the weekend:
(l-r: Sam McFerrin, editor at Harcourt/HMH, Julie Scheina, editor at Little, Brown, Kristin Daly Rens, editor at Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, me)
Thanks to the VCFA for hosting us and for all the hard-working MFA students! Now send me your stuff!