Saturday, July 25, 2009

VERMONT COLLEGE OF FINE ARTS - Last of the Summer Posts

I'm playing catch-up today, finally home and trying to sort through my notes for what I can share with you about the Summer Residency. Next time around I'm going to try to remember how micro-managed my days are, and I won't promise to post every day, which turned out to be impossible - my head was swimming by the end of the day in the first six or seven days of the residency, and swimming from the time I got up for the last four or five. But now, from home, with a few days rest, I can see what still needs to be said:

A few more bits and pieces from Alan Cumyn's lecture WHAT MAKES A GOOD STORY: A PERSONAL INQUIRY (for main notes see post for July 16th) :

1. "Look at what makes a story tick, then look at what makes it tick for you."

2. Lay down the dilemma before moving into description- deep description, with every word advancing the meaning of the story - that's the way to avoid those "pause-button violations" everyone at VCFA is so worried about.

3. "Remember, readers have to care, otherwise who cares? The issues must be large." That is just so important, and it eludes some kids book writers who stay on the surface (girl meets boy) & forget to go deep (love is both divine and terrible.)

4. I have one more quick note, scribbled in as I listened: " live within the skin of someone." I'd like my students in general to think more about that - about what it takes to get readers "within the skin."

5. Alan was hoping to do a close reading of a second story (Esme and I by J.D. Salinger), but because of time restrictions he stayed with In the Fall by Alistair McLeod. I went right to the bookstore on campus and got The Island, in which collection this story appears - wow, how can such a brilliant writer not be well known? I'll be rereading the Salinger short story, too, which I haven't read since college.

I really do recommend you buy & listen to the CD of this lecture. It was one of the most beautiful and useful of all the lectures I've heard at VCFA.


1. "Story-telling is a two-way street and you ignore your readers at your peril."

2. In writing, you must surrender to the story, trust the reader, not hold back, think big, feel big, make connections, take leaps. You must stay in the moment - try not to observe your story,; instead, feel it. Don't explain it - don't spell things out. Allow your readers to put things together.

Notes from Rita Williams-Garcia's lecture, STEREOTYPES, STOCK TYPES AND CLICHES:

1. Wonderful etymology of "stereotype" - it's a printer's term- "stereo" meant solid, "type" meant blow. The whole idea of the strength of "impressions" (which we can feel with our finger tips.)

2. Oversimplification is the problem. Don't worry about stereotypes, archetypes and stock characters (the wise black housekeeper, the foolish sidekick, the school nerd, etc.) As with all cliches, they must be made fresh. Writers must "add texture and full consciousness."

3. "We can extract truth from the familiar." Just remember that truth, not cliche, is what we're going for.

Notes from Shelley Tanaka's lecture MAY CONTAIN MATURE SUBJECT MATTER: WRITING FROM THE CHILD'S POINT OF VIEW (lots of notes from this - again, it's a complicated, wonderful lecture - if you can, you should purchase it on CD):

1. Needed for packet responses: a stamp that says, "Is this a child's voice?" Writers must ask themselves not just whether a child would say it, but "Would this particular child say this?" and "Would this particular child say this right now?"

2. A story told from a child's 1st-person point of view must be "blinkered and selective" and often " linear thinking" because what is communicated is only what is important to the protagonist at the moment. If you move over to irony, beware of that - "Irony pulls a child-centered observation into adult territory." It's dangerous to allow the "clever adult eyes" to intrude - it makes the voice "forced and coy." Roddy Doyle manages to capture an authentic child's voice in Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha because the observations are child-centered and he doesn't interpret. Doyle's book has what Shelley describes as "the child's sense of wonder that infuses every great children's book."

3. Writers usually have no trouble letting their child protagonists get into trouble - it's getting them out of trouble that's difficult to set up, because the guiding principle is to empower the child to solve his or her own problems. But adult moral guidance in not always wrong or over-intrusive. Don't automatically rule it out.

4. 1st-person POV in YA books often allows for an adult perspective, but it's tricky. Death, for example, is often problematic because teens sentimentalize it less than adults.

5. The writer tries to imagine whether a child would want to read the story. A publisher tries to imagine if enough children would want to read it.

6. Remember that a story told through a child's POV is tight and focused. It's not memoir. It's seen through a tight lens. You have to be okay with that, otherwise 1st-person might not work for your story.

Notes from Leda Schubert's lecture about non-fiction for kids, TELLING IT TRUE-

1. Wow, the handout for this was incredible. No one ever needs to wonder about where to go when doing research for a story, not if they have Leda's handout. Her long history as a librarian and list maker came through. Many, many recommendations, including Infotrak, Corbis, Life Magazine (digitized through Google) and Lexus Nexus.

2. "Kids should get the truth." Spoken like a true anti-censorship champion.

3. Leda recommends getting as close as possible to the actual source of the story. "Six degrees of separation? I believe in one." She calls what drives her an "intrusive curiosity" and I say hooray to that. Intellectual curiosity is the one thing that can't really be taught in an MFA writing course. It's almost genetic.

I just want to mention, too, Katie Mather's reading on Grad Assistant night. Her story, Under the Ice, has moments that are so eerie, it gave me goosebumps.

Sorry to say that I couldn't take notes for Kathi Appelt's lecture, ditto for Marion Dane Bauer - I didn't have pencil/paper. - how ridiculous is that? Quickly, I'll say Kathi was responding to people who said her book, The Underneath, was "not a kids book," that the language was too complicated and self-conscious. She had everyone cheering, by the end, about the love of lyrical writing, about America's current obsession with standardized test-taking & how it is debilitating readers.

I took perfectly good notes for Uma Krishnaswami's lecture and Cynthia Leitich Smith's - and can't find them anywhere now - I'll have to buy them on CD, and I recommend you do that, too. Uma is brilliant - we all know it, though she denies it - and is always worth listening to. Cyn had everybody in the room wanting to write a mystery - everyone who knows Cyn knows how infectious her energy is. [UPDATE: Uma has posted a "60-second summary" of her lecture on her blog. Go read it, then buy the real version. Definitely worth the money.]

A few notes from Tim Wynne-Jones's lecture were posted earlier (on the 11th, I think.) Notes for Good & Evil day were posted on the 18th - but for the record I want to say Tim and I had a ball thinking through our opening "duel." Dramatic music provided by Tim via iPod. Who knew I could channel Elvis Presley?

You'll have to get notes about grad lectures from someone else - I couldn't keep up with it all. I attended what I could, but we did have lectures overlapping again. I'm hoping to get a printout of Varian Johnson's lecture (Varian is a graduating student with a new book out - My Life as a Rhombus, which is garnering praise), which I couldn't attend because I was over at Seta's wonderful presentation of "The Page Turn in Picture Books." I'm intrigued by the idea of a fiction writer talking about metaphor, so Varian, if you're reading this, send me your notes? Advisory Council meetings made me miss a few other grad lectures I really wanted to hear, too. But what the grads lectured on was typically varied and intriguing - everything from girls breaking the rules to Aristotle to Maslow to Strasberg to Spinelli, from student muses to fantastic wonder to Eurocentrism to the art of the prologue to strategies for completing your character's journey. Toss in mini-lectures from the Picture Book Certificate students about math books, amplifying emotion, turning points, deviant rule-flouting, and 3rd-person POV -

Yikes - I hope anyone reading this who is thinking of attending VCFA will see what a mother-lode the program is - no need to go digging for the gold nuggets - they are visible & shining right on the surface.

And ah, graduation. What can I say? Sarah Ellis, with her wit and erudition - I could listen to her forever. Graduates looking serious and nervous. Uma and Rita reading passages from the graduates' work. Tom Greene (College president AND author) coming over for the ceremony from the hospital where his wife had been confined for the last weeks of her pregnancy (Tom now has a new little daughter, born two days after graduation.) And the families - husbands, wives, kids, parents - that all came to see the culmination of the process. Hmmm....what else....? Did I mention that the Saturday night party was one of the best EVER? And the mini-parties over at Martin House, very nice....and....hmmmmm.....

OH! THE BAGPIPER. Mustn't forget the bagpiper....!

Okay. That's more than enough. Another residency completed. Something unexplainable happens at Vermont College of Fine Arts - whatever it is, it's big and mysterious, it involves a lot of laughter, it involves enough motivation to lift you off the ground. Strange, Brigadoonish, transformative. I hope it proves to be so for my next group of students, pictured below.


  1. Hi! How can we get a CD of Alan's talk? It sounds amazing. I'm not a Vermont grad, but interested. Thanks!

  2. Consider it done! At some point, I'd love to talk to you about SKELLIG, especially all those blackbird references. When looking at extended metaphor, I often wonder how much is too much.

  3. Amy, I'm not sure what the policy is about selling copies to non-students, but you can give it a try by sending an email to this address: Tell them you read my post about Alan Cumyn's Summer 2009 lecture. I hope you can get it. I honestly think my students and I will be using this as the yardstick by which we measure stories in the future. And by the way, Alan writes for both adults and children - you might want to see how his philosophy influences his own writing!

    Varian - I definitely enjoyed SKELLIG but by the end of the book I groaned each time he added another blackbird sighting. Almond went past the line on that one, I think. Thanks for letting me see your lecture!

    And by the way again, for people reading this, Varian has been garnering some wonderful praise for his book, MY LIFE AS A RHOMBUS.

  4. Oh Julie what a terrific chronicle of the residency! Thank you. And don't you worry about losing those notes because my 60-second version of my lecture is up on Writing With a Broken Tusk--for anyone who's after a brain-mangling minute.



  5. I am so jealous of the students in that picture.

  6. Thanks, Uma!

    And DP, you are such a sweetie (Don't worry, I won't tell your students...oh, I bet they know....)