“You should write about what the social life is like here. That was the thing I was most afraid of before coming.”
One of my fellow students at my Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA residency made that suggestion last night, and so I’m going to take that on here. Now the first question is, how can you have a social life when your average day runs from 7:30 am to 10:00 pm? Well, we’re social creatures, so by definition we are having a “social life” every waking moment of our day.
It’s probably easiest to do this post in a form I dislike but acknowledge is useful; a list.
- Making friends. This seems pretty easy to do, even if you’re quite shy (which many writers are). There is that sense of confinement–not unlike a cult or POW camp (sorry, VCFA, for that simile)–that forces people together through shared hardships and triumphs. There is also the knowledge that no one will think it odd if you, say, want to launch into a conversation about something geeky and esoteric like the use of metaphor. Assisting with this is the trust environment established immediately in your workshop; many of my closest friends here I first met on the page, reading their prose before I arrived on campus and spent 12 hours with them around a workshop table.
- Acknowledging cliques. Yes, people form groups. Yes, there are times where someone feels excluded. I wish I could say otherwise. But I think it’s core to our reptilian brain to form allegiances and circle ourselves accordingly; it’s a smart survival technique. I would have thought cliques would form based on genre–poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction–but I haven’t seen that. Age seems a pretty important factor; we have twenty-somethings, middle-agers, and seniors, and there is some self-clustering that occurs in those groups. But I would say that the bright line is to what extent you want to party while here. If you enjoy raising the roof until 2 am with a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon, you’re in the rowdy clique (and we have them here, and they’re not all twenty-somethings); if you enjoy an occasional drink and conversation with someone, and then a not unreasonable bedtime, you’re in a mellow clique (that’s me, and again folks from all age groups).
- The social experiment that is mealtime. With our schedules, I would say much of my “socializing” happens three times a day, in the cafeteria. I can look across the room, and ask myself if I want to sit with my core group of friends, or some acquaintances, or someone new. My decision usually is driven by how much energy I have; I am an introvert who enjoys others’ company, which means I like sitting down and talking with people, but it is draining, and it takes more fuel in the tank to talk with someone new than with my core group.
- Organized social life. There are moments VCFA builds into the schedule that invite social interaction. Last night they hosted a dance. That’s right, a dance. Welcome to junior high. I was skeptical the first time I attended one here, but it’s actually quite fun. There’s no reason to be intimidated, because we’re all out there to have a good time and let off steam; no one cares if you can dance or not. Whoever was DJing last night needs to know, however, that there are songs recorded before Kanye West and Jay Z came along that are good to dance to, perhaps easier to dance to, like this or this.
- Romance. Before I began this program, someone warned me that low-residency programs are “marriage killers.” “Everyone hooks up. It’s crazy. It destroys marriages.” I could imagine how that could happen. You spend day and night in close proximity with people who are exposing themselves, not literally, but through their writing. People have hormones, they have needs. But now that I’m nearly finished with my third residency, I don’t honestly see any of this happening. It looks to me like everyone’s keeping their pants on, as well as their marriages. I have a theory on why such restraint is pervasive. The people I’m meeting here are more self-aware and disciplined than many people I know. After all, it’s not an impulse decision to spend tens of thousands of dollars and two years of your life working your @$$ off for something that doesn’t have an immediate financial or professional payoff waiting at the end. Or maybe I’m naive and clueless, and this is actually one ridiculous bacchanal that they choose to start every night once they’re sure I’ve gone to bed.
- Maintaining friendships. I’ve written about how I don’t really get Facebook, but I now use it to keep in touch with students, faculty, and alumni between residencies. We may not be in physical proximity to each other, but the bonds we form in these 10-day boot camps last beyond the VCFA campus, thanks to social media. I firmly believe some of the connections I’ve made here will last a lifetime, and there is evidence to support that. When I attended AWP this February, VCFA hosted an open-mic reading and a dinner for VCFA students and alums, and graduates from decades ago attended. It was clear that I had joined a fraternity of fellow creatives that I am welcome to engage with for the rest of my time here on Earth.
I wrote after my first residency last summer how struck I was by the trust environment a residency creates. I think that is driven by the administrators, faculty and students simultaneously. It is what we want when we come here, and that shared desire manifests the resulting reality. If you want to know about the quality of the social life, think about how you would feel in a place where you could truly be yourself. That is fertile ground for rewarding social engagement.
I’d be curious to know what your experiences have been with programs like this (residencies, retreats, etc.). I’m also happy to answer questions people who are curious to learn more might have.