MFA Nugget: The Social Life of a Residency

“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.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

12 Responses to “MFA Nugget: The Social Life of a Residency”

  1. It’s July 4 so right now I’m picturing all the VCFA crew gathered on the green for baseball and BBQ. Wish I were there!

    I think it can be difficult to describe how intense a residency can be and that deep bonds form in such a short amount of time. But you’ve described it perfectly!

    I also agree that keeping in touch with you all online is an important part of my life now; y’all are basically the reason I didn’t ditch Facebook! I’m so glad we’ve met and I look forward to celebrating your continued successes for many years to come!

    • The tables for the BBQ were set out yesterday for today’s picnic, Sion, and yes, the Prose vs. Poets softball rematch is scheduled for this afternoon. I predict Bob Vivian will again amaze with his fielding and hitting. And yes, I too value and share my connection with you and others at VCFA.

      Everyone, Sion is a perfect example of the community I’m talking about. I only met her briefly at VCFA in person–she graduated my first residency–but I consider her a dear friend now, and celebrate every creative success she achieves as if it were my own.

  2. Wow, with a few changes in details, this describes my experience of MFA residencies perfectly, including the intensity, the cliques, and the lifelong friendships. I have made lifelong friendships, but the funny thing is, not with the people I would have expected. This was a good trip down memory lane for me and thanks for having the energy during residency to write it!

    • Hi Charlotte, I’m so glad you shared this. All, she earned her MFA in the Spalding low-residency program; I know a couple of alums of that program, and have read some of the works by the Spalding faculty, and it sounds like a quite excellent program as well. Great to hear your experience was similar, and you too have made lifelong friends (the unexpected element is interesting, but also rings true for me).

      I’m hoping this post will be of value to anyone considering any low-residency program, not just VCFA. I really had no concept of what a residency was like before I came here last summer, and would have loved finding a post like this!🙂

  3. You’re right on, Patrick. Meal times turn out to be networking – sitting with writer from different genres, getting to know new students, or graduates and instructors. We have a built in all program dinner (though the dance sounds fun!) Through Queens, I’ve also made great friends and we all keep in touch via FB.

    • Hi Sheila! Thanks for sharing. All, I hear Queens is also an excellent low-res MFA program. The built-in all-program dinner sounds really good. As Sion mentioned above, we do at VCFA have a barbeque today, but that’s get in line, grab your grub, and scatter across the lawn and tables.

  4. I’ve just returned from being out of the country, and I’m really grateful for this series of posts! I’ll being applying to a few low-residency programs this winter (actually, all of them mentioned in the comments– VCFA, Queens, and Spalding, among a few others). I’m really looking forward to it!

    • Hi Anjali! Great to hear you’re applying to some low-res programs, and that VCFA is one of them! I also looked closely at Bennington, but in the end chose VCFA. Happy to talk with you more offline any time you please.

  5. Totally enjoyed reading this post (I got a few chuckles out of it, too, especially during the Romance bullet point). I’m so glad someone urged you to write this. Fascinating.

    I, too, am “an introvert who enjoys others’ company” so I could relate to your exact meaning on that one. Just today I asked my husband to bypass saying Hello to someone we know in a coffee shop because I wasn’t in the right emotional space to expend that energy. He grimaced (he’s an extrovert) but respected my request. Later at home I was able to explain what my needs were. He said he “kind of” gets it.😉

  6. So glad you touched on this piece of the program. I’m always fascinated about how people make and keep friends, at ALL ages.

    • Hi Nina,

      I’m glad you found it of value. As you know as a prolific blogger, it helps to keep attuned to suggestions for blog topics, and when my friend pitched the idea, I knew I should write about it. I must say that the amateur psychiatrist in me remains endlessly fascinated by the social petri dish that is a residency.

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  1. MFA Nugget: An Entire MFA in Writing Residency in One Post « The Artist's Road - July 8, 2012

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