MFA Nugget: Struggling with Immersion

MONTPELIER, VERMONT: I’m here at my fourth MFA in Writing residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, physically at least. I’ve already attended a lecture and a three-faculty reading, consumed a moderately acceptable dining-hall meal, and signed up for a student reading (I’m up the night of the 3rd). But I feel disconnected, in a way I don’t recall feeling at my three previous residencies.

After my first residency in the summer of 2011, I wrote this about the power of isolation in a safe retreat of writing and creativity:

Isolation has long been used with great effectiveness by churches, rehab clinics, terrorists, and cults. It creates a bonding experience with your fellow participants, one that is shockingly disorienting when it ends.

This time my problem is not readjusting after immersion, it’s accomplishing the immersion itself.

The good news is that I can identify some of the barriers that are keeping me disengaged. While welcoming us at this residency’s orientation, VCFA President Tom Greene said he was jealous of us spending the next 10 days living and breathing creative writing while separated from our working lives.

But I am not completely separated. I have promised my boss that I will check my BlackBerry between lectures and workshops for phone messages; will respond promptly if left one; and will review all work email at the end of each day (which, at a residency, is really the early morning at, say 1 am). I have a top-notch staff who kept everything afloat while I was at residency this summer, and I am extremely confident they will do so again. But my boss is new, and so I have promised to stay tethered.

Here's a photo of my dorm bed from last winter's residency; the mattress is shorter than I am.

Here’s a photo of my dorm bed from last winter’s residency; the mattress was shorter than me, leaving my feet to climb the cinder-block wall.

I am also, for the first time, not staying on campus. While I rave about VCFA, I’ve complained at times about the rather dreary dormitory. But last winter was particularly rough, having to hear into the wee hours of the morning down the hall the younger party students who kept their festivities indoors because of the below-freezing temperatures outside. But the VCFA immersion involves nearly everyone living on campus; you literally don’t leave. I’m on campus from breakfast to late evening, but I still drive several miles each night to a motel in the next town over.

My motel is a bit Spartan, but look! A full-size bed, not built into a dresser and cinder-block wall!

My motel is a bit Spartan, but look! A full-size bed, not built into a dresser and wall!

I’m not overly concerned about not feeling completely plugged in yet, however. One thing I know is that residency becomes a blur, moving from reading to lecture to workshop with such rapidity that it’s easy to forget a world exists beyond the schedule to which each of us clings. I think my problem is I haven’t been buried yet, but tomorrow looks exceedingly busy. I also have my first workshop tomorrow; there’s nothing I like better at residency than workshopping creative writing with fellow writers. I am also excited to be in a dual-genre workshop this time, both fiction and creative non-fiction writers.

Don’t worry, most of these MFA Nugget posts will, as per usual, be instructional in nature, passing along the wisdom I digest from lectures and workshops. In fact, I suspect the process of turning those lectures into blog posts will help with my immersion. We’ll see if that proves true with tomorrow’s post.

ADDENDUM, 12/30/12 AT 6:30 ET: I’m definitely more in rhythm now. A great lecture this morning, a fantastic insight learned at workshop. I guess I just needed a bit more time. Watch for a writing-instruction lesson I’ll be passing along tomorrow morning.

About Patrick Ross

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

18 Responses to “MFA Nugget: Struggling with Immersion”

  1. Patrick… I’m virtually with you in Vermont… and envious of your actual immersion. Too bad you have to remain wired to “the boss”. Doesn’t she/he understand? (Give me her number; I’ll straighten her out.) O to be “workshopping creative writing with fellow writers”. Life doesn’t get any better than that. What a way to start the new year.

    • Hi PJ, you know I value your comments on MFA Nugget posts! You know, as to the workshopping, one of our workshop leaders today said we are fortunate to have that experience; he said he’d be hard-pressed to find even four or five people in his entire community he could assemble for a good workshop, yet here we have a dozen students and two faculty members. And the comments by the students in today’s workshop were all really insightful. I’m the very last student to be workshopped; it will be a few hours before the end of the residency on the 7th.

  2. I’m looking forward to following along, experiencing residency vicariously through you, Patrick! The highs and lows. All part of it. Thanks for letting us in.

  3. I did my BA work on the Montpelier campus and understand the wonders of working, living and getting to know like minds. Living off campus can be a drag, that happened during my MA, Brattleboro program. We never bonded with one another and the exchange of energy. thoughts and resources never happened.
    I would love to hear about how you are planning your cross country trip as i am hoping to do a Tennessee to NM this spring. Short of renting a car in Nashville, I am at a loss as to how to plan it.
    Thanks Christopher Green for posting this. Looking forward to more.

    • Hi Susan! I’m glad this is my fourth residency; I’ve had a lot of time to get to know students, and I can still hang out in the student lounge at night; the only difference is I then have a short drive before I go to bed (okay, that does have an impact, it means no booze while hanging out because I’m driving).

      I did my trip in 2010, not planning another one soon, but it involved months of planning beforehand. I did New England in one leg with a rental car, then did about 30-some states from Virginia to Oregon in a second rental car, and flew back to DC from Portland. It’s easy to do a one-way rental car; mine had New York plates, so someone had done that to D.C. before I rented it!🙂 That’s great you’re going to be taking a trip like that. I drove LA to DC in 1989 through New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas and Texas, there are a lot of nice parts of that trip and a lot of hurry-up-and-get-through-them parts (think west Texas).

  4. I remember feeling different levels of connectedness during residency. It’s interesting how it shifts and changes. I’m looking forward to your res posts!!

    • Hi Emily! You’re missed! I hope parenthood is everything you hoped it would be, and you’re still writing your gorgeous prose. Happy to be a conduit for you to residency!

  5. Hi Patrick,

    Looking forward to reading your MFA posts again, particularly since I’ll be starting my low-residency MFA in creative writing at Queens this Sunday! I’m so looking forward to it! It took me years of going back and forth before I finally decided to apply (reading your blog helped me with the decision) and I’m thrilled to start my first residency!

    • Yes, I recall you’re doing the low residency MFA, kudos! And I know someone who is wrapping up at Queens and thoroughly enjoyed it; it sounds like a great program. I’m touched that my blog was a factor in your decision, and I’m sure you won’t regret it.

      I did not even attempt to blog during my first residency, but I did write a post-residency piece; if you do choose to do that I’ll love reading it.

  6. Everything you write here about disconnection (and uncomfortable dorm beds) makes sense to me. I would find it quite challenging to moderate the “real world/paying job” emails while immersing in creative writing world. And yet, at some level, that tether can help make the transition when you return. The whole immersion thing is wonderful, but also at its best a lot more complex as well, as you’ve noted. Thanks for reporting back.

    • You know, Lindsey, I hadn’t thought about the transition back, but yes, it will be easier. I drive back on the 8th and go to work on the 9th; it will be smoother for me by having some sense of what is in motion and what is in my inbox.

  7. After sending in my last packet each semester, I always went dormant for a couple of weeks, knowing I could count on the inbreathing of the muse to revive me at residency. Now that I’m an alum, I’m looking forward to your blog as a conduit for that inspiration. So, no pressure or anything….

    • Hi Whitney, you’re missed here! Yes, I’ve done something similar, although I usually only take a week off; I need the rest of that time to generate the pages required. Also, if I’m away from the writing too long, it’s harder for me to get back into the swing of things.

      Happy to be a conduit to you for this residency!

  8. It all sounds fascinating, a journey for us all to enjoy vicariously. Looking forward to reading about each stage. I feel very lucky to be able to tag along with your experiences, and grateful to you for posting !

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] me to transition from my professional and personal life to this bubble of creativity. Last semester was a difficult transition for me. But while things are crazy at work, my co-workers have things well in hand, in part due to their […]

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