MFA Spotlight: Vermont College of Fine Arts

I am very pleased to welcome Cheryl Wright-Watkins back to our blog, and want to take this opportunity to thank her again for agreeing to conduct this interview about the MFA program offered at Vermont College of Fine Arts in continuation of Niche’s MFA Spotlights.

NICHE: What made you decide to peruse an MFA in  creative nonfiction at Vermont  College of Fine Arts after retiring?  What drew you to VCFA, and why creative nonfiction in particular? According to an article published by Seth Abramson in Poets and Writers Magazine last year, VCFA is ranked as the number one low-residency program.  Did ranking influence your decision at all?  Or did you want to study with someone in particular?

CHERYL WRIGHT-WATKINS: My story is a bit unusual. I’m so fortunate to be studying at Vermont College of Fine Arts, which continues to be ranked among the top five low-residency writing programs in the country, but the ranking had little to do with my decision to apply there. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, but the schedule and stress during the twenty-five years that I worked as an air traffic controller left me with little time or energy to devote to creative work. After I retired, I attended Carol DeBoer-Langworthy’s Lifewriting workshop, part of the Writers Symposium at Brown University, and she and the program director Larry Stanley encouraged me to pursue a creative writing MFA. While working with Carol, I recognized that I was most interested in writing creative nonfiction. The low-residency option was the best fit for my life, and Carol suggested that I apply to VCFA, which had recently absorbed her alma mater, Union College. I called to request an application packet, returned home, and spent several days completing the required creative and critical work. Two weeks after I sent the application, the program director called to tell me that I’d been accepted. The next day, Sue William Silverman, a core faculty member at VCFA in creative nonfiction, whose memoirs I had read and admired, sent me an email to welcome me to VCFA. Every member of the faculty is a respected, published writer in the genre in which he/she teaches. I’ve been in workshops led by Sue William Silverman and Connie May FowlerPatrick Madden and Douglas Glover (praised in the WSJ a few days ago as amaster of narrative structure”), and Robert Vivian.  Abby Frucht and Patrick Madden were my first two semester advisors, and Connie May Fowler is my current advisor.

NICHE: One of my former teachers, in addition to teaching at UIUC, also teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I remember him mentioning that in a VCFA Workshop he encounters people who had many experiences, careers, traveled through many lives and continents before deciding to apply to an MFA.  What sorts of people have you encountered in workshop?  What’s the environment at VCFA like?

CHERYL WRIGHT-WATKINS: I have met talented and wonderful people from many varied backgrounds. Several of my VCFA friends have published in journals, and some have published award-winning books. Two of them teach English to students in South Korea. One lives in Australia. One spent four years volunteering with the Peace Corps. 

In the workshops that I’ve attended, the student whose work is being discussed begins by reading aloud a paragraph or passage from the piece, then each member of the group responds in round-robin fashion, and the writer is given the last few minutes of the session to ask questions or respond to the comments. This system seems to encourage maximum participation and affirm the value of each person’s input. Most people come to workshop prepared to accept honest critique of the work, which is usually presented in an encouraging, positive manner, and understand that the criticism is not personal but is intended to help the writer improve his/her writing. 

Another aspect of the atmosphere at VCFA is the sense of community that inevitably develops during the ten-day residencies during which we live in two-person dorm rooms on campus, share meals in the cafeteria, attend workshops, lectures, and readings together. Also contributing to the communal atmosphere are, during the summer residencies, special July 4th events including a faculty and student softball game, a catered barbecue and picnic, a crafts fair, and a talent show, and during the winter residencies, a talent show and an auction. On New Year’s Eve, after the city parade downtown, members of the community gather with VCFA students on the quad outside College Hall to light and release 300 paper Thai lanterns, another event that fosters community among the students as well as interaction with the people of Montpelier.

NICHE: What sorts of opportunities, benefits, and resources does VCFA offer their students, and what opportunities in particular do you find beneficial? 

CHERYL WRIGHT-WATKINS: Each residency features two or three special workshops, and students are offered the opportunity to volunteer for these several weeks before the residency begins. My first workshop included both fiction and CNF writers and was led by one faculty member from each genre. My second workshop included only CNF writers with a focus on writing memoir. Last residency, I participated in a special workshop on the Meditative Essay, which was led by two faculty members who are both widely published essayists.

In addition to the special workshops, students may volunteer to attend small-group sessions with a distinguished visiting writer. Memoirist Patricia Hampl was one of several visiting writers during the most recent residency, and she met twice with small groups of creative nonfiction writers and offered suggestions on each student’s creative work. 

VCFA’s extensive library is an invaluable resource. Each student is given a user name and password and access to its online publications. The library will mail books from its own collection or from another library with which it shares resources. 

Students are encouraged to sign up to read aloud from their own work at student readings, which are held on several evenings during each residency. These readings are a great opportunity to practice reading in front of an audience, a requirement for each graduating student. 

VCFA students may apply for a dual-genre or translation MFA, which require an additional semester. The program offers a postgraduate conference and the opportunity to attend a postgraduate residency as a graduate assistant. Students may opt to attend winter residency in Puerto Rico or summer residency in Slovenia. 

One of the most interesting aspects of life at VCFA to me is the networking that the environment enables. A few months ago, I read on Facebook a review that one of my classmates had published in Hunger Mountain, the VCFA literary journal, on Brian Doyle’s essayJoyas Voladoras,” which sent me looking for more of Doyle’s work. I mentioned Doyle to my advisor Patrick Madden and learned that the two men are good friends. As a result of that connection, Doyle has agreed to an interview, which I will include as part of my critical thesis. 

NICHE: Does VCFA offer instruction, venues, or help/encourage their students to seek out opportunities for publication?

CHERYL WRIGHT-WATKINS: My advisor last semester required his students to submit, along with a critical essay and twenty pages of original work, a book review with each monthly packet, and he challenged each of us to publish at least one book review during the semester. He encouraged me to find a journal to publish the first book review that I sent to him, and I found Niche, met you (online), and, after some revisions, you published the review. I then sent a review to NewPages.com, and the editor asked me to write monthly reviews for the site, which I have been doing for several months now. The same advisor sent me a list of journals to which to submit an essay that I wrote a few months ago, which he believes is ready for publication.

During each residency, faculty and staff members conduct an informal discussion and question and answer session about “Life after the MFA,” during which they suggest opportunities such as grants, fellowships, retreats, developing a support network, publishing, finding an agent. 

The editor of VCFA’s literary magazine, Hunger Mountain, led a two-hour workshop on publishing during this past residency. She suggested resources for selecting journals for publication, recommended developing a submissions plan, and demonstrated her personal submissions tracking system.

The VCFA website announces every publication, award, and accomplishment of every student and faculty member, which fosters the sense of community and support. When I told the assistant director about this interview, she was delighted and asked me to please let her know when she and the staff could read it.

NICHE: What was one or two things that surprised you about VCFA? Or the Workshop experience in general?

CHERYL WRIGHT-WATKINS: I have been surprised, and a little awed, by the talent and work of every VCFA faculty member. I’m constantly inspired by the devotion that each of the instructors feels for VCFA. Most of them earn their livings by teaching full time at other facilities, but they come to VCFA during breaks from their other jobs to feed their creative spirits and enjoy the tight-knit sense of community. 

I didn’t expect to form friendships with my instructors, but I enjoy a personal connection  with each one with whom I’ve studied. I don’t think that is common in most places, but these friendships seem to flourish at VCFA. 

I’ve been impressed with the time and energy that my fellow workshop members have devoted to each other’s submissions. Each time, I have gotten detailed comments, suggestions, and personal notes on my work from the instructors and the other students. All of my instructors have built teaching moments into the workshops, and I’ve been impressed by their preparedness for these opportunities.

NICHE: I know that each teacher has their own unique way of running Workshops, but is there a unifying method or philosophy of teaching that all the teachers at VCFA ascribe to?  For exampleColumbia College in Chicago has something called The Story Workshop Method.” Does VCFA have something like that?

CHERYL WRIGHT-WATKINS: All VCFA workshops are held simultaneously for 2 1/2 hours each session, and one hour is devoted to each student’s work. Otherwise, the workshop leaders decide on how the workshop will run and how they will fill any “extra” time. Prior to the most recent residency, the instructors of the Meditative Essay workshop sent the participants a prerequisite reading list of several examples of the form, and we discussed them at the beginning of each session.

NICHE: What advice would you give to those who want to apply, or are currently attending a program now?

CHERYL WRIGHT-WATKINS: I would recommend that prospective students first visit VCFA’s website, which contains a wealth of information about how the program works, degree options, and the facilities. If possible, I’d recommend a visit to the campusThe VCFA website has information about an upcoming open house in March. Most students and graduates would be happy to talk about the program with prospective students as well. 

This MFA Spotlight was originally published on Niche’s website on January 12th, 2012.

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