School in Book Form

I’m already two months into the second year of my MFA! My program at VCFA definitely is an unconventional model and people often ask me to explain my course schedule over and over again. (Crash course: 5 craft modules per semester, each module lasting 3 weeks and taught by a rotation of core and visiting faculty; 2 semester-long classes involving writing workshops). I’ve been thinking about how to craft a post about the classes I’m taking this semester, and realized that the books we’ve been reading for each class should do the talking for me!

Shall we begin the magical book tour?

Craft Module 1 – The Craft of Vulnerability in Creative Nonfiction (works read not pictured): In this course taught by Erin Stalcup, we read excerpts of The Glass Castle, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, The Art of Daring, and The Argonauts, and explored how (and when) to be vulnerable on the page. How I see it—we are always in a state of vulnerability, just by being alive, just by attempting to write at all.

Craft Module 2 – Poetry and What’s at Stake: Through the incredible collections of poems by Carolyn Forché, Kaveh Akbar, and Chen Chen, along with excerpts of books by Solmaz Sharif, Ocean Vuong, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil, our class (led by Rita Banerjee) discussed urgency, conflict, and stake-raising turns in both formal and experimental poems.

Craft Module 3 – Making Fiction True: Adding Texture and Meaning: This course seems to be the school’s response to the kinds of stories my class wants to tell. The majority of us fiction writers have magical/paranormal/speculative elements creeping into our stories in large and small ways. Lesley Arimah uses the lens of speculative fiction to teach us how to sell improbable situations by crafting “the narrative ecosystem” with authenticity and layers of complexity. We’re studying Man v. Nature, The Golem & the Jinni, and Exit West to explore three types of speculative fiction: “our world, but different,” “our world, much changed,” and “the brand new world.”

Novel Writing Thesis Seminar: In this semester-long class, we crazies who are attempting to write a novel for our thesis (or at least 100 pages of it) submit chunks regularly to be workshopped. Along with reading each other’s works, we are also studying the unique structures of award-winning novels. So far, we have read The Underground Railroad (a very tightly structured novel) and A Visit from the Goon Squad (a novel structured in “interconnected stories”). There’s nothing like reading two brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning books in a row to make you rethink everything you’re doing….

Critical Essay (not pictured): This class does not require any reading, as its purpose is for us thesis-writing crazies to craft a book proposal draft that could potentially become what we submit to agents/editors with our manuscript and query letter. Until then, this class helps us envision our thesis and think through our motivations, our scope, our market, our audience, and the trajectory of the stories we want to tell.

That’s all for now, but there’s more to come, more blog posts to write, more classes to attend, more books to read. Which is great, because you know I can’t resist a good “books spread across the floor” picture.

 

Words of Encouraging Advice

Yesterday, I Skyped with Fuente Collective, a Houston-based writing center for both young and adult writers, to talk about Hunger Mountain and debunk the mysterious world of submitting creative work, but mostly my aim was to emphasize the importance of literary citizenship and how young writers can start being active in their own literary communities now. The talk went really well! The 14-to 18-year-olds are in such a great space, what with the support and generosity of their instructors Layla Al-Bedawi and Tayyba Kanwal, and the opportunities for writing and growth that FuenteCo provides. I’m very excited to work with Fuente again in the future!

In preparation for the talk, I put together a tear sheet for the group, including a brief overview of Hunger Mountain, and information about our current submission call. 

Also included on that tear sheet were a few “words of encouraging advice” that I collected from my fellow students and a few of the professionals I’ve had the pleasure to work with. The blurbs I received back ranged in topic from encouragement to follow one’s passion, tips for the act of writing itself, engaging in the literary community, and advice on how to send out work and get published. I think these words of wisdom are great reminders to keep us on our heart’s path, no matter your age or years of experience. I know I will print these words out  and paste them on my wall above my writing desk.

Enjoy these heartfelt blurbs below. Let them inspire you, speak to you, and stir up your creative juices:

Encouraging Advice from VCFA Students and Faculty: 

Everything I’ve ever learned about writing came from my mother and my father. My father taught me that nothing beats working hard. And that is exactly true with creative writing. The only way to be a successful writer is to make writing something that you do often and ferociously. But you cannot just work hard and become a great writer, and this is where my mother’s advice comes in. My mother taught me to be passionate about what I do. And for a writer to be great, they need to not only work hard but also love to work hard. They need to love the act of writing, the act of thinking about writing, the act of revising, the act of sending work out into the world. So write hard and love writing hard. ~ Sean Prentiss, author of Finding Abbey

 

Someone told this to me when I was young: Keep writing and always believe in the wilds of your imagination. ~ Kayleigh Marinelli, VCFA student

 

Don’t procrastinate. If you want to be a better writer, read carefully and pay attention to what others do and how they do it. Ask questions. Go to classes. Write as often as possible. Play with words. Enjoy telling stories. Find out as much as you can, read widely. And yes, don’t put it off for another day or year, but claim it now.  ~ Sarah Leamy, VCFA student

 

Don’t wait for inspiration to write. Simply write regularly and often. Sometimes, the work will fall apart. Sometimes it will come together and surprise you. It’s not so simple as “journey over destination” or “practice over product…” nor is the point of writing in the finished product alone. The point is that you weave writing into your life and let it become your inspiration. And do this with your reading to. Read. Read. Read. And keep reading. ~ Lizzy Fox, Associate Director of the MFA in Writing and Publishing program

 

There are two things that every writer needs: willingness and a community. Willingness is the ability to just make yourself start writing: even if you’re not feeling it, even if you think you’ve somehow lost any talent you might have once had, even if you’ve convinced yourself that your current work-in-progress is a worthless dog’s breakfast. You may need to fill a page with nonsense before you start to flow, but flow you will. The other thing you need is a community. We can get lost inside the hard bone casques of our skulls, and having trusted friends around keeps us grounded. When one of us is doing well, it gives the rest of us encouragement to push on. When one is having a hard time, there’s probably at least one other of us who just finished a story, or solved a vexing plot puzzle, or at least just learned a great new macadamia-nut cookie recipe. Find a crew. For writers, who are often temperamentally a solitary lot, this can be the biggest challenge. But it always, ALWAYS pays off. ~ Paul Daniel Ash, VCFA student

 

You are not alone. There are billions of people in the world and some of them need to hear your story, and this will only happen if you tell it. ~ Valentyn Smith, VCFA student

 

 

 

Portrait of an Artist as a Grateful Grad Student

First of all, it is incredible (and slightly mystifying) that I have completed my first semester of graduate school.

I have so much to be thankful for, but here are a few highlights of the semester:

  • Working with Julianna Baggott, Mary Ruefle, Trinie Dalton, Ruben Quesada, Jessica Hendry Nelson, Sean Prentiss, Porochista Khakpour, and Miciah Gault. It still sometimes floors me to read off that list of people who have taken such care of my future as a successful writer. Each professor possesses unique passions in different genres and fields, of course, but they all are some of the most enthusiastic academic teachers I have ever met. They want to see me and all of us in the program succeed. They believe in my work! They believe in me! They have so much love for language and storytelling, and I feel superbly lucky that they want to pass as much knowledge as they can to me. It makes me realize how teaching and learning is such a wonderful gift. Almost as wonderful as sharing a story with one another.
  • The friends I have made in such a short while have been an invaluable part to my success here at school. People always think that writers are isolated, unsocial beings, but if anything, we need people more. People are our readers, our characters, our customers, our audience, our gods. We bow down to serve people, to entertain them, and to provide opportunities for thoughtfulness. I can always count on my friends to make my belly hurt from laughing. I trust them with my undeveloped stories, my fears, my doubts, my longings. Most of all, they remind me to keep a childlike wonder about the world.
  • Workshop…workshop…workshop. Without these hours of serious dedication and attention from my professors and cohort, my stories would be stuck in mud, bathing in illogical stews, or would still be a locked trapdoor whose key floats within the belly of a dragon and I have to kill the dragon to find the key. (This analogy may still apply, because all stories have a trapdoor and its the author’s job to find that key and unlock it, because behind that door is another door, and so on.)
  • I have loved working on the Hunger Mountain literary journal as the managing editor, and am so glad that there is still half a year left in my position. P.S. Must find a way to make this a full-time career! I’m realizing that one of my passions in the literary world is championing other writers’ work and working with them to find success.
  • My internship at the letterpress May Day Studio has come to an end, but I hope to put my newfound skills to good use some day in the future. Here is an interview I did with Kelly McMahon, the owner of the studio. For now, I have a limited supply of cards I made for my final project. Would anyone be interested in purchasing these one-of-a-kind goodies? If so, write to me at cameroncfinch@gmail.com and we can chat about placing an order!

The poem is “Invitation”: my favorite piece in Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. The greeting cards are original “untranslatable word” prints and are influenced by Ella Frances Sanders’ book, Lost in Translation.

***

Now is the time to come up with a plan for the month-long break. I don’t really consider it a break – as I am a person who feels most fulfilled when constantly hustling. The question isn’t how to “relax”—for me, this break is all about finding ways to refill thy brain with creative input so I can produce fresh and quintessentially weird content in the next semester.

It was Julia Cameron who talks about “filling your creative well” on a regular basis; that you need to replenish your creativity by absorbing other creative things or going out in nature. She calls these moments of artistic absorption:  “Artist Dates.”

While I am an avid reader and often make more time to read than I do to write (is this something I should feel guilty about?), I do sometimes forget that I need to recharge my brain batteries and consume art rather than constantly work on my own. I’ve been so busy with getting together my final portfolio (which included an extended second draft of my novella—extended, because I think it wants to be a novel…maybe) over the last week or so, but perhaps haven’t been properly recharging.

This list here, inspired by Cameron’s Artist Dates, is one I shall bookmark whenever I need some guidance on where to fill my well.

I did recently watch Tarsem’s The Fall, which is my all-time favorite movie, for the sixth or seventh time. But this time, I watched it with the director’s commentary. I had always been a bit daunted to watch a movie with two hours of straight commentary as I thought it would draw away from the film itself. But when you’ve seen a film as much as I have seen The Fall—where you know all the scene changes and the exact timing of lines and you can anticipate where the camera will lead you next—it was so easy to release myself from the world of the film and float slightly above it, godlike, with the director. I think even on my hundredth viewing, I will still find something new. I will still be in utter awe of its splendor and brilliance. Oh my, has this film changed me, my brain chemistry, my heart, in a way that I wish I could put into words and send in a letter to the director. Maybe someday I will.

Note: Give all the love and tell people when you see them have that thing that grabs you and keeps you and excites you and leaves you awestruck and slightly breathless. It makes all the difference in this world to let them know. Don’t wait. Tell them how they’ve moved you. 

As much as my nerd heart wants to stay in school through this month, I’m excited to have time to revise stories, to binge on good books and movies and tea, to see my cat and the people back home that I love, and to continue to fill this cavernous, bottomless well of mine. I want to consume all the art.

 

books! tacos! gala!

When the director of my MFA program announced that any student who wanted to attend the Third Annual Vermont Book Award Gala could go for free if we volunteered to set up chairs and hang up coats, I jumped at the chance. Who am I to resist a reason to dress up and dance?

First, a little background on the history of the event. The Vermont Book Award is a $5,000 literary prize created by VCFA to celebrate the literature of Vermont. To qualify, a book must be a work of outstanding literary merit by a Vermont writer. Authors and poets are nominated by Vermont independent booksellers, as well as publishers. From a selection of over 400 nominees, a panel of judges narrows the list down to eight finalists. The winner is then selected from those finalists and announced at a fancy schmancy gala in the fall.

Which brings me to Saturday night! I’m not sure if the gala can be properly described to you, but I will do my best, and trust me when I say it was amazing.

The event was hosted in the VCFA Alumni Hall. Now this is New England, so even the alumni hall has a “stable/barn” feel to it, especially with the wooden beams and rafters. But, once the party started, this was absolutely no barn. Picture caramel wooden floors perfect for dancing; colossal brick loft walls; pane glass windows letting in vitamin D and light, and then later, blanketed by luxurious velvet indigo curtains. Surrounded by a 20-foot spread of charcuterie and finger food was a centerpiece of potted trees, with fairy-lit trees tangled around boughs, and stacks on stacks of gloriously dusty, collectible books.

We emerging writers took in the same precious air in that hall with literary notables, such as Katherine Paterson (of Bridge to Terabithia fame) and last year’s Book Award winner, Major Jackson. A most humbling feeling indeed. We drank cocktails called Anne of Vert Gables and snacked on scrumptious delectables from Montpelier’s own Mad Taco. Later, we danced until our feet were bleeding to Burlington singer Kat Wright and her band, The Indomitable Souls. Love her raw, jazzy and soulful style, much in the vein of Adele and Amy Winehouse. You can spend hours watching her band’s videos on YouTube—they are so good!

The moment we all were waiting for was truly titillating. Standing in a room filled with over 200 people, all witnessing eight terrific readings by the finalists. We gave a toast with our free prosecco (*yum!*) like it was New Year’s Eve. In the end, it was Jensen Beach who won the award for his newest story collection, Swallowed by the Cold. I give my heartiest congratulations to him, as well as to all of the other finalists. They are all worthy of winning in my eyes.

What an entrance into the public world of being a writer! I am most grateful to everyone who spent so much time and effort in planning and coordinating this beautiful literary evening, and to Kat Wright and the local vendors and all the deliciously lovely writerly folk who attended. I was so honored to be a part of it and am very much looking forward to the Fourth Annual Gala!