MFA Update: Prepping for Residency

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Throughout the course of the next two years, I’ll be posting an update on my work toward my MFA Creative Writing every four weeks. Chronicling this experience is important for many reasons, not the least to document lessons I learn along the way. As this is a terminal degree, it is the last writing degree I will likely get (though I may someday get a master’s in History after I pay off the student loans I’ll have after my MFA).

This month, I’m prepping for my first residency week. The residencies take place at a mountain resort in northern New Hampshire. I’m buzzing with excitement to immerse myself in the world of creative writing for a full week. I know it’s going to be intense, and a lot of work, earning three credits in six days, but I can’t wait.

When I was in undergrad I took a field geology class. Back then I wanted to be a paleontologist before it became obvious just how much math I’d have to study. That program was six credits in four weeks, and it was fairly intense. But when you’re studying what you love, no amount of work seems too much.

Last month, I had to write and submit a short story for my first residency week. I could have used part of a novel, but I wanted to write a standalone story. It’s called Chiaroscuro and it takes place immediately following the death of the Baroque artist, Caravaggio. His works were among my favorites as I finished my art history bachelor’s degree (yes, it was a strange road from paleontology to art history). I won’t say more than that about the story, except that I had to keep it under 20 pages. My reticence has nothing to do with fear of copyright infringement, and everything to do with the fact that the story may change a lot after it’s workshopped.

Preparations for my first residency week go beyond writing Chiaroscuro.

Peer Critiques

All residency students were placed into groups, broken up by fiction and nonfiction. Those groups were further divided into smaller workshops so that the workload wouldn’t be unimaginable. This means I have nine stories of about 20 pages each to critique before June 11, 2017.

Here’s what the critiques involve:

  • Reading the story through two or three times.
  • Making comments in the margins.
  • Suggesting any grammatical corrections (these have been few and far between thus far).
  • Writing a 250-word critique letter to the author.

The hardest part is the letter–not that I’m short of things to say. The difficulty is in keeping it below 250 words. However, I don’t balk at the challenge. Such a low word count is a great way to continue honing my self-editing skills.

I’ve finished two peer critiques so far, which leaves seven remaining. I’ve set a maximum of three days for each critique. That allows me to finish a few days before I have to leave for the residency week. That timeline also allows me time to read each story, take a break, and come back to it with fresh eyes.

The best part about peer critiques is that I get to read my fellow students’ work. That has been, thus far, my favorite part of this process. I would find it alarming to feel otherwise.

Novel Planning and Drafting

The program doesn’t require that I plan and begin drafting my novel before my first residency. However, I will be meeting with my mentor and would like to have something more substantial to say other than, “I want to write about witch hunts.” For that reason, I’ve outlined deadlines to plan my novel and begin drafting so that I can get ahead on the 30-polished-pages-every-five-weeks part of my work.

I’ll also be drafting those first 30 pages before I go for my first residency. I’d like to be able to discuss some of my successes and difficulties with the book with my mentor while we’re in the same room. Being that this is a low-residency MFA, most of our communication will be digital. While that includes video chats, there’s something about sinking teeth into a text in person.

As of right now, my novel will be in five parts or long chapters. So far, I’ve planned the first two parts. By the end of this week, I should have the third part planned as well.

  • What goes into planning each part of my book?
  • Summarizing scenes
  • Character development for all major and minor characters
  • Fleshing out subplots
  • Researching history and settings

It’s a lot of work, but I know it’s going to pay off. I know also I will have to do more research while I’m writing and editing, and that’s okay. The research I’m conducting ahead of time is based on what I think I will need to know. Since stories evolve during the drafting and editing phases, it’s important to remain flexible with research as well.

During my last week before my residency begins, I’ll be drafting the start of my novel. I’m chomping at the bit, but I know that it’s crucial that I get enough planning and researching done on the front side.

Building a Reading List

I don’t know yet how many books I’ll be required to read each term. That’s okay–because I’m starting to put together a potential reading list anyway. The task is to come up with books to read and analyze. I’m trying to find books that are in my genre at the least. If they touch on any of my subjects or themes, all the better.

I’ve been using Goodreads to store my blossoming reading list. I know I’m going to need books for all four terms, so I’m not concerned right now that I will overload the list. I wish I could read some of these books right now, and to be honest I probably could. However, I want to start them fresh with my assignments in mind.

There’s a lot to do to prep for the start of my first residency. When I enrolled in the program, June 11 seemed so far away. Now, it’s right around the corner. I couldn’t be more excited, and having these preparation tasks to take care of is a great way to keep that excitement from becoming overwhelming.