MFA Update: Residency Reflections

Sunsets, snow, and mountains…that’s right, I had another residency, this time in the deep arctic blast. Now I’ve attended two out of four residencies, and while I enjoyed myself immensely and am chomping at the bit to get into my work for the semester (and I already have), it was also a reminder of how fast the time passes. With two residencies down, I have only two more to go. Out of “the bubble,” that space we refer to where we’re in a safe space where all of us value the craft of writing and share pieces of ourselves, here are my reflections as a second-semester MFA student.

Peer Workshops

Something special happened in my peer workshop group–not that it didn’t in June, but I’m not writing about June’s residency right now. Not only did we find a way to help each other with our stories, but we also laughed together. There were only three people in my workshop who I felt I knew–two other women in my cohort and a woman from the class ahead of mine whom I befriended last residency.

There were three other students I didn’t get the chance to get to know last June, and it was fantastic learning about them. One of them kept astonishing me with an openness and personal courage that is nothing short of inspiring. Then, there were two students from the incoming cohort. Both great writers, and great people.

Finally, what made this group so special was the pair of mentors facilitating the twelve hours we spent together. I’m not going to name drop, but they’re pretty amazing and so is their fiction. Their insights, good humor, and approachable manner made it a joy to learn to from them.

Thanks to the feedback I received from both of them and my peers, I have decided to make a drastic change to my thesis novel that will solve the pacing issues; scenes were moving too rapidly and they confirmed for me that as readers, they didn’t have the time to get settled in them. They also confirmed that my proposed changes would solve this issue. I don’t want to get into too much detail because I don’t want to give anything away…but suffice to say instead of covering a 65-year lifespan, my novel will cover about 5-6 months.

Craft & Elective Workshops

In addition to peer workshops, part of the residency curriculum features craft and elective workshops. The craft workshops were fun and helpful. Some of the information was something I’d learned before, but I really enjoyed hearing another writer’s take on a subject and letting lessons sink in again. At other times, the information was new and entirely helpful.

Elective workshops I attended (of which we had to choose two) included discussions on the unreliable narrator, an agent Q&A, and a talk on beginnings by Zia Haider Rahman, who might just be one of the coolest people I’ve had the honor to meet. If I ever had the chance to take more classes from him, I’d jump at the opportunity.

Readings

At each residency, there are several types of readings: nightly faculty readings, nightly student readings, and a special students-only reading on Wednesdays. I won’t say who read what, but there were texts shared that required open hearts to read and listen, and I couldn’t be prouder or more honored to have participated, even as a reader.

For my own readings, I chose a portion of my short story, “Hunger,” and a rap/poem I’d written based on Hamilton: The American Musical. For that one, I got the audience involved, repeating the chorus.

Everything Else

The graduation ceremony for the graduating cohort, the dance party afterwards, the several hours spent in the game room with friends, the night of no water, the visit from the fire department when pipes burst, the tiny snowman we found, the hours chatting with friends and fellow writers, the four hours with my roommate and cohort-mate traveling to and from the hotel, and everything else that goes on residency was so enjoyable that I didn’t want to leave. At least…not until the temps dropped back into the negatives.

My next residency is in five months and two days. I’m so looking forward to jumping back into it, even though it will be my third of four residencies, and I will likely be even more sad to leave.

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Creating a Writing Playlist

What gets you in the zone for writing creatively? For me, music a huge help. It also helps drown out the sounds of the dog barking at a falling leaf or a noisy cafe. I was talking with a friend and fellow writer the other day, and she expressed that she was beginning to appreciate and enjoy Classical music. Of course, my response was a calm smile to dance around the room.

I love Classical music, and an appreciation for it is one of the benefits I gained from my undergraduate education. Because of my adoration for Classical music (and Baroque and Romantic, which are often lumped under the Classical umbrella though they’re a different genre), I learned to play piano, which has become one of my most beloved hobbies.

My friend told me she’d been listening to Bach’s cello suites, as performed by Yo Yo Ma. This beautiful example of Baroque music is great for unleashing creativity, but now she’s working on scenes that require a different mood. We started talking about putting together a playlist and it made me think about the different ways one can use music to fuel the creative writing process.

Create a Soundtrack for Your Work

Like my friend, one way to use music in your writing is to create a soundtrack. Much like a movie soundtrack, pieces are chosen to represent the emotions in specific scenes. My friend and I discussed this at length–and discovered that historical dramas typically have soundtracks with the range of emotions she was seeking. After listening to some selections from Pride and Prejudice (the 2005 version) and The Duchess, we surmised that historical dramas starring Keira Knightley are a good way to source writing music–in case you’re planning your own soundtrack.

The real key though to creating a soundtrack is to find the the song that fits the scene. Depending on how many scenes one has in a story, this can be an extensive project in its own right.

Create a Playlist of Songs for Emotions in Your Work

I think this is more where I stand–not because I cannot come up with a list long enough to provide unique musical inspiration for every scene–but because that would be a project of such gargantuan proportion as to intimidate me right out of the process. Rather, I think I will source a few songs for various types of scenes. This may be a bit repetitive, but I don’t mind, particularly as the songs won’t have lyrics. (If I listen to music with lyrics while writing creatively, I just start typing the lyrics.)

On Tuesday, we’re going to devote some time to sourcing music for our respective playlists. I’ll share mine here on this blog, and you can feel free to use the same music if it speaks to you.

What’s your favorite Classical music?

Go ahead and include Baroque and Romantic music in with this one. You have my permission to lump them together. If you’re a writer, I’d love to know your favorite selections for getting into the zone. If you’re not a writer, what music do you simply enjoy?

For those who prefer to listen, I bring you…a new podcast!

In an effort to make visiting my blog a multimedia experience, I thought I’d create a podcast. These ~15-minute episodes will impart some knowledge I’ve gained from my years of writing experience. With National Novel Writing Month right around the corner, I thought I’d use my pilot episode to talk about my experiences with that challenge.

Sometimes I might share short stories or poems, too. Basically, mine is a podcast for writers by a writer. Sure, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of podcasts for writers out there…but this is the only one by me. So if you enjoy my blog, my point of view, and my experience, have a listen.

Without further ado, I bring you episode one!

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