This week, I sent a brand new manuscript draft to my agent.

Well, let’s be honest. NOT so new. What it was: a completely new version based loosely on a draft I wrote when I was in my first semester at VCFA. (In other words: a big mess of characters and setting and plot that at the time, I thought was compelling, but years later made me blush.) My soon-to-rock-the-world (former) student, Lianna McSwain, now finishing HER first semester at VCFA, wrote something that got me thinking about what I really got from my MFA.

(So Lianna, this one is for you!)

Some things are measurable.

While at VCFA, I wrote a lot. Five different rough drafts of novels. A couple of revisions. Two picture book texts. Lucky me, two of those novels, Head Case and Beyond Lucky, are now published. The third, BELIEVE, will be this September by Carolrhoda Lab. (Thank you, thank you, thank you! I have already exceeded my expectations!!!!)

So….getting an MFA definitely gave me a body of work to play with. A great head start. That was right for me. Writing all those pages helped me establish my voice. I think that was one of my original goals (although now maybe I’m just inferring). Bottom line: While at VCFA, I tried lots of things. I encourage others to do the same. Find yourcommon thread. I figured out some themes that I like to write about.

Justice. Injustice.



The bigger gift it game me: the ability to JUST PLAY. Two years of writing for the sake of it. This is such a precious thing. In the program, I didn’t worry so much about perfecting any one book. My goal was to TRY. It wasn’t always to ACHIEVE.

(What amuses me: the one novel I thought was supposed to be “submittable” is the one novel I haven’t shown anyone. Maybe it’s time to open that one up, too?)

What also amuses me: I think I knew that I got nervous when it came to product! My biggest challenge SINCE graduating has been recreating that sense of play.

THIRD, I think I learned something about my own process. While at VCFA, I kept a writing journal. I wrote down how I felt about my writing…the rituals that worked for me…the ones that didn’t. I figured out that I have to write in the morning, or I won’t do it at all. I found out I really like talking about books with other writers. And I LOVE teaching. I need to discuss my ideas out loud before I can deal with the writing.

When I forget what works for me, I open these journals and remember!

In these pages, I see that I do best when I step away from my manuscripts in order to evaluate them. (There is a reason I have invited Carolyn Coman to discuss storyboarding not once, or twice, but three different times.)

I like challenges…writing exercises.

I learned that I like to trick myself into revising. And that I do better when I delete bad manuscripts…instead of trying to fix them on the page.

And of course, I also gained friends and readers! Amazing colleagues. (Hugs to all!)

I know people who went through the program who wrote more…wrote less…published more…are still on their way.  I’m not sure if we learned completely different things. Or if they would say exactly what I have written here.

One thing is (probably) universal:

We gave ourselves over to the craft of writing.

We learned to listen to our instincts. We did what we thought “felt” right. We kept WRITING and READING. We didn’t apologize. We didn’t say, “This is for nothing.” We didn’t make excuses. We didn’t get discouraged! What we did was become writers and readers and thinkers.

I’m glad I did it. I am grateful for the experience every day. And every day, I try to give a little back. I try to give this experience to my students–as much as I can. Because I also know I was really LUCKY. Not everyone can afford the tuition/the time/the indulgence of it. Our world needs to hear from lots of different voices–from every corner of the world–not just the voices that can get an MFA. If you can do it, GREAT. Do it! If you can’t, don’t give up. Find another way.

Play. Write your stories. Read. Think. Plan. That’s what I learned.


6 Responses
  1. Sarah, I just love you! You have definitely given back and shared in so many meaningful ways. Of all of the conversations and voices at Stone Spirit Farm last October, yours is the one I hear in my head most frequently. “You have to eat the candy bar!” “Sarah likes to brag.” So many little comments and stories that have stayed glued inside my head. The world–my world–needs your voice. Many thanks! 🙂

  2. I absolutely second what you say! I loved my experience at VCFA and, like you, built up a body of work that I still draw on. Most of all, the low-residency format helped me make writing a part of my daily life (not something done during a special/different two years).

    Thanks for sharing what you gained and for reminding me of what a wonderful program it was!


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