I'm doing something different this week, posting an interview with author Janet Fox. She talks about the Vermont College MFA program, and how it helped her grow as a writer.
You were already a published author (Get Organized Without Losing It, Free Spirit Publishing, 2006) when you decided to join the Vermont College MFA program. Why did you feel that additional education was important?
Janet: I’d been attending SCBWI conferences for years and I recognized the value of honing my craft by listening to lectures. About the time that “Get Organized” came out I felt that those conference lectures, while still good, weren’t enough any longer. I wanted more “how-to” knowledge, I wanted to be a better writer, and reading craft books in the isolation of my office didn’t do the trick, either. Kathi Appelt lives near me, and she’s not only a good friend but also a mentor and is on the faculty at VCFA, and she began to talk up the MFA program to me. I think the final push came from my agent, who was wildly enthusiastic when I asked her what she thought about it. And here’s the thing – it’s fabulous. The Vermont program has taken my skill to an entirely new level.
How is that program set up? What appealed most to you?
Janet: It’s a two-year low-residency program. Each January and July for four semesters (five residencies, including the final) you attend a ten-day residency filled with lectures and workshops and readings. During the semesters off campus you are assigned an advisor, different each semester, who guides you through assignments due on a monthly basis. It’s intense and hard work and requires a commitment of time and energy. You must complete a critical thesis and a creative thesis. What appeals to me most of all is what I learn from the lectures, and then apply to my work; but I also value the input of my advisors during the semesters because that direct editing has truly taught me about my own strengths and weaknesses.
Do you think the education you got at Vermont College helped you to write and sell your new historical fiction novel, Faithful (Speak/Penguin Group, 2010)?
Janet: No, I sold Faithful before I began the program. What I do wish is that I’d had more time in the program before Faithful came out! I was editing the manuscript like crazy based on what I was learning in the program at the time, and now see the flaws in that novel very clearly. But I’m trying to apply my new-found knowledge to the Faithful sequel (Forgiven, due out in 2011.) In fact, that manuscript forms the basis of my creative thesis, and I’m so thankful to have the eye of my current advisor, Leda Schubert, because I know this will be a better book for it.
Did the discipline and/or expense help you feel and act more like a professional writer?
Janet: Certainly the discipline helps – but also the fact that the VCFA faculty is stellar and yet approachable. I feel humbled in their presence and honored to be a part of this institution. I take my work seriously because I’m taken seriously by writers who are at the top of their field. VCFA is a terrific place. Expensive, yes. And worth every penny.
Can you share a few important things you learned in the program?
Janet: It’s all about the craft, not about the publication. Commit to hard work. First drafts are ugly, and revision rules. We all have craft flaws; the trick is to discover what you tend to do “wrong” and weed it out. Read like a writer, meaning read to see how great writers handle aspects of writing – dialogue, scene, description, character. Apply what you learn to your own writing. Be prepared to grow as a writer by always learning. Write every day. Write from the heart. Bare your feelings and write from the deepest possible place.