Reading on Enders Island.

Fairfield MFA

Reading today at Enders Island. If it looks like I’m on an altar, that’s because I am. Enders is a religious retreat, hence the cross and pulpit and stained glass. There’s also a relic in that church, but that’s another story entirely.

I’m back from my MFA program’s alumni day, which welcomes alums back to Enders Island for a meal and a hangout and allows us to attend a seminar and pretend that we’re still in school. Today I took a poetry seminar. I’m not a poet, but the teacher of the seminar I took is Baron Wormser, and he’s incredible, as you’d expect a poet laureate of Maine to be.  I’ve now taken two of his seminars, and just like the first seminar I took with him, this one – which explored argument in poetry – simultaneously inspired me and made my brain hurt.

The administration also very graciously allows us alumni authors to come back and read from our work during a special reading period, which is followed by a group book signing. I didn’t expect to be invited as a reader this residency, since I read last residency, but I was delighted to be invited back to the island to read alongside novelist Chris Belden and poet Colin Halloran.  Being a part of that line-up is no joke.

It’s also really cool for me for another reason: although I read primarily from Beware the Hawk, I was also able to read a taster from the upcoming book, The Eagle and the Arrow. One of the beautiful things about being part of the Fairfield MFA program is that it’s a safe place to share new work, and all three of us did that.

My husband was on camera duty for the reading, and I’m posting the fruits of his labors on my Facebook page. We had some technical difficulties with the lens, but he managed to get photos of the other readers as well. Feel free to visit, like the photos, comment, tag yourself and whatnot.

The MFA frenzy.

I’ve been back for a few days from my grad school residency on Enders Island, and I’m ready to blog again.

The gardens at Enders when it’s not extremely cold.

Before you all read this, I have to warn you: I have the MFA frenzy. It happens whenever I return from my creative writing MFA residency in Mystic, Conn. and it continues for about a month. During this time, I write like I’ve been taking uppers, talk incessantly about story arcs, character flaws,  scene vs summary, you get the idea. I apologize in advance.

For those who don’t know, let me explain where I’ve been. Enders Island, a religious retreat in Mystic, Conn.,  is the location for the Fairfield University Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing residency. (If you click on the link, I’m in the picture at the top of the page. You can just barely see my pink hat in the back row.) I’ve lived on Enders for 10 days every six months for the past two years. My cohort and I take all our classes there; we workshop our writing and take seminars and study with established authors. Every year when I come back home after my residency, someone always asks me if I’m sorry to leave the island.

My answer to that is no. It’s not easy to spend 10 days at a workshop with lots of other writers. Ask Chuck Palahniuk.

But, and this is a big but, I really need the residencies in order to be productive. And honestly, I’m not looking forward to graduating, because that means I’ll no longer have the creative kick in the pants that the residency provides.

Allow me to explain. In some ways, the MFA residency is run on the same principle as a boot camp. By the end of 10 days, I am physically ground down. I haven’t slept, I haven’t eaten that much, and I’ve been living in such close quarters with others that my personal space is all out of whack. I almost always leave the island with an ailment or a minor injury.  I  spend the final two days of every residency in a strange creative fog. I can’t pay attention to normal things, like conversation, or lunch, or tying my shoes, but a different part of my brain kicks in. I find myself thinking in poetry, and everything becomes a writing exercise. People become studies for character development. I start using active verbs, like “scrub” and “dive,” in small talk.  Nothing matters, by the end, except the work.

Once I get home and get some sleep, the writing begins, and does not stop for months. I’m not sure how I’m going to sustain that level of inspiration without the residency.

Another thing that’s amazing about the residency is that when I come home, I am always convinced that I will publish my novel. I’m utterly confident that my novel will be published, optioned, and translated, and that I will be able to eke out at least a modest living on my words. I write short fiction and poems and I send them out to literary magazines. They ignore me and reject me, and I don’t even care, because I am positive that someone will accept my work. It is bizarre. To hear me talk, when I come back from residency, you would think that I had already published a novel.

And, you know, I think that’s the way to be. Writing a novel (and getting it published) is my dream. If I were to allow myself to be discouraged by the cold hard facts of publishing, I wouldn’t even try to finish the manuscript. I certainly wouldn’t involve colleagues, professors, graduate programs and writing groups in a novel that I thought might fail. I wouldn’t want to disappoint the people I respect.  I wouldn’t want to waste their time. And at this point, I’ve involved at least 15 other people in my novel by asking them to workshop it, listen to it or talk with me about it.

So now there’s no room for failure. Especially now, because in the next few months I have to finish my novel in order to graduate.