Finding the Heart in Your Story

Student and Statue on Vermont College Green

Picture I took at a VCFA residency

So Vermont College of Fine Arts students and alums are doing a blog tour about writing and their experiences at Vermont College. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I graduated from VCFA with my MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults. I had a wonderful experience there, and I highly recommend it to anyone who truly cares about their writing and wants to improve.

Anyway, I agreed to both write a post for the tour and to host a month of guest posts about various writing topics which will probably start next week, so stay tuned for that. The topic that I chose to write about is “Finding the heart in your story.” I hope you all enjoy. And do feel free to write me with questions about the program if you’re considering it.

Finding the Heart in Your Story:

I decided to be a writer after some minor success with my first book when I was seven. I took a year off from college ten years ago and blithely wrote my “first novel.” Ha.

Many critique groups, writing classes, and conferences later, my novel was going nowhere. But I was serious about this writing thing, so I found myself at Vermont College of Fine Arts. They gave me a scholarship when they admitted me. I thought I was Pretty Hot Stuff. I just needed to learn to turn a prettier phrase (but I thought my phrases were already fairly pretty). Again, can I say: Ha.

Student and advisor (Julie Larios)

I got to my first workshop–the extremely squirm-worthy process whereby 15-20 extremely articulate students and a teacher who has written so many books that he could generate an award-winning plot in his sleep tell you exactly what is and isn’t working with your novel–and discovered from the inimitable Tim Wynne-Jones that my characters lacked emotion, my plot lacked internal logic, my language was altogether too flowery. Oh, and that setting I thought was Wales?–Well, it felt more like Ireland, actually.

I cried big, fat heavy tears alone in my dorm room. Then I put my hair up in a pompadour and I got on with life.

My first semester studying with one of my literary heros–Martine Leavitt–did not go any better. I spent the entire semester trying to convince her that she just hadn’t understood my perfect vision.

Now fast forward through three semesters, a few World Wars, and a great deal of craptastic writing to my penultimate residency. Here you will find me crying in my closet after my good friend Clete finished his graduate reading.

Why was I crying this time?

Because the story Clete read from was so deep and heartfelt and emotionally honest that I suddenly realized how much resistance I have to my own writing. I realized that I aggressively “try” so I don’t have to do the real work of writing from my heart.

I’d like to say that I’m a new person now, that I have no ego and I always dig deep. Sigh. But over the course of my last semester my writing did change. I started to actually listen to my wonderful advisor–Margaret Bechard. My writing became a little darker, scarier, and more fluid. And I started to ask the question: why do I need to tell this story?

Now that I’ve graduated, that question is with me each time I sit down to write. And with it I’ve occasionally found a deep openness. This space is scary and so I often avoid it. But not always.

It’s a process.

Finding the heart of your story is like finding the heart of yourself. You never really get there, but every step you take gets you a little bit closer. And if it’s worth it to you, you keep going.

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About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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3 Responses to Finding the Heart in Your Story

  1. Great introduction to the journey that is VCFA–though I’m only halfway along it. I think it’s important to write from the heart–a young reader once told me too many of the novels she read seem to be written by numbers rather than written from the heart, so I know there are skilled writers out there who can fake it–but what VCFA does is help us bring what’s in our heart out into the open.

    Love the pictures, too. I need to bring my camera this time.

  2. pamwatts says:

    I completely agree, Lynn. But it’s hard. I find I spend about a third of the time writing from the heart and a two-thirds of the time dithering around and not writing at all.

    (And I love having an opportunity to post a few of the pictures I’ve taken–I’m such a show off.)

  3. Pingback: Vermont College of Fine Arts Blog Initiative | Strong in the Broken Places

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