Ms. Speer Attends Special Program in Vermont for Masters

Amanda Brown, Staff Writer

Some of you may have noticed that Ms. Speer was recently absent for a significant amount of time. Many students have been wondering about her whereabouts for those two weeks, speculating that she had fallen ill, or perhaps was on vacation. As it turns out, Ms. Speer was actually attending college in Vermont. She is involved in a program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, in which she is earning her degree in writing. Below, she discusses the program more in-depth and explains the impact it will have on her life.

Q: Can you describe the writing program you are enrolled in?
A: “It’s a masters of fine art – an MFA – in writing for children and young adults. It’s a two-year program, just like any other masters program. But it’s designed for people who don’t live and work in Vermont. The idea is that you only have to be on campus for the first ten days of every semester, which is called the residency, and there are four semesters. That’s what I was at. During those ten days you’re in an intensive writing workshop, there’s lots of lectures, and you also get paired up with a faculty advisor. There’s about 20 faculty advisors and you work with a different one every semester, so you’ll work with four different people throughout the program. They are all well-known children’s and young adult authors. Students get to say ‘These are the six people I’d like to work with,’ and it’s narrowed down to which faculty member you will work with. The longer you’ve been in the program, the higher the priority. Second semester students have to put down six faculty advisor choices, whereas if it’s your last semester, you only have to put down three, so you’re more likely to work with the person you want to work with. You get your advisor about halfway through the residency and then you make a plan with them for what you’re going to do during your semester. Everybody has to do a certain amount of work. Five times throughout the semester–about once a month–you have a packet due. A packet has forty pages of creative work, two critical essays, ten books you’ve read and annotated, usually another writing piece, and also a process letter saying, ‘I was struggling with this,’ or ‘I need guidance on this,’ or ‘I thought this went really well, what do you think?’ Then somewhere between two and five days, your advisor gets back to you with twenty pages of notes saying, ‘This is the direction you should go in, this is what I see,’ and then also notes in your writing, saying ‘This is strong, this needs to be worked on.’ And then you do your next packet based on the review, so you do that five times throughout the semester, via email. Then you have to go back at the beginning of the next semester, meet with that person, then get a new advisor, and start all over again. So, that is why I was there. I did my first residency in July, and I’ll do my third residency this coming July, so I don’t have to miss school for that, but for the January ones, I do.”

Q: What got you interested in this program?
A: ‘This is the first program in the country to be a writing program specifically for children and young adults and they’re twenty years old, so they have the most history behind them. It was also the closest to me. A lot of people are flying from California or Canada or Texas, so it’s really far away from them, but I can drive. That was a huge draw. I’ve always wanted to do this and I’ve been looking at the program for eight years, trying to figure out a way to do it and then I just applied and said, ‘If I get in, I’m gonna figure it out.’”

Q: Can you describe the degree you are getting?
A: “It’s a masters of fine arts in writing, but specifically writing for children and young adults. If someone wanted to be an editor, this would be an appropriate degree. Sometimes people will also use this degree if they want to teach writing at a community college or at a university, but most people are getting the degree because they want to write and publish successful novels or picture books. For example, there is a picture book-intensive semester–I have some friends who are in it right now, so writing picture books is all the work they’re doing this semester. Which sounds like it would be easy, but it’s actually really hard, because you have thirty-two pages and you have to create a whole story arc and it has to make sense. I’m not into picture books, though, so I’m doing young adult writing. But the idea is that the faculty members are all successful in the publishing industry there. They know how it works and your peers also know the business. For example, someone in my class just got a book deal last semester, and it was a two-book deal. It was a middle grade novel, which would be for sixth and seventh graders. So it’s a stepping stone for having your work polished enough to be published.”

Q: How does your role as librarian influence your writing?
A: “I have read a ton and books have been a part of my job for so long. So it’s sort of a joke in my class that everyone says, ‘If you need a book about a certain thing, ask Brynne ‘cause she knows.’ I have a store of knowledge of what’s been written on certain topics and what high school students like to read, which is something that everybody else sort of lacks. We had this conversation once where someone was saying, ‘Well, I think publishers are looking for this and students would be interested in this.’ and I said, ‘No, they wouldn’t. That’s not what my kids are reading.’ So it definitely helps.”

Q: What are your long-term goals with writing?
A: “To successfully publish something. Not to just publish it, but have it not tank. Your last semester, you have to do a creative thesis. Your creative thesis is eighty pages of polished, publishable work and usually it’s the first eighty pages of a novel that you’ve finished in the program. So often times what you’ll see is that two years after the students of this program graduate, they’ll publish for the first time, because that’s about how long the turnaround takes–to get your manuscript accepted, do the editing process, all of that stuff, and then get it out. So that would be the long term goal.”

Q: Are you writing a novel right now?
A: “Yes. I started one last semester and I’m working on that one, plus a new one this semester. They want you to experiment with different genres and different age groups. Eventually someone’s going to make me write something for middle grade. I know it’s coming. I don’t love middle grade books; I’m a bigger fan of stuff that seventh through twelfth graders would be reading. But they want to push you to try lots of things. Also, third semester, you have to write a critical thesis. You’re still doing creative writing, but you’re also basically doing a forty page paper that is a lot of research about a particular craft. You do five residencies, so my last residency will be in July of 2018, but I won’t be allowed to start a fifth semester. I’ll be part of the presentations, in which you do a lecture for forty-five minutes in front of your classmates and staff on your critical thesis. I attended one presentation that was really great and was about healing journeys. It was about some books that were good examples of a character who is really broken in the beginning, but has healed toward the end. I went to another lecture where one of the guys in the program did a lecture about having food be a part of your novel and how it can play a role. Another person did a lecture this time on bathrooms as secret places in middle grade novels. But then some of them are more serious. For example, if you’re writing fantasy, how to make that world feel believable. So the lectures vary. That’ll be something I do–I’ll write the critical thesis my third semester and then my graduating residency, I’ll present. That’s the last day. The class that has presented graduates and you go off with your degree.”

Q: Will this impact your future at Weedsport?
A: “I will have to be out for ten days again next January, but that’s really it. I think it very unlikely that I will be so successful in writing that I will be able to leave my day job anytime soon. Obviously, that’s a dream, but not something that’s going to happen anytime soon.”