Unlike traditional residential programs, which require students to live near their program of study, Vermont College of Fine Arts' MFA programs bring students together twice each year on the VCFA campus. Our MFA in Writing residency concludes next week. Students have come from every corner of the world to VCFA’S snow-laden campus here in Montpelier, bringing exceptional and diverse perspectives, attitudes, and voices. They'll return home inspired and ready to continue the six month semester through often intense discourse with their faculty advisors. MFA in Writing student Paul Zakrzewski '14W offers the following thoughts on how the advisor-student relationship is the "heart and soul" of VCFA's low residency model.
“I’m a bit of a fatalist when it comes to picking advisors,” says my classmate.
Uh-oh. Does he want to tell me about last semester?
“It went well.” He adjusts his lunch tray just so. “I’m just a go-with-the-flow guy. You know, what happens happens.” He leans back expansively. “Well, maybe not a fatalist so much as an optimistic fatalist.”
If the residency is the connective tissue of low residency programs, then the advisor relationship is its heart and soul. A good match can make you feel exhausted but exhilarated—a marathon well run. But a bad one can make you question why you’ve decided to fork over a lot of hard-earned cash; or the stress of leaving a family, a job, or a life behind.
Like my classmate, other second-semester students I’ve spoken to say they’ll learn a lot whoever they end up with. You might say we’re an optimistic lot because we have to be. After all, until your third (and especially fourth) semesters, you’re not guaranteed to get your top choices for advisors.
Still, it’s impossible not to think about what makes for a good match.
Above all else, I want someone who’ll be generous with both time and spirit. Larry Sutin put it really well in a panel discussion I went to this morning. The thing he liked about teaching was that it gave him a chance to “give the best of myself to students who are trying to do their best.” That sounds like a great formula for being a good advisor too.
Many people I’ve talked to look for shared aesthetic. Classmates want help in shaping their vision, someone who’s travelled further down the same road you now find yourself on. Personal chemistry matters too, just like it does in most relationships in life.
Some recommend that you read a potential advisor’s books. Others say pay attention to reputation. If someone is known as being tough and you know that’s what you want, then maybe this is the right person for you.
Semesters matter too. For example, in your third semester, when you’re focusing on a critical thesis, picking an advisor who you think may help you shape that project (as much as your creative work) could be important.
And still other times you have a very specific thing you want to accomplish creatively in a term. This is where I find myself right now. After a fall semester in which I had a lot of personal as well as creative challenges, I’m trying to figure out just what I’m writing. Essays? Memoir? Maybe something in between? More than the question of genre, it’s figuring out what I want to say—intention—that’s a big area of focus.
Effective essays and memoir are often about those experiences that feel particularly shameful or humiliating—“pressure points,” as they’re politely called in workshops. In my writing, I’m trying to unpack more of those in effective, unpredictable ways. I want to dig deeper, show more vulnerability, sink into those pressure points in my family story that scare me.
A couple of days ago, those of us in our first and second semester found ourselves in the midst of faculty interviews. I kept trying to figure out the best way to ask the questions foremost in mind: what will you bring to the role of advisor? And what do you like from me?
I sat down in front of one teacher. He was on my list, but not a top pick. I trudged ahead anyway.
“Well,” he laughed in a way I immediately liked. “I want vulnerability. Receptivity. That’s what I look for in a student. As for me”—he paused—“I’m an attentive reader. I look for intention. ‘What’s really going on for this writer?’ Then I try to help her get there.”
Which is how I found the advisor I want to work with right now.
Visit Paul Zakrzewski '14W’s site here.
Follow the VCFA Twitter feeds for live coverage of the MFA in Writing residency lectures, talks and events.