MFA Flashback: Visiting Writers

J.T. Dutton and Me, 2010, Photo by UAF staff photographer

One of the best experiences during my time as an MFA student was the visiting writer series that my department sponsored. Even though we were in Alaska, my program brought amazingly talented and accomplished writers up to visit.

The visiting writer would give a lecture on Thursday afternoons about their craft interests and areas of expertise. These lectures were open only to MFA students and English faculty, so they were cozy affairs where you really got to  know the writer and ask questions. And the writer had time to respond to those questions slowly and with care. It was almost like taking a seminar class with the visiting writer.

On Friday evenings the writers gave a public reading open to the entire campus and community, followed by a book signing where the local bookstore provided copies for sale.

But there’s another element of the visiting writer that takes place earlier in the week, around Wednesday or Thursday.

Second and Third year MFA students have the opportunity to participate in a one on one manuscript discussion with a visiting writer. The visiting writer only meets with a few students (there isn’t much time for more), and there are usually around six visiting writers each year. So meeting with a visiting writer is a once in an MFA experience for most of the grad students in my program.

My thesis advisor asked me if I’d like to meet with YA author J.T. Dutton, and I was ecstatic at the chance. I emailed her around twenty pages of the novella I’d been working on, and wrote the date for our appointment in my calendar.

I was terrified of meeting Dutton. I was afraid she’d throw my manuscript in my face and tell me I was a horrible writer and that I shouldn’t have wasted her time with my silly story.

Instead, she gave me one of the best critique sessions I’ve ever received. She went over some language and pacing edits with me that snapped the opening of my story to life. It was amazing to watch my story wake up from my lumbering prose just by a few scratch marks through extra words, a few arrows to rearrange sentences in the paragraphs.

Next we moved onto larger discussions about story, and about writing YA. It was the first time I had met someone who wrote YA fiction. So many of my favorite books are considered YA, but for some reason I had never entertained the idea of writing YA as something that MFA graduates did. But J.T. Dutton’s novel Freaked was based on her MFA thesis at UAF. I think I had a prejudice that YA fiction couldn’t be serious, and that only serious writing mattered.

At the reading on Friday night, J.T. read a passage from the end of her novel, and it is a reading that both my partner and I remember to this day as being an amazing experience. It was a beautiful passage about being at a Grateful Dead concert and the feeling of being in the crowd.

Freaked and Stranded by J.T. Dutton

J.T. told me something important during my one-on-one critique session. “This is a novel,” she told me. “A YA novel.”

That story is still with me, and I haven’t written it into a novel just yet. But I know that I can, and that it can be as sad and serious as I want and still be a beautiful YA novel. And it can also be funny and geeky and talk about Star Trek, and those aspects might even make it a much better story.

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