The Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program includes a wonderful and talented group of faculty members. Joining them this summer semester is the equally wonderful and talented Kathi Appelt. She first joined the faculty in January 2003, and, after taking a writing leave for two years, returns once again to be part of the VCFA family. With her infectious and exuberant energy, and her valuable writing insights, we are so excited to have her back.
Welcome Kathi. What’s it like to be back at VCFA?
It feels like I never left. There are a few changes, but it is still the same familiar place I remember. It’s been great stepping right back in.
How are you getting to know new students and new staff?
Just by reaching out. Talking with everyone as we walk across campus, at meals, after lectures. Many of the faculty is also new since I’ve been away: Bonnie (Christensen), Matt (de la Peña), Tom (Birdseye), Mark (Karlins), and Mary (Quattlebaum), so I’m getting to know them too.
How do you generally work with your students?
Each student has different needs, and I try hard to meet a student at wherever they are in their writing life. I usually learn a little about them by asking them to provide a brief autobiography. I like to know how they came to writing. What do they want to achieve in the program? What are their inspirations? I’m interested in the “whole writer”: what brings each student to the table to write, and what informs them. I try to give a lot of encouragement and plenty of push when needed. I don’t want students to sit on their laurels. And if a student feels a little scared or daunted, I think that just may be good for their story writing.
You’ve been writing and publishing for a lot of your adult life. How has your work changed in the past few years since being away from VCFA?
Well, when my kids were smaller and at home I had only pockets of time to write. I’m talking five-minute pockets! I was often up at 4am to put down words on paper, so I really learned how to use those five minutes. And, back then I had to learn that the kids’ needs weren’t the enemy to my writing. Now that they’re grown up I don’t have the same pressures. But whether you have those time constraints or not, it’s still important to deal with – and to answer – your writer’s needs.
Tell me about the writing life, as you’ve experienced it.
Starting out, thirty years ago, I wanted to write folk songs, which are also small narratives. But I quickly found myself involved with another type of storytelling, picture books, which I’ve always seen as being narrative, no matter how simple they are. At least, in my view, the best picture books have a narrative thread. Since then I’ve written steadily. I feel that if you value your life and time, then there’s no room for mediocrity. You can certainly have an “off” month, but at the end of the day, your writing should an intrinsic thread throughout your life, not separate from the other aspects of your life.
What’s your take on the MFA writing program?
The program is a good place to explore – you can jump off a cliff here and we’ll catch you. While you’re here you have people to guide you as you wander around in the woods. In a way, the type of feedback from the faculty is modeled on the editorial model. There’s so much emphasis on all levels of craft: plot, what’s motivating characters, ways of structuring. I particularly glean a lot from the cover letters of each writing packet: they sort of serve as the “classroom discussion.” It’s where questions are raised, clarification happens, brainstorming occurs. It’s very creatively fertile.
The best thing about VCFA?
The community, both students and staff. And everything else. (I even like the cafeteria!)
Interview by Tim Martin, who is entering his third semester at VCFA. You can find Tim at www.timothyjohnmartin.com
You can find Kathi at www.kathiappelt.com