Bluegrass Writers Studio MFA Residency: Winter Welcome
By Derek Nikitas, Director, Bluegrass Writers Studio
The Bluegrass Writers Studio low-residency MFA Winter Residency 2014 in Lexington, Kentucky has reached its end. We had a fantastic roster of writers.
I thought a nice way to celebrate would be to post some of the opening remarks I delivered at the start of the residency. I like to think it captures the spirit of our program:
Welcome, everyone, to the sixth annual Bluegrass Writers Studio Winter Residency. To those of you who’ve spent a chilly first chunk of January with us before in the Lexington Downtown Hilton, veteran workshoppers, student reading survivors, witnesses to the mysterious brassiere incident of 2013, we welcome you back.
The bridal show is on Sunday, so expect a full day of live smooth jazz and yacht rock at the base of the escalator, as always. Still, you’ll note that we’ve learned a thing or two—for example, that we have to pre-write your actual name onto your ID sticker to prevent any clever pseudonymous shenanigans on your part.
And to those of you joining us for the first time, enduring the freaky phenomenon of matching faces to the voices you’ve been hearing all semester on Ventrilo, I wish you a very warm welcome.
Each new Winter Residency brings tremendous excitement and nervousness. Many of you have already distributed, or are just about to distribute, copies of poems, stories or nonfiction pieces with which you will be deeply engaged in workshop with your fellow participants. You’ll give and get a—how do you say?—shit -ton of advice over the next ten days.
In your hands you have a program chock full of activities. You’ll want to do it all. If you’re anything like me, you’re eagerly awaiting the arrival of our brilliant and talented guest writers. You’re primed to absorb what they have to say about their craft.
The whole idea of the residency can be daunting. It can be overwhelming.
But one fact has become abundantly clear about the Bluegrass Writers Studio Winter Residency over the last six years. You are among friends. This is an oasis of camaraderie and mutual goodwill. We’re all in it to challenge ourselves and improve our craft.
Know that most of the nerves involved with the workshop are anticipatory. You don’t want to be laughed at, or chased out onto Broadway with pitchforks. Secretly, although you wouldn’t necessarily admit it, you hope that your workshop experience will be nothing but dropped jaws and slow claps from your fellow participants, and, especially, your instructor. You’ll want to be validated, like a parking pass.
So let me assure you. None of this will happen. You won’t be labeled a fraud or a genius. What will happen is that a group of conscientious, caring people will strive to help you improve your craft.
You might say that the Bluegrass Writers Studio has a three-part identity. It is one in three programs: the Lexington Residency, the Portugal Residency and our vast, ubiquitous online presence. If you’ll indulge the religious metaphor, these are kind of the father, the son and the holy ghost, respectively.
We’ve got our online identity, our semester-long Blackboard and Ventrilo courses where you undertake the long haul rewards of the writing apprenticeship.
We’ve got our ridiculously exotic Summer Residency partnership with Disquiet International in Lisbon, Portugal, where we immerse ourselves in a foreign culture and among writers from programs all over the country.
But, out of the three, our Winter Residency here in Lexington is what truly defines us, what casts its generative light down through the other two identities…
All right, I’ll cut it out.
Each year, we build our Winter Residency according to our own specifications, carefully designing an enriching experience for you, our particular students. It’s quiet around here this time of year, so there’s an intimacy and a team identity among the students, the faculty and our visitors.
It’s a beautiful contradiction—on the one hand, the Bluegrass Writers Studio Winter Residency is obviously one of the premiere literary events to hit Lexington, Kentucky every year. On the other hand, it’s an incredibly close-knit community, a rare opportunity to immerse ourselves the literary life well into the morning hours with your peer writers and the amazingly accomplished guests who visit us each year.
Yes, there are a great many details. But I want to pan out to the bigger pictures and mention three things I hope you’ll keep in mind throughout the week.
First, you’re going to do a lot of absorbing this week. You’ll hear craft talks and writing recommendations galore, you’ll get ideas for stories and poems, you’ll get a mountain of advice. Take it in, write it down, do what you have to do to record it, but don’t worry too much about processing it just yet. We move a little too fast around here for complete processing. Save it for the weeks to come, when you’re back in your natural habitat, ready to make the most of your semester courses.
Frankly, don’t expect to get a lot of writing done here in the next ten days. Comments for workshop, a few exercises, maybe some notes for the future?—sure. Five more chapters to your novel? I don’t think so—not unless you’re squirreling yourself away in your hotel room and missing out on a wealth of opportunity.
Second, some of you, like me, are naturally reticent to get involved in conversation. Writers can be like that. During these next ten days, you’ll have dozens of opportunities to get to know fellow writers, hear their stories, learn from their experiences, and become inspired by them. You’ll have much to contribute from your own experience.
There’s so much to gain from striking up conversations after workshop, from going out to lunch with fellow participants or dinner with guest writers. I’ve said it a million times before, but one of the best aspects of the residency is our nightly reception. This is really where you get a chance to interact with our visiting writers and publishing professionals, not to mention your fellow students. Heck, last year, some of you broke into impromptu peer workshopping and freewriting late into the evening. Talk about exhausting.
But you know what?—it’s ten days. Step out of your shell and lock it behind you, get involved, get exhausted. Blow all your socialization credits for the whole year during the first ten days. You’ll have the rest of 2014 to recuperate. Unless you’re going to Portugal with us, of course. Then you’ll have to do it all again.
My third bit of general advice is simply to be generous. Be generous in workshop of course, always remembering that critique is meant to help a fellow writer improve, not to point out what’s wrong with the piece. Frankness is nice, but frankness can stop you from, you know, friends. Generously-worded frankness is nicer.
If one of your fellow participants forgets this truth and speaks unhelpfully, be generous in your forgiveness. After all, we’re all learning as we go. And remember, because helping is what we’re about, offering no advice is nearly as bad as mean-spirited advice.
Be generous in your reading. If you’re reading a story in a genre you’ve never read before, or a poem in a style that isn’t your usual thing, be open-minded. Approach the piece on its own terms. As much as possible, release your preconceptions and let the piece teach you how it should be read.
Be generous with our visiting guests, and treat them with the same respect I’m asking you to treat your peers. Even accomplished writers have the same apprehensions as everyone else—sometimes more.
And of course, be generous with each other outside of class. This is the flip side to my advice about getting involved. Especially if you are a veteran participant of this residency, figure out who is new and welcome him or her. Invite new people to join your discussions or lunch groups. Ask them questions about themselves and their writing.
Check your program—there’s a great deal going on over the next week and a half, but a great deal more is there between the lines, in the subtext, dependent on you. You are part of what makes this residency a success.
January 2, 2014
Published on January 14, 2014