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Next weekend, Lesley University will open its doors to another 10-day residency for students in its Low Residency MFA Program.

Fifth semester students will be presenting seminars and public readings at the end of the week before they graduate, and before all that happens, they'll stride across the campus and camp out under the trees like gods and goddesses in their own universe. Fourth semester students will be moving quickly from place to place, equally eager and anxious about this being their last set of workshops. Third semester students will be outwardly confident, walking slowly because they've given themselves enough time for everything, rooted securely in the knowledge that they have a full year left to enjoy all this magic. Second semester students will be resolute, relieved to know where classrooms are, excited to work with a mentor they actually got to choose this time around, thrilled to see their writing friends again.

And first semester students?

Mouths open. Eyes spinning in opposite directions. Carrying far too many books. Confounded by the simultaneous urge to laugh and to cry.

Prepping for a low residency masters program in advance might seem overwhelming, but arriving on campus to experience one is more so. First semester students will be wandering the lovely, compact Lesley campus, almost perpetually lost. They'll be early for the wrong classes. Late for the wrong meals. Their pens will run out of ink mid-seminar. They'll find themselves sitting on stairs in violation of the fire code during readings at Marran Theater because the place is unexpectedly packed! Before their first set of workshops, they'll be fighting nervous nausea. After their first set of workshops, somebody will cry. (It was me. That's how I know.)

That's the important thing for all first-timers to remember. Every single Lesley student, even the ones glowing with effortless ease, have been in your place.

You can't actually prepare for the heavenly, chaotic boot camp that is the first residency. But few people are willing to accept that. So, in case you're gearing up to spend your first 10 days at Lesley (or Goddard, or Bennington, or Palm Desert, or any of the other numerous and prestigious Low Residency Creative Writing MFA programs), allow me to give you what little insight I can.

The following is my response to a wonderful email I received yesterday from a student about to start at Lesley. I hope it helps!


What are your feelings about Lesley in retrospect? Do you feel the program propelled you toward the life you hoped for?

My heart belongs to Lesley. I'm a better writer today because of the program and the mentors I had the honor to work with. I also emerged with a tool belt full of practical tools for being an active writer.

While I can't make it back to the campus this summer for the alumni events (because I opted to attend AWP in Boston this spring instead), I definitely intend to go back in future years. There is something beautiful and fine and necessary about spending 10 days among people who understand your desire to write at its most basic level. No questions. If you got in, if you're participating, then you're a writer. Like everyone else at Lesley during residency. Nothing beats finding your people in this way.

And yes, the program propelled me. But I didn't really know what life I was hoping before when I began the program. Lesley served to clarify what possible writing lives were available to me. I still don't make much money as a writer, but every little success I have , I know I owe in some way to what I was taught at Lesley. The network of active fellow writers, including the mentors I've remained close to, is priceless. Well worth the expenditure of time and money.

Looking back now, is there anything you would have done differently?

Yes. Hindsight isn't worth anything to me, of course, but I'd love to make it work for you. Disclaimer: Everyone's experience is different. Take what I'm about to say with a grain of salt.

I'm a fairly assertive person anyway, but during my first residency, I did a lot of sitting and listening. In writing workshops, I worried that my feedback about the work of other writers (at that point, almost total strangers) wouldn't be helpful... worse, could send them in the wrong direction! The third and fourth semester "kids" seemed so self-assured in their feedback. I would encourage you not to be intimidated in that setting. The ONLY people who probably know what they're talking about far better than you do are the mentors. When it's your turn, give feedback honestly; be sincere. It will help someone, and it will breed discussion. And ask questions all the time! You're paying for four semesters and five residencies. Don't waste time worrying that your questions are dumb. It's better to get the right answer.

By the second semester, I had this down, but I often feel I wasted that first residency walking around with my jaw hanging open. It can be overwhelming. Allow yourself latitude for that. But speak up. Always.

And the only other thing I can think of also has to do with confidence. The FFF (First Foot Forward) series is an incredible opportunity. I squandered it the first full year it was offered. For two semesters, I attended a sections with editors and/or agents, but remained silent. This is your opportunity to read your work aloud to people who can make a difference! I had so much admiration for those of my classmates who stepped up and bared their souls in those sessions. It's real-world stuff. Put yourself out there!

Looking back now, is there anything you would have done the same?


Practical Stuff

  • Study the mentors in your genre at every opportunity. You get to pick who you work with for the last three semesters. It will sneak up on you. Don't waste any time tallying your experiences with these folks. During your initial workshops, write yourself notes when someone does or says something spectacular, something inspiring. Then begin ranking who you want to work with. Each semester, you'll be asked to submit a list of three in priority sequence, and one of those will be assigned to you for the coming months.
  • When you have your assigned mentor, reach out and say hello before the residency. And read some of their work. (This can help with the selecting of mentors, too.)
  • Be daring in your selection of IS courses. Challenge yourself! The IS component sets Lesley apart, and it will make the overall experience more vital and more valuable.
  • Educate yourself about possibilities for your semester reading list beforehand. Depending on the mentor, you may get more or less say about your reading list. Before your one-on-one appointment with him/her mid-week, grab other students in your genre (all semesters) and ask for their recommendations, too.

Fun Stuff

  • Be the friend you want in the cafeteria. I mean this literally, as well as metaphorically. Everyone who starts this program hits the cafeteria for the first meal and feels the junior high stress break over them. Where do I sit? Who are these people? Just sit. Smile at people wandering around with their trays. Talk to anyone and everyone. My experience with Lesley was a very warm, very loving, very nurturing program. By the end, I was close to almost every person in my cohort (more than 30 people!). It started well because I reached out and offered help whenever possible. It ended well because everyone else was doing that, too.
  • Go to breakfast. The food isn't great, but the days are looooooong. You'll need more than coffee to see you through lunch. Grab a banana or something and take it with you if you're running late. Few things are more embarrassing than sitting smack in the center of a riveting seminar, full of quietly-intent classmates, while your stomach grumbles angrily.
  • Don't dread the emotional wall. It jumps up and smacks you mid-week, and is usually toughest on first semester folks. There's a reason you get an open night on Tuesday. Some people use it huddle in their dorm room and cry. My friends and I used it to walk down to Harvard Square for margaritas and a trip to the used books basement at the Harvard bookstore. But the wall slams everyone. Accept it. Survive it. Arise the next day. By the last Saturday, you'll feel like a completely different (possibly better) person.
  • Take a cardigan to every class. Lesley is a great campus. You'll meet in several different buildings. The huge swings in temperature between classrooms will surprise you. Even if it's ten million degrees outside, hang onto that sweater. You'll wind up in a sub-zero room with the AC blasting for workshop, and you'll thank me.

A resource...

Lacy Mayberry, another active alum from my cohort, and I are launching a new podcast for writers on 1 July this summer... The Postmasters Podcast: Writing & Life After the MFA . Our first episode is all about our road to Lesley. In future months, we'll be discussing all the passions and practicalities of the writing life for students, prospective students and graduates of MFA programs. We hope to be a resource for people exactly like you!

Those are the basics. If you have more questions about the low residency program and its quirks, please drop me an email or Tweet me or something. And on campus, I can say confidently that, if you reach out and grab someone mid-residency to ask a question, you'll get an answer. And if that person doesn't have the answer, you'll get a smile, a hug, a saved seat at lunch, a friend. We're writers. The strength and proactiveness of that bond will shock you. Good luck!

Five Posts from my first residency at Lesley University (June 2010):