So. I am back from my first residency!
Laura Ruby explained the objective correlative to us in one of the late lectures. Very thoroughly, I might add, and I finally felt I understood the concept and the way to use images and setting in concert to produce an emotional effect. I keep coming back to this idea when I think about the residency I just went through, because I feel that Hamline’s program excels at surrounding its students with its own series of images to produce its best effects. Some of this is the feeling of capability, the love of language, and the breeding-ground for imagination - but some of these effects are subtler.
Like kindness. Like community.
I jumped into this program reasonably blind. Very much like the kid who’s never seen the ocean, shutting eyes, plugging nose, and running into the water no matter how salty, how frigid, how full of potential sea-life-yuck to accidentally step in. It is kind of dumb to say ‘I applied to graduate school on a whim’, but it was an impulsive decision to try something new in a direction I held as a kind of nice dream. As the world’s most outgoing shy introvert (TM my coworkers), I didn’t take the idea of publishing things very seriously. I write constantly, I struggle to finish, but I look more at other people’s words than my own. My only tiny publication credit is truly an accident - a story I submitted to get someone else I was mentoring to commit to submitting theirs.
Hamline handed me a map. Not all the details are on it. HERE BE DRAGONS AND BAD PUBLISHING CONTRACTS is written on it somewhere. I’m pretty sure it has HOT STOVE at the top of its compass rose where ‘north’ usually hangs out. There are instructions for figuring out a lot of the landscape for myself, but the basics to go explore and not fall off a cliff are all marked on there. That’s one thing I want to remind myself. Unexpectedly, this offhand wish suddenly has directions and options and a random yellow brick road, and contacts for roadside assistance.
But a lot of MFA programs have awesome information and guidance, not just Hamline MFAC. This is not what stood out for me. What I found there and what I really needed was the people I met, but also the quality of connection that they foster.
I caught every single one of Hamline’s faculty and graduate assistants and staff and lecturers - I counted - in moments of such kindness and such interest in the students they were working with. I noticed such moments every day I was there. This was the quality I kept marveling over and over again, as much as the brilliance on display. I caught one professor first helping one of my Ickle Firstie companions figure out her homework, then later in the week offer a trigger warning over a known issue, and a shoulder to lean on. I overheard another faculty member enthusiastically praising a classmate whom I worried needed some building-up of confidence not long before, and watched that classmate’s shoulders raise up like a plant in need of watering during a rain shower. Our grad assistants helped me find forms, sign up for readings, and get a band-aid when I wiped out in a gas station parking lot. One student who had been in different writing programs said there had been more personal connection in a short time in this program than in years spent in other programs. Every time I need help from the start of this program, there has been some kind of hand to lift me up - and I keep seeing the hands held out to everyone else, too.
The faculty and assistants and staff all model this mindset. The students do, too. There’s a particular habit of watching out for one another and making other people’s work better that’s built into the culture of the program. And those of you who know me personally know how much I love thinking deeply about how to build and maintain productive group cultures. It’s rewarding to see one in action, and delightful to find myself a part of it.
Some of this seems to be intentional program design; I think Hamline’s limited pool of students makes the connections possible. But that’s not just the product of numbers. I get the impression that Hamline selects in part for writers who are conscious of a world outside themselves and of other people in their world. They emphasize diversity not out of lip service, but the deeply felt need for it. They find ways for writing not to have to be a solitary act. They connect students to the world of literature they want to be a part of and help build, but also to one another.
Yes, I got a lot out of the whole experience.
I am writing this because when things get hard, I want the reminder. But also, I’m writing this to connect back to that lecture from my workshop leader, Laura. My residency experience was not, despite this praise, all easy. My car misbehaved. I scraped my knee, my elbow, and bruised my writing hand for four days after I fell. My in-laws’ cats regarded me as a night-time jungle gym. The cafeteria food was so salty I felt like my doctor was invisibly standing in judgment over my shoulder and preemptively writing a scrip for stronger blood pressure medication. I’m still struggling with how to make sense of the damn student loans. (Uggghhhhh.)
The weight of the emotional experience that surrounds those complaints is so strongly positive that I had to struggle to remember some of these incidents. If I wrote this as a story, these moments would need to come out colored so delightfully you’d think everybody should trip and tumble on their face in a corner gas station parking lot or get stuck accidentally overnight in Minneapolis. It is my personal experience, but also the correct artistic choice - the right way to use the images to convey the inner life at those moments.
My disclaimer to readers not in Hamline MFAC who may be considering the program: I only just returned from first residency. I’m very new and very close to these moments. But I think it’s worth sharing, too: If what you want is to excel but also to be a part of something bigger, that is what I found there.