Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

What I’ve Learned In Vermont (So Far)

So, how is it? What have you learned? What are you learning?

As soon as I came back from my first residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing For Children and Young Adults MFA program, the questions started pouring in.

Once, I was once one of the eager questioners,  hungry for any nuggets of wisdom from those insane/independently rich/lucky MFAs. Now I smile, because I know, what I have learned in Vermont — already, just from the one residency — is too big, too rich, too magical to fit into  nuggets.  What I think I have started learning, is who I am as a writer,  what it means to be one at all, where I fit in as a human being.  To top it off, during residency there are lectures on craft, workshops, readings, story ideas pouring into your head, occasionally deep yet totally random discussions over lunch with fellow writers.

How do you sparse that out in nifty little packages of advice?

I’ll try anyway 🙂

1. Accept your own insecurity as a writer

Hanging out with so many other talented writers, teachers and students alike, it was so easy to see: insecurity is part of our profession. I used to think there was a great big wall separating some writers from others. Published vs. unpublished, award-winners and bestsellers vs. the bright-eyed wanna-be’s. Now, having hung out with all sorts of writers during the short (but intense) residency period, I am here to tell you that really, there are no walls. No separations. We writers are all of one tribe, always looking to improve our process, always terrified to share a page from a work-in-progress. I don’t think that ever goes away. I think, in fact, if it ever does, we are no longer writers.

Are you okay with this? It can be a tough thing, living with this insecurity for the rest of your life/career. Then again, maybe we writers are simply honest about it. Which human being has ever figured it all out, be they a surgeon, a plumber or a king?

2. Be brave be brave

While I was on campus, there were many situations and opportunities that terrified me. Sign-ups were available for readings (sharing your work from behind a podium, in front of the microphone, before your fellow students). During a  marvelous event called “storytelling slam” everyone was welcome to tell a story — whether real or fictional — in front of the audience, no notes allowed. At first I wasn’t quite sure why I made myself do it: sign up for every scary thing. Then I realized, because facing your fears is all about what we writers do.

Now I try to bring that courage to the page, every day. I remind myself that the risk to make a fool of myself, to fall flat on my face, is also a thrill, an act of honesty, a step toward freedom.

Again, this sort of applies to any human being, actually. I tell my kids this: do something every day that scares you.

3. Read your work aloud

It’s amazing how the pressure of reading your words aloud to a bunch of friends/semi-strangers can suddenly turn you into the sharpest, fiercest editor of your own work. When you’re looking over that miserable sheet of paper before your reading, and you’re lucky enough to have a few extra minutes with a pen in hand, those little darlings suddenly become oh so easy to kill. Do you have any local readings, at your library, in a coffee shop? If not, do a little reading with your writing group. Or simply read your work out loud to your family. The very least you could do is print out your work and read it aloud to yourself. Not as effective as reading it to someone else. Still, yours ears will catch what your eyes have missed. Try it!

4. Surround yourself with talented people

If you want to keep growing, it’s nice to be able to see what you’re reaching toward. At VCFA it’s easy. Attending students’ and faculty readings was one of my favorite experiences during the residency. Why? Because of the sheer talent. Listening to the graduates, teachers and my fellow students read, I felt like a plant absorbing all that sunshine.

Form critique groups and hang out with talented writers, people whose work you truly admire. Venture to great readings more often. Read amazing books. Reach!

5. Stay true

Writing here in the real world, it can be so hard to keep our work pure. It’s hard not to imagine all those people we hope will be holding our books someday. Sometimes, it’s hard not to think about how a certain creative decision might affect potential sales, hard not to steer your work toward pleasing the marketplace, your agent, your editor. But being in Vermont, I was immersed in the world of pure writing, where doing good work is on everyone’s minds, and publication and recognition are treated like, “whatever.” Oh how healthy it was for my writing soul! I was reminded that trends are fake, like those plastic gemstones on a tiara from a one-dollar store. While it’s important to consider your peers’ and professionals’ feedback, what’s more important is to trust the truth of your own writing.

So, what I’m trying to say here, I guess is, listen to suggestions. Stay open. Try things out. But in the end, hold fast to the core of who you are as a writer. Hold on to the truth of the story and the honest, authentic reasons you wrote it.

Of course, this list of five is but a small offering, a handful of little tokens. And of course I’ll be sharing more as we go along. I hope it makes sense. And I hope it helps you.


February 11, 2013 - Posted by | Writing Mirror | , , , ,


  1. Wonderful post, Katia. Bravery and truth often come hand in hand for me. Have a great writing day.

    Comment by Wendy Greenley | February 11, 2013 | Reply

  2. Thanks, Wendy, absolutely!

    Comment by Katia Raina | February 11, 2013 | Reply

  3. Beautifully written! Sometimes I am eaten up with insecurity when it comes to my writing, but as a writer, it is something I have to force myself to face daily (and surpass).

    Comment by Rebecca Fyfe | February 11, 2013 | Reply

    • Thank you so much, Rebecca. Welcome to the club 😉

      Comment by Katia Raina | February 11, 2013 | Reply

  4. I totally agree with the reading the story aloud. When I do that, I see where I need to edit.

    Comment by Mary Morrison | February 11, 2013 | Reply

    • And then, if you want to take it to the next level, try reading it out loud TO SOMEONE. Nothing like a little pressure to transform you into a super-editor of your own stuff 🙂

      Comment by Katia Raina | February 11, 2013 | Reply

  5. Enjoyed hearing more about Vermont and a few tidbits of what you learned.

    Katia, I admire you so much for being brave and doing things that scare you. I still have trouble with this. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” But, golly, it’s hard!

    Comment by Joanne Fritz | February 11, 2013 | Reply

    • Yes, it is Joanne. Terrible. But at the same time, I’ve discovered, doing things that scare you can actually be a lot of fun!

      Comment by Katia Raina | February 11, 2013 | Reply

  6. Thanks Katia for such a precious piece!

    Comment by AH | February 12, 2013 | Reply

    • Thank you so much, Amina. So glad you found it helpful!

      Comment by Katia Raina | February 12, 2013 | Reply

  7. I’ve learned so much from talented people. Also, they’re generous with their feedback.

    When I’m reading out loud to my critique group I all of a sudden get ideas to improve my work, followed by their wonderful suggestions. Reading out loud truly helps, whether I’m by myself or with others.

    Comment by Medeia Sharif | February 14, 2013 | Reply

    • Sounds like you found that perfect-for-you group, Medeia!

      Comment by Katia Raina | February 14, 2013 | Reply

  8. Thanks, Katia, for sharing your experiences! And I’ll remember to thank my husband again today for his tireless listening to me read my stories out loud–over and over again. It really does help spot problems in the writing and figure out solutions.

    Comment by Ellen L. Ramsey | February 15, 2013 | Reply

    • Oh, our long-suffering husbands! They deserve many thanks 🙂

      Comment by Katia Raina | February 15, 2013 | Reply

  9. “I tell my kids this: do something every day that scares you.” I love and admire this advice because I’m a big chicken. Being an introvert with shyness issues, I find that just heading out of the house scares me so I haven’t encouraged my kids more in this regard.

    Thanks for a wise and helpful post (and a pretty picture of an American Dipper)!

    Comment by teresarobeson | February 15, 2013 | Reply

    • Thank you, Teresa. Believe me, I’m a big chicken too. 🙂

      Comment by Katia Raina | February 15, 2013 | Reply

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