Whidbey Arrival

My final residency at the Whidbey Writers Workshop has begun. My thesis has been approved—signed, sealed and delivered. As of August 23, I’ll have earned an MFA in Creative Writing. If you want to earn an MFA in fiction, non fiction, poetry or writing for children and young adults, this is the place to do it. The faculty are stellar and include Bruce Holland Rogers and Kathleen Alcala (fiction), Susan Zwinger and Larry Cheek (non fiction), David Wagoner and Carolyne Wright (poetry) and in my genre, children and young adults, Carmen Bernier Grand and my thesis advisor, Bonny Becker. Bonny, the author of the award-winning New York Times bestseller, A Visitor for Bear, helped me make my thesis a far better book than it would have been without her wise guidance.

So Whidbey’s semi-annual 10-day residencies (which take place every August and January) is a fun place to be. The students are sharp, smart, and pull mightily for each other.

Perhaps even more fun is where the August residency takes place—Camp Casey. It’s an old fort just outside the little town of Coupeville on Whidbey Island. It was originally built at the entrance with huge guns creating a “Triangle of Fire” that could theoretically thwart any invasion attempt of Washington State by sea. Dubious that it would have worked. Now, it’s a marine park and rents to groups like the Whidbey Writers Workshop. Think elegant officer’s quarters with expansive bluff views of Admiralty Inlet and Puget Sound beyond.

Of course where there were officers, there were also plain old soldiers. This time of year, their quarters are where the kids camps at Fort Casey stay—soccer camps and marching bands. The kids are fun to watch, practice on the grassy field across from where we hold our class sessions; the sounds of their activities wafting in through the open windows. One of the students here actually remembers coming here in fifth grade, but watching them run and laugh and play makes us all want to be kids again.

Some highlights so far:

Allyn Johnson shared her incredibly insightful editing process for picture books. Allyn is the publisher of Beach Lane Books, a relatively new Simon & Schuster imprint in San Diego. She’s worked with some of the big names of children’s book publishing, including Mem Fox, Lois Ehlert and Cynthia Rylant. Her advice to overlay specific stories with universal themes and appreciation of the “theater” involved with the storytelling process was a good reminder why many of us want to write for that special audience called children.

Poet Marvin Bell is a special Whidbey visitor. Marvin lives nearby in port Townsend Washington and his humility, accessibility, and honesty always endear him to his audience. This time was no exception, and we’re lucky enough to have Marvin share his experience with us for five sessions. One small pearl of wisdom about writing from today’s lecture: “It doesn’t matter where you start; it’s the quality of attention you pay to it afterward.”

Bruce Holland Rogers is a permanent member of the Whidbey faculty, a Pushcart prize, Nebula Award winning fiction writer. After along day of classes and sessions, our schedule included a post-dinner faculty reading. Bruce, who has lived and taught in England, Finland and Portugal, enlivened a fading, albeit, interested crowd by reading one of his short-short stories first in Finnish, then in Portuguese, and finally in English. “Listen to the cadences of the language, the rhythms and inflections as I read,” he instructed the audience, “See if you can discern what the gist of the story is about.” We couldn’t, but the language flowed over us like water, and if you were there, you would have palpably felt the audience loosen and relax. It was only Monday. Thank you Bruce.

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