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Learning to write is a collective process
Meg taught me the value of being a part of a diverse writers' community
As the director of a North Carolina-based Master of Fine Arts program (MFA) in Creative Writing spoke, the reaction from woman at the end of the presenters’ table caught my eye. A prospective student had asked the panel on low-residency MFA programs, whether they had scholarships available for low-income students. The first speaker answered without hesitation. “We have a philosophy of treating all people equally,” he said, “so we don’t give financial assistance to anyone.”
I could see that the woman, who I now know as Meg, had to hold herself back from interrupting. Even though I had never met her, never even seen her before or heard of her program, I could see her eyebrows arched in disbelief and her mouth clamp shut to avoid screaming her indignation, a response that echoed my own.
When her time came to speak, Meg responded calmly and clearly. “At the Solstice Low-Residency Program, we have a different philosophy,” she began, nodding in the previous speaker’s direction. “We encourage people of different economic backgrounds to apply. Although we can’t provide all the assistance we’d like to, we support as many students as possible to ensure a diverse community and access to all. We believe it makes for a richer community of writers, and that’s most important to us.”
In that short exchange, Meg illustrated the difference between equality (everyone, regardless of need or circumstances, is treated the same as everyone else) and equity (those who have need, especially because of historic discrimination, receive assistance to equalize disparities). I knew which program I’d be applying to.
In 2011, I decided to pursue an MFA to improve and prioritize my writing, so I attended the annual convention of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in Washington, DC., to learn about MFA programs and decide my direction. Although I had already moved to Richmond by that time, I zeroed in on a program in North Carolina because it felt familiar, and I surmised would be an easy place for me to be during the two residencies each year. I made an appointment with the director of the program immediately following a panel about low-residency programs.
I approached Meg on her way out of the room. “I’ll stop by your table in a few minutes to talk more,” I said. I quickly dispatched with my meeting with the North Carlina director and made my way to the exhibit hall to see Meg. Six weeks later I had been accepted into the two-year low-residency program she led.
When I arrived for my two-week summer residency that July, I heard Meg share her program’s philosophy with the incoming and returning students for the first of what would be many more times. By the time we graduated, each of us in that room could recite it back to her. It can be summarized by these three points:
Avoid writer’s envy by falling in love with someone else’s writing.
You’re all smart or you wouldn’t be here. When giving feedback, say the kind thing and the smart thing will follow.
Know that becoming part of a caring, uncompetitive community of writers is the greatest path to your personal success as a writer.
I did my best to live into Meg’s philosophy. I fell in love with the writing of one of the other memoirists in my non-fiction workshop. Her essay, “In Praise of the Collective Noun,” which Beth submitted for feedback during my first residency, demonstrated everything I wanted my writing to be— smart, humorous, irreverent, insightful, and personal. I knew I had a long way to go to be anywhere near that good, but she gave me a clear vision for the kind of writer I hoped to become.
I also tried to give kind feedback, even when, maybe even especially when, the writing someone submitted for us to workshop needed significant revision. And most importantly, I worked to become part of the Solstice community filled with writers who, especially because of their varied backgrounds and experiences, had much to teach me.
Now, ten years after my graduation, I can’t thank Meg enough for dedicating her life to creating and sustaining a diverse community of learners and writers. My writing has improved, but even more importantly to me, I have a writers’ community that’s there for me when I need it. Meg not only taught me how important that is but how to contribute to making it happen.
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