RESIDENCY RECOLLECTIONS


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There are no days more full than those we go back to. ― Colum McCann

Jemiscoe Chambers-Black—For many of us, the week-long residency at the Mountain View Grand Hotel in Whitefield, NH is something that we cherish. It’s a magical place, a retreat, where like-minds enjoy being away from the pressures of adulting, and rather, focus on nothing but their stories. Because we feel so strongly about our time together, we here at Assignment decided to ask some of the current MFA Candidates, the alumni and faculty what they missed, learned and loved about past residencies.

After attending three residencies, I can say with certainty that what I’ll miss most after my fourth residency week in January are the people. I’ll miss leaving the rest of the world behind to spend a week in the company of writers, people who intrinsically understand the challenges and rewards of practicing the craft of writing. I’ll miss the opportunity to dig deep into short stories in morning workshops. I’ll miss the chance to learn together from visiting agents and editors. I’ll miss the student and faculty readings. I’ll miss it all, but the community fostered by the staff and faculty—and my fellow learners—rests at the heart of what I love most about residency. ~ Margaret McNelis

My favorite moment of every residency is the Friday night slideshow. I’m always touched by the photos of students learning, writing, sharing, and enjoying each other’s company. The thoughtfulness and joy on everyone’s faces reflect the magic of residency. You can see the shift in photos taken early on in the week, to those taken toward the end. Friendships have been made. Confidences have grown. Dreams have been born. And cohort bonds have all become stronger. Plus, there’s always at least one cute alpaca pic. ~ Jo Knowles, Faculty

My family called my first week of residency, worried I’d careened off a mountain on my drive up after they didn’t hear from me for days. I told them I’d found my people. I couldn’t remember going to any other gathering where everyone else was just as passionate about the same thing as me. It just felt right. ~ Eric Beebe

The Mountain View is dead quiet at 4am. We walk the silent halls, my coffee cup is stained purple with red wine and his smells of cinnamon whiskey. We pause in front of a painting of hunting dogs.
       “It’s weird how every floor has the same pictures,” I say. 
       “They’re not exactly the same,” he says. “The painting on the second floor has twelve dogs. This one has eleven.”
       We rush down the stairs.
       “See," I say, not sure if I'm victorious or disappointed. "Eleven." ~ Sarah Foil

When I think about the four residencies I attended, the thing that sticks out most vividly is the mornings: 28 in total. Leaning over to the personal-size coffee maker (that I brought to every Residency) on the nightstand, flicking it on, and slowly coming to and watching the light slink across the walls and ceiling while my favorite coffee from home-brewed, making my room smell like morning. Then, sipping the dark roast with a billow of half and half, gazing out the windows at the sunshine-yellow clapboards of the Mountain View Grand, and around the room, which I set up just how I like it, reviewing the day’s schedule. Each morning, the cusp of bringing new learning into my mind and spirit. Each morning, looking forward to strengthening friendships with other writers. Each morning, giving myself permission to take my writing as seriously as everyone else already did. ~ Shawna-Lee I. Perrin

My favorite memories from Residency all center on how we, as colleagues, pushed one another to continuously perfect our writing and to hone our work into stories that deserved to be read. One semester, after having my piece workshopped, a colleague approached me for a personal discussion of the work.
       “How do you come up with such creepy material?” she asked.
       “I have no idea,” I said. “But I’m glad it made you feel creeped out. It was supposed to.”
       “I was creeped out,” she said, “but it was the wrong kind of creeped out. It was the I-don’t-want-to-read-this-anymore creeped out, not the wow-this-is-wrong-that-I-enjoy-this-stuff kind of creeped out. If you want to hold your readers’ attention, work on making your material more subtle and more complex.”
       Every word I’ve written in the almost two years since have been filtered through this piece of advice. ~ John Will

One special pleasure was the peer workshop group I shared with Lydia Peele. It was a mix of nice personalities and uniformly strong manuscripts. All such workshops provide to their leaders a mix of don't-do-that and yes-do-this in the storytelling, and it was great fun, over and over again, to find so many beguiling examples of yes-do-this. ~ Richard Adam Carey, Faculty

I call the top moments in my life: "Patronus moments." It's lame and nerdy as hell, but I think of them whenever I'm really sad and I need the extra boost of remembering a better time. Expecto Patronum is actually Latin for "bring out my protector," so it felt appropriate both for me and the other characters in the Harry Potter universe. These moments include bid day in my sorority, when I got my littles, my time in Budapest, the Twenty One Pilots concert, Leadershape, and now: residency.
      I'd cried for an hour when I first got the letter from Lisa telling me that I'd been accepted into the program. I don't have the words to explain the amount of shock and gratitude I felt, but I knew it was one of those rare moments where I'd get a taste of what it means to finish first. Residency exceeded any possible expectations I could've dreamed of and more. I'm surrounded by a group of wonderful, inspiring, dynamic people who all share a love of what matters most to me: writing. It's such a wonderful program, and I couldn't possibly praise it enough. At least I'll have the next two years to try. ~ Morgan Green

Every time I return home from a residency, I miss that insular feeling of being holed up 24/7 with other writers and lovers of books. I relish forgetting about the rest of the world, even as we think and write about our concerns for its fate. I love the deep immersion, the thinking and talking only about our craft. What a gift that is. And really, now that I've experienced it first as a student, then as faculty, I can say it is a necessity. ~ Amy Irvine, Faculty

Strangely, what I liked most and what I liked least about Residency are the same thing: Peer Review. It was painful. Being the newest of the bunch, I was scheduled at the end of the week, so I could get acclimated before entering “the box.” I’d come to the program because I needed help with my writing; I was stuck, but couldn’t figure out why. As I participated in my classmate’s peer reviews, something in my mind began to gel until I realized what I was stuck on. I write a great nonfiction landscape, but it’s just that—a landscape. It’s sterile and devoid of emotion because even though I’m in the story, I’m absent. I write around me rather than in me. When my turn in “the box” came, my mentors and peers were wonderful, and the overall theme was that my story was missing in my writing. I realized that either I needed to open up and expose myself and my family, or I needed to switch to fiction. I was overwhelmed with the fear of being vulnerable. When I came out of “the box,” I didn’t think anyone was more surprised than me when I started crying and couldn’t stop. It was a painful experience, but it was also a week of growth and insight. And as scary as it is, I’m sticking with nonfiction. ~ Debi St. Jeor

Such Great Heights

By Sarah Foil

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We arrived at our campsite shortly before the park closed their gates at 10 pm. After an afternoon by the river, drinking beer, eating pizza and enjoying the sun, we were warm and dazed. Daniel helped me set up the tent and air mattress at the campsite, right next to our friends. Once finished, I had assumed we’d spend the evening the way I spent most nights when I camped: drinking wine, roasting marshmallows, and chatting about nothing in particular. Instead, my campmates were packing their backpacks and lacing their boots.

     “You guys ready?” Eric asked. He strapped a headlamp to his forehead. He was a more prepared camper than Daniel and me. He had the gas lamp, multiple flashlights, an overhead tarp for the picnic table, and an air mattress that apparently could inflate on its own in less than a minute. We had brought bathing suits and a cooler filled with boxed wine and Blue Moon.

     “For what?” I asked.

     “Our midnight hike,” Sam said. She’d just taken a shower in the communal bathrooms and smelled like flowers; I’d taken a shower before we’d left home that afternoon and smelled like bug spray.

     “Are we allowed to hike after the park closes?” I asked.

     “Probably not,” Daniel said. “But it sounds like fun."

     “We do this every year,” Eric said. “We’ll hike up to the top the mountain. We’re already halfway up.”

     “But it’s pitch black outside,” I said.

     “It’s totally worth it,” Sam said. “Trust me.”

     Anxiety twisted in my stomach but Daniel was already padding his pockets with water bottles and snacks. Eric tossed me a headlamp, and we followed him and Sam up to the trail.

     I moseyed in back of the group, focusing on my feet shambling up the uneven rocks, mindful of the long crooked twigs poking up from the bed of leaves. Ahead of me the trail wound, switchback after switchback, as we climbed higher. The moon hid behind the clouds and the towering tree canopy blocked residual light from reaching our trail. Anything past the light of our flashlights was lost in abysmal blackness.

     I’d hiked this trail many times before, but it looked sinister without the sunlight, the crowd of hikers and bird songs.


"It wasn’t gone. I knew that. It was lurking somewhere behind, along with hundreds of his little friends, just waiting to bite."


The first portion of the hike went quickly. We talked and laughed. Soon I forget about the looming nothingness on all sides of me and the scurrying insects and arachnids that would, no doubt, climb up my leg if I slowed my pace.

     Eric was in the middle of telling a story about his parents when an unfamiliar noise interrupted us, almost like a vibration or cicada hum.  Every beam from our headlamps and flashlights swung down to the forest floor. What looked like a shabby piece of dark brown cord slithered around the rocks beneath us.

     Eric yelled, “Rattlesnake!”

     I shrieked and leaped nearly a foot back, then cowered behind Daniel. I could hear my heart thudding in my head. My legs shook.

     The snake jostled its tail a final time before it slid off the trail and out of sight.

     “Can we go? I want to go.” I said to no one in particular.

     “You can go if you want,” Sam said. She looked calm in the flashlight’s glow, but her voice quivered. “I won’t blame you.”

     “That’s never happened before,” Eric said. He gave a dry laugh. “That was crazy.”

     “Do you really want to leave?” Daniel asked me, quietly. “We’re almost there.”

     Sam made a face, which said that that wasn’t completely true.

     “I want to go back,” I said.

     “I’ll go with you if you want, but I really want to get to the top,” Daniel said. “The snake’s gone now, anyway. It’s okay.”

     It wasn’t gone. I knew that. It was lurking somewhere behind, along with hundreds of his little friends, just waiting to bite. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d seen a live snake but this was the first time I’d seen one outside of a zoo.

     “You should stay,” Sam said. “I’ve never seen a snake on this trail before. It’s just a freak accident.”

     “Really?” I asked.

     “First time,” Eric reassured me.

     “Let’s go,” Daniel said. He rested a hand on my back. “I’ll stay back here with you and hold the light at your feet.”

     I hesitated because I was trying to decide if it would be better to continue up the trail or head back to the camp and sit there all alone. Also, I still couldn’t feel my legs. However, I didn’t want to ruin the fun for everyone else and risk missing out on the rest of the trip, so I’d go on, but it would be slowly. Carefully.

     “If we see another snake, I’m leaving."

     We continued. Step by step. Daniel kept his flashlight trained on my feet, while Sam and Eric attempted to keep the conversation distracting and snake-anecdote free, but I remained on edge. Each twig and stick was now a potential enemy. The spiders and centipedes crawling over my feet weren’t the only concerns anymore.

     Occasionally, Daniel lifted his flashlight to scan the surrounding trees. Each time he did, I panicked and insisted he keep the flashlight pointed at the ground. That’s where the danger slithered from. He huffed in frustration but kept the light low. I’m sure he was looking for coyotes or bears or something more terrifying than a snake, but that didn’t matter to me at the moment.

     We inched up the path, which got steeper and ever more treacherous as we climbed. Time passed and my breathing grew heavy from climbing the cut rock that made up the man-made stairs while I suspiciously eyed any and everything that moved. Eventually, the trees gave way to open air and cold wind. The sky appeared above us from the canopy, although it was still too cloudy to see the stars or moon.

     The old fire watch tower grew up out of the center of the landing, chipping brick and rusting metal. It was a short climb to the top of the tower, but once we conquered the stairs, it felt like we were in another world.

     The mountain pass spread out wide before us. We could follow the lights down roads that led back to our homes almost an hour away. We found the powerplant, the city I worked in, the warehouse by my in-law’s home. In the distance we saw bolts of lightning, which looked more like sparkling splinters than formidable forces of nature.

     In fact, everything was small here. The trees were small. The snakes were small. I was small.

     And just at that moment, standing there amongst friends high atop the mountain, while taking in the view of the sleeping, miniature world below,  I was unafraid.


Sarah Foil is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. You can follow her at www.sarahfoil.com: A Blog for Writers, for Readers, for Dog Lovers, for Coffee Drinkers.

Student Picks: Darnielle, Puterbaugh, Jones

First, a reminder: 

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If you're in New York, join us at McNally Jackson Books in Soho at 7pm to celebrate the third issue of Assignment. We’ll feature readings by Christine Smallwood, Anna Summers, and the winner of the 2017 Assignment MFA Student Writing Contest, David Moloney.


Sarah Foil-- Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle is a salute to a margin of the population that is often overlooked, stereotyped, and laughed at: the people who meet once a week for Dungeons and Dragons with their friends; the people who stay up until 4am in front of their computer screens; the people who have subscriptions at their local comic book stores; the people who sit on the bedroom floor and listen to the same record over and over again.

It’s a maze of a narrative that jumps through the life of Sean Phillips, a deformed recluse and the creator of Trace Italian, a popular mail-in role-play game set in dystopian United States. Scenes alternate between different points in Sean’s life, his depressed childhood, the creation of Trace Italian, and the tragedy of two teens who attempt to follow his game in the real world.

Darnielle’s debut novel is beautiful and heartbreaking. The plot is one that will stay with its readers long after they finish the last page. As a writer, it leaves me striving to do more.

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Eddie Dzialo-- While listening to records with a friend, he told me that music works its way into our DNA and becomes a part of us. Singing it, tapping its rhythms becomes instinctive. Phish is that music for me. Strangely enough, at my first seventh-grade dance, the DJ played “Down with Disease” as the last song of the night. Coming home from Iraq, I was on a satellite phone with my mother trying to find a way to buy tickets for their reunion show at the Hampton Coliseum. My wife and I chose a Phish song for our first dance at our wedding. In Afghanistan, I listened to 40gb of Phish shows I’d stuffed into my iPod before deploying.

Puterbaugh’s biography explains how Phish built a career around fans whose allegiance dwarfs my own. More importantly, it details why someone would follow Phish around for a leg of a summer tour, listening to hours of improvised music, selling grilled cheeses in a parking lot to fund getting to the next show. Phish spent decades learning to speak through a musical language that they invented, a language their fans heard and integrated into their lives. Puterbaugh’s biography conveys deep understanding of that language. 

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Megan Gianniny-- One of my favorite short fiction discoveries this year was the Tor.com novellas, ranging from Lovecraftian retellings to Afro-futurist space adventures. Mapping the Interior by Blackfeet author Stephen Graham Jones is a quieter story of a boy haunted by the ghost of his father, and the mysterious circumstances of his father’s death before his family left the reservation.

Junior’s story is as much about the struggles of life with a single mother as it is a ghost story. He defends his sickly brother from bullies, faces off against an angry neighbor, and makes up stories about the trash in the yard to pass the time. But when night comes, Junior maps his house to figure out the path his father’s ghost is taking, and what he can do to help his father return to them.

Jones’ ending snuck up on me and was utterly chilling, as good horror should be. But despite the ending, the scariest parts of the story were how the darkness and grief stay with Junior long after the ghostly visits have ended. The dark humanity of Junior’s story is what makes it so powerful, and makes me want to read more by Jones.