Quote of the Week: Martine Leavitt

Author Martine LeavittThis isn’t a quote, it’s an entire speech.

This is the commencement address from my graduation at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. It’s given by the brilliant and articulate, Martine Leavitt, and it captures the dedication, heart, and love it takes to write. A large portion of the address relates to going to VCFA in particular, but the larger themes will resonate with any writer.

Here’s a teaser:

“… These are the best reasons to do anything in life. People who say things like this are the kind of people who change the world. Who prevent the world from ending. Or at least they can change the inner world of a reader and that is a sacred power.” – Martine Leavitt

I highly suggest taking some time to watch this video:

VCFA Graduation Speech

If the image link above didn’t work, please try:

VCFA Graduation Website Link

Martine Leavitt is an American-Canadian author of many books for young adults, including My Book of Life by Angel, Tom Finder, and Heck Superhero. Her novel Keturah and Lord Death was a National Book Award finalist in 2006. She is a faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and the mother of seven children.

Highlights From My Last VCFA Residency

Graduation HatsIt’s official. I’ve graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA in writing for children and young adults! It’s been a vigorous and wonderful writing adventure and I’m proud of all that I’ve achieved.

My final residency was glorious (I love this community), stressful (I had to give my own lecture and reading), endlessly inspiring and a fabulous send off into the next stage of my writing life. There’s always more to learn, but I look forward to applying all the tools I now have. The following are a few final tid-bits of writerly advice that I gleaned from my last residency.

Highlights From My Final VCFA Residency:

The Writing Process:

  • Writing is messy, magical, hard, and requires a daily leap of faith.
  • A novel is a hundred ideas or threads that are all braided together.
  • You don’t have to write a perfect sentence every time.
  • There is danger in rushing toward the fun bits of our story. Slow down.
  • Self congratulatory cleverness can be lethal.
  • Several things can be true at once. There are no universal truths when it comes to writing.
  • You can’t hide from pain if you want to evoke pain.  Sometimes the fear of censorship is really about protecting yourself from being vulnerable.

In Regard to Your Reader:

  • Don’t tell your reader everything. Give them 2 + 2, but don’t give them 4. Make them work for it and become involved in the story.
  • Tension happens on the page between your characters. Suspense happens between the pages, it’s the interaction of the reader and the book.
  • Look for the illusive quality of your work, the weight and felt presences. The ghost within the work that the reader will feel but not articulate.
  • Do your character’s choices empower your reader?
  • If you were telling your story out loud in front of a group of 10-year-olds, what would you keep and what would you cut? You’d probably cut more than you think.

On Plot:

  • Ask yourself what charge every action in your story carries.
  • What is the promise whispered to your reader in the first pages? Can/does your story fulfill that promise?
  • Every novel starts with a coincidence, after that no other coincidence will be believable!
  • At the end of the book we are looking for catharsis, redemption, that “good cleaned out feeling.”

WritingOn Writing Picture Books:

  • Look for contrasts and opposites when you write a picture book.
  • Sometimes we know how a book ends, but it is the HOW that is important. How do we get there is what will bring a kid back for re-reading.
  • Animal characters can be easier to access for kids, because they aren’t influenced by gender, race, etc.
  • Pack your sentences. Say more with less.

A VCFA residency is full of a thousand musings, genius thoughts, inspirational quotes, and new ways to think about craft! I will dearly miss my bi-yearly residencies. Thank you to all the faculty, students, alumni, administrators, and friends that make this amazing education possible! It’s been a wild and wondrous ride.

Now… to the writing cave!

The VCFA Universe

VCFA universe logoOne of the things I love about attending the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) is the school’s traditions. We name our classes and have class-name “reveal” ceremonies. We  decorate the portraits that hang on campus with silly kidlit references. There’s even a costume party themed in honor of the graduating class, and more.

I graduated this week (woohoo!), which meant my class (The Dystropians) had the our honor of introducing the VCFA faculty at our last residency. Per tradition, the presentation is inspired by the graduating class’s name. My class is the Dystropians — a play on Dystopian “end of the world” literature and the literary device of tropes. We named ourselves the Dystropians because we graduated in Jan 2013, having just survived the Dec. 21st 2012 Aztec apocalypse.

With our theme of “rising from the ashes of the apocalypse,” the Dystropians introduced the VCFA faculty as SUPERHEROES who must write, teach, and spread the written word after the end of days.

This all serves as preamble for the fact that I had the honor of drawing all our faculty members as superheroes! And I would like to share them with you.

Thus, I present to you – The VCFA Kidlit Universe!

Rita Williams Garcia


Tim Wynne JoneS


Matt De La Pena

Martine Leavitt


Louise Hawes


Susan Fletcher

Mark Karlins


Franny Billingsly


Alan Cumyn


Bonnie Christianson

April Lurie


Sarah Ellis


Sharron Darrow


Julie Larios


Shelley Tanaka


Amanda Jenkins

Betsy Partridge


Mary Quattlebaum


Jane Kurtz


Margaret Bechard


Coe Booth


Tom Birdseye


Leda Schubert


Laura Kvasnosky

An Na


Kathi Appelt


Uma Krishnaswami

After the apocalypse the future of writing is secured with the Dystropian Task Force!

Dystropian Task Force

Illustrations by: Ingrid Sundberg

The VCFA Sticky Toffy Pudding Take-Away

I’ve made it back from my second VCFA residency!

I’m exhausted, inspired, in love with my class, and ready to dig in to a new semester of writing. Overflowing with insight and inspiration, I’m hoping the acclimation process (back to “normal” life) is slow and tender. In the meantime, I thought I’d share a few quick take-away’s from the last eleven days of stick-toffy-pudding-VCFA-Awesomeness!

1. Never let your character’s cry more than once in a manuscript! If you do, you’re being too sentimental and force feeding your audience sticky-toffy-pudding (which is just too sweet).

2. Writing a picture book is not just about the text. You must leave room for the illustrator, but you must also leave room for the performer!

3. When writing multi-cultural literature, beware of perpetuating the one story that speaks for a culture. There is never a single story that encapsulates a whole group of people.

4. Trust your readers to pick up on the clues and details you leave for them. Trust your audiences ability to intuit.

5. Learn to hesitate, question the nature of things, and be the writer who creates riddles out of answers. Sometimes the questioning, the searching, and the ability to see things a-new is more the profound than finding an answer.

6. It’s not always about “show not tell.” Sometimes, careful and informed telling can deepen the showing.

7. Beware the abstract word. Be specific and vivid. “Beautiful” is abstract and means nothing. We want a world with pearl buttons, spiced rum, and creased wax paper.

8. The metaphorical is sexy! Discover the action of your story by finding the metaphor for the emotional core of your story.

9. The landscape of your story is not just place and earth and dirt. The landscape of your story is overlain with memory, expectation, and thought.

10. There are lots of not-so-good books that get published. The reason they are published is because the author FINISHED THE BOOK! You can talk all you want about writing, but until you finish your book, your writing will never get published.