By Cate Berry
Looking back on your undergraduate years, do you have remorse? What got away?
Mine is easy. I regret not spending a semester abroad.
Enter my grad school: Vermont College of Fine Arts. I graduated this July with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, but not without savoring a wonderful and rich residency in Bath Spa, England the previous summer. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.
|Suma Subramaniam, Michele Prestininzi, Tricia McLaughlin Carey, Cate Berry & Ginny Dukek|
Bath, England is a tidy one-hour train ride from London. As I speed past quaint English villages, I caught myself humming the “Downton Abbey” theme song and counting sheep dotting the countryside.
|Donna Janell Bowman at Jane Austen Centre|
The elegant city of Bath is my retirement fantasy. It holds all the necessary requirements: small population, ample bookstores, lush English gardens, great restaurants and a bustling artistic scene.
The Jane Austen Centre boasts rare portraits of the author, her history and fabulous period clothing you can actually try on.
We toured the Roman Baths during our stay and dined at The Pump Room. Also, the world famous Thermal Baths (not to be missed if you attend residency) are situated discreetly downtown.
On our first day of residency, we traveled to Corsham Court where Bath Spa University is located. This is a real castle inhabited by a real duke.
As our bus arrives, peacocks strut around the manicured grounds.
The vastness and beauty of the estate left us gob-smacked.
We were going to study here?
|David Almond and Louise Hawes|
Esteemed Bath Spa faculty David Almond, Lucy Christopher and Julia Green greeted us along with the current Bath Spa writing students. Throughout the week faculty shared lectures, readings and group discussions, alongside our own two VCFA faculty members, Jane Kurtz and Louise Hawes.
Julia Green, one of the Bath Spa University faculty members, commented on mixing workshops with students from both programs.
“It was a great experience, working with the MFA students from VCFA alongside our MA Writing for Young People students at Bath Spa University.
“We found the exchange of ideas about the selected picture books, middle grade and YA novels from either side of the Atlantic an enriching experience.
“For me, there was something truly exciting about bringing together people from around the world, from different backgrounds and cultures, and finding how much we had in common, as passionate, committed writers for young people.
“This is surely how we change the world, create understanding, and help create a more peaceful and compassionate society—for ourselves and for young people.”
Since this was part of our accredited residency at VCFA, we also attended writing workshops with our own faculty, Jane Kurtz and Louise Hawes.
|Michele Prestininzi and Jane Kurtz at the Pump Room|
Compared to residencies in Vermont, our group of students were smaller and more intimate. “It was great to have the same small group of writers seeing everything together,” Jane reflected. “Being part of the same lectures and readings, doing workshop together–I think the intimacy built a feeling of trust so we could all let go a bit more and play and let our creativity zing.”
|In Oxford, next to the Narnia Lamppost|
Quickly, we bonded as our own group: “The Bath Goddesses.” Our workshops were generative. We tromped outside gathering sensory objects and honing our critical “observing” eye. Jane and Louise gave powerful and provocative lectures.
|Gardens at Oxford University|
As a writer, being so far away and immersing myself in craft and culture for a week resulted in a brand new project. The following semester, these “pages” became my creative thesis and resulted in a finished novel by graduation.
|Illustration from The Hobbit.|
Perhaps my favorite part of the week was our excursion to Oxford University. Our guide took us on a specific Children’s Literature tour, pointing out the colleges of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis among others.
|High Table at Oxford University|
VCFA alum Anita Fitch Pazner said:
“Oxford was one of my favorite stops on the Bath Spa journey. Not only did we get to walk near Alice’s Wonderland and Harry Potter’s dining hall, but we also got a glimpse of the original Narnia map.”
At the end of the week, flying back for a few treasured days on the main campus at VCFA, I thought back on my Bath Spa experience.
|Bath at dusk|
Did I still have remorse about missed opportunities abroad as an undergraduate?
VCFA and the Summer Bath Spa Residency gave me the luxury of marrying an intensely satisfying learning experience with a cultural feast. Thanks, VCFA!
Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Summer Residency in England: “Students seeking an international experience have the opportunity to attend the program’s summer residency abroad in Bath, England. This alternative residency is open to students entering their second semester or above, as well as alumni.”
About the VCFA MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Program: “The Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children & Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts allows students to earn a 64-credit MFA degree over a period of two years through a combination of ten-day, on-campus residencies followed by six-month semesters of self-created study, [each] supported and guided by a faculty mentor.
A semester’s study may focus on a particular area such as picture book, middle grade, or young adult and include in-depth reading and critical writing of the wider field, including poetry and nonfiction.”
Cate is an active member of SCBWI and the Austin children’s literature community. She teaches numerous picture book classes at the Writing Barn in Austin, including the upcoming Picture Book III, starting November 1.
Her debut picture book, Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime! (Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins) releases in May, 2018.
She lives in Austin with her husband and two children.