Sarah Van Arsdale, MFA
Affiliate Faculty, MFA in Creative Writing Program
Sarah Van Arsdale is the author of four books of fiction; her fifth book, The Catamount, a narrative poem illustrated with her watercolors, was published in May, 2017, by Nomadic Press. In 2016, her novella collection, In Case of Emergency, Break Glass, was published by Queen’s Ferry Press, and an excerpt of her novel-in-progress was a finalist in the 2016 Galtelli International Fiction Award. Her second novel, Blue, was chosen by Alan Cheuse for the 2002 Peter Taylor Prize, and her third, Grand Isle, was published in 2012 by SUNY Press. She will have an essay on atmosphere and setting in fiction in a forthcoming issue of the AWP Writer’s Chronicle, and her poetry, essays, short fiction and book reviews have appeared in literary magazines including Guernica, Passages North, The Poetry Miscellany, The Widener Review, and Episodic, New Millennium Writings, and The New Guard. In addition to teaching in the Antioch/LA low-residency MFA program, she teaches at New York University and with Art Workshop International in Assisi, Italy. From 2001 to 2009, with the New York Institute of Art and Design, she developed a course in creative writing, and wrote articles about art and interior design for Designer Monthly Magazine. She curates BLOOM, a reading series in New York City, and she serves on the board of the Ferro-Grumley Award in LGBTQ Fiction.
MFA in Creative Writing, VCFA
In my fiction writing, I work to create characters that are believable in their courage or fear, their tenderness or irascibility, their ultimate yearning to connect. But it’s in my students that I see the real emotional spectrum; it’s my students who can be exhilarated by praise or pierced by criticism. And it’s with my students that I’m able to truly connect, because working on fiction together is like that: when we enter one another’s fictional worlds, we operate on a level of intimacy that demands respect and caution---tempered by humor and an unwavering expectation of quality.
Fiction writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it’s necessary for anyone writing fiction to read widely and well, and it’s important in our time to read as internationally as possible. So I encourage my writing students to read from other perspectives, places, and times than their own, in order to better see their own world in a larger context. At the same time, fiction writing is ultimately very personal, and it’s not my job to impose my own preferences onto my students, but to help them understand their stories, and to learn the elements of craft which can help those stories emerge.
As a teacher, it’s up to me to finely-tune the best way to deliver information to my students; just as I can’t tell a reader everything about a character upfront, so too I can’t tell a student everything they need to know immediately. There’s a delicate of offering criticism and encouragement, of teaching points of craft and appreciating the student’s concept. I try to always be cognizant of the ways in which differences in background and experience may influence my students’ work, and to remember that as the teacher, I’m ultimately the one responsible for creating the bridge between myself and my students.
In the Antioch low-residency program, I work with students online and through the mail, making comments on the page with Track Changes (or with a pen) and including a long letter about structural points in the fiction. I encourage my students to use some of their writing time to write me a letter as well, which they can use to consider their process and work through thoughts about their work.