Student Profile: Max Bronson ’19

Welcome to the first in our new series of Student Profiles! Twice a year, we will introduce you to a student of the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. This is someone who has enriched the VCFA community through their writing, their personal journeys, and/or their engagement within the community. First up is Max Bronson of The Guardians of Literary Mischief, who received the Candlewick, Final Stretch, and Holy Smokes! Scholarships, honorable mention for the Critical Thesis Scholarship, and graduated in July 2019.

Max Bronson

On their path to the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts:

I was thinking of writing for adults, and I spoke to someone who told me, “Actually, I think you have a little bit more of a YA/teen-centered voice, and you should probably go to SCBWI and just check it out, see if these are your people.” So I went to a conference in New York in early 2016, and I saw a panel with Cynthia Leitich Smith, and just thought, “this is what I need to be hearing.” She was talking about diversity in children’s books, and how to write a diverse cast of characters. This was 2016, and We Need Diverse Books was still forming itself and getting all its amazing programs launched. Everything Cyn said really resonated.

After her talk she was flooded with all of these people who had come to hear her, and they were all talking about VCFA. It just seemed like a really enthusiastic group of book nerds, and I was like, “Those seem like my people.” I had only heard great things about this program, and it’s such a unique program.

On the cost and value of an MFA:

One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to pay for everything. I mean, there’s blogs on the internet – from prolific writers! – about why you shouldn’t get an MFA. And that’s fair, that’s their perspective. But I don’t think you can get the mentorship in the day-to-day world as easily as if you come to an MFA program, and you definitely don’t get the writing family that you get here. And I think that is almost the most important thing about being a writer, is having your people and having your supporters. I almost didn’t come back after the first semester – not because of the place, but just because I was so scared and daunted by the sheer amount of money that I was going to need to borrow. The conversation around student debt is one that we need to keep having. I actually brought that up yesterday in our Polymorphous Room of Possibility meeting, affectionately known as PROP. 

All of us have made the commitment to throw down not just money, but time, and so much energy. And it’s a lot to ask, but I think we can keep having this conversation about how to radicalize access to mentors, to learning, to writing the best books we possibly can, because kids need them, and those are the facts. I try to believe in the true facts versus the constructed ones. So, like, it is a constructed fact: I do have a ton of student loans. But the true fact is that I was financing my education because there wasn’t an alternative. I didn’t have that money. I live in the Bay Area, I’m trans, I have had a very difficult time finding work after coming out, so I’ve been cobbling it together with freelance writing, and gigs, and all kinds of things. And this has given me the platform to become a professional writer and teacher. So while I still will kind of piece it together for a while I feel so confident now that I can actually do work I’m meant to be doing. And I just would not have it if I hadn’t come here, and so I’m so grateful to this place for giving me that confidence and the enormous toolkit now to help share what I believe about the world.

On personal growth:

This program can really prompt reckonings and rememberings. I’ve remembered a ton of stuff here that was just off my radar, especially because it’s about going back to your childhood and going back to these moments that sort of stick out and replay. I’ve had to do a lot of personal work and a lot of personal growth, and that’s been good and also terrifying. 

It’s kind of like no content is off limits. But the workshop model is very strengths-based, I have found. This has been a place where people respond to an idea, even as fledgling or beginning or rough as it might be, with, “There’s a good core idea in there. Keep going.” And that kind of encouragement makes it all feel doable, even though it’s also overwhelming.

On their favorite residency moment:

Following the dance, me and some other students grabbed this giant inflatable rainbow unicorn and jumped in the fountain and danced around for a while in that water. 

I feel like I’m really appreciating the landscape in a new way here. It’s been a very emotionally cathartic residency. Everyone has been talking about issues that I really care about, and being really sensitive with content warnings and giving everyone space to take care of themselves – but also still going into the meat of it. And I’ve really appreciated that. There’s been a lot of honest conversations which have sparked a lot of emotion, but it’s good. It’s like “wringing out that pain sponge” that Amy King talks about.

On advice from VCFA faculty:

“Don’t write the book you know how to write. Write the book you do not know how to write, for then you will learn.” That’s from Uma Krishnaswami. And Cynthia Leitich Smith was really instrumental in shifting my mindset in my first semester. Her advice was to think of this place not as the place where you come and churn out products: it’s the place where you come to become a professional writer, and think about your career. Not everybody does, but I’ve subscribed to this wholesale. It’s not just about this one novel that I’m working on and excited about, but also playing with form. Letting yourself experiment and play is a cornerstone of this program that I just am obsessed with.

On their current project:

Well, I’m in Amy King’s story club workshop, which is where we anonymously submit stories and then critique them. And the first rule of story club is you don’t talk about story club, so I can’t tell you any more about that one. 

But I’m also working on a picture book about consent, a picture book about climate change, a picture book about grief and loss, and all of them have queer and nonbinary characters. My big project right now is a YA contemporary novel called Stay Gold, which is set in Oakland and a fictional town in Wyoming. And it’s about a transgender teenager who gets into trouble in their hometown… sort of a reconnection story. And, at the heart of it, it’s really a reimagining, or a recasting of the West. But there is a really happy ending, because I’m tired of trans teenagers getting the short end of the stick. 

On post-graduation plans:

I think many of us go through huge transformational shifts and I’m just excited to integrate what I’ve learned craft-wise and also what I’ve learned about myself as a person.

I’m excited to connect with the alumnx community more, because I am really going to miss this place. Connecting online, sharing our work, sharing updates, holding each other accountable, sharing successes…these are all opportunities to build community. One person’s achievement can be all of our achievement if we just, like, huddle up and stick together, which I think this place is so good at doing. I’m really going to miss coming to this place twice a year, but I am excited to be a part of the spirit of VCFA forever.