Thursday, October 23, 2014

Alumni Voices with Polly McCann: The Writing Process: or Why I Love Being a Failure

On the highest shelf of a storage closet, in the furthest part of my basement, behind a room someone painted purplefor reasons known only to themare three boxes. I’ve never opened them. What’s in them? A photography darkroom kit I would have done anything for twenty years ago. Now they are just dreams put on a shelf.

I wanted to be a famous artist, like Modigliani or Picasso, or Mary Engelbreit. I envisioned art installations at galleries with photo emulsion-washed linen
fifteen feet high. Anyway, I’ve never done an installation, not one. And my gallery sales to date: two paintings. I could say I’m a failure at becoming a famous artist. But then, there’s something about the writing life that flourishes in failures. 

So to all your storytellers out there who constantly dip your pen into that inkwell (and don’t always feel like the Olympic-sized winner you really are) I wanted to explain why I love being a failure. Possibly, you have a similar list with vague intentions to use those castoff failures somewhere or other: There was the time I failed at being a banker, but I know that that bank vault scene in my middle grade novel is truly accurate. Or what about the time I failed at being a secretary, a janitor, a nanny, or a preschool teacher? they could be professions for my characters’ parents. Then there were those failed friendships, a marriage, ten consecutive summer gardens, the time I tried to sew pants. Okay, so maybe all of you haven’t failed at as many things as I have. But you might be thinking that life is fodder for art, or writing, or something like that. Right?

Sure, maybe the missteps we own are the crap we shovel into the compost heap called the writing life. Well, I think there is more to it than that. Our failures form not just what we write, but how we write. Something about our writing process changes from experience. The kind of failure that I’m talking about are the kind in which you mastered something; truly loved something only you put it away in order to write. We all have these failures hiding on a shelf in our closet, but you know what I love about being a failure? Failing to become that museum quality artist is exactly what made me into the writer I am today.

Let me describe my process. Here I am writing my first novel, or third (or at least the one I promise not to throw away this time). I feel totally confident from all my Master’s level classes: I’ve got Plot from Marsha Qualey; Point of View from Phyllis Root and Jackie Briggs Martin (I can still hear them talking about ducks “Oh, no, mud!” they are saying in very duck-like voices); I have endowed objects, and talismanic words in my dialogue just like Ron Koertge said I should; I have Eleanora’s third leg of the three legged stool—Setting; and I have asked myself WWJRTD? What would Jane Resh Thomas do to find out what my character truly desires; and I’ve even tried to build a world which follows find Anne’s heroic monomythic journey. I’m left alone to face something worse than the blank page, reams of really bad free writing. That’s when the beauty starts.

Now that I’ve built a framework out of the best advice anywhere (Thank you Hamline MFAC!) but my poor novel still resembles a scared rabbit in the headlights, my failures kick in. Suddenly I know what to do: Ah, now it’s time to sketch in the layout. Now it’s time to add contrast and color to my characters. Now it is time to paint the scene. My writing process takes on new terminology unique to my own experiences and failings. I know that because I’ve learned how to do one thing well, I can learn another. That includes writing a novel, or maybe a graphic novel, or a play. So in fact, my past failures weren’t really failures, they were just the beginning. My failure was really the foundation of everything. It’s what I write and more importantly it’s how I write.

One of my favorite authors, E.L. Konigsburg sums up the process of calligraphy writing in her novel, The View from Saturday, and I think loving our failures as storytellers works pretty much the same way:
            "You must think of those six steps not as preparation for the beginning but as the beginning itself."

Polly McCann is a 2011 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. To learn more about her writing and illustrating, please visit her website.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Faculty Voices with Phyllis Root

Phyllis Root
A few weeks ago in early October I drove 80 miles through the dark and rain and road construction and buffeting winds to sign books at a conference.  I made it to the conference.  My books didn’t.

Turns out two numbers in the zip code of the address of the conference had been transposed, so UPS hadn’t managed to deliver the books in time for the morning signing. 

I’d heard this horror story from other writers, of having no books at a supposed signing, but this was the first time it had happened to me.  I have my own horror stories of signings, of getting the date wrong and missing a signing, of signings where no one shows up to buy a book, of sitting next to an author whose has long lines of folks buying multiple copies of his book while I contemplate taking up knitting. You never know what a signing will bring, but you show up and hope your books do as well.

I was assured that the books should arrive momentarily.  They didn’t make it by the time I had to leave to drive the eighty miles back home, but I spent the hour saying hey to authors I hadn’t seen for months and chatting with my table mate whose books were in the same UPS shipment.  We covered everything from stop action animation to bungee jumping, rappelling, and white water rafting, scary and not so scary movies.  I even managed to photo-bomb a picture. 

I vowed to always bring some of my own books with me from now on to signings and drove home past trees just beginning to turn, listening to weather reports of snow before morning. Minnesotans know that when it comes to weather, anything is possible.

Writers know this, too.  We dwell in possibility, both good and bad. That email you just opened or that phone you just answered could be the news that a book is out of print or an offer to turn your story into a play.

That knock on the door?

It might be opportunity.

Or it might just be the UPS driver with a box of books sent to the wrong zip code.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

MFAC Pride: Claire Rudolf Murphy talks with Judi Marcin

During the last two residencies at Hamline discussions and presentations have taken place about the need for more diversity in children’s and YA literature and what we writers can do about it. This interview with student leader Judi Marcin reveals details about an innovative Hamline MFAC program that has evolved out of those discussions.

Tell us about this new diversity PRIDE program at Hamline. How would you define members of the group?
First of all, thanks for putting the spotlight on
MFAC Pride. Our group is very much a collaborative effort. MFAC pride is all-inclusive. It is not simply about raising awareness of the issues facing writers of color, queer writers and the diverse community at large, but also issues of diversity within children's literature. We want to bring our allies from these communities into the discussion as well, so that as a team of concerned individuals we are pushing for literature that reflects all our experiences, not simply a select few. We have received tremendous support from the faculty of the MFAC program, MFAC alumni, and the Hamline Creative Writing Program.

How did it get started?
It started with an email from a fellow classmate about how to improve diversity. That grew to a Facebook page and a Twitter feed and later a website. But we knew we needed a purpose, not to just raise awareness, but to do something to impact our community directly. Thanks to faculty and students, our visibility continues to increase. I would be remiss if I did not mention the national
We Need Diverse Books Campaign, a grassroots’ group interested in bringing attention to the lack of diversity in children’s literature. By experiencing the stories of others, often different from our own, we can foster empathy and compassion for the struggles so many face due to ignorance and bigotry. It is something I believe any writer of conscience should follow.

How will your efforts help address the lack of diversity in kids and YA books today?
We hope to encourage readers and writers to explore books and topics that they may have never considered before. Our monthly recommended reading list encourages people to read a picture book, middle grade and young adult book written by writers of diversity. This not only increases awareness of these authors and works, but hopefully encourages individuals to raise their voice by raising a dollar towards MFAC pride. When anyone from the Hamline community posts a selfie or picture on social media with one of our recommended reads, $1 will donated on their behalf to MFAC Pride for each book shared. All three books in one month = $5. How easy is that? And by buying the book or requesting it from your local library, we are sending a message to the publishing community, bookstores and libraries that people do read diverse books and that there is an essential place for these books in our schools and in our communities.

Selected title
January 2014
During every Hamline residency we will continue to sponsor a book program. Ten copies of a chosen title will be given away to students of the MFAC program each January and July to spread the word about diverse writers and their books with hopes that those books will then be shared with others. Buttons and other fundraisers, such as a used book sale of donated books from the Hamline reading list and other children’s/YA books, are ways we hope to fund our efforts. 

One of the group’s current projects is getting LGBTQ books out to new readers. How is this going?
We have established a partnership with the St. Paul Public Library, working with librarians and staff to figure out where our funds can best be used. Right now we have raised over $600 and are happy to accept donations of any amount
. Some of the ways we are looking to partner with the library include purchasing diverse books for book-give-a-ways and contests, sponsoring author events, and participating in diversity-centered events such as African American History Month, Women's History Month and Gay Pride Month. More than anything, we want to raise awareness about the diverse kid/YA lit books already published and get those books into the hands of teens and young readers. We also want kids from all backgrounds to meet real authors and learn that being a writer can be a viable and important career.

How do you see Hamline Pride growing in the future as current student leaders like yourself graduate?
I hope that MFAC pride is an ongoing group that becomes integrated into the MFAC program. I would hope that alumni, students and faculty continue to sustain this and that once some of us graduate that new current students will take on the lead as student members and alumni like myself will continue to participate in residencies and local Twin City events. It is also important that we continue to work towards making an impact in places like the AWP conference, literary journals and social media. Facebook, Twitter and Squarespace make it possible to maintain contact within our Hamline community. Following and participating in discussions on social media is critical in maintaining visibility and progress of both children's literature and issues of diversity.

Hamine Pride’s recommended reads for October: 
  • Picture Book—Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers
  • Middle Grade: Drama by Raina Telgemeier
  • Young Adult: Pointe by Brandy Colbert

Judi also suggests these sites that focus on diversity in children’s/YA books:

* www.thebrownbookshelf  - our very own Eleanora Tate is featured on their October    12, 2014 post.  

* Judi also lists other favorite diversity links on the website.

Claire Rudolf Murphy asks her questions from Spokane, Washington. Judi Marcin (MFAC 2015) answers from Illinois.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Faculty Voices with Ron Koertge: Terence Not Terry

Ron Koertge
Terence, a playwright who lived a couple of hundred years before Christ, famously said, “I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” (Clearly this was before the Internet and daytime TV!) It’s a generous, egalitarian stance and one I try to live by when it comes to reading.  Basically, Terence reminds me to read anything and everything.

I live across the street from a library, so it’s easy to wander over, check out three or four things at random, and — often — return them the next day.  (A kind of speed dating, now that I think of it.)  I judge a book by its blurbs, read a page or two (or a poem or two), and move on.

When it comes to poetry, I’m usually an omnivore, but I run into someone like John Ashbery and I never understand — in the traditional sense of the word — what’s going on in his poems. ("It was domestic thunder,/ The color of spinach. ") But I often get the drop on myself and, gun to my back, prod myself into one of his books.  I’m never sorry.  They’re really batshit crazy sometimes, but, man, can he handle language.   Then there’s John You (What a great name! Now I long for Bob Me and Sarah Us). And let’s not forget the very readable Dean Young.

But after an unsteady diet of surrealists (neo and otherwise), I stumble over a Rebecca Hazelton poem that begins like this –
“I want to spend a lot but not all of my years with you” – and I’m really glad I regularly drop in to the Poetry Foundation website and see what’s cooking in a less surreal world.

Man does not live by poetry alone and if a library is full of anything, it’s fiction.  I think The Great Gatsby is a terrific book, compact and resonant. The rest of Fitzgerald not so much, but if I go back to him there’s always something I can use as a writer.  The short stories from Esquire — called, I believe, The Lost Decade — remind me of what a solid short story looks like, one written by a talented guy for a large audience.  When I’ve had enough experimental hi-jinx, Fitzgerald is an antidote.

I’m not a fan of lush prose. It tends to get overripe fast, even if I put it in my (metaphorical) refrigerator. However, recently I read All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry. The prose is, to my mind, lavish leaning toward juicy. I needed a bib — one of those with a lobster on it — because the adjectives tended to run off the page onto my good shirt. Though I put the book down ten times I always went back to it. I’ll never write like that, but I admire somebody who can. And what if I wanted to write like that, even for a little while?  Now, in a way, I know how. Or at least I know whom to turn to.

And then there’s this:  

"Of course you can't out-travel sadness. You will find it has smuggled itself along in your suitcase. It coats the camera lens, it flavors the local cuisine. In that different sunlight, it stands out, awkward, yours, honking in the brash vowels of your native tongue in otherwise quiet restaurants.”

That’s from Elizabeth McCracken, and she had me — as they used to say — at “. . . you can’t out-travel sadness,” and then I fell at her feet with “. . . honking in brash vowels of your native tongue . . .”  

How did I discover her? I’m not a fan of memoirs. Lots of times they’re dirigibles with LOOK AT ME written on the side. Then my friend Chris suggested McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination and I was smitten.   

Okay, I’m smitten easily.  (It says so on the bathroom wall in the Metaphysical Saloon.)  I have the time and inclination to read and, following Terence, I find a lot of things that aren’t my cup of oolong. They may be strange or bizarre or downright wacky but few, if any, are truly alien.

One last thing: poetry and prose may not, in the long or short run, matter. But poetry and prose are matter.  Be polite to them.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Alumni Voices with Christine Heppermann

Somewhere I read about a study linking exercise and intelligence in mice. The researchers set up three cages. In the first cage, the décor was minimal—a food dish, a water bottle, bedding. Your basic rodent padded cell. In the second cage, the researchers added toys (A tiny jack-in-the-box? Itty-bitty Barbies?) for the mice to play with. In the third cage, they substituted a running wheel for toys. Guess which group of mice, when later tested, figured out how to navigate their way through a maze the fastest? Apparently the wheel not only shaped the mice’s quads and readied them for swimsuit season, it also stimulated their brain activity.

Last week on the Inkpot, alum Georgia Beaverson reminded us of the important yet not always acknowledged truth that to be a writer, one must write, and she reiterated Jane Yolen’s BIC—butt-in-chair—method for getting the job done. I agree that perseverance is the only way to accumulate pages, but for me, getting the butt to stay put is easy. Hey, I’m lazy, I can sit all day! Especially if you keep me supplied with lattes, crackers and cheese, and, at cocktail hour, a nice hoppy ale. I have a different “B” conundrum; I can’t keep my brain in the chair.

Remember the Philosophy 101 “brain in a vat” thought experiment? That’s my brain—technically stuck in one place yet wandering everywhere. I’ve always been “scattered,” as teachers consistently scolded on my report cards, and when a project is hard my thoughts are simultaneously sighted in Greenland, Chile, and Quatar. In other words, focus is a problem.

So when the chair proves counterproductive, I get up. Sometimes I take a walk on the rail trail near my house. Sometimes I walk only as far as the bathroom or—since I write in coffee shops—to the counter to buy a raisin bagel. I’ve found that even a brief spurt of motion can be enough to persuade any random ideas circling the airfield to come in for a landing.  

My current work-in-progress is very personal, hence my brain will do anything to avoid it. You could tie me to my chair with my laptop (and no Internet) in an empty room, and my brain would spend the hours happily counting paintbrush marks on the wall or recapping episodes of “How I Met Your Mother.” Attempts to stay in my seat until I’ve finished one page, one paragraph, one sentence too often leave me in despair. At the moment my brain is telling me that I really should keep adding on to this blog post and get back to my WIP tomorrow morning, when I’m fresh! Well, sorry, brain, and no disrespect to you, Inkpot readers, but I have to close my laptop now and get out of my chair. I have work to do.


Christine Heppermann is a January 2010 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. She lives in New York's Hudson Valley region. To learn more about her and her writing, please visit her website. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Faculty Voices with Emily Jenkins

Emily Jenkins
Hello! My other Inkpot posts have all been essays we might file under "business of the writer's life." I wrote about going to the AWP conference, the National Book Awards, and the Texas Library Association conference – three different literary events of the type you might find yourself attending if you end up making children's books your profession. This post is in a similar vein – I want to tell you about the Eric Carle Honors event I went to a couple weeks ago.

Do you know about the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art? It's in Amherst, MA and is devoted to the art of the picture book. For example, right now they have an exhibit on Gustav Doré, the 19th-century fairy tale illustrator, an exhibit on Harriet the Spy and an exhibit on Simms Taback. They do all kinds of school and family programs and they have shows which travel, too. The site is well worth a look on a regular basis if you want to keep on top of what's important in the world if children's book illustration.

Dore illustration for
 Little Red Riding Hood
They also have an awards ceremony each year. I was my friend Maria's date, so I didn't have to work or speak or anything – but I went because it was interesting and fun, and a good chance to connect with people in the field I might not get to see or meet otherwise. It was in New York (it used to be in Amherst, I think), and it was charming and there was nice food and people milling around in cocktail attire. After all the eating was done, we all sat down for an awards event with our charming hosts, illustrator TonyDiTerlizzi and author Angela DiTerlizzi. They were erudite and funny. Here's an article on the event that was in School Library Journal that includes fun video. If I had known Hilary Knight was in the room I might have had a heart attack, so it's good I only found out later.

The Carle honors celebrate four individuals, and seeing the event and the recipients reminded me why I am glad to be working in children's books – which is why this whole event seems worth recounting to you. There is an illustrator award, which is just for total awesomeness and innovation in a lifetime of work. Jerry Pinkney won it, as well he deserves to. There is a mentor award, which my beloved late editor Frances Foster received a few years back, and which was this year received by the distinguished librarian Henrietta Mays Smith.

The Bridge award was this year given to Françoise Mouly, publisher of TOON books and art editor of The New Yorker. Mouly's imprint is all graphic stories for the very young, and she has done a ton to bring comic-book style work of high quality into classrooms and homes, and to destigmatize this art form that so many children connect to.

As she spoke, I was thinking about Hamline MFAC's own Gene Luen Yang, whose American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel to win the ALA's Printz award, and how graphic novels and memoirs have taken their places on the National Book Award finalist lists first in the Young People's Literature category (American Born Chinese and Boxers and Saints, and Stitches by David Small) and this year in nonfiction (Roz Chast's Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?) This year, too, Alison Bechdel (Fun Home) became a MacArthur fellow for writing graphic memoirs. This art form has found respect by our most fancy-pants institutions, and that means that the landscape of literature is really changing, with children's literature helping lead the way. It also means that the work Mouly has been doing is making a difference in how kids' reading is perceived by adults, and how graphic storytelling is perceived in general.

So all this was going on in my head, and I felt so happy to be a part of a community where a revolution of this kind was quietly happening and now being celebrated. The other honor was for Reach Out and Read, a charity organization which partners with pediatricians to get books into the hands of kids and to help parents feel confident and comfortable reading with their little ones. They teach storytelling at well-child visits! They tell parents who might not have many books at home that it's okay if the kid wants to hear the same story 10 times in a row, that it's okay if a baby chews on a board book, that it's okay if kids run away halfway through the story. They distribute 6.5 million books per year.

I was nearly in tears over this, it made me so happy to learn about how doctors and publishers found a way to partner to reach children.

Then there was dessert, so I pulled myself together. I ate tiramisu, talked with an illustrator friend and met some new people, ate a red velvet cupcake and finally went home with a goody bag of TOON and Pinkney books. It was a good night and it made me feel lucky to have the job that I do.


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Publication Interview with Christine Heppermann: Poisoned Apples

the author
Please describe the book. Poisoned Apples is a YA poetry collection that combines elements of fairy tales and contemporary teen life. “Feminist poetry” is what the book’s often called, and I don’t disagree, though it’s funny, I didn’t have that label in mind the when I started writing the poems. I was just trying to write authentically about things I’d experienced, things my older daughter and her friends had experienced. I used the framework of fairy tales because I saw so many connections between what the heroines in those stories go through and the inner and outer battles women and girls face today. 

As the story progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about?
 Sept. 23, 2014
I worked very slowly and deliberately writing the poems, making lots of changes along the way, so when the collection finally came together it was, on the whole, pretty solid. My editor, Martha Mihalick, and I went back and forth about how to arrange the poems. And they were short to begin with, but in revisions most of them became even shorter!
 When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish? I wrote the first poem in 2009, during my third semester at Hamline. I wrote that last one in 2013.
What research was involved before and while writing the book? Hmmm, does reading beauty magazines count as research? Oh, I also Wikipediaed the plot of “Human Centipede Two.” I don’t recommend doing that.
City Chickens, your first book, was published in  2012. What have you learned about the business of writing since then? I’ve learned that it’s so important to have an editor and a publisher who fully support your work. You’d think having that would be a given, but it’s not.

Where do you do most of your writing? At coffee shops. I’m at one right now!

Do you remember the first book you loved? My godmother gave me a book every year for my birthday, and my all-time favorite was a wonderfully surreal picture book, translated from the German, called The Enchanted Drum by Walter Grieder. As I remember, it’s about a lazy boy who hadn’t practiced his drum routine for a festival parade, so he dreams that all these grotesquely costumed parade characters surround him and start berating him. Hey, I was raised Catholic—guilt is in my blood.

Christine Heppermann is a January 2010 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. She lives in New York's Hudson Valley region. To learn more about her and her writing, please visit her website. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Publication Interview with Molly Beth Griffin: Rhoda's Rock Hunt

Please describe the book.

Minnesota Historical Society Press
Jennifer A. Bell, illustrator
Rhoda’s Rock Hunt is a picture book about a kid on a camping trip with her aunt and uncle on the north shore of Lake Superior. Hiking is hard work, it turns out, but Rhoda loves collecting rocks along the way. In fact, she loves rock collecting so much that her pack gets heavier and heavier as she hikes and by the time they get to the big lake, she can’t lift it at all. In the end she makes cairns from her collection and brings just a few precious rocks back to the cabin.

As the story progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about? When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?
I’ve been trying to write a rock-hunting book for many years. The original story was called “A Perfect Rock for Lena,” which I started in 2007 while at Hamline. That manuscript went through lots of revision and I submitted it many times, and racked up the rejections. Eventually I decided it was flawed, and put it away. Years later a new story emerged, just chicken scratches in a notebook while on vacation. That one never even made it onto the computer. Then in 2012 I went car camping up north with my son (2 ½ at the time) and my partner and some friends. I combed the beaches for rocks, as I do, and Jasper wanted to do nothing but throw rocks in the water. One day while he was napping in the car, I sat in the driver’s seat with a notebook and wrote the draft of this NEW rock-hunting story. It wasn’t until much later that I realized it was a retelling of a story I’d tried to write twice before.  But now, it had a real problem for its character to solve, an element of tension that had been a glaring hole in the previous versions. The character was essentially the same, and obviously the setting was the same, and it was still about the love of rocks (and a kid connecting to the beauty of the natural world), but this time it had a plot! It went through a couple of revisions, mainly to the ending and to some of the language, but after years of simmering it came out pretty fully formed. Once I sent it to the editor (Shannon Pennefeather) it only needed very minor polishing. She was amazed that it was in as good of shape as it was—but she didn’t know about the three versions and the stack of rejections and the years and years in the drawer!
What research was involved before and while writing the book?
This was not a research-heavy book, but it came out of 20-some years of trips to the north shore, camping in the boundary waters, and rock hunting. Most of my writing is inspired by setting, and this book is no different in that way.

Loon Baby, your first book, was published in 2011. What have you learned about the business of writing since then?
Oh, wow. My career has grown and changed a lot since then. At that point I was just doing the writing, and a little teaching. Now I teach a lot, in person and online, and work one-on-one with critique clients. I host a monthly Picture Book Writer’s Salon. I put out a monthly e-newsletter. I try to keep my website relatively up to date. I blog a little. I do Facebook more than a little. I apply for grants and fellowships. I do events and read to kids and speak at conferences. I connect with the fantastic community of writers in Minnesota, and their support makes this work so much more satisfying and enjoyable. And although all that leaves less time for writing, it also makes for a richer work life. It’s all about balance, which is a daily struggle, but I’m gradually learning how to manage it.

Where do you do most of your writing?
I work in cafes, primarily. My son just started kindergarten, and thanks to the McKnight Fellowship I am able to afford a part-time nanny for my daughter (in our home), so I get to leave the house and “go to work” a few mornings a week. I love the ambient noise and the people watching. And the donuts.

Do you remember the first book you loved?
No, unfortunately. I have a terrible memory. But I grew up with Golden Books, especially the ones with Sesame Street characters, and I have some serious nostalgia for the feel of those little cardboard-and-paper books. Of course I prefer beautiful glossy hardcover picture books, but anything that makes stories accessible to kids is a good thing in my opinion. And I still love Super Grover!


Molly Beth Griffin is a January 2009 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For more about Molly and her writing, please visit her website.