Thursday, August 18, 2016

Alumni Voices with Rebecca Grabill: 7 Reasons You Might Want an MFA

I hid brochures for MFA programs in my bottom desk drawer. Every few months I’d take them out, page through, dream a little… Until finally in 2009 I enrolled in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. The program took two years of concentrated study at home, and for 60 days, spread over five residencies, I lived in the Twin Cities, away from children and family. It was a significant investment in time, energy, never-over-abundant funds, but now, five years after graduation, I can say without question, the MFA was worth every dollar, every hour in the MSP airport, every frantic trip to the library to pay my fines so I could pick up yet more holds. Hamline’s MFA gave me far more than I spent (or bled) to earn it. Like…

1. An MFA filled my toolbox with New Writing Tools and showed me how to better use the tools I already had.

Was I pounding in nails with a screwdriver? What could I do with a jigsaw? I learned about psychic distance and filters, I re-learned plot and characterization and so much more. Could I have broken through my plateau on my own? I’m not sure. Maybe, with enough time and enough reading. And if an MFA only provided tools, then I might question the value. But the MFA gave me more than a single workshop or another book on writing. It gave me more than tools.

Pre MFA my reading was all over the place. I’d go to the library, check out books based on recommendations or labels on the spine: Oh, Mystery! I want to write a mystery, too! As if I were looking through the lens of my DSLR set to manual with the focus ring turned the wrong way, all the world’s books looked the same. I never knew what new books were worth reading, or what old books were true classics I couldn’t live without.

2. An MFA provided Focus.

Before my first residency I began on Hamline’s Required Reading List—120 curated books spanning all genres and age groups which provided us a grounding in the literature we were learning to write and a common vocabulary. Plus each residency added several must-read books for different topics we'd study that semester. Even now I can post to my alumni group, What’s a good middle grade novel on bullying?” and get a dozen relevant titles, sometimes in a matter of minutes. Which leads to another perk…

I came into my program set on writing young adult (YA). It’s what I’d always written, what I always read, but,

3. My MFA program helped me Become a More Versatile Writer.

I spent an entire semester working the the amazing Phyllis Root on picture books. Another semester ignited a love for poetry that grew and influenced my graduating thesis—a novel in verse for middle grade readers, and my first two published books will be—not YA—but picture books. Speaking of publication…

I once dreaded writing query letters. I agonized over the hook, wrote and rewrote a bio that sparkled while still being…true. Because while it looks great in a bio, I’m not a celebrity, don’t have a doctorate, and don’t have one single superpower. Unless Able to Scale Mountains of Laundry counts.

4. The MFA gave me a Credential, and with it Credibility.

A degree from a good institution is noticed. It is respected. An MFA qualifies me not just to lead workshops (and get paid for them), but to teach. At the college level. The credential proves I put in time, tears, and money, that I’m committed to being an author. It proves to me, on those days when I’m cleaning up one toddler-tornado disaster after another that I am a writer. A real writer. Because sometimes it's easy to forget...

I’d worked at this writing thing so long and so hard and had so many Close Calls (I brought this to committee, but unfortunately…” “I love your work, but this book just isn’t quite…”), I truly believed I’d be stuck in the slush pile forever.

5 An MFA Can Open Doors to the Publishing World.

When I began the MFA I had no idea one of my classmates would go on to become an editor with a big house. I had no idea other classmates would find an agent who would happen to be a good friend of my agent. The industry is an interconnected web, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that my network of alumni stretches, somehow, to every publishing house on the planet. Alumni, faculty, we all work together, sharing knowledge, names, connections and yes, even stolen carrots.

Speaking of carrots, I once felt isolated on this writing journey. Sure I had a critique group and I had a few writer friends, though out of necessity most overlapped with Mommy Friends or school-pick-up friends. My segmented life had only a small hole carved out for Me as Writer.

6 The MFA Gifted Me with Community.

Friendships I’ll treasure forever. Each residency became a celebration: These are my people. They understand me, care about the same things, share my passions and dreams. I still remember many late-night conversations with my first-residency roommate—our instant connection that continues to this day. And remember the carrots? Late-night pick-up games of Dixit, glasses of wine at the hotel bar. I forged memories, shared life with people who, five years later, continue to share life and inspire me, goad me to keep at this exhausting art. Because…

When I began the MFA I thought I knew everything. I’d read all the books (hadn't I?), I knew all the rules (didn’t I?). I was a great, or, um pretty good writer (wasn't I?). Beneath the bravado a crippling terror whispered that I was a pretender, a hack.

7 Hamline’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Gave me Confidence. And Humility.

Learning always builds confidence. But there’s nothing quite like seeing a whole universe of expertise—faculty, visiting writers and publishing professionals—to make me acutely aware of how much I didn’t know. Yet. Because I now have the tools, community, and support to continue learning as long as there are new things to learn.

Which would be, in case you're wondering, forever.

Rebecca Grabill graduated in summer 2011 and has two forthcoming picture books, Halloween Goodnight (S&S 2017) and Violet and the Woof (HC 2018). She lives and writes in Michigan. Find out more about Rebecca and her writing at

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Faculty Voices with Ron Koertge: You Never Know

My friend Gerry Locklin turned me onto poetry in grad school at the University of Arizona. We were 22 and 23 respectively when he showed me a copy of an indie magazine named The Wormwood Review. I didn’t need drugs to open those doors of perception. The Wormwood Review did it for me. I was studying poetry (and how I hate to see the words study and poetry side by side. Can’t you just see students gritting their teeth and wondering what that freaking albatross stands for?) but none of the poems in Wormwood or Poetry Now or Aldebran Review needed lucubration; they were right there on the page waiting to be enjoyed.

And they were enjoyable: goofy and uncultivated and against-everything-one-should-be-against, they were little celebrations of another kind of life – not serious, not dogged, not sober, highbrow or grave. They looked liked they’d been fun to write and they were fun to read. Did any of these poets imagine their verse was immortal or enduring? No way. Although Wormwood lasted a long time, lots of the indie mags were as ephemeral as the poetry they published. Here today, gone – sometimes – today.

Still, a lot of us who started fifty or so years ago are still around, still writing, and often still not taking things seriously. But here’s the thing – writing fast as I do and in a sense tossing poems often leads to a lot of balmy but imprudent work. Poems that don’t jell and never will. Poems that more witless than witty. Poems that collapse under the strain of so much whimsy. But every now and then something very cool happens and a poem steps forward wearing its jester’s cap and bells and just kills. A little gift from the poetry gods.

Of course, after that I want another gift, so every morning I give my Ego ten bucks and send it off to watch a movie about itself, put my butt in the chair and do my best. Because – as the title up there says, you never know.

*Ron Koertge is a faculty member at Hamline's MFAC program. He writes poetry for everyone, fiction for young adults, and recently co-authored a young reader series. You can discover Ron's literary work by visiting his author's website or visit his faculty page to learn about him as a professor at Hamline University.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Meet the Grad: Patti Filutze

On Sunday, July 17, 2016 Hamline's Creative Writing Programs will host a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor all the students who have completed their studies and will be receiving an MFA from Hamline University. 

During the months of June and July we will be featuring our soon-to-be alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today's new graduate is Patti Filutze.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?

I’m married and I have two boys, seventeen and eleven years old, so there are always things like band practices and soccer and orthodontist appointments. When they’re not home, I have a five cats that would play fetch all day long if I’d only throw the mouse One More Time.

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

My decision to attend Hamline was the result of a string of cosmic happenstances or fate, whichever belief you subscribe to.

In February of 2014, I became a finalist for the Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Arts Award. Part of the process once you became a finalist was to select your top three graduate institutions and submit acceptance letters from those schools. When I found out I was a finalist, I googled low residency programs that offered a Writing for Children and Young Adults option. That’s when I found Hamline. I’d never heard of the school and none of my professors had either, but the faculty for the MFAC program really impressed me, so I applied to Hamline along with four other programs because I needed three acceptances, and then I got in to them all.

Enter: Conflict!

This was an exciting time, but it was also extremely stressful. I have trouble picking what to eat for dinner, okay? And now I had to pick a graduate institution?! And to make it more complicated, three of the five schools were offering substantial scholarships.

When I didn’t get the JKC scholarship, I thought okay, that’s it. I can’t go to school. I can’t afford it.  Really, I didn’t feel I deserved it. I started declining offers. But I’d been talking to my “Buddy” in the MFAC program, Sarah Ahiers, and I just hadn’t been able to contact Hamline and decline. And then about a week after I got the notice that I didn’t get the JKC scholarship, I got an email from SCBWI that I’d been selected for the Student Writer Scholarship for the 2014 LA Summer Conference. I cried. A lot. It gave me the validation I needed to be able to invest in myself.

If everything hadn’t happened exactly the way it did, I would be somewhere else right now. In the end, this is where I was meant to be. It was important to me to have a strong alumni association and activities after I finished the program. I was looking for a family, and I found that at Hamline.

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

As an undergraduate I majored in English with a creative writing concentration, so I had experience workshopping and a pretty solid understanding of craft. In addition to my major, I also went through the honors program and completed a thesis, which gave me experience working on a larger creative project. But I’d never worked directly with kidlit authors, and I wanted that experience.

What do remember most about your first residency?

Strangely, the first thing that comes to mind is the weather. There was a polar vortex during that residency; the weather was unbelievably stunning. But I also remember going to the Kerlan and going down into the storage area and walking through the corridors lined with boxes of manuscripts and feeling like I was in that scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix—the one with shelf after shelf of magical prophecies. I remember walking to Groundswell with my cohort and rooming with Brita and workshop group with Anne and Gene. I remember sitting in GWC 100 with so many other people that love kidlit as much as I do, and being so happy I’d made the choice to come.

Have you focused on any one form (picture book, novel, nonfiction, graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Did you try a form you never thought you’d try?

I mainly focused on YA, but I did try picture books while I was working with Emily.

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.

My thesis is a YA contemporary fantasy set at an elite boarding school in the middle of the Monongahela National Forest.

When sixteen-year-old Monica develops a strange connection to a boy she never met, she moves to Dunmuir Mountain Academy where he lives in the hopes of figuring out who he is and what their connection means. The problem is: the only thing she knows about him is what his bedroom looks like. Despite this obstacle she does find him, and when she does, there’s an intense physical attraction between them that’s she never experienced.

But finding him is only the beginning. A series of strange illness break out at the school, and Monica begins to suspect that things at the school aren’t quite as perfect as they appear. Cryptic messages in her grandmother’s diary lead her to a hidden room in her grandmother’s basement and secrets about the world that her family has kept hidden for centuries.

I’m really interested in the concept of Imaginative Sympathy and stories that allow me to explore a perspective that is different than my own. Monica is completely colorblind, but through the bond, she sees color for the first time. She’s also experiences what it’s like to be inside a boy’s body. These things, along with typographic artifacts such as text messages, Post-it notes, and journal entries, have made the story incredibly fun and interesting to write.

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?

I’ve always loved plot. When it comes to character, I spent a lot of time writing elaborate backstories and thinking about how each character was unique, but I realized that most of the character work I’d done was not making it onto the page. I spent most of my time this semester working on embracing my characters and allowing them to be quirky.

Any advice for entering students or for people considering the program?

If your mentor asks you to try something, try it. That might mean throwing out the first fifty pages of your book, or changing a character’s motivation, or moving a major plot event. Do it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Meet the Grad: Elizabeth Walsh

On Sunday, July 17, 2016 Hamline's Creative Writing Programs will host a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor all the students who have completed their studies and will be receiving an MFA from Hamline University. 

During the months of June and July we will be featuring our soon-to-be alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today's new graduate is Elizabeth Walsh.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?

It depends a little bit on the time of year. I was born in the dead of night in the dead of winter, so I tend to be more active when it’s cold out than during the hateful, hateful, summer months. Seriously, not a fan of the daystar.

But when it’s cool out, I go for walks, refinish furniture, read like crazy, and manage my family. My parents are still incredibly active, and are spending their retirement trotting the globe, but when they’re home they need a certain amount of managing.

And when it’s hot, I languish. (I’ll get you yet daystar!)

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

I heard about MFAC because my aunt and uncle are the type of people who talk to everyone at the MN State Fair. My aunt went to the Hamline booth to grab a free pencil, and came out knowing that this was the program for me. She gets major gloating rights for that.

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

My undergrad was in creative writing and I’ve been taking workshops and creative writing classes since high school. But when it all really started for me was in the second grade, when Ms. Desombre let me turn in chapters instead of short stories. That was it for me. Being able to watch the worlds in my head take shape on a piece of paper for anyone to see was a heady kind of power for a seven year old.

What do remember most about your first residency?

The thing I remember most, was our class meeting. We sat in one of the east wing rooms of GLC, and we all shared a page of our workshop pieces so we could get a sense of what everyone was interested in, and what they brought to our cohort. That was the day we became the Hamline Hamsters.

The entire experience was a little surreal for me though because I had to work through half of residency. I went in to the post office at 3 am, got out at 7:30, then went to workshop. I spent most of that residency running on about five hours of sleep a night and more caffeine than I’d consumed in the previous 28 years. But while I was exhausted the entire time, I was also really energized. I managed to generate another 50k words on the project that had gotten me into the program in just five days. It was really fantastic.

Have you focused on any one form (picture book, novel, nonfiction, graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Did you try a form you never thought you’d try?

I’ve focused primarily on YA prose novels, but I have tried other forms. Gene Yang inspired me to take my initial project and turn it into a graphic novel, (the project itself had been so heavily inspired by graphic novels that the move really helped improve the flow of it.). I also found myself trying my hand at picture books, a novel in verse, and even brain storming some ideas for middle grade novels. Hopefully I’ll get a better sense of how those work in Gary Schmidt’s intensive this summer.

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.

The God Stones is a YA, high fantasy, political novel, riddled with secrets and intrigue. It’s also part of a longer series, centering on some of the same characters.

The major theme of the God Stones is a search for identity. The first main character doesn’t even have a name. At least not one she can really call her own. Others are dealing with situations of abuse, and power imbalances between them and the adults who should be taking care of them. While the one male character in my main cast is struggling with issues of loyalty and trust.

This is partly a product of the fact that –everyone– gets my name wrong. And not the way they think they do. (I have a fake last name on facebook for reasons of privacy.) For those who are curious, it’s Elizabeth, or Beth. I don’t know who this Liz is you’re talking to, but I assure you, it isn’t me.

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies? 

The biggest change in my writing has been my ability to edit. I had a really hard time seeing my own work unless I put it away for ten years. Now I only need to give it a couple of weeks, if that. Sometimes I’ll rewrite a scene, and ten steps later I’ll have to pull out my notebook with notes on why that was wrong, here’s how to fix it.

Second biggest is asking for help when I need it. I used the writing center at Hamline like crazy. AND SO CAN YOU! Even if you don’t live in the twin cities, they have online appointments available. USE THEM!

I’ve also embraced the fact that my writing is an ever evolving process. Some days one thing will work, and other days I’ll need to try something else. So I try not to get discouraged on those days when things just aren’t working, because I know that something else will emerge to get me through that next step.

Any advice for entering students or for people considering the program?

Be patient with yourself. Writing isn’t something you ever get ‘right,’ it’s a process of learning that will last your whole life. And be proud of yourself, too. It might seem like this is an easy program to get into, but the truth is, if your writing didn’t already intrigue the admissions panel, you wouldn’t be here. 

And for those of your considering the program, come to prospective students day. Talk to some of the students and faculty. If these are your people apply. Because these are the best people. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Meet the Grad: Lina Torres

On Sunday, July 17, 2016 Hamline's Creative Writing Programs will host a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor all the students who have completed their studies and will be receiving an MFA from Hamline University. 

During the month of June we will be featuring our soon-to-be alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today's new graduate is Lina Torres.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?

Lots of things! Knitting, crocheting, smashbooking, doodling away, YouTube/movie/TV-watching, music-listening/dancing to, shopping, and, of course, tons of reading!

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

I was a college senior, sitting at a carrel desk in the library, googling MFA programs to apply to. And then, lo and behold, Hamline appeared. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a program specifically designed for writing for children and young adults, which is exactly what I wanted to do! That same afternoon, I told my mom all about it, barely being able to sit still. I applied and here I am now!

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

I’ve written since I was a little girl, be it for me or for school assignments. I always enjoyed writing little stories for homework. But, I guess I sort of experienced an epiphany when I was in 7th grade. That’s when my eyes opened up to the fact that I really liked writing stories and that people liked hearing them. So, I got my BA in Creative Writing. And, now, soon, my MFA.

What do you remember most about your first residency?

I was a little nervous but so excited. I was going to learn about what I wanted to do. All about writing, all the time. Faculty and grad assistants and students were all so welcoming and caring. They kept asking if I was doing all right and how I was feeling. By the end of the July residency, people were warning me about the January residency (being from Texas). Anne Ursu really helped out and gave me lots of tips. So, I survived and didn’t freeze to death! Though going to class every morning with snow everywhere was enchanting!

Have you focused on any one form (picture book, novel, nonfiction, graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Did you try a form you never thought you’d try?

My first semester I tried picture books and learned tons! Then, the rest of the semesters I really focused on middle grade. I worked on two different middle grade novels, one on my second semester and the other on my third. For my fourth, I picked up the second semester novel to work at it again. Laura Ruby helped me tons and loads to give the novel the revision it needed. She helped me turn the story into a much better version of itself.

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.

Aoife Robles is a ten-year-old girl who’s working on improving her social skills and finding answers she can use for her family project in school. She deals with McGee, a school bully, at the same time that she applies the friendship advice she’s read in books and seen on TV in order to be friends with Mauve and Linus. All while staying on the good side of her teacher, coming up with witty remarks for the class pet Roger, and figuring out what happened to her father without upsetting her mom and her sculpting. It’s a middle grade novel that deals with mystery, time traveling, friendships, not judging people by what they seem to be, and lots of discoveries.

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?

I’m much more focused on scenes. I notice that my writing is tighter and my choice of words stronger. I now have a better grasp of how to revise my novels and make them the best they can be. And, after this fourth semester, I am much more confident as a writer.

Any advice for entering students or for people considering the program?

Entering students: Enjoy the program and be ready to learn, learn, learn!

People considering the program: If you’re passionate about your writing and want to improve it, I think Hamline is the right choice for you. You won’t regret it. You’ll see your writing get better, meet awesome faculty, and wish to have an eidetic memory to record the tiniest morsel of valuable knowledge you’ll get! But don’t worry, a pen and notebook or a laptop will do. J

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Meet the Grad: Linda Strahl

On Sunday, July 17, 2016 Hamline's Creative Writing Programs will host a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor all the students who have completed their studies and will be receiving an MFA from Hamline University. 

During the month of June we will be featuring our soon-to-be alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today's new graduate is Linda Strahl.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?

I don’t know how to not be kinky about this answer. I am a lingerie stylist. I can sight size every woman I meet and tell them exactly what bra size they should be wearing. Between 30-40% of women I meet daily do not believe me when I tell them the truth. About 10% would prefer to stay in their own delusion for life. And then the other 50% are convinced when they put on the perfect fitting bra. My favorite moments are when I can impact a woman’s life to the point where she sees herself as beautiful in the mirror. I remember not feeling beautiful, which is why I love my day job, because I get to change that for at least one woman a day.

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program? 

Randomly. I went to the Chicago’s Writers Conference in September of 2014. I know what you are thinking. “A writer’s conference is exactly where you hear about MFA programs.” Not this time. I went, learned many things from brilliant writers. I even walked Chicago all of that weekend because I was so inspired by the meetings, I needed to write about the city. 

Again, I know what you are thinking, “Well when someone sees another person writing. They would mention MFAC to that person.” I completely agree, the next time I see a person writing I will go up to them like a Jehovah’s witness and say, “Have you heard about Hamline?” Again, you are incorrect. 

The randomness came after all of that writing and walking around. I went to my first ever MeetUp group and it just so happened to be on the last day of the Conference. I was planning on not going, but I went anyways. I met this wonderful person who had only spent a semester with the program. She went on to do something else, but she said, “You know from what you are telling me about your writing, you should totally apply to this program at Hamline University…” Do we see how Jehovah’s witness that sounds? If you are a part of the program, the correct answer is, “I have no idea what you are talking about. Have you heard about Hamline’s MFAC program?”

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

I was a self-persecuting poet from the age of thirteen up until I attended my first poetry writing class at Bates College. The professor said I was archaic and needed to get out of my own head. A very strange man, he ended up loving my migraine poem later that year.

I became a self loathing female at the age of 22 because I had been in a car accident and suffered from all sorts of injuries. Including PTSD, scars on my right arm (totally ask me about them they are super cool), and metabolic syndrome as a result. I also found out I had more than a few mental problems to deal with. 2007 was actually not a year I ever want to relive.

I became a gothic writer at 23. Influenced by the Introduction to Creative Writing Professor at UW- La Crosse. The man said, “Tell me more,” and I did. Serial Killer novels will be written someday.

I did not become a full contemporary poet until I met Dr. Simone Muench (named because she deserves the recognition) at Lewis University. She taught me that my moods did not control my writing. I had to write no matter what mood I was in, just to see what that mood would create. This was the subliminal lesson that I gained from her tireless efforts at dealing with one of her “worst students.”

I was later volunteered to work at Jet Fuel Review. I blogged, edited and participated in writing so much that I became addicted to the creative process. My senior year with Dr. Muench we stalked each other in and out of classrooms, and I refurnished a Sherlock Holmes chapter with Zombies. That piece, was what I submitted to Hamline MFAC program two years later.

What do remember most about your first residency?

I discovered that I was in my own little universe of like-minded people at my first residency. I was talking to myself in the hallway because I couldn’t remember how to think internally. A student passed by and said, “What did you say?” I said, “Oh nothing I was just talking to myself.” He looked at me and said, “Oh that is totally normal here.”

Have you focused on any one form (picture book, novel, nonfiction, graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Did you try a form you never thought you’d try?

There was no focus. I tried something new every semester. When I went to the Chicago MFAC workshop, they said I didn’t have to just try one form. I could try all of them. So I did. Except graphic novel. This just means that I will have to come back.

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.

How could I not?! I spent a majority of my Hamline time, trying to understand Critical thinking mindset. This is important because it was the reason I really wanted to do this program. I could not fathom being about to write a coherent critical essay. I needed to learn this. When I finished my Critical Thesis, I was impressed with myself. And then the other shoe dropped. I love Creative Thesis because it gave me the ability delve into a project that I had just thought about for a few months. I went from having an idea, to having six pages, to having twenty and then fifty and then one-hundred. Now I can say that I wrote one hundred and twenty pages in draft and strangers look at me like I am a genius. I love that.

Now if you would like to know about WHAT my Creative Thesis is about I will give you the scoop. Because names will most likely be changed, I will say this: Eddie is the Hessian cousin to the Romanov children. Hidden amongst the servants and staff of Catherine’s Palace, she witnesses the tragic family’s struggle with the weight of Russia’s people, the danger one man can bring, and the blessing and curse of truth and magic.

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?

Did I mention the one hundred and twenty pages? I was just a poet before Hamline. Now, as a writer, I can create at a comfortable pace. Building a world, creating character arcs, discovering where the foreshadowing and tension can really impact the reader. I am getting better at setting and details daily.

I have also learned that it is ok when my characters decide to go off and have a relationship with each other for two scenes without telling me. Makes the surprise more convincing for the audience, when even the author doesn’t know until THAT moment.

Any advice for entering students or for people considering the program?

It never gets easier. You just get better at dealing with EVERYTHING.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Meet the Grad: Mars Hauser

On Sunday, July 17, 2016 Hamline's Creative Writing Programs will host a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor all the students who have completed their studies and will be receiving an MFA from Hamline University. 

During the month of June we will be featuring our soon-to-be alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today's new graduate is Mars Hauser.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?

I spend a lot of my time with my husband Jens, my teenage daughter Kathryn, and our cat Emmy at home in Galesville, Wisconsin. We're a gaming household, so it's not uncommon for my husband to be raiding while Kat works on her cosplay and I plan out a roleplaying game. I work at the Holmen High School Library, near where I live with my family. My position at my school district involves both reader's advisory and purchasing duties, so even without annotated bibliographies to be completed, I read more literature for children and young adults than almost anybody I know. My work nickname is "the Human Google," and it's often said that I have read every book in my library media center. This is not actually true, but it's difficult to convince anyone otherwise. My job also stretches my artistic comfort zones - I do a lot of display painting and paper art for our space. Pretty fantastic for the girl who once called herself artistically challenged. 

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

Fate, Anne Ursu, and Emily Jenkins. Just prior to applying to the Hamline MFAC program, I had a major life plan of mine fall right out from under me. I'd been working for some months toward a very different creative path -- one that was a lot less ambitious than going to grad school -- and that opportunity I'd been chasing just evaporated on me. I hit an end-of-February slump and found myself asking: Well, what now? 

First I ran across a long blog by Anne Ursu on social media that made me stand up and cheer, and think, "Wow, that was so smart. Hey, she teaches at Hamline." Then Emily Jenkins' reminder tweets about the program kept popping up on my work twitter. I had been looking for the next thing, and Hamline was what kept answering the call. 

So I said to my husband, "I'm going to submit an application. I know I won't get in this time, but this will be good practice and maybe someday..."

And my husband stared at me. He sighed. He said, "Of course you're getting in. Nothing else will shake up our lives more than that."

I laughed. But he was right. 

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

The only thing that once stood in the way of my writing: my terrible penmanship. My grandparents bought me a typewriter in elementary school and put up with me writing stories all the time. I was fortunate in third grade to get the kind of teacher who really understood the creative urge, who pushed me to write story after story after story, and who found opportunities to work on this with me. I was unstoppable for many years - I joined summer programs, I pushed to make newspapers and write poetry. I really wanted to create.

I put aside a lot of writing dreams for many years once I went to college, thinking I should instead be practical, which just goes to show that you will often look back at your younger self and realize your decisions were thoroughly bogus. I embraced "those who can't do, teach" for far, far too long. Which is very silly. Marsha Chall gave me a better model for this: Those who want to do, should also teach - because you learn so much when you do.

What do you remember most about your first residency?

Our first residency, Jill Davis was here as a speaker. And this was super exciting, but it also meant that Alumni Weekend had a lot more alumni than usual. A LOT. I'm not sure I can possibly emphasize how many people it felt like I was meeting, to the point that I had real difficulty judging just how big the active program was until the very end of the residency. This was a blessing, however. I feel more connected to many alumni in the program because I got to meet so many of them from the very start of my Hamline experience. 

I was basically terrified to workshop because I had never done such a thing before. And to me, as someone who works with young adult readers, the entire faculty is like parade of rock stars, so I spent most of the first residency too scared to talk to professors at first. But I'll never forget how Marsha Qualey, Gene Yang, and Jackie Briggs Martin in particular all made time early on to introduce themselves and try to help set us at ease. 

Have you focused on any one form (picture book, novel, nonfiction, graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Did you try a form you never thought you’d try?

I tried every form I was able to, and I am so glad I did. While I spent a lot of time on young adult realism, I got to experiment with a middle grade fantasy, with picture books, with a nonfiction piece, and more. I found myself sharing poetry at readings, and making notes for the kind of work I would never have considered when I started this program. I started the program thinking that I liked YA for its flexibility of genre. I leave it believing that every level of kidlit offers me the opportunity to try anything my heart desires.

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.

Chuck and Del are two teenagers who live in Holiday, the kind of small town that people pass by on their way to something better, and they both want to get out. 

Chuck is the kid whose classmates nicknamed him "Voldemort" in his shaved-head junior high days, and that image stuck even after he grew his hair back out. Everybody knows Chuck's family is messed up, but he has no way to talk to anyone about just how bad his home situation has gotten. He's sleeping in his band's van to avoid family fights.

Del is an obsessed AV geek whose poverty is an obstacle to her filmmaking dreams at every turn. Her best friend has just betrayed her and sent her summer plans into a tailspin, and this deception throws Del into Chuck's orbit by chance.

There's only one summer job in town that pays well enough for two teenagers who are desperate: the box factory where Del's mother and Chuck's sister both work. Sometimes, you can survive being trapped if you have the right person to be trapped with.

I hadn't been sure of what creative thesis I would pick until I found that Matt de la Pena would be my advisor for my last semester. It was absolutely obvious once I landed with Matt that I would have to dig deep into my story about social class and bad summer jobs. Perfect match. 

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies? 

I'm more willing to write the terrible first draft. I'm also less apt to write off something that has problems and decide it can't be fixed. I owe a lot of that to Swati Avasthi's revision workshop, which opened my eyes to some invaluable methods to polish and refine a manuscript, and to Claire Rudolf Murphy, who pushed me through a challenging third semester to figure out the rewards of finishing something. I also put a lot more play in my writing thanks to Marsha Chall, who took me from picture book newbie to major picture book fan.

The biggest change, however, is that I actually admit that I am a writer now. 

Any advice for entering students or for people considering the program?

A short list: 

1. You get out of the program what you put into it. Jump in and commit hard. It's easy to get nervous about putting yourself out there, but the community will work to support you.

2. You may be skeptical during your first semester when you are told "your critical work may ruin you as a reader, because you will change how you read things to see the craft underneath." Don't scoff. You, too, may realize a year later that you have become so picky in your pleasure reading now that you can see what works, and more importantly, what doesn't. 

3. Get off the Hamline campus and see the Twin Cities a little while you're here. Yes, even in January.

4. Save your lecture notes. You will hear things in lecture that you'll want to quote in your critical papers, and if you have your notes, you will look like some kind of genius.

5. When someone inevitably reads you Linda Sue Park's BEE-BIM-BOP! and you walk away hungry, hungry, hungry, I recommend the Mirror of Korea across the street from Anderson. 

6. Be a Buddy in the Buddy Program at least once. Read from your work-in-progress at student readings at least once. 

7. You will notice this list assumes you're going to jump off the high dive and join this program. There's a reason for that. What ARE you waiting for? Hamline can change your life.