Thursday, January 30, 2014

Alumni Voices: Tracy Maurer


Word Girl (l) and Tracy Maurer (r)
This last weekend, I volunteered to assist with the national launch of the PBS Kids Writing Contest  at the Mall of America. Word Girl was there. Do you know of her? This animated superhero (AKA 5th-grader Becky Botsford) from the planet Lexicon uses her “mile-wide vocabulary” to conquer villains. Every episode features a single word, such as “encouraging” or “ploy.” And when Word Girl zooms off to save the day, she pumps her fist and says, “Word up!”

Right on, Word Girl! She finds power in words. Her character-description page notes that “knowing the right word for the right moment is priceless.” More than once, I have jumped out of my writing chair and fist-pumped when I finally found that word—that one word—that saved my day.

The right word can hold its power for a moment, a day, a year, and—when strung together with other just-right words—a lifetime.

For the past three years, instead of making New Year’s resolutions, I have chosen a single-word theme for the upcoming year.
Patience (2012).
Connections (2013).
Forward (2014).

Like Becky Botsford, these words seem ordinary. It’s a clever disguise! They have great power when they’re used the right way. I apply them to my life, especially my writing life, as touchstones for setting goals, making decisions, and reflecting on my progress. They help frame my perspective to see where I’m at and where I’m going.

In 2012, “patience” meant slowing down, taking a breath before I barged ahead. I started the year super-excited for my revisions on a picture-book biography about Noah Webster. “Super-excited” as in: I’m sending this manuscript to my agent RIGHT NOW! Then I remembered—word up!—patience. So I spent another three months working on the right words to strengthen the narrative voice. Patience paid off. It won the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Nonfiction Work-In-Progress Grant in July that year and my agent, Kendra Marcus at BookStop Literary, sold it to Scholastic a week later (its 2015 publication date ensures that I continue to practice patience).

That’s the thing about choosing the right word. It’s powerful beyond your expectations.

When I chose “connections” last year, I was thinking about the many ways writing and books could bring me closer to my family, friends, and community. Social media is about connections, too, and I made it a goal to become more active online. I also considered ways to strengthen my alumni connections to the Hamline MFAC community.

During the year, Ann Matzke (MFAC July 2009) and I researched and developed a three-part intensive session about integrating nonfiction trade books in the history classroom for a graduate program at Nebraska Wesleyan University. How did we find that opportunity? Ann’s connections through a librarian organization in Nebraska. She and I also combined efforts to submit an article on back matter for the Horn Book, which was published online.

Another alumni connection came just when I needed it most. MFAC graduates were invited to submit unpublished manuscripts to the first annual Frances and Kermit Rudolf Nonfiction Scholarship Award. That deadline pushed me to hunker down and polish a draft about John Deere, which later won the award and an invitation to visit Claire Rudolf Murphy’s lecture at the January 2014 residency. Celebrating, honoring, and sustaining connections has created experiences and opportunities I couldn’t have anticipated.

Now I’m excited to look forward, to move forward, to BE forward. It’s the right word for 2014.

Do you have a touchstone word? You don’t need a mile-wide vocabulary to find them. Even simple words hold great power, as Theodore Geisel eloquently proved when he put the right ones together and changed reading for generations of children. It’s all about how you use those words. That’s their power. Use them to do good, as Word Girl does. Use them well.

Word up!

Tracy Nelson Maurer is a summer 2009 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. To learn more about Tracy and her writing, visit her website.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Faculty Voices: Phyllis Root

Another residency has come and gone, and those of us who were present
at it are exhausted, exhilarated, enriched, and most of all changed.
Changed in our understanding of story, of principles and tools of
writing, of who can (and should) tell which stories, of how we read
and respond to each other’s work, of who we are as writers and who we
are in community. Our bodies may feel rusty, our joints in need of
oiling. But our brains are full to bursting with the pins and needles
of new thoughts.  We’ve been to the emerald city, we’ve paid attention
to the man behind the curtain, and (to murder a bit of grammar) we
know that he is us.

I’m glad to have been with you all, and I’m glad to be home again.
When July comes around, I’ll be eager to see you all, to hear how your
lives and semesters have been, to find out, in Elizabeth Bishop’s
words, “where are you going and what are you doing.” But on this first
morning, post-residency as I write this post, I’m also content to be
home, and I’ve scribbled a poem about it.

 Sleeping with cats

The morning after residency
I revise my life.
No one talks of point of view
or psychic distance.
No one asks about
meaning or motivation,
voice or plot or theme.
All I hear this morning,
stretched out in my own bed,
is two cats

Monday, January 27, 2014

Inkpot Interviews: Swati Avasthi

Our final publication interview for 2013 titles is with Swati Avasthi, author of Chasing Shadows.

Please describe the book in under 50 words.
Corey, Holly, and Savitri are one unit—fast, strong, inseparable. Together they turn Chicago concrete and asphalt into a freerunner’s gym, ricocheting off walls, scaling buildings, leaping from rooftops to rooftop.
But acting like a superhero doesn’t make you bulletproof…

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 called Chasing Shadows my boomerang book for 5 years because I kept sending it to my editor, who then kept sending it back to me. It took me 17 full drafts, not including the three times I wrote 100 pages and threw it out or the number of times I experimented with points of view or tense.
What changed? Just about everything. In my first attempt, Corey didn’t even exist, Holly had a bipolar aunt, and Savitri had a brother. It easier to say what didn’t change – Holly, Savitri, and grief that is so intense that it takes apart everything.

What research was involved, and how did it affect the story’s development?

So. Much. Research: medical, police procedure, psychological disorders, freerunning, and comics.

The study of graphic novels affected the story the most. Before I started writing this novel, I’d read very few American comics. (Most of what I’d read was from India.) But Holly loved American comics; she wanted to be an American comic superhero. So I followed her love of comics and found that I loved them too.

Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are (e.g., live-action writing group; online writing group; editor; agent). When do you share a piece of writing?

Live action writing groups—two of them. I wouldn’t be the same writer without these insightful readers. I don’t share until I can no longer identify the problems in the piece, usually my third draft. I dislike sharing early because my first couple of drafts are unreadable. (In my first draft of Chasing Shadows, I had a character who was two in chapter one. Even though only three months passed in the novel, he was 25 by the end. See? Unreadable.) I try to share a novel twice with each group, no more than that. And then I move on to my agent and editor and occasionally, back to a writer or two, who isn’t in the group for fresh eyes.

What books do you love to teach or recommend to students?

Well, it really depends on what my students are studying. But I do love Scott McCloud’s books for writing comics and, to quote [Hamline colleague] MarshaQ, I too “love me some Burroway”. For YA, I often use The Astonishing Life Octavian Nothing by MT Anderson, Blank Confession by Pete Hautman, Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I love using Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and This is Not my Hat by Jon Klassen to illustrate concepts, no matter what I’m teaching.

What widely-loved or acclaimed book is one that didn’t work for you?

by Patricia McCormick didn’t resonate for me. This wonderfully written novel in verse is written in first person and is about child prostitution. It’s amazingly powerful. But I was livid when this received a National Book Award Honor because of the presentation of the racial issues. It is set in Pakistan and India and a lot of cultural references feel okay. But then, our eleven-year-old narrator is rescued (we have a bit of a problem with agency here, right?) by a white man. (And we have a bit of problem with cultural alignment.) The implication via the situation of the story is that the white people rescue while people of color are brutal or are victims. For me, it was a cultural slap in the face that reinforces the false narrative of the white man’s burden and colonization. To make matters worse, in her endnote, she only writes about world wide child prostitution, never mentioning how many cases are here in the US.

During the January 2013 residency Emily Jenkins lectured on “How to Be Funny,” and one of her suggestions was to “use jolly words.” A good idea even if one isn’t trying to be funny. Do you have a favorite jolly word?

I have quite a few actually – words that just sort of make me laugh because of their sound. “Kumquat”—an oldie but goodie—is probably still my favorite.
To learn more about Swati and her writing, please visit her website.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Alumni Voices: Jane O'Reilly

The Meaning of Adventure

I once heard a literature professor and self-proclaimed fairytale expert say humans are wired for story.

But I disagree. 

I believe we are wired for something more basic.

More instinctive.

And far more profound.

Since I graduated from Hamline, I’ve been a little lost without deadlines, packets and institutional

food. I worked for years to create a lifestyle free of full-time work and debt, so I would have more
time to write. But as soon as I had more time, energy waned and the well of ideas started to run dry. Just as it had when I teetered on the edge of adulthood, a great chasm appeared between what I wanted to do and what, it seemed, I could do.

Unlike my younger self who was forever focused forward, I took a look backward.

Where did the creativity go in that child who was always making something from junk found in the garbage? What happened to the spunk in that teenager who had so much to say she had to write 100 times that she would stop talking during class—and volunteered to do it again? And what squelched the daredevil in that college kid, travelling alone, who got into the private, 4-seater Cessna with a complete stranger for an aerial tour of the banana plantations of Honduras?

On a mission in search of my unadulterated self, I attended a lecture on children’s creativity given by Edith Ackerman. Edith is a sociologist who studied under Piaget and consulted for Lego for twenty years. She has both an amazing sense of style and a charming German accent.

She talked about child development and playthings and how we try to create home wherever we go just by bringing our computers or cell phones with us. She said walking toys are essential to a child’s development because they grant the freedom to go places and explore, while holding on to home.

When a man asked why his four-year-old granddaughter liked to play hide and seek, Edith stepped
away from the podium. “I am zo happy you azk me zis question,” she said, fists clenched in enthusiasm. She explained that the moment a child is born it is trying to get away—from the birth itself, to reaching, to crawling, walking, even running. And that’s just the first year of life.

Playing hide and seek is about getting away. About having an adventure. About getting lost.

And there is nothing more thrilling than to venture out,

get lost,

then found, and brought back home.

As a writer I couldn’t help but think, “That’s story in a three-act structure.”

We aren’t wired for story.

We’re wired for adventure.

Because we can speak and write, story is what we do with that adventure once we get home.

Since the dawn of language we have loved to tell our stories. In fact, we often like to tell other people’s stories. We tell them over and over again, recording the details, reliving the event through the emotions, so we can make sense of our world. Because it’s in our basic nature as curious human beings to venture out, explore, experiment— even suffer—and then make our way home, it’s no wonder we know when a story is a good one. A good story satiates on a gut level.

But in order to tell the story, first we must have the adventure. And the adventure must be greater than the story, so the words forever aspire to the story’s truth.

I have decided there is no such thing as writer’s block; there is only a lack of adventure. As writers, we need to put ourselves out on a limb on a regular basis. That limb can be physical, intellectual or spiritual, but it must stir us up inside because emotions are the key to every story; and emotions, like muscles, go weak when they lie fallow. 

With this thought in mind, I signed up for a collage class. It doesn’t sound like much of an adventure when I can still recall the thin plastic bags fluttering like membranes around the reams of Honduran bananas, but I hadn’t made anything with my hands in nearly twenty years, I didn’t know any of the other women, and the idea of an art class ignited a familiar fear of inadequacy.

Funny what can happen on a cloudy, Sunday afternoon, lost in thought, busy with scissors and a glue
stick, and finally taking a turn telling complete strangers the surprisingly deep meaning behind the sequins, falling stars that double as tears (sadness), the faded slide of my brother on his first day of school (pride), and the fortunes on the Bazooka Joe bubble gum wrappers (hope).

With a revived desire to make something out of nothing, “nothing” has become extraordinary. Empty toilet paper rolls, scraps of paper and packing materials suddenly have that same magical draw they did when I was six. As my bin of collage materials fills up, so does my mind—with a new idea  for a short story, the sparks of a YA novel, this essay, and, of all things, an original cartoon about dinosaurs.

The answer to lost creativity isn’t as simple as the more you do the more you can do. It’s the more you venture out, the more ways you see the world, the more you want to know, the more you surge with emotion, the more stories you have to tell.

But you don’t have to climb mountains or jump out of airplanes to find adventure, you just have to step across a threshold to a place—especially an emotional place— you’ve never been before.  Dangerous, risky or merely new, your adventure will not only be a story in itself, it will beget stories. 

Afterward, you simply have to find your way home to write them down.

Jane O'Reilly is a winter 2009 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Faculty Voices: Marsha Qualey

The MFAC winter residency concluded this past Sunday with a post-ceremony reception, banquet, and entertainment. The high spirits of the final night are always welcome and serve as perfect digestif to the richness of workshops, lectures, intensives that filled the ten days.

Some highlights ...

Our Grads. They have been profiled in our Meet the Grad series, and here's a group shot:

Front row (l-r): Gina DeCiani, Megan Millar, Jeanne Anderson, Miriam Busch, Ashley Lorentz.
Back row (l-r) JJ Austrian, Ellen Kazimer, Shelley Jones, Gary Metivier, Daniel Holly.
Photo courtesy of JJ Austrian.

The announcement of scholarships. Three are awarded at each winter residency.

Randall Bonser was awarded the The Frances and Kermit Rudolf Nonfiction Scholarship,which is a $1,000 annual award given to current students in the program for the most promising manuscript (not already accepted by a publisher) in the field of nonfiction-picture book, easy reader, or a longer nonfiction book. It will be judged on the quality of writing, original research, and innovative format.

Maria Macioce was awarded the $1,000 Jane Resh Thomas Prize in Critical Writing, given to the fourth-semester student who has written the most outstanding critical essay in his/her third semester.

Cheryl Minnema was awarded the annual $5,000 Herman W. Block Memorial Scholarship, given by author Kate DiCamillo and offered to a new student who exhibits significant promise in writing for children and young adults.

And now I must confess a terrible thing: Jane Yolen was again our graduation speaker and again a musical performer at the final banquet, but this reporter has no photo to prove any of it. She even performed a song she adapted for the occasion. You'll have to take my word for it and believe me when I say that she was, in both roles, wonderful.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Inkpot Interviews: Ron Koertge

The calendar may have turned a page, but the Inkpot is still catching up with the many 2013 publications from our MFAC community. While 2014 promises many more new books and articles from the people in our community, we still have a few to celebrate from this past year. Today: Coaltown Jesus (Candlewick Press), by Ron Koertge.

Please describe the book.
Walker, a fourteen year old boy living in the Midwest can’t deal with his older brother’s suicide and prays for help. To his surprise, Jesus appears and gives him exactly what he needs but not in the way he expected.

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 was experimenting with different kinds of formats. Once the ms was essentially a play. Another time more like a screenplay. Those ideas were met with scorn by my editor at Candlewick, so finally I wrote it as a novel-in-verse, something I know how to do. That sounds "easy," but when Liz finally saw "CJ" it was a punchy 40 pages for me.

What research was involved, and how did it affect the story’s development?
Research? I don’t need no stinkin’ research.  

Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are (e.g., live-action writing group; online writing group; editor; agent). When do you share a piece of writing?
I don’t mind naming names--Chris, Jan, Bianca. Chris is very good at everything, Jan at plot, Bianca at continuity. I tend not to show things until the 2nd or 3rd draft, since until then I don’t know what I’m writing about, anyway.
What books do you love to teach or recommend to students?

I’m not a big fan of other people’s  books.

During the January 2013 residency Emily Jenkins lectured on “How to Be Funny,” and one of her suggestions was to “use jolly words.” A good idea even if one isn’t trying to be funny. Do you have a favorite jolly word?
I’ve always been funny (in all the possible meanings of that word) and don’t like to play favorites. Words are prone to jealousy. They can be malicious.No way am I going to pick one word.
Learn more about Ron (including details on his latest book of poetry for adults, The Ogre's Wife) on his website.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Meet the Grad: Jeanne Anderson

On January 19, 2014, on the final day of the upcoming residency, the MFAC program will have a Graduate Recognition ceremony, honoring the 11 men and women who have just completed their studies and will receive an MFA from Hamline University. For the last few weeks we've been posting interviews with many of the grads. Our interview today is the final one for this class. Today's grad is Jeanne Anderson; she lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?   
I am a retired teacher/librarian, so when I am not working on packets, I spend my time traveling, hanging out at libraries, taking care of grandchildren, reading and buying books.

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?
I was searching for a Master’s Degree program in Children’s Literature, and discovered the Hamline low-residency program. This was a huge improvement over the online degree programs I was considering, where there is little feedback, little peer interaction and no face time at all. Also, I was very impressed with Mary Rockcastle when I met with her to ask if I was too old for this program. She didn’t seem to think so, and I presented my Critical Thesis on my 65th Birthday! I considered that event to be the best birthday present ever. Thank you, Mary.  

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?
 I have been writing poetry for myself and family members for years. I have also written a number of stories for my children and grandchildren. But, according to my five adult children, I have always talked about writing the books I have in my head. They strongly encouraged me because it would keep me occupied in my retirement. I also think they wanted me to stop talking about doing it – and do it!

What do especially remember about your first residency?
I remember being scared that I would not be able to keep up the pace of back-to- back lectures, but that was never a problem. I could hardly wait to get into Workshop every morning, and the lectures were always energizing. I never fell asleep! Not even once. Also, I was afraid I would slip on the ice and snow and break a hip! But it was never that bad, and there were lots of folks to help me walk along the campus sidewalks.

Have you focused on any one form (PB, novel, nonfiction; graphic novel) age group in your writing?  Tried a form you never thought you’d try? 
I wanted to be exposed to a different form of writing every semester.The 1st semester I ventured into picture book writing with Marsha Chall. The 2nd semester I tried verse novels with Marilyn Nelson. The 3rd semester I attempted to write a middle school novel with Eleanor Tate. I know I will never have an opportunity for feedback from so many excellent published authors, and I was determined to make the most of my time at Hamline!  

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.
I have many story ideas, but the one that I started out with in my Creative Thesis was about a biracial boy and how he learns to cope in a multicultural world. As the chapters progressed, the story completely morphed into a different kind of journey! What emerged was a lonely child’s search for family and belonging. When it was all done, I felt quite satisfied with the direction it took.  It touched on a universal theme that I felt was far more important to present to a young audience.

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies? 
My advisors have consistently challenged me to stretch and move out of my comfort zones.  My vision has expanded to include several genres and different types of writing for children. Without Hamline, I would have been content to write short rhyming poems and little stories.  Now I think big, and in terms of all kinds of possibilities! 

With packet deadlines removed as an incentive, do you anticipate it will be harder to keep writing?  Not if I begin writing for contest deadlines!

Any plans for your post-Hamline writing life?
Yes, I have plans.  The first thing I will do is create a spreadsheet for submissions.  On that spreadsheet will be the names of publishers AND contest deadlines.  The contest deadlines will help me keep up the momentum of producing something every month.  Then I will start attending a writers group consistently where I will be held accountable for producing something on a regular basis. 

Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?
Yes.  The Hamline program seems to be dedicated to developing, encouraging and producing each student’s best writing.  Writing is the one of the few careers that can be pursued anywhere, anytime and under almost any conditions.  It can be done while we work at other jobs.  It is also a creative outlet that can only get better, since it is an expression of each person’s cumulative growth and development.   It has no age limit, and in fact the older we are the more stuff we have to write about!   And best of all, it brings us in contact with wonderful people. 

The Hamline experience is a rare opportunity for anyone fortunate enough to be accepted into its low-residency program.  Anyone who loves to write cannot help but benefit from the residencies, the packets and the contact with advisors.  In spite of the snow and ice in January, it is clearly a win-win investment that I would recommend to anyone with an urge to write, share and learn.
The public is welcome to attend the graduate recognition ceremony on Sunday, January 19, 3:30pm, (Anne Simley Theatre, Drew Fine Arts Building). Jane Yolen is the speaker.