July 19, 2015, on the final day of the upcoming residency, the MFAC program will have a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor the men and women who have just completed their studies and will receive an MFA from Hamline University. Between now and residency we'll be posting interviews with the grads. Donna Jones Koppelman is today's grad; she lives in North Carolina and can be found writing and chatting at these places: www.donnakoppelman.blogspot.com; facebook.com/donna.koppelman; @koppelmom (Twitter).
What do you do when you’re not working on packets?
I have four children aged 19-12, two dogs, a three-legged cat, and a husband, so I am plenty busy when I’m not doing packets. I watch a lot of football games, track meets, tennis matches, soccer games, plays and band concerts. I serve on the board at our local library, I am a vestry member at our church, I sing in a praise band at church, and I am active in our small community. I also do school visits to talk about writing and teach writing to students, and I lead staff development at schools to teach teachers how to teach writing more effectively. My research when I pursued a Reading Specialist at UNC focused on the relationship between teacher confidence in their own writing and their ability to teach writing. At one school, I helped kick off a “Drop Everything and Write” campaign that even involved the bus drivers. Those stories were the BEST!
How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?
I had a number of friends who attended the program in Vermont. I was impressed with the program (and all my friends!), but when I heard about Hamline, I suspected it may be smaller and more personal. I also wanted to work on nonfiction, and Hamline’s program had the amazing Jackie Briggs Martin; I had long been a fan of Snowflake Bentley, and I was a huge fan of Gary Schmidt’s work. I also hoped the Hamline program might offer a cultural experience of being in Minnesota every January.
What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?
Growing up, I wrote all the time. I wrote stories, poems, notes in class (before texting), and especially music lyrics. Prior to entering the program, I had written for educational journals, newspaper and magazine markets, and worked daily on picture books and novels. I had also kept a blog for several years. Once I had a good daily writing routine for a few years and read all the craft books I could find, I knew I needed a program to take me to the next level.
What do especially remember about your first residency?
My first residency, I arrived late at night. Two young [Hamline undergraduate] students were making out on the front stoop of the dorm, blocking the door, and I had to tap the girl on the shoulder to get in the building. Then, my dorm room smelled so awful. I could hardly breathe. I walked to a 24 hour gas station in the middle of the night trying to find Febreze or Lysol. I remember thinking, “I am way too old to be staying in a dorm room that smells like vomit.” I thought maybe I had made a huge mistake. The next day, dear Mike Petry, a returning student who knew the ropes, helped me spray my room from end to end which we continued to do every day for the rest of the residency. I also remember how special it was to see my old friend, Miriam Busch, again. We had participated in a children’s writing program at Chautauqua together a few years prior. Most of all, I fell completely in love with my classmates, my professors, and the whole program. I wrote my husband letters daily about how much I loved the program and how grateful I was to be there. I saved them to read aloud when I am a keynote speaker at a big conference one day. I kept them to remember how Hamline MFAC changed my life.
Have you focused on any one form (PB, novel, nonfiction; graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Tried a form you never thought you’d try?
I have worked on nonfiction picture books, rhyming picture books, non rhyming picture books, and a middle grade novel. I loved my work on the critical thesis, and if I could find a way to do more research and then teaching about my findings, I would be in heaven. I would love to be a professor in a low-residency program like this one. One goal I had for this program that I have not met is to figure out what genre is my strongest. Perhaps trying so many things kept me from getting very good at any one thing! However, I definitely have a foundation to push forward in many directions.
Tell us about your Creative Thesis.
For my creative thesis, I wrote a middle grade novel about a young girl prying into family secrets. It is set in Georgia in the early 1970s and involves divorce, racial issues, Vietnam, family relationships, spiritual exploration, and even a little Betty Friedan. I began this novel on Jane’s suggestion, and it grew out of a childhood memory I wrote for her about stealing blackberries with my cousin at the end of my first semester. I kept writing the novel on my own during the other semesters between packets, etc. Then, this semester, Jane challenged me to put it down and write it over from scratch without looking at it. The thought terrified me, but I knew if I didn’t do it now, I would never do it. (Haven’t we all walked over hot coals for Jane?) The process amazed and astounded me, and I would highly recommend it. From then on, if a scene didn’t work, I didn’t try to fix it, I started over. What a difference! I love this story, and the rich culture of the time period and physical setting of a Georgia summer. Much of the story takes place within the branches of a huge Magnolia tree which is where I spent many summer days myself.
What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?
At first, I avoided the hot stove so much that I hardly knew how to find it. Working with Jane my first semester was the best thing I could have done, but that semester was emotionally tough. I revisited a lot of difficult issues in my childhood memories, but they opened the door to a wealth of writing material and a great personal sense of peace.
I have finally, mostly, learned to only put one space after a period. For the record, I hate that rule. (and you may not be surprised that I also support the Oxford Comma) I loved From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. It’s a little “out there”, as Jane would say, but learning about the relationship between my dreams and my writing life changed my writing routine dramatically. I have learned how to follow and control my own mind’s rhythm and patterns in order to yield the most productive writing time.
Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?
This program is life-changing, but be prepared to go all in. Clear your schedule. Minimize your expenses. Live simply. Have a sit down with your children. Give yourself two years to write like a maniac and devote yourself to the program. Trust the process. Give every assignment your best effort, and your work will improve exponentially. And let the housework go a bit. Trust me, it will be there when you graduate!
The public is welcome to attend the graduate recognition ceremony on Sunday, July19, 3:30pm, (Sundin Music Hall, Hamline University). TimFederle is the speaker.