Thursday, October 30, 2014

Alumni Voices with Megan Atwood

Megan Atwood
Getting published is great! I've heard. I mean, I've gotten things published . . .  just not exactly the project I WANT to get published. Not my SOUL novel. That is with my agent right now after years of writing it--and I feel super lucky to have gotten this far even.

And anxious. And inadequate. And way, way, way far behind. Did I mention anxious?

So, this is the time where I must remind myself that while getting multiple books published would be lovely, it's sort of beside the point. Being a part of this community is seductive. It's wonderful to participate in the tweets and the Facebook posts and the Tumblrs and the railing against those who love to besmirch children's books (which must happen, this railing, since this besmirching seems to happen all the time) and to go to meet ups and readings and talk to others who are getting published. And it’s easy to believe this is the heart of the matter. After all, we have the smartest, most engaged, most awesomest community of writers in the history of the world*. These are soul-satisfying people, posts, talks. But it's not the rub, my friends.

The writing's the thing.

This is true no matter what phase you are in. There is always something to be anxious about in our business. Getting published, getting reviews, getting sales, getting on lists, getting recognition. At each stage, the noise of the outside can be overwhelming. So I am here to tell you: it doesn't matter. None of it. It doesn't! No matter what stage you’re in or what manner of anxiety chases you, it just doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, you are a writer. You write. Because you have something to say. You write what you love because that's the only truth there is.

I can hear your argument, so let me address it. You say, "But Megan, getting published, getting reviews, getting sales, getting on lists, getting recognition has real-world consequences." And you are correct. These things can affect getting jobs, getting your next book published, meeting the "right" people, feeling like an insider. But when those worries start crowding out your ideas, whither the writer in you. Nothing dries up ideas and joy like pressure and fear. You are no longer doing YOU when this happens. You become the sum of what these worries are, something out of your control, capricious, and unstable**. So you must always come back to the heart of the matter, the ACTUAL reason you're enduring this blogpost, or going to readings, Tumbling, and tweeting.

The writing. From your soul. The story that sings to you.

Normally, I am not a kumbaya person. I don’t like to throw around ambiguous words like “soul” or “heart” or “writer.” And I feel a little bit like the writer version of Cosmopolitan here where I say “Have confidence and certain publisher will notice you! Be yourself so you can get something out of it!” But I don’t mean it that way. I mean it as in: at the end of the day, it’s you and your words.

I went to Hamline because I wanted to teach writing. And in the process, I became a writer. But not because I have 45 publishing contracts. Because I found out this is something I love to do. That honing this craft gives ME pleasure, feeds MY soul. I am thrilled that I have an agent now and I hope to hell that this book sells. But if it doesn’t, I am OK with that.

Because: The writing’s the thing.

Now stop reading this and go write! You have a story to tell.

* This is a true, undeniable fact that needs no source because it is true and undeniable.
** Lists, starred reviews, and awards are lovely. But so much depends upon the red wheelbarrow—that is, the million different considerations that go into these things and coalesce around timing, luck, status, and hard work. But not in equal measure. I am certainly not trying to take away from these things. It’s just . . . they aren’t why you’re here, right?

Megan Atwood is a 2009 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program and the author of several books. She is also an adjunct in Hamline's Creative Writing program. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Faculty Voices with Marsha Qualey: Sunday Drive

Marsha Qualey
This has been the most spectacular autumn in recent years in the upper Midwest. The colors fabulous, the temperatures perfect.  This morning, just a few minutes after I’d dropped my husband at the airport shuttle for the start of his week-long business trip to the hot southwest, I glanced at a still-brightly colored hillside and thought, “Carbon footprint be damned; I’ll take a Sunday drive.”

Sunday drives were a cultural custom in the region where I grew up. Families loaded up and headed out. The drives I remember weren’t full-family drives, however. There were five kids in the family, and I suspect my parents didn’t relish spending Sundays with all of us on board. Perhaps we started taking the drives when my older brothers were all old enough to be left home, because I remember being alone with my parents in the car, though that can’t be right either as I have a younger brother, younger by five years; this would have been the early 1960s. I suspect that he was no doubt riding unbuckled in the front seat between our parents, leaving the back all for me.

My father was a small-town lawyer and quite a few of his clients were farmers. As I recall, many of our drives had the vague goal of checking out property at the center of some legal work, and that meant we traveled country roads at slow speeds.

Though not outdoor people by any stretch, my parents loved looking at the outdoors, and my father especially was pretty knowledgeable about fauna and flora, cultivated and wild. I learned to distinguish varieties of oak trees, cows, farm crops, and road kill.

In other words, Sunday drives were a time to look and listen. My parents and I didn’t say much other than to point out a tree or barn sign or pheasant or vacated homestead or ditch flowers.

I haven’t yet written a book that hasn’t required I get in the car and drive to and around some location. Sure, getting acquainted with the human and natural landscape that will be a story setting is important, but I’d wager that my writing benefits even more from the exercise of looking and being interested in the details that fly by at 30, 40, 60 miles an hour. And that’s why when I road trip I don’t usually turn on the radio or—god forbid—listen to books on tape. I might miss something—an historical marker that needs reading, the road to a scenic overlook, some hardy ditch flowers.

Today’s Sunday Drive had a vague goal: visit an “environmental art installation” a couple hours away from Eau Claire and maybe, if time allowed, see some big water.

The Wisconsin Concrete Park was as wonderful as I’d hoped. It’s on Wisconsin Hwy 13 at the south edge of Phillips. It’s the former farmstead of Fred and Alfa Phillips. Fred Smith was born in 1886, never schooled, couldn’t read or write, but he had opinions and passion and at the age of 62 started expressing them with concrete and bottles. 
It was a beautiful day to browse the park and think about the artist and his compulsion to make art. 

Owls. Perhaps my favorite. (Click to enlarge.)

All the female figures (they wore long concrete skirts)
 had interesting jackets.

Fred Smith's Iwo Jima tribute. Especially interesting
because of what's painted on the back: 

A farmer's self-portrait? What a dapper guy.

As the park's home page says, it's all best seen in daylight.

Back in the car, northbound over the Great Divide, and I reached the turn-around point for the drive--  Saxon Harbor, Wisconsin: Lake Superior County Park. Big water. 

Nine hours after hitting the highway I returned home to a dark house and two indignant cats. I let them out for their own Sunday prowl, spent a few minutes stretching the miles out of my limbs and back, then settled down with a little something in a glass and a state road map. What sites did I miss? What other roads could I have taken? Who owns that bar? What did the fishermen catch? What if...what if...what if...

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.