Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Faculty Voices with Marsha Qualey: A Do-Over

I don’t believe I’ve ever finished a presentation or lecture without immediately wanting a do-over, a chance to add something or approach things from a slightly different angle.

Things were no different this past residency when I presented on “Conflict.” As it happened, I did get one chance for a do-over because my presentation and another were scheduled concurrently and we repeated them so students could attend both. I was grateful for the chance to revise and reorganize between the first session and the rerun.

But not even ten minutes after the second presentation had concluded I wanted to corral all the students back into the lecture hall. "More, there’s one thing more! I forgot something!"

And I have Phyllis Root to thank for that.

In the final moments of my allotted time that second time around she asked the question that I should have anticipated and the answer to which should be part of any lecturer’s talk: “Can you give an example from your own work?”

I was gobsmacked. I hadn’t included an example, and in the rush of adrenaline that accompanies fifty minutes of jabbering in front of an audience, I couldn’t think of one on the spot.

Ten minutes later when everyone was gone from the room and the rush was subsiding, I of course came up with an answer, but it was one that made me realize, “Oh, wow, I forgot to talk about that.”

So now I am indulging in a do-over on the Inkpot. First, a recap of the topic and lecture.

I was speaking on “Conflict.” Early into the talk I reminded those present of one of the many gems from Laura Ruby’s first-day lecture on world-building: Within the rules of the fictional world are the seeds of conflict.

I then suggested to those present in the lecture hall to consider that there are also worlds within worlds, and each has its own set of rules.

Identify all of the worlds your character lives in and navigates between, I advised. In a realistic novel, for example, these worlds might be labeled, “Family” or “School” or “Job.” There might even be—should be—smaller worlds within those worlds. “Cousins” or “high school band” or “night shift.” Each will have its own rules. Identify the rules. (Never talk about the uncle who drinks; never flirt with anyone in the clarinet section; never give free ice cream cones to people you know.)

Then I once again brought up a favorite craft theory of mine: Power + Belonging = Identity. Our stories are essentially about identity, the realization of an individual on the page. If conflict is what makes a story soar (and heaven knows the writing experts tell us just that) than one should look to create conflict in the worlds where a character’s power and sense of belonging are the most vulnerable or the most secure. Those places are the sweet spot of conflict. Use them.

What I didn’t say and will now is …Those spots are also the places where the conflict you create MUST resonate. Get that? I used all caps, so I hope so.

Even if the important action happened elsewhere in the main character’s life and not in the places where he/she/zhe feels most or least powerful or at home, the impact must be felt in all those places. If not, your conflict is cheap stuff.

And Phyllis Root, my dear friend and esteemed colleague, I have an example from my own work.

As Just Like That begins, Hanna Martin, the main character, dumps a boyfriend and (now in a churlish mood) takes a late night walk to a nearby lake. The mood is made worse by the high spirits of a couple that is riding around—illegally—on a four wheeler, so she doesn’t tell them that the ice is thin on the lake. The next morning she learns they went out on the ice and broke through; both have died. She, not surprisingly, feels enormous guilt.

Hanna is a talented artist and she also has a very loving relationship with her mother and two best friends (power and belonging, yes?) While her art and the relationships have nothing to do with the inciting incident, you can bet I turned to those parts of her life to demonstrate the impact of the accident and the devastating power of her guilt.   

So this is my lecture addendum in a nutshell: Yes, the worlds where a character’s power(s) and sense of belonging are the weakest or strongest will indeed provide the sweet spots for detonating conflict, but they are equally important as barometers of that conflict.

My do-over is done.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Meet the Grad: Nina Bricko

On January 18, 2015, on the final day of the upcoming residency, the MFAC program will have a Graduate Recognition ceremony, honoring 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 many of the grads. Nina Bricko is today's grad; she lives in Madison, Wisconsin. You can learn more about Nina and her writing on her website.

 What do you do when you’re not working on packets?
While I was working on my MFA I was a kids yoga instructor and a naturalist for a preschool. I also taught a variety of writing courses for Madison College. While working on packets I was also trying to get my work published. I had a short story – that was originally written for a picture book - published in a couple literary journals, one online and one in print. The same short story also won the Prairie Gate Literary Contest and was turned into a play. The play was performed at the end of the Prairie Gate Literary Festival, a conference that I was invited to come to for free. So I have had some success that has been very encouraging. I wasn’t able to graduate this past July because I had a little baby boy named Elwood.  So I spend most of my time playing with him and laughing at his antics. I dream about living in a strawbale house by a river, growing a tall garden, and hugging chickens. Poka-dot Dresses and muddy boots – that about sums up me.

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

I was walking downtown Madison when my eye caught a poster about a guest speaker from Hamline University coming to discuss their MFA program on Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults. I thought in my head – as most people do – I should go to this!

I did not.

I had only begun to think about getting my masters at the time. Fast forward about a year later, I was finally ready to pursue my interest in obtaining a masters in creative writing. But what and where? I wasn’t a literary writer – at least I didn’t think so. I had realized that I mostly wrote middle grade and had a strong interest in writing picture books. The poster I had seen so many months prior came to mind and so I looked Hamline up on the inter-webs. Then I went to the information weekend, met and questioned Mary Rockcastle, and discovered where I wanted to go.

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

I have always loved writing. When I was in the sixth grade my teacher accused me of cheating on a poem I had written and turned in for an assignment. She didn’t think a sixth grader could have written it. So that was a big boost for my ego. The next year my Dad entered it into a contest and it won. How about that!

I used to do wonderfully nerdy things like write puppet shows and put them on for the kindergarteners during my class’s recess time. One time I created a character named Professor Lightbulb – he was an actual light bulb I had hooked up to a battery so I could switch him on and off. He liked to do SCIENCE!

For my birthday, which was the summer before the seventh grade, I asked for a typewriter. My wonderfully supportive parents got me one. How about that!

In junior high I wrote plays for the talent show. In high school I went through a goth phase, so you can imagine how those poems went.

I didn’t think a person could be a writer as a profession. It seemed like a job someone gets in the movies, and not in real life. So I went with my next great love – Nature. I became a naturalist, and not the nude kind. I traveled the country working at different nature centers, teaching kids about the great out doors. But as I traveled – I wrote. While living in Arizona I started and completed my first novel. I took my first novel writing class and after that I was hooked. I wrote another novel. I wrote more short stories. I wrote ferociously. When my hubby and I moved to Madison because we wanted to live there and not for a job, I was forced to find work that wasn’t in my field. I loved working with small children so I became certified an as early childhood educator. This is when I fell in love with picture books. I had always appreciated picture books, and I had attempted to write for children previously, but when you are constantly reading them you really begin to gain an understanding of the depth and scope that encompass the picture book world. I wanted in. I tried and I tried. My favorite activity with the students was to tell them a story that I made up on the fly and draw pictures while I spoke. Their favorite stories I tried to write down, so I could tell it to them again the next day. I knew that I wanted to know more about the world of picture book writing.

It is exciting to have the knowledge to write for any age group, but it is enchanting and invigorating to have a personal understanding of what kind of writer I am. This happened because of my writing journey, and it will continue to modify throughout my life as a writer.

What do especially remember about your first residency?
I was very nervous. When I don’t know people I become very quiet and shy, which is the opposite when I am comfortable with people. My personality type can be confusing. However, I knew that I wanted to succeed in this program; so even though I was nervous, I jumped right into volunteering for the Storytellers Inkpot. One of my first articles I reflected on my experience as a newbie, and I had decided to draw a comic to describe how it felt to meet one of the faculty members: (click to enlarge)

We are all nerds and it felt great to find my people. I was inspired and excited. My first residency simply confirmed that I was in the right place.

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 tried middle grade, early middle grade, and picture books. I really wanted to try graphic novels my third semester but wasn’t encouraged to do so because I had to generate a critical thesis. If I had another semester I would work on comics and nonfiction. I teach create writing all levels for Madison College and I have Hayley Scheuring (Hamline MFAC Alumni) guest speak during our nonfiction discussion because I don’t feel as though I was given enough opportunities to really understand that form. I have learned so much from her lectures that I am more confident in it, so really the moral of the story is to learn from each other and do as much as you can – there just isn’t enough time.

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.

It is a middle grade adventure novel with some magical realism – it’s an Indiana Jones meets 39 clues  meets Amelia Earhart meets a seventh grade bi-racial girl on the cusp of puberty who doesn’t know where to belong and just wants to go to golf camp but can’t because her parents have been mysteriously kidnapped. Yup.

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

Confidence. When you are writing on your own – trying to discover what kind of writer you are you try many different forms and styles. You write stories that are like the ones you like to read; you write stories about topics you like to read; you write stories in the voice of stories that you have read. Now I have the confidence of my own voice, my own style and form, and the confidence in the stories that my heart has to say.

I still have a lot of flaws, but I am aware of them and I strive to be a better writer every day.

With packet deadlines removed as an incentive, do you anticipate it will be harder to keep writing? Any plans for your post-Hamline writing life?

I have a solid writing group outside of Hamline, but the group consists of Hamline alumni. In addition to those wonderful people, I also teach writing. Because I am constantly reading and reminding myself of everything I learned and still need to learn my personal practice improves. One night I was lecturing on taking their scene and intensifying tension. I had been struggling with what was missing in a middle grade novel I had finished. I liked it, people liked it, but I wasn’t excited about it. After my lecture, we were during some writing prompts and I had an incredible AH-HA moment. Teaching has always been my gateway to a higher understanding of what I had just learned.

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

One of the bathroom stalls is covered in Doctor Who graffiti – this is the type of people that inhabit this campus. If that brings you joy, then you have found your people. Welcome.

The public is welcome to attend the graduate recognition ceremony on Sunday, January 18, 3:30pm, (Anne Simley Theatre, Drew Fine Arts Building). Linda Sue Park is the speaker.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Meet the Grad: Kristi Romo

On January 18, 2015, on the final day of the upcoming residency, the MFAC program will have a Graduate Recognition ceremony, honoring 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 many of the grads. Kristi Romo is today's grad; she lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?
I work full time at a high school in the Twin Cities, where I teach English and Reading courses. This is awesome because I get to see the magic of good writing change the tide of a student’s relationship with reading and impact his relationship with the world. I bake Viking helmet cupcakes, clash foam swords and tickle torture my sons, who are five and two years old. I also enjoy cooking meals for my husband, traveling to visit family, singing on the worship team at church, and bowling (very poorly) with my English teacher colleagues.

And I read.
A lot.
And grade—
Many papers.

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?
When I was a few months pregnant with my second child I decided to take a year sabbatical from teaching and started looking for some graduate level classes to take while home. After a little Internet research I learned that Hamline offered a Mini-Immersion Residency & Semester. Anika* and I talked a few times and it sounded fantastic. My plan was to learn something that would make me a better teacher and it was remaining 12 credits I needed.

After I arrived I met a community that I loved, though I wasn’t sure I belonged. I was a teacher, not a writer. As the semester drew to an end, my husband said, “You have to continue the program. There’s a spark in you I haven’t seen before.” Prior to this experience I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer, but as a teacher I have witnessed the power of stories many times over. There are stories in me and I feel compelled to tell them. Plus my cohort—the Hamsters—begged me to continue and that’s when I realized I belonged.

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?
I would say my creative writing experience was quite limited. While I was earning my bachelors degree I took one creative writing poetry class, which I loved. Mostly, I taught academic writing: literary analysis and research writing. (Marsha Qualey and Anne Ursu had to teach me to use contractions and informal language.) Other than that I sat down once a year and wrote a Christmas play for the children at my church.

What do especially remember about your first residency?
My first residency was so invigorating. I had no idea what I was doing when writing the piece I submitted for workshop, but students, who had submitted really great pieces, said they liked many elements. There was even a brief philosophical discussion about education inspired by the education system in my story. There was so much to work on and great suggestions for how to improve it, but I walked away thinking, they liked what I wrote. I also met Cheryl Bardoe and Molly Burnham, the grad assistants, who took me under their wings, listened to all my small concerns, invited me to eat with them and got me excited for the work of writing.

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 focused on picture book writing because I have two pre-readers at my house and I love to read and tell them stories. My other focus was on YA novel writing because I teach high school and those are my people. Their concerns are my concerns. So often we talk about preparing teenagers for “real life,” but they are living real life today and stories equip them for those problems and challenges. Mostly they reassure them they aren’t alone and there is hope.

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.
My Creative Thesis is part of a dystopian YA novel titled Fortress. It’s set in the future country of The Federated Gladius, founded on choice and freedom. People are free to choose what tier they want to live in. They only pay for that which they use. Bastion has lived on the bottom part of the tier since his father was taken for not paying his contribution. The food sucks and the green uniforms are hideous and socially it’s rough. On the verge of legal adulthood, Bastion has a dream and a clear plan for his life. He will move up a tier and help contribute for his mother and sister. Most importantly he won’t fail them like his dad did.

Then a mysterious package shows up.
Suddenly, the truth is a lie.
Freedom does feel free.
People aren’t who they seem.
Friends are enemies.
Choices aren’t easy.
And Bastion might need forgiveness for what he chooses next.

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?
The biggest change is I believe I can write. For real. I came with so little creative writing experience, I was sure I was light-years behind everyone else. I returned to my thirteen-year-old self, in a desk peeking at the tests next to me, not for the answers, but to see how far behind I was compared to everyone around me. I’ve learned writing is a funny business. There isn’t one clear path that will turn me into a Kate DiCamillo or JK Rowling. Their biographies underscore that point as well. I learned I have something to write and I’m willing to work. My path is my own. If we all arrived on the same path, we’d all write the same story. The variety of experiences is what makes for a range of rich stories.

I’ve learned to trust myself as I write and when I revise. I found it mystical when various writers talked about “writing behind their back,” but I get it now. What I believe makes me who I am and when I write, it comes out. Sometimes my concerns come out in kitten eyes not opening, whispering to eggs “Hatch, please hatch,” or The Federated Gladius taking my little sister far from me. This is who I am.

With packet deadlines removed as an incentive, do you anticipate it will be harder to keep writing? Any plans for your post-Hamline writing life?
My life seems to ebb and flow, so I will put it into the spaces where my life ebbs rather than flows: summers, spring breaks, long weekends. I tend to write in large bursts. My supportive husband initiated conversations about how I will still need weekends away to write. I’m blessed. By the end of the summer I plan to have written the journey for Bastion as he seeks the truth.

On the picture book front I have one manuscript in a place that I would like to pursue publishing. I also long to rewrite the book of my heart, Hatch, Please Hatch; a story about a pair of ducks trying to name their baby duck that is taking extra long to hatch. It’s for my first son.

Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?
At Hamline University the MFAC program will equip you in ways you don’t anticipate. Attend as many sessions at residencies as you can. This program will meet needs you didn’t know you had, and it will prepare you to continue to grow as a writer once you graduate. The community goes with you, wherever you go.

Work hard.
Take risks.
Be you.


The public is welcome to attend the graduate recognition ceremony on Sunday, January 18, 3:30pm, (Anne Simley Theatre, Drew Fine Arts Building). Linda Sue Park is the speaker.

* Anika Eide, Programs Coordinator for Hamline's Creative Writing Programs.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Meet the Grad: Janel Kolby

On January 18, 2015, on the final day of the upcoming residency, the MFAC program will have a Graduate Recognition ceremony, honoring 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 many of the grads. Janel Kolby is today's grad; she lives in Seattle, Washington and can also be found on Twitter: @JanelKolby.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?
I try my best to be a good mom, a good partner, and a good friend. Sometimes it works. When it doesn’t, I could be reading or pondering an aspect of a story, and wouldn’t notice if you threw pennies at my head. My other profession is in software as a program manager.

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?
I attended a three-day SCBWI workshop in Washington in which Anne Ursu and [editor] Jordan Brown were the speakers. Anne talked about a magical place and her magical friends that turned out not to be in her imagination. Lucky for me.

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?
Writing poems and stories are some of my earliest memories, and I never stopped writing. I didn’t know anyone as strange as that, and I kept that part of myself hidden from everyone but family. I couldn’t fool my family. As I got older and grew confidence, I began to accept how much happiness I receive from writing, and that it’s as much my future as it has been my past. About four years ago, I took the last novel I had written and tried to get it published. I received some responses to read the entire manuscript, but was ultimately rejected. That’s when I knew I needed help. I couldn’t do this on my own. I needed to learn more about my craft and the industry.

What do especially remember about your first residency?
I remember being embraced—by the staff, the alums, and almost everyone in the program. I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting to be the odd ball again, and find myself a corner between lectures where I could turn inward. I was already scouting out those corners when I first entered the hall. I didn’t know I would meet some of the best friends I’ve ever had. I didn’t know Hamline was where I would find the support I needed to write.

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 primarily focused on MG and YA fiction. I tried out some picture books, and managed to create a passable one, but it’s not a strength yet.

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.
RAIN lives on the outskirts of Seattle in a dangerous, wooded area known as The Jungle. She has lived there since she was six in a tent with her dad, and with KING, her only friend aside from the towering trees and woodland animals who she believes talk to her. She views herself as a type of ghost, since she has been taught to live as if she were invisible.

After reading The Little Mermaid, Rain has an idea to see the outside world on her next birthday, her thirteenth. Her dad reluctantly agrees for her to go, but for only one day.

The world is not as she expected, and proves to be more dangerous than staying in her tent. As King tries to protect her from a gang in his past, Rain and he become separated. There are a million things she doesn’t know, but she is stronger than she thinks, and in the end she must choose: to act upon her future or disappear as a ghost forever.

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?
Confidence and clarity. I have a greater sense about why I write; I now have the skills to pull together a coherent story; and am better equipped to manage the bits that make me unique. 

With packet deadlines removed as an incentive, do you anticipate it will be harder to keep writing? Any plans for your post-Hamline writing life?
I plan to actively participate in workshops and conferences in the writing community to drive the incentives for my next deadlines.

Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?Many times in the program I questioned whether I deserved to be at Hamline—to consider myself a writer. I know I’ll question whether I deserve to be an alum, and again, a writer. I can deal with that as long as I keep writing and have my Hamline friends.

The public is welcome to attend the graduate recognition ceremony on Sunday, January 18, 3:30pm, (Anne Simley Theatre, Drew Fine Arts Building). Linda Sue Park is the speaker.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Ready for Winter Residency?

Countdown to residency! Lady Emfak, the current Inkpot wrangler, went to the MFAC Facebook group and asked current and former MFAC students to share memories of and advice for surviving a winter residency, both in the classroom and at the hotel, Bandana Square Best Western. Most of the posters’ names have been removed for the transition to a public forum. Here’s what people had to say:

  • If you don't mind the cold, you should definitely walk with Claire Rudolf Murphy and Jacqueline Briggs Martin. Great way to clear your head and to get to know these excellent professors. 
  • I've always really dug the Bandana Square Best Western. The converted train station has a vibe that syncs up well with late night debates and debauchery. 
  • Jackie Briggs Martin: I'm not trying to tempt fate and call down avalanches of snow, but I will say that I'm up for the walk. Got boots, gloves, hat, down coat, backpack. Let's meet in the lobby in six days. 
  • I'm in!!:) 
  • Also, stay at the hotel - you might find something cheaper 20min away but it's worth the extra money to be with everyone. Conversation, bonding, opportunities to tell inappropriate jokes to your professors (I'm talking to you Andrew Steeves) is the one of the benefits of this program:). 
  • Urgent care right next door! 
  • Bring your insurance card even if it makes your wallet bulky. Otherwise the grouchy people at the med center will charge you an insane amount of money for a step test. And they won't accept a copy of the card faxed from home, nope, it has to be in their hot hands. 
  • Write your ass off. Drink wine while writing your ass off. The faculty lounge has the best wine, so find a way in there.
  • Pack sweaters. 
  • While you do need to prepare for the cold outside, keep in mind that it is usually very, very warm INSIDE, so wear layers. 
  • Go to all the things. Talk with all the people. Drink all the wines. 
  • Excellent advice. 
  • LOL. 
  • Leave a snifter of brandy outside your hotel room for the ghost. 
  • Serious note: start taking vitamin C at least five days before leaving. Stay hydrated. 
  • Bring enough of your favorite beer or wine to share, and socialize! 
  • Or, just steal the snifter of brandy from in front of that one hotel room.
  • Um, also read your workshop materials in advance and DON'T LEAVE THEM AT HOME. 
  • Anita Silvey: Thinking of you all, have a great residency 
  • LOL, Zachary Solo Wilson. I'm on it this time. 
  • Sherryl Clark: If you come from where I do, buy thermal underwear 6 months in advance (can't buy it in summer here). But I have to say one of my favourite things about winter residencies was the snow and walking to and from campus and listening to it crunch under my feet! 
  • Also, snow emergency rules. And if you're going to ask your dad do get your car out of hoc because you have your lecture the next day, be very grateful for a long time. 
  • If you don't like to be too hot--and the thermostat in the room is as low as it goes--ask the desk. They can turn it down more. 
  • Push yourself outside your comfort zone, in the myriad ways that applies. These are your people. You will not find a more supportive group. 
  • I'm not sure how the Bandana Inn will function without Gina D. keeping the manager informed about problems with the hotel. Oh, and be careful, the bartender has a volatile temper. 
  • Pray they have hired a new bartender. 
  • Bring one notebook to take notes and a second notebook for the many new ideas you will get. 
  • Sleep when you can. and try to exercise to give your mind and body a break. The gym at the school is better than the 'gym' in the hotel. But in a pinch... 
  • I am so excited! 
  • In terms of mental preparation, I'd say the best track is to abandon all expectations and let the experience of residency be what it is as you do it. In other words, open yourself up to loving certain lectures on the schedule that you might have skipped if this were an optional conference. And for Pete's sake, don't go into workshop looking for anything other than what you're given at the table. The unpredictability of residency is one of its biggest strengths. 
  • Oh, and since what I wrote there has nothing to do with January residency in particular, I'll add that the cold is predictable. Super predictable. Bundle up, y'all. 
  • Be nice in workshop. Do not suggest big changes that amount to you rewriting the piece--it's not yours, it's the writer's. Talk about its strengths, not just the faults or weaknesses you see in it. 
  • THINSULATE is an awesome thing to have in your gloves and hats. Though I have never enjoyed a winter residency, I used to spend Novembers outside in six inches of snow wiring holiday lights at work, and Thinsulate stuff is a godsend. Also insulated overalls, but even just wearing an extra layer under your jeans is helpful. Don't touch metal with your bare hands if it gets below zero. That goes double for licking a flagpole. 
  • 1. If you're not used to the cold, you won't be prepared enough. That saying, be over prepared. 2. Talk to the faculty. They may look mean and intimidating because of the word "Faculty," but they are the most gentle, friendly, and nurturing faculty you'll ever meet. 3. Don't stay in your room, like everyone says--socialize! 4. They are no me, you and I's--only us and we. 4. That saying, although there are class and groups, there's no room for cliques. We all have the same goals. We are all in this together. We all want to write good literature for the kiddos. 5. Share your secrets--writing secrets that is. And, learn some. 6. The best thing about winter residency is that you're cooped up. We(The Fearless Four) were fortunate to have upper classes to want to get to know us. It felt good. And, we were humble enough to open and and admit that we didn't already know anything. That alone led to life long friendships. 7. So, be open for friendships, wonderful faculty, sharing secrets, wearing long johns, and drinking lots of wine. 
  • Bring a good travel cup for tea or coffee etc. Ginko's will let you use your own -- those paper cups don't keep anything warm for long. 
  • Also, I almost always read the workshop pieces at least twice. Once for general impression, and once for craft stuff. The couple of times I only read once, I didn't learn as much, and wasn't able to give feedback that was as thoughtful as I'd like. 
  • During my first residency, I heard someone playing the violin. I actually stood on the bed to hear it better through the vent. Later on I learned it was the legendary violin-playing ghost. 
  • Also participate in the readings! You will never have a more supportive audience! 
  • There's a ghost? 
  • There are many ghosts, Anne. The ghost of residencies past, the ghost of residencies present, and, worst of all, the ghost of residencies future. Who usually shows up just as the bar is closing. 
  • And the best residency advice I can offer: give your adviser a thank you gift basket of cheese and wine. They more than earned it. (Unless your advisor is Laura Ruby, which calls for vodka.) 
  • The ghost likes brandy to go with violin concerto in D. 
  • Don't listen to JJ, you guys. My advisors always preferred the Caribbean vacations. 
  • Last winter I had them turn OFF the heat in my room. Yes, OFF. It was so blasted hot in there I could barely breathe. I am from the Twin Cities, so I'm used to cold, but still. And whatever wine you put in the fridge isn't enough. Double it. 
  • Head for the library early to find those books your own library doesn't carry. Then read and write for your reading list in a few spare moments. Enjoy the atmosphere and the facilities, and buy a Hamline souvenir in the bookstore--where all of the faculty books can be found (and maybe a sweatshirt or t-shirt). It's a great place to be and you can do laundry, but if so, it's only your own! 
  • Yes, to add on to Connie Heckert, there are laundry facilities, so you don't need to pack much. Leave extra room for books, and I always bring art supplies. 
  • Anne Ursu, I believe it was A Lafaye who told me about the ghost. This was way back in 2009.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Alumni Voices with Andrew Steeves: Andrew’s Top Six Goals All Serious Writers Should Have for 2015

End of year lists are so 2014, right? Old fashioned, outdated, and frankly a bit embarrassing in retrospect, like the haircuts our parents had in our baby pictures. It’s 2015, which according to reliable sources means we’re getting finally getting hoverboards and self-drying jackets. I say bring it on, let’s burn our history books and charge blindly into the future, never looking back.

And so, in the spirit of looking forward, I’ve compiled an extremely judgmental, beginning-of-year list of goals that any and all serious writers should aspire to in the new year. Now, I’m not saying that if you don’t hold these goals you’re not a serious writer. I would never say that out loud. That’s why I’m typing it here for you to read. IF YOU DON’T ASPIRE TO MEET THESE GOALS, YOU ARE NOT A SERIOUS WRITER.
1. Get Published
Everyone knows that you’re not really a writer unless you get published, and I mean actually published, not that self-publishing crap. Anyone with an internet connection and some spare time thinks they can fart something out on Amazon and call themselves a writer. No. You are only a writer if I can walk into a Barnes and Noble and see your name on an endcap somewhere. Otherwise the word loses all meaning.

2. Read Amazon/Goodreads Reviews

Writing is a service industry, in a way. We are creating works of beauty for the masses, seeking their approval and admiration. The only way to measure that approval is by reading the reviews our audience gives us and really taking them to heart. It can be hard at times, particularly if you get a bad review, but often the complaints are valid. After all, our readers are our customers, and isn’t the customer always right?

3. Pay Attention to the Market

You will have a lot of difficulty getting your book published if you aren’t plugged in to the trends of what’s selling. After Twilight came out, do you think publishers were jumping over each other to buy your satirical sci-fi about a future where fish rule the world? No. They wanted hunky vampires and sexy chastity. Look, we all have a book inside of us, a little voice whispering plot details that captures the imagination. The trick to being a serious writer is to ignore that little voice and write whatever is selling at the time.

4. Ignore Fads
That said, and perhaps a tad counterintuitively, beware passing fads. There’s a big push right now for diversity in literature thanks to armchair, hashtag activism. It is sound and fury, signifying nothing. By writing in diverse characters, you are limiting your audience appeal. People want to read about people like them, and since the majority of book buyers are white and cis-gendered, your books should reflect that majority. It may not be “P.C.” but if diverse books sold, people would write and sell more diverse books.

5. Impart Truth

Culturally, there is nothing more important than the book. The difference between a free society and enslavement often boils down to literacy, the ability to read and interpret ideas. As a serious writer, you are a part of a proud tradition of revolutionaries. You are the latest in a line of great thinkers and great men. Unless of course, you write worthless, thematically soft tripe. Children going on mindless adventures and insipid romances will be the death of culture, and you have a responsibility to defend against such a fate.

6. Suffer for Your Art

Writing is hard. It’s supposed to be hard. If it isn’t hard, than it isn’t worth doing. It isn’t for the meek, and if you can’t handle it, than beware. Turn back. Here be dragons. Not everyone is cut out to be a writer, and if you cannot endure the pain that comes with birthing a world, then get out of the way of those of us who can. Those of us who write until our fingers crack and bleed, who destroy relationships in our own lives in service of our art, who drink and smoke to distract ourselves from the pain of living, we are the ones who deserve a place immortalized in prose. I will not suffer pretenders, but I will gladly suffer for my art.

So there you have it, six goals all serious writers should share. Of course, SOME would argue that the only thing that makes a writer is writing, that the business of writing can be so demoralizing that you should pay attention to the good reviews and ignore the bad, that the market is impossible to predict and a well-crafted book written from the heart will always find an audience, that it’s incredibly insulting to refer to diversity in lit a fad when it may be one of the most crucial issues in literature today, that there are an abundance of truths and a story told honestly will contain many of them without resorting to heavy-handed reinforcement of proper thinking, or that writing is hard enough without punishing yourself on top of it, that you should above all save yourself so that you can save the world with your beautiful, meaningful words.

To those detractors who would challenge my goals, I only have one recourse. I shall call them the foulest insult I can imagine, the greatest slur one writer can call another…

A children’s author. 


Andrew Steeves is a 2013 graduate of the MFAC program. He lives in Wisconsin.