Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Publication Interview: Sewing Stories

Author and MFAC alum Barbara Herkert* talks with us about her newest book, Sewing Stories. Learn about her writing process for this picture book biography on the life of Harriet Powers, an African American artist who grew up as a slave.

Tell us about your new book.

Sewing Stories is about an artist who was born into slavery, faced with crushing degradation and poverty, and still driven to create in the form of appliqué story quilts unequaled in composition and design. The book is illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton and was released in October, 2015 by Alfred A. Knopf.

Do you have a favorite part of the book or a favorite character?

I love the ending, where Harriet is soaring across the sky.

Did you workshop this story at Hamline or work with a faculty member on it?

I started working on this book at Hamline under Jackie Briggs Martin’s mentorship. I’d never written a picture book biography before. I was transfixed by the genre. Jackie showed me how to search for those golden nuggets, how to transport the reader with details.

When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?

I began the manuscript during my third semester at Hamline. I was in the first class--the “big class.”

As the work progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about?

My first editor at Knopf was Michelle Burke. We cut out entire stanzas and shortened others to make room for illustrations. I finished the project with another editor, Kelly Delaney, after Michelle decided to stay home with her new baby. Kelly made further edits, including taking the stanzas out of free-verse and including dialogue. I was extremely hesitant about the dialogue—the only documented words of Harriet’s own are the descriptions of her story quilts. But I found a source of testimonies by former slaves that I felt enveloped Harriet’s spirit.

What research did you do before and while writing the book?

I did tons of research. I read everything I could about Harriet, about slavery and life in Athens, Georgia following the Civil War, and about appliqué quilting. I went to the Smithsonian to see the first story quilt “in person.” The shapes and the rhythm that continues throughout the quilt mesmerized me.

Where did you do most of your writing for this book?

At home.

Any final thoughts on the book you'd like to share?

The idea for this book came to me when I was researching for another project. I was reading about anonymous women artists when I first came across Harriet’s photograph and pictures of her story quilts. I had to find out more about her. She enchanted me.

*Barbara Herkert received a biology degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a MFA from Hamline University. She studied art and art history at Oregon State University, and wrote and illustrated my first book in 2001, entitled Birds in Your Backyard. I’m currently the Co-Regional Advisor for SCBWI-Oregon. Mary Cassatt: Extraordinary Expressionist Painter (with illustrations by Gabi Swiatkowska) was also released in October, 2015, and A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E.B. White (illustrated by Lauren Castillo) will be released in 2017 (both by Christy Ottaviano/Henry Holt.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Recite a Poem as You Dress

Today author and MFAC faculty member Ron Koertge* talks about a recent email he received from his colleague, Anne Ursu, on the topic of poetry and how it helps kids with autism.  Ron takes this idea a step further and talks about how we all could benefit from a little more poetry to help organize our busy lives and minds.

Recently Anne Ursu sent Chris Heppermann and me some information about a workshop she attended. It focused on kids with autism. Here is a paragraph from Anne’s e-mail: “They said poetry was really effective with these kids who had intense interests in things, who were able to respond really well to form, who could use and see language in profound ways, who have a natural ability for metaphor and deep empathy. They described formal poetry as organizing for the mind.”

I could immediately see how this would work. For me, fixed forms (sonnet, villanelle, sestina, etc.) quiet the mind and organize a hash of emotions into a tastier meal with maybe an arresting simile at the end for dessert. 

I’ve taught dozens and dozens of workshops and in most of those I insisted on fixed forms, since one of the dangers of traditional workshops is having them turn into therapy sessions where someone writes a sprawling free verse poem about her divorce and everyone starts clucking and telling their divorce stories. Some of the aggrieved hook up, there’s a quick wedding ceremony, couples counseling, and another divorce. And all this before the break! Okay, I made that last part up, but the point is the poem as a poem has been forgotten.
Woman, Female, Thoughtful, Alone, Mountain, Thinking
Let’s think about a poem that is basically a complaint – nobody understands me so I’m going to go up on Echo Mountain and cry. Everybody’s written this, especially in some hideously expensive journal with a leather cover and a silver clasp.

Take that poem with all its legitimate angst (it’s truly dispiriting to be misunderstood) and invite it into a simple form like the sonnet. Immediately meter comes into play; that makes the incident or experience more melodious; even if that melody turns out to be strident and cacophonous and would generally make Phillip Glass happy, the sounds are still organized in a way lots of free verse isn’t. 

Next comes rhyme and right after that the search for synonyms. Lots of young poets say things like, “Well, rhyme won’t let me say what I mean.” Here’s what I tell them: “Good. I know what you mean. Say something that doesn’t bore the crap out of me. Don’t rhyme misunderstood with childhood. Everybody does that. Rhyme it with Hollywood and see where that takes you.”

Here’s another sentence or two from Anne’s e-mail: “He told a story of an autistic teenager who could only tie his shoes when he recited William Blake – he needed the meter to organize his mind enough to get the executive functioning to perform the motor task.”

I wish everybody – not just kids – would recite poems as they dressed. Imagine a neighborhood where poetry soared out of bedroom windows as folks laced and buttoned and zipped before the work day began. I’d live there for sure. Wouldn’t you?

 P.S. Don’t get me wrong – poetry can be used as therapy and a poem can be purging. Just don’t purge around me when I’m wearing my good pants.

*Ron Koertge is a faculty member at Hamline's MFAC program.  He writes poetry for everyone, fiction for young adults, and most recently co-authored a young reader series (Backyard Witch) with Hamline alum Chris Heppermann. Book # 1 of that series -Backyard Witch: Sadie’s Story - is out now (read the publication interview). His latest work also includes The Ogre’s WifeCoaltown Jesus, and the unforgettable Sex World - some of the fastest flash fiction in the world.

You can learn more about Ron's work by visiting his website or visit his faculty page to learn about him as a professor at Hamline University.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Avoiding the Demon Wasp

Today, alumni Jackie Hesse* writes about her battle with the Demon Wasp (a.k.a. panic).  Read on to see if the sage advice of a Buddhist monk could also help you deal with your own struggles with victomhood, fear, and saying "no." 

Years ago I suffered from severe panic disorder. I could barely muster the courage to leave my house for fear of a crippling panic attack. I saw several therapists and took medication but couldn't shake the overwhelming fear and sense of impending doom.

A friend counseled me through this rough period. Not knowing how to help, she enlisted the aid of a Buddhist monk whom she sat next to on a trans-Atlantic flight.

"Why does she have panic attacks and how does she get rid of them?" she asked the monk.

He smiled, benevolently I picture, and said, "She's getting something out of them or she wouldn't have them." 

I wanted to punch that monk in the face. Getting something out of panic? Was he mad? I was a victim of panic. I was not relishing in it nor choosing it. What an insensitive, idiot monk.

I thought about that monk recently. You see, recently I began to protect my writing time. Panic and writing. The two are related.

For years I blamed my failure to write on others, on the world. There is something seductive about being the victim, it evokes sympathy which ironically translates into power. Because I was powerless over panic, and over all the things that stood between me and my writing time, I got a pass.

I've gotten over, or possibly through, having panic attacks. I decided that while extremely uncomfortable, panic can't hurt me and anxiety is just a (sucky) part of life. It's okay to feel anxious and still do things. More important is that it's ok to say no.   

The University of California at San Francisco has done extensive research on this idea of saying no. The more difficult it is for a person to say no the more "stress, burnout, and depression" they suffer. Go figure. Probably the less writing they do as well.

My panic was really about me saying not saying no. Panic felt very real and very uncontrollable and I suffered terribly. I really did think I was going to die.
But panic and anxiety were, in a very unconscious sense, benefitting me.

The same is true with not having enough time to write. The truth is that I am afraid. What if I do make the time and what I create isn't good? What if it's rejected, criticized, or worst of all called harmful? But oh! Look at this! If I never finish, never thoroughly revise, I will never have to face the stings of that demon wasp. How nice that I have children, laundry, out of town guests or the upcoming dinner party to avoid the buzzing incubus.

The truth is, I was getting something out of panic. Humans don't do things for no reason. This is the basis of all detective work: Who had a reason to want Johnny dead? We all do things because, consciously or subconsciously, there is something in it for us.

I have finally learned that it's okay to say no, not because I have panic disorder, but because I just don't want to, or because I am writing. It's empowering, actually. I know that what I gain from protecting my writing time and doing the writing, even if it's no good, even if it lacks craft, even if someone, somewhere thinks it's harmful, is far greater than the feeling of safety and comfort (and stagnation) of being a victim. It is better to write and fail than to not write at all. And, if I ran into that monk today, I'd thank him.    

*Jackie Hesse is a January 2013 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives and writes in Saint Paul, Minnesota and teaches at Normandale Community College.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Write it Forward

This week MFAC alum Maggie Moris* shares a story about the power of taking the time to write something by hand and how stumbling across a long-forgotten letter can bring important memories surging back to life.

I miss her.

My maternal grandmother, Mary Jane Swan, took me in to live with her at a time when I needed out of a toxic relationship. On a late November night nearly twenty years ago, I called her in desperation. I barely spoke three words before she said, “You don’t have to explain. The front door’s unlocked. I’ll wait up.”

I miss her for that large love gesture. I miss her for the countless smaller acts that made her an enormous presence in my life. I miss her small kitchen and the tiny table by the window where love was offered up alongside warm slices of homemade bread shimmering with melted butter.

So when, earlier this November, I stumbled upon an old forgotten card from her – found in a completely unexpected place – it was as if she found a way to reach across the great divide between us and offer comfort and love all over again.

Packed over the three blank panels of the greeting card, her strong upward-tilted hand marched through seventeen sentences, each one a declaration of the dearest pieces of her world. Her unique choices for spelling and punctuation trumpeted her fierce personality.

“Dear Maggi! What a nice surprise! To hear from you.”

She wrote about baking bread, about her gardens and of preparations to overwinter plants.

“… putting them in the garage, temporarily to get used to coming indoors.”

She mentioned a cousin living in Toronto with a new husband and their limited finances. 

“Bob can only take a few classes this year.”

She touched upon the Brazilian foreign exchange student that she and grandpa hosted when they were in their late sixties. Then, she noted her plans to go to church later that day before having dinner with my parents. Finally, she ended the card with news that she had attended a wedding reception the nite (sic) before:

“…so many of our neighbors were there. Danced, too.”

Danced, too…

Seventeen sentences and the whole heart of her life was offered up, a condensed remembrance of hearth, home, family, faith, community, hospitality, and dancing …

Which brings me to now and to you.

In this season of mostly mass-produced holiday missives, can we choose to write one hand-written note? Pick a child - any child – or anyone near and dear, close or far, and send something of yourself via a paragraph or two with your scribbles and scratches. Start a conversation. Open up a dialogue for later. (Replace, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with, “What world problem would you like to solve?”)

A written-by-hand note, with its stamp, postmark, fold and seal is a tangible time capsule. It fixes the here and now in place with heart-meant-ness. Something written by hand bears your unique script in a way that a typewritten font simply cannot. 

Can Not.

Even if Grandma Swan had written her seventeen sentences in an e-mail and even if I had printed that e-mail and saved it, the experience of reading her words would not be the same.

I believe that something elusive and ethereal attaches itself to our squiggles and loops, slashes and dashes. We impart an invisible energy through our physical touch, even if only through pen to paper. As writers we are uniquely – if not exclusively – positioned to send many such small emissaries out into someone’s future moment – moments we can’t see or anticipate, but important connections nonetheless.

Grandma Swan died on December 14, 2005. Ten years have passed since I last held her hand. Yet, those five or ten minutes she took to compose her thoughts on that day, on this card, ensured that the future me could one day feel her touch again.

A present day spirit created with the corporeal hand of the past … a lost letter full to the brim with tidings of comfort and joy.

Happy Holidays, dear friends.
I hope you write.
I hope you dance.

*Maggie Moris (a.k.a. M. A. Moris) writes middle-grade novels. She plans to write a personal card to all four of her nieces and nephews this Christmas. She is a 2009 Hamline graduate and has asked Santa for a few more Twitter followers @maggiemoris. Her website is