Friday, January 8, 2016

Meet the Grad: Brita Sandstrom

On January 17, 2016 the MFAC program will host a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor the Hamline students who have completed their studies and will be receiving an MFA from Hamline University. Between now and residency we'll be posting interviews with the grads.

Today's grad is Brita Sandstrom.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?

I spend most of my time like a cat: napping in various locations and eating stuff. I read a lot (duh) and write a lot (extra duh), and I watch a lot of questionable TV and B-movie action flicks. I work at a pet store and am currently trying to teach myself to run, which I do slowly and with much swearing and asthmatic wheezing. Any remaining free time is devoted to taking pictures of my cat, Pig, and sending them to people regardless of whether they want them or not. 

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

MAGIC. For real, though, I have literally no memory of how I found out about the MFAC. I only remember knowing that I NEEDED to go to an information night. I didn’t have a car at the time, so I made my mom pick me up from the closing shift at work and drive me to another city in the pouring rain at night. Jennifer Coats happened to be at the same meeting with Mary Rockcastle, and she has been unable to pry me out of her life ever since. I wrote most of my Creative Thesis at her dining room table. 

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

I’ve always been a storyteller. Probably because I’m an only child and none of my friends lived nearby, so I was forced to figure out how to entertain myself from a pretty early age. My dogs and I went on a lot of adventures, my stuffed animals had entire character arcs. I started writing in the form of journaling — I only ever managed to get through about three entries before losing interest and starting over and I made up a lot of stuff. I’m pretending it was just early experimentation with the first person POV.

I won an English award as a senior in high school (still my proudest academic accomplishment to date — they gave me a little pin to wear and everything), which encouraged me to study English in college. I have a BA in English Writing with a minor in Greek and Roman Studies. College-level creative writing courses can be tough if you’re interested in writing anything that isn’t short stories about how winter is a metaphor for death or whatever, so I would encourage anyone who didn’t have a great experience with them not to let it discourage you from writing what you actually enjoy.
What do you remember about your first residency?

How much my class and I instantly loved each other. By lunchtime the first day it felt like I had known them my whole life. I have the same relationship with them now as I do with friends I’ve had for over a decade. It’s gross how much we like hanging out.
By the end of it I was more tired than I have ever been in my entire life. The last two days I got so sick that I remember watching Emily Jenkins (or maybe it was Laura Ruby? I was on a lot of cold medicine) giving a lecture and wondering if I could realistically just shove some Kleenex up my nose to keep it from running or if that would be distracting for her.

Also, on the first day, Mary said that something “cranked her off” and Kelly couldn’t stop laughing and I had to stuff my sweatshirt in my mouth to control my giggle fit. 

Have you focused on any one form (picture book, novel, nonfiction; graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Have you tried a form you never thought you’d try?

I was only interested in YA when I first came to the program, everything else seemed boring or “too easy” (HA!), but Swati made me write my first picture book, which showed me the error of my ways. I’ve actually wound up focusing on Middle Grade for the last two semesters, which is harder and more rewarding than anything else I’ve ever done. Going forward I’d love to work on some nonfiction/biography picture books, which is not something Two Years Ago Brita would have said ever under any circumstances. Two Years Ago Brita was very lame. 

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.

My thesis is called Hollow Chest. It’s a Middle Grade historical fantasy set in post-WWII London. Charlie, a nine-year old boy, lives with his mom and grandpa and is struggling to deal with how his big brother Theo has changed since coming back from the war. His grandfather, a WWI veteran, tells him that Theo has “hollow chest,” a condition that means that monsters called “war wolves” have eaten Theo’s heart. Along with his faithful cat, Biscuits, Charlie searches through London to meet more war wolves to try and get back his brother’s heart.
I wanted a way to talk about PTSD and changing family dynamics (“growing up and stuff,” as Anne would say) in a way that is more tangible for younger readers. Basically, to provide a vocabulary to discuss things that are by nature difficult to define or to talk about with people who haven’t experienced them. Also, kitties. 

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies? Any thoughts for new students or people considering the program?

I’ve grown my leaps and bounds as a writer and as a person. I look back at the stuff I wrote going into the MFAC and it feels like someone else wrote it.  (I still use too many adverbs, though. Sorry, Claire.) (And parentheses, I know you hate those.) I’ve learned to trust the “white space,” as Swati would say, to trust the reader to keep up and understand.

The most important thing I’ve learned to do, honestly, is just bulling through. Write even when it sucks and you hate it and you are the worst writer ever and applying to grad school was the dumbest thing you’ve ever done in your whole life because you’re STUPID and you SUCK and you HATE WORDS. Just write the shitty first draft. All it has to do is exist. You can figure out the rest later.

As for advice? There is no shame in floundering. The MFAC is an intense experience both academically and emotionally, especially if you haven’t been a student for a while. I REALLY struggled for a while there and I was too embarrassed to tell anyone. My high school theater director could be kind of a jerk, but he gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten: The audience is rooting for you. If you perform onstage, no one in the seats wants you to suck, they’re hoping for both your sakes that you’ll be great. Likewise, none of your teachers or classmates are perched on the edge of their seats just WAITING for you to mess up so they can swoop down on you like a bird of prey to publicly shame you. They want to help! They want you to be good! THE AUDIENCE IS ROOTING FOR YOU.

Also, at some point in the latter half of the residency, you WILL have to choose between attending a lecture you think you should go to, and passing out facedown on one of the couches in Anderson while throngs of wide-eyed undergrads look on pityingly and wonder if that’s what it’s like to be an old person. Don’t fight it. Just take the nap. JUST. TAKE. THE. NAP. 

The public is welcome to attend the graduate recognition ceremony on Sunday, January 17 at 3:30 p.m. in Anne Simley Theatre, Hamline University. Our graduation speaker this January is Geoff Herbach, author of the award-winning Stupid Fast YA series as well as Fat Boy vs. the Cheerleaders.


  1. Your advice -- from getting the first draft out to JUST TAKE THE NAP -- is fantastic.

  2. I once gave this writer a frog for Christmas and she said, "It's a frog!" -JS