Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Meet the Grad: Jennifer Coats

On January 17, 2016 the MFAC program hosted a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor the Hamline students who have completed their studies and will be receiving an MFA from Hamline University. 

During the month of January we will be featuring our new alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Our last new graduate is Jennifer Coats.

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

I have two daughters, Carly and Cassidy, at different colleges, so I spend a lot of time parenting through text messages. Lola and Isabelle, my two cats, keep my head clear through mandatory cat breaks, and my dog, Bear; well, I’m not sure what Bear does but I know I can’t live without it. I’m a teacher—this year I took on a new age group after many years of teaching grades K-8, and I’m having a blast seeing the world through the eyes of three year olds. I play baritone horn in the local concert band, and the church choir allows me to sing along periodically. I love going on new adventures and field trips, and Minneapolis continues to surprise me. My various friend groups keep me sane, and I’ve spent a lot of time this year streaming Dead & Company concerts and dancing in my living room. Hamline MFAC has fed my addiction to books, and I’ve often said I might be the fourth pig, building a house of books.

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

That crazy crawler on the side of your web pages that knows everything about you? I was on a “what next?” journey of exploration, and I looked at various grad school programs. The Hamline MFAC ad followed me for days, then went away, then came back until I agreed to go to an info session. I went to the session “just to see,” kind of like going to the pound “just to look” at puppies. Many of us own dogs we fell in love with when we were “just looking;” I have a grad school I fell in love with when I was “just checking it out.” 

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

To keep me from reading books under my desk instead of listening to the lesson, my fourth grade teacher pulled me and several other kids out of class to participate in “Reading, Writing, and Radio,” where students from outlying towns listened to a radio broadcast from Springfield, IL and responded to the weekly topics, sending in our responses, which were then sometimes READ ON THE RADIO!! That first publication experience left me hungry for more. I wrote poetry in high school (is it bad poetry? I don’t care; I still love it so) and tucked away words, phrases and ideas that caught my fancy for years. In college, I took creative writing classes, but nothing stuck and I chose to teach reading and writing to children rather than do it myself. The piece I wrote to apply to the program was the first writing I’d really done since college.

What do remember most about your first residency?

In the montage of that crazy ten days, I remember meeting the members of our class (there were nine of us then—before some defected to the regular MFA), and immediately there was a click so loud you could almost hear it. We went to sit unobtrusively in the back row of GLC100 and we were told “Hey, these are OUR spots!” by fourth semester students. So we looked at each other and nodded our heads in sync (I think there was a soundtrack playing in the background) and said, “Fine. WE will sit in the FRONT ROW.” And we’ve been there ever since. We went to lunch together and laughed and laughed and The Front Row was born. I was so overwhelmed with learning the language of writing (psychic distance? Inciting incident? WTF?), and so excited to be learning the tools of writing for children, that, just as the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes, I think my brain had to grow three sizes that first residency to accommodate all the new information.

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

I came to the program to learn how to write picture books, and I have not really written a single one. I worked on a MG fantasy for a while, and then my keyboard was hijacked by Young Adult novels. I wrote a contemporary YA novel and a YA fantasy novel, and I just finished a MG fantasy/folk tale.

When I get better at writing, I will maybe know enough to write and revise a picture book. Claire’s lectures always get me excited about nonfiction, so I’d like to try that some time, but fiction is what’s been coming out on the page.

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.

Seventeen-year-old Bliss Walker has been dumped in a nowhere world of corn and bean fields in Central Illinois. Before Mama left Bliss behind in Illinois with her cousin Patsy’s family, all Bliss ever wanted was to be important in Mama’s life. Now, Bliss has given up on wanting anything for herself, other than keeping her boyfriend River happy, whether at endless parties or in the back seat, and keeping her cousin Patsy off her back. Then Bliss meets Blake Wu. Blake helps Bliss out when River’s truck gets stuck, and he doesn’t even put up a fight when River gets jealous. He shows Bliss a glimpse of what it feels like to be seen as herself, a real person who might even be allowed to want things. Bliss takes a job walking beans at Blake’s family farm, and working with Blake stirs up new desires and possibilities for Bliss. Patsy and River are both furious about Bliss’s growing relationship with Blake, and each tries to make Bliss prove her love and loyalty. When Mama shows up with a plan to sweep Bliss off to Japan as part of a mother-daughter modeling team, Bliss must choose between keeping her friends and family happy or taking charge of her own life.

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

I recently re-read part of the MG fantasy I wrote my first semester and it’s hard to believe I’m the one who wrote it. It wasn’t terrible; but it was SO different from what I’d write now.

I had a lot of trepidation about this program before I applied. Time requirement? Expense? Could I really do it? Was it practical? All of these  proved to be manageable. I have gotten so much more out of MFAC than I put into it. Lifelong friends, incredible faculty, and a vibrant, passionate, community that is constantly learning and growing, pushing and pulling me to grow in many ways.

At every step of the way, Hamline MFAC has boosted me up. I’ve left every workshop and residency feeling as if I have so much yet to learn, but I always have hope that I can do it. Participants are praised for where they are, for the good things they are doing, and given wings to keep going, hope that they can soar and the confidence that they can do it.