Thursday, September 29, 2016

Alumni Voices with Polly Alice: Something About Writing

Dear Hamline MFAC friends,

I’m writing you from HU 211 where I now teach English 101 twice, two days a week. The inner city campus of the local community college has somehow decided to welcome me on board. Just four blocks from my former art studio, the campus is one large system of buildings with a view of uptown from where I park my Soul in the back lot every Monday and Wednesday. My classroom is filled with the slim table desks and chairs, four posters of Frida Kahlo, a twenty-foot white board, and an ad from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art exhibit from 1992. The lighting isn’t too terrible. The carpet is a nice gray check, and as they said when I first came in, I’m “exactly the kind of person they are looking for.” I have no idea what that means.

For six hours a week, I have to find something to say, something about writing. Looking into the vast subject of words and how we use them, I’m searching for all the unspoken things from my undergrad classes. What I say from week to week must build a bridge to a place that students may care to go.  Students who overwhelmingly chose to write their first essays on why college is not really that important to getting a great job. Students who catch up on sleep outside the adjunct office, or watch TV by phone in between classes. Students who have said, they really like my class.

So every time I prepare for class, I ask myself what I’m going to say that’s worthwhile. Because I’m someone who loved to skip class, sneak out when the professor’s back was turned, write all my assignments at 2 am the night before without revising. There was the time I left class because the professor touched the end of his nose too often. A couple of times I skipped Ethics because the rather overheated professor like to raise his arms a lot. Once I even spoke loudly about a teacher’s pedagogy as he came up behind me on the sidewalk. If there is one thing I’ve come to recognize the last few years, is what youth really means. The hilariousness of it. The wonderful bliss of ignorance. The amazing aptitude for discovering something new.

Every time I prepare for class, I ask myself what I’m going to do to make it interesting. I remember the professor who introduced me to poetry. Writing a paper about that poem, changed the entire course of my life, made me who I am as a person, and continues to effect each and every thing I do: how I think, how I process, and how I chose to pursue my creative life. I remember the lectures that brought me to tears, made me wonder about the universe, or helped me understand just how little I really knew about the world.

Every time I prepare for class, I ask myself where I want these students to go. My answer: I want them to fly into the future on wings made of words, words made into sentences - sentences formed into a path they can walk on; into the place they were meant to be.

I guess I’m surprised to suddenly become an English Professor. I think I like it.  

Polly Alice author and illustrator, opened New Thing Art Studio in 2015 back home in Kansas City-- where she paints, illustrates children’s books, and teaches college writing. Her work is often mixed media. “I create my art to be more like poetry: to have symbolic meanings layered from dream images and memories.” Her work centers on healing, small loves, and the every day. Polly is a proud Hamline MFAC alumna. She won the 2014 Ernest Hartmann award from the International Association for the Study of Dreams from Berkley CA for her research on self awareness for writers and artists through dreamwork. She loves letters. Write her anytime and you’ll be sure to get one back. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Faculty Voices with Marsha Qualey: The Big One - Conflict and Antagonists

We focused on plot this past residency. I welcomed this topic immersion because for the last several months I have been writing short stories after years of novel writing, and I have been hugely challenged by the need to pare down the scope of my storytelling. How much plot can a 5000 word story handle? How do I know what is essential? What should I spend time on?
The residency session I concocted and led (with gracious participation from very game students; thank you, all) was, frankly, quite self-serving as it was an exploration that’s relevant to my own writing questions.

In the session we first discussed the types of conflict in fiction as outlined by Victoria Lynn Schmidt in her book Story Structure Architect:

Relational Conflict 
This is the main character in conflict with another human

Social Conflict
The Main Character faces the group and the cultural/social/legal limits of that group--a religious organization and its laws, a secular institution and its laws, or maybe a book club and its expectations.

Situational Conflict
The main character is challenged by something that occurs or arises in the natural or human-made world, maybe tornadoes or fire or being lost in the woods or swimming among sharks.

Inner Conflict
The main character is challenged by the self—by habits or uncertainty or memories or any of the many physical or emotional elements of that person.

Paranormal Conflict 
The main character is challenged by technology, science, or the limits of what is possible: unleashing a new strain of bacteria, dealing with superpowers, ghosts.  

Cosmic Conflict 
The main character deals with fate, destiny, or God

Then we did a close reading of a few scenes from The Goose Girl, one of the residency’s common books and discussed what types of conflict were present in the scenes. Were the scenes loaded with too many types? How much is too much? What types of conflict might be best for what types of scene?

Types of conflict are nearly interchangeable with types of antagonists. I concluded the session by encouraging the writers to make their own conflict/antagonist list for each of their own stories. What are the specific conflicts or antagonists a protagonist might encounter? This is crucial world building. 

In her lecture “Bad Luck and Trouble: Antagonists in Fiction”, Laura Ruby told us that the most important antagonist “is the self.” Similar, one could say, to Schmidt’s “Inner Conflict.” I agree with Laura (who wouldn’t!) but my final caution to the residency students in my session was about this very important antagonist: Use this conflict sparingly in scenes. This is especially and most obviously true of action scenes, of course, but all scenes can bog down when they focus on inner turmoil. Once established, the inner conflict is part of the reader’s base knowledge and the writer need only—at most—quickly signal that inner struggle. Unless there is a change about to occur that will alter the plot trajectory, it might be a good idea to bury the self.

Marsha Qualey has been a faculty member in Hamline's MFAC program since it began. She is the author of several YA novels, one novel for adults, and several work-for-hire books for younger readers. For more information please visit her website.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Alumni Voices with Bill Kennedy: The Library's Leadership Role

How is the library's role measured?

Is it a number? The James River Valley Library System ranks very well in the categories tracked by the North Dakota State Library. Jamestown is #10 in population in North Dakota and is ranked #8 library in the state in number of visits in 2015. This is a good number.

Or is it learning opportunities that change lives? A story that makes a connection?

Over the past few months, I have collected stories from a cross section of past and present community members and friends that illustrate the role the library plays in the community. Here are a few of those stories based on interviews and my own reading.

English Lecturer, University of Wisconsin, Stout

Libraries have always been important to me. They were especially important for the year and a half after college. I took a year off before grad school to work as a caddy in Chicago and on the Oregon coast, and travel through Australia. Because I never stayed in one place very long, I depended on public libraries for internet so I could stay in touch with friends and family, keep up with current events, research graduate programs, and communicate with the graduate programs I was considering. As an aspiring writer, I depended on libraries as my source for books and films and was able to continue educating myself during that time between college and graduate school.

Elementary Faith Formation Coordinator, St. James Basilica
L-R Annie, age 8, Isaac, age 10, Seth, age 6, Katie and Jacob, age 12

As a parent of four kids, I know that children's literacy is of utmost importance.  I also know that it is not easy in our modern world of screens everywhere.

I know genetically my kids are not all made up exactly the same and therefore reading comes easy to some and not as easy to others.  That is where the community library comes to the forefront in our family.

My children don't always love to read, and sometimes they do not want to go to the library, but when I get them there they almost always find something of interest.

I have made it our weekly habit, since they were babies, to go to the library in the name of literacy for my kids. The library is a place children of any age or economic level can come and experience books beyond their imagination.


Louis L’Amour was born in Jamestown, ND in 1908. By the time of his death in 1988, he had written 89 novels, a book of poetry, 14 short-story collections and two full length works of non-fiction. There are more than 200 million copies of his books in print. 45 of his novels have been adapted for Hollywood and TV.

Quotes from Education of a Wandering Man, Bantam Books, 1938

"Education is available to anyone within reach of a library." Page 2.

"All of us had library cards and they were always in use. Reading was as natural to us as breathing." Page 6.

 “The first (non-fiction book) was, I believe, a book called The Genius of Solitude, which I found in our Alfred Dickey library in my hometown.” Pages 13-14.

North Dakota State Representative, District 12
Anthony, Alyse, Jessica, Kenlee, at the ND State Legislature

I have many fond memories of Alfred Dickey library and the bookmobile growing up. Now I take my step daughters there often in the summer and they love it. The library has always been a special place for me. It was summer reading programs, being able to rent a movie after reaching a goal, and spending time with my mom during the summers.

It is a great equalizer. Everyone could come, check out books and explore their interests, a true place of community. I remember when I reached my first achievement at a young age in the summer program, I swear my mother still has my treasure chest toy yo-yo somewhere. I was so proud of that, I worked hard and earned something.

I want that for my girls and luckily they both love going to our local library. They are also part of the summer reading program and we go to Lego club once every two weeks. It's a wonderful experience I feel blessed to share with them, and libraries make it possible.

Homeschool Mom

I began using the children’s library on a weekly basis when my oldest children were three and five years old. All of my children became avid readers, and most of them were reading by age five. My local library made homeschooling my five children much easier because I was able to find a multitude of books to interest all of them. Once a child loves books, all of education opens up to them and they are able to learn rapidly. I am thankful to my library for providing these books for us, and for ordering books that I could not afford to purchase myself.

Several of my children love to write, and as part of our homeschool curriculum they write their own stories. Steven has a strong desire to publish his work. He completed a rough draft of a comic book. My local librarian, Jennifer, offered to help us self-publish it. She took an interest in Stephen’s book Chet Chetterson’s Adventures, and her enthusiasm propelled us toward completing our immense project of rewriting and self-publishing a book. She brought books into the library on how to draw comics, as well as current examples of comic book stories. Once we had created the comic book, Jennifer helped to organize a book-signing event and publicity in the newspaper. I am amazed and thankful for all her help. This experience has helped my son go deeper into the creative process and gain a new appreciation for his education as a means to get where he is going in life.

Retired 2nd grade Teacher, Reading Specialist/Read180 Teacher
Currently Coaching 7th Grade Girls Basketball, Elementary Track & Field
Deb and Students

The James River Valley Library plays a very important role in the elementary classroom.  I have taught children for 30 years, and have depended on and worked closely with the library throughout each school year, at all levels of teaching. I have used the library for thematic teaching units, to find as many resources as possible in order to pique a student's interest on a topic. I have borrowed books on a monthly basis to use for oral reading when studying heroes such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Ruby Bridges.                      

I love calling the librarian and upon communicating the need, she gathers the books of interest for me. When I arrive, the books are ready. Many teachers in our district use the library in the same way. We encourage our students to get involved in the library programs throughout the school year and the summer.  We have a direct connection with the librarians. I can't put enough emphasis on the importance of a great relationship between our elementary schools and JRVLS.

Community Activist:  Little Libraries, Community Gardens, Seed Library
Laura Miller Today, Donald Kershaw Age 7

There comes a time when all the king's horses and all the king's men can never fix Humpty Dumpty again. My brother Donald, at the age of 77, had come to that point after
a number of medical diagnoses had chipped away at his robust health.  The final diagnosis was male breast cancer. He gave up his beloved Volvo, his apartment and his independence and moved into a nursing home in Normal, Illinois. Soon he was too frail for more surgeries. Powerful prescriptions had lost the power to heal him. Donald was face to face with a point of no return. I brought him to Jamestown.

It was now time for me to help him prepare his last life and death decisions. We had not grown up together. We were a family of five children born during and shortly after the depression, growing up separately in foster care and in children’s homes. Nevertheless, we were close.

In these last years he was no longer my mentor. I was his mentor and I was his friend. Most of all, I was his sister. In October, 2015 the Friends of the James River Library System kicked off a series of programs aimed at helping the public understand how to prepare for the final days of life. I attended each of these programs and at the end of each session felt more prepared to help my brother and myself.

During the second session led by Michael Williams, owner and funeral director at Williams-Lisko Funeral Home, I learned that the University of North Dakota Medical School had a deeded body program where my brother could donate his body after death to the study of medical students. This had been Donald’s long time wish even in his young and healthy days.

My brother passed on June 11, 2016. Thanks to the James River Valley Library System I had in short order learned to navigate the paths to making final preparations. I can now take comfort in knowing he was able to complete a final wish and I have gained knowledge in making my own preparations.

*Bill Kennedy grew up in a library, his house. He spent many years in the apparel industry traveling the world looking for trends. Bill received his MFA in Creative Writing for Kids & YA at Hamline U in 2009, the second graduating class.  He and his wife teach creative writing to students from elementary school to long term care facilities. He is the author of three books.

Bill’s day job is raising awareness and money for a renovated and expanded library as the Development Director for the James River Valley Library System (JRVLS) in Jamestown, ND.