What I Learned on My Way to a Master’s
I entered Hamline’s MFAC program in January of 2007, a member of the “Big Class.” At the time, I’d had one book published, a nonfiction picture book that I’d written and illustrated. When the book came out in 2001, I’d foolishly thought, “All right! I’m in!” And then the dry spell hit. Rejection after rejection. Six years passed. My heart sank. My confidence waned. I considered giving up.
One day I saw an ad for Hamline. What a faculty! My mind was made up. I’d apply to the program and try my hand at writing novels. I’d been chasing the wrong genre. That was it!
I worked on a contemporary middle grade with Kate my first semester, and again with the Marsha Q my last semester. I completed a draft of a YA historical fiction under the guidance of Jane. I am forever grateful for the time I spent with these wise and wonderful mentors.
When it was time to write a thesis, the unexpected happened. My advisor was Jackie, whose picture book biographies (and other works) are shear inspiration. I decided to explore the world of picture book biographies in my thesis. And why not try to write one, too? I’d discovered a quilter by the name of Harriet Powers while researching anonymous women artists. Her photograph haunted me. Her artwork resembled Matisse. I wanted to know more.
I fell in love with the process of writing picture book biographies—searching for gems, walking beside someone you admire, finding just the right words to paint a person’s life. Since graduating, I’ve written three more pb biographies and acquired a dream agent who has found publishers for two. One of them is the manuscript I worked on with Jackie, Sewing Stories: The Life of Harriet Powers. My agent says picture book biographies are my “true calling.” Go figure.
The finger puppet is a gift from Jane. I keep it next to the place where I write. Inside the puppet, she’d slipped a tiny piece of paper on which she’d penned the word “Play.” She knew exactly what I needed to do.
While you’re in the program, experiment. Try new genres. Play. You never know where it might lead. Will I get back to those novels? More than likely. But for now I’m going to travel down this road, a road illuminated by my time at Hamline.
Barbara Herkert is a January 2009 graduate of the MFAC program. Sewing Stories: The Life of Harriet Powers, will be published by Knopf in the fall of 2015. Glimpses of Life: The Story of Mary Cassatt, will be published by Christy Ottaviano Books (Henry Holt) in the spring of 2015. She is represented by Karen Grencik at Red Fox Literary. She lives on the Oregon coast.