On January 18, 2015, on the final day of the upcoming residency, the MFAC program will have a Graduate Recognition ceremony, honoring the men and women who have just completed their studies and will receive an MFA from Hamline University. Between now and residency we’ll be posting interviews with many of the grads. Leah Hilsabeck-Lowrey is today’s grad; she lives in South Dakota.
What do you do when you’re not working on packets?
I grew up in the theatre and spend most of my free time working on productions. I actually have found it helps a lot to have a second creative outlet. During this last semester, I played the role of Mary Hatch in a production of It’s A Wonderful Life, and it was really nice to be able to go to rehearsal every night and just slip into this character so unlike the one in my story and not have to figure the character out or decide how her story would end. For a couple hours, I could just be Mary.
How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?
My pastor’s son’s wife’s friend attended the MFA program. Naturally.
What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?
I started writing stories when I was three years old on this old computer program called Storybook Weaver. I wrote a lot of story beginnings all the way through high school, but it wasn’t until my junior year of college that I really started taking it seriously. That was also the year I dropped prelaw for my theatre major. I was surrounded by all these people who had crazy dreams that no one laughed at, and it made me stop thinking my dreams were so crazy.
What do you especially remember about your first residency?
How quickly I found my people. Meg and I actually ran into each other in the hallway at the hotel, sat silently next to each other on the shuttle van, and still didn’t say a word to each other until we got lost in GLC and thought we would never find check-in. By halfway through the tour we were sharing a bag of mini-wheats, and it was only a matter of days before we were roommates. And it didn’t take long for our entire class to become the Hamsters. It was such a foreign feeling—being surrounded by people who understood this weird writing thing that I did. Once I realized all these people felt the same pull, I didn’t want to come up for air. I just wanted to sit in that energy forever.
Have you focused on any one form (PB, novel, nonfiction; graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Tried a form you never thought you’d try?
In college, I wrote very snappy, realistic fiction. About halfway through, though, I was diagnosed with this strange condition that makes me lose sensation in my hands. Before, I wrote everything with pen and paper first and typed it later, and I struggled to write for a really long time after my diagnosis because I could no longer feel my pen. It felt like my body had been cut off from the paper, and I needed that physical connection to feel like I could create. But when I started studying theatre, I began writing scripts. You can’t write a script with pen and paper. It’s nearly impossible—there’s way too much structure and formatting involved. It would take hours. Starting with a new form really helped me to recreate my process. I wouldn’t be writing today if I hadn’t let myself start over. And I’ve found new ways to write with my hands—like felt tip markers and other instruments that create more friction on the page. It lets me indulge sometimes, for small spurts of time.
Tell us about your Creative Thesis.
My thesis is a story I started in the sixth grade. I mean, it’s changed. I let go of the shape-shifting unicorns. But I just kept starting the same story, over and over, all the way through high school. I never got past twenty pages. In college, I dropped Ana’s story and started writing her parent’s story instead. And then I dropped the idea altogether until the summer I graduated from college. It just kept coming back.
I was really drawn to this idea of simple magics, and where magic could intersect with the real world. I felt there was inherent power existent in our everyday lives. One place I felt magic lied was in promises—in words that bind us. So I created a world where promises were sacred, the most sacred of all a dying wish.
Secondly, I found power in nature. I grew up with the woods as my playground, and I have always been in awe of trees. So Ana lives in two worlds, the enchanted forest she grew up in, and the kingdom she is forced upon. The forest is its own entity with its own rules. The paths are not linear, and the rules can always change.
Finally, I found power in choices. Was terrified by them, actually. I couldn’t choose majors, or relationships, or movies, or dinner. Or, you know, what happened after page twenty in the story I’d been trying to write since the 6th grade. There’s all these quotes out there about changing your mind and starting over and it never being too late, but sometimes it is too late. And sometimes going back on your choice doesn’t get you the same result had you made that choice the first time. And sometimes decisions are really impossible, because what you want to do isn’t the right decision. And sometimes simply having the freedom to make a decision is more important than the decision you make. And sometimes, that’s really hard to understand.
I don’t think I meant to write a story about impossible choices. I think I mostly meant to write about shape shifting unicorns who transcend time and walk on rainbows. And later, I meant to write something really beautifully romantic. But I suppose this is what happens when you spend 13 years trying to make a choice. The story decides for you.
What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?
My focus has really shifted—become more empathetic, maybe? I used to be very protagonist centric—I could only see Ana and how Ana was affected and how Ana would react. In the last year, I’ve started to see more of the whole. The POV and Character residencies really impacted this, as did my critical. They reminded me of the chain reaction of events. How every action spirals and every character responds. I started seeing more stories than just Ana’s story, and wanting to write those stories, too. There was a lecture Laura Ruby gave on antagonists, and how every protagonist is the antagonist’s antagonist (but more eloquent and stuff). I think about it every time I go back through the scene, and what every character’s motive is, and if they’re acting on that motive. That isn’t something I was doing two years ago.
Prior to this semester, I had some weird notion that editing was the same as revision. So I essentially kept writing the same scenes over and over, only with tighter language, and couldn’t figure out why the story wasn’t getting any better. I got exactly one packet into the fourth semester before Anne [Ursu] made me delete everything and start over at page one. And I hated it. It took me twenty of my thirty days to get a single word on the page. And then, somehow, I loved it. The characters were people, they had lives. It was like everything I’d learned over the last two years that I had been hemming and hawing over and trying to force into a dead manuscript just suddenly was there. It was really amazing to see that transition—to be able to hold the two manuscripts side by side and see the difference two years had made.
With packet deadlines removed as an incentive, do you anticipate it will be harder to keep writing? Any plans for your post-Hamline writing life?
I’ve been telling myself it will be easier, because there won’t be any pressure there, and that’s got to be easier, right? But yes, I am quite certain it will be harder. So, you know, if any of you graduating/graduated folk would be so kind as to email me every month demanding 40 pages… I pay in cookies.
Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?
Never turn down an opportunity to learn. I still have regrets for every lecture I sat out and every night I hit the hay early. All those brilliant people saying brilliant things and building brilliant friendships. Fine. I amend. Never turn down an opportunity unless you absolutely have to. Because sleep and sanity are important. But choose wisely, because every moment is so wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.