On Sunday, January 15, 2017 Hamline’s Creative Writing Programs will host a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor all the students who have completed their studies and will be receiving an MFA from Hamline University. During the months of December and January we will be featuring our soon-to-be alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today’s new graduate is Ailynn Knox-Collins.

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

During most of my time at Hamline, I also worked as a teacher. I’ve been a Montessori teacher for 25 years, teaching kids from age 3 up to 9. During this last semester, I decided to take a year off of work. Almost immediately after resigning, I got a Write For Hire job and that’s what’s been keeping me occupied in between packet writing. It’s been an interesting experience, writing to deadline — it’s kind of like doing packets with the added stress that it’ll be read by actual readers some day. 

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

I was online one day, and found a Highlights Foundation Camp for SFF writers. I was so excited. I never knew there were camps for writers like me. I signed up without a second thought. I didn’t even care that it would be held right in the middle of a school term. (I didn’t think I’d get in — they only accepted 8 writers at a time). Well, I got in. And I met the amazing Anne Ursu, Laura Ruby and Christine Hepperman. During the week, we also got to meet Debbie Kovacs, who was so generous with her comments and time. Best camp experience ever!

So when Anne and Laura mentioned Hamline, I thought, if I could learn so much in one week from these teachers, what could I discover in two whole years? And everyone kept talking about this person, Mary the Rock, and how wonderful she was. So, intrigued (and sure I’d never get in), I applied. I’d never thought about getting an MFA before, and I didn’t really do much research into other programs. I was just so enamored by Anne and Laura, and everyone else I met at Highlights, that I couldn’t resist. I wanted to bask in the learning experience provided by the incredible faculty. 

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. As a child, I wrote journals and made up stories (which I subsequently burned), and as a young adult I moved on to screenplays. I love the theater. Then, life happened and I didn’t think about writing for years. About twelve years ago, I signed up for a Writing for Children class at a community college and met a whole community of people who thought like me. I repeated many of the classes just to stay in that community and from there, I found friends for life and critique partners. I went on to take as many classes online and in person as I could. I sent out a couple of manuscripts and began my collection of rejections. Many of these rejections were very nice — but they were still rejections. Sigh. I joined SCBWI and learned a lot more about ‘the biz’ from there.

What do remember most about your first residency?

I remember being terrified. I kept asking myself, “What am I doing? I’m too old to start something new!” I remember the snow — it was January — and trying to get into the Bandana with my luggage slipping all over the icy roads. I remember the smell of chlorine at the front desk (because the pool was in the middle of the lobby), and how the door to my room wouldn’t open because the lock had been mounted upside down. That first night was the hardest. The next morning, while waiting for the shuttle, I sat down with two other ladies. We said nothing for a long while. Then Melody (Bless her!) asked if we were Hamline students and everything flowed from there. We connected immediately, and suddenly, everything wasn’t so scary anymore. Orientation united us as classmates, and friends for life. Meeting my buddy, Linda, and the other students, put me at ease so quickly. Everyone was so warm and open. It was incredible. 

The rest of residency left me starstruck. Meeting Mary and the faculty, I felt as if I was being taught by celebrities. I had
to pretend not to be too impressed outwardly, while on the inside, I was freaking out! By the end of residency, I knew I’d made the best decision of my life. Doing this program was not about advancing a career (I have enough of those pieces of paper). I was here for me, and all I wanted to do was to learn.

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 in writing mostly young adult science fiction. I have since worked on middle grade fantasy, young adult scifi, an attempt at a hybrid graphic-prose story, and am ending with a graphic novel — something I never thought I’d try. I wish the program would go on longer, so I can try picture books and nonfiction too, but sadly, I never got to work on those. Maybe because everything I start writing ends up with a spaceship, a ghost, or an alien in it. 

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.

I have the incredible privilege of working with Gene Yang on a graphic novel script for my Creative Thesis. I am not an artist by any stretch of imagination, so this was one form I never even considered writing. But along the way, my classmate, Daniel Mauleon, introduced me to reading graphic novels (I had him in a workshop and was so impressed by his work that I wanted to know more about the genre). I was hooked. I read and read so many graphic novels over the last two years. And Swati’s hybrid novel opened my eyes to new possibilities I’d never thought about before. When it came to choosing what to do for my Creative Thesis, I had a lot of long discussions with classmates and teachers. In the end, I decided to go with what scared me the most. I had to try. This would be my only chance. I asked Gene if he would take on a brand new project for the Thesis, and he said yes!  I wrote the first draft as my Creative Thesis.

My story, Hunger, is about an orphaned biracial teen who has the ability to talk to ghosts. She works at a funeral supplies store for her aunt, who raised her. During the Hungry Ghost Month (7th month of the Chinese calendar), Cassiopea is in high demand — contacting the dead for theirliving relatives. She doesn’t understand why she can see everyone else’s dead relatives, but her parents’ ghosts are nowhere to be found. As she connects friends and neighbors with their dead relatives, she discovers the terrible reason why her parents have never appeared to her. 

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies? 

I have become very aware of my bad habits. I am so grateful for the teachers who have made me read lots and lots of craft books. You would think that ‘rules’ would make it harder to write freely, but for me, being aware of what I’ve done badly, has made me a better writer (I hope). I have learned so much about structure and character arcs, in a way that I never really understood before. I feel as if all the things I’ve learned are becoming a part of my thought process. I may not always be conscious that I’m applying these concepts to my writing, but hopefully, I am. I’m also a much more critical reader now. Most of all though, I have become so much more aware of how writing influences the reader, of how I can affect change by telling my stories (not by preaching a message). Working on my critical thesis has made me think more about why I write the things I write about. And I feel a greater responsibility to be careful with how I write, and to be respectful and sensitive about representing the world as it truly is. (Does that make sense?) 

Any advice for entering students or for people considering the program?

Just do it. 

You can’t know how wonderful this program is until you take that first scary step. I’ve never known of a program where the graduates don’t want to leave. And now, that’s me too. Also, try everything. Every member of the faculty is a fantastic teacher. You will learn so much from each one. 

Take lots of notes. Get a hold of recordings of lectures. You will need all their advice for ages to come.

Be open to making friends with other students, and graduates. They are all amazing and will become your community and support structure forever.