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. Kristi Romo is today’s grad; she lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.
What do you do when you’re not working on packets?
I work full time at a high school in the Twin Cities, where I teach English and Reading courses. This is awesome because I get to see the magic of good writing change the tide of a student’s relationship with reading and impact his relationship with the world. I bake Viking helmet cupcakes, clash foam swords and tickle torture my sons, who are five and two years old. I also enjoy cooking meals for my husband, traveling to visit family, singing on the worship team at church, and bowling (very poorly) with my English teacher colleagues.
And I read. A lot. And grade— Many papers.
How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?
When I was a few months pregnant with my second child I decided to take a year sabbatical from teaching and started looking for some graduate level classes to take while home. After a little Internet research I learned that Hamline offered a Mini-Immersion Residency & Semester. Anika* and I talked a few times and it sounded fantastic. My plan was to learn something that would make me a better teacher and it was remaining 12 credits I needed.
After I arrived I met a community that I loved, though I wasn’t sure I belonged. I was a teacher, not a writer. As the semester drew to an end, my husband said, “You have to continue the program. There’s a spark in you I haven’t seen before.” Prior to this experience I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer, but as a teacher I have witnessed the power of stories many times over. There are stories in me and I feel compelled to tell them. Plus my cohort—the Hamsters—begged me to continue and that’s when I realized I belonged.
What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?
I would say my creative writing experience was quite limited. While I was earning my bachelors degree I took one creative writing poetry class, which I loved. Mostly, I taught academic writing: literary analysis and research writing. (Marsha Qualey and Anne Ursu had to teach me to use contractions and informal language.) Other than that I sat down once a year and wrote a Christmas play for the children at my church.
What do especially remember about your first residency?
My first residency was so invigorating. I had no idea what I was doing when writing the piece I submitted for workshop, but students, who had submitted really great pieces, said they liked many elements. There was even a brief philosophical discussion about education inspired by the education system in my story. There was so much to work on and great suggestions for how to improve it, but I walked away thinking, they liked what I wrote. I also met Cheryl Bardoe and Molly Burnham, the grad assistants, who took me under their wings, listened to all my small concerns, invited me to eat with them and got me excited for the work of writing.
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?
I focused on picture book writing because I have two pre-readers at my house and I love to read and tell them stories. My other focus was on YA novel writing because I teach high school and those are my people. Their concerns are my concerns. So often we talk about preparing teenagers for “real life,” but they are living real life today and stories equip them for those problems and challenges. Mostly they reassure them they aren’t alone and there is hope.
Tell us about your Creative Thesis.
My Creative Thesis is part of a dystopian YA novel titled Fortress. It’s set in the future country of The Federated Gladius, founded on choice and freedom. People are free to choose what tier they want to live in. They only pay for that which they use. Bastion has lived on the bottom part of the tier since his father was taken for not paying his contribution.
The food sucks and the green uniforms are hideous and socially it’s rough. On the verge of legal adulthood, Bastion has a dream and a clear plan for his life. He will move up a tier and help contribute for his mother and sister. Most importantly he won’t fail them like his dad did.
Then a mysterious package shows up.
Suddenly, the truth is a lie.
Freedom does feel free.
People aren’t who they seem.
Friends are enemies.
Choices aren’t easy.
And Bastion might need forgiveness for what he chooses next.
What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?
The biggest change is I believe I can write. For real. I came with so little creative writing experience, I was sure I was light-years behind everyone else. I returned to my thirteen-year-old self, in a desk peeking at the tests next to me, not for the answers, but to see how far behind I was compared to everyone around me. I’ve learned writing is a funny business. There isn’t one clear path that will turn me into a Kate DiCamillo or JK Rowling. Their biographies underscore that point as well. I learned I have something to write and I’m willing to work. My path is my own. If we all arrived on the same path, we’d all write the same story. The variety of experiences is what makes for a range of rich stories.
I’ve learned to trust myself as I write and when I revise. I found it mystical when various writers talked about “writing behind their back,” but I get it now. What I believe makes me who I am and when I write, it comes out. Sometimes my concerns come out in kitten eyes not opening, whispering to eggs “Hatch, please hatch,” or The Federated Gladius taking my little sister far from me. This is who I am.
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?
My life seems to ebb and flow, so I will put it into the spaces where my life ebbs rather than flows: summers, spring breaks, long weekends. I tend to write in large bursts. My supportive husband initiated conversations about how I will still need weekends away to write. I’m blessed. By the end of the summer I plan to have written the journey for Bastion as he seeks the truth.
On the picture book front I have one manuscript in a place that I would like to pursue publishing. I also long to rewrite the book of my heart, Hatch, Please Hatch; a story about a pair of ducks trying to name their baby duck that is taking extra long to hatch. It’s for my first son.
Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?
At Hamline University the MFAC program will equip you in ways you don’t anticipate. Attend as many sessions at residencies as you can. This program will meet needs you didn’t know you had, and it will prepare you to continue to grow as a writer once you graduate. The community goes with you, wherever you go.