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. Meg Cannistra is today’s grad; she lives in Weehawken, NJ (where, she says, Aaron Burr fatally shot Alexander Hamilton); she can also be found on Twitter: @Meg_Cannistra.
What do you do when you’re not working on packets?
I work at a text book publishing house in New York City. I snuggle with my cats, Doom and Gloom, and go for runs to clear my mind. I like watching bad movies and good movies. I read long books on my long commute and listen to all sorts of podcasts (I’m listening to Serial as I write this).
How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?
I heard about Hamline from my professor Becky Stanborough. She attended the program and has always been such an inspiration to me. I knew I wanted to attend grad school, but felt rather lost. She opened me up to the world of writing for children and young adults and I fell in love.
What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?
I wrote a lot. At least two pages per day. I made sure to keep going even when I felt like everything I wrote was shit. I wrote more short stories before the program, but they all seemed to focus on children and young adults. Most took place in the past. It’s hard for me to write contemporary fiction. When I was a teenager, my writing was very angsty and embarrassing. I wrote my first novel when I was 13. It was basically Heathers set in a Catholic school in the 1950s—but that makes it sound kind of cool when it was actually pretty terrible.
What do you especially remember about your first residency?
I remember being completely terrified. I just graduated from college a month before starting Hamline and I felt so overwhelmed and had immense amounts of self-doubt. But then I started meeting people and everyone was so kind and encouraging. They were interested in what I had to say and it made me feel so welcome. My first workshop at Hamline introduced me to people who understood how to give constructive criticism without being mean. Gone were the days of undergrad workshops where people tore others’ work to shreds. It was so refreshing to be around creative, intelligent, and warm individuals. I also remember passing out at lunch with Andrew Ruscito around day 9. Just an FYI for people who want to sneak a nap in during lunch: the meditation room in Anderson is not peaceful or comfortable.
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 primarily focused on young adult novels, but I did write a picture book about pigeons for Kelly [Easton]. I never thought I’d like writing picture books, but I’m so glad she pushed me to do it because it was a fun experience.
Tell us about your Creative Thesis.
It’s about a girl named Lily who might have murdered her father. She runs away before she is arrested and becomes a grave robber in a spooky, fantastical city in late 19th century Florida. She has to confront whether or not she’s evil while trying to figure out why her father was murdered. She must stop a group of wealthy cannibals that want to exact revenge on the North via the aid of an army of undead Confederate soldiers. Clearly, it’s an
upbeat piece.
What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?
My revision and editing skills have become MUCH BETTER. I’m an over writer (my philosophy is that it’s easier to chop of the legs than it is to stretch the body), so editing was always a place I came up short. Thanks to my incredibly helpful and patient advisors, I’ve become much more comfortable with hacking and slashing through my work. Now, if something isn’t working for the story (be it a character, scene, or sentence) I have little problem doing away with it. Even if I think it’s the greatest character/scene/sentence in the world. Though those are harder to slash, I have come to the conclusion that there will always be something great and maybe the story will be even greater with its absence. We must tell the story the best way we know how and sometimes that means getting rid of something even if we think it’s spectacular.
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 do think it’ll be harder, but I also believe I’ll be able to keep up with my writing. I find two or three pages a day is a realistic goal for me, especially since I’m working full time. I feel that if I try to keep at that pace it won’t be much of an issue for me. My plans are to continue revising my novel and hopefully start sending it out to agents. Writing has always been part of me, basically another limb. I don’t want to chop off that limb. I couldn’t do without it.
Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?
I say go for it. If you really have a passion to write for children and young adults, then definitely attend Hamline. Also, don’t be afraid to take risks with your stories or characters. Don’t be afraid to push the limits. Many people have this notion of children and young adults as being too delicate to handle troubling issues, but they aren’t. Children are resilient. It’s OK to go to those dark places sometimes. Children crave stories they can relate to, stories that can help navigate them through confusing or scary times. Our life experiences are infused in our stories, they are paths through hardships. It’s important we share our roadmaps with readers.