On January 19, 2014, on the final day of the upcoming residency, the MFAC program will have a Graduate Recognition ceremony, honoring the 11 men and women who have just completed their studies and will receive an MFA from Hamline University. Between now and residency, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, we’ll be posting interviews with many of the grads. Today’s grad is Shelley Jones; she lives in Johnston, Iowa.
What do you do when you’re not working on packets?
When I’m not working on packets, I spend time with my family: my husband, Bob, and my three children, Allison, Levi, and Cole. We like to travel/explore, watch movies, play board games/video games, swim (though I flounder), ski, bowl, rake yard debris… We like just about any activity when we’re together. I also have this gig as an emergency room physician that sucks up a bit of my energy. When I have free time to myself, I like to read and—get this—write.
How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?
Mary Rockcastle and Gary Schmidt attended an Iowa SCBWI conference. Mary gave a breakout session about the Hamline program. I had no interest in an MFA in creative writing, but the other breakout session sounded even more boring, so… As Mary talked about the program, I sat up straighter in my chair. I stopped yawning. My pulse quickened. By the end of the session, I thought “This is exactly what I want to do.” But I had doubts about whether I could devote the time and money. Then, on Saturday evening, Gary Schmidt gave the keynote address. He spoke about writing for children with such passion that the whole auditorium was crying by the time he finished. I’m not a crier, but Gary hit a nerve. My nose was so snotted up, I knew I had to try Hamline.
What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?
I’ve been writing since I was in grade school. I don’t like to brag, but at age 11, I was named “Creep of the Week” by a local television show for my story “The Green Slime.” In junior high I won a poetry contest and I got to meet a real live poet on the “Arts Afloat” boat which travelled down the Mississippi river. I’ve had a medical related short story, medical essays, and poetry published in magazines, but my desire for several years has been to write for children. I write in every spare minute. Writing is my drug—I couldn’t stop if I tried.
What do especially remember about your first residency?
I remember a miraculous January in Minnesota where the temperatures were in the fifties, and every day I walked to class from the Best Western Bandana Inn with a group of fellow students and faculty. We talked about writing. We talked about how life often gets in the way of our writing. I felt like I belonged.
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’ve focused mostly on middle grade novel writing. I’ve written tons of picture books in the past which were unanimously panned by my critique group. At Hamline, I finally gained some understanding of the complexity of picture books, and I included a couple of them in my creative thesis. I also expanded into chapter books, some poetry, and I wrote a YA novel for my creative thesis. As I leave Hamline, I have a yearning to try non-fiction, verse novels, and graphic novels.
Tell us about your Creative Thesis.
The bulk of my creative thesis is a YA novel—a twisted, snarky version of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, where sixteen-year-old Sparrow Bailey muses about various forms of suicide while missing the big picture. I also included two picture books: Mrs. Hyde Dances, about a teacher who dances after the students go home, and What Zosie Wants about a girl whose mother never gives her what she wants.
What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?
The manuscripts I wrote pre-Hamline (which seemed like God’s gift to literature at the time) now look amateurish to me. Medicine is my first profession and it’s true that there is an art and a science involved in taking care of patients. In medical school, we first learned the science, and later the art. With writing, I feel like I’ve spent my whole life wallowing in the art, but I needed the science—the structure that comes from studying the elements of craft—that’s what Hamline provided for me.
Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?
Hamline can help a writer take their manuscripts to the next level. If you’re like I was, you may be thinking that you can’t possibly devote the time and effort it takes to get an MFA in creative writing. But if you love to write, you will make the time, you will find the money, and you will relish every minute of it. Well, not every minute. That would be a lie. Sometimes you will feel frustrated and untalented, prompting you to procrastinate by jumping online to whine to your fellow students. Sometimes they will tell you to stop whining. Sometimes they will whine back. Okay, so you will enjoy 59 seconds out of every minute.