On July 19, 2015, the MFAC program will have a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor 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 the grads.
Tamara Rubin is today’s grad; she lives in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
What do you do when you’re not working on packets?
I am a single mom to a now a three-and-a-half year old. She is my life. I also work full time as a middle school special education teacher. Recently, I also began coursework toward licensure as a K-12 Media Specialist. Regarding my writing, it is a huge struggle trying to make it a habit. If there was a way to convert my endless thinking and processing in my mind automatically to the page, I would be set.
How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?
I honestly don’t remember. In 2008 I attended a session on teaching poetry writing to children at the International Library Association’s annual conference in Minneapolis. The instructor shared how she had earned an MFA in writing for children and young adults at a school out east. I remember thinking, “I can earn an MFA in writing for children?” I looked into the program immediately and decided it was definitely something I wanted to do in the future. I must’ve researched other programs at that time, because somewhere I got it in my head, “Why would I want to stay in Minnesota and go to school when I could do a similar program out east?” When my pregnancy dream became a reality, I told myself that with the realization of one dream, now I needed to do something about my writing dream. Going out out east was now out of the question. So, I asked my father if he would attend an informational session at Hamline with me, to make sure that I had four ears listening and didn’t hear anything incorrectly. Mary Rockcastle talked about how accommodating the program can be for people with various life circumstances. She also shared that Patricia MacLachlan was going to be the keynote speaker at the upcoming graduation. That was a sign for me–Patricia MacLachlan was and still is one of my favorite authors. I went back to my parents’ house after and we talked with Mom about what we learned. Then, surprising me to no end, my mom and dad both agreed I should go for it–even though it would mean having to help watch my daughter during the future residencies. I started in July 2011 with the plan to only attend summers.
What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?
During second grade, after being inspired by a story about ghost adoption on the television show, That’s Incredible! I wrote The Adopted Ghost about a boy who adopted a ghost, named him Don Rickles (I had some fascination with the comedian back then), and had adventures together. I still have the handwritten version, but Mom typed it on her manual typewriter. It was 18 pages long. It was then I decided someday that I would become a writer. Throughout the years I wrote poetry and children’s stories, participated in occasional programs through school, and eventually used writing as my solace when depression had me in its grips during high school and for several years beyond.
After placing 2nd for creative nonfiction with my story about participating in a firewalk (for real), I joined the North Hennepin Community College literary magazine and later became the literary editor.
On my own, I produced a one-time book with a small grant for people who have disabilities (I was working through the disabling effects of depression). The book was a collection of writings and artwork by people with disabilities and other health problems. I designed the layout, did the graphic design and most of the editing, and hand bound the books myself. This was one of my most rewarding projects to date.
While I was planning to transfer from community college to a four-year school to become a teacher, I knew too many people heading that direction who weren’t finding jobs. Then I learned from a Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU) representative that I could major in creative writing and literature. I remember thinking, “I can major in creative writing?” I can volunteer in schools without a college degree, but to get training in the craft of writing, that was something I needed. I enrolled and completed my Bachelor’s degree focusing on fiction and poetry. At SMSU I also co-edited the college literary magazine and wrote for the school newspaper. Since then, I continued to write on my own, but usually found myself feeling that becoming a writer was an unreachable dream, so I left it as such–until I took the step to check out Hamline.
What do you especially remember about your first residency?
My first residency was an adventure itself. I was 32 weeks pregnant (although not the furthest along at residency–there were two other women in the graduating class who were expecting), had recently fractured my foot and received a diagnosis of gestational diabetes. I wore a boot, had a cane, waddled, and counted my carbs at each meal–even down to the number of fries I ate with my breadless burger (I don’t know, I was able to eat decently with food service–but I guess I’m not too picky and had learned nutrition prior to finally getting pregnant).  I tried using a wheelchair briefly, but that was more hassle than it was worth. I lived on campus the entire residency. My apartment was the furthest from the elevator on the 3rd floor. There was construction on campus, so the most direct route to classes, of course, was not the shortest. Plus, it was a hot summer. I did enjoy eating lunch with other students and Patricia MacLachlan. I remember the surprise I felt when I heard her first speak. Her frankness and deep voice did not reflect the image I had for the writer of so many beautiful, calm, and gentle works. She cracked me up with some of her stories that she shared during meals.
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 primarily on picture books. I thought I knew something when I started the program, but it was so little, I learned. I had no clue about the craft in regards to minimal language, as well as leaving the story open for the illustrator to interpret. I lacked a clear understanding of the importance of empowering the main character, especially if she/he is a child and an adult is present. During my second semester I also started a novel involving magical realism. I completed 80 pages toward a first draft and am determined to eventually finish the story. During my third semester, besides focusing on my critical thesis, I started working on a picture book focusing on the story of a dear friend and her mother who both survived the Holocaust and literally were inseparable until her mother passed away a few years ago at the age of 100. Last summer I attended Gene Yang’s session on writing the graphic novel and now have a strong interest in trying something in that genre.
Tell us about your Creative Thesis.
My creative thesis is a collection of eight picture book manuscripts. Ayla’s Family Tree and Other Stories About Growing, Seeing, and Solving Problems. It includes stories about a little girl who becomes obsessed with polka, a young girl who believes her broccoli bit her, a teacher whose ears grow when students tattle, a little Hungarian girl who looks forward each week to the challah she receives from relatives and must learn patience, a young girl who can communicate with a palm tree, a story about a child’s notes to herself full of important reminders, and a nonfiction piece that takes the reader on a journey through discovering recurring patterns in nature.
What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?
I have learned to cut and cut and cut and not feel the need to grieve as much as in the past (although the cutting doesn’t show up so much with these questions–hey, I tend to be quiet at residencies, so now you all have an opportunity to “hear” my voice). While I still focus on word count, I heed the message that it’s not about the total word count that matters as much as the fact that every word counts.
Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?
Take a look at your life. The program can be completed at the pace you need. For me, attending only summers made the program feel less rushed as I fit it in with working and being a mom, but also helped me save money. Also, by consistently going summers, I didn’t risk repeating any of the content focus areas. There were challenges going this route, though. I was not as productive during the breaks as I anticipated I would be. Also, I found myself falling into a bit of a funk each winter as my classmates returned to residency and I was left out of the community–even though I tried to follow along a little on Facebook and visit the campus once each January.
Despite my connection to a greater number of people over the five terms, I struggle to feel truly connected. But, this is nothing new for my life. At least I know I have a community through the MFAC program that welcomes me. Again, I need to continue to remember this, and doubt myself less.
Did I gain as much from the program as I could have had I not started at the point I did in my life? Perhaps. But, I also did not want to be a parent who resents her child because she had to hold off on her dreams due to becoming a parent. My daughter and my choice did not make it easy to get my work done or write as much as I wish I had, but I feel grateful looking at where I am now compared to where I was before I started the MFAC program.  Now it’s up to me.