On Sunday, July 17, 2016 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 month of June we will be featuring our soon-to-be alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today’s new graduate is V. Arrow.
What do you do when you’re not working on packets?
I’m usually writing something else! I’m an avid blogger and fanfiction writer, and ever since I won the Walden Pond Press Middle Grade award for my nonfiction project first semester, I spend a lot of time tracking down new materials for my research and working on the proposal for that manuscript. If I’m not writing or doing research, I’m probably doing cross-stitch, making jewelry, or talking to my friends about Star Wars, pop girl groups, or feminist media theory. I wish I could say that I spent my non-writing time doing something super unusual and exciting, but I can’t.
How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?
I actually heard about it from one of the women I had asked to write my recommendation for another (adult) MFA program – she said, “I have to be honest, I think you’ll hate this program you’re looking at, because you wouldn’t be allowed to write young adult fiction. Isn’t e.lockhart one of your favorite writers? Have you looked at the Hamline MFA in Writing for Children program?”
I’m very glad that she was honest with me… the MFAC is easily the best choice that I have made in my adult life. I am so thankful that she had the foresight to recommend a program that not only allows YA and MG lit, but focuses on them with deep respect for both the craft of writing and the readership of young audiences. The amount of passion and care that everyone involved in the MFAC puts towards doing the best that we can for young readers makes an incredible difference in the quality of education I feel I’ve gotten here.
What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?
I studied Creative Writing in my undergraduate (double-majored with History), but I was kind of raised to be a writer – my mom was in the writing program at the University of Iowa.
I started speaking when I was six months old, and my parents started teaching me how to read and write pretty soon after that, but I don’t remember it. I know they have some papers with things I’d written from when I was two, but I don’t know whether I was just copying shapes (which seems more likely to me) or if I actually knew how to form/write words.
I think the earliest memory I have of actually writing a story is from when I was probably… three or four, and my cousin was a year older, and we were playing with my mom’s typewriter. I don’t remember whether we’d just been to the zoo or whether we were going to the zoo the next day, but I remember that we were writing stories about seeing “eliwonks” and “mawonkinks,” which I think were elephants and… flamingoes? I remember typing the words and feeling the springs under the keys of the typewriter more than I remember the stories.
When I was in Kindergarten and first grade, my elementary school had a “publishing center” where you could drop off a story you’d written and/or illustrated in the morning and then at the end of the day, you could bring home a spiral-bound book. I think I “wrote a book” every single day those years, but I have no idea where they are now. Probably a box in my parents’ basement.
But here’s the thing: I didn’t think that kids were allowed to create their own characters, so everything I wrote until third grade was, technically, fanfiction. It just seemed like you had to be a Real Author to create your own characters and that was WAY too magical and full of responsibility for a kid.
(I still feel that way. Don’t tell my MFAC profs. I am still not a Real Author enough to feel qualified in creating my own characters, although I obviously do. And am. I guess. Shh!)
But I would write stories about Mary Cecily Barker’s Flower Fairies, or the Hobans’ Frances and Gloria, or the characters on Under the Umbrella Tree. I wrote about Minh from Barney, with whom I was deeply in love because I was the world’s most lesbian five year old, and about the Boxcar Children and Karen Brewer and the American Girls. I wrote piningly about Dorothy Jane Torkelson and got grounded from television for three weeks when I was eight because I wrote about tongue-kissing.
And then, for the Young Author’s Conference in third grade, my teacher, Mrs. Peters, told me that writing about other people’s characters was plagiarism, and I had to create my own. But I didn’t think of it has a “had to,” it was a COULD. I COULD create my own. It was a life-changing thought, because it was just so alien. I could create characters? I could make up my own people and write them doing whatever I wanted? I could? Me? Who was I to create characters? Whole people? I was just a kid! What did I know about making people! Me?!
So I decided to write a nonfiction book that year instead. (And subsequently learned even more about what plagiarism meant, because I had never heard of citing your sources, because I mean, obviously you learned the facts in your book somewhere, and so did the author of that book, and that book, and so on. Did Mrs. Peters think that I was claiming to have first-hand knowledge of the sinking of the Titanic?
(To be fair: I was 100% convinced that I had been reincarnated from Jessie Goldsmith and was, in fact, a casualty of the sinking. But she did not know that.)
Finally, when I was in sixth grade, I felt ready to create my own characters, and I wrote a novel. I submitted it for publication, because you could send directly to slush piles at publishers still in 1998, and I am so, so very, very glad that it was rejected, oh my god.
But yeah… I’ve just never really had any serious chance of doing anything else. Not in a “well, this is the one thing I’ve been trained for” Star Wars stormtrooper way or anything, just in a “this is what I was entirely meant to do from the beginning.” I’ve wanted to be other things – I wanted to be a Muppet for a while when I was a kid, and I wanted to be an actress and a ballerina and wasn’t half-bad at either, and I guess I’m sort of a historian as much as a writer these days since the project I have a fellowship for is nonfiction history (and not plagiarized, thank you, it is entirely Original Groundbreaking Research) but… really, writing has always been an integral part of my conception of self. Even when I wanted to be a Muppet, I figured I’d help Kermit write the skits for The Muppet Show.
What do you remember most about your first residency?
I had Claire Rudolph-Murphy and Swati Avasthi as my first workshop leaders, and after the horrible experience of workshopping in my undergrad program, I was extremely wary about the way the other students would approach my work. But Claire and Swati were so dynamic and brilliant and kind that by the end of the first day, my perspective on the value of formal workshops had totally changed. I also really surprised myself during that first residency in feeling comfortable enough to participate in the Student Readings! I generally avoid anything that might make people notice I’m in the room, frankly, so the fact that I felt safe enough and “belonging” enough to get up in front of everyone and read aloud from an unedited draft was a huge turning point for me as a person.
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’ve mainly written YA fiction since arriving, which was my plan, but Claire insisted from the first workshop together that I absolutely had to write the MG nonfiction manuscript that had been percolating in my brain for a while. I agreed when I got her as my advisor, and it’s turned out to be totally life-changing, insofar as receiving the Walden Pond Press Award for that piece, and also insofar as pushing me outside of my comfort zone to Just Start Writing, rather than let an idea sit for years and years and years… and years… while I do the research and psych myself out about it. I’m very grateful for Claire’s exuberance, patience, and requirement for Butt In Seat Words On Page writing that first semester.
While not a “formal” form that I worked on here, both Swati and Anne really pushed me on my personal writing and in narrative essays. I had entered the program with an extremely formal Master’s Thesis already in the research stages and all ready to go, but Anne picked up where Swati left me in terms of feeling comfortable saying, “I’m passionate about this subject because it is personal to me, and that’s okay.” I never would have written my Critical Thesis Essay in first-person, or in colloquialisms, or with references to personal anecdotes, without both Swati- and Anne’s pushing. And since the paper would have suffered from a formal voice, I’m glad they did! (And it won the Critical Thesis Award, so I’m extra glad.)
Tell us about your Creative Thesis.
My thesis is a YA historical fantasy-noir interracial lesbian retelling of Peter Pan set during the Harlem Renaissance — yeah. I’ve been joking that Darling is really a feminist manifesto masquerading as a fairytale, but I’m extremely grateful that Laura is not letting me get away with trying to write it that way.
One of the biggest struggles that I have had with this piece, which I started initially in a completely different POV and time period before the MFAC, was my inclination to be really didactic with it and be like, “PETER PAN STEALING GIRLS IS BAD. DON’T STEAL GIRLS. DON’T SPY ON THEM FROM WINDOWS. STOP BEING CREEPY. ALSO ‘GROWING UP FEMALE’ SHOULD NOT HAVE TO MEAN ‘MARRIAGE AND BABIES AND GIVING UP EVERYTHING ELSE YOU LOVE OR CAN BE.'” But that isn’t a story, that’s an all-caps statement. It’s also a pretty boring, obvious one, stated outright like that!
Fortunately, all of the professors here are brilliant, so each semester that I’ve worked on this piece – second, with Swati; third, with Anne, alongside the Critical Thesis Essay; and now, with Laura – my own conception of the piece as totally changed from the ground up. I was really anxious when my feedback on the first packet of my final semester was, “Start it over again from a different POV and a totally different structure and a different timeline of events,” but I trust Laura absolutely, and she was, predictably, right. It’s a much stronger *novel* now than it ever was before, because there’s no way that I can lecture in the new format. I have to open myself up on the page and like, feel things. It’s kind of gross. Feeling stuff and then writing about it. Ugh.
But it’s important to the story, because at its heart, Darling is about a young, creative, queer girl whose place in her world is at a crisis point, as it so often is for teenagers (and especially for queer teens) who makes a choice that has the potential to lead her into either triumph or ruin. Winnie Darling has to figure out what to do when her choices take her from an environment that is bad to a place that is worse, and she has to grow and rely on her own unique skills to save herself and others. It’s a story of self-discovery and sexual awakening, as well as of creative impulse and social boundaries, family influence, grief and acceptance, and the ways both fortunate and unfortunate that those closest to you can surprise you.
There are also eyeless mermaids with jellyfish-legs!
What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?
I kind of feel like I’ve answered this above, but I’ll also say that I feel like I’ve grown as a person as much as I have a writer during my time in the MFAC. I totally credit Claire, Swati, Anne, Laura, and my cohort for that. There have been some unexpected bumps in the road during my time here that without their guidance and support would have totally derailed me, I think, but the culture of the MFAC has been a really welcome safety net.
Any advice for entering students or for people considering the program?
Don’t save all of the books you don’t like for last on the Required Reading list. Trust the professors, even if their suggestion would mean fundamentally changing your vision of your manuscript – or yourself as a writer. Figure that you’ll cry at least once each residency; it’s normal.