On January 17, 2016 the MFAC program hosted a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor the Hamline students who have completed their studies and will be receiving an MFA from Hamline University. 
During the month of January we will be featuring our new alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today’s grad is Zachary Wilson.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?

When I’m not working on a packet, I’m generally bouncing from one activity or another. I love music, both the act of listening to it and creating it. I play the guitar, the mandolin, the bass, and I’m always picking up new styles and techniques and instruments. I also love playing games, particularly video games and role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Of course, writers can’t write without a steady diet of reading, so I’m always reading as well. I’m a sucker for mythology and fables in particular.

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

I heard about the program via the twitter account of Emily Jenkins. I was in my last year of undergrad study and I was thinking about grad school when I saw her tweet about the program where she recently started teaching. I loved her work, so I immediately looked up the program and discovered exactly what I didn’t realize I had been looking for. I hadn’t even known that there was a program for writing for young
adults and for children before then!

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

I’ve always told stories. When I was little, I would take the Lego kits I was given at Christmas and make them something else, adding them to a world where my brother Luke and I had countless adventures. My parents encouraged reading to my siblings and I, and even when we watched tv, the shows I loved were Wishbone and Reading Rainbow. I knew even when I was a kid that books were special, that stories were important and I wanted to live in stories like The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or Men of Iron.

I started when I was twelve years old, writing fanfiction and stories of worlds all my own. When I went to college, picking a major was easy. I wanted to write and write well, to tell stories that took their readers by the hand into worlds of wonder and magic.

What do remember most about your first residency?

I’ll admit that I was guarded at first. My undergraduate experience was full of workshops where my classmates were full of vitriol and the critiques often strayed from craft notes into personal attacks. I was ready for classmates who wanted nothing more than to wound others and who didn’t want to learn or change. Before I even set foot on campus, however, my new buddy Andrew Ruscito modeled the genuine care and warmth of the program, and when I met my classmates, “The Front Row,” I knew that I was where I needed to be.  

Of course, I was also much too scared to talk to any of the faculty beside Swati Avasthi and Marsha Qualey, who led my workshop group, but I learned so very much in that first eleven days, more than I learned in my four years of undergraduate study for sure.
I also remember it being the coldest place I had ever been, and how, even in that, I was surrounded with warmth. When I said that I hailed from the Sunshine State of Florida, I was immediately offered scarves by several faculty members, and when I got home to the warmth of Florida (where it was in the sixties and people were complaining left and right about the chill), I couldn’t wait for the next winter.
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?
When it comes to form and focus, teenage life is usually when I begin a new project. Being a teenager is hard. Every age group has it’s hardships, of course, but teenagers have always seemed to me to weather more burdens than any other age group. When you’re a teen, you are simultaneously a child and an adult. Think about it, high school students are constantly being told that the choices that they make have huge implications on their future (they do, in fairness), and only a few years prior many of them had bedtimes and had to ask for permission to go to a friend’s house for a party. The adult world is fast encroaching, hormones are singing and screaming louder than ever before, and everything is changing. 
I have almost always written for teenagers. When I was young, I wrote about what I thought it’d like to be older, when I was a teen, I wrote about what it felt like to be confused and lost and stretched in ten thousand directions, and now that I’m past my teen years, I’m writing about what being a teenager felt like, with the clarity of hindsight.
I did have the opportunity to write a children’s picture book about the magic of imagination and the very real magic of childhood with Emily Jenkins, the woman who unwittingly led me here.
Tell us about your Creative Thesis.
My creative thesis has changed a hundred times since I first started writing it, and I’m certain it will change in a hundred more ways before I ever try to send it out into the world, but it has always been about three things: faith, friendship, and Dungeons & Dragons. It’s about a boy, Owen, whose best friend in the whole world, Danny, has moved halfway across the country to receive treatment for his illness. Owen grapples with the loneliness of the physical loss of his friend, as well as emotional loss as Danny slips out of his life. He struggles with apathy to the God he claims to know and love, and he runs headlong for any sort of belonging or love or friendship he can find.
This is a story I have been looking to tell for years now, as one of my closest friends moved away when I was a teenager and the circle of friends that I had always known fell apart shortly thereafter. I have been waiting for the strength to deal with that hurt and to tell a story that is not simply my life story, and now I finally feel like it’s coming together. Laura Ruby and Emily Jenkins have both counseled me and help me shape this story, a story that I didn’t want to tell at first for fear of opening old wounds.
What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies? Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?
I’ve definitely noticed changes in the mechanics of how I write, but the thing that I am still learning is how to push past the physical “happenings” in a scene into the emotions driving the characters’ actions. I’ve gotten better at dealing with scenes that I feel awkward about as I try to write, learning to be channel that unsettled feeling into the characters and situations. The program has also equipped me to be able to pick apart my work as I revise. When I was younger and a newer writer, revision meant little more than a spell check, but now I feel that I have a much better understanding of what it means to dwell in the manuscript, to see what is building meaning and propelling the plot and what is simply dead weight, pointless prose.

For new students and people thinking about the program, my biggest encouragement is to plug in to the community in any way you can. I live over a thousand miles away from my nearest classmate, but I never feel alone or detached. My classmates are champions for me and for each other, they are the most encouraging people and they challenge me and inspire me to be better. This community of faculty, staff and students is something beyond what I can put into words, and I’m generally a motor-mouth. 

If you want to grow, learn and form life-long bonds, then here is the place for it. If you’re just joining, welcome! if you’re considering it, DO IT. I’m so grateful that I did.