On Sunday, January 20, 2019, 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.
We will be featuring our soon-to-be alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today’s new graduate is Cristina Oxtra. She lives in Minnesota.
What do you do when you’re not working on packets?
Besides attending graduate school, I work full-time coordinating a college readiness program for underrepresented middle school and high school students. I offer a scholarship, which I founded and oversee, to help minority high school students in need obtain a college education. My husband and I like finding and watching the next coolest supernatural TV series. My son and I train and compete in Tae Kwon Do and I’m part of the staff at the dojang where we train. My family and I enjoy watching superhero movies, reading graphic novels, and attending comic cons. I also like cooking and baking, watching culinary TV shows, and collecting cookbooks. Many of the stories I write include food references.
How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC program?
A friend advised me to consider earning an administrator’s license. She introduced me to an instructor at Hamline who knew about the licensure program. I didn’t know anything about Hamline other than my family and I drove past it on our way to the state fairgrounds or one of our favorite comic book stores. As I scrolled here and there and clicked on this link and that link on the Hamline Web site, I accidentally found the MFAC program. I never knew such a program existed. I got goosebumps as I read more about it. This was it! I let out a hurrah and pumped my fists in the air. I had always loved reading and writing stories since I was a child. I had dreamed of becoming an author, but with the demands of life that dream had to take a backseat for many years. I knew in my heart this was what I had been looking for and what I needed to do. It was time and this was the path I had to take to make my dream a reality.
What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?
I have been writing since I was a child growing up in the Philippines and even submitted my writing to a children’s magazine. When my parents and I immigrated to America, I enjoyed writing stories and poems for English classes in school and articles for the high school newspaper. In college, I earned a bachelor of arts in journalism and worked as a print and broadcast journalist for years. After serving as a public relations officer in the U.S. Air Force both active duty and Reserve, I returned to civilian life and worked as a marketing director then a communications coordinator. These occupations required me to do a great deal of writing. I also continued writing stories on the side, eventually writing, illustrating, and self-publishing a picture book. I have written many stories over the years that need to be finished. I can’t wait to resume working on them and completing them with the newfound knowledge and skills I have gained through the MFAC program.
What do you especially remember about your first residency?
When I set foot on the campus on my first day, it was as though I had entered a magical place. It must have been similar to how Harry felt when he arrived at Hogwarts. Before classes started, students and faculty poured into the GLC. They hugged one another, chatted, and were happy to see each other again. It was like a grand family reunion. Current students recognized I was new and I was warmly welcomed. In class, we discussed writing, books we’ve read, and I wrote everything down as fast as I could. I was in awe that the faculty, which was made up of well-known authors, were imparting their wisdom with our class. I wanted to absorb it all. The faculty and students spoke my language, we understood each other, and it was beautiful. At last, I was in a place where I was allowed to dream, use my imagination, ask questions, and share my stories and ideas. And no one thought I was silly, strange, or out of my mind. No one laughed or criticized. People listened to me and to what I had to say. For the first time in a long, long time, I felt like I belonged. This was my sanctuary and I was surrounded by kind, supportive, creative, artistic, like-minded individuals. I had dreamed of this for so long and I was so happy that I found it. When I returned home, I told my family all about the wonderful day I had. My husband said, “It sounds like you finally found your tribe.” I replied, “Yes. Yes, I have.”
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 wrote picture books and a young adult novel. For my last two workshops, I started experimenting with middle grade novels. Since I also read graphic novels, I would have loved to learn more about writing one and actually trying it. I already have story ideas I would like to explore. I hope to get the chance to do it one day. I never thought I would write nonfiction, but I was pleasantly surprised that I could. Using what I learned through reading, researching, and writing several critical essays every semester and a critical thesis, I wrote a biography on Stephen Hawking for elementary-age readers that I hope will be published in the fall.
Tell us about your creative thesis.
I submitted two. My picture book, titled What Lolo Wants, is about a little girl who helps her ailing grandfather communicate with their family. It is based on my childhood experience watching my grandfather cope with a terminal illness. My young adult novel, Liwanag: Watcher’s Light, is a blend of magical realism and Filipino culture and folklore. The protagonist is a Filipina teenager in a small town in Minnesota who discovers she has inherited her deceased father’s legacy. She and her grandfather team up with the friars at a monastery who are part of a secret organization that fights supernatural creatures. I was close to my maternal grandfather. He told me that one day I would go to America and achieve my dreams. I didn’t think that was possible. He passed away before my family and I was able to immigrate to America. I wrote both stories in his honor.
What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?
Before I started in the MFAC program, besides the picture book I self-published, I could never finish writing a story. Every time I started a story, I would inevitably get stuck at some point and would not know how to continue. During my studies, I finished writing several picture books and the first draft of a young adult novel. It’s the most I’ve ever written and the first time I have completed a novel. I have learned so much, including avoiding information dumps, creating suspense, using setting, maintaining subplots, and not giving up on a story, just to begin with. I also now write, read, and watch movies differently than I had before. I think about character, plot, theme, and other elements of writing. I’ve developed skills that I can hone so I can continue to grow as a writer and I’ve gained an even greater appreciation for the craft.
Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?
While you’re a student in the program, learn all you can and make all the friends you can. Take advantage of all the opportunities given to you, including workshops, readings, meeting with your advisor, everything. Your time in the program will go by fast. Soak it all in and do everything you can. You’re going to miss it when you graduate. I already know I will miss my close-knit class, my talented writing friends, the great faculty, the learning, and the magical atmosphere of the program. I hope I’m able to return for alumni weekends. If you’re not sure whether to apply, take time to think about it carefully. Taking a chance to pursue a dream, making that initial step, can be scary. But it’s okay. As Peter Parker advised Miles Morales in the new Spider-Man movie, it’s a “leap of faith.” You’ll know in your heart when it’s time to take it.