We’re featuring our soon-to-be alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today’s new graduate is Julia Hettiger. She lives in South El Paso, TX. Follow her on Twitter.
What do you do when you’re not working on packets?
Read some more books, binge teen dramas, and volunteer with different organizations, including the Society of Young Inklings, who I was able to volunteer with last year, and Youngzine, an online magazine for kids written by teens. I love being able to help youth writers grow into the storytellers they want to be, and that’s probably what I spent the most time doing outside of packets. It was amazing.
How did you hear about the MFAC program?
I googled MFAs in writing for children, believe it or not. A few programs came up, and I applied to most of them. Once I got my acceptances, though, it was clear to me that despite how great the other programs probably were, Hamline was the place for me. And I had been absolutely correct. Definitely one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?
I had written a few books and had a couple of short stories published prior to entering the program. I had even worked with an amazing developmental editor on one of my books. But before the MFAC program, I really struggled with plotting and editing. I’d get a random idea and just make up events until I reached the end. And then, when I would go back to edit everything, I just really didn’t know where to start. While I’m proud of the writing I did prior to entering the program, I couldn’t have become the writer I am today without the help of my amazing advisors.
What do you especially remember about your first residency?
I remember being excited. I always loved being in school, so I had been happy that I was returning. I also remember feeling pushed outside of my comfort zone in the best ways possible. I had traveled completely alone for the first time, had never lived in dorms before, and had to meet so many new people at once. But it was a great experience. No matter how overwhelmed I had felt at times, I had been terribly sad to return home and go back to “real life” once it was over. Residencies are out of this world, and I’m sad this is my last.
Tell us about your creative thesis.
My creative thesis, The Air Hockey Superstars of Leon, Arizona, is a middle grade about two girls living in small-town Arizona who learn to deal with and overcome their grief by winning (and losing) at arcade games, particularly air hockey. The idea came to me while I was at Dave & Busters with my coworkers internally asking myself why it was impossible for me to have fun when all the avenues for having fun were right in front of me. I poured my feelings into these two girls. On the one hand, I asked myself what it was to be so attached to something, it helped you grieve but was also unhealthy. I had felt that way about my writing then. I also asked myself what would happen if I relinquished control of it. Who would I be if I wasn’t a writer? I attempted to answer these questions for myself with my two main characters, who are grieving, who feel overshadowed, who want to be in control so badly but are only 12 so they don’t have much of it. I also just really love arcade games, so the setting felt right. Writing this book healed me in a way I don’t think anything else in the world can, and I hope that if it is one day published, future readers find healing in it as well. At the very least, I hope it ignites an appreciation for arcade games, which in my opinion are sorely underappreciated.
What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?
I worked with Coe Booth and Phyllis Root my first two semesters respectively, and they really helped me unfold my ideas and better plot my stories. Coe is a really great advisor to work with, especially your first semester, because she pushes you to get to the heart of the story: why are you writing every scene you are writing? Taking her advice, I went into my second semester with a more solid foundation and worked with Phyllis on the book that became my creative thesis. Phyllis helped me to smartly unfold every idea I had for it. She helped me overcome my chronic pantser habits by providing me with the feedback and resources I needed to continue writing but to also think about the future of the book and every individual scene without feeling too overwhelmed by it. Because of them, when I start new projects, I go into each and every one with particular goals in mind and plans to get there. I’m still a bit of a pantser, but now I plot a bit beforehand, and it has helped tremendously.
My last two semesters, I worked with Laura Ruby and Laurel Snyder respectively, and both were able to help me fine tune my editing skills. Before the program, the only ways I had known to edit were to look for grammatical errors and inconsistencies in the storyline, which may sound crazy, but it was truly something I struggled with. Following their advice, it’s easier for me to look at a piece of my writing and know specific areas of improvement–such as where to expand and where to cut back on. This was a skill I really lacked before, but being able to revise the first 50-80 pages of my novel with them over and over again helped me to identify my weaknesses and feel more confident about my revision skills.
What’s crazy (and amazing) about this program is how your advisors seem to be able to identify the things you struggle with most and then help you kick those issues to the curb while also being encouraging in your writing. Anytime I worked to overcome whatever writing issue I was dealing with, I never felt like I sucked at writing or needed to quit. I knew they were having me fix these issues so that I could be successful and thrive as a writer. It’s a hard balance to strike, but the advisors at Hamline have done it well.
Any thoughts for entering students or people considering the program?
I highly recommend the program for anyone dreaming about writing for children. The support you get from your advisors and the community as a whole cannot be compared to anything else. It’s truly a magical place.