On Sunday, January 19, 2020, 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 Megan M. Ciskowski. She lives in South St Paul, MN. 

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

When I’m not working on packets I’m reading for pleasure, hiking, camping, researching ecology, and entertaining my cat.

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

I heard about the Hamline MFAC Program through Dr. Sarah Mohler, a professor at my undergraduate university. I had researched other MFA programs across the country, unaware that programs for children’s literature existed. Dr. Mohler knew my interest lay in children’s literature, and when she told me about Hamline I applied immediately.

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

I’ve written for myself for most of my life. Writing fulfilled me in a way nothing else did, so I enrolled in the Creative Writing program at Truman State University and graduated with my BFA before applying to Hamline. Working in creative workshops prior to the MFAC program was very helpful as I was able to focus on the content of the workshops rather than the process.

What do especially remember about your first residency?

   I remember my nerves rattling around my head. For the first few days I was completely overwhelmed, but I calmed down as people continued to be cheerful and welcoming. Learning how to be a better writer was everyone’s focus, and having a common goal established a sense of community.

   Several students and faculty talked about experimenting in new genres and writing for different age groups. I hadn’t written picture books before and throughout the residency I became enamored with the idea of trying to do so. I remember pulling Jackie Briggs Martin aside to talk, and this was the best decision I could have made. She encouraged me to branch out and patiently walked through my ideas.

   Finally, I remember Meg Medina gave one of the earliest lectures that residency. She spoke about theme and finding your one true story. Listening to her rapping rapped out a rhythm on the table when she told us about clave, I remember thinking, “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.

   Twisted Gardens is a middle grade portal fantasy about learning how to accept change and how to feel connection when the person you love is far away. Amelia’s military mother has just begun a nine-month deployment, leaving Amelia to face her fifth grade graduation alone. Amelia feels more and more disconnected from her own world and seeks escape with her best friend, Marti, in the local park. There they stumble upon an enchanted garden filled with singing vines, floating pools, and a strange boy named Fiori. But not everything is as wonderful as it seems. Shadows are sucking the life from this world and its flowers. Amelia hopes she and Marti can save the magical gardens before they’re gone for good.

   The story was based on a feeling. An all-consuming awe that wheedled its way into my head while I visited the Como Park Conservatory in Saint Paul, MN. A mechanical man sits in a glass box before you reach the doors, and if you give him a quarter, the flowers around him bloom and he spins a carousel to tell your fortune. He stuck with me until third semester. I drafted the first few chapters while working on the critical. I decided to continue working on this project as my fourth semester thesis because of the bond that Amelia and Marti share. Seeing them be best friends and struggle to remain best friends inspired me and made me want to be a part of their journeys. Twisted Gardens is my first middle grade novel, and I’ve come to appreciate the big questions about friendship, bravery, and love this age group explores.

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?

   When I arrived at Hamline I almost exclusively wrote YA fantasy and poetry, but now I’ve worked on picture books and middle grade as well. I am not as intimidated by trying new things as I was at the beginning of the program. I’m also not as timid when it comes to revision. I rewrote the first ten chapters of Twisted Gardens three times, each draft vastly different from the previous and, in my opinion, much improved. I’m more aware of character motivation and I’m better at balancing setting with voice. Because of studying with Hamline’s faculty, I feel confident moving forward in my writing career.

Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?

For those entering the program: Learn everything you can from students and faculty and give every day your best effort. This moves so fast!

For those considering the program: It’s a lot of work, so be prepared. If you are compelled by the stories inside your head, if you love writing (even though it can be painful), and if you want to be around/learn from other writers you should definitely apply to Hamline’s MFAC. It’s a singular program, one I am eternally grateful to have experienced.