Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why an MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults in a Tight Economy?

In 1987 I earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Twenty years later I have the great gift of teaching in a program tailored just for children's writers. Claire Rudolf Murphy

The following two articles were first published in the Western Washington SCBWI newsletter in August 2008. Since then the economy has nosedived and like the rest of America, publishers are facing hard times.

Why Hamline?
By Hannah Trierweiler, January 2009 Hamline MFA graduate

True confession: I began the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program in writing for children at Hamline University with some reluctance. For months prior to sending in that deposit check, I debated whether or not an MFA would be worth the time — several writers told me I’d learn just as much from working on my own — or the money — not a small sum, considering that if and when I ever get published, my advance will likely be less than one semester’s tuition. But ultimately, I leapt, and now, a year later and well into my third semester, I’m absolutely thrilled that I did.

Hamline is a new program. The first class will graduate in January 2009. But from the beginning, it has operated without the roadblocks you’d expect from a program in its infancy. In part, this is because core faculty members, including Jane Resh Thomas, Phyllis Root, Ron Koertge, and Liza Ketchum, are veteran instructors from the Vermont College MFA program. But the Hamline program also owes much of its success to Dean Mary Rockcastle, who is a writer herself and deeply invested in the program. Mary attends every lecture during residencies, sits with students at meals, and is unfailingly open to discussing questions and concerns. I’ve never met another administrator like her, and I know she’s determined to make the program the best it can be.

Hamline functions much like other low-residency MFA programs. There are two eleven-day residencies per year, one in January and one in July, each followed by a semester of working one-on-one with a faculty advisor. In addition to those listed above, the faculty includes Jacqueline Briggs-Martin, Kate DiCamillo, Kelly Easton, Lisa Jahn-Clough, Ron Koertge, Alexandria LaFaye, Mary Logue, Alison McGhee, Marsha Qualey, Claire Rudolf Murphy, Gary D. Schmidt, and Marsha Wilson Chall.

This group is overwhelmingly open and generous. Faculty members make a point of getting to know all of the students—not just those they advise or who attended their own workshops during residencies. While each faculty member tends to specialize in one or two genres, most are open to working on projects outside their direct area of expertise, and there’s a good balance between those focusing on fiction and nonfiction for picture-book, middle-grade, and young-adult readers.

Thus far I’ve worked with Jane, Gary, and Phyllis. Each has made me feel as if I’ve won a writer’s lottery. Every packet of work that I’ve sent in has been returned with a detailed cover letter and line edits, and I’ve heard similar reports from my classmates.

Going to the residencies is a bit like going to summer camp. It is my busiest 22 days out of the year, as well as the most inspirational. Workshops have made me rethink and re-imagine my novel, making it much stronger in the process. Lectures about the challenges of the writing life have made me cry (in a good way). I’ve gotten a sneak peek of works-in-progress from some of my favorite authors. And I’ve met some of my heroes, including visiting writers M.T. Anderson, Lois Lowry, and Emily Jenkins (E. Lockhart). And I can’t forget the late-night, wine-and-cheese bonding sessions I’ve had with fellow classmates.

You wouldn’t think I’d be thrilled to go to Minneapolis in the dead of winter or during the hot, muggy summers. But the Minneapolis/St. Paul area offers a wealth of resources for children’s writers, including the Children’s Literature Network and the Kerlan collection at the University of Minnesota, which has archived original manuscripts and editorial correspondence from hundreds of children’s authors. There are also several outstanding bookstores a stone’s throw from Hamline. While I live in New York City, the heart of the publishing world, I’ve loved having the opportunity to become involved in another community that cares so much about children’s literature. And I’m excited to see how Hamline—and my fellow classmates—will be a part of enriching that community in the future.

Why Teach in a MFA Creative Writing Program?
Faculty member Claire Rudolf Murphy
I love being part of Hamline’s MFA program. I believe low-residency creative writing programs have taken off because manuscripts today need to be almost publication ready before a contract is offered. With sales driving the bottom line, editors must devote more time to marketing and less to editing. Skills developed through students’ creative and critical writing in the program can lead not only to publication, but to editorial, teaching and book review opportunities. Since an MFA is a terminal graduate degree, it gives a writer the needed credentials to teach at the collegiate and graduate level.

At my first Hamline residency in January 2008, I told the students I had longed for a program like this while earning my MFA twenty years ago. Back then I wanted to jumpstart my writing career, but since none of the faculty wrote children’s books I was instructed not to include YA characters in my stories. I studied the craft of fiction and great literature, but had to learn about children’s books on my own.

At Hamline, students study all genres in children’s literature and are encouraged in write in every genre during their five-semester program. Mentored by a different writer each semester, they learn to how to work with varied editorial styles, an important skill for one’s career. Students send a packet of 20-80 pages four times a semester. The instructor responds with written comments and an editorial letter and occasional emails and phone calls, much like the editorial process with an editor. Mentoring writers has challenged me to articulate what I know about my craft and search out what I don’t. I recommend exemplary literature and craft books in their genre. This term my students all began working on shorter nonfiction projects, but some manuscripts evolved into historical fiction picture books, contemporary novels and longer nonfiction book proposals, as they explored the best way to tell their story. In every packet, I encouraged them to reflect about their own writing process and to identify their passion for each project, the enthusiasm needed to carry them through the rigorous revision process.
I have given talks on research, character in nonfiction and for this upcoming January 2009 residency, I will speak on plot in nonfiction and learned a great deal as I pore over the structure of my favorite nonfiction books.  One of my students this term is publishing her second book and another has an editor interested in her nonfiction project. My students inspire me to work harder to respond to their work and improve my own craft. Their work has renewed my hope and re-ignited my own passion for writing. 

Faculty and students hail from all over the country. Contact me any time with questions about the program: clairerudolfmurphy@gmail.com.

1 comment:

Tony said...

This sounds like a great program. As a children's writer, I see where you are coming from. Getting published is certainly becoming more and more difficult, and authors can use any step up that they can get.

Tony Peters
Author of, Kids on a Case: The Case of the Ten Grand Kidnapping