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  • Mary Jane Nirdlinger

MFA Lesson Two: Stretch Yourself


When I started my MFA, I had a goal: I was going to learn how to write good middle-grade fiction, by golly.


I love goals. (This is why my family avoids me on January 1st.)


I set about achieving this goal with my usual dose of enthusiasm. I scoured the faculty list, I read their books before arriving on campus, I was going to rock this plan.


When it was time for faculty "speed-dating" I circulated with my classmates, asking questions, validating my research. But something curious happened while I listened. Some students came into the program with a specific project they hoped to finish and publish. Their goal was to find the faculty advisor who would help. The nearly unanimous response to this query was: "set the project aside."


In response to protest, the faculty in the hot seats would explain: "Our goal is to help you become a writer," and "We want you to leave with the tools to write anything you want," and "We can prepare you to build a career, instead of just finishing one project."


"The MFA experience took my writer's house down to the foundation and rebuilt it."


The solidity of my goal-oriented plan wobbled. I didn't have a project, but I had narrow goals. I took a deep breath and added new names to my list


Having waited "too long" to get started, I was impatient to see results. I wanted to finish projects and get them out. I had to step back from my goals and embrace the Writer's Mindset. The MFA experience took my writer's house down to the foundation and rebuilt it.


Luckily, as much as I love goals, I love learning and trying new things. I'm curious. About everything. Over the next two years, I tried picture books, middle grade, young adult, poetry, short story, sci-fi, realistic, goofy, weird. It was fun. I began to get it.


Writers with long careers adapt and grow.

Writers with long careers area always students.

Writers with long careers stay in the conversation.


In my third semester, I was lucky enough to be part of the Bath (England) Semester. For two weeks, we met with MFA students and faculty in a program there, we studied and wrote, and we toured. In the Roman baths, I peered down tunnels leading from hot to cold steam rooms and thought about the hands that laid those pipes, the people who tossed their lead curses into the pool, and the thief (the subject of a curse) who stole someone's robe while they were bathing. I could imagine it all clearly, as my day job dealing with public utilities, community issues, and today's lead curses (social media posts) echoed around me.


I believe this feeling of past-meets-present was the seed of the biggest stretch I would eventually make.


I never wanted to write historical fiction. So much research! (see impatient, above) Plus, all those details to get right and so constrained by reality. I stayed the course I'd set, but the experience nagged at me.


I graduated in January 2020.


I went home and finished up a grief-filled realistic-contemporary fiction novel.


Cue the pandemic.


That novel wasn't going anywhere.


Here's where the finish-a-project vs. be-a-writer advice crystalized. If that was all I'd done for two years, I'd have been at a loss. Because what happens if you invest your MFA in one project and it doesn't work?


I moped around a little bit....shouted my own curses (I am still human), but eventually I itched for an escape. I announced, "I'm going to write a historical fiction romance."


Did I mention I'd never written a romance, either?


But here's what happened, I'd been researching a scrapbook my grandmother put together in 1935 with her photographs and poetry when she'd been a Depression-era relief worker. At first, I was just trying to learn more about this part of her life but...I thought, what if? What if she'd met someone.....what if....and I dug. I couldn't go anywhere, libraries and museums were off-limits, but the internet, oh, the internet.


What better way to avoid politics, pandemic, and worry than to immerse myself in the 1930s? After a month and a half of brainstorming and research and note-taking, I was ready to write. It took about four months, but I wrote my first complete draft of a young adult historical fiction romance.


I'm not sure I would have had the confidence to tackle something new on every front if I'd stayed focused on my original goal that first semester.


This year has been an uncomfortable stretch for us all. Finding out that I can stretch my writing has been a gift.


Not only did I learn a lot about what there is to love about historical fiction, I learned that even in the middle of a seemingly hopeless time - the Depression - now - there is a long view, and in that long view there's hope to be found.


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