Last month I checked a few major writing milestones off my bucket list:
1) Delivered my graduate reading of my young adult science fiction work-in-progress, Eraser.
2) Presented my graduate lecture, Shift That Narrow Trend Line into a Scatter Plot of Possibilities: Crafting a Wider Range of Authentic Lesbian Protagonists in Middle-Grade and Young Adult Novels. It will be on the Commons soon for VCFA students and alumni to listen to. If anyone else is interested in the topic, I’m happy to share a copy of my critical thesis on the same topic.
3) Graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults!
4) Vacationed in Vermont with my family to relax and celebrate after two years of hard work and sacrifices. There were a serious number of maple creemees involved in that celebration, but also lots of nature, laughter, and love. Believe it or not, my extremely supportive husband even agreed to ride a horse for the first time.
Now I’m back home, starting the adjustment to life after the MFA. It’s funny how you don’t appreciate the way an MFA program breaks the writing life down into manageable pieces until you’re facing an endless horizon that is deadline free.
My family definitely does not miss all of those stress-inducing words, but I might. Writer Jen is now bobbing in her canoe in the middle of a still lake, unsure which shore the wind will push her toward.
Post Grad Revelation #1: No writer spends all her time writing.
As my classmates and I discussed our many post-grad goals and dreams during our last residency together, it occurred to me that there are many variations of what it means to be a writer. In pretty much all of them, that writer is juggling at least two full time jobs. Here are some of the many combinations I heard about:
Writer + Illustrator
Writer + Teacher
Writer + Public Speaker
Writer + Editor
Writer + Book Reviewer
Writer + Book Seller
Writer + Librarian
Writer + Pre-MFA Day Job
This last one somehow gets the lowest status, but is, in my opinion, the most difficult combination to juggle. If your pre-MFA day job is an analytical STEM related career, such as Structural Engineering, it is unlikely you will find others who are juggling that same combination of work. In my experience, it is also unlikely the people in either of those two worlds can relate to or understand the demands of your other world.
Working in the overlap of that venn diagram can be a lonely place. But it can also be an asset because you have a unique skill set from your day job to bring to your writing. For me, that involves crafting girl characters with STEM interests who break gender rules in my fiction and writing about the female pioneers of structural engineering in my nonfiction.
What combination do I envision for myself? My MFA qualifies me for Writer + Teacher, which I’m excited (and a little terrified) to try. Writer + Editor appeals to me, too, but might require further education. I have my eye on a great one-month summer program, but have promised my husband we won’t be paying any more grad school tuition (for at least the next year).
Post Grad Revelation #2: Regarding the Structural Engineering Day Job
The most commonly asked question since I graduated from VCFA: When do you start back at your structural engineering day job?
Not whether my young adult manuscript is completed (It’s half-finished).
Not how my nonfiction proposal is coming along (It’s ready).
Not the status of the many queries I’ve submitted for picture books, magazine articles, and short stories from my creative thesis collection (I’ve been doing revisions for an interested magazine editor!)
There is this assumption that my structural engineering career is my real career that I must hurry back to, while writing should resume its hobby status.
The answer: Jennifer does not have plans to return to her structural engineering career. Yes, she is still a licensed Structural Engineer and will maintain her credentials. No, she will not be designing any bridges in the near future. For fifteen years, I used writing as a skill in my structural engineering career. I’d like to take a few years to see if I can use engineering as a skill in my writing career.
Right now, that means I’m going to give Writer + Teacher a try. This fall, I’ll be teaching a community creative writing workshop that is an introduction to the age levels and formats of writing for children. If you live in the Rockford area, check out the listing in the RVC fall catalog. I’ll also be an SCBWI Network Rep, working with my local critique partner to set up the first SCBWI Rockford Network. And I’ll be writing, of course.
Post Grad Revelation #3: Many Roles Require Many Goals
After two weeks back at home, I barely feel settled into my new post-grad writing routine. What have I been up to? Flipping through two years worth of notes on lectures, workshops, and writing craft books. Sorting out the items that will be most helpful to Writer Jen and Teacher Jen. Most importantly, making goals.
What immediately follows those goals? The To Do list.
For me, the Writing Super Star has been a key component to making those goals and establishing the first steps on my to do list. It looks something like this:
This little guy has been popping up all over my journal. First, I had to establish the five main categories of my writing goals: fiction, nonfiction, art, teaching, and SCBWI Network. Once I had those categories established, it was easy to doodle a star and put a goal next to each star point.
SCBWI Network: Send out survey to SCBWI members in the Rockford area to ask what would be most helpful to them at a network meeting. If you live in the area and didn’t receive our survey, please let me know. We hope to schedule our first meeting in September.
Teaching: Course listed in RVC catalog. This goal came with pretty firm deadlines to apply to RVC, fill out the course description paperwork, and now to prepare the lesson plans. It is the most structured of my star points, which is something I really needed to remind me that writing and teaching are now a job.
Art: Right now this star point is about making time for art again. I’m not ready to illustrate anything yet, but I have ideas of projects I could illustrate, and I’ve been learning and practicing. This star point is the least urgent for me, my one fun category, which is also something I really needed.
The last two star points, related to my actual writing, are the most difficult to set goals for. So much of publishing is out of the control of the author. The only things I can control, and set goals for, are the projects I want to write and the dates I’d like to have each draft completed.
At VCFA I discovered a key aspect of how I write best: I need both short projects and long projects in progress at the same time. Short projects allow me breaks from the marathon of my longer projects. They also give me something to finish and submit when the completion of my longer projects feels like an eternity away. I’ve also learned that finding someone with a similar goal really helps you stick to your own goal and gives you someone to swap pages and critique with.
Nonfiction Short Goal: Picture book biography of Olive Dennis to swap with an awesome VCFA classmate. Research is already underway.
Nonfiction Long Goal: Query middle grade nonfiction scrapbook proposal about Elmina and Alda Wilson. The nonfiction proposal is ready!
Fiction Short Goal: Write a short story to meet a specific anthology theme to swap with an awesome VCFA alumni. I’ve been wanting to practice writing to a specific prompt and am so thankful I found the perfect person who shares this goal. We’re starting with a middle grade mystery.
Fiction Long Goal: VCFA Writer’s of the Lost Arc pact to finish by year-end. “Finish” means different things to everyone in my class, but it is awesome that we have a group of writers who are so eager to support each other. My goal is to finish a first draft of my young adult science fiction manuscript.
Will we also see Jennifer posting on this blog more than once per semester now that she has graduated?
You may have noticed the blog isn’t a point on my writing super star, but my fingers are crossed that you will hear from me more often.