The Open Question

My first revelation of 2018 is that MFA programs have magical time slip powers. I last blogged in September when my third semester at VCFA was just getting started and I had taken on the challenge of writing a pretty complex, lengthy critical thesis. I blinked, and now it’s a new year and about to become a new semester.

Where did all that time go? There wasn’t a lack of things to write about. I had many great personal and professional events and revelations during that time. I attended the SCBWI MI Fall Conference and the SCBWI IL Prairie Writer’s Day with a great group of writers and learned so much. I ventured into the suburbs three times for awesome author events at Anderson Bookstore. I watched my daughter’s love of the arts expand as she played the saxophone in her first band concert. My husband and I braved the freezing Chicago winds to see Hamilton. I read so many books there isn’t enough laptop battery life to tell you about them all. I also wrote creative pages with more depth, heart, and nuance than I’ve ever accomplished before. And yes, I did conquer that critical thesis.

Now the creative thesis, and the New England blizzards, are staring me down. If my flight actually happens, I’ll be back at Brigadoon in five days preparing for another MFA time slip. I’ll graduate in July, and who knows what lies beyond that milestone.


Of all the books I devoured over my Christmas Break, the one that most resonated with me was Deborah Heiligman’s young adult biography Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers. There is much to admire and analyze about the way she likened a biography to a portrait and used that extended metaphor in the novel structure, her writing craft, and her insights into the story of this remarkable brotherhood. But more than that, this story inspired me both as a writer new to nonfiction and as a hobby artist considering attempting illustrations for children. Vincent has inspired many, but his quieter, younger brother Theo stole my heart. The most resonant revelation for me, though, came from the author’s note:


Everyone has an opinion about Vincent van Gogh, an agenda of some kind. This was overwhelming. But I benefitted from two great pieces of wisdom at this time. My editor told me: “We want your tour of Vincent. Nobody else’s. When friends come to New York City,” she said, “I can’t take them everywhere. So I take them to my favorite New York places.”

And then, over lunch in a museum café, an artist friend said this: a work of art on a wall is an open question.

I thought about both of these things as I visited museums and looked at Vincent’s paintings. I looked at other artist’s paintings. And soon I realized that when we look at a work of art, we look at it from where we stand – who we are, where we’ve been, and what we’ve seen, how we feel. A work of art is an open question, a question that invites you in.

A life lived is also an open question.

When we look at a person – alive or dead – we do so from our own perspective. We bring our own particularly to art and also to biography.


Not everyone is a fan of New Year’s Resolutions. My husband, for example, believes that stating a New Year’s Resolution makes it sure to be discarded before the snow melts. He feels life changes are hard, and they require more commitment than declaring a drunken promise at midnight.

Perhaps a deeper way to consider personal growth and life changes is to consider:

          What is your open question?

          How is your current lifestyle helping or hindering your efforts to answer it?

          What do you want your biographer to select as the theme of your life?

Perhaps no one can clearly identify the open question in a life currently being lived. It’s sure to grow and change over time. What we can do is consider how we’d like to answer that open question and invite others into our lives.

I want the answer to my open question to be strongly rooted in:

Empathy, not Hate

Building, not Destruction

And all forms of Artistic Expression.

About Jennifer Kay

Jennifer Kay is a KidLit author and Structural Engineer. She has a VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, is an SCBWI Rockford Network Rep, edits the SCBWI IL Prairie Wind, and belongs to Mystery Writers of America. Jennifer works as a writer, freelance editor, literary agency reader, and creative writing teacher.
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