21st Century Brontë #31 by Brontë Bettencourt
The MFA Begins
I kicked off 2017 with my first semester in Hamline University’s MFA program for Children and Young Adult Literature. I stuffed my suitcase full of workshopped stories, books, and more layers than what a Floridian knows to do with.
In St. Paul, Minnesota the underdressed can experience frostbite in under fifteen minutes.
Seven hopefuls started this semester. There were nine of us, but two chose to leave the program due to personal circumstances, a rarity for this program.
I wasn’t anxious about the workload. I was still shocked that I was there at all. I quadruple checked that I indeed was the Brontë who was admitted into such a competitive program.
I learned the term for my inability to recognize my skill and accomplishments: Imposter Syndrome. I thought the school made a mistake by accepting my application.
I felt like Harry Potter, because, I couldn’t possibly be a, a grad school student.
YA fiction author Swati Avasthi gave the first lecture of the residency. She spoke about the different points-of-view, their advantages and disadvantages, and her theories on how each tends to push a story element more than the others. For example, first person narration focuses more on character development, while third omniscient pushes the theme. I had pages of notes about unreliable narrators and psychic distance, which defines the level of intimacy the author wants to be when narrating through a character.
For ten days (weekends included) I attended morning workshops, afternoon lectures, and evening readings. Not all the events were required, and occasionally free time was technically in the schedule. But my training in selling artwork at anime conventions mentally prepared me. I guzzled Dayquil, orange juice, and abused cough drops. I wasn’t deepening my pit of debt to nap in the hotel room.
New students were required to introduce themselves many times. Thankfully, my peers cheered when I stated my interests for Young Adult Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Anime, Comic Books, and Cartoons.
Afterward, another new student named Cristina asked me about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Her copies of Ms. Marvel comics now sit on my desk.
I was overwhelmed by the faculty and students’ support. I grew up in a city where you can’t make eye contact with another without coming off as weird.
Here people are friendly and curious.
When introducing myself for the 79th time, I told the story of my first undergraduate workshop, where I was told that I was too skilled to write about vampires.
For my first MFA workshop I submitted a short story about a barista who wanted to learn magic so she could work on her art. My peers said that the coffee shop setting was incredibly vivid, but they wanted to learn more about the magic.
Magic would’ve made others shame me in my undergraduate workshops. My professors then stressed literary fiction because inexperienced writers already have it hard with story craft without the complications of world-building a fantasy or sci-fi setting. The idea of genre fiction was completely dismissed. One of my professors wrote “no elves” in his syllabus.
And I can understand why the professors pushed character development most in a story. If we don’t have a connection with the characters, why should we care about what happens to them, even if what happens to them is supernatural?
Maybe I’ve proven that I have the basics down, that I’ve earned my place in that workshop. I’m sure the professor who told me to forget about vampires was trying to compliment me. But that’s what I read and watched when I was younger: The Vampire Chronicles, Yu Yu Hakusho, Fullmetal Alchemist.
I want to write the books that I needed as a kid. And instead of aging up Ellie and my other characters, they can serve a purpose for a younger audience.
But it’s still awesome to sit in a class and discuss the elements of a picture book, or how to cater to the psychology of a middle grade versus a young adult audience.
I feel like the MFAC staff and the other students get that.
So I talked as much as I could without being obnoxious. I read my work out loud and answered questions. I kept stammering, but I was more excited than nervous.
I asked one of the admissions workers during the first semester luncheon about my application. I don’t remember how I worded the question, “Why me?” but she answered like it was the most obvious thing at that table:
“Because you’re a good writer.”
The rest of my semester will continue like an online class. Toward the end of the residency I was assigned an advisor. For the next four months I have the pleasure of working with Phyllis Root, who is equal parts amazing picture book author, and counselor for my stubborn case of Imposter Syndrome.
I have 40 pages of writing for my novel, a critical essay, and ten books to read from the reading list. Phyllis Root also recommended reading Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, to help counter all this self-doubt and just write.
If you’re currently in an MFA program, or if you have any questions about mine, please let me know in the comments section!
Brontë Bettencourt (Episode 34, Episode 221) graduated from the University of Central Florida with a Bachelors in English Creative Writing. When she’s not writing or working, she is a full time Dungeon Master and Youtube connoisseur.