Monday, September 17, 2012

Jump Starts and New Beginnings

Last week, Mary Ann, Carmela, and April responded to an Ask the TeachingAuthors question submitted by Joanna Cooke about the pros and cons of getting an MFA.

Here's my story...

The summer after I graduated from college, I moved to Los Angeles to be an unpaid intern on my favorite TV show, Days of Our Lives.  That summer, I remember watching the Democratic National Convention and the Olympics, eating scads of S'Mores with my awesome roommate, Gretchen, meeting tons of soap stars (both nice and not-so-nice), and attending my first national SCBWI conference in Marina del Rey.  On the last day of my internship, when I'd already shipped my belongings home and signed up for a medical transcription course at the local community college, I was hired to be a lowly writers' assistant.

For four years, I made coffee, fetched lunches, made thousands (millions?) of copies, talked to brain surgeons, answered questions from fans and actors and writers alike.  I also negotiated a four-day, ten hour/day work week so that I'd have a full day each week to actually write.  I was hired to ghost write a Nancy Drew mystery and had the opportunity to work with the fabulous Olga Litowinsky.  I sold a children's biography.  And I slowly began to realize that I was never going to get a shot at writing for the show.

Ultimately, I decided that I'd given my soap writing dream a good go.  I didn't have to live in Los Angeles to write children's books.  It was time to go home.

In Maryland, I took a variety of part-time jobs.  I wrote some articles and two more Nancy Drew novels.  But the hard truth was, I was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of a top-tier college; yet I was in my late twenties, living with my parents, and working as a secretary (a job for which I was overqualified on paper but utterly underqualified in practice).  While I was a published writer, I did not feel comfortable calling myself "a writer" -- or much else, for that matter. 

Then one day I saw an ad in the monthly SCBWI bulletin for the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College.  The program was in its infancy then.  I'd never heard of it.  But when I saw the list of faculty, I knew that I must apply.  I was desperate for a jump start, direction, affirmation, anything!

Now, I fully realize what children's book writers typically earn in terms of salary.  I was quite clear that it was unlikely that I'd ever recoup the money spent on my graduate education. I told myself it would be a spiritual investment.

I could not have imagined how truly magical my experience would be.  During my second residency, I received an email (there was no cell phone reception, and only one pay phone on the whole floor) stating that Days desperately needed a writers' assistant, and would I come back ASAP?  I said only if I'd have a shot at writing, and they said fine.  I found an apartment, flew home from Vermont, packed my things, and a week later I was back at work in L.A.

The day that Marion Dane Bauer called to tell me that my novel had won the Houghton Mifflin Award was the same day that I learned I would get a scriptwriting contract on Days.

The year that Houghton Mifflin accepted my novel for publication was the year my now-husband and I started dating, and the year it was published, we got engaged.

To say that Vermont College changed my life would be like saying having kids changed my life.  I truly was a different person when I graduated.

Not to say that it was all perfect and wonderful.  Juggling the program with a full-time job was often exhausting.  I had one difficult semester where I did not really "click" with my advisor.  I had to take a semester off because my job did not allow four weeks of vacation in the same year.  I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer during my last semester -- had surgery, radiation, moved back to Maryland, and yes, still graduated! 

Some unexpected benefits: When my daughter comes home from school gushing over a book by Phyllis Root or Carolyn Crimi or Susan Fletcher, I get to say, 'I know her!'  And nearly a decade later, I am still in touch almost daily with my classmates. 

I also remember the MFA being touted as a "terminal degree" that would allow one to teach at the college level.  Being a total introvert, I didn't think I would ever pursue this course, but ta-da, here I am.  And now, yes, I can definitely say I've earned back my monetary investment.

Nowadays, there are other MFA programs as well as options for great instruction -- McDaniel College's online certificate program (highly recommended), UCLA Extension, and courses, for example.  But to this day, I crave the monthly deadline pressure and the immediate feedback of a large, knowledgeable, supportive writing community.

For anyone looking for a fresh start, a jump start, or a new beginning, the MFA could be for you.

L'Shana Tova -- Happy New Year! -- Jeanne Marie


Barbara Younger said...

Love it!What a great Vermont story. Mine is less dramatic, but I adored my Vermont MFA years. I graduated four years ago, but not a day goes by that I don't think about that time or use what I learned in my writing life.

The Pen and Ink Blog said...

Wow. Wonderful story. I have an MA in acting (which quailified me to work at the Dole Pineapple Cannery) but I enjoyed the scholarship and the degree.

Carmela Martino said...

Gee, Jeanne Marie, even though I was there with you, I didn't know you were going through all this at the time. Thanks so much for sharing your story with us.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Well, JeaneMarie: your fellow Hiver Phyllis Harris will have to share the MY Heroine Status I awarded her this Spring with YOU, now that I know YOUR amazing story!
My, oh, my, oh, my.
Your Fan Esther, who thinks she was at that Marino Del Ray SCBWI Conference with you....

April Halprin Wayland said...

Wowee, JM. So inspiring! An MFA could well be in my future...when my kid's in med school. :-)

Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford said...

Oh, gosh, Esther, wouldn't it be funny if we were both at that conference? I think that was the one where I heard Patricia Reilly Giff, among many others. Joan Bauer? Wish I'd met you then!

And Susan, I think I took a field trip of the Dole Pineapple Cannery in kindergarten. :) I love pineapples! I took an acting class in L.A. because I thought it would help my writing, so I happen to think you have a very useful degree.

April, I think you absolutely made the right decision to enjoy that family time while you could. The MFA is definitely consuming. And gosh, it all really does go by so quickly!