By Marjetta Geerling, Spalding MFA Alumni (W4CYA ’11)
When I graduated from the Spalding MFA program in 2011, I knew at some point I’d be back for an enrichment semester. It’s no secret how much I love the Spalding program, and the enrichment semester provides the opportunity to do a post-graduate semester, an experience I definitely wanted but wasn’t sure how I’d squeeze into my teaching life.
Years passed. Thanks to my new MFA, I was able to leave elementary education and became an Assistant Professor of English at Broward College. At last, I made enough money to actually take summers off, and that’s when I wrote. I wrote a lot, but only mid-May to mid-August. More years passed. And as they did, I learned that I can’t build a writing career working at it only three months per year. Nothing was selling. The YA novel I had published before beginning my MFA studies was growing older. My agent passed away, and I was back at writing career square one. I felt stuck. So stuck.
I did all the things you’re supposed to do: wrote every day no matter what, blocked out time in my schedule for writing, attended conferences, had writing dates with friends, read, read, read. I kept writing, but no matter how disciplined I was, when the school year rolled around, it became nearly impossible to write. If I did write, I was never happy with what I produced. I knew my pattern wasn’t working, but I couldn’t figure out how to break it. Then I learned that completing an enrichment semester would count for professional development at my college, and even better, the college would pay for most of it.
Aha! I thought. Even though it would make much more sense to begin the enrichment semester with May residency so I could do the bulk of the work in the summer, I will do my enrichment semester during the school year. Thus, my logical mind argued, forcing myself to write during the school year. Brilliant!
What a stupid idea. I realized it almost immediately when, on the first day of my enrichment semester residency, I discovered I had read the wrong thing for the book-in-common discussion. As the residency unfolded, I discovered lots of things I’d missed in spite of how organized I’d tried to be, like an entire short critical essay assignment and a lot of the prep work. How had I done this before? Being a student again was no joke. It was, in fact, quite humbling.
I was paired with the amazing, the kind, the generous, the mentor extraordinaire Lesléa Newman. In our first conference, she said something along the lines of, “You already know how to write a novel. Why don’t you try something else?” I’d never really wanted to write anything but novels. Still, how could I say no to Lesléa Newman? I agreed.
So instead of writing in the comfort of my YA zone, I wrote picture books. A lot of them. And they were bad. Really bad. I wrote poetry, both children’s and adult. I wrote personal essays and blog posts. I wrote a few chapters of a novel then went right back to revising picture books. I was on fire. It was December, and I was writing. It was January, February, March, and April, and I was still writing. Still writing! Not every day, but at least every week. I was living and breathing my work, thinking about it on the drive to school, talking about my stories with colleagues, sharing revision strategies with my students, and most importantly, writing. During the school year!
That teaching-writing balance I struggle with? Lesléa guided me to the answer I needed. Summers are for novels. During the school year, though, I can keep up my momentum in shorter forms of writing. Bouncing from project to project created an energy that kept me motivated. When my head is full of students and their problems, hundreds of essays to read, committee work, and everything else that makes up the school year, there’s not room in my head to hold a novel. But I can imagine a storybook or a poem. I can write it in one sitting and then endlessly revise in my mind until I find another chunk of time to sit down with it.
Lots of people have asked me if the enrichment semester helped me professionally. First, let me make the case for becoming a beginner again. Giving myself permission to write outside my area of expertise, to write in a new genre and to do it badly, was freeing. I didn’t care if what I was writing was good; I only cared about meeting my packet deadlines. I skipped from project to project joyfully, playfully, and it was fun, when writing hadn’t been fun in so very long.
Second, remember those terrible picture books I mentioned? With Lesléa’s help, I revised them. A lot. When one was finally as good as I could make it, I showed it to my new agent. She loved it! She is currently shopping it, so cross your fingers for me, friends. Now that I’m a more versatile writer, I don’t feel stuck in the same rut I’d fallen into for years. Now I can see many more paths opening up before me, and I have my enrichment semester experience to thank for my newfound hope.
Marjetta Geerling is the author of the young adult novel FANCY WHITE TRASH (Viking, 2008), an American Library Association’s 2009 Best Books for Young Adults and Rainbow List selection. She holds an M.F.A. in Writing from Spalding University and is an Assistant Professor of English at Broward College. Marjetta is represented by Nicole Resciniti at The Seymour Agency.