This is a personal essay by Maureen Millea Smith.
There are a before and after demarcations in my writing life. There is before Hamline University’s M.F.A. program and there is after I enrolled at Hamline and then after graduation. There are books filled with arguments for and against writing programs; they are well worth reading. What I know is that I will be forever grateful for my acceptance into Hamline’s program and the patience and support that my family extended to me during the five years of class work and thesis writing. I came into the program focused on writing fiction and what I would need to do to complete a thesis that would be the starter dough for a first novel.
The faculty was very patient with me. As a reader, as a librarian, I love poetry, I love essay, and I am fascinated by memoir, but I worship fiction. All I really wanted to do was learn how to write a novel. So no matter what the course title might have been I worked on scenes, narrative, trying to figure out the stories of my characters Fred and Sarah Holly. What I learned to do was to find niche times in my days so that I could write. I could give up television, ballroom dance lessons, my dream of becoming a great cook, and ignore the vast herds of dust bunnies around our house in my pursuit of writing, reading, and preparing for class. I was always there for my family, but it is true I could be distracted. This is still true. I could not and did not give up my work as a librarian. Most of the successful writers that I know have day jobs; they are extremely hard-working people.
To be honest I was bereft after graduation from Hamline University. The M.F.A. coursework had been my definition for five years. My classmates and teachers had become my friends and mentors. I even missed the drive to Saint Paul.
So then came the years of re-writing my novel, submission, rejection, submission, and the mysterious reality of having to find new stories to explore. The Fred and Sarah Holly stories were eventually revised into the stuff of my first novel When Charlotte Comes Home, published by Alyson Books in 2006. Charlotte won the Minnesota Book Award for Novel & Short Story in 2007. I have written two other novels that have not been picked up by publishing houses in the years after Charlotte’s publication. In 2015, my collection of linked short stories, The Enigma of Iris Murphy, won the Tartt First Fiction Award for a first collection of short stories. The Livingston Press of the University of West Alabama published Iris Murphy in July 2016. I am, of course, currently writing something. It is fiction.
The lessons that Mary Rockcastle, Sheila O’Connor, Patricia Weaver Francisco, and Deborah Keenan taught me were often in the classroom, but they were also by example. I never write even a three-sentence email, for work or to my sister, without revising it. Something has to happen on the page. Art and craft are habits. You have to learn the rules before breaking them. Good writers are good listeners. Live in your body. You are never a prophet in your own land. Read the kind of literature you want to write. Be happy for other people’s success and they will find happiness in yours. If you want to be published you have to submit and that means you will also be rejected a good deal of the time. (Or at least I am.) A sense of humor and a bit of a thick hide can be helpful.
And every day I thank you, Hamline. I love writing more now than I ever believed I could. And thank you to all of my readers, but in particular to writers and readers Marie Stolte, Deb Nelson, Barbara Swanke, Carol Flint-Kaliebe, and Janet Wiehe for your many years of reading my stories.
In 2015, Maureen Millea Smith won The Tartt First Fiction Prize for a first collection of short fiction, The Enigma of Iris Murphy: Stories. The Livingston Press of the University of West Alabama published the collection on July 20, 2016. She is also the author of the novel, When Charlotte Comes Home, which was published by Alyson Books in 2006. Charlotte won the Minnesota Book Award for Novel & Short Story in 2007. Her essay “In Charlotte’s Web” was published in Minnesota Literature in December 2003 and was chosen as the winner of the 2003 Minnesota Literature essay contest.
She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Hamline University and an MA in Library Science from the University of Iowa. Her undergraduate degree is from the University of Wyoming in English literature. She works as a reference librarian and readers’ advisor at the Edina Library of the Hennepin County Library system. At the Edina Library, she works on author programs, including the Edina Reads series, and the Great Decisions programs in collaboration with speakers from Global Minnesota. She worked for the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County for eleven and one-half years, seven of which were in the Fiction and Young Adult Department.
Maureen lives in Edina with her husband, Daniel Newton Smith III and a Maine Coon cat named Winnie and a rescue cat name Schubert Shed Cat IV. Their daughter, Kerry, works for the Colburn School in Los Angeles. Maureen is a member of a local Julia Child Club, the Edina Morningside Rotary Club, and she studies Viniyoga. She leads a creative writing group through Edina Community Education and is on the Board of Coffee House Press.
Header photo credited to Baim Hanif.