• The Exchange: The MFAC Experience

    Naomi Kinsman_200

    Lessons in Failing

    A reflection by Naomi Kinsman Downing

    In January 2009, I packed my toothbrush, a new journal, my warmest wool sweater, and my brimming-over dreams of writing success. I boarded a plane to Hamline University, ignoring my fellow Californian’s dire warnings about Minnesota’s snowy tundra.

    In lectures and workshops I took copious notes about point of view and psychic distance and character development. I aimed straight for my goal: a perfected, ready-to-submit manuscript at the end of my fourth semester. That first residency, I listened to the graduates read their beautifully crafted books, watched them stride confidently across the stage to receive their diplomas. Soon, in four carefully planned semesters, that would be me.

    My advisors did warn me. So did my fellow students. Trust the experience. Each semester will give you what you need. Writing is not a beast you can control. I listened, but I also believed that somewhere, somehow, within a perfect plan I’d find the perfect shortcut.

    I started with picture books. Short. Simple. Turned out, picture books weren’t as easy as they looked. Picture books required focus, a stripping away of the twists and turns and layers.

    “You’re thinking too hard,” my advisor warned.

    Thinking too hard? Wasn’t writing an intellectual exercise?

    “Let go,” she said.

    Of what? I wondered.

    Frustrated, I returned to my comfort zone: fantasy. Here, I could indulge in all the twists and turns and layers I pleased—or so I thought. I studied craft and concepts, keeping my eyes narrowly focused on my own learning plans, trying to shut out the growing chorus of colleagues, advisors and friends, urging me to ease up, to let go.

    I’m trying! my inner voice screamed.

    The harder I tried, the more elusive the perfect manuscript seemed. I knew I was taking myself too seriously. The trouble was, perfectionism was hard-wired into my DNA.

    Finally, in my critical thesis semester, my advisor said, “You want to study the importance of play. Why not try actually playing?”

    I’d run out of excuses. Exhausted, feeling like a wrung-out sponge, I decided to stop planning and start listening. And then, unexpectedly, I started to learn the most important lesson of all, the lesson that transformed me from someone who wanted to be a writer into someone who was a writer. I learned how to fail.

    I tried to play and I failed. I started experimenting and my experiments failed. But, astonishingly, some of my experiments worked, too. Characters and scenes emerged. When I released my white-knuckled grip, opened the windows to a fresh breeze of creative possibility, my heart showed up. The more I failed, the better my writing became. No longer was I weighing each word, sentence and paragraph on perfection’s scale. Instead, I felt each word, sentence and paragraph. I accepted the messy process. I started to become a writer.

    By the end of my third semester, I had written and produced a play on the importance of playing, and by the end of my fourth, I had landed a series book deal. From the outside, I appeared to be one of those sleek graduates, taking my turn walking across the stage. But my success was fundamentally different than my original plan.

    My MFA program at Hamline changed my life. Without advisors to guide me and colleagues to cheer me on, I would have kept learning all the wrong lessons. I may have even found publishing success. However, I wouldn’t have learned what I most needed to learn, the lesson that surprised me most of all—that by failing, I’d finally succeed in what mattered most: finding my true writing voice.

    About the Author: Naomi Kinsman Downing is a 2011 graduate of the Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Hamline University. She is the author of three books: Luconeth, Spilled Ink, and Shadows (forthcoming from Zondervan). Naomi is also Creative Director for the Society of Young Inklings, an organization that empowers young artists to tell their unique stories.

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