Alumni Stories

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Francine Marie Tolf

Class of 1976

It may seem presumptuous to submit my own story, but I promise you ego isn’t what’s prompting me. I hope that telling about my own experience as a published author might inspire other alumni to trust their hearts and do what they love.

I am indeed a “published author,” but it took years of working at my craft before North Star Press of St. Cloud, a Minnesota Press, accepted my memoir, Joliet Girl, and my first full-length book of poems, Rain, Lilies, Luck. Both books came out in June of 2010.

I did not begin to write seriously until I was thirty-nine. Back in college, I loved literature classes. Like many English majors, I wrote poetry and short stories. After I graduated, other interests took over. I don’t regret this. I thoroughly enjoyed my years at Joliet Junior College and what was then the College of St. Francis, but I needed a break from books. After some traveling, I moved to a studio apartment in Chicago, got a job as a receptionist at an architecture firm, and experienced what I fondly think of as a belated adolescence. I dated a lot. I wore miniskirts and black lace stockings (this was the Madonna era, readers!). I read Vogue instead of Tolstoy.

When I was twenty-seven, I met the man I would spend the rest of my life with – in a crowded bar on New Year’s Eve, no less! If someone had told me that crazy night that Marc and I would still be together more than twenty-five years later, I would have laughed.

Sometimes throughout the years that followed, I remembered the love for writing I once had, but it was not until my mother died in 1997 that I ached to create again. We had been so close. I wanted to articulate that closeness – and so much more. I took a poetry writing class at Chicago’s Newberry Library and joined a writing group. Eventually, I applied for graduate school. With Marc’s support, I spent two years working toward a Masters in English at Kansas State University and three years pursuing a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota. Going back to school didn’t teach me how to write poetry – one learns that by reading a lot and by writing a lot. Period. But the fellowships I received allowed me the luxury of studying and practicing my craft in an environment where there was encouragement and feedback.

I published my first chapbook of poems (a chapbook is shorter than a full-length book, usually less than 40 pages) in 2006, the summer I graduated from the University of Minnesota. Since then, I have published two more poetry chapbooks as well as my memoir and full-length poetry collection. My work has appeared in over fifty journals and magazines. I’ve received writing grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and other foundations. I have read my work at many venues in the Twin Cities and beyond. Joliet Girl, my memoir, just went into its second print.

This is all deeply satisfying, but what makes me proudest is the knowledge that throughout all the self-doubt, all the rejection letters, all Marc’s and my sacrifices, I stuck with my passion. I now have two books I am deeply proud of, with a second book of poetry and a collection of essays on the way. It would have been easy to stay at my familiar job as a legal assistant and ignore the urge to write. What was once a fierce desire might have dwindled to a vague dream.

I am so glad I did not allow this to happen. I stayed true to myself and to what I love. At the age of 52, I have never been happier.

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Happy Holidays!