December grad Jamaica Ritcher weaves interest for natural world into creative nonfiction
By Lisa Laughlin
Two previous degrees don’t seem to be enough to quench senior Jamaica Ritcher’s curiosity. This December she completed her MFA Creative Writing degree from the University of Idaho, with an emphasis in creative Nonfiction, to make her third.
“What draws me to Nonfiction is the way it encompasses so much,” said Ritcher. “The writer David Shields has said that having a genre called Nonfiction is like having a dresser drawer called non-socks. There is a lot that’s possible—narrative, research, play with form, [and] more meditative, thought-driven writing.”
Ritcher, who had already earned her B.A. in Anthropology from California State University-Chio and her Master of Natural Science from Arizona State University, found this flexible writing genre to be the perfect fit.
“I’m fascinated by scientific research, but I found that more than engaging in my own research, I really liked learning about—and then writing about—the research others were doing,” she said. “Nonfiction allows for much exploration and experimentation, and I find that exciting and inspiring.”
Ritcher was also inspired by opportunities provided by the Idaho English department, as she entered the graduate program in 2009 with a teaching assistantship and has since taught intro-level English classes, introduction to Nonfiction writing, and technical writing.
“Both endeavors [teaching and studying] take their own kind of mental and emotional energy, and switching back and forth is sometimes challenging,” she said. “But I learn a lot from students, and as a student I learn things that help me to be a better teacher, so the two activities can also complement each other nicely.”
In addition to experience in the classroom, Ritcher was able to travel to Illinois during her second year in the program after being awarded a SGP grant, and conducted archival research for one of her writing projects. This included spending time in the archives of both University of Illinois and the American Medical Association.
“It was good to get the grant writing and research experience as a student; that is, at a time when I have mentors to go to for advice and guidance. Applying for the grants or fellowships, and then doing the work I propose for them, is something I want to do as a practicing writer,” said Ritcher.
Much of the advice and guidance Ritcher has received has come from inside the English department, as she’s worked with creative writing faculty members such as Kim Barnes and Joy Passanante, who were on Ritcher’s thesis committee.
“I’ve learned important things from everyone. [Barnes and Passanante] have been important mentors. Alexandra Teague, one of the English department’s poetry professors, has also been especially influential in my writing,” she said.
Ritcher also had the chance to work with Writing Center director Mary Ann Judge, tutoring students in the writing lab on campus.
“I have learned so many important things about writing processes, and working with students,” said Ritcher. “I wanted to pursue writing for a long time before coming into the program, even though my academic background was not in creative writing or literature. I know so much more now about literary technique, history, and theory, and can use that to better understand and talk about what I’m doing—or want to be doing—in my writing.”
After her four years at Idaho, Ritcher says she also feels more focused and confident about her professional goals. She plans to continue teaching and learning more about the area of Nonfiction writing.
“As a graduate student I’ve had opportunities to work with students as both a writing instructor and as a tutor, and I’m looking forward to continuing with both of those activities. I will also start sending out my writing for publication in literary journals, and there are a few writing conferences and residency fellowships I plan to apply for [in] the upcoming year.”