CONVERSATIONS WITH MAINE

BDN columnist goes back to school

&quotThe Stone House," home to the University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast MFA program in creative writing.
"The Stone House," home to the University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast MFA program in creative writing. Buy Photo
Posted July 30, 2013, at 2:47 p.m.

On July 13, two days into a 10-day residency for the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Master of Fine Arts program, I scrawled a few lines in my journal before falling into bed in a stupor:

“My head is spinning, I’m exhausted, and I am in bliss.”

I assumed that my state of mind was due to my having reached an age where school and homework are mere shadows of the distant past. My mental musculature for lectures, class discussions and paper writing has atrophied after years of contented life as a cranial couch potato. No wonder these 13-hour days of continuous brain demand were freaking me out.

It was reassuring to discover that I was not alone. There is something transformative about Stonecoast at any age.

The 30 of us “firsties,” who started our two-year creative writing program in July, ranged in age from 22 to 50-something and came from all over the country. Virtually all of us found ourselves simultaneously exhilarated and intimidated by the challenges set before us. Second-, third- and fourth-semester students took us under their wing, nodding in remembered recognition of the thrilling shock of first semester. The sense of home they now feel as students in residence assured us of a more settled state to come.

We also met Stonecoast alumni. Already launched with their training behind them, they carry the beating heart of a new life that was born in them on the coast of Maine.

Stonecoast is one of Maine’s great gems, not least of all because so many Mainers are on the faculty, in the student body and in the writing world as graduates. They all have encountered the privilege, the passion and the promise of the Stonecoast experience.

“The Stone House,” a sprawling, pillared edifice of stone and wood, has stood watch over Casco Bay from the Wolf Neck peninsula for nearly 100 years. Formerly a private summer residence, the old house is now home to the Stonecoast program, which consistently earns a Top 10 spot on the list of low-residency writing programs nationwide.

“Low residency” means full-time school without year-round attendance. At Stonecoast, students attend intensive 10-day residencies in July and January of each year. During the interim months, they work independently in consultation with a mentor, turning in about 125 pages of work each semester.

I came to feel quite close to my class of “firsties,” in spite of our vast diversity of age and circumstance. Shared journeys transcend boundaries, especially when they include hardship and transformation.

Our days began after fitful nights — heads abuzz with processing the prior day, bodies glued to fans in our sweltering dorm rooms at Bowdoin College where we were housed. After breakfast in the dining hall at 7 a.m., we enjoyed a blissful half-hour of air-conditioning on the bus to the Stone House.

From 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. we attended academic presentations, engaged in deep analysis of our own and others’ manuscripts, wrote on-the-spot exercises and listened to readings. The bus returned us to town for a quick dinner before we made our way across campus for a full evening of more talks, readings and open mic events at the Inn at Brunswick Station.

What became clear as the days progressed was that Stonecoast students have more in common than meets the eye. Some of our commonality is innate, but a great deal of it is cultivated by the atmosphere of inclusion and encouragement built into the program.

Poet Annie Finch, director of Stonecoast, infuses every student with a powerful sense of purpose. Many would-be writers never find their voice because they feel self-conscious or self-indulgent. Annie helps them find it.

“You are writers,” she tells us, again and again.

Not only does she grant students permission to heed the inner voice that urges us to weave with words, she calls upon us to apply our craft toward a higher cause. By tapping our passion, she insists with fervent sincerity, writers can open up the hearts and minds of the world.

At the end of every residency, students who have completed four semesters take part in a graduation ceremony. Alexs Pate, New York Times best-selling author and Stonecoast faculty member, spoke at July’s graduation. He too called upon graduates to “engage, agitate, stimulate, and speculate” with their words.

“The world needs you,” he said.

It is a weighty charge. Delivered with confidence by a supportive new tribe of colleagues, however, it stirs the soul to action.

From outside my dorm room window one early morning, I overheard another firstie on his cellphone. His words still resonate:

“I’m over the moon about it. It’s gonna be a lot of work. I’m terrified, but it’s what I want to do.”

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

 

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