Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Writing on Wednesday - Mastering the Fine Art of Writing

I get mixed reactions when I tell people I'm back in school. I am. Have been for a year, which puts me half way through the Stonecoast Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program at the University of Southern Maine. After all, I have a doctorate, I've been publishing for years, I've taught writing in universities, at conferences, in adult education programs, in workshops. And I'm drifting toward traditional retirement age (a topic for another time!), although I don't think I'll ever stop writing. So yes, I get mixed reactions.

Some people get it and cheer me on. They agree with me that learning is a lifelong adventure, that it's never too late to move in a new direction. And many people I know in creative fields understand how difficult it can be to find the supportive environment that nurtures us when we decide it's time for something new. I love these people - my husband, my friends, my sisters & brothers in spirit!

Some people don't get it. At all. That's fine. We all have people in our lives who don't understand what we're up to, or that there's always more to learn, no matter how much we know or have accomplished. I wish them well, but I don't want to spend time with them. Negativity does not feed the creative spirit, and mine is hungry.

Why did I decide to go back to school? Several reasons. After writing non-fiction for many years, first in academic mode and then "popular" or "commercial," I wanted to try my hand at a different sort of writing. I don't care for labels, but for want of a better way, let me call what I wanted to do narrative or lyrical non-fiction. Stonecoast calls it creative non-fiction (CNF). Think Terry Tempest Williams, Susan Orlean, Mark Doty, Cheryl Strayed, Bruce Chatwin.... How long do you have for my list?

The Stone House, where
workshops and classes are
 held during residencies
 in Maine.

When I started to look at MFA programs, naturally I looked at faculty, and the faculty roster at Stonecoast shot the program straight to the top of my list. I knew many of the names. I knew their work. I liked their work! Then I started reading work by Stonecoast faculty I didn't know, beginning with CNF and moving to fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and found some terrific "new to me" writers. I applied to four schools, but Stonecoast was the one I really, really wanted, and I was thrilled when I got my letter of acceptance, and impressed when the program director, poet and playwrite Annie Finch, called me.

Now, a year later, I'm still delighted with my choice. The Stonecoast program is everything I wanted ~ challenging, supportive, inspiring. More than that, the philosophy underlying the entire experience is one of acceptance. Diversity is valued in the work, the students, the faculty, the subject matter. The presence of talented people from all walks of life and all over the world, writing and teaching all kinds of essays and stories and poems and songs, creates a synergy during residencies that is  palpable.

How does low-residency work? We go twice a year to a ten-day residency in Maine during which we participate in workshops and attend lectures, panel discussions, and readings. Then we work for the rest of the semester with a mentor, using email, mail, and telephone. I've had terrific mentors, and only wish I could have another couple of years to work with more of the faculty because I hear glowing reports from my fellow students as well.

In Howth, the setting for the
Stonecoast Ireland winter residency.

And then there's Stonecoast Ireland! Poets Ted and Annie Deppe oversee the alternate residency in Ireland. I was lucky enough to go last January, and I'm jumping-up-and-down happy to say I'm going back again! That's a topic for another blog.

What about my writing, you ask? Since I started at Stonecoast I've worked on several lyrical pieces that are progressing toward bookhood. I've started writing poetry again, which I had not done for several decades, and I have a poem coming out this fall in the Chocorua Review, a new literary journal started by two Stonecoast alumni. I've finished a short story that is now making the submission rounds, and I've started a play. A play? I didn't even know I was interested in play writing until I got to Stonecoast! And yes, I've also been writing my second mystery, too - almost finished as Drop Dead on Recall hits the shelves.

And that is the magic of education, is it not? It clears new paths, gives us permission to try. That's what I encourage my students to do, and that's what I've been encouraged to do over the past fourteen months. Yes, I could have kept on writing alone with occasional feedback from trusted colleagues, but for me at this time in my life and career, the program is exactly what I want.

So thank you Stonecoast - the faculty, the staff, the students, and especially my three superduper mentors, poet Ted Deppe, playwrite and novelist Mike Kimball, and nonfiction author and playwrite Cait Johnson, for making the past year challenging, inspiring, rewarding. I'm so happy to be part of Stonecoast!

For more information about the Stonecoast program, click here.


  1. Sheila,

    The program sounds excellent! It's a great way to keep your mind sharp and your writing inspired. I commend you.

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  3. Hmm - that was just a duplicate post. Jacqueline didn't say anything out of line!

  4. Have fun with it Sheila. It sounds like a dream come true. Everyone should challenge themselves no matter what age.

  5. Good for you, Sheila. it's boon to one's brain and one's morale to keep learning. I just know you're picking up some really cool knowledge and techniques that will advance your writing.

    Judy Copek

  6. How fun, Sheila. I'm doing as many workshops as possible, but your doing the ultimate thing! Learning is so much fun and what keeps me going. I'm sure enjoying your book.