So That Happened: Finishing my MFA

Picture this: there’s eighteen of us backstage at a performing arts high school in Freeport, Maine. Actually, we’re in the band practice room. Linoleum floors, stray music stands, drum kit and harp shoved against the walls. Kat’s changing into her grad dress in a supply closet while Kelly-from-the-Book-Table corrals us and fastens our Masters’ hoods, because none of us can figure the damn things out.


Then we file into the auditorium to the delicate strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” as arranged for guitar.  We are tightly gripped by the elbow before being sent out. Alongside a push, we receive either a whispered, “Congratulations,” or “Walk slow!

(Guess which I got? :D)

And then there’s speeches. I kind of forget that novelist Aaron Hamburger is giving our commencement speech until about halfway through, because it’s mostly a really good story. Names are called, and we trip across the stage one-by-one to receive our diplomas. Then, when we’ve all got one, the Dean of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Southern Maine calls us to rise.

I paraphrase, but he says something like, “These candidates brought before me have completed all their requirements of study, and come well-recommended by their faculty. Therefore, by the power vested in me, I confer upon you all, respectively, by your disciplines, the degree of Master of Fine Arts.”

And I thought, “Oh, shit.”

See, I’ve spent the last two years calling myself a “secret grad student.” Oh, the Stonecoast MFA Program is work. Absolutely. But it never felt like schoolwork. It felt more like an apprenticeship—like I’d troop into the woodshop in the evenings and have a master cabinetmaker show me tools and inspect my carving.

Or maybe it was more like Jedi training. The point is that it didn’t feel like school.

Basically my MFA experience...

Basically my MFA experience…

But in two years, I learned far more than I can express here. The difference in my writing before-and-after Stonecoast is striking. Arriving at Stonecoast, I knew how to string together clean, functional sentences. Leaving, I know a lot more about being an artist.

Most of all, I grew up. Looking back, I arrived with a strange mix of arrogance and insecurity—that special mix possessed only by twenty-two-year-olds who’ve had some lucky breaks. Stonecoast isn’t a harsh “break-down/rebuild” program…but the faculty and students challenged me, tempered me, encouraged me, pushed me. Yes, Stonecoast made me a better writer, but it also made me a better person.

I learned about beauty, artistry, and grace under pressure.

I learned about cutting to the heart of things, balancing objective insight with gleeful delight, and the importance of irreverence.

I learned that kindness and shrewdness are not mutually exclusive.

I learned about picking yourself up, no matter what, and writing from one’s heart of hearts.

I learned  about sheer grit, and the absolute refusal to collapse and give in.

I learned the beauty of form and architecture, and the heights we may climb when we join hands with other artists.

I learned, once again, that the sweetest people often write the darkest things…and that’s pretty awesome.

I learned the sheer joy of devoting one’s self to one’s art, and the warmth of a truly open heart.

From the administration team, I learned about dedication and organization and going way, way above and beyond the call of duty.

From my fellow students, I learned about friendship and community and unconditional acceptance.

Thank you. Thank you all. You’ve left your fingerprints all over my life and art.

Two years ago, a frightened little girl stepped off the plane in Portland. I am no longer that girl. Two years in sunny coastal waters have given me strength and love and resources I never knew I had. Armed with these lessons and lifelong friendships, I’m excited to venture into the depths.

Honestly, it’s like Pokémon Gold/Silver/Crystal: once you beat the Elite Four and become a Pokémon Master, you get a whole new world to explore.

Basically my graduation...

Basically my graduation…

“When you get home,” Aaron said, “take your degree out and look at it. Own it. And then roll up your sleeves, and get back to work.”



What I’m Listening to this Week

My friend and occasional co-writer Lauren Harris introduced me to Mary-Jess while I was in Virginia last month. She’s got one of those sweet, pure soprano voices: quite high and light. This piece is my favourite thus far; it’s unsticking a novel point for me, and I absolutely adore the crescendo into the runs on “glorious.”

And it seems fitting, given the whole “starting a new chapter” thing. 😉


Posted on January 18, 2016, in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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