Teaching at Stonecoast I

I’m recovering from the Stonecoast summer residency. What, you may ask, is Stonecoast? And what is a residency? Stonecoast is the MFA program in which I teach, and the residency is a ten-day period when all the students and faculty get together, twice a year, for workshops, seminars, and readings. It’s the most intense teaching I do, and I love it.

For those of you who are interested, I thought I would describe what it’s like teaching in one of the top low-residency programs in the country, and one of only a few that have a Popular Fiction track. That’s what I teach: Popular Fiction. My students write science fiction, fantasy, mystery . . . And of course they also write literary fiction, poetry, essays. Being on the Popular Fiction track doesn’t prevent you from writing, or taking workshops in, other modes or genres. But most of what I do in the program tends to focus on popular genres, in one way or another — or the places where genres intersect.

So what was I doing, exactly? Well, first I had to prepare for the residency. That meant reading and commenting on the stories from the two workshops I would be leading. The first half of the residency, I would be leading a workshop for the newly-admitted students, which would prepare them for workshopping at Stonecoast in general. It would be both workshop and orientation. I’d never done that before, so I was particularly looking forward to it. The second half, I would be co-leading a workshop focused specifically on writing short fiction with James Patrick Kelly. Now, Jim Kelly is a friend and mentor of mine — he was my own teacher at Clarion! So you can imagine how much I was looking forward to that. I would be co-teaching with my own teacher! Also, Jim is a fantastic writer of short fiction as well as a fantastic teacher in general, so I knew that I would be learning as much as I would be teaching. During the residency, I would also be giving a presentation called Magical Realism: Theory and Practice. So I created a PowerPoint, and a series of presentation notes for myself, and a reading list to hand out. Here you can see the slides from my PowerPoint presentation, which I printed out so I could proofread them:

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The presentation took a lot of work, because I am not an expert on Magical Realism. As I told the students, there are things I am genuinely an expert on, because I’ve studied them intensively for years. But Magical Realism is not within my field of expertise. That’s what made doing a presentation so exciting: I had to learn about a whole new field! Of course I’d studied it a little, starting with a class on magical realist fiction in college. But I had a lot of reading to do before I could present on the topic in any coherent way. That took a couple of months! By the time I started preparing for the residency in earnest, I had enough of a background to put together my presentation — more or less confidently. So that was most of the preparatory work. I also knew I’d need to prepare a 20-minute reading, but I’d recently written a story that I wanted to read . . . so that was taken care of.

The residency took place on the campus of Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine.

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If you’ve never been on the campus of Bowdoin, I will tell you that it’s ridiculously beautiful. You can just take a look at the pictures here! It looks exactly the way you would expect a New England liberal arts college to look, all green campus and stone or brick buildings. First, of course, I had to get there. I’m lucky in that I live in the Northeast, where it’s easy to get around by train. I took the Amtrak Downeaster up to Brunswick and walked from the station to the inn where faculty members were staying. For ten days, my room at the inn would be my home. I unpacked, putting clothes away, hanging blouses and dresses from the hangers — if you move in, I’ve found, you feel much more at home, even in a hotel room. And then I went shopping for supplies. Of course I could have ordered breakfast at the inn, but I found it so much easier to buy cups of oatmeal and powered chai, so that, with only the coffee maker in my room, I could make myself oatmeal and chai in the mornings. Also cereal bars and chocolate, in case I got hungry during the day — because if I get hungry, I get cranky.

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So there I was, with my clothes put away, my manuscripts ready, my supplies purchased. Time to start the residency.

The residency day starts at 8:15, with graduating student presentations. This summer, I had a graduating student whom I had mentored — I had been the first reader on her thesis, and had guided her through the thesis process. Her presentation was one of the first, and I was so pleased to see how well it went, how smart it was. For her third-semester project, she had researched the history of monsters, and in her presentation she explained how conceptions of monsters had changed, from the mythical monsters, to the medieval, to the modern (particularly post-World War II). Then, after student presentations, we have workshops for two and a half hours. With my first-semester students, we generally workshopped one story, took a break, workshopped a second story, and then went on to talk about particular writing issues. I had brought a handout that included a variety of passages — for example, I’d just started reading Patrick Süskind ‘s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and I included the first two paragraphs, in which he describes the stench of 18th century Paris. It’s a brilliant description, a brilliant and unconventional way to start a novel. We talked about the choice of words and images, the way the author directs our attention (always conscious of the fact that we were dealing with a translation from the German).

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After workshop, we had lunch, all of us together in the Bowdoin cafeteria. And then in the afternoon there were faculty presentations. After those, there was other programming, typically graduating student readings but also orientations of various sorts, such as for students going to the Ireland residency (yes, Stonecoast has an optional Ireland residency! Send me to Ireland, Stonecoast . . .). Then it was time for dinner, and then faculty readings. So the days ended at around 8:15 p.m., unless there was something even after that, like student open-mic’s. Yes, I know, twelve-hours days! That’s what a residency is like . . .

I’ve written so much already, and I haven’t really even started to describe what I did at the residency! I’ll have to write another blog post on this subject. In the meantime, here is me, sitting in one of the rocking chairs on the inn porch, going over manuscripts . . .

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4 Responses to Teaching at Stonecoast I

  1. Phyllis Holliday says:

    What enlightening information. Most of the critique sessions I’ve gone to were rather short, and often completely different, ranging from helpful to not quite so. However along the way I have wonderful friends and writers I can trust as well as ten years in a writing group with similar backgrounds. We have all learned much together.

    It was interesting you were dealing with magic realism which I have found to be exactly the right
    way to expand all I gathered in childhood and growing up in both Idaho and Central Oregon. It was
    a ripe place to listen to yarns, ghost stories, extravagant near deaths, almost miraculous animals
    and something very close to fairy tales in forests, near rivers and near magic of being near mountains. Being close to two Native American reservations also is in there, along with rodeos and strong men and women.

    Anyone with stories, myths and traditions has a good background for magic realism.

    • I agree, and that’s partly what I was trying to show the students: one of my exercises involved looking at your own cultural heritage and background, thinking about where your sense of the magical comes from. I read a lot of generic fantasy, or fantasy that seems ungrounded in anything. This is one way to ground that fantasy, to go back to your own heritage, your own experiences . . .

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