By Erin Underwood PF S’09
When I attended my MFA program at Stonecoast, I looked at each of the 10-day long residencies as my opportunity to learn and immerse myself in the writing life I desired. And while I was a student, that’s exactly what they were, but now the semi-annual residencies have evolved into something much more for me.
During my first semester, I was so involved with settling into the program that I was barely aware of the 20+ students who were graduating. As a result, I decided not to attend the graduation ceremony because I didn’t see that as part of my experience. A poor decision to be sure! Instead, I stayed at the dorm and hung out with the other first semester students who were also haunting the halls of Stonecoast.
When I returned to Maine for my second residency, I hadn’t planned to attend graduation, but by the time the ceremony rolled around I decided that I wanted to be there to see my new friends graduate. The joy of watching the graduating students walk across the stage to give Annie a hug and to receive their diploma from Robin was the least of what I experienced. Sitting around me was almost everyone from the popular fiction classes who were ahead of me in the program as well as many local alumni who were able to attend. When I looked around the theater, I noticed a similar pattern of attendance for the other genres: creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. I was even pleasantly surprised to see a few new students in the audience.
Each time I returned to Maine for one of my residencies, I sat in the theater to cheer on the graduating students and to feel the support of my classmates as we held onto every moment that we could share together. With each new class, and each new group of friends who joined us at Stonecoast, we watched an older class and an existing group of friends leave. Each graduation became more poignant than the last until I found myself walking across the theater’s stage to give Annie a hug and to receive my diploma from Robin.
My last residency found me dreading my own graduation and the inevitability that I too would be leaving behind this wonderful group of friends that I had come to hold so dear. We may not always have agreed on whether a piece of fiction was well written, a character properly conflicted, or a plot successfully executed. However, we all agreed that it was one of the most significant experiences of our lives. While we were sad to leave Stonecoast, we were also growing excited to step out into the Post MFA World to see what successes were in store for us. We were ready to conquer the world!
That first semester after I graduated was exhausting. I found myself suffering from post-MFA syndrome, not caused by recovering from the intensive writing within the program, but instead caused by the disconnect that I felt from my new family of writers. When the next residency came around there was no doubt I would be returning to Stonecoast to visit with my friends and to attend graduation…not to mention I was looking forward to enjoying whatever residual effects I could glean from the residency given my new status as an alumna.
While the experience of attending the residency was wonderful, the dark edges of my subconscious kept poking through and asking me “What have you done since graduation?” That question was echoed by just about everyone that I saw. What have you been up to? Have you sold anything? Are you teaching? What are you writing? What are you working on now?
Those answers were easy to give, but not necessarily satisfying. I started feeling like I hadn’t measured up to my personal standard of success. After graduating, I had immediately been elected as President of the Stonecoast Alumni Association. I was active in the alumni community, which was only modestly present at the residencies–except for the graduation. I had also finished a screenplay that wouldn’t sell and I had also been working on a few short stories that weren’t getting any action. As a result, I felt like I hadn’t accomplished anything significant since graduating and my idea of being a successful writer was growing ever thinner and more fragile.
For one reason or another, I found myself returning to Stonecoast either to meet with someone, to help with an event, or to attend graduation. However, each time I visited, I found I knew fewer and fewer people until only familiar faces belonged to the staff and faculty–with a few exceptions. I began feeling like a stranger in a strange land who had graduated from my MFA program and over stayed my visit. I still had not scored that movie deal or made the amazing book deal that I had been sure was waiting for me after graduation.
During the Summer 2011 residency, I finally realized two things that completely changed how I felt about returning to Stonecoast as an alumna. The first thing was that I needed to change my experiential expectations and to embrace the alumni related events when I returned to Maine. Sadly, there weren’t many events other than the faculty and student reading that were geared toward alumni. However, we did have the Graduating Student and Alumni Reception. This one event was the key to realizing that alumni needed a better way to engage with Stonecoast through more alumni centric events. We needed a reunion. Yes, that’s when the real work of organizing the July 2012 reunion began. No matter how our first major reunion turns out, the one thing I know is that I will not be haunting the halls of Stonecoast as a returning alumna, I will be actively engaging with a community of writers from Stonecoast who have been going through similar experiences, doubts, and successes.
There is that word again. Success.
This brings me to the second thing that changed how I felt about returning to Stonecoast as an alumna. When I graduated, I gauged my success on what I thought being successful meant after earning an MFA. Since then, I have continued to work full-time, I experienced the deaths of loved ones, I had personal victories and defeats, I published fiction and nonfiction, I started a blog that was extremely well received, and I was happy. I have come to realize that success is one of those things that morph over time. What is important to me today may not even be on my radar a year from now. When I look back at my graduation and forward toward my future, I can truly say I have been and will continue to be successful because I have found peace with my expectations and my personal achievements in my Post MFA World.
In a few days, I will return to Maine to attend the graduation ceremony for the next set of students who will be heading out into the Post MFA World. I’ll also be staying over night to attend the alumni meeting that will be held on the final day of the residency. For the first time since graduating, I feel like I am finally returning to Maine and to Stonecoast on my own terms. While I may feel some of the residual effects of the residency experience, I will be building upon my own alumni experiences, glad to be a part of this extremely special community of writers that include my fellow alumni, the Stonecoast faculty and staff, the current students, and the new students who will be so involved with settling into their MFA that they are barely aware that a group of 20+ students who are graduating from the program. However, in two years, I look forward to seeing them up on that stage, giving Annie a hug and receiving their diploma from Robin.
The student experience is only one small, but very important, part of becoming a Stonecoaster. Our community is strong, our community is vibrant, and our community will–in its own special way–conquer the world.
I look forward to seeing you at the graduation ceremony.