When I explain why I am working on an MFA through a “low residency” program, I get a share of glazed looks. Mostly, people wonder if such a program can deliver a high impact experience.
It can. It does.
I’m at the end of the second day of this winter’s 10-day intensive Winter Residency (the Stonecoast Program, University of South ern Maine). The days, and evenings too, are filled with seminars, lectures and panel discussions by permanent, visiting and guest faculty members; presentations by graduating students; manuscript workshops; faculty readings; and graduating student readings. All of which would be fabulous on its own.
But what makes the experience work for me is a combination of setting, proximity, and community. The entire student body -- about 100 spread across fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry and popular fiction – as well faculty and administrators, are all in the same building all day it doesn’t hurt that the building in question is a century old mansion overlooking the harbor in Freeport, Maine). We are all brushing up against one another all the time, encouraging conversation, inter-genre fertilization, and a ceaseless sense of community. Lunch is communal, and faculty members break bread with students.
Here's how that looks: Today, during breaks, lunch, rides from the hotel, book-table browsing (and bathroom lines): I talked over memoir forms with a fellow nonfiction student, discussed mentor selection with the program’s associate director, compared writing routines with a beginning poetry student, answered questions from a prospective student visitor, eavesdropped on an alumnus and his former fiction faculty mentor discussing the merits of an independent press; and picked the brain of a graduating student about how she put together her final thesis.
Then tonight, just when the effects of the over-stimulating, overly cerebral 9-hour day tempted me to skip the evening faculty reading, I was instead more or less carried along by the four fiction and poetry students with whom I shared dinner, and the next thing I knew, I was listening to – and being blown away by -- Debra Marquart, reading from her rich memoir, Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, and thought: Who needs sleep?