“I graduated.” This two-word statement carries the weight of two years’ worth of sleepless nights, deadlines, and enough frustration to fill the Mariana Trench (see what I did there). And yet, I have no regrets. My time at Stonecoast has pushed me to achieve writing heights I didn’t think possible. Now that I’ve had ample time to reflect upon my MFA journey, I’m amazed at how much I’ve evolved. The bright-eyed, bushy-tailed firstie who entered Stonecoast isn’t the same writer who graduated last month. So what’s different? What’s changed?
Identity. Prior to Stonecoast, I wrote high fantasy almost exclusively. I dabbled in horror and science fiction, too — even got a few publications in those genres — but my passion rested with knights and monsters, princesses and wizards. I fancied myself the next McCaffrey. For my first semester project, I proposed a series of linked stories about an assassin’s guild. My mentor, David Anthony Durham, didn’t like my Euro-centric setting (see: commencement speech). He sent me on a journey of reading and studying fantasy works that were based on the cultures of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It was an eye-opening experience, like a fish escaping an aquarium and discovering the vastness of the ocean. I didn’t know fantasy stories like these existed. The realization hit me with the force of a sledgehammer: I can write fantasy by drawing upon my own Filipino culture to create stories that the western world hasn’t seen before. I can write, represent, and share my culture without sacrificing who I am as a person.
Genres. Speaking of which, like I mentioned above, I love fantasy. I’ve been gobbling up fantasy books since I was a young shin-kicker (this was my defense mechanism against bullies). And I’m still a huge fan, both as a reader and a writer. However, my second semester mentor, Theodora Goss, pushed me to take risks. I’ve always been a humorous person, but I had never tried infusing that into my writing before. My whole semester was dedicated to a new genre I fell in love with after reading the likes of Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore: comic fantasy. There were a few duds during my exploration of this space, but out of the smokey ashes arose one phoenix that made it into the thesis. Dora was also responsible for my newfound obsession with magical realism. She gave a lecture on the subject during summer residency ’15, luring me onto a continent I hadn’t explored, one populated by the likes of Kelly Link, Gabriel García Márquez, Dora herself, and more. Taking her elective workshop on slipstream/magical realism sealed the deal. I love it and enjoy writing it. Three years ago, I would’ve never imagined myself writing humor or magical realism — or humorous magical realism. But here I am.
Food. I’m throwing this in here just for fun because I found it so amusing. Apparently, I’m hungry all the time. Every one of my stories has food it in some form or another. I didn’t pick up on this pattern until my third semester mentor, Elizabeth Hand, mentioned that my writing makes her hungry. I think she even asked me if food influenced my work because she had noticed it in all the stories I had submitted to her. My initial reaction was, “no, food doesn’t play a big role in my writing,” but when I physically read through each of the stories I’d written at Stonecoast, I discovered the delectable truth. Food sneaks into my work whether I’m aware of it or not. I can see why: I enjoy and savor food. I take pictures of my meals. I even have a whole folder full of lobster roll pictures (thanks, Maine!). The word “foodie” sometimes has negative connotations, but I like to think of myself as a “pure foodie,” not the pretentious kind but more like the “I’m willing to eat a Big Mac or a fancy $15 dollar burger because I’m hungry” kind.
Confidence. Holy shit, is this a big one. The old Lew had serious self-doubt and a lack of confidence. Prior to Stonecoast, I was a part of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. I took online classes that required us students to post stories or excerpts and critique each others’ work. I had never offered up my literary babies for sacrifice before. Most classmates I encountered were nice, but damn, a couple were brutal. I think the anonymity of online workshops allowed some to be pretty harsh in their feedback. I remember one dude wrote that a piece I submitted was “so cliched” he couldn’t finish the rest of it. His advice fell along the lines of “Don’t bother wasting your time.” Ouch. My overall experience with the program was a positive one, however, so I didn’t let a couple of rotten apples spoil the whole barrel. When I got accepted into Stonecoast, I steeled myself for even harsher comments.
My first workshop was with the legendary James Patrick Kelly, and as if that weren’t intimidating enough, the work my cohort submitted was fantastic. I expected to get smashed into bits and bobs. And I was! But in the nicest way possible. Stonecoast is a safe space; everyone is there to learn. People won’t pull punches when offering criticism, but they won’t insult you, the writer, either. The focus is on the work, and I respect that. With every subsequent workshop, I got excited whenever it was my turn to be put to the flames. I loved getting criticism from faculty workshop leaders and my peers (seriously — ask my seven-time workshop buddies, Alex and Celeste) because I knew what they offered would only make my writing stronger. I still suffer from self-doubt — which writer doesn’t? — but at least now I know how to channel that into the determination I need to improve my work. And whenever I need a pick-me-up, I refer to an inspiring letter from Martha Graham to Agnes De Mille, which my fourth semester super mentor, Michael Kimball, quoted for me during The Great Thesis Struggle of 2016.
Friendship. During my first residency, I heard phrases like “Stonecoast for life” and “once a Stonecoaster, always a Stonecoaster.” I initially thought these were all nice sentiments but lacking any meaty substance (see, I’m thinking about food again). But then people started talking to me. I tried to be a wallflower because I suffer from a bit of social anxiety, yet so many people pulled me into their spheres of friendship, I was left with no choice but to come out of my shell. And lemme tell you, it was glorious. I didn’t think I’d leave the program, one that requires students to meet in person only twice a year, with so many friends. But that’s exactly what happened. My cohort is amazing, the students and alumni are amazing, the faculty and staff are amazing. I’ve made a lot of new friends thanks to Stonecoast, and now I know that “Stonecoast for life” is the real deal. Thank you all for making me a better person.
If you found this blog post by searching for “Stonecoast MFA,” and you’re a prospective student or thinking about applying, take the plunge. Join the Stonecoast community. Not only will the program transform your writing, it’ll also transform your life. You’ll emerge from your two-year cocoon as a fierce butterfly ready to take on the entire world.
Title Quote: “The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.” — Douglas Adams, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy