Until Justin Tussing met his first Stonecoasters -- the graduate students enrolled in USM's Stonecoast Master's in Fine Arts program -- the Iowa author thought writers best learned their craft in dog-eat-dog competitions.
"I thought people were soft here," Tussing said. "But I learned the truth."
He got to know the faculty and students, witnessed the breakthroughs that were made as mentors and friends collaborated and sharpened their storytelling.
"It's not competitive," said Tussing, who now serves as the program's director. "It's nurturing and rigorous."
Majors are divided between fiction, popular fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry. New students often enroll because they want to complete a novel or memoir. At the end of two years -- and five residencies -- they emerge with carefully forged skills and a community that carries them for years longer.
"I had a particularly good experience there and it paid off professionally," said John Florio, a 2007 graduate from Brooklyn, NY. "I was a writer of advertising and I had done some scripts for television, but I had always wanted to write creatively,"
As with so many students, enrolling meant a leap of faith.
"It was the idea of going to Maine and working with people who are really good, and then putting in a lot of time on my own reading and writing and working with mentors," said Florio, now 56.
He learned to focus his stories and discover the key moments that would steer his narratives and resonate with readers, he said.
In the 10 years since he graduated, he has written two novels, two nonfiction books and become a regular contributor to both "The Atlantic" and "The New Yorker" magazines.
"All of those things go back to the writing chops I learned at Stonecoast," said Florio.
It's become a common story at the program.
More than 500 students have graduated from the program and gone on to create a long list of published works and awards. They have signed book contracts with Da Capo Press, Pocket Books, Random House and many others. Awards include the Pushcart Prize, a Golden Heart finalist, and National Book Award finalist.
Currently, there are about 70 students in the program, said Robin Talbot, Stonecoast's associate director.
"We don't always know how they find us," she said. "They take this huge leap to come here from all over the country."
They represent all corners of the U.S. Past students have also come from Canada, the U.K., Greece and Israel.
Some have taken the opportunity to attend Ireland's own version of Stonecoast. Each semester, ten current students are selected to meet in Ireland with Stonecoast faculty and prominent Irish writers for an intense, weeklong residency.
No matter where they are, Stonecoasters say the greatest strength of the program is its nurturing atmosphere.
Current student Peter Behravesh, a 32-year-old writer from San Diego, enrolled to guide him towards the completion of a novel he describes as "a Persian space fantasy."
"I have really enjoyed all the faculty I have worked with," Behravesh said. "I really think they are all fantastic."
In the residencies, he discovered instant rapport.
"On the first day, I made like 40 new best friends," he said. "They're all like-minded people. It's like finding a tribe."
It's a closeness that Stonecoast pursues. After all, for many of the writers, their work is intimate and almost too personal to share.
"They go into a room by themselves, and they create these things in a safe space," said Tussing. "Then they send them to us, and we judge their souls."
This July, the program will celebrate its 15th anniversary with a three-day reunion. There will be dinners and seminars, panels and readings.
There may be a few minutes to discuss the future of the program and how it grows even further.
Neither Tussing nor Talbot would predict what the next fifteen years might look like.
"I hope the program continues to evolve and in ways I can't anticipate," Talbot said.