Office of Public Affairs

Stonecoast's WISE initiative makes social justice the focus

When Morgan Talty MFA ’19 began looking at Master of Fine Arts in creative writing programs, he wanted a low-residency program so he wouldn’t have to move from his home in Levant, Maine. He wanted a well-respected, top-rated program with great faculty.

And he wanted a place that would focus on diversity, inclusivity and equality in students’ work as much as it did the mechanics of writing.

A photo of USM graduate Morgan Talty

A member of the Penobscot Nation, Morgan Talty MFA ’19 will see his first book of short stories, “Night of the Living Rez,” released next year. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Talty ’19.)

“I read a lot of fiction and a lot of fiction that’s been praised very highly, and it can be very good fiction, there’s no doubt about it. But a lot of times the work itself draws its strength from exploitation. I think Stonecoast, the faculty there, really understands writers need to avoid that kind of writing,” said Talty, a member of the Penobscot Nation whose first book of short stories, “Night of the Living Rez,” will be released next year. “I went into the program expecting that and it’s lived up to that expectation.”

Formed in 2002, Stonecoast draws writers from all over the world to concentrate on fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, popular fiction or scriptwriting. Students work remotely and gather in Maine twice a year for two weeks at a time. During the pandemic, that gathering has been done via Zoom.

The program’s core values have always included diversity and social justice. But a few years ago, Stonecoast created Writing for Inclusivity and Social Equity (WISE). The initiative deepened Stonecoast’s focus on diversity, equity, social justice and inclusivity, not only paying attention to those aspects in students’ writing but also bringing in guest speakers dedicated to those causes, exploring those issues in literature, and featuring works by diverse writers so that more voices are heard and more stories told.

“We have an obligation to do this. We have an obligation to go down the rabbit hole and feel uncomfortable. We always come back out of it, right? We might not come out of it with a right answer or there might not be a right answer, but at least we have had the discussion,” said Robin Talbot, Stonecoast associate director. “It’s all through the lens of creative writing and creative expression.”

A photo of Stonecoast associate director Robin Talbot

Robin Talbot, Associate Director of USM's Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program.

On June 24, Stonecoast will present WISE Scholar Matthew Salesses to discuss his new book, “Teaching Craft in the Real World.” Salesses won’t give the WISE Scholar’s traditional keynote address due to the pandemic, but he will be part of a public online conversation with faculty member and poet Chen Chen. Salesses was invited to speak as this summer’s WISE Scholar after he wrote in the New York Times and Poets & Writers Magazine about the need for MFA workshops to encourage differences, not tamp them down.

WISE has been trying to encourage such difference for years.

Cody Mower ’17, MFA ’21 joined Stonecoast after receiving his BA in English from USM. A medically retired Marine Corps veteran, Mower wants to help other vets through storytelling.

He had no knowledge of WISE before starting Stonecoast. The initiative, and its necessity, became clear as he went through the program.

A photo of USM Stonecoast MFA student Cody Mower

A medically retired Marine Corps veteran, Cody Mower ’17, MFA ’21 wants to help other vets through storytelling. (Photo courtesy of Cody Mower.)

“I realized how important it is. It went from, ‘Oh, this is cool,’ to ‘Oh my gosh, we need more of this,’” he said. “How 2020 has been, and the 2016 presidency that was a wreck, it ripped the covers a little bit off more of America in showing the amount of inequality and the amount of absolute wrong that is still going on.”

WISE changed the way he wrote, particularly when it came to race.

“I had this very ingrained fear about writing race. Whether it was that I didn’t want to say anything wrong, I don’t know how to explain what paralyzed me about it,” said Mower, whose family has a bi-racial history rarely discussed. “Stonecoast helped me put myself together and make me be brave enough to write about this taboo thing, especially in my own family. It helped me confront my own racial issues."  

Talty started working on the short stories that would become his first book when he was a Stonecoast student. He now teaches in the program as well.

With WISE, he found support for his unique perspective as a writer.

“My time there really deeply helped me shape these stories into what they are,” he said. “And what I think they are is a very compassionate testament to the lives of people who have struggled.”

Learn more about Stonecoast's low-residency MFA in Creative Writing program