Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing

Archive: Stonecoast MFA Seminars and Workshops

Stonecoast’s innovative MFA programming empowers students to explore writing across genres and to develop individual learning paths. Check out some of our recent offerings.


Each residency features more than twenty unique classes that highlight the fundamentals of writing craft and explore rule-breaking concepts. Our line-up of creative writing seminars changes each semester in response to student and faculty interest.

Going to Extremes: How to Handle Scenes of Sex, Violence, Drugs, Ecstacy, and other Intense Experiences

Faculty: Aaron Hamburger

In your writing, do you shy away from writing highly charged scenes involving violence, sex, danger, mental illness, intoxication, or a character going through any type of intense physical or emotional state? During this presentation, we'll confront the challenges of conveying the thrills and fears of the most intense moments of your work in fresh ways that engage your readers' hearts and minds. We'll analyze published work for inspiration, do writing exercises, then share the results to come up with common strategies for tackling this kind of challenge.

The Creative Toolkit: Practices and Strategies for Writers

Faculty: Theodora Goss

When asked where his ideas came from, Harlan Ellison famously said “Schenectady.” Where do your ideas come from, and what do you do when they go away, or don’t seem interesting enough, or can’t seem to get beyond the boundaries of your brain onto paper or the computer screen? We tend to think of creativity as innate, but like any other trait, it can be nurtured—we can become more creative with practice and habit. In this seminar, we will work on putting together your creative toolkit. Referencing texts such as Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, and Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, we will learn about practices and strategies to become more imaginative, eclectic, and free in your work.

Divinatory Tools for Writers

Faculty: Robert Levy

The number of authors that have utilized various means of divination—the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means—as a source of inspiration reads like a laundry list of iconic writers: Yeats, Rilke, Woolf, Eliot, Steinbeck, Merrill, Dick, Le Guin, Plath, Crowley (Aleister and John), King, and many more. Divinatory tools such as cartomancy, runes, trance, mediumship, and the I Ching have cast an indelible impression on many of the most resonant and lasting works of literature over the past century, and their influence shows no signs of abating.

We'll start by examining what these tools are and how exactly they operate, with special attention to the tarot, the legendary 78-card deck that Italo Calvino referred to as "a machine for writing stories." Then, we'll explore how authors use these tools to power their own work, not only to inform the development of theme, character, and plotting but also to forge a pathway through their own creative processes, including brainstorming and overcoming blocks. Finally, we'll draw upon symbol, myth, archetype, association, fable, and more to craft flash pieces inspired by what we've learned. Come ready to write!

Building the Narrative Conceit: Bricks and Mortar and Metaphor

Faculty: Susan Conley

Narratives conceits (frames, lanes) leverage tension and create propulsion for stories across all genres. But how to choose one? And what to leave in and what to leave out of your story after you’ve chosen?

In this seminar, we will have a conversation about the benefits of clear, tight, narrative conceits and the resulting culling and editing required. Together we will look at two books: the memoir The Yellow House, by Sarah Broom and the novel Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson that choose houses, both real and metaphoric, as conceits to then, unpack cinematic stories within about love and loss and race and class and belonging.

The Reader's Brain: How (And Why) to Create a Lived Experience Through Words

Faculty: Ron Currie

We talk incessantly about the importance of sensory detail in our writing. But why is it so important to engage the reader's five senses--and how is it even possible, given that we're working only with words? Recent neuroscience can answer a lot of these questions, as well as provide a new context with which to understand the purpose and function of sensory detail in our work.

The Tactical Reviser: Approaches to Revision that Don't Terrify

Faculty: Tobias Buckel

Forget about writer’s block, looking at a manuscript, and wondering how all the changes you can make will ripple out and effect the entire work can cause a writer to freeze entirely. But revision doesn’t have to be daunting. In fact, revision should be just as creative, and just as full of joy and experimentation, as any other facet of the artistic process. But it is in revision that we shape and cut our stories out of being just stones and turn them into glittering diamonds.

In this seminar, we examine tactics for approaching revision that make it less something to be feared and will give you tools to take the joy of writing up a level.


Transcending Seeing for Setting

Faculty:  Aaron Hamburger

Our first instinct as writers is to think of settings in purely visual terms. However, the way we experience a sense of place in life is much more complex than the things we see. Setting is also about the other four senses: taste, touch, smell, and hearing, as well as issues like the effects of money, cultural values, nature, time, and process. In this seminar, we’ll take a close look at excerpts from various genres to explore how a variety of authors use setting as an integral part of their writing. We’ll consider how setting is intimately involved in other elements of the work, like language and character. Then we’ll do some directed writing exercises to expand our skills at creating a lifelike sense of setting in our own original writing.

Genre-Jumping: In Europe They Just Call It Story

Faculty: Susan ConleyElizabeth Hand

Is it mainstream fiction? Personal essay? Historical fiction? Memoir? Poetry? Magical realism? Fantasy? Science fiction? Near-future noir? Stonecoast has a storied history of genre-jumping and cross-pollinating. It is one of the program’s tenets. In this seminar Liz Hand and Susan Conley will talk about how they approach genre-jumping in their own work, as well as look at how other writers do the same. Can early, first-drafty categorization be reductive and limit a new story’s potential and scope? Liz and Susan will discuss tools and perspectives to help grow the story before categorizing it, and they will facilitate a discussion with students to share their own thoughts on how they address genre-jump.

What Are You Afraid Of?

Faculty: Ron Currie

The editor and teacher Gordon Lish famously harangued his students for not being brave enough to write anything worth reading while their parents were still alive. He was half-joking, but there's an abiding truth at the center of his accusation: fears common to most writers can and do get in the way. In this seminar, we'll confront these fears--of the work itself, of what will happen to it (and us) when we let it out into the world--and talk about strategies for dealing with them.

Writing as Resistance: A Global Perspective  

Faculty: JJ Amaworo Wilson

We will survey the global literature of resistance. We will start with the premise that one role of the writer is to bear witness. Our exemplars of this role will come from a wide range of cultures and circumstances including prison narratives from Africa and Europe, memoirs of liberation movements, Soviet gulag literature, the Latin American dictator novel, and many other kinds of writing as resistance. 
The seminar will include work in various genres: fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and memoir. We will find commonalities between the diverse works and the circumstances which engendered them, and examine what it really means for a writer to resist. The goal of the seminar is for participants to deepen their understanding of what the role of a writer can be, and to reflect upon how their own work may fight injustice.

When We Can’t Be Ourselves: The Literature of Passing

Faculty: Faith Adiele

As children, we learn to romanticize hidden identities. Fairy tales and mythology abound with accounts of gods and royals finding love while posing as commoners. A staple in Young Adult literature is the prince(ss) or superhero stuck in the wrong family until discovered and returned to their glorious birthright. Romance novels keeps this trope alive, while the media provides a steady diet of secret families and secret lives exposed on television, at funerals or through DNA testing.

This seminar will explore how the literature of “passing” handles the real reasons behind and painful costs of hiding our “true” identities. History and the present day are rife with stories of light-skinned BIPOC who “present” as white, women who live as men, whites who claim indigeneity, queer or trans folk who pass as straight or CIS, the list continues. We’ll consider how “passing up” affords access, opportunity or physical safety, while “passing down” – unless imposed by others - tends to mystify the public. The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett’s bestselling novel about twins who took different paths, is creating new awareness about this rich, secret literature.

Trauma Vs. Transgression: Examining Confessional Poetry and Whiteness in the 21st Century

Faculty: Cate Marvin

We will first identify exactly how the “Confessional Poets” are positioned in the latter half of 20th century (white) American poetry: What cultural, historic, and poetic forces set their work into motion?  What stylistic choices distinguish their respective works?  How is it that their influence came to be regarded as so pernicious? We will discuss poems by Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

Then we will take into consideration the manner in which these poets transgressed in their poems through exaggerated demonstrations of the toxicity of whiteness. What happens when we consider how these white, hetero-normative poets offered provocatively candid utterances of emotional and psychological pain in the context of the civil rights era?  Do these writers employ the metaphor of the “other,” of blackness, as a means to explore the perilous/complicit of their own relationship to white supremacy? 

Finally, we will also explore how contemporary American black poets, such as Tyehimba Jess, have shone poetic mirrors back at “confessional” texts to question and complicate the construct of white impotence.

Writing About Race: Mixed Race Identity

Panel: Faith AdieleTobias Buckell, Derek Castle, Breena Clarke

In a literary landscape that anoints whiteness as the default race in fiction and blackness as other, how do the mixed-race writer and character navigate a place in fiction and memoir? As part of the continuing conversation about writing practice and topics of racial identity in writing, we will explore mixed racial identity in a panel that will include Faith Adiele, Tobias Buckell, Derek Castle (2020 Alum), and Breena Clarke.

How is mixed racial identity defined? Who is qualified to write about whom? Must the mixed-race writer choose a side, or are they authorized to write about both sides? What is meant by the ideas of being seen, coming out and passing? How can the mixed-race character be foregrounded in contemporary fiction?

Acting, Action, Activism, and Making Beautiful Trouble – How Artists Respond to their Times

Faculty: Tom CoashAaron HamburgerDebra Marquart

May you live in interesting times, is a blessing/curse that has no attributable source, yet the saying continues to resonate, especially in our current times. In this panel, we will discuss how artists might find pathways into the complexities of their own real or imagined “interesting” times in ways that have meaning and impact for them. Is it important for writers to make work that responds to the troubles of their own time? Can an imaginative work of another time or place offer a powerful reflective surface? Is political art an oxymoron? Do artists have a responsibility to be activists? Where is the line between art that addresses politics and propaganda?
Some critics have argued that theatre, as a live and dynamic art form, is uniquely poised to address and engage political spectacle. Some artists feel their time is best spent focusing their creative work on issues such as immigration, systemic racism, and climate change. Others choose to act as “citizen-writers” dedicating their time to letter campaigns, petitions, and street demonstrations. Still, others devise disruptive acts of “Beautiful Trouble” in an attempt to find “contagious strategies for building a more just, democratic and resilient world” (

Staying with the Trouble: Writing Our Climate Crisis

Faculty: Elizabeth HandKatherine Larson

In 2005, philosopher Glenn Albrecht created the term solastalgia to define the emotion that is a human response to climate change — an overpowering sense of loss and nostalgia for a world that can’t be reclaimed. Yet as nature writer, Barry Lopez asks, “What would happen to our plans for survival if we were no longer stymied by a belief in the virtue of permanence or no longer distracted by the hope of returning to a world that has already come and gone?”

In The Great Derangement (University of Chicago Press, 2017), author Amitav Ghosh argues that the global climate crisis—a problem where environment, politics, and economy collide—can be made more tangible through fiction. Indeed, he implores fiction writers to consider the novel as an unparalleled and urgent opportunity to engage individual citizens with the kind of “large, abstract, and global” story that the global climate crisis entails.

Using Ghosh’s directive as a framework for discussion, in this seminar we will examine some of the perceived obstacles to writing about the climate crisis — scientific accessibility/accuracy, reductive labeling, catastrophism overload, social privilege, resistant narrative conventions, etc. — as well as the importance of creating stories, poems, and essays that offer hope and strategies for adaptation to the world we now inhabit. We aim for this seminar to be useful for writers of all genres.

The Art of the Personal Essay: Thinking, Being, Conversing, Disagreeing, Meditating & Confessing

Faculty: Debra Marquart

The essay form as a whole has long been associated with an experimental method. The idea goes back to Montaigne and his endlessly suggestive use of the term essai for his writings.

To essay is to attempt, to test, to make a run at something without knowing whether you are going to succeed. –Philip Lopate, “Introduction,” The Art of the Essay

In this presentation, we will look at a sequence of short stand-alone personal essays in order to investigate the origins of the form and to speculate about its future possibilities, especially the personal essay as a form that allows the exploration of the life of the mind, as well as the anecdotal and the subtle, intangible moment. Where is there room for the personal essay in a world so preoccupied with its showy cousin, the memoir? What are the common features—if any—between memoir and personal essay?

Often characterized as inward, tentative, conversational and ruminative, personal essays have the capability to imply multitudes of thought and experience. In his “Introduction” to The Art of the Personal Essay, Philip Lopate writes that the personal essay is a form “that is able to make the small loom large” as the author “simultaneously contracts and expands the self” into narrative. Lopate describes the personal essay as a form of “inverse boasting” in which the author is able to take the “small, humble things in life” and turn them into a “grand meditational adventure.

Writing Our Lives, Writing the Lives of Others: Art, Betrayal, and Witness

Faculty: Ted Deppe

Whether we write memoir, fiction, or poetry, the greatest material for our art comes from our own lived lives.  But since our writing usually involves other people too, what consideration, if any, should the artist afford those who appear in our pages?  The author’s imperative is to write down what is essential about our lives, but is there any need to balance that with the rights of others?  Does the answer change if the author is also in a position of power (parent, health care professional, teacher, etc.) in relation to those people he or she is writing about?  We will consider poems, short stories, and essays and investigate what they have to tell us about ambition, responsibility, and craft.

The Reporting for a Fiction and CNF; using Journalism and Independent Research to Craft Your Story

Faculty: Cara Hoffman

We’ve all heard the expression ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’ Reporters gain access to strange, interesting, and important information that can provide fodder for the imagination, structure to a plot, inspiration for characters, and necessary research for your memoir or work of CNF. You don’t have to work for a newspaper to start muckraking, interviewing, and doing immersive research. This workshop will focus on accessing public information, filing freedom of information requests, and interviewing subjects in order to form a detailed factual base for your work.

Unpredictable Short Story: A Kind of Autonomy

Faculty: Rick Bass

The same elements that conspire to create a living, breathing, often unpredictable short story—a piece that feels capable of not necessarily surprising a reader (though that is often an outcome) but instead simply possessing its own internal living, breathing sense and system of logic—what fiction writers describe as a kind of autonomy—is able to be accomplished in creative nonfiction as well. Two familiar practitioners of the genre from the last quarter of the last century, Annie Dillard and Edward Abbey—termed “nature writers”—possess great similarities as well as differences. Abbey often wrote with the boldness of rage, ranging outside the lines of authority—often seemingly going out of his way to encounter them). Dillard, as well, tended to ignore boundaries, though with an elegance or grace that might have been in part a product of the freedom and electricity of her considered religiosity and mysticism. What the well-crafted creative nonfiction (or even more formal essay or journalistic essay) have in common with the short story is an allegiance and fidelity to structure—a not-surprising connection considering that the deadly sin in nonfiction is the same as in fiction: to favor the abstract over the specific. No ideas but in things, wrote William Carlos Williams. 

Perhaps it goes without saying that being a writer in these trying times—in which tensions were already escalating—will be discussed, both in general as well as in the context of each piece submitted. The seminar will strive to be as interactive as possible, with even more conversation than usual, while nonetheless focusing as well on what we as a collective can do to help make each piece better, stronger, more what it seeks to be or, in some instances, discovering a new route, a new thing the essay is striving to be, perhaps yet unaware to its creator.

Borrowing From Fiction to Enrich Your Nonfiction

Faculty: Suzanne Strempek Shea

It goes without saying (at least for this writer) that nonfiction - about yourself, someone else, something else - needs to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But don’t forget that your true story needs also to be one that's well told. Too often, nonfiction stories are thrown onto the page by writers who lean on their subjects for impact and then neglect that the combination of subject and storytelling is key to the best of the genre, and that makes fiction sing. We’ll look at age-old storytelling elements used in fiction and consider what they can bring to your nonfiction. We’ll examine successful essays, stories and books, those featuring great subjects paired with great execution, and delivered in manners compelling and solid, as well as unexpected and unusual. Each element discussed will have a corresponding writing assignment to use in your work ahead. Handy handouts of a variety of examples of nonfiction made strong via the techniques of successful fiction will be shared.

Poetry in & of Crisis

Faculty: Chen Chen
"Who would / be left alive to care?” asks Nikky Finney at the end of “Left,” a poem about the lack of care toward Black lives in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. In the context of the pandemic—or previous crises, large and “small"—what kind of care can we, as writers, as the living, offer? In this seminar, we’ll read poems that explore/enact care in a multitude of ways and also poems that address what happens in the lack. In between reading, we’ll write our own poems (or lines) toward aliveness and yes, being here to care.

Correspondences in the Air: A Nimble Survey of Contemporary World Poetry

Faculty: Katherine Larson
The poet Anna Akhmatova speaks of “correspondences in the air,” moments when authors of disparate languages, cultures, and geographies seem to “converse” through their work. While this conversation can be literal, it can also be metaphorical. Poems enter into dialogue with other poems, poets, and people—but first, they must be read.

This seminar invites participation with a global poetry tradition, familiarizing you with beloved, transformative, and historically and politically crucial poets and poems. It is not meant to be comprehensive; rather, it emphasizes the idea that a critical practice of writing is to engage with work beyond a single country’s language and borders.

We will examine aspects of poems that transcend translation, paying particular attention to aposiopesis, anecdote, juxtaposition, and figurative language. We will also briefly discuss the delicate balancing act of reading work in translation. Though this seminar will focus primarily on poetry, the poems and poets discussed can be considered pivotal and of interest to writers of all genres.

Be There When They Swarm Me: Writing Grief

Faculty: Martin Espada and Lauren Schmidt

In times of pandemic, especially, there is an urgent need to confront grief as writers. This goes beyond the elegiac expression of mourning a loss to include a face-to-face encounter with mortality, including one’s own. In this seminar, we will delve into the craft of writing about these extraordinarily difficult subjects and how to avoid the usual pitfalls. How do we write well about grief? How do we inscribe our grief without succumbing to pure emotional catharsis? Conversely, how do we avoid keeping grief at arm’s length and writing in cliched abstractions? How do we honestly deal with regret and conflict? How do we celebrate life in defiance of death? How do we channel unbearable loss---or the prospect of unbearable loss---into art? How do we console others, if not ourselves? Martín Espada and Lauren Marie Schmidt will share poems of grief and the transcendence of grief and invite dialogue.

Igniting Silence: Writing Poems Between History and the Personal

Guest: Julia Bouwsma

After considering the sometimes overwhelming debates that surround terms such as “poetry of witness,” “documentary poetics,” “political confessionalism,” and the oft-repeated maxim that “the personal is political,” this seminar will closely explore poems that put the trauma of personal experience into urgent, dynamic discussion with the trauma of current and historic events.

Central to our discussion will be Aracelis Girmay’s instruction that the poem’s job “is to have a conversation with silence” or, as Cathy Park Hong has put it, “to ignite silence.” Thus particular emphasis will be given to examining a broad range of approaches for writing into a fragmented, broken, or silenced archive—whether that archive be as personal as one’s own physical body or as opaque a stack of yellowed, redacted government documents.

We will ask: How do we write silence? How do we write distance? And we will consider how to give voice not just to the traces of aftermath (“the poem as evidence,” as Carolyn Forché has written), but also to our erasures and assimilations, our complicities, our ignorances, our silences, the legacies we carry through body and biography. In this way, we will celebrate poems that eschew the impulse to simply memorialize the past and instead actively engage and challenge history—with all its entrenched violence and oppression—in order to interrogate its presence as an entity within the self.

The Art of Telling

Faculty: Chen Chen

In this seminar, we will reconsider the principle of “Show, Don’t Tell” and attempt to revise it—into “Show and Tell” or, more radically and perhaps ambitiously, into “Tell Beautifully” and Emily Dickinson’s “Tell it slant.” Typically, yes, we want the concrete and the sensory to lead—to make— the way in our poems (as Ilya Kaminsky has said, the poet is a “professor of five senses”). We want our images to evoke, explode, enact—we don’t want to overexplain or explain at all. But can abstraction be more than expository, more than a flattening summary? We will wonder and investigate: When are abstraction and large statement permissible, useful, or beautiful in poems? Rather than shrinking it, how might telling expand mystery?

We will examine the aphorism, the paradox, the conversational assertion, dream logic/authoritative non-logic, and other statements that are more difficult to categorize but that in some way fall into the pithy or the witty. We will discuss poems that rely mostly on abstraction and also poems that wander off into the abstract or, in a magical way, persuade us to read the abstract and the discursive as something as real and vibrant as the concrete, the imagistic. We will move between lecture, group discussion, and writing together.

From this seminar students will gain a more nuanced understanding of the relationship—intertwined, let’s say, rather than antagonistic—between concrete and abstract language in poetry

When Even the Details Have Details

Faculty: Ted Deppe

Description is one of those tools that writers sometimes take for granted, and yet it’s an art that can prove difficult to use well and deserves study and practice. In this seminar, we’ll look at ways that it can enhance or detract from a given poem.

In Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Mark Doty writes that “description is an inexact, loving art, and a reflexive one; when we describe the world we come closer to saying what we are.”

Through close readings of poems by Ciaran Carson, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Mark Doty, and Ross Gay, we’ll explore how description can not only provide a vivid picture in the reader’s mind but be a place of bouncing things around and thinking things through, offering the writer the chance for self-discovery.

Airing Dirty Laundry: Writing Poems about Family and Pissing Them Off

Faculty: Martin Espada and Lauren Schmidt

In the final line of her poem, “I Go Back to May 1937,” Sharon Olds says to a photograph of her parents before they were her parents, “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.” In this seminar, we will explore the reasons we are compelled to write about our families and why it is important to air our dirty laundry, despite the risk of pissing people off. Do we have the right or the obligation to tell our family secrets to the world? How do we face the fear of giving offense, and how do we deal with the backlash if we do? How do we deal with family censorship, or, worse, the desire to censor ourselves? To what lengths are we willing to go in order to tell our truth, even, or especially if it differs from the “truth” shared at the dinner table?

FORMS & OCCASIONS: The Limitations and Liberties of Not So Free Verse

Faculty: Cate Marvin

Robert Frost famously said that writing in free verse is like “playing tennis with the net down.” T.S. Eliot, on the other hand, stated, “Verse libre does not exist.” The history of traditional forms-- their passage from one language to another, and the manner in which they are continually reinvented-- is of primary interest to the practicing poet. This workshop introduces students to the rigors and restraints of received forms and occasional verse. Our discussions will concern just how far one can successfully test the limits of a form given the tools offered by the English language. Students are encouraged to both embrace and subvert these literary traditions as they see fit.

"To Be or Not To Be" - The Art of Writing Compelling Monologues

Faculty: Tom Coash

Monologues are booming in popularity, particularly in this time of pandemic and Zoom performances. Going it alone can be both a joy and a challenge. Monologue writing skills, such as character development, convincing dialogue, and strong motives, are also valuable to those writing in other genres. Well-written monologues are ideal crossover pieces, working not only on the stage and screen but also on the page as fiction, flash fiction, poetry, CNF, and much more. So come try giving your characters a solo moment to shine!

Staying on Script – An Introduction to Scriptwriting

Faculty: Tom Coash, Jeni Mahoney, and Elizabeth Searle

Have you wanted to adapt your work to stage or screen, start your own podcast, create a video game, create copy for a high-powered ad agency, win an Oscar? What do all these ambitions have in common? Scriptwriting.

In our increasingly media-driven world, scripted material has made its way into every corner of modern life. In this seminar we’ll explore the ever-expanding array of possibilities available to scriptwriters, and the foundational skills and techniques of scriptwriting, including: character development, compelling dialogue, powerful goals, and engaging conflict. All genres welcome, no scriptwriting experience necessary!

Narrative Design in Documentary Film

Faculty: Emily Bernhard

Writing documentaries utilizes a mashup of skills from the disciplines of investigative journalism, CNF, and narrative film. While adhering–hopefully–to journalistic standards, the documentary writer must also consider and incorporate narrative elements like inciting incidents, emotional beats and arcs, characterization, obstacles, and threats–all constructed within three to five acts. Most of the time.

The documentary writer can become involved at any point in the production. Occasionally, writers help to shape the story long before the camera is rolling, with research, pre-interviews, and thoughts about scenes and B-roll. More often, writers are handed tens, if not hundreds, of hours of footage and are told to “Make something of it.”

This seminar will compare three documentaries on similar subject matter to contrast the choices the writers made. We’ll discuss questions like how did the writer tell the story, how did they keep the viewer entranced (or not), did they exploit the emotional nature of the medium? Or did the writing devolve into a lecture? How did the writer create character and handle conflict? Did they use narration or rely on other techniques to establish voice?

Aristotle’s Toolbox: Putting the Poetics to Work

Faculty: Jeni Mahoney

Written circa 330 BC, Aristotle’s Poetics remains one of the most influential works of dramatic theory. A slim volume, incomplete and believed to have been compiled from lecture notes, it was intended in part to counter Plato’s view of Poetry as misleading and morally suspect, the Poetics has inspired praise and fueled detractors for more than 2,000 years. Aristotle was a philosopher, not a dramatist, one of many complaints leveled against the Poetics over the years. But he clearly spent a great deal of time watching plays and – perhaps more significantly – watching audiences. His “Six Elements of Drama” seem to have emerged as much, if not more, from a profound understanding of the process engaged in by audiences, than from the processes of artists. Though often portrayed as rigid “rules,” to be broken only at a dramatist’s peril, it is most productive to understand the Elements as an examination of specific tools a dramatist has at their disposal, to pick up and use as needed. The seminar will explore Aristotle’s Elements as relevant, practical tools for writing, assessing, and discussing script work (text that is intended for performance) in particular as well as storytelling in general. Reading selections will support discussion of the Elements in both classic and modern texts.

Writing the Dramatic Sequence: Using Cinematic Principles in Fiction

Faculty: Suri Parmar

Film editor Walter Murch famously outlined six principles for building cohesive cinematic storylines: emotion, story, rhythm, eye trace, two-dimensional place of screen, and three-dimensional space. By applying these principles to prose, fiction writers can likewise create emotionally resonant stories with engaging characters.

In this seminar, we will analyze what makes fiction cinematic and how dramatic tension can be enhanced with craft elements such as visual blocking and movement. Similarly, how pacing and tone can be inspired by film editing techniques that include jump and match cuts, montages, and flashbacks. We will examine how these approaches are demonstrated in the writings of Kelly Link and Jhumpa Lahiri and why a cinematic style compels readers to connect with protagonists.

The Art of the Novella

Faculty: Debra Marquart

Longer than a long short story, but shorter than a novel, the novella is first and foremost defined by word length—somewhere between twenty to forty thousand words—but what are the novella’s other qualities? Ingrid Norton writes that “long novels have expanse to interweave plots and subplots and room for tangents and wide tableaus,” but “the novella has less time to establish its setting; it must earn a reader’s belief quickly.” The tidy novella compared to the “unruly” novel, according to Ian McEwan, is “the perfect form of fiction, the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant.” Similarly, critic Philip Rav defines the novella as having “compositional economy, homogeneity of conception, concentration in the analysis of character, and strict aesthetic control.”

But economy need not mean a lack of scope. Often the opposite is true. Ingrid Norton writes that “many of the most famous philosophical novels are short: Voltaire’s Candide; Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground; Franz Kafka’s The Trial and Metamorphosis; Camus’ The Fall and The Stranger.” Perhaps most helpfully, Ian McEwan describes the satisfying experience of reading a novella: “long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness and be kept there, short enough to be read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter.”

In this seminar, we will enter the elegant room of the novella by reading and discussing three contemporary examples. The history of the novella is long, wide, and international. Through our discussion, we will hope to discern what has captivated writers as diverse as Tolstoy, Munro, Cervantes, Le Guin, Proust, Orwell, Morrison, Joyce, Smiley, Pynchon, Murakami, and Atwood.

Writing about Historical Trauma in Fiction

Faculty: Breena Clarke

What are the fiction writer's responsibilities when writing about historical trauma? Getting beyond the simple facts may involve imagining the traumatic situation in detail and at some cost to the writer. Who is authorized and responsible for documenting traumatic historical events such as American slavery, The Jewish Holocaust, Native American Genocide, the Armenian Genocide, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the internment of Japanese-Americans at Manzanar? Must the writer be a member of the historically oppressed community to write with the oppressed's authentic voice? Does a writer have a moral obligation to correct or redress historical ommissions in their fiction? Required reading: Beloved by Toni Morrison. We will discuss Beloved as a searing depiction of the traumatic social and psychological effects of American slavery, as well as exploring its structure as a ghost story, a fitting template to reflect the haunted American past.

Literature of the Resistance: The Short Story

Faculty: Rick Bass

We will be an intensive examination of two short stories through the lens of craft as well as activism—how to advocate for one’s values in the fiercest way possible through fiction, which is in my opinion not generally thought of as a vehicle for change. We’ll hope to explore and influence that way of thinking. The power of intimacy in short stories can be as revolutionary as in any other medium, from the op-ed to the essay to the novel to film, for from that intimacy, change can occur. Participants will need to be prepared to discuss three short stories—Raymond Carver’s “Where I’m Calling From”, Eudora Welty’s “Where is the Voice Coming From?” and Tim O’Brien’s “On the Rainy River.” Feel free to bring examples from your own reading.

Writing Power: Fiction and the Tyrant

Faculty: JJ Amaworo Wilson

Paraguayan dictator and miser José Francia had his enemies bayoneted (to save bullets) under an orange tree outside his window. Turkmenistan’s dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, made his autobiography mandatory reading in schools and universities and sent a copy to the heavens in a space capsule. President Doc Duvalier ordered the killing of all black dogs in Haiti because he believed one of his enemies had turned himself into a black dog. Tyranny is tragic, but tyrants are absurd. And they are the stuff of fiction.
In this seminar, we will look at how to incorporate real life characters and events into fiction, particularly but not exclusively focusing on dictators, tyrants, and the all-powerful. We will look at how to develop characters who are more than just their manias, and how to get the details right without betraying our research. The seminar is for anyone interested in fiction that is based on real events and people.

Other Bodies, Other Worlds Philip K Dick and the American Imagination

Faculty: Cara Hoffman

This seminar will focus on the novels The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, novels that deal with quintessentially American visions of apocalypse, progress, dystopia and utopia. In these novels, Philip K Dick addresses questions of faith and of what it is to be human in a dying world. Please come prepared to discuss these novels. If you'd like background on PKD's philosophy you might find The Gnostics by Jacques Lacarriere a helpful text.



Alan Garner: “She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls”

Faculty: Elizabeth Hand

English writer Alan Garner’s 1967 short novel The Owl Service pretty much invented the genre of YA supernatural fantasy, and his work has been a major influence on writers such as Philip Pullman, China Mieville, Susan Cooper and Neil Gaiman, among many others. The Owl Service received the prestigious Carnegie Medal the year it was published and has since been named one of the top ten Carnegie winners of all time. A classic of dark fantasy and supernatural possession, this short novel follows three modern teenagers who find themselves re-enacting a tragic love triangle from the Welsh mythos, the Mabinogion. It’s also one of the first contemporary supernatural tales where a young woman’s power commands the stage, for good or ill. In this seminar, we’ll discuss the challenges of adapting an ancient story to contemporary times, supernatural agency as it relates to those who are often powerless, and the importance of landscape in supernatural fiction and how it informs modern storytelling, ancient myth, and ritual.

The Life, Work, and Legacy of Octavia E. Butler

Faculty: David Anthony Durham

In her short career Octavia Butler (1947-2006) was a unique and pioneering voice – often a lone voice – in science fiction and fantasy. Her work featured many of the staples of SFF: first contact, post-apocalypse, time travel, vampires, shapeshifters. To that material she brought discussions of gender, feminism, racism, sexuality, otherness, history. She centered women and people of color in her work, and she dealt with aggression, anguish and violence as well as empathy, kindness and forgiveness. We’ll examine her life and work, and we'll consider her legacy as an ongoing work in progress.

Destination Earth

Faculty: David Anthony Durham

Science fiction has given us many thought-provoking tales of aliens making first contact with humanity. Many of these works have featured Western cultures welcoming – often violently – our intergalactic visitors. But what about the rest of the world? Who is to say that alien beings will pinpoint the US White House as the obvious place to engage with intelligent life on Earth? Why not China? Or Nigeria? Or the Caribbean? This seminar will look at works that ask these questions, often with everyday characters becoming our first ambassadors.
In addition to the required reading, come having imagined – perhaps even written – stories of your own that feature interactions between aliens and a diverse spectrum of humanity.

The Fabulous Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin

Faculty: Theodora Goss

Ursula K. Le Guin was one of the most prolific and versatile writers of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, producing novels and short stories in a variety of genres as well as fiction for children and young adults, volumes of poetry, and important critical essays. In this seminar we will discuss her life, work, and legacy, including how her work challenged and changed the genres of fantasy and science fiction. We will also learn from her theories of writing and do some of the exercises in her writing handbook, Steering the Craft.


Students select from a wide range of provocative and inspiring writing workshops to customize their learning experience. The following workshops were offered during Summer 2020 and Winter 2021 residencies. 

Co-led by Tom Coash and Jeni Mahoney (Former Head of Playwriting at Playwrights Horizons Playwriting School/NYU Tisch School for the Arts), along with professional stage director and actors.

"Captivating Characters" is an elective workshop in which a professional stage director and visiting actors from the Maine theatre community join forces with workshop writers to help develop strong characters with strong motives through staged readings and critique. With the chance to rewrite your piece and hear it read more than once.

Whatever your genre, if you want to discover the secret of what makes your characters tick, there is no better way than to see and hear your words fully fleshed out by live actors.

Led by Susan Conley

There’s an explosion of autofiction going on. It’s a risk-taking, genre-bending, literary form that conflates fact with fiction. And it’s expansive and sturdy enough to allow for all kinds of subversion and discursion and sly humor and philosophy and play. In this elective, you’ll sample a wide menu of published autofiction, you’ll write new work each day that blends fiction and (at least what appears to be) fact, and lastly, you’ll offer feedback on one another’s submitted stories.

Led by David Anthony Durham

This workshop addresses writing about violent or criminal behavior. Students should submit manuscripts that feature criminal activity, acts of violence or other situations that edge toward the darker side of human nature. Do the deed (in writing), and let’s discuss. All genres welcome.

Led by Martín Espada

This is a generative workshop. Participants generate new work based on the distribution and discussion of poems by Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Claribel Alegría, Julia de Burgos, Marilyn Nelson, Ernesto Cardenal, Jack Agüeros, Patricia Smith, Lucille Clifton and Grace Paley, among others. We will write poems of unheeded prophecy, speak in the voices of the damned and the despised, wander in the company of our ancestors, and curse our enemies (real or imagined).  Workshop participants write on the spot, then share their work, reading aloud to the group (for thunderous applause only). The objective is the creation of a new poem every day, channeling the “barbaric yawp” within.

Led by Theodora Goss

In “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien calls the fantasy writer a subcreator, creating a secondary world real enough that the reader can believe even in the impossible, such as a green sun. However, subcreation is important in every genre. Whether you’re writing fantasy and science fiction, mystery and crime fiction, realistic fiction, or memoir, you need to create a world that feels real to your reader. Your writing may be set in an alternate Renaissance Italy, a near-future Tokyo, present-day Brooklyn, or a Martian colony after the collapse of Earth civilization, but your setting will need to be specific and detailed enough that the reader can inhabit it for a while. We will talk about how to create worlds that your reader can live and believe in. Participants should submit a piece to workshop in which the setting is crucial in some way. We will also discuss examples of worldbuilding and complete worldbuilding exercises.

This workshop will use both classic and contemporary prose, poetry, and visual art to spark work about many aspects of who we are, from home town to hair type to hobbies to how we self-identify. Though certainly fitting for nonfiction writers, this workshop also will help writers of any genre explore more about themselves (or their fictional characters) as they create and share new work in each session. Collect sparks for your next project or start one and continue it throughout our four days together. Feeling stuck or in need of inspiration, and guilty of neglecting yourself on the page? E-handouts, links and reading lists will accompany each session.

Co-led by  Breena Clarke and Ron Currie

Writing About Race, Racism, or racialized oppression is an increasingly complex undertaking. Institutionalized racism has injured our ability to see one another clearly in America, and writers are challenged to see clearly through the fog of stereotypes, untruths, and alienating narratives that profit a few at the expense of the rest of us.

In this workshop, our goal is to assist one another in writing accurately, honestly, and powerfully about race and class and to support a collegial dialogue on the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and national origin.

Led by Susan Conley

This workshop will develop your lyrical voice and style. We will look at how lyricism (in any genre) can be boldly (or quietly) revolutionary both in context and in form as it plays against certain narrative conventions. Our work will include exploring more sensory detail and more vivid, experimental description and “thisness.” The workshop will give you the freedom to shift into the lyric mode within personal essay, novel, short story and poetry and more. You’ll get looser on the page and find a wider understanding of what is “your” style. We will write in the workshop and look at the work of Rivka Galchen,  Sarah Broom, Li-Young Li, Ranier Maria Rilke, James Baldwin, Kevin Young, Jesmyn Ward, Jenny Offill, Sarah Manguso, and many others.  We will also offer group feedback of submitted pieces.

Led by David Anthony Durham

This cross-genre workshop will focus on how we characterize apocalypses--from current events to far-flung futures--and what comes after. Current upheaval and global fear has influenced how we envision what constitutes apocalypse, and our reactions to apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes. As writers we are confronting this experience the only way we know how: writing! Whether pieces deal with disease, climate change, war, or some hitherto unconfronted disaster, we will be workshopping the realities and surrealities of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic worlds. This workshop is open to all genres.

Led by David Anthony Durham and Elizabeth Searle

Do you believe your novel will make a brilliant movie or play? Join us for this workshop where we will cover how to unfold the events of your story on the screen or stage by discussing the three-act structure, deciding which characters and scenes to keep, revising dialogue, externalizing internal conflicts of the characters, using imagery, and formatting the script.

Students should bring 10-15 pages of their manuscript to produce an 'adapted' version of some or all of their pages, so that by workshop's end they will have at least a few pages, as a start, in script form.

Are you interested in lyric essays yet not exactly sure how to approach writing one? Perhaps you’re interested in working lyrically with prose yet need some innovative ideas for structuring your work? In this generative workshop, you will be introduced to four categories of lyric essays: braided, collage, "hermit-crab," and microessay. Each day we will tackle a new category of lyric essay, looking closely at several examples then diving right in to write one through directed writing prompts.

Lyric essays are unique in the ways they can enable a writer to explore innovative approaches to old material, make use of formal constraints to inspire new possibilities, allow for the integration of found artifacts, provide a means to experiment with difficult, copious, or fragmentary material, and invite readers to engage with participatory forms of language and synthesis.

The generative workshop is open to writers of all genres. CNF writers may find the lyric essay frees them from strict narrative; poets may be interested in compelling ways to integrate poetry and prose; fiction writers may be inspired by the possibilities of “lyric” structures for their fiction.


We would love to tell you more about our Stonecoast MFA community. Contact us with your questions.

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