In which I earn my MFA, have an irksome day, and articulate some thoughts on writing

I earned my MFA in creative writing this weekend. I’m told that the title for someone who has a master’s degree is (well… used to be) magister – which is a title that sounds cool, but isn’t really practical for daily use. However, it is a piece of information that I will treasure as I move forward.

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So… two years has gone by. Somehow.

In that time, I’ve grown significantly as a writer. I’ve stepped out into new types of writing – psychological thrillers, stage plays and screenwriting, pseudo-fairy tales. I’ve tried going to the page with ideas that scared me, that felt risky, that I didn’t expect to work. And regardless of whether all these attempts have worked, I tried them. I learned. I got better at what I do. I will continue to get better. And much of this is because I’ve had the chance to learn from some incredibly talented writers over my time in the Stonecoast MFA program.

And not only have I had the chance to learn from these writers – students and acclaimed faculty both – but I have also had the chance to get to know them. We’ve laughed together and shared stories. We’ve gotten to know each other, played games together, faced social turmoil together and tried to put our answers into words. We’ve supported each other as we work to make our voices heard.

I have met so many amazing people during my time in the program. I know… the word “amazing” can used to describe everything from cutting-edge technology to cute cat videos, but this time, when I say “amazing,” I mean it in a true and significant way – this experience and these people are amazing in a way that I don’t think I can adequately put into words.

I walked into Stonecoast at the beginning self-conscious, nervous, and unsure what I had gotten myself into. I was ready to linger on the edge and test the waters of this writing program until I felt comfortable. What happened instead was that I found myself immediately welcomed into the group and made to feel as though I completely belonged. I’m normally not particularly social. I’m not comfortable around lots of people, and it usually takes a while for me to settle into a group. Not Stonecoast. By the end of the first day, I realized that this was where I was meant to be. I found my people. I have heard new students voice this same sentiment every residency.

This is one of the most important things I will take away from my MFA program – the community. I found a place where people wanted me to succeed. I found a place where people cared about the same things I cared about and struggled with the same things I struggled with. I found a place where I could comfortably be myself, a place where I could say that I want to write a politically-centered action adventure fantasy novel involving dragon hunters and zombies – and have people both understand and appreciate the idea. I found the community I hadn’t even realized I was missing – and it was more than I ever could have hoped for.

And since Stonecoast celebrated their 15th alumni reunion this year, I was able to even better understand the strength and the reach of the Stonecoast community. The Stonecoast community extends far beyond the two years each of us spends in the program.

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The official t-shirt design for my pop. fiction cohort (which I did not design)

Even beyond the vast improvement to my writing – I’ve been able to form powerful friendships with people from all over the world. I’ve grown as a person – learning new things and finding the courage to take risks. While a student at Stonecoast, I’ve done things that absolutely terrified me – as a writer and simply as a person. And at every moment I knew that there were people who understood, who cared, who would be there to fall back on.

In the relatively short time that we all spent together, I have formed friendships that I believe will last forever. We’ve had grand adventures involving gelato, fifty-cent books, lighthouses, international travel, ancient burial sites… and countless fantastic worlds that we have brainstormed together, shared with each other, celebrated together.

In light of all this, I was anxious about reaching the end of my time as a student. And in some ways, it was as emotionally difficult as I expected it to be. I walked across a stage along with people I have shared two years of life with. And though our friendships will continue, the ending of this chapter held such sweet sorrow.

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What I didn’t expect to feel alongside the bouts of intense melancholy was a sense of completeness as my final residency drew to a close. I have seen so many other students graduate from the program – it ultimately felt right that my time had come. From graduation day this past weekend, to leaving the residency this morning, it has been a strange mix of emotions that I was not prepared for and still haven’t managed to fully define.

But I am thankful for the experiences I’ve had and for all that I’ve learned. I am thankful for the passionate, beautiful people who have made this journey such a delight. And I am excited for what will come next as I move forward in my life as a writer.

And that is what I was thinking as I left the residency. I felt sad to close my time as a Stonecoast student, but excited to get home and embrace all the writing projects I have to work on. One chapter of this adventure is finished, but the next is just beginning. I was ready for it.

Then I got home.

The house was quiet nearly empty – a marked change from the excitement of residency.

Rather than discussing literary horror and different species of dragons – conversations were once again about mowing grass and managing household affairs.

I took my car in for an estimated $1200 worth of repairs (obnoxious enough in itself) only to learn that the guy who was supposed to do the work wasn’t willing to do so for another month. I promptly left.

Only to find that my next stop was closed…

I don’t say this just to be like, “oh, poor Josh, what a bad day.” All-in-all, these were just inconveniences. But they reinforced something I was thinking about as I left residency. In the program, we talk about going from writing life (where we are around people like us) to normal life (where most people don’t really care about writing). I’ve said it myself – that I want to stay in a place where I’m surrounded by writers and ideas and fun – that I don’t want to go back to “normal life.”

But it occurred to me that writing, by necessity, takes place right in the middle of normal life. Our writing is about the bad days, the flat tires, the misunderstandings with friends, the awkward romances, the stories of childhood, the grand adventures, the dreams, the fears, the struggles, the victories. It’s about politics and relationships, justice and discovery – it’s about holding onto hope and staring down the darkness. It’s about believing in a multitude of wonderful things. It’s a call to sometimes look into the darkest corners of humanity – to speak out against the bad that we find there – but to also cast a light on the good and the beautiful.

There are times that we speak for hundreds, if not thousands of other people, putting into words the things they have only felt in their hearts. We keep the conversation going. And we can’t do that if we hide from normal life.

But writing takes imagination. It takes commitment. It takes support and strength and honesty. And it takes place right in the chaotic mess that is daily life. If this sounds idealistic – it is. I also happen to believe that it’s true.

And so, good reader, in closing, I will offer to you the same advice I am currently offering to myself – advice that I did not personally come up with; rather, in a sense, it’s the culmination of two years of study and experience:

Live fearlessly. Love fiercely. Dream passionately. Learn always. Grow. Celebrate things worth celebrating – the beautiful, the weird, the little moments of wonder. Surround yourself with people who will help you do these things. Help them do the same.

And let your voice be heard.

I know – it’s easy to say, harder to do – but we need more people in the world to follow advice like this. Will you join me in trying?

Go tell your story. Go follow your dreams.

Thanks for reading.

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