Essential writing

Stanford’s Stegner Fellows on Writing and Life

June 20, 2024, 12:57 p.m.

Nourished. Playful. Peaceful. Frustrating. Essential.

These are the words first-year fiction Stegner fellow Emma Binder used to describe how writing makes them feel. Before coming to Stanford as a Stegner fellow, Binder was working full-time as an immigration specialist while finding time to write a short story collection in the mornings and evenings. Binder submitted one of those stories as part of their application for Stanford’s most prestigious writing program. Right when the balance between their demanding legal job and personal writing was becoming unsustainable, they got the call.

“The Stegner I think is something that a lot of people apply to and nobody envisions they’re actually getting it. I’ve never talked to a single person who’s gotten a Stegner who was like, ‘Yeah I expected that phone call.’ It’s sort of like winning the lottery or something,” they said. “When I got the phone call, I was just totally blown away. I don’t even really remember the phone call. I kind of blacked out.”

Second-year fiction Stegner fellow Faith Merino juggled writing, working and raising kids before applying to the program. She worked from home as a business technology reporter. When her first baby was born, she took care of him while working and writing a novel, waking up at five in the morning to write. When her second son was born, she had to leave her paying job to focus on taking care of her kids full time. Her youngest child was struggling to sleep with severe acid reflux and child care was too expensive. At the time, she was making as much as a child care worker. When her youngest child could start school, she went to the University of California, Davis to get her master’s of fine arts (MFA). Still, the pandemic brought her kids home again, and her family was “back to square one.”

“I definitely feel like the last ten years of writing [have] been just a sort of process of trying to cobble together these little gasps of air to get time to put something on paper,” she said. 

In 2021, Merino applied to the Stegner program. She was in her kids’ elementary school parking lot when she got the call. 

“I literally sent in my application, like the day before the deadline closed because it was just for shits and giggles,” she said.

“I got the call…and I just had this full blown, screaming, jumping reaction.”

Jemimah Wei, another second-year Stegner fellow, grew up in Singapore where she also completed her undergraduate and first master’s degrees. She worked in advertising and media before coming to the United States to get her MFA at Columbia in 2019. When the pandemic hit, Wei returned to Singapore and kept writing. She made the intercontinental leap once more in 2021 when New York started to open up again. By then, she was applying to fellowships and simultaneously working on both a novel and her thesis. Every day, Wei went to the Columbia library to take over a desk with her sticky notes and papers. She was at the library when her phone rang, and she hustled to the bathroom to pick up the call. Wei shrieked when she heard the news. 

“I just couldn’t believe what was happening, and on brand for me, somebody flushed the toilet in the background,” she said. “[Stanford faculty member Patrick Phillips] was like, ‘Where are you?’ and I was like, ‘Actually, funny story, I ran into the library’s bathroom to pick up your call.”

First-year fiction Stegner fellow Hassan Mirza came to the U.S. from Pakistan to study creative writing at Bowdoin College in Maine. He got his MFA at Vanderbilt and was getting his Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati when he found out he would be moving to the Bay for the two-year Stegner program. 

“I was obviously not expecting to get it. The chances of getting the fellowship are so slim that it would be very foolhardy to expect it,” he said. “There was the usual, like, sense of disbelief, shock, delight. And like a lot of delayed reactions … You sort of logically understand something has happened to you, but emotionally cannot fathom what it looks like.” 

Stanford accepts five fiction writers and five poets to the prestigious, two-year Wallace Stegner Fellowship every year. Fellows come to campus once a week during the fall, winter and spring quarters to participate in a three-hour workshop with their peers.

During their time in the Stegner program, fellows write anything from novels to short stories, and share feedback with one another. Sometimes the Stegner program can act as a crucial stepping stone to entering a full-time writing career. Each fellow receives a $50,000 stipend, free tuition and health insurance, allowing them time to hone their craft without working a different full-time job. Binder, who got their MFA at the University of Wisconsin, Madison before getting a full time legal job, wanted writing to always be a part of their life.

“I think it feels on some level non-negotiable for me. Writing does feel like a very essential part of who I am, how I process things, how I relate to the world. And so I would always be doing it even if my professional life is in a different field,” they said.

Essential writing
(Photo: BRAD YAC-DIAZ/The Stanford Daily)

In addition to providing funding for the fellows to focus on writing full-time, the Stegner program is structured such that the fellows come together for a workshop on campus. Once a week, the fellows gather in the Mariposa house or Margaret Jacks Hall, often carpooling from either Oakland, Berkeley or San Francisco. During the workshops, the fellows give and receive feedback on each other’s work as well as hear from Stanford faculty. 

Outside programs like Stegner, writers often go for long periods of time without receiving feedback or knowing whether their writing is resonating with their audience. Wei explains that writers can experience self doubt. Merino describes writing as a “weird paradox of isolation and groping for connection [with an unknown reader].” The Stegner fellowship alleviates some of those feelings. Not only does acceptance indicate they are producing meaningful and valuable work, but each writer’s work is being shared and discussed with their peers on a regular basis. 

“As a writer, you’re often just working in a vacuum and you’re just hoping that like the thing that you’re obsessing about to the point of writing it and putting it on paper is something that maybe will resonate with somebody else. There’s a point where you wonder, ‘Am I just a weirdo? Am I just off in my own universe, spinning out?’” Merino said. “To get recognition from such a prestigious program … it’s like realizing, ‘Okay, I actually do have something worthwhile to offer the world, and maybe I’m not just some spastic weirdo, who’s just off in a corner, fritzing, maybe there is actually something that I can offer.’” 

Merino has noticed after engaging with her peers’ work that their “stories do tend to speak to one another.” She has found this extends to their personalities as well, describing both their natures and writing as compassionate. Wei, who is also in Merino’s cohort, described her cohort as quite close and communicative. 

Two ladies on a stage during a Q&A session. One of them is in the middle of answering a question.
Faith Merino (left) and Jade Cho (right) seated for a Q&A about their writing styles, supernatural elements in their work, and the research process. (Photo: BRAD YAC-DIAZ/The Stanford Daily)

“At the risk of sounding absolutely ridiculous, I feel like I’ve made these four new best friends,” Merino said. “It is really cool to meet people in the Stegner program and just instantly fall in love with them [and] instantly have these very, these very close personal connections … I’m actually going to be very sad when this program is over, and I don’t get to see them once a week anymore. I was not expecting to …make such close personal relationships with so many people.”

The work of the fellows can often be in conversation, but the topics and subjects vary widely. Mirza writes about Pakistanis, particularly urban, middle class Pakistanis who witnessed Pakistan go through a period of globalization and violence. Mirza also likes to write about migration. Binder is working on a short story collection about queer and trans stories set in Midwestern small towns and rural areas. They are seeking “to challenge the expectation that there is no place for queer people or trans people in rural areas, and that the only options are to hide [their] identity or to leave.”

Wei writes literary fiction. She shared that Stegner faculty member Adam Johnson “describes literary fiction as being immensely concerned with aftermath, so picking up the pieces of something that’s happened.” Readers will sometimes approach her about her work when she is out at bars or parties or will write to her online. She has been surprised by which parts of her stories they choose to respond to.

“People often ask … ‘What do you hope your writing does for people?’ And I have my own hopes, but I do also feel that there is no way you can know what your writing is going to do for somebody,” she said. “I have been very pleasantly and warmly surprised by my readers. And I like it that way.” 

Wei writes for an audience that would read her work in good faith.

“[Writers] have to write for the ideal reader and not write for … the worst faith reader who is [going to] try and … pick your story apart no matter what,” she said. “I can’t control how people react to my work, but what I can control is my work itself, because the relationship between me and my writing and me and the page is the only like, pure relationship that I can fully control.” 

Mirza’s idea of who his audience is can shift.

“Sometimes I’m reacting against an idea of a certain kind of an audience. So if I’m choosing to write, sometimes I’ll be like, I’m not gonna cater to the needs of … what I imagine is a conventional American reader,” he said. “If I am writing about a different country I’m not, for instance, [going] to try and make it [easily] digestible. So that is like acting against the notion of a certain kind of an audience.” 

Mirza hopes that his work gives readers “a more nuanced understanding of human life.” 

“[Fiction] should not, in my opinion, give you easy answers toward what we should do or what our duty is in life or as people, but it can sort of demonstrate some of the complications of being a human,” he said.

After the fellowship program, Mirza is planning to have a career in academia, so he can both write and teach. Binder started teaching while they were in Wisconsin getting their MFA and doing a fellowship.

“I do miss it. I find teaching creative writing to be really energizing, and meaningful, so I hope to get back to that someday,” Binder said.

The Stegner program gives fellows the opportunity to be mentors to undergraduates through Levinthal Tutorials.

Senior and creative writing minor Bea Phi applied to a Levinthal Tutorial and has begun working with Wei for the duration of winter quarter. The tutorial counts as a five-unit class for undergraduates and is designed by the students themselves, meeting weekly with their Stegner fellow throughout the quarter, working through a reading list, and completing a writing project. Undergraduates submit their applications for a Levinthal Tutorial at the start of fall quarter and the Stegner fellows select who they want to work with by early December.

“A Stegner fellow picks the student that they want to work with based on compatibility and fit, it usually comes down to not talent or experience, but just like a connection between the Stegner and the Levinthal,” Phi said. “I had my meeting with my Stegner fellow two days ago, and it was really interesting to have a one-on-one experience. I feel like that doesn’t happen a lot in academia.” 

Phi and Wei will be focusing on techniques because Phi indicated that was an area they wanted to focus on. During their first meeting, they discussed the techniques Phi liked, disliked, and was curious about so that they could work on each throughout their time together. 

Phi emphasized that the Levinthal tutorials are for everyone, regardless of level or experience. 

“It’s not there for like the best writer on campus, it’s there for the writer who has an idea of how they want to grow. And that, of course, can be anybody.”

The Stegner fellows guide undergraduates interested in creative writing, but they are also learning and growing as writers themselves. While they have found purpose in pursuing writing, they still encounter feelings of vulnerability, frustration and struggle.

“There’s the peace in pursuing something that feels so essential to me and essential about how I relate to the world and relate to my community,” Binder said. “And then sometimes it’s really frustrating too. But I think as I get older, there’s still a sense of peace even when it is frustrating because I have come to a better understanding of how the frustration is part of the process, too. And that it wouldn’t be as rewarding of an endeavor if it came easily all the time.”

Wei provided the analogy of happiness being like the weather and fulfillment being like the climate. Writing gives her fulfillment. 

“I feel very fulfilled, because I’m doing what I want to do in my life,” Wei said. “Every day is so different, you can have an amazing day, [because] when the writing is going good, it’s incredible. But then when the writing is hard, it can be really miserable. And acknowledging that it’s such a difficult and vulnerable thing to be doing is very helpful, because … you separate that from a sense of self worth as much as you can.”

From Levinthal tutorials to workshops, the Stegner program offers a unique and rewarding experience to writers from all over the world, a true gift for people of all backgrounds, careers, and perspectives. For two years, writers are given financial assistance, thoughtful feedback on their work, and a sense of community as they form deep relationships with the members of their cohorts. Once they finish their time as a fellow, they can use what they have learned to pursue something that feels so ingrained into who they are as people. 

Callia Peterson is a writer for the university desk of The Daily's news section. Contact her at [email protected]

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