Honoring Her Writing Talent With Action

Post-Bacc Writing Graduate Aliceanna Stopher goes for an M.F.A.

Photo of Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Program in Writing graduate Aliceanna Stopher

For as long as she can remember, Aliceanna Stopher has always been writing. At a young age, she wrote to keep herself occupied. Later on, she attended creative writing classes and an intensive art camp, served on the editorial board of her high school’s literary magazine, and just “wrote and wrote and wrote.”

But Alice (which is the name she goes by outside of her writing) never thought that writing for a living was a possibility—until she took a course with Associate Professor of English Carrie Messenger while completing her undergraduate communication and media studies major at Shepherd University (Shepherdstown, W.V.).

“She challenged me to recognize my passion and gifts and to honor them with action, with dedication, with publication, with the writing life,” says Alice. “Before that, I didn’t think of writing as something I could do with my life.”

Instructors as mentors would become a major theme in Alice’s journey in making writing her career.

Taking Initiative

Having lived in a small town, Alice wanted a change of scenery and a more urban living style. “My partner and I chose San Francisco practically at random; we looked at a map of the country and San Francisco was the furthest point in a straight line away,” she recalls.

“I’d been living in San Francisco and working full time in retail for about a year when I decided to go back to school,” Alice continues. “It became clear that I wasn’t going to suddenly wake up one day and be a successful writer.”

To get to that point, Alice recalls advice from Messenger about looking into an M.F.A. program. “When I was working full time, I wasn’t writing,” she says. “So I decided to start taking steps toward the M.F.A., and that’s what led me to Extension.”

Instructors Become Mentors

“The first UC Berkeley Extension course I took was Dan Coshnear’s The Craft of Writing, where I wrote an essay that scared me,” recalls Alice.

Scared her?

“Essaying was a new mode of thinking and writing for me: What stitches were visible in the draft, what did I unintentionally expose about myself. I remember walking out of the building after the workshop with Dan one night and his casual suggestion that I send the essay out for publication after revising it. He offered to suggest magazines to me when I was ready.”

Although Alice had had poems and a story published in her high school and undergraduate journals, she had never sent work elsewhere. It was Dan’s encouragement that gave her the permission she hadn’t realized she’d been waiting for.

“I also remember walking to the BART station that night feeling light and bubbly and proud of myself,” she says, looking back. “That lightness allowed me to admit to myself that I’d been wanting to publish—badly—and that my reticence to enter a space I’d imagined as exclusive was acting as a stricter gatekeeper than any that I’d be likely to encounter in the publishing world.”

But it wasn’t just Dan’s submission advice and encouragement that has influenced Alice in her M.F.A. pursuit. Another instructor at Extension also served as a mentor to her.

Laurie Ann Doyle’s Intermediate Fiction Writing course sharpened my critical eye, taught me to use atmosphere as revelatory of a character’s interior landscape when crafting setting, and helped me appreciate spare dialogue,” Alice describes. “When I’m drafting dialogue now, I still wonder how I can make it tighter, how I can say more with less, what nonverbal dialogue I might use to enhance the scene. Ultimately, she taught me how to read like a writer, how to write an insightful workshop letter, how to approach a draft with sharp criticism and graciousness.”

“Courses at Extension ushered me into a strong writing community—something I hadn’t realized I needed, but quickly came to value.”

Not only mentors, Extension’s instructors provided Alice with the structure and discipline she needed to write to her full potential. “I also took much away from Donna Levin’s Novel Writing Workshop,” she says. “Donna never let us forget that writing is hard daily work, but that it’s also a privilege. She worked to hold us accountable to our writing. And Katherine Sharpe, my Writing Skills Workshop instructor, was an absolute joy to work with. Kind, thorough, receptive—she was a generous reader of my work and called me out on lazy writing when I needed it.”

Writing Toward an M.F.A.

Today, Aliceanna is an M.F.A. candidate at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

“The Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Program in Writing prepared me for the level of intensity that comes with graduate study,” she says. “I produced and read critical and creative work closely, and participated in hyper-focused, high-octane discussions with teachers and driven peers. Laziness stopped being an available option, which has definitely helped keep me on track at Colorado State.

“But perhaps most importantly, the courses at Extension ushered me into a strong writing community—something I hadn’t realized I needed, but quickly came to value—and showed me what it’s like to be in a room full of folks whose passions fall in step with mine. I’m still in touch with those writers-turned-friends—Rose Heredia, Bhaskar Rao, Laurie Blanton, Caitlyn Waldman, to name a few dear to my heart—from the certificate program.”

Alice continues, “Being in an M.F.A. has meant spending almost all of my time around writers, thinking about writing, talking about writing, commiserating about writing, geeking out about writing. The post-bacc writing program was like that, too, on a smaller scale. Being shy, I could have easily been overwhelmed in graduate school, if I’d not started with UC Berkeley Extension.”

Mentee Becomes the Mentor

In addition to her M.F.A. coursework, Alice also teaches undergraduate creative writing and works as an associate editor for the Colorado Review. As she evaluates her students’ work, she channels the supportive and critical teaching style of her Extension instructors.

“Dan’s soft-spoken pedagogy influenced me most as a teacher,” Alice says. “There’s vulnerability in sitting through silences, waiting for students to articulate what they’re not yet sure they mean, listening with your full body. My writing aesthetics have changed since taking The Craft of Writing, but the longer I teach, the more I reflect on Dan’s gentle presence and hope to emulate it.”

Alice also takes lessons learned as an editor on our Ursa Minor publication when she evaluates submissions at Colorado Review.  

“I liked working with submitters one-on-one—through email—and providing large-scale feedback and copyediting,” she reflects. “I’ve since come to learn that that kind of editorial work—where you’re in the trenches with a writer, asking questions, trying to take a strong piece of work and make it stronger—is rare in literary journal publishing. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have had that close relationship with submitters on the first issue. Getting the experience of approaching someone else’s work from the editorial side tested my own craft and gave me a greater understanding of the level of polish literary journals are searching for.”

But Alice understands that every magazine has a different editorial process. “At the Colorado Review, our associate and assistant editors comb carefully over manuscripts proofreading and copyediting; it takes weeks to finalize a proof for publication. We’re in communication with the writer at various stages throughout that process and do our best to honor their style,” she says.

“In submitting my own work, I’ve yet to publish in a journal with an editorial process quite as rigorous as Colorado Review. Two of my published stories were accepted with no edits requested or made. In one, I was asked to rework the final line; in the piece I have forthcoming, “Run”—which was awarded second place in New South’s 2018 Writing ContestI asked if I could make minor changes and submit a final draft, and their fiction editor was perfectly amenable.”

As for advice for applying to an M.F.A.? “Send the best work you’re currently capable of,” she advises, “and in a few years you can look back at that application story, set of poems, or essay and blush, amazed at how far you’ve come.”

“UC Berkeley Extension put me on the path to my M.F.A., which is fitting me with the tools I’ll need to approach a writing career flexibly.” 

Shifting Her Writing Goal

Like most writers, Aliceanna started out desiring the kind of validation a publication credit would give her—she wanted tangible proof that she was a real and serious writer.

“My writing—and career goals—have shifted,” she confides. “Would I love to have a collection of stories in the world someday? Yes, absolutely. But I’m trying not to imagine that as a finish line. I want my work to crack open underrepresented perspectives, to show empathy, to invite my readers to feel a little less alone. These are harder goals to qualify, ones I’m not convinced I’ll ever be able to measure. It could take publishing 1,000 stories or one. Who can say?

“I count myself lucky to work with new writers, whether administratively, editorially or as a teacher. UC Berkeley Extension put me on the path to my M.F.A., which is fitting me with the tools I’ll need to approach a writing career flexibly.”