Why Here? Why Now? – How I Came to the Wilkes University M.A. Program

August 1, 2016 by




By Ronnie Stephens


As with any story, I struggled to find the beginning. That isn’t to say that I don’t know where it started, but how often does one start a journey before the origin is clear?

Point of Discovery

My fascination with beginnings took root when I came across Faster Than the Speed of Light just after graduating from high school. Over the next few months, I devoured The Feynman Lectures, The Origins of the Universe, The Book of Everything, and The Book of Nothing. I was instantly (and hopelessly) stuck on the myriad conceptions of “nothing.” Cultures across continents, across history, were obsessed with 0. Did it represent balance? The absolute point between positive and negative? Was 0 an empty number? Could you have nothing without first having something? The questions swirled in my mind throughout the summer.

By the end of freshman orientation, I regretted majoring in Business Marketing. I was a first-generation college student, so I knew little about the university experience, but I had the good sense to choose one “fun” class that first semester: Theoretical Physics. It was the class that kept me sane, the one that allowed for escape from the group projects and presentations that inundated business classes. I changed my major to Physics second semester, which meant a course load full of high-level mathematics and complex science. To offset these classes, I included “Introduction to Music.”

The professor was incredibly funny, the coursework was relaxing, and there were multiple opportunities for extra credit. My first introduction to this extra credit came by way of a thin man with numerous tattoos, a thick green Mohawk, and dreaded bangs that stretched to his torso. He had at least two dozen piercings dotting his face like metallic constellations. I was unprepared for the softness of the poems he shared.

The extra credit required us to attend a performance poetry event. I had been an avid reader since kindergarten, but my experience with poetry was minimal. I had taken one creative writing course in high school, and I had written maybe a dozen poems over the semester. They were all terrible, of course—filled with abstraction and overly sentimental, professing love for my girlfriend, Valerie. Despite their shortcomings, I shared them with her. Instead of reading them, she put the notebook aside and made excuses for why she hadn’t read them.

Point of Concern

At the extra credit event, I sat alone. The man on stage delivered poems filled with grief, hope, and humor. I was hooked. I knew from the tattooed man’s presentation that there would be another event later in the month, also for extra credit. By the time it rolled around, I had shared a poem with the tattooed man, whose name was Russ. He ripped into me for being too scared to read it on stage. Russ could read people better than anyone I’d ever met, and he knew blunt honesty was the best route.

He invited me to the local poetry slam, run by a friend of his named Doug. As it happened, Doug had a degree in physics, and at the first slam he performed a poem explaining the theory of relativity using two ants at a picnic as an analogy. I swooned. I also made the poetry slams a habit. Month after month, Valerie refused to go. Increasingly aware of her lack of support for my renewed passion for poetry, I realized that I would have to decide what I loved more. I left her just shy of our five-year anniversary, changed my major to Latin, and filled my course load with every creative writing elective I could find.

Point of Clarity

I stuck with Latin for the rest of my undergraduate studies, which afforded me the opportunity to learn about language in more detail than I ever had. By the time I finished my B.A., I had taken two creative writing courses and two advanced writing workshops. I was a staple at poetry slams and had generally moved past my fear of the stage. I had befriended both men I’d seen perform as a college freshman.

One of them, Derrick Brown, was unique in the performance circuit because he never competed at slams. His style drew me in for a number of reasons. His writing was vulnerable and tender, yet absurd and fun. I learned that, like most friendships in performance poetry, ours was one that started and stopped independent of time.

I was now keenly aware that I wanted to be a writer, and that I was not nearly good enough to succeed. I applied to my university’s M.F.A. program at the encouragement of my workshop professors, only to be rejected by the director before the review board ever saw my application. Though the rejection was bad form, one of my professors encouraged me to “go out and live a little, then come back for the M.F.A.”

I had no idea where to start. Luckily, the same professor invited me to apply for a summer writing program in Ireland. It was a six-week program based at NIU–Galway with a half-dozen visiting writers as professors. For me, it was the first real opportunity to sequester myself and focus entirely on writing. While there, I attended numerous readings. I learned more from the twenty-minute Q-and-As after readings than I had in all my previous writing classes combined.

One of the visiting professors was Ilya Kaminsky. Kaminsky was only a few years older than me, had immigrated from Ukraine, was deaf, and managed to find music in the English language more efficiently, more precisely than anyone I’d ever met. His energy was infectious. Here was a man who exuded absolute joy when he talked of words. He didn’t care where he got them. He wanted them all. And in everything he read, he found beauty. Kaminsky even encouraged me to apply to San Diego State University, where he directed the M.F.A. program.

Point of Regret

Performance poetry had introduced me to the idea of writing as political dissent, and my graduate work in comparative literature and cultural studies gave me the language to process it. I settled into reading through a critical lens, which provided me with yet another tool to improve my writing. In my last semester of graduate study, I took Kaminsky’s advice and applied to SDSU. To my surprise, I was quickly accepted.

Around the same time, I started dating an undergraduate creative writing major. I told her that I would be moving to San Diego for the M.F.A. program the following semester. She was curious about what San Diego had to offer, so she decided to come along when I went to visit SDSU over spring break. For me, the trip was purely about getting a sense for what my time at SDSU would be like. For her, it was an opportunity to explore.

Kaminsky informed me that SDSU could not waive tuition, as other M.F.A. programs often did, because it was a state school and lacked the necessary funding. He knew that money would be an issue for me, so he had arranged for me to teach as an adjunct at SDSU while I pursued the degree. In addition, he had pitched me as a potential creative writing professor at the local community college with the goal of creating a bridge program for SDSU. I was blown away by Kaminsky’s faith in me. He had quite literally done everything in his power to make SDSU a reality.

My now-fiancée wanted to visit a few massage therapy schools in San Diego to see if there was something for her to pursue in the area. The programs we visited did not impress her. She didn’t have a strong concept of her future, but it was clear that San Diego didn’t offer much for her. Despite my steadfast resolve to work with Kaminsky, I ultimately contacted him to let him know that I would not be attending SDSU after all.

This was a devastating decision, one which I couldn’t fully process at the time. I was a couple months from completing my M.A. program but, when I turned in a thesis draft, my advisor said that it was uninspired and I agreed. I scrapped the entire thing. We decided that I would choose a new topic and continue working beyond the end of the semester. I couldn’t schedule my comps until the thesis was complete, so I left in May without a degree, and with little motivation to finish the work in front of me.

My cousin mentioned a job opportunity in Dallas, so my fiancée and I moved down to check it out. Six months later, the economy turned and I was laid off. I had a bachelor’s degree, forty-two graduate hours, and nothing to show for it. After several weeks, I took a part-time job working loss prevention. I also decided to become certified to teach. The program I chose boasted extremely high placement rates for teachers, yet I found an almost universal ban on alternatively certified English teachers when I started applying for positions.

Now married, my wife and I decided to return to Arkansas where she had been offered her old scholarship and a chance to finish her degree. For nine months, the only job I could land was, again, in loss prevention. It was a good job, but I was miserable and had a strong desire to enter teaching. I applied to every district in Texas, then to a nationwide program called Teach for America.

Point of Origin

Though the effectiveness of Teach for America and its impact on public education have sparked debate, there’s no question that joining the corps changed my life. I was placed in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I had never considered living in Oklahoma, and I was not particularly excited about East Central High School, where I had been assigned to teach English.

From the outside, ECHS looked like a prison. There were no windows. The building had a central tower with shorter wings flanking two sides, and at every entrance a sign was posted: No Guns Allowed. Armed security guards manned the only unlocked door. All of that paled in comparison to large class sizes and the citywide prejudice against ECHS students.

My English classes averaged about 35 students, but geometry classes were often so full that students gathered in the doorways and sat on the floor between desks to take notes. Our art program won the most awards of any high school in Oklahoma, yet media coverage of the school centered on arrests and lockdowns. To the city, ECHS was a training ground for criminals. To me, it was a sanctuary of enlightenment and growth.

I discovered two things my first year that have shaped me as a person and as a writer: Louder Than a Bomb, the largest youth poetry festival in the world, was expanding to Tulsa, and ECHS was a haven for LGBTQ students who’d been bullied in other schools. The two came together in my classroom. I began holding poetry workshops after school, hanging out with students over breakfast, and turning my room into a safe space for any student who felt silenced.

One thing I loved was that students at East Central would call me out. When I asked them to write, they demanded that I write with them. When we held a fundraiser addressing body shaming and sexual abuse, they demanded I share a poem alongside theirs. Writing became our therapy, the thing we turned to when we couldn’t process the various traumas in our lives. My production increased exponentially, and by my second year I had put together a full-length poetry collection.

I had my eyes on Write Bloody Publishing, the press founded by Derrick. I admired the blind submission process because there was no risk of favoritism. I submitted my manuscript three years in a row only to be rejected each time. I was a finalist the last two years, and the second time Derrick recommended that I send my manuscript to a friend of his who’d just started a press called Timber Mouse Publishing. The roster was small, but the products were high quality and the editor, Kevin Burke, was a good man. That meant more to me than widespread marketing, so I sent the manuscript.

Timber Mouse turned out to be a perfect match. Kevin picked up my book and paired me with an editor named Ariana Brown. I had been pretty successful at publishing in literary journals, but my experience with Ariana changed the way I looked at publishing. She had a keen eye and never pulled punches. Between her comments and the countless editing sessions my friend, Dane, and I had over the next few months, my first collection improved dramatically and was ready to print.

More to the Point

Two months before Universe in the Key of Matryoshka went to the printers, my wife left. We’d been struggling since the birth of our daughters, identical twins named Helen and Molly. Yet again, I turned to writing to process the emotions. I was living in Texas by then, but I remained in contact with a handful of my former East Central students. Together, we committed to writing a poem a day for two months. At the end of the second month, I had another project finished. It was very different from my first collection because every poem was ekphrastic, inspired by the illustrations of a long-time friend named Desarae Lee; the book would pair each poem with its corresponding artwork. I sent the manuscript to Kevin, who picked it up almost immediately and slated it for release in late 2016.

This raises the question: Why an M.F.A? Why now? And why Wilkes?

My connection to the slam community is something I’ve cultivated for more than a decade. Through those connections, I was invited to help bring Louder Than a Bomb to Dallas. Jason Carney, an old acquaintance, was expanding the program to Dallas-Fort Worth and thought I would be a good addition to the advisory committee. At one of our meetings, I mentioned that of all the decisions I made during my marriage, I regretted only one: I’d given up on an M.F.A. He recommended Wilkes.

When I first began my research, I wasn’t impressed with the program design. Still, I trusted Jason’s judgment and decided to apply. I also applied to Sierra Nevada and Stone Coast. I’m sure that my renewed determination was due, at least in part, to my desire to reclaim my previous goal. I wanted to make choices for myself, something I’d never done. On a more practical level, I wanted an M.F.A. so that I could transition from high school to college teaching. I’d had brief stints as a teaching assistant and as adjunct faculty at a community college, and I longed for the freedom afforded college professors.

During my first residency at Wilkes, I was bored with the assignments, yet enamored with the program faculty. The course material was familiar, designed for emerging writers rather than those with numerous workshops under their belts. I expected as much, so I wasn’t disheartened. In fact, I was inspired to challenge myself. I had come to the first residency intending to focus on poetry, an easy task considering I had two collections through Timber Mouse, a chapbook, and a third full-length manuscript ready for editing. In talking with professors and classmates, though, I realized that focusing on poetry would be a waste.

It’s not that I don’t still have a lot to learn about poetry; it’s just that I have a strong community which already pushes me as a poet. What I didn’t have was experience with prose. I decided to explore nonfiction and fiction during my foundations classes. With fiction, the assignments were again familiar. I’d actually taught all but one of the assigned readings for several years. Still, the writing tasks attached to the readings, and the design of the course, helped me develop and fine-tune a number of skills. It was more productive than I expected, ultimately inspiring me to move forward with a novel idea developed during the foundations course.

Now, in my second project semester, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere but Wilkes. What I lacked as a writer, more than anything, was a diverse community. That’s exactly what Wilkes has to offer. The design of the program fosters community almost as much as it fosters growth as a writer. While many M.F.A. programs may very well improve one’s writing, I suspect that few are as successful at cultivating relationships that continue well beyond graduation. I came to Wilkes quite versed in writing, perhaps more extensively trained than most students in the history of the program. I knew full well that I could learn the writing side of things anywhere. Because of my experience, though, I knew how vital a writing community would be for continued growth.

The thing about writing is that it doesn’t stop when you finish a class or graduate a program. Writers write because they have to. And any good writer will tell you that if you want to keep growing, you’ll need a community. A community asks questions. A community challenges. A community supports. I didn’t come to an M.F.A. program for confirmation or encouragement. I came to get better. Wilkes makes writers better. It’s as simple as that.


Ronnie K. Stephens is a full-time English teacher. He has identical twins and a brand new baby that take up all the space in his chest. He is currently pursuing an M.F.A. from Wilkes University. His first poetry collection, Universe in the Key of Matryoshka, was published by Timber Mouse Publishing in 2014. His second collection will be released later this year.


From PA to LA: An Adventure

June 2, 2016 by

55849acf-b550-4b72-a5e2-ce86acefb533By Danie Watson

One of my favorite lines is “Adventure is out there!” Yes, it’s from Up. Yes, I’m almost 22. Being an anxiety-ridden person, I don’t see too much adventure—or at least I didn’t until this April, when I boarded a plane by myself, and flew all the way from Newark, New Jersey to Los Angeles, California. I half expected myself to spend the flight breathing in and out of a paper bag—you know, the courtesy puke bags in your seat pocket—but instead I spent the time writing, and getting nervous about the next five days of my life.

I have the pleasure of calling myself a Graduate Assistant for Etruscan Press, which is affiliated with the Wilkes University Graduate Creative Writing Program. So affiliated, in fact, that the reason I was on this adventure was to man the Etruscan/Wilkes booth at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Annual Conference and Bookfair, or AWP. When the wheels hit the tarmac, it was 8:30 p.m. in L.A. and AWP started early the next morning. After an Uber ride and hotel check-in, I was finally in my room, anxious for the days ahead.

The following morning, AWP began. As Exhibitors, Associate Director Bill Schneider and I were able to get on the Bookfair floor an hour early, and beat the throngs of people waiting outside the doors. At 9:00 a.m. sharp, security started checking badges, and the conference officially began. People were running and hugging each other, names were called from across the room, and excited chatter filled the convention center—proving to me that AWP was about much more than buying books, shopping for programs, and making connections, it was about the joining of writers, students and book lovers near and far.

As the floor filled with AWP attendees, familiar faces began to appear. Fellow GAs Dale Louise Mervine, and Donna Talarico, both manned the Hippocampus booth, and my cohort members Whitney Brimat, Lisa Greim, and Sam Patterson, were some of the first people I recognized. I also had the pleasure of meeting other Wilkes students and alumni, from both the Mesa Weekender and previous graduating classes. We were in business.

My job was simple: man the booth, sell books, talk about the program, answer any questions about Etruscan, and make sure everyone showed up for their assigned shift. Luckily for me, the Etruscan/Wilkes booth was situated on a high-traffic corner of the Bookfair, which meant that none of us were able to stay still. Throughout the first day we sold books, shared our Wilkes experiences with booth visitors, and recruited members for the co-sponsored Wilkes and Etruscan event: The AWP Old School Slam. By the end of the first day I was exhausted and a little unsure of what happened, but we added names to both our Wilkes recruitment and Old School Slam lists. That evening, most of us dined together at Smash Burger before gearing up for the Old School Slam.

As an added bonus, Etruscan was sponsoring a book contest for the slam winners, and for a randomly drawn name from our Twitter feed. That first night, the slam was small, but that didn’t stop the Wilkes group from working together to put on an event. Host Jeremiah Blue slammed, and Spencer Aubrey, Luke Morris, and one of my cohort members, Chris Owens, took the stage. I even made it behind the microphone for a quick non-fiction piece to keep the momentum going. Even though the slam was small, we still had a blast, making it a night to remember, but also demonstrating the Wilkes community spirit that we all know and love.

The following day, AWP was in full swing. I had the pleasure of hosting authors for book signings throughout the day, and got to spend one on one time with some Etruscans: Renee D’Aoust, David Lazar, Bruce Bond, Laurie Jean Cannady, and Tim Seibles. It’s so unbelievably humbling to work closely with authors, because behind the pen, they are real people. It was also wonderful to put some names to faces. However, Bruce Bond probably experienced the biggest splash of adventure during AWP. He sat down for his reading, and soon after, the aisle in front of our booth was full of poets. The Black Poets Speak initiative began without many of us noticing, as most protests do. There were a few people, but the motion grew, and it soon swelled, blocking off the entrance and exit of our booth, and completely engulfing the front of it. The movement was powerful, and included a tribute to every African American man or woman who lost their life in the last two years, as well as embodied a true demonstration of free speech—and the power behind our words.

Needless to say, the protest wasn’t a quick one. It consumed all of Bruce Bond’s hour in the booth, blocking the display of his books, and filling the aisle with poems, tributes, and passion. Lesser artists might have been upset; not at the movement, but at the fact that it was blocking the entire booth, sealing them off from any publicity. However, Bond wasn’t phased in the least. During this hour, he took the time to personally discuss poetry with one of our students, coaching and guiding him for the good part of the hour. This movement brought much-needed awareness to the AWP Bookfair, but also demonstrated the importance of giving back; Bond flawlessly shifted from the role of author to mentor.

As the second day of AWP winded down, we again dined together, and headed to the convention center for the last night of The Old School Slam. We had publicized the event well enough that attendees from Oregon, Miami, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and even Ireland took the stage. The slam was inspiring, including performances that touched on culture, government, and gender roles. Boston, Mass. represented the slam well, with one of the contestants, Lyra, taking home the gold. By gold, I mean an Etruscan Press prize bag, filled with three books of her choice.

The third day of AWP was filled with panels from our talented Etruscans, book signings, and workshops. As the day came to a close and we packed up the booth, we left AWP as a group of people who had bonded so fiercely that cohort numbers just fell away, leaving us as one single Wilkes group, regardless of what level we were in the program.

The final evening of AWP, we met for dinner at a Mexican restaurant down the street. It was bittersweet, because most of us wouldn’t see each other again until residency, but our mini-reunion came to a close—but not until we danced the night away at an AWP sponsored party. I must say, the Wilkes community has some pretty sick dance moves.

The following morning, as the last of the bunch was heading to the airport, or stuffing bags of books in their cars, I was packing too. My version of packing is shoving as much stuff into one bag and sitting on it, but I had no weight requirements. Instead of making the long trek back to Newark, I had the pleasure of staying in L.A. for three more days. Luckily for me, I have a boss who encourages adventure, so I was able to call a friend and ask to borrow her couch for a few days. Throughout my few extra days in L.A. I did the quintessential tourist things.

I ate a disgusting, greasy meal at In-N-Out, I took tons of pictures of palm trees and sent them to everyone who was freezing back home, traipsed through Venice Beach, buying souvenirs and watching the skateboarders weave in and out of the bowl at the skate park, and I visited the Santa Monica Pier—which by the way, totally actually looks like Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland. I spent all my money and took more pictures than I know what to do with. I even convinced my friend Yzzy to hike to the Hollywood sign with me—on an 81-degree day in April, while it was snowing in Wilkes-Barre. As I was melting behind the Hollywood sign, I stared out over Los Angeles, and soaked in the wonderful view.

Without Wilkes, I might not have taken an adventure to California. I probably would have been too scared, and too anxious to take the trip without a little push from Bill. I might have always wondered about the City of Angels, and now I know it’s no place for me.

Taking this trip reminded me that adventure is, indeed, out there only if you’re willing to look.

Danie Watson is pursuing her M.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. She has no idea what she wants to do when she grows up, and currently resides in Nanticoke, PA, with her dually named boyfriend and her two cats with nerdy names, Optimus Prime and Albus Dumbledore.

Is a Ph.D. Worth It after the M.F.A.?

April 27, 2016 by

When I was an undergraduate student, one of my best friends predicted I would ultimately complete my Ph.D. I scoffed at the idea. At the time, I wasn’t committed to the idea of spending additional years continuing my education, especially as tuition kept rising nationwide. Besides, as a comparative literature major, I already had enough of the lit theory classes and hour-long debates with classmates over certain texts. My goal was to work as a full-time news reporter, and for a few years, I did just that. However, as newspaper circulation kept shrinking and I saw no future for myself in the industry, I eventually went back to school, first to complete my M.F.A. at Wilkes University and then to complete my Ph.D. at Binghamton University. Both were accomplishments I don’t regret, and in a flooded academic job market, the M.F.A. coupled with the Ph.D. is a wise decision for anyone serious about working in higher ed.

Near the end of my career as an M.F.A. student, I worked part-time at a number of schools in the Scranton area, teaching composition, literature, and creative writing. In time, one of those schools had a tenure-track opening, and I was encouraged to apply. However, it was made clear to me a Ph.D. would be necessary and the sooner I enrolled in a program, the better. Due to my location, my options were limited. Lehigh University and Binghamton University were my only options. Ultimately, I chose Binghamton University. It is much more affordable than Lehigh, and I was more familiar with the faculty which included poets Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Joe Weil, whose working-class narratives resonated with me as a reader and poet. I also respected the school’s history of poetry faculty such as Ruth Stone and Galway Kinnell, among others. In addition, several of the Wilkes’ M.F.A. faculty, including Bonnie Culver, Christine Gelineau, Phil Brady, and Nancy McKinley, are all Binghamton alums. In that regard, Binghamton felt more comfortable.

The first semester as a Ph.D. student was grueling. I taught at a number of universities to pay my bills, had stacks of papers to grade weekly, and had to read 300 pages a week, at least, and write 20-page papers. My classes included “That Old Shakespearean Rag,” an intense look at the American Modernists, and a language theory class entitled “Metaphor.” Even though I now have a Ph.D. next to my name, I’m still not certain I could explain George Lakoff’s theories on brain mappings and language structure.

About halfway through my first semester, I learned I did not get the job I applied for at a local college. I remember the blustery March day when I received the news. I had just pulled into one of Binghamton’s parking lots, and after the phone call, my hands clenched around the steering wheel until my fingernails dug into my palms. I skipped the Metaphor class that Friday afternoon, and it was the only class in the history of my graduate work that I skipped. I still feel guilty about it, but I had to figure out my life, yet again. Instead of quitting the Ph.D. program, however, I plowed forward, determined to finish the degree as a personal goal, but also because I realized an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. made me more marketable. I would do what I had to do to escape adjunct limbo.

Ultimately, I landed a tenure-track job as an English professor at Lackawanna College, and considering the job market, I feel fortunate to work at there, especially as we continue to grow and expand. I am certain the M.F.A. and Ph.D. made me more desirable to the hiring committee, just as I am certain the intensity of the M.F.A. program, including the lengthy reading lists and writing discipline, prepared me for the rigor of doctoral work.

All of this said, completing a Ph.D. after the M.F.A. does not guarantee you a full-time, tenure-track job, at least not immediately. GOP-controlled legislatures across the country have slashed education funding, and this has had a profound impact on higher ed. Google what has happened to colleges across Pennsylvania, especially the state institutions, as well as in Wisconsin, and more recently, in Illinois. Furthermore, the market is flooded with applicants, and there are few tenure-track positions available. According to Inside Higher Ed, in the 2007-2008 academic year, there were 1,680 tenure-track positions nationwide for English professors. By the 2013-2014 year, that number shrank to 1,046. That same year, there were only 112 tenure-track positions for creative writing professors, according to the AWP job list. That said, a hiring committee is more likely to at least interview a candidate with an M.F.A. and Ph.D. In fact, several of my colleagues at Binghamton also have M.F.As, and most of them landed full-time positions after finishing the Ph.D., though they did move across the country.

Consider, too, what most colleges and universities are seeking. Several professors, myself included, don’t just teach creative writing or literature and both the M.F.A. and Ph.D. allows an educator to teach both subjects. Though my background is in writing, I primarily teach literature, including African American Literature, Women’s Literature, and Survey of American Literature. The Ph.D. in English prepared me for this. I have found ways to weave creative writing exercises into those classes, such as re-writing a story, journaling, mirroring a poem, and other various creative writing prompts to enhance the students’ comprehension of the literature. It is also possible to find a Ph.D. program that offers a degree in English with the option for a creative dissertation. Binghamton is one such school, but there are others. My dissertation was a full-length book of poems entitled Waiting for the Dead to Speak, which will be published this fall by NYQ Books. The dissertation defense was fours hour long, and during it, I discussed poetic theories and writers who have influenced my work. I also addressed my three field exams, which focused on Modernism, 20th Century narrative poetry, and African American Literature.

If you are considering a Ph.D., do your research. See how much funding is given to teaching or research assistants. Also understand Ph.D. coursework is much different than M.F.A. coursework and features more theory and literature-based courses, so some background in these areas will be necessary prior to entering the program, even for the GED literature tests, which feature everything from Chaucer, to Faulkner, to the post-structuralists. Now that I am finished with my Ph.D, I know I made the right decision. I’m also certain the time and energy I spent completing my M.F.A. prepared me for the following years I would spend enrolled at Binghamton University.

Fanelli_Brian - 2016

Brian Fanelli is the author of two books of poems, the chapbook, Front Man (Big Table Publishing), and the full-length All That Remains (Unbound Content). His third book, Waiting for the Dead to Speak, will be published in the fall by NYQ Books. His poetry, essays, and book reviews have been published by The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, The Paterson Literary Review, Blue Collar Review, Main Street Rag, Chiron Review, Kentucky Review, [PANK], and elsewhere. He is a two-time Pushcart nominee and a finalist for the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize. In addition, he is a contributing editor for Poets’ Quarterly. He is a professor of English at Lackawanna College and holds an M.F.A. from Wilkes University and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. 

Finding a Creative Community: How Wilkes Helped Me Find My Muse

March 29, 2016 by

Having no outlet for your creativity is like sprinting in a marathon but never, ever moving from the starting line. Being a black Muslim female, afro-futuristic/Sci-Fi writer living in Detroit with no creative platform or community was hell. Sometimes, I think back to that time, just a few years ago, when I was that tormented artist. A confused artist who had nowhere to turn with three unsuccessful full-length novels under her belt that had been rejected over a hundred times each. Although I’m still not a published novelist, I’m not so much haunted by that fact as I was prior to Wilkes University. This change of heart may seem like a small feat to some, but it’s the largest accomplishment that I’ve come by in a long while.

Detroit is a working and industrious city. I mean, our nickname is the Motor City, home of Ford! A decade ago, we weren’t known for best-selling novelists or creative writers like those successful individuals in New York or LA. We made cars and had a booming medical industry. In my family, those were the two fields that everyone entered: cars or sick people. You followed the trend. You followed the money. You didn’t follow instinct or your artistic gut. You stifled those feelings and didn’t look back. I found out that this was the biggest mistake of my life: listening to people who clearly had no clue who I was or who I could become.  

I began writing at the age of seven. My first story was entitled “King and Queen.” Mom helped me print it out, fold the dollar store paper into pamphlet form and send it off to the first contest I ever entered: The Reading Rainbow contest with my idol, Levar Burton. I didn’t win, but (in my seven-year-old mind) Levar sent me a heartfelt (OK, generic) letter letting me know that I didn’t make the cut. Nevertheless, that was the beginning of my love for reading and writing.

I was homeschooled during the day. In the afternoon, before the public school kids got out of class, I’d ride my bike up to the library and read by myself. I wrote stories alone as well. I explored this world unaccompanied, and somehow concluded that most writers were loners anyway and didn’t need others to validate what they wrote or created. It was perfect for me. So, at seventeen, I started writing my own book with characters who looked like me and who were kick-ass. I’d be the first black teen to have broken down the barriers into the not-very-diverse writing world. I would no longer be ignored! I was hopeful, cocky, ignorant, and triumphant. No one could stop me…

But the agents, they stopped me right at the door. Rejection letter. Rejection email. Oh, and another rejection with a slice of rejection on the side. I cried and asked myself what I was doing wrong. Was my story not white enough for them? I mean, yeah, the main character was black but she was so cool. Why didn’t they just see that and give me the damn contract already? I couldn’t come to a legit conclusion, so I did what I have regretted ever since: I belittled myself. I remember walking down the campus sidewalk, moping from reading more rejection letters. I asked myself, who looked like me on the best-seller’s list? Had you ever seen someone so fat, and black, and Muslim on the list before? In YA? I answered my own questions, each with a ‘no.’ That day, I stopped writing completely and did not look back for six years.

Six miserable years. I graduated with a funky degree in business that I had no interest in. I worked menial jobs in the medical field that I had no emotion for. I got married very early and dealt with family issues. I was angry, ready to fight anyone who wanted to get some. Something inside of me wanted out, but I kept beating it back.

One day, I completely failed at life. Every aspect was shot to hell. I wasn’t dirt; I was beneath dirt. I was an empty carcass shrouded with depression and guilt. I was educated and unemployed. I was married, but then I wasn’t. I once had friends, but they were now ghosts. The only thing left were my tears, an empty stomach, and the clothes on my back. After considering an admittance to the county psych ward, I got myself some mental. I went to a therapist twice a week. She told me look at pretty things, eat fruit, and drink water. We started with small steps.    

Slowly, I began to see that sliver of light in a room seeping with blackness.

I started applying for jobs in order to get myself together. I felt a little normal again. I managed to land an interview. On the way there, I got to thinking. I asked myself: what makes you happy? What would you do for free for the rest of your life? My response was swift: writing. Stories made me happy. At that moment, a light flipped on in my head. Why had I stopped writing? Why would I ever do such a thing? Abandon a piece of myself? I promised myself then that I’d never, ever stop writing again. And I never have. It’s been over six years now, and I am still on the couch writing, everyday.

I was hungry for knowledge after that. I paid for creative writing classes and ordered all the books on editing. I even joined a few online communities for writers. I wrote two more novels and tried to get them published separately, but nothing stuck. The agents weren’t listening. Something was wrong with me, I thought. I was doing all the right things and still, nothing happened.

One of my eccentric writing professors told me about an MFA program he graduated from in Vermont. I didn’t have the money to go back to school, and I had a full-time job so I thought it’d never happen. Two more years passed and I couldn’t find any quality writing groups in Detroit so I began to look into MFA programs. I had no idea how I’d pay for it or how I’d go out of town every six months, but it was worth a try.

Eastern Michigan was the first school I applied to, and I was rejected from their creative writing program. It crushed me. But if there was a will, then there was a way. I researched some low-residency programs out of state. It was my last chance. I chose three colleges; Wilkes was one of them. I called all three. Left messages for two of them, but Wilkes was the only one to respond. I spoke to the Wilkes representative for almost an hour. She was gracious, truthful, and patiently answered my questions about campus diversity and anything else I wanted to know. I felt scared but good. I applied to Wilkes. Expecting a rejection letter, I was excited and surprised to learn I had been accepted.

There was no turning back. I knew Wilkes University had a high rate of Caucasian students and staff, which concerned me. I was from Detroit and when a large group of white people congregated, I raised an eyebrow. To my surprise, I clicked with my cohort and staff immediately. I’d never felt so connected to complete strangers before. My work didn’t offend them, they gave constructive feedback, and above all they motivated me to do better, to keep writing and never stop. Why? Because they wouldn’t allow it, even if I tried.

I returned home from my first residency at Wilkes, ready to be first on the best-seller’s list. I’d finally found a home, a community, and that encouraged me to reopen my creative outlets.

Just a few months into the first semester, I was injured badly at work. Nearly incapacitated and going through extensive physical therapy, I still had work that needed to be done. I sat in bed, miserable, angry at my job for allowing me to be hurt and pushing off the blame. One morning, the sun shone into my bedroom. My body hurt, but the sun was glimmering and bright. I pondered my writing and how it could get me through this tough time. I connected two interests: my creative writing program and my fashion sense. Why not combine the two and start a fashion blog!

It was totally spur of the moment and not well thought out. All I knew was that I’d be able to flex my writing muscle while off work. So that’s what I did. I started a plus-size style blog called Beauty and the Muse, and I’ve been blogging for about three years now.

Before I applied to Wilkes, I researched numerous M.A./M.F.A. programs. Many of the articles were quite negative. They said that all you could do with a graduate creative writing degree was be a soul-sucking teacher, although a few said to go for it. I usually rely on reviews, but somehow I took that leap of faith and felt that if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t then I’m out around thirty grand and a few years of my life.

I always tell people that the experiences I had, and still have, at Wilkes surpass all the money that I paid to go there. There is no monetary value on experiences, quality education, and the bonds developed between cohort members. I would never have had the courage to continue developing my craft if it weren’t for my cohort checking up on me or my mentor reminding me that, “it’s a process.” I would never have had the courage to open myself up to different people, toss away the shield I’d built, and cultivate meaningful relationships with other creative individuals. I can’t count how many doors have opened up for me since attending Wilkes.

When I first started this essay, I talked about being a creative loner and how I thought that was the way to go in order to be successful. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In this writer’s life, there are many times when I just want to quit, stop the pain of editing and gruesome plot issues and critiques. But when there is a full and live community holding me up, pulling me along by my collar, or just holding my hand while inspiring me daily, I can’t see myself ever not strive for greatness.

I can now say that I have found my community. At Wilkes, I found the creative community that I searched for all those years. This community will never know in what ways they changed me, all for the better. I’ve read literature that I never would have read. I wrote creative non-fiction and delved into the great works of the past. I’ve acted out scenes in class and done yoga. I’ve pitched to agents from New York and danced the night away on campus. They will never know in what ways they have molded me into a fierce style blogger, a creative businesswoman, and a black Muslim writer who doesn’t hold back in her stories. I’ve made lasting connections and experienced things that I could never have dreamed.



Leah Vernon received her M.A./M.F.A. from Wilkes University. She is a fashion blogger, writer, and wardrobe stylist.

Visit her blog at beauty and the muse and on Instagram at Lvernon2000.

Door is a Jar Magazine: An Interview with Ahrend Torrey

February 22, 2016 by

In 2015, alums Maxwell Bauman and Ahrend Torrey came together to start a new literary magazine. The following is an interview with Ahrend, who explains the nature of Door is a Jar Magazine, and their expectations for the publication.

Where did the name come from? Why did you choose it?

Max and I brainstormed for a couple of weeks over names we thought were suitable. During one of our phone conferences, Max offered his ideas and I shared mine. Other magazines had already taken many of the names. Then, among the names that were left, there was Door is a Jar Magazine. Something about this name intrigued me. It connected me with my inner child. How much more connected can one be with the art of creativity, than to be connected with their inner child? Picasso once said: “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” I kept going back to this name, Door is a Jar Magazine, and asked Max what inspired it. He said, “I was laying on my bed thinking about possible names, and there was my door and a jar. So, I wrote it down.” I thought the manner of how this name came about was brilliant. It had no logical meaning at all; it was just a random creation. It made me think of that quote by Einstein: “Logic will take you from A to B, imagination will take you everywhere.” Although the name was random, I knew the subconscious was at work. In the instant that it gave me that fun, simple, intriguing, everyday kind of feeling, I knew it was to be the name of our magazine, and Max agreed.

What is your submission policy? How has it evolved from when you put it into place versus after experiencing the creation of the first issue?

Contributors send their work to our Gmail account. We look for short work that is accessible for all readers. Works that are confusing, abstract or unnecessarily fancy will not be considered; our editors stand firm against academic jigsaw puzzles. We want to publish work that anyone can relate to. One way that our submission policy has changed is that now it’s more specific. The more specific we are in the guidelines, the better chance we have at getting the work we desire, and in the right format.

What makes DIAJ stand out from other publications?

We don’t care about credentials or how widely one has been published, or how “smart” a work might appear. What we look for is accessible work that moves the reader. We publish work from high school students, who have never been published before, to Stanford professors. We are not afraid to step out of the norm. Even though we will always consider ourselves a literary magazine, we are not opposed to mingling with other art forms.

What (if any) of your own personalities have gone into DIAJ?

For me, it is the fun, colorful, simple, open aspect of the magazine. My philosophy: Why make things complex and serious; isn’t there enough of that in the world? Why not make it simple, fun and interesting?

Why did you make the effort to start this pub? When did the conversations start?

First, I wanted to build a community that I could be a part of. I wanted to interact with other writers about writing, and I wanted good work to read, so what better way than to be a part of a literary magazine. Second, I wanted to create a magazine that would give literature a better name among the everyday person. Growing up in the South, so many people do not understand the importance of literature, mostly because people think of it as too brainy and people are so busy that they don’t want to take the time to figure it out. DIAJ brings well-written, accessible literature to the busy people of the world, so they can sit, read, enjoy, then be on their way. After a desire to create a magazine, I sought to find a partner to help me make it happen.

Paint a picture of how you two developed this whole thing.

To make this simple: I had a desire to be more active in the literary community; I wanted to do something positive in the world; I wanted to give literature a better name among the common, everyday, nonacademic person. I sought for a partner that could help my vision come to life, and there he was at a reading at Wilkes: the delightful, silly, crazy, off-the-wall, Maxwell Bauman. I told him about my idea, and he said, “Let’s do it!” Two weeks later, it all began and it has been nonstop ever since. Every day we learn; every day we grow; every day DIAJ gets stronger and stronger. This has been the journey so far.

Why should the reader care about your publication?

The reader should care about DIAJ for several reasons. First, we publish quality writing, and second, we are open to everyone. Yes, we say it over and over again, that we don’t accept academic writing, but that doesn’t mean that we do not publish work from academics. There are a lot of academics published in our Fall Issue. It’s not about the credential or lack thereof, we look at the work. As long as a work does not send a hateful message into the world, and as long as it is accessible and not too lengthy, it will be considered. Also, we hope to get more involved in our local communities in the future. I’m brainstorming ways that we as a magazine can help make the world a better place. In my opinion, this is all something worth caring about.

What were your challenges?

The first challenge was finding a name. The second challenge was figuring out our editorial process, a process that we wanted easy for every editor, as well as us, being that everyone involved is volunteering. We didn’t want DIAJ to become overwhelming. Third, we struggled with finding quality advertising, and presenting our publication in a way that the advertisers felt we should (everyone has their own opinion). And lastly, getting the website exactly how we feel it should be. There are still many revisions and additions we want to make to the website, but getting everyone together in order to make this happen is somewhat of a challenge.

How did your staff come together?

We relied on connections that we had at Wilkes, then I relied on other connections that I had. We didn’t want to just involve Wilkes people; we wanted to extend out.

What is your end goal with the publication?

The end goal is to establish DIAJ as a well-known publication among everyone, academics and nonacademics alike. In the future we hope to succeed in a way that we can give back to the artists and writers who contribute, as well as to our local communities.

How are you getting the word of the publication out there?

We are advertising through publications such as NewPages and Poets & Writers, as well as our website and social media.

Were there any things that were surprisingly more difficult or easier than what you expected?

I try not to expect. Instead, I embrace the mystery, follow my passion, and enjoy the process.

What do you see for the pub’s future? I know you’re hoping to put it in print eventually…but anything else?

Yes, we hope to include other art forms within the magazine— music, dance, etc.!

You can read their first issue here: http://www.doorisajarmagazine.com/featured/ and find guidelines for submission here: http://www.doorisajarmagazine.com/submit/

AhrendTorreyAHREND TORREY is a poet and painter. Born in Mississippi, he received his bachelor’s degree in English Literature from William Carey University, and is a graduate of the Wilkes University M.A./M.F.A. Creative Writing Program in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is the Editor of Door is a Jar Magazine and finds inspiration painting and writing next to the Mississippi River in New Orleans, Louisiana. His work has appeared in publications online and in print.



Max BaumanMAXWELL BAUMAN is the Managing Editor/Co-founder of Door Is A Jar Magazine. He received his M.A. and M.F.A. in creative writing from Wilkes University. He loves making art with Legos and currently lives in Marion, South Carolina.

Nancy McKinley Threw Me Out Into the Street in 2008

February 3, 2016 by

Nancy McKinley threw me out into the street in 2008

I’m armed the first day of the 501 residency with only a note pad and pen. Nancy McKinley sends me out and tells me to write everything I can about downtown Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for two hours. This first step in me becoming a published author (under my blessed mother’s maiden name) didn’t take that long.

One note in the exercise took me to a big red church on River Street. It featured a broken walkway I navigated to read front-door signage promising, “Always Open for Prayer and Forgiveness,” only to find it locked. Another note described the shallow Susquehanna River impersonating a rock wall climbing exhibit that was horizontal for the summer and decorated with Ronald McDonald escape pods.

The best note of all was the giant Chamber of Commerce-sponsored word cloud on the window of an empty store front at the corner of Main and Northampton – “DO OR DO NOT, THERE IS NO TRY (signed) … YODA.” Within days of these notes spilling from pen to paper, Wavy Ray Beck, a NHL veteran hockey player sent down to the AHL-level Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and his naughty, fun-romping detective Monica Reedy were born.

Some scene.

Two fire trucks with full lights. Monica soon learned the ambulance carting the victim had just left. She could only question Brubaker and Horton, the first uniforms responding to the call of yet another downtown Wilkes-Barre empty-store window being broken. The first one where the bad guys had used a bomb and claimed an innocent life.

“Who was he?” Monica had been on the case for over a week and had zip.

“One of our Penguin hockey players. A guy Pittsburgh just sent down yesterday named Ray Beck.” Horton handed her today’s Sports section.

Monica spread the newspaper and there he was, below the fold. In ten seconds she learned he was here to rehab from groin surgery and that he was gorgeous. His long blonde hair framed high cheekbones supporting eyes of mischief. She looked forward to seeing more of that face and hoped it was still intact.

The book flap reads:

“Detective Monica Reedy’s search for a downtown window smasher, and the reason behind a gruesome calling card, expands to the smashing of both a technologically enterprising car-theft ring and an old-fashioned gambling ring, both orchestrated by a decades-old crime family rooted in the former USSR state of Georgia.”

“A romantic caper with real mystery, history, danger, and chaos, Monica’s pursuits also include her personal chase for Ray, the witty man-child pro athlete with both untamed courage plus uncanny detective skills shrouded in hockey talk.”

“Damn you, Ray Beck, you’re an auxiliary policeman. You can only do crowd control for chrissake! Put the gun down.”

Wavy Ray Beck and his cop doll were born for real when Blue Lines Up In Arms joined literary history via Sunbury Press on October 13, 2015. This event should give every MA Creative Writing grad hope.

I spent the fall 2008 semester learning playwriting and how to write dialogue from beloved Jean Klein—and teaching ancient history to 7th grade weasers at Ephrata Middle School. (I’m teaching you “ancient man” because I am one! Don’t argue with me, I was there!) Jean decreed that I had the ability to make characters sound different from each other. Because of Jean’s encouragement, I continue to be an active playwright with the Lancaster, PA, Dramatists Platform.

Equally beloved Nina Soloman undertook the task of channeling my sarcastic wit into readable prose while I tried to share in her success by reminding her we were both writing hockey-flavored fiction.

She was followed by John Bowers, a treasure, who tried to understand why I was going to author Blue Lines and Old Money as my capstone project. I explained it was a sequel to the first book I had already penned. My plan: I could easily revise that maiden effort based on all I would learn from him and end up with a two-book query to agents waiting in line to rep them both. (Yeah, right!). I cherish John’s continued encouragement, “There’s just something about Monica and Ray,” even though agents did not line up to share both his and my enthusiasm for this unusual and engaging pair of crime fighters.

During my exit interview in 2010, I told Dr. Culver, “This program is so damn good I can’t believe you let me in it!” We’ve since shared knee-replacement memories as I consistently attended residency after-parties to “breathe the air” and renew my writing spirit. Wilkes had taught me everything I needed to know and I was humbled every year to visit and deliver the mea culpa to Dr. Lennon, “I haven’t yet made you proud.”

I had to take heart that I was at least being rejected by a better class of agents and that so many of my Wilkes cohorts were still both Facebook friends and actively on my side. Eventually I started to inquire directly to indie publishers.

My 0-for-5-years were also spent working with a slew of beta readers and listening to them. And revising. And revising. And revising. Sort of like taking out your own appendix. My novel was too long, had too many characters, and needed more hard-boiled action. And I HAD to be better at past imperfect verb tense.

Eventually I befriended an indie-published crime fiction writer who told me to revise the beginning by starting on page 10 (see above), which turned my main characters completely around and made Detective Monica Reedy the lead and Ray the acquired partner in love and war.

And it made my work better, even though that indie finally passed on it.

At end, the secret is not a secret at all. Keep believing in what you write and how you write… your ‘voice.’ Writing fiction is a fun adventure each time I call upon the muse and should be for you, too, or please stop. I kept the faith that someone would find me as fun a read as I find me. You should keep that faith, too.

And now someone has.

Sunbury Press introduced Blue Lines Up In Arms October 13, 2015.

Jim Craig/James Craig Atchison


James Craig Atchison is a recovering advertising man who found the giver within while teaching English and Social Studies in public school, and earning both M.Ed. and M.A. Creative Writing degrees from Wilkes. Combining his love for crime fiction as well as the sport of ice hockey, Blue Lines Up In Arms represents his maiden effort in a planned Blue Lines series. He lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.


Passion in Provincetown

December 18, 2015 by

Passion in Provincetown

When one hears the word “passion,” one usually thinks of romance, of people so in love they can’t keep their hands off each other. For me, the word took on a different meaning a few years ago when I was in the midst of a huge life change. “Passion” for me meant to be so in love with what I was doing in my life that I looked forward to waking up every morning and getting the day started. “Passion” became my personal key word. I’ve discovered that when you are surrounded by people who share a passion, you are never alone. I was able to experience this in a different way at the Norman Mailer Society Conference in Provincetown, Massachusetts the first weekend in October.

I am not a Mailer scholar. I’m familiar with his works and his legacy, but I’ve never studied him closely. I was invited because the Wilkes Readers Theatre Group needed more female readers for the marathon reading of Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance. I jumped at the chance, having no idea what a staged reading was and not having read the book. The Wilkes Creative Writing program had been reading at every Mailer conference since the Society first read in P’town, and Mailer was the program’s first Advisory Board member; hence the connection.

Closer to the date I started to panic a little—what if I had to act, and worse, act in front of people? But no, it was just as it sounded. I would play a few minor roles in the book and read those character’s lines out loud and, in return, I could enjoy the panels at the conference and P’town itself.

Riding into Provincetown on Wednesday night, I was afforded none of the stunning views of the ocean or bay that others enjoy when they descend onto the Cape. I eagerly stuck my head between the driver and passenger, but only saw the wet swipes of the wipers and the lights of the places we passed. So be it—just being there was a treat, and I looked forward to everything about this weekend—the reading I was involved in, meeting others in the Society, spending a few nights on the bayside of the town in a creaky, leaky inn room with thin walls.

Breakwater and lighthouseStepping into the inn’s bar later that evening, I assumed the majority of the men and women milling about were there for another event. My assumption was proved wrong quickly when I noticed almost everyone had the same name tag hanging from their necks, and I realized we were all there for the conference. Familiar faces dotted the crowd—Dr. Lennon, Ross Klavan, Ken Vose, and, of course, the Wilkes people I had come with: Dr. Culver, Bill Schneider, and Jan Quackenbush. Soon I would run into others from the program—Carol Lavalle, Richard Preibe, Nicole DePolo, Matthew Hinton, Patricia Florio, and Shawn Hattan. At the same time, however, I was fascinated at meeting others involved in the society and learning where their interests in Mailer lay.

Thursday and Friday were busy because our staged readings were taking place over these two days. Directed by Ken Vose, the novel’s main character was given life, read by (in order of the readings) by Ross Klavan, Matthew Hinton, and John Buffalo Mailer. The readings were marathons—each taking at least three or four hours—and were split into three sessions. The first was filmed at the Provincetown Inn, the second at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, and the last at the Provincetown Public Library. On Thursday, after our morning reading, Interim Associate Director Bill Schneider took me into the town—he lived there previously for ten years—to show me the hot spots. Pulling up to Norman Mailer’s former home, we noticed the “for sale” sign was still up—although designer Diane von Furstenberg’s daughter, Tatiana, had purchased it earlier in the summer. Surrounded by hedges, the house is well hidden so when Bill and I stepped up to take a few photos, we were astounded to see thPtown_MailerHouse_Mee front door was wide open—and we could see Cape Cod Bay out the window on the wall opposite the door! Renovations were still taking place at the time, and a workman simply nodded at us as we gaped from the front steps. We didn’t go any further, but I’ll be honest—I wish I had stepped into the home. The weight of its history pressed on my mind and I imagined Mailer and his family running in and out of the house, enjoying holidays and the off-season. We later drove to the cemetery where Norman and Norris Church Mailer are buried, and it felt full-circle to me. That this titan of literature found solace on this thin strip of land—and now resides there forever—makes the place special.  That the Society returned this year for the conference was bittersweet.

The conference itself took place Thursday through Saturday, and was filled with various panels and presentations. Richard Priebe, Wilkes alum, presented his piece, “The Evolution of Mailer’s God,” while Wilkes alum Nicole DePolo presented hers, “’The Turd’: Norman Mailer and the Pollution of Language.” While I was busy in the staged reading as these papers were presented, I was able to chat with Richard and Nicole at different times throughout the weekend, and I was reminded of my own love—passion, if you will—of writing critical analysis papers. Everywhere I went during the conference’s three days, I found myself talking to other Society members, fascinated and captivated by Mailer’s work.

I was finished with the last reading on Friday fairly early, as my role only had a few lines in the first chapter of that session. I took the opportunity to explore Provincetown on my own—in the pouring rain, I might add—so there was hardly another soul out on the streets. Traipsing down Commercial Street, I passed a sign for Coastline Tattoo and redirected my steps to their small studio in an alley. After speaking to the receptionist for a few minutes and paging through some books, I scheduled an appointment for the following afternoon—at 3 p.m.

The tattoo didn’t take long—less than half an hour—to get. I’d had the idea for a few years, but hadn’t done it. I’m glad I waited, as the finished product is exactly what I wanted and getting it in Provincetown over this special weekend makes it more meaningful. It’s simple—the word “passion” in American Typewriter font—with a watercolor smear of five colors in the background, on my left wrist. It’s not just my own passion I’m celebrating with this tattoo, but the passion of others. The untapped excitement with which we approach a creative project, the feeling we get when we hit on that creative sweet spot, or even just the reminder that that well of passion still resides within. On the dark days, the rainy days, the days I struggle to see the reason to get out of bed, I have a little reminder always by my side that the passion may be stilled within me, but it is nevertheless there. Just as the passion to keep Norman Mailer’s name and legacy in the forefront of American literature spurs the Norman Mailer Society to continue their work with yearly conferences like this one. They may not make it back to Provincetown for a few years, but the heart of the Society resides there, just as Mailer himself still does.

DalPassionTate Louise Mervine has worn many hats: gas station attendant, group sales cashier, typesetter, marketing and research coordinator, teacher, photography assistant, delivery person, office decorator, and [unwilling] salesperson. She currently owns her own business but isn’t exactly sure what to do with it. She lives in York, PA, with eight cats (yes, EIGHT), and her pet skunk (yes, he’s descented).

Freelance on Fleek: Copywriting for the Unglamourous

November 20, 2015 by

I heard the knock at my front door. The kids were just settled in for naptime, and I looked forward to taking advantage of the newfound calm that silenced my home. I cautiously open the door, as I’m new to the Midwest and not yet used to the concept of door-to-door sales still existing. I still have East Coast paranoia, thinking people only knock on other’s doors for nefarious reasons.

“Can I help you?” I ask.

He’s wearing a pair of khaki dress pants, a white shirt and a tie. He means business. “I’m so sorry. Did I wake you?”

It was two o’clock in the afternoon. That was the moment I realized I was officially a freelancer. I think I’d actually changed out of my pajamas that day, too, and there’s a 50% chance I wore a bra.

Any parent will say there’s nothing glamorous about living with toddlers – they’re messy, sticky, loud, smelly, and needy. Combine that with long days in front of various computers scattered around the house, four cats, and a diagnosed compulsive disorder triggered by chaos; I’m lucky just to make it into bed at night.

However, I love the life I’ve created. I won’t tell you it’s fashionable, and I’ll never tell you it’s easy, but it is rewarding. I’m a full-time mom of two and a freelance copywriter, social media manager, and marketing writer. Two days before my 501 residency, I walked out of the retail pharmacy where I was a manager for over ten years, and decided I was going to change careers.

I went into the freelancing world completely blind. My husband’s job relocated to Indiana, where I had no family or friends. After a few months in our new home in the Midwest, I wanted to find a way to work from home while being able to set my own schedule. That desire led me to freelance writing, where I learned that it would take three key elements to be successful: Focus, Clients, and Balance.


In January of 2014, I created my own website, relying on my husband’s skills in web development to simplify the process. After that, I generated a “work-specific” email account to keep all the job requests separated from my regular inbox, and then I turned to social media. Literally. I think two days passed before I realized I was distracted by Facebook. Three swooning couples had gotten engaged, two high school acquaintances had babies, two more were now pregnant, seven foodies were stuffing their faces with Instagram-worthy cuisine, and four gym-bound friends proved, that, yes, they ”even lift, bro.” I hadn’t done anything other than stare at the timeline.

If I wanted this freelancing thing to work, I had to do the unthinkable as a writer: FOCUS. With so many time-sucks, from social media and gossip blogs to television and even books, finding time to work was going to be essential. So I had to make sure that whatever free time I found, I spent it focused on the task at hand.

It’s important to note that I use the term “focus” loosely. My motivation to write 500 words is that I allow myself to play a level of Pet Rescue Saga, or spend five minutes reading Buzzfeed lists. I mean, how else can you get through the day without seeing 10 Cats Who Are Better At Life Than You? You’d also be surprised how much you actually want to do laundry when you’re trying to procrastinate.

While I’m easily distracted, I can stay disciplined when working under a deadline. The trick is finding unconventional opportunities to blend writing with other tasks. I travel from Indiana to Wilkes-Barre frequently, which is about nine hours. That’s time, as a passenger, I can focus on the laptop. If I could finagle my breast pump and all its wires, tubes, and accessories, into the seat of our Subaru, I certainly could turn it into a mobile office just as easily.


It may seem obvious, but the most important part of being a successful freelancer is the actual work. However, finding the work was not quite as apparent. This is where the whole endeavor becomes unglamorous.

After doing some research about freelancing sites, I created accounts on both Fiverr.com and Elance.com (which is now a part of the Upwork community). Within just a few days, things really took off on Fiverr. Here’s the catch though: I was offering 500 word SEO friendly articles for $5, of which, Fiverr takes 20%, meaning I made $4 for each article.

I was underselling myself, but we all have to start somewhere. I never actually expected it to take off, or to have more than 20 clients in two weeks wanting to give me money to pretend I knew about things like metal roofs, Formula One racing, and the Australian real estate market, none of which I had first-hand experience with.

I lowered my word count three months later, because it was getting difficult to manage all of the projects. And while I still only made $4 per article, it only took about 20 minutes to write each one, provided I stayed off Facebook and FOCUSED. In theory, I was earning $12 an hour, which I consider a win for not having to get dressed, or leave my house.

While it may seem like a lot of work for very little money to begin with, I’m glad I went through the service for a variety of reasons:

  • Protection. I wasn’t out there on my own trying to collect money and hoping these random people would pay me. The money was secured before I delivered my product.
  • SEO. Search Engine Optimization techniques are always being updated, thanks to the constantly changing algorithms from Google. Doing quick short articles on a variety of topics helped me hone my SEO skills and understand more about traffic, views, meta descriptions, subheadings and other techie mumbo jumbo. While it’s not necessary to know SEO to write a great article, it certainly helps and can give you an edge over the competition.
  • Portfolio. This is the big one. Because I had done these articles, I had something to show my skills when the heavy hitters came to bat. I built a portfolio of different types of writing, which demonstrated a range and ability to higher-paying potential clients.
  • Networking. Because I was delivering product to clients and they were satisfied, my confidence in my work grew. I knew that I was able to write an informative article and meet the customer’s specific requirements. I also felt more comfortable with the industry as a whole, and was able to communicate with clients in an efficient manner. This gave me the ability to take my portfolio and actively seek out new clients off the service.

Now that I’ve moved on from the “getting started” phase, I barely do any work on Fiverr anymore, and am working independently for a variety of different marketing firms and businesses, many whom I found through direct networking relationships. Basically, I knew someone who knew someone who needed work. I solicit business more openly now, because I have the confidence in my writing and am more comfortable with freelancing. I know my limitations and my timeframe for job completion. Now I meet a business owner with a flash heavy website that gives very little information for their customers, and I openly ask if they’ve ever thought about revising their current web copy. You’d be surprised how a simple conversation can score you a job when you freelance.


As I’m writing this, my almost 4-year-old daughter is styling my hair and applying pretend makeup to my face. I don’t really notice. I’m in the zone.

I’ve learned how to balance the many aspects of my life, in order to commit fully to each one. I’m a stay at home mom first and foremost, and while my heart will always lie with my children, my passion is with my writing.

Most of my freelance jobs aren’t very creative, but that doesn’t mean that my personal writing hasn’t benefitted. Writing is writing, and each word you put on the page is a conscious decision, whether you’re writing the next “Great American Novel” or an article that literally contains the phrase “if the bear starts to eat you.” That last one is a real quote from a commissioned article on bear attacks.

I write Every. Single. Day. I’m continuously thinking about words and sentences and brevity. I’m thinking of paragraphs and structure and properly communicating cohesive ideas. Whether I’m writing about collaborative consumption or the latest tax laws, I find a way to learn from every piece I turn in.

Finding the right balance between work and home when you work from home can take some getting used to. I set a goal each day of how many words or articles or pages of web copy I want to write, and then I figure out how I can separate that goal into smaller tasks that I can complete at various points throughout the day. I set my own schedule, although I don’t really work off my own time. Each day is different, because kids are different every day. For the most part, we stick to a routine, but some days we may want to cuddle and watch movies and I only write 500 words that day, and other days they play together without mom and I can complete a whole job and have time to work on my personal writing projects, even if it means I’m at my computer until midnight.

My days are hectic, and sometimes when I finally get to my upstairs computer, and hubby has taken over parenting for the day, I’m mentally exhausted. Even trying to write 100 words can feel like torture. I often have to remind myself that it’s okay to feel that way. The point is about being flexible, and being okay with whatever the day throws at me. Some days I exceed my goals, some days I just reach them, and there are other days where I accomplish very little. And that’s fine. I may need to let the laundry pile up for a day or two, or order take-out instead of a homemade dinner if I’m trying to meet a deadline. It’s all about creating the right balance.

“What? Wake me?” I ask the salesman standing on my chalk drawing covered porch. Just because my skin is pale from lack of vitamin D, I’ve been drinking from the same coffee mug for two days, my hair naturally grows into a messy bun now, and there are toys scattered all over my living room doesn’t mean I spend all day sleeping. “No. I’m a freelance writer.” I answer confidently.


Nichole KanneyNichole Kanney received her M.F.A. from Wilkes in June of 2015, and is actively engaged in screenwriting, football, and student loan repayment. You can find her writing and laughing in her own little world, comprised of the three important C’s: coffee, cats, and characters.

3 Bits of Wisdom About Producing a Writer’s Conference by Donna Talarico ’00 MFA ’10

October 22, 2015 by

HippoCamp-2015I’m a conference junkie. I have lots of notches in my conference bedpost, but over the past five years, my love for them has grown much deeper. Since 2010, I’ve attended almost 30 conferences and spoke at almost just as many. For me, events where likeminded people get together for a few days to learn and share are completely exhilarating experiences. I liken my favorite conference, HighEdWeb, to a creative writing residency: an intense few days where, around the clock, you’re with colleagues who turn into close friends over the course of just a few days. It’s also quite like summer camp. And if you attend annually, it’s a homecoming of sorts every single time.

So when I launched Hippocampus Magazine, a monthly creative nonfictional journal, a creative nonfiction conference was part of the plan, but it was part of Phase II. Our mission is to entertain, educate and engage readers and writers of creative nonfiction, and a conference would allow us to bring that vision to life, bringing something that resides on the Internet into real life.

At Year Five, I decided we were ready: we had credibility, we had a following. Planning began in August 2014, and August 7-9, 2015, we held our inaugural HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers in Lancaster, Pa. It attracted 140 writers from 19 states. It was, in my mind, a huge success. The energy from the conference lasted for weeks, as seen from hashtag activity and attendees blogging about their experience and cheering on new friends. That energy is still kind of there today, as of this writing almost three months later.

I took aspects of conferences I love—mostly in the technology and marketing/communications realm—and put our own spin on them. I’d like to share a few conference planning tips, which may be of interest to others planning writing (or any kind of) events or those who just want to be more involved as an attendee.

Keynote speaker Lee Gutkind presenting at HippoCamp 2015.

Keynote speaker Lee Gutkind presenting at HippoCamp 2015.

The Back Channel Matters; Nurture It

It’s a given these days that your conference should have a hashtag. But, aha! It’s what you do with that hashtag that’s a challenge for many conference planners. This fall, I went to two events that had hashtags, but the organizer’s official accounts were silent. And, barely anyone was tweeting. If you’re going to create a hashtag, here are two bits of advice:

1) As the organizer, use it. I repeat: use it. Attendees want to interact with you, so if the official account is not even using the hashtag, getting a conversation going will be slow-going. Also, get the folks behind the organization to use the hashtag, too. For example, I tweeted from the @hippocampusmag username, and then also from my own account, @donnatalarico.

2) Don’t set it and forget it. We had hundreds and hundreds of tweets because, for our conference, social media wasn’t passive. We encouraged people to tweet during announcements, and, of course, the hashtag was all over our printed materials, on the website and every email and social media post leading up to the event and in all follow-up communications. If you can’t hang with the hash, leave it off (but I strongly advise against that).

Finally, some people may be following along with the hashtag, even though they are not in attendance. Pay attention to them, wherever they are. Talk to them. Tweet them messages like, “Oh! We wish you were here!” Sometimes, through Twitter, people discover conferences from the hashtag while the conference is going on—and then they’ll sign up for your newsletter to get more information for next year. This happened to me; my friend Nikki was tweeting with #asja-something. I was like, “What is that?” And then I discovered an organization I hadn’t heard of: The American Society of Journalists and Authors. And ASJA has an annual conference in New York, and also regional events throughout the year. I wouldn’t have known about it had someone in my network not tweeted about it. I can say that #hippocamp15 got major traction. We made new friends, and I bet we’ll see some of them at HippoCamp 2016.

Money Matters; Watch It

It’s so cliché to say, “I was a communications major; I don’t DO math.” I even have an MBA! But I’m more of a words person. Your conference budget matters. On paper, we had a clear budget – this is what we spend on keynotes, this is what we spend on marketing, etc. However, this was the first year, so it was risky to guess what attendance might be, what a fair price might be based on that goal. When it was all said and done, everything worked out, but not without the need to put personal funds into the mix. Know that, just like in any business, the first year might not break even (that’s all I wanted to do with the conference; have it pay for itself). If your organization doesn’t have funds set aside for a large-scale event (we didn’t; who does?), be prepared to take out a loan or borrow from elsewhere, even to get you started. You will most definitely have expenses before tickets go on sale and conference revenue rolls in. For example, your location or keynote contract may require a deposit before registrations really kick in.

You want the conference to be a good value, but you also need to price it right so that, based on your attendance goal and expected costs, you can be sure to cover expenses. Pay close attention to the convention center contract to find those add-on fees so you aren’t surprised later, like a 21% service charge. So, say your food minimum is $10,000: you need to actually plan for $12,100 for your food line item. Make sense? Also, pay close attention to what your registration costs and how many discounted/free passes you give, especially if you’re financing this yourself. (This isn’t the equivalent of giving a friend a free meal, folks.) Factor discounts into your budget from the start, otherwise you’ll eat away at your bottom line. Don’t undersell yourself, either. In all, treat your conference as you would a business.

Atmosphere Matters; Create It

“This is the best conference food I ever had.”

I heard that statement dozens of times at HippoCamp 15. One of the things I’ve seen at other writing conferences, and even a few within my industry (marketing/communications), is that food is hard to come by. Even water. It was important for me to keep attendees fed and caffeinated. It makes a difference in attention span. Every session room had water glasses and chilled pitchers—we even got compliments about that. Many conferences, attendees buy their own drinks or fill up their own water bottles at fountains. HippoCamp also included most meals, except for a “dinner on your own,” which was deliberate, because it was a big deal for me to invite writers to my city, and this allowed people to get out on the town. Since the days were long, we had built-in snack and coffee breaks, too. Of course, all of this contributes to the ticket price, but think about it: if attendees needed to purchase meals elsewhere, they’d still be spending money beyond the registration price. Why not keep people on site and bonding with one another?

I started with food because I’m writing this post before lunch, but there’s more to the atmosphere than just an array of birch beer, Lebanon bologna, and cheese. What is the overall feel of the conference location? Is it cozy, colorful and comfortable? Or does it feel like you’re in a prison, with harsh, institutional lighting and rock hard seats? Don’t underestimate the importance of location and professionalism of presentation to the morale and spirit of your guests.

Also, don’t underestimate the value of leaving the logistics to the pros. Our conference venue was professional and offered a team of experts in executing a conference—we did not have to worry about a thing after we gave them our schedule, technology needs, attendee counts, and menu. Rooms were just set up. Food just showed up. If a room was too chilly, I just had to push a button on the Marriott’s Red Coat app, and someone took care of it. While it’s a bit more expensive to go to a conference center, it’s worth the stress-free experience for planners. I didn’t have to coordinate tech and an outside caterer or talk people into helping me set up 200 chairs (in five rooms!). Because of this attention to detail from the venue, the conference staff just focused on being part of the conference, being there with our attendees. You can piece-meal an event, or you can trust one provider with it all.

In Summary

There is so much I could say about planning a conference, but I wanted to focus on three areas I feel other conferences could improve upon or that might get overlooked by a new conference planner; after all, when it’s said and done, whether the logistics get screwy, attendees will overlook that if the caliber of content is high.

Our post-conference surveys were overwhelmingly positive. This is because we built a little community for these few days—actually, more than three days as it began months before the conference and, as I noted, lasted for months after. We put the attendee experience above everything. (We also had cookies and milk, so that helped!)

If you were at HippoCamp, you can attest at how seamless things went. But don’t let this fool you! Planning a writing conference—any conference—is grueling work and there are many moving parts, many minute details, and personal sacrifices (in time and money) that you’ll make. But, done right, man—you just might have a life-changing experience and, in turn, get to change others’ lives by what they take home from the conference.


Donna Talarico - HippoCamp15Donna Talarico is an independent content writer and social media/storytelling consultant

Founder/publisher of Hippocampus Magazine. She is a three-time Wilkes alumna and currently completing her M.A. in Creative Writing – Publishing.

Sam Chiarelli: A Dinosaur Safari

September 24, 2015 by

Writing is about overcoming obstacles: self-doubt, scheduling, silence. Creative nonfiction poses an additional challenge to its writer. You have to live what you write. While memoir forces an author to confront difficult internal circumstances, the science writing I wanted to pursue created external issues for me.

T. rex DMNS

When I began working on my M.A. thesis, I had no idea how much the CW program would influence my life. After ‘speed dating’ mentors, I walked to Kirby Hall with the creative nonfiction faculty. I was the only member of my cohort to choose CNF, so for the next hour, I had the nonfiction superstars all to myself.

Becky Bradway explained my project to the other faculty members. “Sam’s book is about dinosaurs,” she announced. “He’s drawing on his own obsession and knowledge to write about his childhood.” Becky coaxed the dinosaurs out of me during my first semester. I had no idea what I would write when I entered the program, but if writing what you know is a sound maxim, then dinosaurs seemed an appropriate choice.

That’s all I had then—a decision to write about dinosaurs. As the faculty posed questions to help me develop my manuscript, I realized I had no idea what I was doing or how to do it, whatever ‘it’ was. How would I structure the book? How would I use my own experiences? I struggled to answer these questions convincingly.

After listening to ten or fifteen minutes of discussion, Dr. Lennon intervened. “This is all well and good, Sam,” he said, “but you can’t write a book about dinosaurs sitting behind a desk. You have to go on a dig! You have to get out there and really do it.”

His words sliced through me. I was terrified by the weight of what he said because it was the truth. The truth resonates in your ears, and your heart, and your gut, whether you want to face it or not. I had a competing truth, however: anxiety. A paralyzing travel anxiety that had been growing and festering for years. I could feel its tentacles consuming me like the deadly embrace of a strangler fig.

The anxiety started—as you might expect—with dinosaurs. My parents spirited me to Disney World in 1996. I was ten years old, and as much as I loved everything Disney, I craved dinosaurs—specifically, the animatronic dinosaurs at the Universe of Energy pavilion at Epcot Center. Mickey could wait. We had to start with the dinosaurs.

I rushed past the dancing fountains and shimmering flower gardens toward the Universe of Energy building, its angled roof adorned with thousands of solar panels capturing the Florida sunshine. Upon arriving at its doors, my heart plummeted. A tiny notice delivered the bad news.


I’d come all this way and I’d be forced to settle for dinosaur-shaped shrubs outside the building. Topiary does not satisfy a ten-year-old’s lust for gigantic robotic monsters. My parents, with ‘we have to come all the way back here again, don’t we’ faces, pledged that we’d return some day to see the refurbished dinosaurs.

The second Disney trip took place three years later. I was suffering with a sinus infection, but neither headache, nor fever could deter me from the extinct giants. At Epcot, I found the Universe of Energy pavilion had been rebranded. Now, as Ellen’s Energy Adventure, the ride was upgraded to include an animatronic Ellen DeGeneres, with a mechanical Bill Nye the Science Guy thrown in as well. I don’t even remember them though. Sorry Disney.

I remember the brontosaurs—anatomically and behaviorally incorrect in just about every way, but breathtaking nevertheless. As I passed beneath the thunder lizards in a serenely cruising tramcar, the behemoths swung their serpentine necks towards me. Fronds of water plants dangled from their clumsy mouths. Overhead, the lights of artificial stars twinkled in the darkening sky. Rocky canyon walls faded into the painted horizon beyond. The last rays of a red sunset bloomed into the blackness, pierced by a shimmering crescent moon. It was a surreal prehistoric heaven.

Among the dinosaurs, time and place evaporated and I felt like I was actually riding through the Jurassic. As a boy, this was the only place I wanted to be–the American West, 150 million years ago, where colossal animals struggled to survive in a savage, yet beautiful world. Aesthetically, the scene referenced the animated Disney classic Fantasia, in which dinosaurs battle to the odd time signatures and violent percussion of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The connection to the film deepened as the ride turned a corner and I saw the plated Stegosaurus, my favorite dinosaur, and Allosaurus, a bloodthirsty, bipedal carnivore locked in a perpetual, mechanical struggle. My neck hairs stood on end. How I wished I could take a journey to the time of the dinosaurs. How I longed for a dinosaur safari.

By this time, other dinosaurs had made their way to Orlando. The new Animal Kingdom park opened with a ride called Countdown to Extinction, but I can’t remember much about it. Unlike the peaceful tram in Epcot, Countdown to Extinction thrashed me from side to side like a roller coaster. I spent much of the ride clutching the brim of my baseball cap, hoping it wouldn’t fall off and be lost forever in the Cretaceous period. The villain of the adventure was a large, razor-toothed predator that sported bony horns on its head—Carnotaurus, the meat-eating bull. I was more frightened of the way the ride jostled me in all directions. Carnotaurus was scary, but the rough treatment from the ride was worse.

A few days later, baseball cap intact, I boarded a plane bound for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport. During the ascent, the plane struck an air pocket, dropping a few dozen feet in a miniature free-fall. My hands turned white as I clenched the arms of my seat. I felt sick. My breaths came shallow and fast. Every one of my neurons fired danger. I felt like I was on Countdown to Extinction again, but this wasn’t a thrill ride. This was real. I felt the distance between my feet and the earth and imagined the air swirling around the plane’s fuselage. My brain couldn’t keep up with my thoughts. I wasn’t able to think or talk. The unfamiliar feeling of claustrophobia rippled through me. I couldn’t fight the fear. I could only endure it.

The plane landed safely in Pennsylvania, but could not pull up to the terminal. We landed in a raging winter storm. Several inches of snow had already fallen. As other travelers walked across the tarmac, cursing the blizzard and wishing for a return to Florida, I crouched down on all fours and kissed the sweet-smelling snow. I had no business being miles above the planet’s surface, I reasoned. I would never allow myself to feel that way again. More than a decade would pass before travel anxiety would revisit me.

In 2010, my then-girlfriend wanted to see a blues festival in Chicago. If there was time before the concert, we could visit Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History—a place rich in dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. I couldn’t wait.

My girlfriend’s parents drove the twelve-hour journey west to the Windy City. From the backseat, I eagerly awaited the transition from the forested hills of Pennsylvania to the Midwestern plains. But the flat Ohio farmlands bewitched me. After several hours of seeing nothing but cornfields in every direction, I felt a numbing fear coursing through my limbs. My feet moved involuntarily. I became frightened of the immense sky, the same enormity that nearly swallowed me as a child. The flight or fight response became my entire reality. I could not disengage the fear and it devoured me. I was pulled into shadows I didn’t know existed. My thoughts rushed so quickly that I felt dizzy. My vision spun. In my delirium, the clouds and the atmosphere dissolved, and I could see the distant stars. I felt like the Earth was crashing out of its orbit and beginning an endless fall.

A rest stop a few miles down the road allowed me to stretch my legs and put myself back in touch with the physical world. Recovery took time. I was far from home and every point of the horizon offered only more cornstalks. Worst of all, we had left late. There would be no dinosaurs on this trip.

I returned to Chicago only a few months later with some friends. I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t going to let feelings of discomfort rule my life. And although I did see the dinosaurs, I didn’t shake the anxiety. Each trip I took thereafter only made the worry stronger. No matter what I tried to do to alleviate the fear, it grew worse.

During that second trip to Chicago, I decided to return to my undergraduate alma mater to pursue a degree in creative writing. As I began to write my dinosaur-laden M.A. thesis, the anxiety developed still further. I could no longer bear to be on the highway for even a few miles between exits. My hands produced sweat at the thought of highway driving. I decided to avoid interstates altogether. Even the lengthy wait at red traffic lights began to affect me. My lungs would constrict. Every muscle in my body would tighten. I could not control my brain or my body.

My eighteen months as an M.A. student passed quickly, and I spent nearly all of my time assisting with the production of SenArt’s Kids for Cash film. I had very little time to write, and wasn’t pleased with what I’d produced for my thesis. However positive the encouragement I received, I knew I had a much better book in me.

I decided to take time off after graduating. I needed to learn how to write the book I wanted to create. I needed to figure out the form and structure of my manuscript. I wanted to put dinosaurs in a new context and produce something original.

I returned for the beginning of the M.F.A. program at the January 2015 residency. I’d never really left the program. I came to the readings at every residency during my sabbatical. I needed the biannual recharge that residency offered to focus on my project. And I wrote hundreds of pages about dinosaurs, throwing most of the digital words away. I experimented with structure and form, examined what worked and what didn’t, and kept going.

“Still working on the dinosaurs,” became an answer I was embarrassed to give during residency conversations. I felt it was turning into my ‘Gaza book’ and asked Jeff Talarigo how he finally found the way to tell his story.

“Just keep writing,” he said. “You’ll find it.”

Beverly Donofrio told me I needed to think more deeply about my subject matter.

“How do I go deeper?” I asked, laughing. “It’s about dinosaurs.”

“I don’t know,” Bev answered, “but you need to figure that out.”

When I returned as an M.F.A. student, I had found my voice and figured out how to go deeper. I came back with a structure—interviews with scientists, artists, and pop-culture figures about why dinosaurs are so popular. The book was taking shape and I knew I was ready to write it as I crisscrossed the northeast U.S., interviewing dinosaur experts and traveling into museum backrooms, offices, and basements.

But Mike Lennon’s words still reverberated in my ears. I couldn’t write a dinosaur book by sitting at home. For my book to be legitimate, I had to conquer my anxiety. I had to fulfill the dreams I had as a boy, to visit the American west, to see the fossilized dinosaurs in the lands they knew as home.

My mentor, Becky Bradway, lives in one of the most cherished paleontological areas in the world—Denver, Colorado. The rocks in the surrounding Rocky Mountain foothills, and in the deserts of western Colorado have captured the remains of the most famous Jurassic animals. These great creatures were first found in Becky’s proverbial backyard, and she invited me to visit her so I could finally see the remnants of the dinosaur world for myself.

I tried in 2012. I have railroading in my blood (my mother’s father was a flagman), and the first dinosaur hunters crossed the country by train. Since flying was out of the question, what better way to see the U.S. than through a coach window? But I wasn’t mentally prepared for the trip. The anxiety was waiting for me—waiting for the first cornfield or open sky. I was always worried about becoming worried. I could not escape the fear of going to that place where everything was out of control. I returned home after only reaching Pittsburgh. It was a sore defeat, and I had to tell everyone who was excited about my big trip that I wasn’t able to complete it.

But when I started the M.F.A., I knew I had to get myself to Colorado. My book just wouldn’t work without the material I’d get in the West. My M.F.A. paper research showed me that. But more than anything, I needed to prove to myself I could make it there. I wanted to see the snow-crowned Rockies, and the scrub brush littered deserts that provided the backdrop for every dinosaur documentary I considered sacred as a boy. I resolved to conquer my fear.

Through counseling and exposure to highways and journaling and meditation, I reversed the patterns that caged me. Slowly, I began to think—began to know—the trip was possible. None of it was handed to me. There was no magic bullet. Overcoming the fear was rooted in hard work. But I always thought of the dinosaurs (and if I’m honest, Bilbo Baggins, too).

I set out from Harrisburg on Wednesday, July 22nd. It took two and a half days to reach Denver by train, but Becky was waiting there when I arrived. Together, we explored the museums of Denver, with their exquisite dinosaur specimens. We hiked to fossil track ways and visited prep labs.

I continued west, through the Rocky Mountains to Grand Junction, Colorado. The sun set in a brilliant red sky behind the stone ramparts of the Grand Valley. It was there, near the Utah border, that I first saw the spectacular colors of the desert rocks. This was no documentary. I was finally walking in the land of the dinosaurs. No longer were dinosaurs only to be found in museum displays, or the sound stages of Disney robots, or childhood fantasies. I had arrived in the rocky relics of the Jurassic. This is where dinosaurs are born a second time, where they are pulled from their stony tombs and live anew in humankind’s imagination.

A Dinosaur Safari

The next morning, I boarded a small white van. I looked at the immensity of the sky, and the strange shapes of the ridges and bluffs. Oddly, I felt at home. As the van rumbled down I-70, I laughed at myself. Only a few months earlier, I couldn’t drive 10 miles on the highway from Pittston to Scranton, and here I was on the other side of the country, on my way to a dinosaur dig site.

As the gravel crunched beneath my feet and I was given my tools, I thought of everyone in the creative writing program that encouraged me. I was able to fulfill my dreams and become a better writer—and a better person—because of our community. My book takes place at the vertices of my life, where fear and fascination meet. And although this is my story, I know anyone can push themselves further than they thought possible with the support of their peers and mentors.

Writing is about overcoming obstacles, and if it wasn’t, why do it? On my travels, I learned that it’s the most difficult things we encounter that define us. Doubts and worries and missteps will always happen, but it’s our response to them that matters.

“Well, I’ve made it this far,” I thought as I walked toward the quarry. “I’d better find something good…”

11824923_850632513937_5393897599008890507_nSam Chiarelli is completing a book-length manuscript about his dinosaur obsession. He’ll earn his MFA degree this January.


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