The Shadow Shenandoahs
I’ve been editor of Shenandoah for three issues now, which means I’ve been teaching the Shenandoah internship course to Washington and Lee undergraduates for three semesters. I’ve never worked with undergraduates on a literary magazine before this job, only MFA students. I was wary, at first, about this difference. Most of the students who took the internship had never read or even heard of a literary magazine, it seemed. They were neuroscience and econ and strat com majors, looking for a break from their business and biology classes. I was a little bit afraid of them, if I’m honest, of their skepticism or their indifference or their flat-out dislike of the work I put in front of them. In fiction classes, I’ve sometimes found it hardest to teach the stories I love the most because I’m rendered inarticulate by the force of that love, and when a student says of this literary soulmate of mine “I don’t get it” or “that’s a waste of syllabus space,” it’s hard not to feel incredulous at best and hurt at worst. Better to bring in teachable stories where my stupid heart isn’t on the line, right?
But with this internship, that’s not an option. Every issue is full of my stupid heart. Full of work that renders me inarticulate with gut flurries and heart palpitations and brain boingos—those bodily reactions you have when great art reveals a more interesting version of the everyday world. How was I supposed to put that feeling in front of undergraduates and then ask them to weigh in? That felt like a brain boingo I wasn’t ready for. Which I guess, in some ways, is what appeals to me about editing. I love the intimacy of the relationship I have with the writers, I love the work, I love handing it over the world and staying mostly behind the curtain as they read it. I’ve been trying to decide if that’s the definition of the job or if that’s a kind of shyness (cowardice?) that I should fight through, one undergraduate internship course—and one editorial note—at a time.
Here’s the thing about the internship class, though: inside that room, we’ve had some of the best conversations about art I’ve ever been a part of. It turns out if you let yourself get a little vulnerable as a teacher, your students will often return the favor. And because the reading they’re doing of submissions asks for their genuine input—not to agree with the canon or the critics or the world at large, but to ask only themselves whether and why they react, or don’t, to a piece of art—they take it incredibly seriously. I thought, naively, that when it came to the submissions, I would have to merely entertain their thoughts before delivering my verdict from on high. But often the force of their feelings surprises me, how deeply and passionately they advocate for the writing that moves them; their thoughts make me consider and reconsider my own thinking. The best classes, for me, were when the conversation kept going and going, when we asked questions of the work and of one another that didn’t have easy answers, when our intellectual and emotional reactions were on the table in companionable opposition.
Which isn’t to say that those conversations are always easy. I often feel like the students and I have to agree to disagree. There have been three semesters and so there have been three shadow versions of Shenandoah—the issues that would have been published if only I would get out of the way. At the close of a spirited conversation, I’ve seen students meet eyes across a table and say, “We’ll publish that one in our literary magazine.” Which makes me pretty happy every time.
I can’t tell you how much these undergraduates have meant to me and to Shenandoah this semester—their energy, their support, their honesty, and their ideas were integral at every stage of the process. I’m not sure how I thought I could do this job without them. They read and read and read. They fact checked. They proofread. They created ingenious social media projects. They made me laugh. I asked the class this week to write down some reactions to the experience so that I could share them here (at my most tired, and at the height of my procrastination, I was perhaps even attempting to crowd source this note to those little geniuses), and lest you doubt their commitment to this enterprise, as I perhaps once did, here is a bit of what they had to say:
Steven Anderson: “Shenandoah was impactful to me because it allowed me to explore what people do and don’t like about a piece of literature in a welcoming environment.”
Frances Conner: “Shenandoah holds space for an inclusive, unusual expression of creative thought.”
Amanda Deans: “The biggest thing I gleaned from the class is thinking about the concept of diversity, and how what we think of as a “good story” is based purely on our subjective values shaped by the stories we are used to reading. It was truly eye opening.”
Whitley Drinkard: “I am grateful to have had the opportunity to read some of the most unique short stories and creative nonfiction from writers that do not always fit the typical writing mold!”
Coletta Fuller: “Every class should be run like this. Working toward a real goal is the best motivation in the world, followed closely by reading great stories.”
Bri Mondesir: “This class has taught me to give writers, artists, and creators the care and thought toward their work that they put into it.”
Gregory Purdy: “This class has been able to connect me with a whole different way of thinking creatively. I genuinely loved reading through all the submissions and making discoveries about truly great pieces of writing.”
Julian C. Ramirez: “Shenandoah’s collaborative environment allowed me to recognize what I value in literature; simultaneously, the class was filled with a depth that resulted in the exchange of highly vulnerable reflection.”
Emma Stoffel: “Before taking this class, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my career, but Shenandoah has been my guiding light in this darkened process.”
Hyer Thomas: “I feel Shenandoah has built a network of students, faculty, writers, readers, professionals, and amateurs that have a common love of written work. A community of very close strangers.”
Beth Ann Townsend: “What I loved most was interacting closely with the writers. Between Skype calls and emails, I’ve learned so much from our wonderful contributors.”
Emery Wright: “English classes have taught me how to read and write. But Shenandoah has taught me how to find and extract meaning from words independently and unencumbered by expectations.”
See what I mean? Heart palpitations and brain boingos all over the place! This note is to them, and to the shadow Shenandoahs I hope they someday publish.