Pitts undergraduate journal of creative nonfiction breaks new ground. While it might become a very effective recruiting tool for attracting aspiring writers to Pitt, it has another very personal and special meaning for the magazines creators.
When Words Collide
Back row (left and right): Jennifer Lee, Collision advisor; Kate Dunfee, editor; Molly Richman, layout editor; Carey Smith, former editor; Cynthia Gordy, assistant features editor. Front row: Dr. Alec Stewart, head of the Honors College, and Alex Austin-Ward, art director.
It was more harmonic convergence than big bang, really, the forces that brought Collision into being. A new impressive, semiannual journal, by and for undergraduates, Collision provides a place where students can publish their works of creative nonfiction.
For its writers and editors, Collision is the best of all possible opportunities, as much about the process and the challenge as about the thing itself. Its own narrative is a story of young writers and editors coming into their own. Heres where it begins:
The faculty in the English writing program decide to add a new course to the curriculum: Intro to Creative Nonfiction. One of its first teachers is Jennifer Andrews, a fiery womanone of her students would later describe her as a funky rock chickwho spent three years as an MFA student in nonfiction at Pitt before becoming a part-time instructor. When she was in grad school, Andrews would jump on a plane to Seattle the day after spring term ended, her bicycle tagging along. Shed spend the summer biking along the Northwest coast up to Vancouver, eventually coming to the foot of the Canadian Rockies, and then working her way back down again. Her treks were marked by drive, confidence, focus, energy, by the pace, and the relentless forward movement. It is like that in her class, toominus the bike.
For all intents and purposes, the work of her class is one 15-week writing assignment. Andrews asks students to choose their subject carefully because they will spend a long time in its company. Think about what youre really passionate about, she tells them, or what pisses you off. Choose a world that youd really like to explore. So one student follows an amateur wrestler who is headed to the WWF. He goes to matches with the erstwhile showman and weaves into his writing what he learns about the nature and art of wrestling, dating back to the olden days of the Roman Coliseum.
Another follows a freshman who is thinking about pledging a black sorority to feel more a part of the black experience. A third student writes about someone who struggled with manic depression. This student flounders with the writing until she reveals that her own experience with bipolar disorder is her motivation for choosing it as her project.
The class brings students into close company with one another. One week they each write a character sketch; the next they develop a setting. Later in the semester they work on incorporating their background research into a narrative or building a dialogue that doesnt turn to wood on the page. Just as important, they brainstorm en masse or partner up with one another to engage in serious, rugged editing of each others work.
That was fall 2000. As the semester built up steam, Andrews tiny office on the sixth floor of the Cathedral seemed to collect more and more students. They would find themselves there, wanting to tell her about some killer research they had just done, tell her about a twist or turn that their story had just taken, tell her, tell the others about how they had taken the story and turned it on its head, shaken it up, moved things around, put the ending at the beginning. They would find a space to sit, pen in hand, papers on their knees. Theyd sit on the windowsill, on the floor, on a corner of her desk, spill out into the hallway.
One day at the end of the term, they left class in a great swarm, chattering about wanting to read each others final stories. There in the hallway, they had an epiphany. Lets put these into one of those journals that youre always telling us to read. Lets make a journal! They followed Andrews all the way down the hall, ideas ricocheting off the limestone walls. We could put our stories in it. And art. Is there any such thing as nonfiction poetry? How about if we use photography?
Fast forward to fall 2001. The Collision staff is close to wrapping up its second issue. Art Editor Alex Austin-Ward examines three slides, a submission that has come in with a note written on scraps of jagged brown paper. Editor Carey Smith, looking down at her agendanotes scrawled in furious black writing on a page in a spiral notebookcalls the weekly meeting to order. Nine women sit around the conference-length table. (Although the writers are a mix of men and women, the editorial staff this year has turned out to be completely female.)
They run through some businessthe food bill for a writer whose speech they had sponsored at the University the week before; the scheduling of an extra, full-court-press editing session for the coming Sunday. Early on, by the way, they came to the conclusion that if they wanted to do it right, their own writing shouldnt dominate the journal, which is published at the end of the Fall and Spring terms and distributed free of charge throughout the University. Each term they choose one piece by a staff member. The 2001 fall issue will contain a memoir by assistant editor Kati Dunfee. In her essay Astrocytomas Anonymous Dunfee looks at her experience with a brain tumor when she was 14, exploring the connection to what she calls her latest obsessionneuroscience.
Along with Dunfees piece, the issue will publish features, memoirs, poems, photographs, and a centerpiece Q&A with the writer John DAgata. The photographs, Austin-Ward says, dont illustrate the stories directly, but offer a resonance. They have to be realnot graphically alteredand purposeful, though not necessarily clear. Editor Smith describes this issue of the journal as bold. The writing takes risks, she says.
Word of Collision caught on; the staff received almost twice as many submissions this term as for the spring 2001 premiere issue.
Smith, a nonfiction writing major who graduates this spring, runs a good meeting, tight enough not to get bogged down, loose enough for discussion, for everyone to feel their points were made and heard. By turns she looks older than her yearspoised and efficient as she wraps up the discussion and makes decisionsand younger, kittenish, when she wrinkles her nose and brow, trying to recall the particulars of something that had happened earlier that year.
Details need to be worked out: Who should write the rejection letters? Can they design a postcard to send? What about the pieces theyd like to see reworked and resubmitted the next term? The postcards sound like a good idea to everyone. But business manager Laura Bonetti points out that creating postcards would be the most expensive option. Could we possibly send them through e-mail? she asks. Even if we only saved $50, it would show that were careful about how we spend money. (Later, Bonetti talks about how she wants to make sure that Collision is around 12 years from now. She hopes that the journal becomes the kind of thing that draws would-be writers to the University.) The discussion moves along to editorial matters. One editor is in a quandary. She met with her writer to go over the changes she was requesting for a piece slated for the current issue. The writer declined. This piece didnt need much work, says the editor now. I was taken aback. As they consider the possible solutions bouncing around the long table, the editors are serious and responsible, polite and thoughtful. Theyre a writers dream.
Two semesters into the life of Collision, its not quite the whirlwind it was in those early days when the group had to push the pedal to the floor, going from 0 to 60 in five seconds, breaking the sound barrier as they thrust themselves in 11 weeks from an idea to an actual, handsome, perfect-bound 108-page journal with a circulation of 1,000.
The first meeting had taken place right at the beginning of the 2001 spring term. Eleven students showed up, both from Andrews class and from a nonfiction class taught by Jennifer Lee (Arts and Sciences 99), a former MFA crony. The mix of students turned out to be just what they needed: One person had written proposals; another had experience with the Web. Smith had been editor of a journal in high school. Bonetti had been involved with publicity for her sorority. In a few breathless weeks, they had a proposal, an infrastructure, a mission statement that captured their collective ambition and excitement, and last but not least, a name. All that was left was to find funding.
Andrews took the lead role in those first meetings, moving them along at a brisk pace, as though they were cycling breathlessly up the side of the mountain, gotta keep moving. Her fingers would point as she assigned tasks, arms flying as she made her points. In a moment of serendipity, an Honors College freshman, Molly Richman caught wind of the journal and signed on. She knew PageMaker, and could do the layout. Oh, and by the way, she herself had suggested the creation of a nonfiction journal in a recent Honors College brainstorming session. Doc, she says, as the students call Honors College dean Alec Stewart, is a big fan of creative nonfiction. Maybe they should start their pursuit of funding by presenting their proposal to him.
They were all nervous the day Doc Stewart came to hear them out. A few of them had met until two in the morning, polishing up the presentation. They even did a dry run before Stewart arrived. Everyone went around the table and introduced themselves, talked about their vision, what they hoped they could do with Collision. They were so freaking articulate, remembers Andrews. I couldnt look at Jen Lee because I knew if I did, we would both cry. There they were, proper college students from sororities mixed up with people with purple hair and fishnetspeople who would never ordinarily come together. And theyre all so passionate about this thing; they all have such direction and focus.
When they were done (as Andrews remembers the pivotal moment), Stewart leaned back in his chair, slapped the desk, and says, Well, thats about one of the best things Ive ever heard. Whatever you need, you got.
And he was gone. Everyone sat stunned for a moment. They looked at each other for confirmation: Did he
? Are we
? In a flash, they were squealing and jumping up and down. It was total euphoriafor five minutes. Then with an omigod dash of reality, they spun themselves into a frenzy of planning: We have to ask for submissions. We need to stir up some art. Weve got to get something in the Pitt News. Maybe we can get the radio stations to announce it.
Eleven weeks later, they were all at Collisions spring 2001 launch party in the courtyard of the Frick Fine Arts Building, surrounded by friends and parents and members of the University community. There was jazz in the background, and swank hors doeuvresand rows of the first edition of Collision lined up on a table.
The founding members were swelling with pride as several writers read their work. They were listening to Andrews, who, choking up a little, was telling them and their friends and parents and colleagues how she hoped this experience had taught them they could do anything, and how this was one of the best experiences she had ever had.
For fall 2001, its all different. Andrews has moved to Boston, where shes an assistant professor at the Berklee College of Music.* Lee, who had shared editorial advisor responsibilities with Andrews last semester, says shes more a facilitator than the rudder that Andrews was.
That seems to be exactly the right approach now as the editorial staffers of Collisionhard at work on the spring 2002 issuehave artfully demonstrated that they can get the job done. Besides that, says Lee, they have to find their own path to the thing theyre trying to do.
(Collision can be found at at www.pitt.edu/~collide.)
Sally Ann Flecker is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and former editor in chief of this magazine.
Beyond first impressions
Jane McCaffertys novel-in-progress grew out of the rhythm and energy of a voice belonging to a character named Manuel. Hes dealing with the consequences of jumping out of a 27-year marriageand very much regrets having done so, she says. The problem was, McCafferty (Arts and Sciences 89) didnt much like Manuel. So she made it a challenge: Could she use the writing to understand him rather than condemn him?
We all have capacities to understand each other deeply, and that are often left untappedincluding my own, she says. Part of writingand readingis tapping into the capacity for understanding that gets obscured by snap judgments, by being too busy, by being too lazy, by being bound to convention, by being cut off from yourself. We all have those qualities. And then we also share this abilitythis heartthat can go beyond all the things we think that we think.
McCafferty balances writing time with her responsibilities as an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University as well as the demands of raising a family. Novels are hard to write, she says. Still shes managed. Her first book, The Director of the World and Other Stories (University of Pittsburgh Press) won the prestigious Drue Heinz Award in 1992, and the Great Lakes New Writers Award in 1993. In 1999, she published her first novel, One Heart (HarperCollins).
As for Manuel? I ended up really liking him. He turned out to be a religious character, a good old Catholic boy, and that was a surprise. I learned a lot from that as a writernot to give up on somebody.
One authors struggle
Stephen Howie (Arts and Sciences 98) conceived his first nonfiction book as a way to get to know the young man his father had been. A boxer before he became a preacher, John Howie could hold two kids above his head, one in each hand. Steve Howie, on one of his summer research trips to South Carolina, found a man who remembered how the preacher had hoisted him as a childlike he was a feather.
John Howie was powerful in other ways as well. His first ministry, in 1955, to the low country of South Carolina, came on the heels of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision that ushered desegregation into public schools. Howie and his new bride arrived at their new church with city liberal ideas about civil rights that didnt sit well with their congregation.
To write his book (the MFA manuscript that would complete the requirements for his graduate degree), Steve Howie spent hour after hour interviewing his parents as well as taking three summer trips to the low country in South Carolina where hed camp out in a Sears tent. Finding people to talk to him there wasnt easy. You still find a lot of racism and division there, he says. It was hard to get interviews. A lot of blacks on the islands were suspicious of me. Still, he was able to find people who remembered his parents. The nice thing about the deep low country, he says, is that people dont leave. Things dont change very quickly.
Howies persistence paid off. His book The Bluffton Charge: One Preachers Struggle for Civil Rights won the 1998 Mammoth Books Nonfiction Award. Howie now lives in Bennington, Vermont, where he is at work on a new book that may bring him back to Pittsburgh from time to time: Who Stole Andy Warhol: The Untold Story of Frederick W. Hughes.
The lost ending
The three characters in Keely Bowers short story A Practice Life stood at the edge of a creek for the longest time. They stood there while Bowers (Arts and Sciences 95, 90) fussed around the house. They stood there while she went off to teach her classes. Finally, one day, they jumped. They jumped into the ice-cold water of the creek that shot them through slippery rocks along a natural slide until one by one they came out sputtering and laughing and free of the tensions that had followed them through the story.
They jumped on that particular day because time was up. Bowers wanted to submit the story for the Chicago Tribunes Nelson Algren Award. But coming home from the post office, Bowers thought the ending was wrong. She sat down at her computer and rewrote it, sent the new version out to a couple of journals, and forgot about it. When the Trib called to tell her she was the years big winner and to ask for an electronic copy, she was at a loss. That version didnt exist any more; the ending was gone. The newspaper had to type it in from her hard copy. Bowers had to wait until the story was published to read the original ending.
I love stories, says Bowers, who teaches fiction at Pitt and is at work on her first novel. My mother was always a storytellerand my grandfather. Theyre talkers on my mothers side.
I loved being a student, being in those writing classes, writing those stories. It gets a lot harder when you get out. But its all I really want to do.
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