Ready, Aim, Fire: The Purpose of Literary Ammunition

I’ve often been told by one of my professors that “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know,” and each time those words grace his lips, my gut turns in acknowledgment of my own ignorance. So I thought to myself: the best way to conquer a text is to be prepared with the best literary ammunition.

What do I mean by literary ammo? It’s having writers like Homer, Faulkner, Joyce, and Shakespeare in your back pocket and pulling them out to make connections in a piece of work so that allusions and references don’t fly over your head. It is the big gun in conversations, it steals ground for you in arguments, and gives you literature to love in your spare time. Ammunition is what you become equipped with when you study survey class after survey class, finding all of the best moments in the literary canon.

I can enjoy a movie and laugh at all of the typical punch lines, but I may have missed that hilarious pun on Virginia Woolf, or failed to notice that the Spongebob Movie is really a glorified cartoon version of the Odyssey. The more you learn, the more humor can exceed the common slap-stick comedy. People aren’t aware of the references right before their eyes, and so they miss out on the great moments when our present culture mimics or makes fun of our rich past.

This ammunition extends beyond popular culture; it is also a crucial element in understanding why our authors write the things they do, what interests motivate them, and knowing what they mean when they reference a person, place, or thing. That’s another value of a liberal arts education – for those people in studies separate from the humanities, you’ll be thanking your professors when you’re the only one laughing in a crowded theater, or you understand the hobbies of the people you are studying because you had to take a lit course. These things come together to make you more knowledgeable and complex.

As literate people, we owe it to ourselves to expand our knowledge by diving into huge varieties of many different books and expertise. We have these opportunities to reap the culture and knowledge of our past in ways that make us deeper, more humane individuals. So, expand your literary horizons, increase your ammunition, and as you absorb each page, stanza, or phrase, know that you are creating a better version of yourself.

by Kimberlee Roberts

Raison D’écrire—Why Writers Write

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There is a debate in the writing world over whether it is best to write for oneself, or for an audience. Writing for the self is often viewed as the more artistic approach, usually for the purpose of self-expression. Writing for an audience, on the other hand, while seen as an excellent way to target a certain group of people and build a fan base, is sometimes viewed as “selling out,” as if writers only do this to make money. There are countless examples to show that this is an enormous oversimplification. I’ve actually been fortunate enough to have participated in the publication of a work that provides a fascinating answer to the question of why people write as a typist and co-editor.

The book in question is Letters to My Younger Self, a collection of writing by incarcerated men at Graterford prison, and it took several years to create. It all began when Professor Jayne Thompson, who teaches Creative Writing at Widener University, started to teach a writing class at Graterford prison, a maximum security men’s prison in Graterford, Pennsylvania. The men wrote insightfully, with powerful poetry, prose, and letters addressed to their younger selves, covering topics such as home, family, decisions, and prison.

In addition to her classes at the prison and at Widener, Professor Thompson taught some classes at Chester High School and heard the cases of juvenile first offenders in Chester, PA. Time after time, she watched her students disappear into the criminal justice system, and then heard cases from others of the same age who were also falling into lives of crime. She mentioned this to the men at the prison, and they expressed deep concern for those young people, who reminded them of themselves when they were younger, and together they came up with an idea for a book of their writing as a way to address this problem.

I was able to visit the prison for the first time a few weeks ago, and I was deeply moved by their reasons for writing, as well as their reasons for sharing their work. The men, many of them fathers themselves, expressed a desire to reach out to those young people in some way. They feel that they have failed the younger generations by making choices that led to their incarceration, because now they aren’t there to support, guide, and encourage those youngsters in a way that might be beneficial to them. They feel this responsibility not just for their own children, but for any children whose lives they might have influenced in a positive way if they were living free lives themselves. They are attempting to make up for that absence with their writing. More than anything, they encouraged their young readers to get an education, and to choose their friends wisely.

Clearly, the works in this book were written with an audience in mind, but not for financial reasons. The book can be purchased on Amazon, but the money from each purchase of the book goes to a fund for putting it in the hands of its target audience: at-risk youth. The men did not write for fame any more than for fortune, as the prison requested that their last names not be given, so only their first names and last initials are displayed beside each piece.

Are they writing for self-expression then? There are definitely elements of that, as they share many personal experiences that they feel led them to where they are now, and they may have felt some closure as they reflected in this way, but that is just one part of the picture. Ultimately, I’ve found that writers write for a myriad of reasons, and who is to say that one is better than another? This book is an excellent example of why writing for a particular audience does not necessarily imply selfish intent. In this case, it is an effort to bring about change.

To learn more about this book, and to hear some recordings of the men reading their work, check out this segment of Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane.

by Emily DeFreitas

The FUSE Conference: Uniting Literary Journals Across the Nation

The gathering of undergraduate editors at the 2014 FUSE conference at Bennington College in Bennington, VT.

The gathering of undergraduate editors at the 2014 FUSE conference at Bennington College in Bennington, VT.

The FUSE conference, which took place at Bennington College in Vermont this November, was a unique opportunity to interact with like-minded people who aim to produce excellent literary journals. FUSE, or the Forum for Undergraduate Student Editors, is a national organization that serves to connect student editors from schools across the nation, giving them the chance to share ideas, offer advice, and support each other in their endeavors.

The conference consisted of presentations by students, faculty, and guest speakers about editing, publishing, and other general concepts related to creating a literary journal with undergraduates. There was also time set aside for attendees to take a look at the various journals being represented, and to show their own.

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Autumn Heisler, editor-in-chief of Widener Ink (left) and Emily DeFreitas, editor-in-chief of The Blue Route (right) present on community outreach during the conference.

While there, I had the opportunity to take part in a presentation on community outreach, but more importantly, I was able to listen to the thoughts, ideas, and strategies of other literary journals. I came out of the event with a substantial list of things The Blue Route staff should consider doing in the future, and I suspect that editors from other schools did as well. As one of the speakers pointed out, the main competition for a literary journal isn’t other literary journals. In reality, we compete with the distractions of the electronic world around us as we attempt to reel in readers. Because of this, having a network through which we can promote each other, encourage readership, and improve the individual journals we’re producing is an extremely valuable thing.

Some of the ideas presented were not necessarily specific to literary journals alone. Some might be well applied to groups like Widener’s own English Club. Students talked about write-ins, open mics, and blind dates with books, all of which are fantastic ways to participate in the literary world, building a reading and writing community in person, not just online or on paper. This conference was meant to assist in building that community. Throughout the event it became clear that there are many ways to do that, and literary journals play an important role.

by Emily DeFreitas

Does your school have a literary journal? Are you interested in learning more about FUSE? Check out their website at

Collaboration at its Finest: A Review of Goddard College’s Literary Journal “Duende”:

Producing a literary journal is a task that requires not only great time and effort, but also a group of people dedicated to collaborating to create the best collection of poetry, prose, and other works possible. This idea of collaboration is one that the students in the Writing program at Goddard College latched onto to produce their first edition of the literary journal “Duende,” out last month, and the results are amazing.

Duende is a product of collaboration on a national level. Unlike most undergraduate literary journals, which are run by students from one campus, this journal’s staff are located all across the United States, from Oregon to Pennsylvania and everywhere in between. The staff only meets face to face once each semester; I can only imagine how tricky communicating about a complex piece of poetry is without that in-person dynamic!

A quote by Federico Garcia Lorca appears at the bottom of the artfully designed home page, explaining that duende “is a force…of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s of the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation”. This simple philosophy of collecting and sharing works of art teeming with raw soul and passion made me eager to explore their first issue to see exactly the kinds of works desired by Duende’s editors.

Within the visual art category, I was most enthralled by Deanna Lee’s collection of hand-drawn pieces rooted in the exploration of the line. Lee shows that groupings of abstract lines can both evoke contrasting characteristics (weightlessness vs. heaviness, for example) while all maintaining a sense of life and action. I love the sense of movement in Lee’s work, and every time I look back at these three drawings, I feel as if they’ve moved somehow, shifted as my perspective on them shifts.

Switching to the prose section of the journal, another interesting aspect of Duende’s collaborative spirit is unveiled. Categories like “prose poem” and “hybrid prose”  are attached to these varying works. I love Duende’s philosophy that regardless of genre, good writing is good writing and needs to be shared. My favorite work in this prose section is Justin Torres’ flash-fiction piece. Beautiful diction juxtaposed against edgy, sometimes jolting scenes, Torres’ concise story needs to be read more than once in order to pick up on all the social and moral issues presented.

Duende tells that they are “especially interested in collaborations between two or more writers, or between writers and visual artists”, and my favorite piece in the poetry section involved both visual and written art. The prose-poem This is How We Dream and its accompanying artwork present an interesting pair of works to be compared and contrasted. Pairing pieces of art together is a tricky thing to do in order to emphasize the best parts of each work, but I find the contrasting colors of the visual art and the theme of dream versus reality in the poem to work incredibly well together.

Coming together for the sake of promoting written and visual art is the goal of most every literary journal produced by undergraduates, but Duende does it exceptionally well. Uniting students nationwide through Goddard College’s Writing program, combining genres of work to create bold new styles, and encouraging artists of various mediums to work together, Duende is a truly innovative journal that I cannot wait to hear more from.

Young Adult Literature: Renewing Popular Interest in Books

Anyone with a high school education has probably heard of the ‘greats’ in classic literature, such as The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Great Gatsby. And sure, if you are an avid reader, you most likely appreciate sophisticated prose. However, in the past fourteen years, the world has experienced a new kind of literary boom with the eruption of the Young Adult genre. This breed of literature, frequently referred to as YA lit, has experienced an exponential rise to fame, riding on the tailwind of books like The Hunger Games, Twilight, and the Harry Potter series.

This evolving genre is “on a roller coaster that only goes up, my friend.” The YA motif has expanded into the realms of realistic fiction, fantasy, and adventure. The variety of subjects YA lit offers has blurred the lines between fiction and non-fiction and the lines that separate young adult and adult readership.

Jennifer Lynn Barnes, a young adult author, says, “Just like adolescence is between childhood and adulthood, paranormal, or other, is between human and supernatural. Teens are caught between two worlds, childhood and adulthood, and in YA, they can navigate those two worlds and sometimes dualities of other worlds.”

The term ‘young adult’ was coined in the 1960s and originally referenced teens ages 12-18. Now that term has stretched to include readers from 10-29. Furthermore, “16-to 29-year-olds are the largest group checking out books from their local libraries,”, and a 2012 survey even found that 55% of YA books are bought by people older than 18, and 28% by those between 30 and 44 years old.

However, because of its ‘young adult’ label, the YA lit community is facing backlash from people who believe that individuals should not read YA lit if they are out of the acceptable age range, despite the fact that the range is intended to identify a target audience, not place limitations. Blogger Ruth Graham claims that “Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children,” because of its “maudlin teen dramas” and endings that are “far too simple.” Opinions like these give young adult literature a negative stigma. While some books may have contrived plots or clichéd characters, the entire genre should not be condemned. YA books explore legitimate topics and controversies in language that is understandable and situations that are relatable. Meaningful themes teach readers valuable life lessons that they might not receive otherwise.

Adults should not be embarrassed to read YA books, because the experiences of adolescence are not something you endure and forget. They stay with you forever. Reading a novel considered to be ‘young adult’ allows adults to revisit those emotions, and remind them every so often that they did not instantly jump from 13 to 30.

Young adult literature creates a deeper love of all literature that allows readers to transition from works by J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer to the lasting classics of J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee. In today’s society, it is far too easy for teens to choose a video game over a printed piece of literature. YA lit is taking the world by storm, which means more teenagers are reading, and that is pretty amazing.

by Jennifer Rohrbach

English vs. Creative Writing: Which Major is For You?

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You love words, so you’ve decided to follow your heart and take on that liberal arts degree, but you’re having trouble deciding between a major in English and one in Creative Writing. You don’t really want to do both – a double major sounds like too much – and you’re still partly afraid that your friends are right when they joke about spending the rest of your life asking “Would you like cream and sugar in that?”

The question to really ask, more than what major to pursue, is what you want to get out of it, or do with it, in the long run. What skills are you looking to learn? What kind of reading gets you going?

If what you loved about your high school English classes was the opportunity to read the classics, then English is probably more your pace. The English major is designed to look critically at “Literature with a capital L,” as one of my professors describes it. Your classes will involve close reading, craft analysis, and a lot of critical thinking about works written by men who are probably long-dead.

But what about after college? In the professional world, Milton and Shakespeare might not seem particularly applicable, but the skills you learn from studying them will be. Aside from the more obvious benefits of being able to compose a coherent email, you will be able to effectively communicate thoughts and connect with people.

According to an article by Business Insider, Logitech CEO Bracken Darren likes hiring English majors because “these soft skills come from personal aptitudes and attitudes that are often attained after years of studying the liberal arts…. There’s a thoughtfulness about culture that isn’t emphasized in majors outside literature and the arts.”

If you find yourself more interested in constructing your own work, your home is probably in the Creative Writing department. Your classes will involve reading more recent work within a genre. Milton and Shakespeare are all well and good, and you’ll certainly take your fair share of Lit courses, but they won’t be enough to make you shine in today’s tough market if you’re actually trying to make it as a writer. What classical writers have “always done” and what defines Literature isn’t always what people are doing today.

Professionally speaking, your options will be more specific, and from some perspectives, limited. If you’re looking to write for a living, or are interested in the publishing business, then Creative Writing will look just as good on a résumé as English, but employers outside of the field might respect it less. How does being able to construct a solid narrative or stick to a rhyme scheme make you the right person for the job? This major will teach you critical thinking as well, but it will nurture your creative side even more, and urge you to explore new styles.

No matter which major you choose, it’s hardly an either-or decision. If you choose Creative Writing, most schools will require several English classes; in an English major, you can use your electives to explore Creative Writing and its possibilities.

by Sierra Offutt

The Hidden Values of a Liberal Arts Education

You’re sitting in front of endless college applications as a recent high school graduate, and the options of majors are swimming around you, pulling you from thought to thought, begging you to make a choice; to brand yourself with a “life path” that seems permanent. Your parents are telling you to follow your heart, while your peers are advocating for something practical. (But what’s more practical than following your heart?) Now you realize that your choice of a college major is, in some abstract way, a defining piece of who you want to be and what it is that you value. You begin to notice that your peers value practicality over passion and will force themselves to love something they don’t even like. But their vision of practicality is cloudy. There are things you weren’t told.

After a little research you start to notice that by picking English as a major, you’re just as likely to land a job after graduating than nearly everyone else.

“English majors aren’t actually faring as poorly in the job market as the cultural dialogue would have us believe. According to 2010-2011 data from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, cited by The Atlantic, right after graduating, English and history majors reported 9.8 and 9.5 percent unemployment, respectively, while economics and political science graduates came in at 10.4 and 11.1 percent. “Practical” computer science degrees didn’t make graduates much more employable, with the comp sci unemployment rate coming in at 8.7 percent. And that’s just employment outcomes right after school; the picture may get rosier as time goes on, as employers generally prefer liberal arts grads, according to a 2012 survey.”


You realize that you possess a specific skill set not learned in a text book.

“Around a year ago, I surveyed more than 100 senior business leaders to get their views on the current state of talent and talent management. Eighty-four percent of them agreed that they would rather hire a person who is smart and passionate, even if the person does not yet possess the specific skills they need. One point of which we can all be certain is that the skills in use today won’t be sufficient to meet the needs of tomorrow. What matters is knowing how to accumulate knowledge and put it to smart use


And then it hits you that some of the most successful people in our culture were once in your shoes.

“…former Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney opened up about the fact that he was once (gasp!) an English major.”

“Other English majors in media include ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer, NBC News anchor Andrea Mitchell, and former TODAY Show host David Garroway — not to mention countless print and online journalists. One of the most successful news media executives — Grant Tinker, former NBC CEO and TV producer — studied English at Dartmouth University before taking a job as a management trainee at NBC, Business Insider reported.”


By now you’ve come to the conclusion that humanities majors are an essential part of our society’s way of life. They are the voices of reason amongst the chaos and confusion of life. They provide the brief moments when everyone steps aside from their busy, practical lives and remembers how it feels to be human.

by Kimberlee Roberts

with special thanks to Dr. Janine Utell for inspiration and education on the subject.