Creative writing class partners with literary magazine to judge fiction contest
Students in a typical creative writing class end the semester with a revised portfolio of original writing and a better understanding of craft techniques. In Dr. Seth Clabough’s ’98 Short Fiction class, students got all that and more.
The class partnered with West Trade Review (WTR)—a quarterly literary magazine that publishes creative writing, artwork, photography, and interviews from new and emerging writers—to serve as readers for the magazine’s inaugural fiction contest. Ken Harmon, editor of WTR and an English professor at Johnson & Wales University, described the collaboration with Randolph-Macon students as a natural fit for the self-described “teaching magazine.”
“All of us looked at each other and thought, ‘I wish I had something like that when I was a student,’” Harmon recalls from the initial pitch session with the other WTR editors. “If literature is going to remain relevant, then these are the types of partnerships that need to be happening.”
Members of the creative writing class reviewed contest submissions and wrote feedback to the editors that spoke to the various craft concepts they were learning in the classroom. Clabough, an associate professor of English and director of RMC’s Communication Center, said he wanted to introduce students to the creative side of writing in tandem with its professional applications.
“It’s good for young writers to view writing as a real-world thing,” he explained. “Real issues are at stake. Your commentary matters. And your insights can determine tangible opportunities for other writers.”
“It was a very cool experience that allowed us to see what happens when we submit to contests or journals for publication,” Julianne Blair ’23 (communication studies) said. Though she initially felt intimidated sharing her perspective alongside seasoned readers, she says her and her classmates’ perspectives were taken just as seriously as those of staff members.
”Dr. Clabough told us not to be afraid to raise objections and give our honest opinions of the work because even editors disagree with each other,” she said. “The editors were laid back and gave everyone a chance to share their thoughts freely.”
Blair joined Katherine Delaney ’22 (psychology and writing) and Zoe Patterson ’22 (communication studies) as one of three students selected by the WTR staff to participate as fiction readers with the journal. These three Yellow Jackets attended biweekly virtual editorial meetings with the WTR staff to discuss story submissions and offer their opinions.
“It was great having students take an active role in our editorial discussions,” Harmon said. “We consider ourselves a teaching journal. We want to teach as many people as we can so others can go out and start their own literary journals.”
Though students became accomplished readers of short fiction, the class never lost focus on expanding their fiction-writing skills, too. Each was invited to submit one story to WTR for consideration. Patterson, inspired by the fiction she had been reading in class, challenged herself to write something more abstract than anything she had written before. That impulse proved auspicious, as her story, “Walls,” was accepted for publication in a forthcoming issue of WTR. Patterson said it’s further encouragement for her to continue writing, and she hopes to eventually complete a book-length project.
“And now I feel a lot less intimidated by the publishing process,” she added.
“I think it’s really unique to be able to get an internship like this from a class,” Blair said of the experience. “I didn’t even know that would be an option going into the semester. It turned into something bigger than I expected, and it gave me a new idea to look into becoming a literary agent.”
Arriving at that type of insight is by design. Clabough says he intentionally structures his courses to foster hands-on learning experiences that keep students engaged and serve as a springboard into potential career pathways. He often invites guest writers, editors, and literary agents to class to talk about how they arrived at their chosen profession, noting that this isn’t the first time his students have landed internships with special guests. Nor is it likely to be the last.
“I prefer to have students learn by doing as opposed to just reading or hearing about a concept like publishing,” he said. “It’s all about creating opportunities for students to achieve their goals and then stepping out of the way.”