Professional Development Writing at Wheaton

Writing beyond Wheaton: An Interview with Alumni

As the school year comes to a close, it can sometimes be difficult to envision writing opportunities beyond the classroom.  We interviewed a few Wheaton alumni—Carolyn Waldee ’18, Aaron Brown ’13, and Jerome Blanco ’12—to learn where writing has carried them after graduating from Wheaton.

Collin Kavanaugh, the interviewer: To start off, could you briefly describe what you are up to currently?

Carolyn Waldee ’18: Pre-pandemic, I did a lot of work as a stage actor in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, as well as in background in TV and film. The past year has been largely absent of theater—it’s been a tough time for an art form that depends on in-person gatherings. However, I did get to play Helena in an online production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and had a small role in a web series set during the pandemic. I also just finished peer-reviewing and editing a friend’s poetry manuscript, and am beginning to sort through my past work and brainstorm ideas for a manuscript of my own. 

Aaron Brown ’13: I teach at LeTourneau University in Longview, TX, where I direct the writing center and serve as an assistant professor of English. Apart from my teaching, I’m also a creative writer, so I’m currently working on a new poetry manuscript, Call Me Exile, that deals with spiritual, relational, and geographical dislocation. I dabble some in creative nonfiction and fiction as well, and my memoir Less Than What You Once Were will be coming out next year with Unsolicited Press out of Oregon. 

Jerome Blanco ’12: I live in Buffalo, NY, but work remotely for Fuller Theological Seminary, where I received my M.Div. I’m an editor and writer for their communications, marketing, and creative production department, where I serve as the editor in chief of FULLER magazine, among other roles. I’m also an editor at the Asian American Christian Collaborative and am at work on a number of my own writing projects.

Interviewer: So, as Wheaton students, we all wrote for a variety of reasons, whether it was an essay for a first-year writing course or a creative piece submitted to one of Wheaton’s literary journals. In what ways did writing show up during your time at Wheaton?

Carolyn Waldee ’18: I was an English major with a writing concentration and declared it almost immediately. For most of my life the only thing I’ve ever wanted to be was a writer and it was never a question that I’d study it in college! Probably my proudest work as a writing student was “Mary, called Magdalene,” a collection of poems that I started writing during a class with Dr. Miho Nonaka my junior year. Beyond that, I wrote some pained short stories, a poetry collection about the sacraments for a Writing and Community Art class, the first few scenes of a play for a combined project for Theater and Culture and senior sem, a couple film and stage reviews for the Record, and some travel essays during my time on Wheaton in England. And of course, academic papers, lots of them.

Aaron Brown ’13: I had a few poems in Kodon and The Pub, eventually serving as a Poetry Editor for the latter. I also wrote a few pieces for the Wheaton Record. It actually took me a couple years before I was published in Kodon, and I think a lot of that early rejection pushed me to be a better writer early on, and that’s paid dividends since. One of the wonderful experiences of being a student at Wheaton was being around so many strong writers and peers—it’s the kind of “iron sharpening iron” that was always challenging, humbling, and encouraging. I also served as a tutor and mentor with some of the high school refugee students in the Wheaton area, so I’m grateful for the college and World Relief offering that opportunity. I learned a lot about the relational aspect of teaching in these experiences.

Jerome Blanco ’12: I studied creative writing at Wheaton, and I was on the editorial staff at both Kodon and The Pub.

Photo courtesy of Monik Flores

Interviewer: How have you interacted with writing after graduating from Wheaton?

Carolyn Waldee ’18: I’ve kept a journal since 2008 (seriously, I have a stack of twelve or thirteen notebooks that tell the story of my life in embarrassing detail) and that practice has been my primary form of writing in the past three years! I’ve written a few poems here and there that I’m quite proud of, but it wasn’t until recently that I began to really think of myself as a writer again. My mind keeps turning to writing as an artistic practice that I am both good at and is good for me, and over this past lonely winter I’ve caught myself dreaming of grad school and future projects.

Aaron Brown ’13: As I mentioned earlier, it’s been all about writing for me since Wheaton. I completed an MFA at Maryland after Wheaton, and as a professor now, I frequently work on everything from creative work to book reviews to conference presentations. I’m also a part time PhD student at nearby Texas A&M-Commerce. 

Jerome Blanco ’12: I currently work as a writer and editor. But I also have an MFA in creative writing, and I’ve been writing fiction consistently since I was a student at Wheaton. I’ve written most every day since then—and I graduated in 2012! 

Interviewer: Oftentimes, it’s the presence of otherswhether that be a mentor or a community of writerswhich encourages us to keep engaging with this creative practice. What is a moment in your writing life where someone helped you in a kind way that was impactful and formative?

Carolyn Waldee ’18: I think it’s time for me to talk about Marie Howe. She came for the Lowell-Grabill awards my junior year, and I’d submitted the first draft of the first Magdalene poem I ever wrote, which at the time was simply called “Magdalene.” It really meant the world to me that she called on me to read my draft in the master class, that she awarded my poem, that she took the time to talk to me after the awards for what felt like at least half an hour. She also signed all my copies of her books and in one of them simply wrote “Carolyn—YES! Love, Marie.” I really think it changed my life. 

Aaron Brown ’13: When I was a student at Wheaton, I went to the Festival of Faith & Writing, which was a transformative experience for me. I met the novelist Leila Aboulela, and she was kind enough to meet with me, hear my story, and later read part of a novella I was working on. I’ve been extremely fortunate in my young career to have had writers speak into my life and offer feedback and challenge me. Whether that is a professor or a speaker at a conference or a writer I contact out of the blue because I love their book, the community and fellowship of writers can be a wonderful thing. Because of this experience, I now make sure to attend the Festival of Faith & Writing every time it comes around every two years.

Jerome Blanco ’12: There are too many moments to count, but lessons I learned from my MFA teachers and peers have been invaluable. Professor Nicole Mazzarella and the late Dr. Brett Foster also made a tremendous impact on the formation of my writing life when I was at Wheaton. One of the most important messages I’ve consistently received from these experiences is that the best way to improve your writing is to cultivate a regular practice of writing. Put in the work, even when it’s tough, even and especially on the days you really don’t feel like doing so.

Photo by fotografierende on Unsplash

Interviewer: Just as you’ve had the experience of others speaking into your life as a writer, what is your advice for writers at Wheaton?

Carolyn Waldee ’18: I guess, if you are a writer or artistically-inclined person, you will probably have lots of jobs. Being a working writer, or any kind of artist, is hard, and there are lots of ways to do it. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you’re doing it wrong. My other advice is to keep a journal! So many of my poems have started in fragments from my journal. Write whatever you want. Also, read poems on your lunch break or on the train and try not to look at your phone so much. You’ll feel better.

Aaron Brown ’13: Attend writing conferences if you can. Also, there are usually many writing-related events happening in Chicago. Whether that’s taking the L to the Poetry Foundation or attending a reading at the University of Chicago or the Art Institute, there are so many ways to learn and grow from other writers as a person still learning the craft. I also think it’s super important to take things at your own pace—don’t feel pressure to produce at a high rate or to compare yourself to other writers who may seem more productive. Don’t forget to enjoy the world. And don’t forget that you can walk around with an idea or observe people bustling around Chicago, and that can still help you write your next essay, poem, song, story, etc., because living life is part of writing, too.

Jerome Blanco ’12: Read a lot. I often say you should probably be reading at least a hundred pages for each one page you write. Read broadly, diversify your reading lists, learn about what you like and what you don’t, figure out why certain techniques of writing work or don’t work. Go beyond thinking “I liked this” or “I didn’t like that.” Ask yourself why and how a piece of writing achieved what it did. Writing a lot is important, too—but I’d say reading comes first. Read a lot, write a lot, repeat.

As Carolyn, Aaron, and Jerome point out, being a writer is not necessarily tied to a certain career choice. It’s an identity—it’s a practice you choose to cultivate for yourself. We’re grateful to these alumni for taking the time to sit down and share about their writing lives with us, encouraging our readers to continue writing at Wheaton and beyond!

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