Sunday, May 3, 2015

Alumni Spotlight: Alyssa Berthiaume

From Ashland University to Ashgate Publishing— How Ashland’s Creative Writing Program Set My Course and Helped Me Succeed
By Alyssa Berthiaume, class of 2007, Creative Writing major 

Around this time thirteen years ago I was a junior in high school and my mother took me on a road trip to visit colleges on my spring break. Our first stop was Ashland. When we arrived, the weather was nothing short of miserable: thunder rolling around in a sky thick with gray, drizzle coming down intermittently, and puddles along the sidewalk as we walked from the student center, passed the quad, and into a huge brick building housing the English department. I had really high hopes for attending Ashland despite my parents’ wishes I go somewhere closer to home (Vermont) and I was determined to not let the weather be any indication of things to come.

The hallway inside seemed abandoned but calm, lights low. A few feet ahead an office door was left slightly open and a professor leaned back in his chair flipping through a paper. As luck or fate might have it, that office was the very place I was meant to be. My first appointment during my visit was to meet with Joe Mackall about the creative writing program and I really wanted him to like me. Thankfully, his dry sense of humor and occasional sarcasm was exactly my style and I felt at-home instantly. Before I left, I had two complimentary copies of Passages, some literature on the program, and the hope that I would apply and come to Ashland the fall of 2003. And I did.

Flash forward to 2007 and I graduated from Ashland with a bachelor of arts in creative writing and psychology. During that final year, Joe, after serving as my advisor for those four years, tried hard to encourage me to abandon my pursuit of a master’s degree in psychology and go instead to an MFA program for creative writing. He knew that I had an irrepressible passion for writing. Unfortunately, the practical side of me— the one that wasn’t convinced I could ever earn a living doing anything with books— won out and I accepted a spot in the University of Akron’s marriage and family therapy program. Shortly after the start of classes that fall, I found myself spending more time in class writing stories about my professors in the margin of my notes than paying any attention to ‘this’ or ‘that’ theory. I realized quickly I had displaced myself. Joe had been right and I needed to make a change. By summer, I switched programs and began the Northeastern Ohio Masters of Fine Arts Program (NEOMFA). I concentrated in nonfiction and earned my masters in December of 2010 with a fully drafted memoir to show for it (that is still waiting to make its debut).

In July 2012, I took a position at Ashgate Publishing, a leading independent academic press, as a marketing coordinator and this past August (2014), I transitioned into my current role as an editorial assistant. In this role, I provide support to the commissioning editors of our art and visual studies and literary studies lists. I facilitate the peer review process for proposals and manuscripts we are deciding whether to contract; I solicit endorsements from scholars in the field to include on the back jacket and in the marketing materials of the books due out for publication, sometimes performing light copy editing on the returned endorsement text; I review ‘final’ submitted manuscripts, making sure they are ready for production; and I perform a variety of other tasks in working closely with our authors, reviewers, and endorsers. I am happy and fulfilled in this role.

Outside of my work as an editorial assistant, I serve as the President of the League of Vermont Writers (LVW), a statewide non-profit organization, originally founded in 1929, that serves all writers across Vermont, providing programming and workshops around the craft and professional development of writing. I help to organize a biennial event called Writers Meet Agents. During a day-long conference, writers attend with the intent of pitching their book projects (anything from YA to sci-fi, to memoir) to a roster of literary agents we’ve brought in from the surrounding areas—Boston, New York and beyond. Most recently, I spearheaded an internship program between LVW and a local college that has a professional writing program, recognizing the importance of real work- experience for the college-age population prior to graduation.

I owe my success in both these roles (editorial assistant and president) to the education I received at Ashland. First and foremost, being a part of the creative writing program at AU was the first time I was within a community of people where writing, wanting to write, and wanting to make some sort of life by writing, was acceptable and encouraged. This climate was present and persistent in every creative writing class I took and was nurtured by the instructors, especially Joe Mackall and Stephen Haven whose enthusiasm for and dedication to the craft was inspiring and contagious. This shared respect and devotion to the written word, from both students and teachers, provided me an unwritten license to do the thing I always loved. And it was that same license that eventually led me into an MFA program and changed my perspective from, “How will I ever ‘make it’?” to “I will make it. And I will make it work.”

Beyond attitude and perspective, serving on the editorial board for Passages introduced me to literary journals, and the production, editorial, and peer review process. The variety of workshop classes I took facilitated my ability to provide and accept constructive criticism, to think critically about my own work and the work of others, and to learn to work and communicate with a variety of personalities. The comprehensive curriculum, including the requirement to take classes with foci in other genres and a certain number of credits in literature, provided exposure to a vast literary canon and further sharpened my critical thinking and textual analysis skills, as well as my own writing. All of these things I apply day-to-day as I work closely with authors on the development of their manuscripts, or writers across the state, emerging or established. They all have high hopes of positioning themselves within an ever-growing and changing body of literature—academic or trade— and I have the privilege of helping them get there.

I am thankful for the AU experience and education which set my course and equipped me with the right skills and abilities that have helped me be successful in a job that pays me to do what I love and what I always wanted to do – work with books.