There are few things I’m absolutely certain of in this world, but if I had to name just one, I’d say, I’m completely positive my face lights up as bright as the interior lighting and chandelier aisle in The Home Depot when asked about my experience at Mount Mercy University.
In high school, I was the quiet, sit-in-the-back, head-down, avoid eye contact, never-raise-your-hand girl who did every single one of those things, in every single one of my classes. But, if my homeroom high school teacher observed one of my English college courses, she’d probably think aliens had taken over my body and replaced it with a stranger’s voice (mostly, because she’d never heard mine), but also because of how much I grew into my own voice and discovered so many ways to use it.
My freshman year at Mount Mercy was filled mostly with general studies classes, and a sprinkle of English courses, topped with a creative writing class inclusive of upper classmen who I was totally terrified to share my writing with. Before my time at Mount Mercy, I’d never shared my writing aloud with anyone. I remember writing a short story in high school that went on to earn an Honorable Mention at the State level and various members of my family read the story in silence and all the while, I felt so weird just being in the same room while they read it. It felt like I was awkwardly reading over their shoulders in the kitchen, while I sat on the couch in the living room. To make a long story short, I’d never had the confidence to read my work aloud to a group of people. So you can imagine my anxiety shooting through the roof when in my spring semester creative writing course, Cecile Goding told the class we’d present our poem, displayed on the screen (to show layout formatting) and talk through the poem. I couldn’t just “pass” out of this, or put my head down, but let me tell you, I definitely avoided all sorts of eye contact. But, most importantly, I did it. And I didn’t die. In fact, it was the first step, of many, that I took at MMU in discovering my voice and instilling confidence in my writing and in myself.
During that same semester, Mary Vermillion sent me an email, along with other English majors and minors, asking if I’d like to serve on the selection committee for The Paha Review and help determine which poems, short stories, essays, and monologues would be included in the annual literary and art magazine. At the time, I had no idea what Paha even was or that it’d become such an important part of my life.
My second year at Mount Mercy included more general studies classes, but a bigger sprinkle of English courses, too. I became more acquainted with the English professors and began fitting in well with the other lovers of reading and writing. (I mean, at most, there were twelve students in my Shakespeare class, but more often than not, I found myself sitting amongst about eight to ten other students in British Modernism or Multicultural Lit). I was interviewed by the Mount Mercy Times when I self-published a collection of poems and I attended each Visiting Writer series hosted in the Flaherty room in Basile Hall. (Did you know you can chat and get your book signed by a real, established author?!). My second year at Mount Mercy also included taking a step out of my comfort zone and participating in the Anamosa State Penitentiary volunteer book club. Although, my grandma didn’t particularly like it when I announced loudly in the middle of the Hy-Vee fruits and vegetables aisle that “I’m going to prison” and the middle aged man at the end of the aisle gave me a very interesting look. I could go on and on about how amazing each of these experiences were, but it’s essential that someone should know, hearing an author speak about how their novel came about and the paths it took, is music to a writer’s ears. In my Law and Literature class, Mary Vermillion suggested we write discussion questions from The House Gun by Nadine Gordimer in case the prison inmates, didn’t know what to say and we could avoid “awkward silences.” I’m fairly certain she knew all the while, that these “awkward silences” would never be a thing. My questions were shameful in the company of the questions these men asked. In fact, my questions, never even had the opportunity to see the light because the prison inmates couldn’t wait to ask their own questions and discuss different scenes. The men participating in the book club are some of the smartest people on the planet I’ve ever had the pleasure of sharing a room with.
Second year, spring semester also meant another year of The Paha Review. The previous editor graduated and moved on, leaving no one to steer the project. Mary Vermillion asked myself and two other amazing English majors, Billie Barker and Cassie Green to take on the beast. And I suppose, this is where I can say, I fell in love with being an editor. My first year as a co-editor included many twists, turns, random pot holes and several traffic jams to interrupt the progress of the magazine, but eventually, we arrived at our destination, safe and sound. We pushed deadlines back on more than one occasion, due to not being familiar with InDesign, or waiting for other pieces to come together. We spent long hours at the lone, designated “Paha Computer” in the Mac Lab in the basement of Busse Library on Sundays when we had class at eight o’clock the next day. We grew snippy with one another when we were frustrated, but through all the hours spent working and many drafts marked up with Mary’s purple pen, we submitted the final draft of the magazine and became even better friends. But we weren’t done yet, because we still had to wait another three weeks or so to actually get the physical copy of the magazine and ultimately, we had to distribute the beast to newspaper stands around campus. It was only after the magazine was fully distributed that we could sit back, catch our breath and observe the books slowly leave their newspaper stands to live elsewhere.
I was halfway through my college career at this point, and it might be noted, college wasn’t exactly an option until about May of my senior year of high school. I couldn’t even save fifty dollars to pay to take my ACT test and had considered finding a full time job directly out of high school. But growing up, I’d lived paycheck to paycheck with my mother being a single mom and working a minimum wage job to raise my brother and I. It seemed like everyone in my high school graduating class was going to college and it was embarrassing admitting that I was still undecided about my future after graduation. Another long story short, I never even visited Mount Mercy, nor had I very much information on the school. To be completely truthful, I submitted a portfolio of my writing that included a short story and some poems I’d written about six months before on the morning of the deadline when it was suggested by my high school counselor that I apply for a Special Talent Scholarship, offered by MMU. I was later awarded one of the first recipients of the Special Talent Scholarship for the portfolio I submitted and my decision to attend Mount Mercy University was made.
Being a junior on The Hill allowed me to branch out and participate in even more activities and to continue establishing a “name” for myself. I was invited to eat dinner with both visiting authors from the Visiting Writer series (I wasn’t lying when I said it was that cool), and I was asked to serve as president of the English Club. I was also given the opportunity to lead a High School Arts Day where I taught high schoolers about “black out poetry” and “found poetry” and participated in other fun writing exercises. My third year also brought on additional stresses. I was continuing to work part-time at two different jobs and also maintain my grades and attendance in school. J-term of my junior year allowed me the absolutely incredible experience of studying abroad in London, England with other writers and students for ten days. I saw the most beautiful architecture, visited the homes of famous writers and even attended an open mic poetry slam just to name a few things. But once back in the states, it was time to get back to business with The Paha Review. Billie Barker graduated, so that left Cassie and I to create the magazine. We experienced some of the same twists and turns and obstacles, but handled them easier, having gone through them before. The magazine was pronounced finished, but we wanted to celebrate the magazine in a different way. Throughout the year, I’d been asked by a local band, Hunter Dumped Us Here, to write a poem to accompany a song on their new album. I became pretty good friends with their lead singer, Gabe Reasoner and asked him if they’d be willing to put on a performance in a “coffee shop” style manner. We arranged the “party” and invited the campus to join in celebration with snacks and a reading in Betty Cherry Heritage Hall. Contributors of the magazine were invited to read their pieces from the magazine and converse with one another. The night was one to remember.
FINALLY, I was a senior in college. College, a concept that wasn’t even imaginable three years prior, but here I was. I took my first and (unfortunately)only class with Eden Wales Freedman and all I have to say is, if you have the opportunity to sit in a class of hers, do it. She has an incredible gift of sensing when you’re about to say something and encourages you to say it, even if it doesn’t quite make sense when it comes out of your mouth. She just asks you to finish thinking out loud and it’s a beautiful process arriving at the conclusion you always meant, but didn’t know how to say. She never makes you feel stupid, even if your answer isn’t exactly right and it opens the discussion to new perspectives. I remember the first day of her class, fall semester, and while introducing ourselves to the class, she interrupted me, and I kid you not, says, “you’re Courtney Snodgrass?” I obviously am, but I confirm anyway. She goes on to explain, “I just met a student who was completely fangirling over you.” Confused, I questioned further. She then tells me, “this girl was debating on adding English as a minor and said, she ‘loves to write’, but she’ll never be a Courtney Snodgrass.” My mouth completely fell to the floor in amazement that people even knew who I was. Sometimes, I don’t know if anyone really knew who I was in high school.
Being a senior included a lot of additional stresses: I’d been working full time hours at a residential treatment facility for delinquent teenage boys, worked a part time retail job, interned with a local non-profit organization and took on the role of lead editor for The Paha Review. I’m not exaggerating when I say I slept with my planner on my nightstand to make sure I kept track of anything and everything going on in my life.
I participated in another book club at the Anamosa State Penitentiary and I enjoyed several dinners with visiting writers, getting to experience and interact with “established” writers on a more intimate level. My third and final year of editing The Paha Review was coming to an end and so was my college career. I stopped to catch my breath on more than one occasion and to reflect on my time at Mount Mercy.
Spring semester of my senior year of college also included writing the awfully dreaded “senior thesis.” I’d heard talk of this before and I’d seen other English majors stress over and discuss it like they were Beowulf slaying Grendel but I was prepared to go to battle. Joy Ochs teaches a fantastic course and turned me into a fan of both the villain and the hero. But I didn’t come all this way for nothing. I spent long hours doing research and getting over my writer’s block in designated class time in the library. I spent time talking through the insecurities of my thoughts and ideas with Chris DeVault only to leave his office with a more clear path and better understanding of what I wanted to accomplish in my thesis. I suppose I have this thing where my brain has thoughts that haven’t fully developed and all of my English professors are there to finish my sentences for me. (They are writers, after all.)
In the end, I survived writing my senior thesis on the idea that social media and technology doesn’t actually drive a wedge between people, but just the opposite, brings people together. But I wasn’t out of the woods yet: after writing out these 20+ pages, I then had to defend my argument against the incredible Carol Tyx and Chris DeVault. I sat across from these two brilliant souls, my leg shaking under the table and my words not forming correctly coming from my mouth because I was so nervous and Chris pulls out his lunch box and says, “do you mind if I eat my lunch while we do this?” My nerves disappeared and I remember that this was basically a class discussion, between the three of us, over something that I’d created and written. I was the author and therefore, genius on this thesis. I was prepared to slay my defense like so many characters in my class discussions had done before.
But in the meantime, I’d applied for graduation and wasn’t exactly rejected, but that’s how it felt. After thinking I had everything planned out, laid out, had finally reached the moment where I could take a breath and say that I’d graduated from an accredited four year university, the first in my entire family, I was sadly mistaken. A few red flags lit themselves up on my transcripts telling me that my English degree still wasn’t complete. I was absolutely crushed, heartbroken, and ultimately, ready to give up. I’d worked a full time job, part time job, interned, was the magazine editor, and wrote my senior thesis all in one semester; I was physically and mentally exhausted. I sat in Carol Tyx’s office, speechless, fighting back tears the whole time, trying to figure out where we’d gone wrong with adding up credits. I’d taken two classes during one J-term, something that wasn’t exactly advised, but I’d done it anyway. I’d added my Creative Writing minor in addition to my Psychology minor at the beginning of my senior year, but everything was in order, or so we thought. We talked to the registrar on more than one occasion and I examined the classes I’d taken over the years, like I was examining the cadavers in Basile, trying to find where everything went wrong. I was hoping there was an easy and simple fix for a credit that hadn’t been added right. But it was all accurate.
I was simply missing nine credits.
After a couple days of feeling bad about the entire situation, I came to the conclusion that I was not going to end my college career nine credits short and stop there. With the help of Carol, I signed up immediately for two summer courses, but that still left one more class I needed to take. Carol took me directly across the hallway to Mary’s office and we decided to create an independent study course based off of my experience with The Paha Review.
We designed this class with the idea that I’d create a “Paha Handbook” for future editors since I was graduating; something to help them through all the twists, turns and hurdles that were sure to arise. And like most other ideas I had, I started spilling words, without any clear direction, about wanting to create a brand new literary and art magazine for the University. Mary followed the path of my idea and helped me spin my thoughts out further to ultimately design a “trial run” of a new magazine for faculty, staff and alumni of Mount Mercy. And just like that, I took my role as editor once more.
There had always been chatter and talk about creating a literary and art magazine for faculty, staff and alumni, because every year, I had at least two faculty members who’d ask if they could submit to The Paha Review. Unfortunately, I always had to turn them away due to Paha being a magazine dedicated to current students. The idea had always been floating around in space, waiting to be grasped and breathe life into it. I just happened to be the one to hold on the tightest.
I had ideas for names for the magazine, most of which, Mary was not fond of, so we opened the discussion up to allow more “publicity” and to get people involved. I quickly created a call for submissions, personally emailed and Facebook spammed Mount Mercy English majors and other lovers of reading and writing and encouraged them to submit to the magazine. Mary and Chris utilized the English Majors Facebook page and Twitter feed to generate buzz around the magazine and before I knew it, I had alum, faculty and staff inquiring about guidelines to submit and sharing their excitement to have a creative outlet. With their submissions, writers and artists were encouraged to include a title for the magazine for the selection committee to later vote on. My magazine was literally a baby in the nursery awaiting a name.
In all honesty, I was expecting the magazine to be quite premature, and need many years to begin growing out of its infancy. I was expecting, maybe at most, thirty submissions. You can imagine my excitement and awe when the final number of submissions was eighty-one. Eighty-one different writing and art pieces from the wonderful faculty, staff and alumni. People were thrilled to serve on the selection committee and vote on the title of the magazine. We followed the tradition that The Paha Review had taken and Billie Barker hosted yet another quiet, intimate night at her house where committee members gathered to discuss pieces.
From the selection committee meeting, the baton was passed to me to finish the race. I laid out the pieces in an order I thought made sense and began building this magazine from the ground up (no Dan & Shay reference intended). I collected format ideas from other literary magazines I’ve acquired over the years and put them together to give the new magazine its own character and personality, but also resemble The Paha Review in other ways. The diversity between the pieces was incredible. The balance of faculty, staff and alumni was satisfying and I couldn’t wait to raise this beautiful baby.
The magazine was intended to be solely online for its “trial run” but somewhere within the process, Mary and I decided we wanted to hold this baby in our hands. And from there, the process slowed. There were different layout technicalities that had to happen in order for the magazine to transition into physical form. There wasn’t a point in fixing those technicalities if the magazine wasn’t going to advance to a print version and the English budget wasn’t set up to provide funds for this magazine as it was a brand new idea and hadn’t been written into the budget. Mary and I tried to think of fundraising techniques, self-publishing ideas, etc. for the magazine to really come to life, but none of our ideas seemed feasible. Mary asked around and finally, Kathryn Hagy granted us a small budget to have a limited number of copies printed. I was given the green flag to continue with my editing process. But to give you some perspective on “limited number of copies,” The Paha Review prints anywhere from five hundred to eight hundred copies. This new magazine was granted one hundred copies. But this was a “trial run” and we didn’t know how it would even be received to campus. It turns out, next year, we’ll definitely need more than one hundred copies.
I finished my part of the editing and Mary and I enlisted the help of Morgan Ortmann to help us design the cover as this was not my area of expertise. We finally, finally, reached the ultimate draft of the magazine and I was in charge of sending off the finished copy to the printer. I’ve never been so scared to hit “send” before in my life. (I may or may not have closed my eyes when I clicked it.)
I waited impatiently for about three weeks and finally received confirmation that the magazines had been delivered to the Provost’s office. I drove straight to campus and for one of the first times, took the stairs in Warde Hall instead of waiting for the ungodly slow elevator, and didn’t care that I was still trying to catch my breath when I knocked on Mary’s office door to see my baby in its physical form. We opened the box on Friday, December 16th, 2017 and saw the Mercy Creative Review in all its glory.
Without a doubt in my mind, we resembled parents seeing their child for the first time. We were speechless and in awe at the beauty of this magazine. I thumbed through the pages, feeling the spine in my hands, the black ink staring at me and I wanted to cry tears of joy. Mercy Creative Review had its own character and personality, just how I’d designed it, and it resembled its cousin, The Paha Review but still shined in a light of its own.
I wanted to personally thank contributors of Mercy Creative Review by sending them a copy in the mail right before the holidays. And so I did. I then returned to campus in January to further distribute the magazines across campus and place them alongside The Paha Review, right where it belongs.
I’d like to think I walked to my car that day, a burning blaze behind me, like in the movies, after just slaying the biggest villain any novel could’ve portrayed. But I know I walked with my head down (because it was January and the tunnels don’t protect you from the cold when walking to the parking lot,) but also because inside, where no one needed to see, my heart was smiling.
Choosing to earn my BA from Mount Mercy University was one of the best decisions in my life and walking across the stage, proudly accepting my diploma will forever be one of the happiest days of my life. I couldn’t have asked for better professors, advisors, friends or a more beautiful school to attend. I never felt unsafe or unsure if I made the right decision by becoming a Mustang and I’m forever grateful for the experiences I’d acquired through the four years I spent on The Hill.