In his essay, "Barroom Laura," Seth Doe uses well-defined character development to tell the fictitious story of one night at a bar through the eyes of a very drunk young woman.

For a shorter story, "Coke in the  Garage," Doe recalls an event from his childhood and slightly embellishes it.

Both of Doe's stories appeared in the 2004 issue of Fishladder, Grand Valley's literary arts magazine of student work. His stories typify the two sides of a fiction writer: he can either hide behind his words or be in front of them and vulnerable to  readers.

Created and produced by students, and supported with a budget from the Writing Department, Fishladder is run like any national literary magazine. Submissions are judged by a panel of student readers and then passed to genre editors, then to the editor. Students argue over submissions and sweat over  deadlines, word length and comma placements. And they learn, as Doe did, that creative writers have the power to transport readers into their own worlds.

"I used to just write diary entries, until I learned to make my writing worthwhile," said Doe, who graduated in April.

Last Night
Gabrielle Davis

girrrl I had the best damn
time of my life
last night
    Moses guided me through the
night woods
I was up ta ma belly in mud
I stopped by Madame Walker's
ta clean up a bit
and I look just like
naw, probably better
I smoked some of that reefer
with Detroit Red
girrrl he is one devil
with that fiery hair
    a lil bit with Bo Jangles
didn't want to show em all ma
Zora was there in the back
sharing her stories
she has a laugh that makes ya
we danced some more
ta Duke and Count, Louie,
Billie, and Ella
chile, I had a sho nuf good
time last night
we danced til I found religion
this morning
listenin to Mahalia
Move on up a little higher.

Most of Fishladder's contributors are writing  majors. Grand Valley is rare - the only one of Michigan's 15 public universities - in that it has a Writing Department separate from the English Department.

The Writing Department is three years old. When it was a program within the English Department, associate writing professor Dan Royer said that writing students weren't getting the attention they needed. At that time, more than 1,200 students were English majors.

"It was a way to focus our program and develop it, and give our students more writing courses," said Royer, who serves as department chairman.

The department is divided into two emphases: professional and  creative writing. Of the 150 majors, Royer said about two-thirds choose creative writing. Yet those students see the other aspect of writing through Fishladder.

Tom Fleischmann

Tom Fleischmann has served as editor of 'Fishladder' for two years. During that time the number of submissions has increased.

"Fishladder is a way to give creative writing students a hands-on look at the professional writing side, through layout and editing," Royer said. "Producing a magazine is a way to bring both groups together and let them observe each other."


As a freshman, Tom Fleischmann was Fishladder's assistant editor; he's served as editor for the past two years. Since formation of the Writing Department, Fleischmann said the quantity and quality of submissions have improved.

"Last year more than 60 people submitted about 200 works," he said. "We have a bigger staff now to promote Fishladder."

After discussion, ranking and editing, 42 pieces (including artwork and  photography) comprise the 2004 Fishladder. Once called Italics, the magazine continues to serve as a reflective, social voice of Grand Valley students. Amber Eby's creative nonfiction piece is a good example. "Green Beer and Grievances" stemmed from a 2003 television news broadcast in which President Bush warned Saddam  Hussein about air strikes over Iraq.

Bush's news conference fell on St. Patrick's Day, a point made by Eby in  her essay:


"The inside of the apartment is quieter than its steps. Only one man is talking, and I don't remember him being invited to the party. & He speaks without interruption; everyone's eyes are glued to his mouth.

"The message was clear: 'If Saddam Hussein does not leave Iraq in 48 hours, we will begin air strikes.'" (For more from Eby, see excerpt on page 24.)

"As students today, we have real easy live

Seth B. Doe
Seth B. Doe calls characters in his stories 'stylized and weird.' The 'Barrroom Laura' character was based on a Meijer customer.

s. There are no trials or tribulations," said Eby, a senior from Belding. "So going to war - it's real scary for a lot of people my age."

Eby first wrote the essay for an introductory creative writing class. Most writing courses are run as workshops, small classes in which students critique each other's works. They ease into analytical mode by first reviewing their professor. For many, that meant studying the works of assistant writing professor Chris Haven.

"It was jarring at first. I'm thinking, 'Who am I to tell him this isn't good?'" Eby said. "But by the time you get to upper-level classes, you have the same kids in classes and you know whose style you like and whose advice you trust."

Haven and Royer serve as Fishladder faculty advisers but they are careful not to interfere with the submission process.

Green Beer and Grievances
Amber Eby

It's more than quiet outside. Especially for our apartment complex of 20-somethings. Especially for the first 70 degree day in almost six months. Especially for 8 p.m. on St. Patrick's Day, the beer drinker's official holiday.

I swirl my own green beer in its foam cup, which is inappropriately decorated with teal palm trees and a fuchsia coastline. Nothing but

silence. I'm beginning to worry about my friends. It's early. Why are they  wasting a holiday with weather like this? I go back to the party to refill my  radioactive looking drink and recruit my friends to come back with me.

The inside of the apartment is quieter than its steps. Only one man is talking, and I don't remember him being invited to the party. He's the only one in the room not wearing green, not holding one of the palm tree cups, and legally

old enough to drink. He speaks without interruption; everyone's eyes are glued to his mouth. 

The man at the party has concluded. The message was  clear: "If Saddam Hussein does not leave Iraq in 48 hours, we will begin air strikes. Good night, and God bless America." My generation is stunned. Again, the silence  begins to worry me. This is the beginning of our war, and none of us know how to take it.






"I don't want there to be any impression that faculty would have input on a selection," Said Haven, who specializes in creative non-fiction. "They get a lot of exercise in writing workshop classes. They take it very seriously and it makes them question what they value in writing."






The end product, Haven said, is one of the best college literary magazines he has seen. "It's a collaborative work effort and when they go onto their careers, they have a better understanding of how a publication works," he said.

And parents have a better understanding of their student's passion. The joke within the Writing Department is that parents worry their sons and daughters will be living on the streets, waiting for their first advance from a book publisher.

Barroom Laura
Seth B. Doe

&and Laura's head was lighter than she remembered. It seemed to float.  An hour ago, it was this thick, meaty  lump resting on her neck. And now, it  was a helium balloon that bobbed and floated in the air. One of those foil ones they got at florists with the  cartoon characters on them. She wondered which character she'd be for a second. After that second, she  started to believe she really was a  helium balloon. &

Slowly, she opened her eyes to half-mast and looked around:

It was so busy, all of a sudden. Just an hour ago, there was nobody here and now it was packed. When'd it get so busy? It was a thriving damn club, practically. 'Cept it was a bar. A barroom. That word sounded like something a rhumba band might perform. A polka, perhaps?

"Baaah-rooom..." Laura said slowly. These people were little more than  shapes. Imperfect blobs of color. Skin tones. Flopped atop one another in order to resemble people. These blobs were talking. They knew each other, these blobs did. ... They leaned in close to one another and they almost touched. When Laura was younger, she hated to have different parts of her meal touch. If the peas touched the carrots, that killed the meal for her. Often, she would refuse to eat her  spaghetti if it made contact with her vegetables. She couldn't stop thinking about that now. What's wrong with these people? She imagined their faces touching, cheek-to-cheek, and melding together. They'd lose all individuality, for sure. They'd be gone. ...

Don't worry, moms and dads. Faculty members ensure that these students see clear career paths and know creative writing isn't an easy, lucrative  profession.

Amber Eby
Amber Eby's essay, 'Green Beer and Grievances,' is reflective of the social commentary found in 'Fishladder.'

Despite a deep devotion for African- American authors Langston Hughes and Zora Hurston, Gabrielle Davis plans to use her writing degree to springboard into a career in library science or college student affairs.

"I would freelance, or I could use my writing degree for writing grants. I won't be a poor, starving artist," she said. Davis' two poems in Fishladder reflect her thoughts on family. In "Beauty Pains"  Davis recalls

getting her hair pressed by her grandmother. "Last Night" retells a story to a younger cousin in which Davis' alter ego dances with Bo Jangles, listens to gospel great Mahalia Jackson and follows Moses through the woods. (Read "Last Night" on page 23.)

"I had just read a book about Malcolm X, and there were many historical figures in it. I started to think of the people I would want my cousin, Iyanna, to know about," Davis said.

The writing courses required of majors are designed to help students find their niche. Creative writing students concentrate in two of three genres: drama, poetry or fiction. Davis said poetry provides her  he best of two worlds.

"Fiction is a challenge to me because I'm writing longer works," Davis said. "I enjoy poetry. You're writing a story and it can be a page long; you can play with the sentence structure and word choices and still can say a lot."

Gabrielle Davis
Gabrielle Davis reflects on family life in her poetry. 'Last Night' is a tale of mingling with historic figures.

Fleischmann said being a writing major is not so much about learning to pen a story or poem, it's more about learning to develop a voice.

Doe enjoys using the extensive language afforded to a fiction writer. He called his characters stylized and weird and said the woman in "Barroom Laura" was loosely based on a customer he saw while working at a Meijer store. He is becoming more comfortable with the idea of readers recognizing his writing style and plans to try his hand at making a living as an author - but one with a master's degree.

"With an arts degree, it's always a question of whether or not you really need a degree," Doe, a native of Hastings, said. "I would like to take a year off and work, save money, then  go to grad school. But eventually, I would like to write fiction, novels, short stories.

"Now I have enough confidence in myself and in what I can write."

Page last modified March 11, 2014